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Tehran Prosecutor Warns of Prosecution of Top Opposition Leaders

Leaders of Iranian opposition, Mahdi Karroubi, right, and Mir Hossein Mousavi talk in Tehran, 10 Oct 2009

Leaders of Iranian opposition, Mahdi Karroubi, right, and Mir Hossein Mousavi talk in Tehran, 10 Oct 2009

Tehran's chief prosecutor is warning Friday that Iran's top opposition leaders will soon stand trial for a wave of popular unrest following a controversial June 2009 presidential election. The warning comes amid increasing popular discontent following a recent government cut in subsidies on many basic items, including food and gasoline.

Prosecutor Abbas Jaffari Dolatabadi spoke at Tehran University's prayer gathering Friday to when he issued the warning. Such threats have been made before by government leaders, but never carried out.

Hardline government officials, including Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have long condemned opposition leaders Mir Hossein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi and former President Mohammed Khatami for causing a lengthy wave of popular unrest in 2009.

Moussavi claimed that he won a 2009 presidential election, but was denied victory due to widespread fraud and voting irregularities. Millions of opposition supporters backed his claim and took to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities in the days and weeks after the election.

Tehran prosecutor Dolatabadi insisted that the sedition leaders were guilty of serious crimes against the state. He said the charge of causing sedition is a serious one and that the leaders of this sedition (an oblique reference to Moussavi, Karroubi and Khatami) are criminals and must be prosecuted. He claimed the Iranian public has denounced those leaders (through counter-protests) and said that acts of accusation are now being prepared against them. He also blamed them for damaging public trust, public property and Iran's image, as well as furthering foreign plots.

Scott Lucas, who teaches at the University of Birmingham in Britain, and runs the popular Iran blog Enduring America, believes that Iran's hardliners are using the threat of prosecution to put a leash on Moussavi and Karroubi, with tensions running high over government subsidy cuts.

"On the one hand, they've got both of them fairly well contained - they've got their staffs fairly well contained - but there is always the worry at some point Moussavi basically crosses what they would see as a line, comes out too stridently in calling the opposition out," said Lucas. "And then, what are they going to do about it?"

Lucas also pointed out that the head of Iran's intelligence ministry also is making threats against former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsandjani's son. This, he argues, is a form of blackmail to stop him from breaking with the regime and questioning its policies.

Houchang Hassanyari, who teaches political science at Canada's Royal Military College, thinks the threat to prosecute Moussavi, Karroubi and Khatami stems from a challenge by Khatami several days ago to release prisoners and reform Iran's political system. "He [Khatami] laid out three conditions for the Islamic Republic to get out of this crisis that it's facing. The first is to release all political prisoners, the second is to organize fair and just elections, and the third is to accept democratic values," said Hassanyari.

Hassanyari also thinks that a recent wave of subsidy cuts are starting to hit the Iranian public where it hurts, and officials are worried about a popular backlash.

Nader Hashemi, who teaches at the University of Denver, argues that the Iranian government is obsessing with the opposition because Thursday was the first anniversary of a major opposition protest. The government, he argues, is facing a crisis of legitimacy.

"On the one hand the regime has consistently said since the last presidential election that the protesters, that the Green movement, are a bunch of street hooligans, they're small in number, they're insignificant, we've crushed them, it's over," said Hashemi. "But, on the other hand, seemingly, every single week, a high member of the Iranian regime is speaking out and condemning and raising new charges against the Green Movement. So, if the Green movement is insignificant, is dead, is crushed, why do you constantly speak about them?"

Hashemi believes that the government has "lost its credibility in the eyes of the Iranian public," since the 2009 election and that it is trying to solve the problem by inventing "grand and elaborate theories of a foreign inspired coup," and accusing opposition leaders of being a part of it. He concludes that "foreign policy misadventures" and "subsidy cuts," are merely secondary issues.