In light of ongoing uprisings and historical, political and social shifts in the Middle East, the Iranian regime continues to skillfully distract the world’s attention from the region’s most detrimental cancer: itself. In timely fashion, the Iranian government brings to the forefront completely inconsequential developments and fabrications in order to keep its sizable opposition out of the spotlight.
Last week, reports of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s exit from Iranian politics filled international media headlines. Rafsanjani, seen as a more moderate Iranian politician, withdrew from the race to become president of the Assembly of Experts, an 83-member group entrusted with appointing and removing Iran’s supreme leader. He will nonetheless remain a member of the assembly, which he has been a part of since 2007. Conservatives in Iran’s government had called for Rafsanjani’s demise since 2009 as he spoke out against harsh crackdowns and was "excessively tolerant" of the opposition.
Recently, news of Presidential Election candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi's and Mehdi Karoubi’s alleged arrests and imprisonment in Tehran’s Heshmatieyeh Jail made waves in the media. Soon after, news agencies and websites called the arrests a rumor and claimed that the men, along with their families, were in their homes. The two had been under house arrest for weeks in the backdrop of other Middle East uprisings and for fear that they would be instrumental in organizing Iran’s opposition movement.
Developments about Rafsanjani, Mousavi and Karoubi serve a two-fold purpose for the regime. On a simple level, the regime seeks to streamline and consolidate its own grip and rule over the country by sidelining political dissenters. At the same time, the regime is handpicking and tailoring the coalition it wishes to call the "opposition." Mousavi and Karoubi are labeled "moderate," although many would contest the claim, but even so, they have bloodied their hands alongside the regime’s brutality and have been dutifully devoted to its hard-line ideology.
What the government has not considered in its entirety is that alongside its own repetitive and cleaver antics, the Iranian people, now having the experiences of their last unsuccessful uprising in the post-election demonstrations of 2009 and watching as their neighbors in the region successfully overthrow their dictators, possess a matured and refined view of opposition and reform.
The Iranian government is evading the reality that should the Iranians organize and rise against their regime, it will no longer be in reaction to a fraudulent election led by two of the regime’s own candidates. On the contrary, what makes the task of the Iranian opposition so daunting is that they are out not to oust an individual, the way the Egyptians or Tunisians did. They are out to oust a regime.
Perhaps the benefits that accompany the Iranian experience, the passage of time and even the taste of failure, is the realization that reforms and moderation will not answer their calls for freedom and justice. Only a change in regime and political ideology will.
It would be inaccurate to call Mousavi and Karoubi opposition leaders when their mere approval as presidential nominees substantiates a resolute allegiance to the Islamic regime and its doctrines. Iran’s Guardian Council, a body of 12 Iranian men, six clerics selected by the Supreme Leader and six lawyers, referred by the head of Iran’s judiciary and elected by the Parliament, is entrusted with the vetting process and obligated to literally "guard" the values of the Islamic Republic. Consequently, they must chose candidates who will do the same. According to the Iranian constitution, presidential candidates must possess a "convinced belief" in the founding principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Within these guidelines the Guardian Council vetoes candidates who are deemed unacceptable -- in other words, those who possess views that stray from the regime’s agenda. In the 2009 election, 476 candidates had applied. Only four passed through the sieve of the Guardian Council. Mousavi and Karoubi made the cut.
Mousavi has been on the IRI political scene from its onset. He helped lay the foundation for the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and had a direct role in overthrowing the Shah of Iran. Directly after the Revolution, he was appointed foreign minister and then promoted to prime minister. Mousavi served as prime minister for eight years, during which time he signed off on a record number of executions. He headed a “Cultural Revolution” which meant the shutting down of universities for four years in order to turn secular institutions into Islamic ones. Mousavi authored a bill that made hejab or headscarves mandatory for women. In 1982, he was appointed to Hezbollah’s leadership council and led the country through its war with Iraq. He was able to control opposing views and dissenters in the aftermath of Iran’s revolution by completely censoring speech and press.
Compounding Mousavi’s complicit political accounts are the familial ties he shares with present and past regime clerics. Mousavi is the grandson of Khomeini's paternal aunt and cousins with the current Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini. Mousavi grew up in Khameneh, the same town in which Khamenei lived and where both names are derived. Mousavi’s full family name is Mousavi-Khamenei. So that both he and Khamenei could be in the political arena, one used one name and one used the other.
Karoubi’s involvement with Iranian politics shares similarities. A political dissident under the Shah’s government, Karroubi became head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyr's Foundation shortly after the Revolution. His reputation preceded him during his stint as head of the Martyr’s Foundation. He was infamous for his affairs and indecent conduct with the widows that would come to the foundation seeking help and benefits. While Karoubi considers himself a reformist, during his first term as speaker of Parliament, he was among the maktabi or "radical" faction of the majlis, the Parliament, who opposed the policies of then-President Rafsanjani.
The Iranian opposition that came onto the streets of Tehran February 14 was not out to get votes back or to support the Green Movement’s reform candidates. The slogans demanded an end to the regime and the establishment of an Iranian Republic. One of the more popular slogans was, “Neither Gaza nor Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Iran.”
The regime has fervently cheered on the uprisings in the region, claiming that the Islamic Revolution of 1979 influenced and inspired demonstrators in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen and others. More evident is the encouragement that the Iranian people have taken from their neighbors. Particularly watching Egypt, a country as influential in the area and one that is comparable in its population, topple their autocratic ruler of three decades in 18 days has stirred the Iranians to do the same. Reform and so-called ‘moderate’ candidates, previously deemed an intermediate step to true democracy, are now seen as another government trap.
The uprisings in the region have likewise influenced the American Administration and policy makers who have replaced old values of "moderate" and "reform" with "revolution" and "regime change." Playing a major role in popcorn revolutions across the area, the U.S. State Department will inevitably have to soften its view on the Iranian anti-regime platform and groups supporting the cause.
It may not have been in the cards for Iran to experience significant political change in 2009 as its people courageously filled the streets. To use the biblical quote, “To everything there is a season,” and the regime can only go on for so long evading global responsibilities and crushing the demands of its people. Equipped with experience, knowledge and discernment between reform and revolution, the Iranians may now be able to achieve political change.
Perhaps this is their season.