It is now weeks that Iran’s political-clerical circles are abuzz about an “open letter” written to President Hassan Rouhani by Mehdi Karrubi, a former Speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Majlis) who has been under house arrest since 2009 after challenging the results of the 2009 presidential election.
The letter is interesting for several reasons. First, it states that Rouhani is not responsible for the “house arrest” decision and is regarded as no more than a channel for transmitting the letter to real, un-named decision-makers. This means that Rouhani is basically an actor playing the role of president and that, in effect, Iran lacks a government in the normal sense of the term.
Secondly, Karrubi’s letter is designed to transform his image as a radical activist of long-standing into a new convert to reform and moderation, if not actual democratization.
Throughout the 1980s and much of the 1990s, however, Karrubi belonged to the hardline faction of the Khomeinist establishment. In 1993 he even led the Islamic Republic’s delegation to the so-called Islamic Peoples’ Congress, hosted by the late Hassan Al-Turabi in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. There, the gathering of Islamist militants from more than 70 countries elected him as a member of the nine-man Leadership Council with the mission to spread their brand of Islamism across the globe. Members of the council included such luminaries as Al-Turabi himself, Algeria’s Abbassi Madani, and Osama bin Laden.
It is understandable that Karrubi should be sore about being put under house arrest as the enemy of Khomeinism, an ideology that he had done more than many others to defend and spread.
However, it is the third reason why Karrubi’s letter is of particular interests to us. Here Karrubi tries to present the reign of the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, or “Imam” as his supporters like to call him, as a golden age in which no one could suffer arbitrary arrest let alone being put under house arrest without charge. Karrubi’s reading of Khomeini’s tenure as ruler is too preposterous to merit a detailed rebuttal.
In his decade as a despot, Khomeini presided over tens of thousands of illegal executions, ordered the massacre of thousands of ethnic minorities, sent more than 1.2 million Iranians to jail for short, medium and long periods, and drove an estimated 4.5 million into exile.
Khomeini was even bad news for the mullahs. In fact, since Iran was converted to Shi’ism by the Safavids in the 16th Century, no ruler has killed, imprisoned or exiled so many mullahs. Under Khomeini, on the average, relative to the size of their community, the number of clerics, including students of theology, who were in prison, was higher than that of any other social stratum.
Khomeini set up a special Clerical Court to deal with mullahs and students of theology who dared defy his arbitrary rule. The so-called court, still in existence, had no legal or theological basis and was answerable to no one, a state within the state. It sentenced dozens of mullahs to death, among them ayatollahs such as Abdul-Reza Hejazi who a year earlier, had been elected Tehran’s number one deputy in the Islamic Majlis, and Hussein Daneshian a member of parliament from Abadan. Also executed were such senior clerics as Mehdi Mahdawi, Isfahani Herawi and Muhammad-Hassan Tehrani.
Many clerics suffered torture in Khomeini’s prisons. Among them were Ayatollahs Razi Golpayegani, Jalili Kermanshahi, Mahdi Haste’i, Ali Maqsudi, Reza Sadr and Morteza Shirazi. Among mid-ranking mullahs sent to prison by Khomeini were such noted religious scholars as Hassan Rasa, Kazem Mar’ashi, Haibbalah Ashuri and Rastegari Qomi.
Khomeini also did something no other Shi’ite ruler of Iran had done in 500 years: de-frocking senior clerics on spurious charges.
The best estimates put the number of mullahs de-frocked by Khomeini at over 80. These included Ayatollahs Sayyed-Ali Hashemi, Jawad Manaqebi, Ali Noghani, Taqi Qomi-Tabatab’i, Ali Tehrani, Ali-Naqi Jalali, and Hussein Amini.
However, the worst case for pious Shiites was the de-frocking of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad-Kazem Shariatmadari, who was the “Grand Marj’a al-Taqlid” (Source of Emulation) in Iran at the time. The Grand Marj’a of all Shiites at the time was Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Kho’i in Najaf. Khomeini sent one of his thugs, a certain junior mullah named Muhammadi Reyshahri, to invade Shariatmadari’s home in Qom, take off his turban and bring him to Tehran under escort.
When unable to put his hands on mullahs he didn’t like or was jealous because they were outside Iran, Khomeini ordered their de-frocking or sent hit-squads to assassinate them abroad. In some cases, he ordered that the family of a mullah in exile be taken hostage to force him to return to Iran.
One notorious case was that of Ayatollah Muhammad-Hassan Tehrani who had managed to flee to Germany but agreed to return to Tehran after his family was held hostage by Khomeini. Soon after his return he was executed with a single shot in the head after suffering torture in prison.
Karrubi may see Khomeini’s reign as a “golden age”. But he forgets the late ayatollah’s almost childish meanness and cruelty.
When Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussein Alawi Borujerdi was told by his doctors that he needed to go to Europe for medical treatment Khomeini refused him a passport. The “Imam” was taking revenge for real or imagined humiliation that, as a young man, he had suffered in the entourage of Grand Ayatollah Muhammad-Hussein Borujerdi in the 19040s (Alawi was a son-in-law of Borujerdi).
Khomeini is also suspected, though without concrete evidence so far, of having ordered the “quiet murder” by poison of Ayatollah Muhammad-Reza Shirazi, settling his score with the Shirazis of Karbala, a prominent clan of Shiite clerics who accused the self-styled” Imam” of initiating a “bed’ah” (innovation) which is regarded as a theological sin. When Muhammad Shirazi died, Khomeini prevented the family from burying the ayatollah in the precinct of the Masoumeh Shrine in Qom. Khomeini ordered that Shirazi be buried in the women’s quarter of the nearby graveyard.
Again, the “Imam” was settling personal scores with the Shirazi clan.
Karrubi’s letter pretends that putting mullahs under house arrest did not exist in Khomeini’s “golden age.” That, too, is false. Khomeini’s own designated heir Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri died under house arrest as did Grand Ayatollah Hassan Qomi-Tabatabai who had the street where his house was located in Mash’had closed with a wall and an iron gate guarded by Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Grand Ayatollahs Sadeq Husseini Shirazi and Sadeq Rouhani were also put under house arrest in Qom. Khomeini even put his own grandson, Hussein, under house arrest after the latter, then a student of theology, criticized his grandfather’s “arbitrary decisions.”
Mr. Karrubi’s presentation of Khomeini’s decade as a “golden age” is disingenuous to say the least. In all those years, Karrubi and many like him either remained silent or justified the crimes committed by the “Imam”. Compared to what would have happened to him under Khomeini, the treatment that Karrubi has received could be regarded as cordon bleu.
This does not mean that one should approve of Karrubi’s house arrest which is illegal, inhuman and mean.
What is important is to remember that if you are silent, let alone approving, when someone is subjected to injustice, the same could one day also happen to you.