Mehdi Karrubi’s open letter is not a cry for democracy

Karrubi’s letter is not likely to mobilise Iranian public to take organised action against their 'despotic rulers' despite recent signs of widening dissent.


2016/04/17 Issue: 52 Page: 17


The Arab Weekly
Ali Alfoneh



“I’m not asking for freedom… but demand an open trial for me from the despotic rulers… so I can present evidence of electoral fraud in the 2009 (presidential) elections,” Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi wrote in an open letter to President Hassan Rohani.

Karrubi’s letter, the first he has produced since he was put under house arrest on February 14th, 2011, and its rallying cry immediately made headlines in Iranian media abroad and is likely to dominate the Persian-language blogosphere for weeks to come.

However, as with similar declarations from other opposition leaders, this letter is not likely to mobilise the Iranian public to take organised action against their “despotic rulers” despite recent signs of widening dissent in the Islamic Republic.

There are two reasons why.

For many years, Karrubi and other opposition leaders served the regime they now are criticising as “despotic” and served it well. What is worse is that, with very few exceptions, they are not prepared to distance themselves from their past.

They may denounce and condemn the 27-year rule of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, yet they nostalgically call for a return to the “golden era of the imam”, the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic in 1979.

This was an era that secured upward social mobility and political promotion for the likes of Karrubi but for the Westernised urban upper-middle class, which Karrubi is now addressing, it is widely remembered as a time of state terror.

Karrubi’s April 9th letter provides an example. He boasts of all the senior positions he held in the Islamic Republic and praises the “school of thought of the imam, from which “the culprit”, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose re-election in the 2009 poll triggered unprecedented protests and bloodshed — deviated by ignoring the popular vote and the principle of the sovereignty of the people.

Any Iranian with a critical mind, however, is perfectly aware of Khomeini’s contempt for democracy. In this light, Karrubi’s letter can be perceived as little more than a desire to return to an era when he was favoured by the despotic regime, rather than to a rebel against despotism and call for democracy.

Mir Hossein Mousavi, the other opposition leader under house arrest, is no different than Karrubi and that is hardly surprising: That gentleman, whose most important claim on the presidency was his record as “the prime minister of the imam”, can hardly be expected to be greeted as a champion of democracy by Iran’s alienated middle class.

In most of his post-June 2009 election public statements, Mousavi accused Ahmadinejad of “violating with the values and principles of the imam” and constantly praising electoral mechanisms in the 1980s.

Mousavi’s vision of the future also was a return to the “golden era of the imam” rather than a clear break with the anti-democratic Khomeinist regime.

Granted, there are men and women of great moral courage who have broken with the regime and confessed of their past misdeeds. One such was the late Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, whose four-volume series Studies on the Guardianship of the Jurist and Theology of the Islamic State gave Khomeini’s theory of rule by the jurisprudent religious legitimacy.

Montazeri turned against his brainchild having witnessed the perils of giving vast powers to one individual, even an allegedly saintly one like Khomeini, under whose rule political prisoners were summarily executed, young females were raped in prison prior to execution, as it was considered a sin to kill a virgin, and religious minorities suffered suppression.

Montazeri admitted he was wrong and emphasised the necessity of restraining the power of the ruling elite on the grounds that absolute power leads to absolute corruption.

He rebelled not after being sidelined by the regime but while he was designated Khomeini’s successor. The price he paid for his courageous denunciations of those in power was house arrest and the persecution of his family and followers by the regime.

But he did serve as a role model for those opposed to the clerical regime, its excesses and its misuse of power.

Montazeri died in December 2009 but through his ethical life and moral courage to admit his mistakes, he showed the path to a brighter future for Iran and Iranians instead of returning to the reign of terror of the “golden era of the imam.”


Ali Alfoneh is a non-resident senior fellow at Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.


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