DUBAI: Four months after President Hassan Rowhani’s election, Iran is reviewing the house arrest of two opposition leaders, but conservatives may fear the consequences of freeing men who remain heroes to many Iranians.
Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, candidates who led the “Green Movement” that disputed the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have never been charged with any crime. Yet both men, former top officials now in their 70s and in ill health, have been held under tight surveillance since early 2011.
But now, as Iran seems keen to heal old conflicts both at home and with the West, their living conditions have been eased and their case referred to a powerful state security council. To some, this shows Iran’s most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to resolve the issue — although so far the council has had no contact with either opposition leader or their families.
Under Ahmadinejad’s hardline presidency, they were denounced as “seditionists” and accused of helping Iran’s enemies to undermine the Islamic theocracy. Doors and windows of the house where Mousavi is held were welded shut, and both were allowed little contact with their families.
But since Rowhani’s election, they now enjoy weekly visits from their families. Relations with security guards have softened and access to specialist medical treatment improved.
“The political situation has completely changed since Mr Rowhani came to power and in some aspects the confinement of my father is absolutely better than before,” said one of Karoubi’s sons, Mohammad Taghi who lives in Britain. “But this confinement according to Iranian law is completely illegal. No doubt about it.”
Under Rowhani the atmosphere is very different both in Iran’s troubled relations with the outside world and at home.
Tehran has hinted at a possible readiness to scale back nuclear work — which it says is peaceful but the West fears is aimed at developing weapons - in exchange for relief from trade and financial sanctions which are crippling the Iranian economy.
In Iran, dozens of political prisoners have been pardoned and Rowhani seems intent on reversing the social and political restrictions imposed during Ahmadinejad’s two terms in office.
But the case of a Mousavi, who was prime minister for much of the 1980s, and Karoubi, a former speaker of parliament, is complex. Four years ago, huge crowds protested against an Ahmadinejad victory which they believed was rigged. Security forces put down the movement and in 2011 the two opposition leaders lost their freedom after calling for a rally in support of protests that were sweeping the Arab world.
Earlier this month, Minister of Justice Mostafa Pour Mohammadi announced their cases were being re-examined by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). This body, which is responsible for setting defence and security policy, has undergone a reshuffle reflecting the changed times in Tehran.
Both men’s health problems will worry the clerical leadership, as any significant deterioration while they remain detained would arouse fury among their supporters. Nevertheless, this does not guarantee their release.
“The authorities simply don’t know what the reaction would be. Mousavi and Karoubi are lionised figures and their hero status will go through the roof. The right-wing camp still has serious misgivings,” said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an Iran expert at Britain’s University of Manchester. Reuters