News / Middle East

Ill and Long Isolated, Iranian Opposition Leaders Smell Freedom

FILE - Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran, Oct. 12, 2009.
FILE - Iranian opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi (L) meets with pro-reform cleric Mehdi Karoubi in Tehran, Oct. 12, 2009.
Four months after President Hassan Rouhani's election, Iran is reviewing the house arrest of two opposition leaders, but conservatives may fear the consequences of freeing men who remain heroes to many Iranians.

Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi, candidates who led the “Green Movement” that disputed the 2009 re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have never been charged with any crime. Yet both men, former top officials now in their 70s and in ill health, have been held under tight surveillance since early 2011.

But now, as Iran seems keen to heal old conflicts both at home and with the West, their living conditions have been eased and their case referred to a powerful state security council.

To some, this shows Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants to resolve the issue - although so far the council has had no contact with either opposition leader or their families.

Under Ahmadinejad's hardline presidency, they were denounced as “seditionists” and accused of helping Iran's enemies to undermine the Islamic theocracy. Doors and windows of the house where Mousavi is held were welded shut, and both were allowed little contact with their families.

But since Rouhani's election, they now enjoy weekly visits from their families. Relations with security guards have softened and access to specialist medical treatment improved.

“The political situation has completely changed since Mr. Rouhani came to power and in some aspects the confinement of my father is absolutely better than before,” said one of Karoubi's sons, Mohammad Taghi who lives in Britain. “But this confinement according to Iranian law is completely illegal. No doubt about it.”

Under Rouhani the atmosphere is very different both in Iran's troubled relations with the outside world and at home.

Tehran has hinted at a possible readiness to scale back nuclear work - which it says is peaceful but the West fears is aimed at developing weapons - in exchange for relief from trade and financial sanctions which are crippling the Iranian economy.

No guarantee of release

In Iran, dozens of political prisoners have been pardoned and Rouhani seems intent on reversing the social and political restrictions imposed during Ahmadinejad's two terms in office.

But the case of a Mousavi, who was prime minister for much of the 1980s, and Karoubi, a former speaker of parliament, is complex. Four years ago, huge crowds protested against an Ahmadinejad victory which they believed was rigged.

Security forces put down the movement and in 2011 the two opposition leaders lost their freedom after calling for a rally in support of protests that were sweeping the Arab world.

Earlier this month, Minister of Justice Mostafa Pour Mohammadi announced their cases were being re-examined by the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).

This body, which is responsible for setting defense and security policy, has undergone a reshuffle reflecting the changed times in Tehran.

Both men's health problems will worry the clerical leadership, as any significant deterioration while they remain detained would arouse fury among their supporters. Nevertheless, this does not guarantee their release.

“The authorities simply don't know what the reaction would be. Mousavi and Karoubi are lionized figures and their hero status will go through the roof. The right-wing camp still has serious misgivings,” said Siavush Randjbar-Daemi, an Iran expert at Britain's University of Manchester.

Security agencies are likely to fear their release would provoke huge rallies in their support and disrupt Iran's new political chapter under Rouhani. Above all, supreme leader  Khamenei is almost certainly intent on ensuring there is no repeat of the unrest in 2009 that eroded his authority and threatened the very existence of the Islamic Republic.

Improved conditions

Mehdi Karoubi, 76, is being held in a house in northern Tehran. He is now visited by his wife Fatemeh, two of his children and his grandchildren every Wednesday for several hours. During the visits, just one security guard is present in the room and the family can talk in relative privacy.

Before the election families of both men went for months without any contact. “We were so worried. No one knew what was going on,” Mohammad Taghi Karoubi said. During some visits up to eight guards were present and family members were not allowed any private contact. Any breach of the rules was punished by further visits being postponed.

Karoubi keeps himself busy reading books his wife is allowed to bring and two newspapers he is given. He also spends time writing his diary.

He has suffered serious back pain for the last two months and has trouble walking. After making a request, a doctor chosen by the family was allowed to treat him at the house. “It's a change. It took four to five weeks but at the end of the day, they let the doctor come,” said Mohammad Taghi.

In late July Karoubi senior was admitted to Tehran Heart Center where he was treated for a blocked coronary artery.

Early that month, 71-year-old Mousavi was also taken to the same hospital twice in 24 hours suffering from rapidly fluctuating blood pressure.

Security guards escorted Mousavi, who suffered heart problems in mid 2012, to the hospital with his wife Zahra Rahnavard but refused to let him be formally admitted.

Mousavi suffers from stomach, heart and leg problems. His health and well being is “at the mercy of security forces,” Ardeshir Amir Arjomand an adviser to Mousavi, said from France.

“There is a certain amount of medical treatment but the family is still very concerned because the situation requires regular treatment in a calm atmosphere, without stress and by a doctor which the family trusts,” said Arjomand.

Mousavi and his wife now also have weekly visits from their daughters. “These are positive signs. We have new hope for the future,” said Arjomand, referring to the referral of the case to the SNSC. “But there has been no judiciary procedure and their confinement amounts to an illegal imprisonment.”

A political challenge

The SNSC comes under the presidency, giving Rouhani some influence over any decision on the two men's fate. Saeed Jalili, a hardline war veteran, was removed as its secretary in the reshuffle which installed several of Rouhani's most important Cabinet members.

“The Council's new head, Ali Shamkhani, is someone who has a track record of going against the tide and being a frank and rational security official. It's a very different outlook to the Jalili period,” said Randjbar-Daemi at Manchester university.

However, Khamenei also appoints a number of important SNSC members, including the chiefs of the armed forces and  Revolutionary Guards. These men are likely to avoid any decision to release if they fear this would lead to mass rallies. In any case, Khamenei must approve any decision the SNSC makes.

The two opposition leaders' isolation has now lasted for more than 950 days and it appears that neither will promise to remain silent in return for their liberty.

“Such a condition is totally and utterly unacceptable,” said Mohammad Taghi Karoubi. “During the last family visit, my father made it clear. He said, 'If I am a free man I will use all my rights as a free man. I will talk to my people, express my thanks and talk about the issues that people expect politicians to talk about. This is my job.'”

You May Like

Video Americans, Tourists, Reflect on Meaning of Thanksgiving

VOA garnered opinions from several people soon after November 13 Paris attacks, which colored many of their thoughts

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

In northern Thailand, the annual tradition of constructing floating baskets to carry away the year’s bad spirits highlights the Loy Krathong festival

Video Tree Houses - A Branch of American Dream

Workshops aimed at teaching people how to build tree houses have become widely popular in America in recent years

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continuesi
Ayesha Tanzeem
November 25, 2015 10:46 PM
One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs