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Today, Let Them Not Be Forgotten: Iran's Captive Candidates

Iranian woman holds a picture of 2009 presidential candidate and opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi

Four years ago today, two Iranian political figures confronted a dilemma: they could choose to play by the rules of the system that they had helped to create and had served in a variety of senior leadership positions for three decades. Or they could insist that Iran's government, which came to power through a popular revolution and continues to invoke its representative institutions as a core source of its legitimacy, fulfill the promises of that revolution and adhere to the standards of its own laws as well as international norms. In choosing to denounce the fraud in Iran's 2009 presidential election and defend the rights of Iranians to have some say in the way their country is run, Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi made history four years ago today. Their decision sparked an uprising that has had momentous implications for Iran and devastating consequences for the men and their families.

As I argued four years ago in Foreign Affairs, Mousavi and Karroubi played a vital role in galvanizing Iranians to take to the streets in larger numbers than at any point since the 1979 revolution:

Despite his underwhelming personality, Mousavi's role is quietly critical. By refusing to endorse the official vote tally and appealing for Iranians to persist in their protests, Mousavi has defied the explicit edicts of the Supreme Leader. He has signaled that he is prepared to jeopardize the regime's survival in order to defend its representative institutions, a stance that has reinforced the fledgling street movement and emboldened other regime elites to confront Khamenei.

Mousavi's unwillingness to back down provided the crucial impetus to a population that had long expressed dissatisfaction with its political institutions and its economic constraints, but seemed unwilling to risk lives or livelihoods on mass political action. Mousavi and Karroubi had impeccable revolutionary credentials, and so their embrace of street protest seemed to offer both political cover and the possibility that risk would be rewarded. Their boldness on those days in June filled the leadership void, and inspired millions across the country to come to the streets, just as they had a generation earlier.

The movement that Mousavi and Karroubi initiated quickly transcended them, and as its demands shifted from "Where is my vote?" to "Down with the dictator," the two men whose candidacies originally sparked the street protests seemed to diminish in importance. After all, neither was willing to wholly disavow the Islamic Republic's unique hybrid of theocratic authority and representative government, and neither was well-suited for the role of spearheading a revolution that was still contending with the internecine power struggles of the 1979 ouster of the monarchy. The regime's repression effectively deprived them of their political networks and strategists, and soon quashed any remaining street activism. Without a leadership, a coherent strategy, or the confidence of ordinary Iranians, the Green Movement faded from the scene within Iran. Many of its most brilliant lieutenants managed to make their way out of the country, only to watch as new political battles within the regime and mounting international pressure over Iran's nuclear ambitions overshadowed the fundamental quest for democratic rights and freedoms in Iran. 

Today, Mousavi and Karroubi may be the two most important political prisoners in the world, and yet it is often unclear if anyone beyond Iran remembers their names. This reflects the success of the regime's vicious tactics to marginalize the former prime minister and former speaker of the parliament. In the initial months after the election upheaval, they remained free, although closely watched and heavily restricted in their activities. However, more than two years ago, as a small echo of the protests erupting across the Arab world was felt in Tehran, the regime immediately sought to neutralize its most formidable critics. Mousavi and Karroubi were put under full-scale house arrest in March 2011, and their plight has earned only minimal interest or international outcry. This week in a searing report, Yeganeh Torbati of Reuters documented the abysmal conditions in which they are living today— windows and doors sealed shut; only episodic contact with family members; perpetual surveillance and worsening health. Their plight is truly shocking.

This situation only underscores the righteousness of their decision four years ago today, as it is inconceivable that a civilized state with credible electoral procedures would seek to 'disappear' its own candidates over complaints about vote irregularities. Today, as the votes are being counted across Iran, the world should remember Karroubi and Mousavi (as well as Mousavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard, a powerful political figure in her own right who is suffering alongside him). It is a fitting tribute to their sacrifice that millions of Iranians once again engaged in the Islamic Republic's highly imperfect electoral process, that rallies for one of the candidates became a vehicle for renewed outcries for the freedom of political prisoners, and that we are once again in suspense about who will be declared the victor and what the reaction from the streets may be. Whatever happens in the ensuing hours, let the courage of Mousavi and Karroubi four years ago today and beyond not be forgotten.