Having danced around the issue for months, Iran’s ‘Supreme Guide’ Ali Khamenei has, at last, ordered the arrest of the top leaders of the opposition ‘Green’ movement.
Reports from Tehran indicate that former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Mousavi and former parliament Speaker Mehdi Karrubi have been transferred to the Heshmatieh prison in eastern Tehran. The two men who continue to challenge the legality of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election in 2009 are accompanied by their wives.
Mousavi and Karrubi had been trying to create a loyal opposition, something impossible in a system like that of the regime in Iran.
The basic principle of the Khomeinist system is that of Walayat al-Faqih, or rule by the theologian. Under it, the ‘Supreme Guide’ has the final word on all issues, both sacred and profane. If he deems fit, he could even suspend the principles of Islam.
In 2009, the ‘ Supreme Guide’ endorsed Ahmadinejad’s re-election even before the votes had been counted.
Mousavi and Karrubi were left with a dire choice: act within the Khomeinist system and swallow Ahmadinejad’s re-election or reject the ruling by the ‘Supreme Guide’ and become opponents of the system.
They knew that politically active Iranians are divided in two camps.
One camp belongs to those who hope for change within the regime.
The other is that of regime change.
Supporters of ‘ change within the regime’ argue that a strong president, for example Mr. Mousavi, backed by a massive mandate could restore the prestige of the state vis-à-vis the parallel authority of the Faqih, and introduce social and political reforms demanded by the people.
Those who argue for ‘regime change’ claim that the Khomeinist system cannot be reformed.
Thus the stark choice is: change within the regime or regime change?
Mousavi and Karrubi tried to avoid the choice for as long as they could.
For a while they came close to rejecting the system, thus attracting a mass following.
Soon, however, their fear of embarking on the unknown persuaded them to step back and reassert their ‘faith in the Constitution of the Islamic Republic.’
It is interesting that they are sent to prison at a time that they are further than ever from a ‘regime change’ position.
Why did Khamenei decide to sent the two historic figures of Khomeinism to prison at this time?
One reason is his growing fear that the wave of unrest that has unfurled over the region might reach Iran. In that case, Mousavi and Karrubi could serve as iconic figures in the first phase of an uprising.
The Tehran leadership has been watching the events of the past two months in the region with acute interest.
It has noted the total absence of religious themes and xenophobic tones with the emphasis put on social and political demands. It has also noted that the young educated urban middle classes provided the backbone of the uprisings with the so-called ‘Mustazafin’ (the Downtrodden) watching on the sidelines.
It was also clear that the rebellious youth used tactics and techniques first tested in Iran during the 2009 uprisings against Ahmadinejad’s re-election.
Khamenei may have decided that it was time to re-unite the factions still loyal to him. Part of the price for that was the removal of Mousavi and Karrubi from the chessboard.
The regime is also nervous about next year’s parliamentary elections.
Mousavi and Karrubi had threatened a boycott, a move that would have stripped the exercise of whatever credibility it might have claimed.
With Mousavi and Karrubi in prison, and unable to communicate with the outside world, the exercise could go ahead without being challenged by former grandees of the regime.
The problem, however, is that Mousavi and Karrubi have not been removed from the chessboard. They have been moved sideways.
Even in prison they remain a thorn in the side of the regime.
The two prisoners of Heshmatieh, together with two former presidents Hashemi Rafsanjani and Muhammad Khatami provided a valuable interface that helped protect the system from collision with the underlying currents of ‘regime change.’
There are signs that Khamenei is preparing to move against Rafsanjani and Khatami as well.
Rafsanjani’s most important position, the Speakership of the Assembly of Experts, is already in ejection mode. By the end of March, he will be replaced by Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani. There is also talk of pushing him out of his second position as Chairman of the Expediency Council.
Rafsanjani has tried to wiggle his way back into official favour. He has used the religious term ‘fitnah’ (sedition) to describe the ‘ Green’ movement and reasserted his ‘ absolute obedience ‘ to the ‘Supreme Guide’.
Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if, within the next few months, he finds himself rubbing shoulders with Mousavi and Karrubi in Heshmatieh.
A campaign has also been launched against Khatami, accusing him of involvement in all sorts of foreign plots. The daily Kayhan claims that the former president received vast sums of money from a neighbouring country to help overthrow the regime.
Almost no one, including those who don’t like Khatami, would believe such claims.
However, at least part of the regime is preparing the ground for Khatami’s arrest and imprisonment.
Mousavi and Karrubi, and to a lesser extent Rafsanjani and Khatami, have acted as shock absorbers for the regime. They have fostered the dream, some may say illusion, that the regime, though absolutist, is open to reform nevertheless.
The four men have also claimed that non-violent opposition is still possible within a regime that has always dealt with its opponents with violence.
The removal of the four men from the equation is bound to have two immediate effects.
First, it will encourage supporters of ‘regime change’. Their argument would be simple: a regime that cannot tolerate mild criticism from its own former top officials is unlikely to listen to tougher criticism from the masses.
Mousavi, Karrubi, Rafsanjani and Khatami have never demanded any major reform such as reducing, if not abolishing, the powers of the Faqih. Nor have they called for open elections in which every citizen and every political party would be allowed to participate without the prior approval of the Council of Guardians.
Their removal could radicalise the opposition by opening a greater space for groups that preach armed struggle which, in most cases, could mean terrorism.
Another effect of the latest move by Khamenei would be to intensify the power struggle that has been going on among regime loyalists.
Divisions exist within the regime’s political façade as Ahmadinejad’s faction comes under pressure from the faction led by Chief Justice Sadeq Larijani and the coalition led by Tehran Mayor Muhammad Baqer Qalibaf.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is also split into factions with a growing number of mid-ranking officers demanding that the force distance itself from partisan politics.
The removal of the Mousavi-Karrubi challenge could further encourage that position.
By sending Mousavi and Karrubi the regime acted out of fear. Students of history know that whenever a ruler acts out of fear he ends up with even greater fear.
Machiavelli identified fear as one of the two instruments of rule, the other being persuasion. What he meant was that the ruler should be feared by his subjects, not the other way round. In Iran today, the ruler is in fear of those supposed to be his subjects.