Posted by Laura Secor

When I started visiting Iran, in 2004, Mehdi Karroubi was widely viewed as the most conservative figure among the reformists. He was a white-turbaned, populist clergyman from the agricultural province of Lorestan, and, though he was concerned about protecting Iranians’ political rights and freedoms, his voters also tended to be pious, traditional, and oppressed by Iran’s rising unemployment and inflation rates. When he ran for president in 2005—the year in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rose to power—on the promise to distribute some fifty dollars a month to every Iranian family, some urban reformists called on him to withdraw in favor of a rival reformist candidate, Mostafa Moin, a former minister of higher education who appealed to Iran’s burgeoning population of university students.

Karroubi did not withdraw. His allies argued—rightly, it turned out—that his appeal was actually much broader than Moin’s. In fact, his rallies looked somewhat like those of his conservative rivals: crowds of mixed ages, women fully enveloped in their garments, men in long sleeves and traditional haircuts. The reformist vote, predictably, split, and neither candidate made it to the second round, though Karroubi, much to the surprise of Moin’s supporters, came very close—Ahmadinejad just squeaked by him.

At the time, Karroubi issued a controversial open letter claiming that the election had been stolen from him. He resigned from all his political posts, including one as an advisor to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. But the newspapers that carried his letter were forbidden to circulate, and almost no one came to Karroubi’s defense. Famously, Karroubi said that when he’d gone to bed the night after the election, he was in second place, and when he awoke he was in third. In subsequent elections, Iranians would joke that Karroubi, at all costs, must not go to sleep.

Young Iranians could mock Karroubi all they liked as a perennial presidential hopeful, but once they ran afoul of Iranian restrictions on the press and assembly, it was Karroubi to whom they turned. He was the one reformist politician whose door was always open to the distressed families of prisoners, and who was never afraid to use his connections and his political capital on behalf of vulnerable young people behind bars. He had been a political prisoner himself, under the Shah, but in this he could hardly be distinguished from many hardliners who were brutalized by that experience. In 1988, Karroubi even signed a letter to Ayatollah Khomeini, arguing against clemency for the Revolution’s political prisoners. But what Karroubi had exhibited since then was personal decency, strength of character, and a humanitarian instinct that seemed fearless and impervious to pressure.

I met him only fleetingly, in late 2006. He was imposing, in immaculate and finely woven robes, with a manicured white beard and gold-rimmed spectacles. He allowed me one question, to which he provided a cursory answer. By then, he commanded what was practically the only reformist party that could still legally function, Etemad-e Melli, or National Trust. He ran a newspaper by the same name which, by the end of Ahmadinejad’s first term, was the only reformist media organ that hadn’t been banned. Karroubi’s party was more centrist, and more dominated by clerics, than Mohammad Khatami’s Mosharekat party. But, unlike Mosharekat, Etemad-e Melli was still a player.

The Mehdi Karroubi who ran for president in 2009 barely resembled the Karroubi who ran in 2005. Now Karroubi emerged as the race’s most outspoken proponent of human rights, women’s rights, and political freedom. Some of the same young Iranians who scoffed at his campaign in 2005 told me with regret that they would vote for Mir-Hossein Mousavi—they saw him as the more electable candidate, with an appeal that extended from urban youth into Ahmadinejad’s constituency—but that their hearts were with Karroubi. In a televised debate, Ahmadinejad displayed chart after chart to defend his claim that the Iranian economy was healthy; Karroubi all but called the President a liar. Although all the opposition candidates derided Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial (if tepidly), it was Karroubi who indignantly told a rally, “Denying the Holocaust is like defending Hitler. Have we come down so low that we need to defend Hitler’s dignity?”

No one expected Karroubi to win the June, 2009, election, or even to significantly split the reformist vote. But when Mousavi disputed the early call for Ahmadinejad, Karroubi closed ranks behind him. The two men, once allies in the revolutionary regime of the nineteen-eighties, became the unlikely leaders of the Green Movement. In the turbulent months that followed—demonstrations crushed by armed militias, thousands placed behind bars, leading reformists paraded in show trials and indicted for conspiracy—Karroubi and Mousavi have been under virtual house arrest, facing periodic violence and persistent rumors of their own detention. Virtually all of their closest colleagues are in prison or silenced.

Still, Karroubi gives the occasional interview by e-mail to the foreign press. I sent him some questions, both about the Green Movement and about some controversies from his past. Excerpts from our exchange are below.

LAURA SECOR: There is a widespread perception outside Iran that the Green Movement has been defeated. We no longer hear about millions-strong demonstrations, and a great many opposition figures have been imprisoned or forced out of the country. Is there still a Green Movement in Iran? Does it have an organized structure and a strategy for achieving its goals?

MEHDI KARROUBI: Because of heavy government suppression, people are not visible in the streets, chanting and demonstrating. But the movement runs very deep. If the government allowed any kind of activity in the streets, the world would see millions of people. The authorities know it, and that is why they have cracked down for the last sixteen months, shutting down any kind of opposition in the most brutal ways. The government has many problems at the moment…. The economy and foreign policy are both sources of conflict. All of this makes it very hard for the current administration to accomplish anything. In the first months and days after the election, many officials from the top down were sent to prison, and this has continued. These are clear signs that the movement is still alive.

The Iranian diaspora includes a great many young people who were politically active when they left Iran (many of them very recently), and who wish to be involved with the Green Movement from outside. What role, if any, can these Iranians living abroad play?

Iran belongs to all Iranians, from those who left Iran years ago to all who reside in Iran today. I have always stressed that Iranians outside the country should retain their identity and stay in touch with their homeland. I cannot tell Iranians outside the country what to do, but I can say that it would be good for them to try to convey Iranian public opinion and elite thought to the outside world, to help project the voices of those who are voiceless in Iran.

If it were up to you, what would be the attitude of the United States government toward the Green Movement?

We look to our own people, to our own country and its interests. We try to avoid any dependence on other countries, nor would we suggest any strategy for them. This movement is our own responsibility, and we do not expect other nations or governments to do anything for us. But if they feel a humanitarian obligation to support us, that is another thing.

Do you feel that your safety and freedom are in peril? What is it like to function—and to live—in this environment? How has it changed your daily activities, as a person and as a political leader?

There are many difficulties, and the pressure is intense. I have no security in my home. Recently, for five days in a row, there were rocks and grenades thrown at my house. Our neighbors have been frightened, their property burned and destroyed. Our opponents are not afraid of anything. They closed down the office of my party and even my own private office. I knew I might face such malicious tactics. From when I was speaker of parliament to the present, when I have no official position, I have always defended the rights of the people. I am prepared for any incident or accident, and I am not afraid. But I am concerned about Islam, and I am afraid that these people who are attacking and harassing people in the name of Islam are doing serious damage to our religion in the eyes of the world.

Last year, you publicized allegations of sexual abuse inside Iranian prisons. To your knowledge, do these kinds of abuses continue to take place, or has the problem been addressed?

In our culture, victims of rape suffer deep shame and depression. Moreover, the authorities made the situation very intimidating, such that rape victims were afraid to speak up. Even so, some of the rape victims came to see me, and consequently, some of them have been silenced or forced to leave the country. I do not even know how these people are doing or if they are recovering. I just documented their claims and made a film of what they said happened to them while they were in jail, so that if anyone tried to deny that detainees had been raped, I would have something in hand. I will say it clearly: they raped people in detention in the early days of the movement, and they continue to torture dissidents in brutal ways in prison. I have nothing in hand to indicate recent or continuous rape in detention.

What is your opinion of the law that is about to go into effect reducing or eliminating government subsidies on consumer goods like gas and food?

I agree in principle with reforming the subsidies, but it should be thought through and analyzed very well by experts. Unfortunately, because of this government’s many economic misdeeds, prices skyrocketed before any reform could take place. Now the question is, what happens when the reform laws are enforced? I believe that this government has fatally weakened the economy, such that any subsidy reform might just do further harm.

You were a parliamentary deputy representing Tehran in 1988, when thousands of political prisoners were executed by order of Ayatollah Khomeini. The only political figure to protest this order was Ayatollah Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor at the time. You co-authored a letter with two other parliamentary deputies, objecting to Ayatollah Montazeri’s position for clemency for political prisoners. Many years have passed since those events, and in that time you have come to be seen as a champion of human rights. Do you believe that Ayatollah Montazeri was wrong to object to the killing of political prisoners in 1988? Do you believe Ayatollah Khomeini did the right thing for Iran when he stripped Ayatollah Montazeri of the succession as a result of his objections?

I should answer to this question in two parts. First, in those days I was not aware of executions and neither do I have that knowledge now. I am not sure what happened in the prisons, who ordered it, or if Ayatollah Khomeini was aware of it. Second, the letter you mention had nothing to do with the executions. There was a series of arguments between Ayatollah Montazeri and Ayatollah Khomeini. [Laura Secor notes: i.e., over the treatment of political prisoners even before the executions, as Montazeri argued for greater leniency; others were about the Iran-Contra affair, which one of Montazeri’s relatives had leaked to the international press.] These issues between them even caused many of Ayatollah Montazeri’s relatives to be imprisoned. In light of these events, we decided to write a confidential letter to Ayatollah Khomeini. This was a very general letter on variety of issues, including some terror attacks and other incidents in Isfahan and Najaf Abad [Montazeri’s home town]. The letter was confidential, and we wrote and sent it before all those things happened. But when it came out and was not confidential anymore, it coincided with those incidents. That letter was about things that happened all throughout that year, and we wrote it to help resolve some points of conflict. If we want to talk about the issues between Ayatollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Montazeri, that takes time. I had no problem with [Montazeri]; I respected him and I respect him still, but there were issues between him and Ayatollah Khomeini.

You recently told Der Spiegel that you advocate free elections, free speech, free assembly, and the release of political prisoners. Do you believe it is possible to institute and safeguard these freedoms without revising the constitutional role of the Supreme Leader? Can you have a democracy whose constitution enshrines velayat-e faqih [the ultimate rule of a cleric as the viceregent of God], and, if not, to which form of government should Iranians aspire?

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