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The Trials Continue: Defection Not an Option

August 14, 2009
Milad Tower, Tehran (photo taken by Hamed Saber, available at flickr)

 

The Iranian regime is continuing its prosecution of individuals arrested in the post-election unrest (see Background and Aftermath of Mass Trials in Iran for our first report on these trials). The second round of trials, which took place on Saturday, August 8, expanded upon central themes from the first round. The latest judiciary proceedings particularly emphasized the issue of foreign interference in Iran’s domestic politics. This latest diversionary tactic is likely part of a government effort to shift the focus away from emerging tensions within Iran’s political elite.

 The emphasis on foreign interference was evident in the selection of defendants for Saturday’s trials. Several confessions were obtained from Iranians working for foreign entities such as the British embassy, the French embassy, and the U.S.-based magazine Newsweek in Iran. The embassy officials, Hossein Rassam and Nazak Afshar, respectively, were accused of involvement in the post-election unrest and espionage. The Newsweek journalist, Ahmad Zeidabadi, faced similar charges. Another French national, Clotilde Reiss, was accused of sending emails and pictures of the protests abroad. On Tuesday, Iran released Afshar and offered to release Reiss as well, as long as she remains in the custody of the French embassy.[1]

Other defendants included leading members of groups opposed to the current political structure in Iran. The head of the Tehran branch of the Islamic Iran Participation Front (IIPF), Ali Tajernia, was present in court, as was a member of the IIPF central committee, Shahaboddin Tabatabaei.[2] Ahmad Zeidabadi, the president of the Organization for the University Graduates of Islamic Iran (Advaar-e Tahkim) and a journalist known for his acerbic criticism of Ahmadinejad, was also on trial, as was a prominent member of the Executives of Reconstruction Party, Hedayat Aghaei, and a member of the central committee of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization (IRMO), Mohammad Javad Emam.[3] These appearances in court confirm that, in addition to substantiating allegations of foreign interference, the trials are designed to debilitate the political influence of opposition groups in Iran.

 Post-Trial Divisions

Whether or not the trials have accomplished this goal, they have surfaced issues that threaten to weaken the unity of regime supporters. Divisions within the conservative political elite have widened in the aftermath of the second round of trials. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei seems to be making limited attempts to bridge this divide. In a conciliatory gesture, Khamenei ordered the closure of the controversial Kahrizak detention center in South Tehran. On Monday, August 10, Iranian Police Chief Esmail Ahmadi-Moqaddam announced that the chief of the center and three guards had been arrested.[4] The closure of the center and subsequent arrests served a dual purpose: to assuage public anger and to reassure elements of the regime’s conservative power base.[5]

These gestures were largely in reaction to a letter, which became public one day earlier, from former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President and current leader of the Assembly of Experts and the Expediency Council.[6] The letter indicated that high-level officials were aware of prison abuses such as rape and torture:

The people who informed me about these events hold sensitive positions in the country…these officials told me of the things that happened in the detention centers that even if one count is true, it would be a tragedy for the Islamic Republic…and it would whitewash the sins of many dictatorships including that of the deposed shah.[7]

Moving away from the election issue toward the treatment of protestors provides the opposition with new avenues for criticizing the current political structure in Iran. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the leader of the opposition movement, said on his website Wednesday that the state of Iran’s prisons “clearly shows the necessity of a deep change in the country."[8] This issue has also galvanized some longtime regime supporters to question regime policies.[9]

In the wake of the latest round of trials, Karroubi’s allegations have exacerbated mounting tensions and threats of future legal action. On Wednesday, August 12, a close aide to Khamenei and the editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, Hossein Shariatmadari, demanded that Karroubi be brought to trial for publicizing such accusations.[10] Mohammad Karami-Rad, a member of National Security Commission in parliament, announced Sunday that Majlis officials were working on a formal letter of complaint against Karroubi’s ally, Mousavi, to be “handed to the judiciary so that the legal proceeding[s] [are] conducted.”[11] Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) political bureau, wrote that Karroubi and Mousavi should both be tried and that the members of the IRGC “expect the judiciary…to go after them, arrest them, put them on trial and punish them according to the law.”[12]

Other prominent conservatives, however, have argued that those responsible for the abuses should be tried (which could pose a threat to the IRGC, a hard-line military force that has effectively managed the suppression of post-election dissent). Ali Motahari, a conservative member of parliament, told reporters on Monday that “the punishments meted out to these individuals [i.e., those who participated in the crackdown] must be specified so that the public can be assured that these offenders have been punished.”[13] Defeated conservative candidate Mohsen Rezai said Wednesday that if Karroubi’s claims are verified, Khamenei should declare a national day of mourning and order the arrest and trial of the officials involved.[14] The Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organization has gone farther, blaming Ahmadinejad and Interior Minister Sadeq Mahsouli for the "crimes committed at Abu Ghraib Kahrizak.”[15] In response to these statements, Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s parliament asserted that “based on parliament’s investigations, detainees have not been raped or sexually abused in Iran’s Kahrizak and Evin prisons…Such claims are totally baseless.” [16] This position was supported by Iran’s Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi, who reportedly denied that any maltreatment of prisoners had occurred. [17] These denials are interesting because they directly contradict statements made by Iran’s Police Chief General Ismail Ahmadi on Sunday that acknowledged detainee abuse. [18]

The divergence in conservative responses to recent events indicates that fissures in the regime’s power base may be gradually widening. In particular, the contradiction in IRGC and police statements on the issue of prisoner abuse suggests the emergence of tension “at the highest levels of Iran’s power structure.” [19] As noted previously, the arrest of several officers involved in detention center abuses appears to be part of a government effort to assuage public outrage. Police statements admitting to such abuses were probably also calculated to have this effect. If that is the case, however, it is significant that a prominent IRGC official, the speaker of parliament, and the judiciary chief have adopted a dramatically different tone from that of the Supreme Leader. Such discrepancies may provoke more official “resignations” and accelerate regime fragmentation.

The beginning of this process may already be visible as emerging divisions have brought regime influence and legitimacy into question. Mousavi aide Alireza Hosseini-Beheshti emphasized this “crisis of legitimacy” in his response to IRGC demands for the prosecution of opposition leaders. Questioning the authority of the IRGC to interfere in judicial proceedings, Beheshti asked: “Are the people who discuss the issue (of prosecution) spokespersons for the judiciary?”[20] Perhaps in an effort to mitigate this kind of thinking, Khamenei has decided to replace Iran's current judiciary chief, Shahroudi, who has been running the trials, with Ali Larijani’s brother Mohammad Sadeq Larijani.[21] This replacement is scheduled to take place on August 15, presumably in the midst of continuing post-election trials. 

 A Unified Front

Given these challenges, Khamenei and his appointees have made several remarks aimed at restoring national unity. Prior to the second round of trials, Chief Judge Shahroudi expressed a “hope that all officials understand the situation and maintain unity.”[22] Following this comment Khamenei addressed the nation in a televised appearance:

The issues in the recent days should not be a reason for differences...All of you should work in a brotherly way for the progress of the nation. Nobody should accuse the other without any reason. We should be fair in treating each other. We should put aside difference of opinions.[23]

On Wednesday, August 10, press releases leaked the content of a closed-door meeting between the Supreme Leader and several high-ranking officials:

If I [were] to give you one advice, it would be for you to increase your insight [into state affairs]…If you do not have deep insight, if you cannot distinguish your friends, if you cannot spot your enemies, then your attacks, dialogue and your actions may target your friends instead of your enemies.[24]

Ali Larijani, who seems to have fallen in line with the Supreme Leader on this issue, argued Monday, August 10, that the continuing post-election unrest has not affected regime unity. Larijani rejected claims of “divisions” within the regime, blaming foreigners for attempting to “sow discord.”[25] Two prominent conservative organizations, the Followers of the Imam and the Leadership Line and Society of Islamic Engineers, have also advised Ahmadinejad to avoid “confronting the clergy” in his selection of cabinet members next week.[26] 

Defection Not an Option

The calls for solidarity are meant to convey a pointed message to officials that factionalism will destroy the regime and, by association, their careers. Although Khamenei has attempted to restore regime legitimacy through limited conciliatory gestures, he has nevertheless drawn a firm line in the sand. To the opposition, the message is clear – resistance will be met with force. In the aftermath of the second round of trials, however, there is also a message for his supporters. Given developing tensions within the regime, Khamenei is warning conservatives who oppose Ahmadinejad to stay within the fold. In a government where power is concentrated within the office of the Supreme Leader, Khamenei’s decisions cannot be opposed without threatening the fundamental structure of the system itself. For those whose authority is derived from this structure, defection is not an option.

 



[1] Nasser Karimi, “Iran’s Opposition Verifies 69 Deaths in Unrest,” The Associated Press, August 11, 2009. Available: http://www.etaiwannews.com/etn/news_content.php?id=1029100&lang=eng_news.
 
[2] Tajernia was also a deputy in the 6th Majles. Tabatabaei was also a campaign official for Mousavi and the head of the 88 Headquarters, an organization which monitored the June 12 presidential elections. Muhammad Sahimi, “The Show Goes On,” Tehran Bureau, August 9, 2009. Available: http://tehranbureau.com/show/.
 
[3] Ali Akbar Dareini, “French Woman, Embassy Staff Confess in Iran Trial,” The Associated Press, August 8, 2009. Available: http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory?id=8282186. And Borzou Daragahi, “Iran Portrays Election Protesters as Pawns of the West,” Los Angeles Times, August 8, 2009. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fgw-iran-trial9-2009aug09,0,3933511.story. And Muhammad Sahimi, “The Show Goes On,” Tehran Bureau, August 9, 2009. Available: http://tehranbureau.com/show/
 
[4] “Kahrizak Prison Chief Dismissed, Arrested,” Press TV, August 10, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=103006&sectionid=351020101
 
[5] Allegations of prison abuse have galvanized both opposition and conservative leaders. Mohsen Rezai, the defeated conservative presidential candidate, has repeatedly called for the regime to address such allegations. One of the three Iranians who died at the Kahrizak center was the son of a senior advisor to Rezai. Nasser Karimi, “Iran’s Opposition Verifies 69 Deaths in Unrest,” The Associated Press, August 11, 2009. Available: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090811/ap_on_re_mi_ea/ml_iran
 
[6] As head of the Assembly of Experts, Rafsanjani theoretically has the authority to replace Iran’s supreme leader. In the Expediency Council, he acts as a mediator between the Parliament and Guardian Council. Rafsanjani was president of Iran from 1989 to 1997. “Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani,” New York Times, July 20, 2009. Available: http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/r/ali_akbar_hashemi_rafsanjani/index.html
 
[7] “Rafsanjani Demands Prisoner Rights amid Accusations,” Press TV, August 11, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=103187&sectionid=351020101. And “Inquiry Urged Into Iran Rape Claims,” Al Jazeera, August 10, 2009. Available: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/08/200981083847122429.html
 
[8] “Mousavi website says Iran Needs ‘Deep Change,’” Reuters, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/GCA-Iran/idUSTRE57B3W220090812
 
[9] As mentioned previously, Rezai has called for the arrest of government officials involved in the prison abuse cases. Hamid-Reza Katouzian, a hard-line member of Parliament, has echoed this position: “Those who have turned this society into a police state and have ordered the use of force have to be held accountable.” Robert F. Worth, “Reports of Prison Abuse and Deaths Anger Iranians,” July 29, 2009. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/29/world/middleeast/29iran.html
 
[10] Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Reformists Seize on Prisoner Abuses,” The Associated Press, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ixeFBxfLzaSjs8Mb8cuFmtPOT6-wD9A1G3RG0
 
[11] “Majlis Bloc Seeks to Put Iran’s Mousavi to Trial,” Press TV, August 10, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102947&sectionid=351020101
 
[12] “General Calls for Mousavi, Khatami, Karroubi Prosecution,” Press TV, August 9, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102990&sectionid=351020101. And “Iran Guard Wants Former President, Moderates Tried,” Reuters, August 9, 2009. Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/09/AR2009080900833.html
 
[13] Borzou Daragahi, “Iran Roiled by Prison Abuse Claims,” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iran-abuse12-2009aug12,0,7330964.story
 
[14] “Iran Jail Rape Claims ‘Baseless,’” BBC News, August 12, 2009. Available: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8196940.stm
 
[15] The Abu Ghraib reference to the 2004 U.S. military abuses in Iraq is particularly provocative given Muslim outrage over the incidents. 
 
[16] “Iran Jail Rape Claims ‘Baseless.” And Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran Reformists Seize on Prisoner Abuses,” The Associated Press, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5ixeFBxfLzaSjs8Mb8cuFmtPOT6-wD9A1G3RG0
 
[17] On Thursday, new evidence was released which indicated that Rafsanjani had forwarded Karroubi’s letter to Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi-Shahroudi. “Rafsanjani Responds to Karroubi ‘Jail Rape’ Letter,” Press TV, August 13, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=103404&sectionid=351020101
 
[18] Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran’s Police Chief Acknowledges Prisoner Abuse,” The Associated Press, August 9, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jGSJEAPs_r2T2wxsL5G3t4z-jajQD99VE5U00
 
[19] Ali Akbar Dareini, “Iran’s Police Chief Acknowledges Prisoner Abuse,” The Associated Press, August 9, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5jGSJEAPs_r2T2wxsL5G3t4z-jajQD99VE5U00
 
[20] “Opposition Leaders Trial ‘Unhelpful,’” Press TV, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=103293. And William Maclean, “Iran Trials Send Message of No Compromise,” Reuters, August 8, 2009. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSTRE57728520090808
 
[21] Mohammad Sadeq Larijani is currently a member of the Guardian Council. “Larijani to Succeed Shahroudi as Judiciary Chief,” Press TV, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=103278&sectionid=351020101
 
[22] “Shahroudi Urges ‘Unity’ Among Political Groups,” Press TV, August 4, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=102500&sectionid=351020101. And Jay Deshmukh, “Iran Judicial Chief Urges Unity Ahead of Ahmadinejad Oath,” Agence France Presse, August 4, 2009. Available: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5gWw_DSNEOPxgOvtbPERKvfOwr_bQ
 
[23]“Khamenei Urges Unity amid ‘Jail Death’ Fury,” The Saudi Gazette, August 13, 2009. Available: http://www.saudigazette.com.sa/index.cfm?method=home.regcon&contentID=2009072644806
 
[24] “Iranian Elite Urged to Distinguish Friends from Foes,” Press TV, August 12, 2009. Available: http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=103311&sectionid=351020101
 
[25] “Larijani: Iran’s Conditions Not Critical,” Fars News Agency, August 10, 2009. Available: http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8805191318
 
[26] 200 conservative Iranian lawmakers have done the same. Farideh Farhi, “Iran: Ahmadinejad’s Predicament and Iran’s Political Crisis,” Inter Press Service News Agency, August 10, 2009. Available: http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=48024. And Robert F. Worth and Nazila Fathi, “Iranian Lawmakers Demand Say on Cabinet, Hinting at a Rift Among Hard-Liners,” New York Times, August 11, 2009. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/11/world/middleeast/11iran.html?_r=1.