The Sheikh of Reform: Mehdi Karroubi
by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles
19 Oct 2009 06:14
There is Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who lies habitually and is willing to do or say anything to attract attention. Then there is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, who claims that he leads a political system based on the true teachings of Islam and one in line with Imam Ali, the revered first Shia Imam, though his rule over the last 20 years, and particularly over the last 12 years, has resulted in an oppressive regime. As we saw in the aftermath of the June 12 election, this is a system that relies entirely on brutal repression to continue its rule. He has allowed the military to gradually take control of all the important aspects of Iran's economy and political system, to the point that Ahmadinejad's government is nothing but a military junta.
Preserving the Political System at any Cost
Under Ayatollah Khamenei, expediency, maslahat (as opposed to honesty) and hefz-e nezaam, preserving the political system at any cost, have become two paramount principles, even if agents and officials of the system commit heinous crimes. Ayatollah Khamenei also tries to rule on a cult of personality. Every time he commits a glaring mistake (and he does so quite often), those allied with him try to prove him right, not correct him. In the hardliners' view, that is also part of the great effort to preserve the system!
The infamous Chain Murders of 1998 is a good example. During the fall of 1998, agents of the Ministry of Intelligence murdered several political dissidents and intellectuals. Dariush Farouhar and his wife Parvaneh (both were quite literally butchered), Mohammad Mokhtari, Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, Dr. Majid Sharif (a friend of the author in the late 1970s), and Pirouz Davani were among them. Davani's body has never been recovered. It is believed that from 1988 to 1998, tens of dissidents and intellectuals were murdered by agents of the Ministry of Intelligence. In an article three years ago, the author was able to list 61 of them.
Before the culprits were identified (the culprits were led by Saeed Emami, also known as Saeed Eslami and Saeed Shamshiri, a deputy to Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian during the administration of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to1997), Ayatollah Khamenei claimed in several speeches that the murders were committed by agents of foreign governments, and in particular Israel's. So after Emami died in jail (most believe he was murdered), agents of the Ministry of Intelligence brutally tortured his wife to get her to confess that she and her husband had had links with Israeli agents.
The torture sessions had been taped, secretly leaked out, and then even put online for the world to see.
The tortures were carried out by one of the most notorious agents of the Ministry of Intelligence, Javad Abbasi Kanghoori, known as Javad Azadeh, or Javad Amoli. It is said that when he was asked why he tortured Mrs. Emami, he had replied "The Supreme Leader had said that the murders had been committed by Israeli agents. How could we have any other result or confession?"
The implication is clear. One must hide crimes, lie about the "great" virtues of the political system, and do just about anything that is necessary in order to make sure that the system is "preserved." And one way to preserve the system is, of course, to demonstrate that the Supreme Leader never errs!
The hardliners who committed large-scale fraud in the June election and declared Ahmadinejad the winner in a landslide, had also thought that the reformist candidates, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, would protest the result of the election for a day or two, perhaps write an open letter to the nation or Ayatollah Khamenei, but then for the sake of hefz-e nezaam, preserving the system, and maslahat (expediency), fall silent. They badly miscalculated, which explains why Iran has been in a deep crisis ever since.
Not only have the people continued to protest the election and its aftermath, they have broadened their protests to include all aspects of life under the rule of the Islamic Republic. The reformist leaders have also not become silent; if anything, they have become more outspoken. The same reformist leaders, who had loyally served the system for decades, have not been willing to sit quietly in the sidelines.
Among them, none has been more outspoken than Mehdi Karroubi, a mid-rank cleric known as the Sheikh of Reform. His courage, honesty, and outspokenness have been exemplary. Although this has come as a surprise to many people, those who have known him or worked with him for years say that Karroubi has always been that way.
Karroubi, Secretary General and founder of the National Trust Party, has been a fixture in Iranian politics since the 1979 Revolution. He was born on September 26, 1937, in Aligoudarz, a town in western Lorestan province, in southwest Iran. The Lores are an ethnic minority in Iran.
Karroubi's father was also a cleric, and Karroubi followed in the elder's footsteps. He studied theology in Qom's seminaries and was a student of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who along with Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq, are currently the most important religious figures and marja' taghlid (source of emulation) in Shia Islam. He also studied with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the early 1960s, and became one of his disciples.
In addition to his religious education, Karroubi received a B.S. degree in Islamic laws from the University of Tehran. Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, himself a close aide to Ayatollah Khomeini and currently an outspoken supporter of the Green Movement, was the first to recognize Karroubi as a Mujtahed, or a learned Islamic figure.
After Ayatollah Khomeini was arrested in 1963 (due to the June 1963 riots) and exiled, first to Turkey and then to Iraq, Karroubi was very active in distributing Khomeini's open letters to government officials, and spreading his teachings to the people. Between 1963 and 1977, he was arrested many times and spent years in jail, including stints at the notorious Qasr and Evin prisons in Tehran. While in jail, he was one of the few clerics who had good relations with both the Islamic figures and secular leftists.
During 1978-1979, when massive protests against the Shah were in full force and labor strikes paralyzed the nation, Karroubi was leading all the local committees distributing food and other essentials to protesters and strikers. After the Revolution overthrew the Shah in February 1979, new elections were held for the first Majles (parliament) and Karroubi was elected as a representative of the people of his hometown.
On the order of Ayatollah Khomeini, Karroubi founded the Martyrs Foundation in 1980, which provides aide to the families of those killed during the Revolution and in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. He was elected again to the 2nd and 3rd Majles in 1984 and 1988, both these times as a representative of the people of Tehran.
Karroubi and the Executions of 1988
As I explained in a previous article, one of the most horrific crimes in contemporary Iranian history was the execution of thousands of political prisoners (up to about 4600) during the late spring and summer of 1988. Most of the prisoners had not committed any significant offense; if they had, they would have been killed much earlier. And most had already finished their jail terms.
Since these mass executions, the hardliners have prevented any meaningful discussion of their crime. The right-wing faction still vehemently supports the crimes committed, and the left has been prevented from discussing it, or prefers to remain silent about it. One issue that keeps coming up is the role of those who were part of the political establishment at that time, including the present leaders of the Green Movement. Karroubi was a Majles deputy at that time; former president Mohammad Khatami was Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and the deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces [to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani]; and Mir Hossein Mousavi was the Prime Minister. I only briefly touch on Karroubi's position regarding the executions.
The most important opponent of the executions within the government hierarchy was Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, who was the principal deputy to Ayatollah Khomeini (and a student of his in his youth). Karroubi himself was also very close to Ayatollah Khomeini, and also to Ayatollah Khomeini's son Ahmad (1945-1995), who played an important behind-the-scenes role in the power structure at that time. Karroubi did not have any role in the execution of the political prisoners. But due to his loyalty to Ayatollah Khomeini, he strongly criticized Grand Ayatollah Montazeri's opposition to the executions.
It was Karroubi, together with Ayatollahs Emam Jamarani and Seyyed Hamid Rouhani, who wrote an open letter to Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, protesting his position on the political prisoners and executions. The letter said,
Some unidentified people and even counter-revolutionaries make baseless statements against the political establishment, its organs, and officials, and are accepted by him [Grand Ayatollah Montazeri], [to the extent that] he becomes their spokesman, and repeats the same in his [public] speeches and messages...
The three were angry that Grand Ayatollah Montazeri had written to Ayatollah Khomeini to tell him that, "Your Ministry of Intelligence has made the Shah's look good." Because Grand Ayatollah Montazeri advocated the release of political prisoners, most of whom were supporters of the Mojahedin-e Khalgh Organization (MKO), the three of them also wrote [addendum 167, pp. 534-534, the Memoirs of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri]:
When talking to judiciary officials, you always advocate clemency for the political prisoners of a small group [the MOK] and demand their release. Despite the fact that it has been proven to you that many of them, who were pardoned due to your insistence and persistence and when released from jail, committed crimes again and murdered pasdaran [members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)] and the Basij [militia] and spilled the blood of our loved ones, but that has never changed your mind about them.
Only 35 days after the open letter, Ayatollah Khomeini fired Grand Ayatollah Montazeri from his position as his principal deputy (and successor). In his letter, Ayatollah Khomeini cited some of the issues raised by Karroubi. Ahmad Khomeini also played a key role in getting Grand Ayatollah Montazeri fired, because he had ambitions for his father's replacement.
Shortly before his sudden death in 1995, Ahmad Khomeini apologized to Grand Ayatollah Montazeri. Credible reports suggest that the younger Khomeini was murdered by Saeed Emami and his gang. It is said that in 1999, Mohammad Niazi, who was in charge of the military court system at that time, had told Hassan Khomeini, Ahmad's son, that Emami had confessed to the murder.
While I do not know what Karroubi's current position is regarding the executions, he seemed to still be critical of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri in 1997, when he criticized Ahmad Montazeri, the Grand Ayatollah's son, for repeating the same sentiments that his father had expressed in the 1980s. So while Karroubi did not have any direct responsibility for the executions, he does bear some moral responsibility for his attacks on Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, the only true official opponent of the executions. On the other hand, the two now have cordial relations.
Splitting with the Right-Wing Clerics
In 1988, the leftist clerics left the Society of Militant Clergy (SMC), an umbrella group for the politically-inclined clerics who had played an important role in the 1979 Revolution. With Ayatollah Khomeini's blessings, the leftist clerics formed their own organization, the Association of Combatant Clerics (ACC). The SMC is known in Iran as the Rouhaniyat, whereas the second group is referred to as Rouhanioon, to which Khatami belongs. Karroubi was a founder of the ACC, and remained a member until 2005.
The 3rd Majles, which was dominated by the Islamic leftists, elected Karroubi as its Speaker from 1989 to 1992. But in 1991, the right wingers staged a quasi-constitutional coup by reinterpreting the Constitution and giving the Guardian Council (a Constitutional body that supervises and certifies the elections) the power to vet candidates for most elections. Then, the Council disqualified en masse almost all of the leftist candidates for the 4th Majles in the 1992 election. By then Khatami had also resigned his position as the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, to protest the severe censorship that the right wing was demanding. Hence, the left disappeared into the sidelines and began thinking about a strategy for a comeback.
In May 1997, Mohammad Khatami was elected president in a surprise landslide victory, defeating the establishment candidate, Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri. One of the main strategists for that election was Dr. Saeed Hajjarian, who was released from captivity two weeks ago. Following that important victory, the reformists also swept the first nation-wide elections for city councils in 1998, and the elections for the 6th Majles in February 2000.
The Sixth Majles
Karroubi was elected to the 6th Majles as one of Tehran's 30 deputies. The 6th Majles, dominated by the reformists and Islamic leftists, elected Karroubi as its Speaker,
Karroubi's record as the Speaker of the 6th Majles is very interesting. On the one hand, he played a leading role in preventing the Majles from overturning the draconian press laws passed by the conservative-dominated 5th Majles. The attempt to overturn the law was the first piece of legislation taken up by the 6th Majles in May 2000. Right before voting, Ayatollah Khamenei sent a letter to Karroubi and ordered the Majles to table the legislation, and Karroubi obliged. He was roundly criticized for it by the reformists.
In all fairness, Karroubi was also misunderstood. He declared that, "This is our Constitution [that gives absolute power to the Supreme Leader]." In other words, what he was saying was that in order to address the question of freedom, and in particular freedom of the press, it is the Constitution that must first be revised. Karroubi was, of course, correct.
On the other hand, Karroubi was an outspoken foe of several actions by the hardliners. He opposed the death sentence given to Dr. Hashem Aghajari, a popular Islamic leftist professor and a follower of Dr. Ali Shariati (1933-1977), the distinguished Islamic scholar. Aghajari had spoken against the conservative ayatollahs in a speech. Karroubi called the verdict a "dirty stain" on the Islamic Republic, one that could not be easily cleansed. The death sentence was eventually overturned by Iran's Supreme Court, and Aghajari was released after spending more than a year in prison.
Since the reformist deputies of the 6th Majles were highly critical of the hardliners, the judiciary, dominated by the conservatives, began threatening them with arrest and imprisonment. The threats were illegal, as the Majles deputies have legal immunity from persecution for speaking out on issues. Still, that did not stop the judiciary from arresting and jailing Hossein Loghmanian, an outspoken reformist deputy from the city of Hamadan. In a nationally-broadcast speech, Karroubi announced that he would not return to the Majles unless Loghmanian was released. The judiciary quickly released Loghmanian.
Many political activists and journalists were arrested during the time that Karroubi was Speaker of the 6th Majles. His office was always open to the families of the arrested. He always used his connections with those in power to help the families.
Dr. Fatemeh Haghighatjou, a reformist and utterly courageous Tehran deputy in the 6th Majles, told the author that, "Karroubi is a kind man with good heart and intentions. He truly wants to help the people and his country."
He has also been a long-time advocate of the rights of women and ethnic minorities, as well as freedom of religion. As the Speaker, he visited churches, synagogues, and Zoroastrian [Iran's ancient religion] temples.
Karroubi was, and still is, a very outspoken critic of the Guardian Council. In particular, he has repeatedly declared his opposition to the vetting power of the Council.
The 2005 Presidential Elections
After the Guardian Council disqualified the reformist candidates from running for re-election in the 7th Majles in 2004, voter turnout was very low and Karroubi failed to get re-elected. The elections were widely believed to have been rigged.
Khatami's second term as president ended in 2005, and by law he could not run again. The reformists failed to persuade Mousavi to run. Then Karroubi declared his candidacy. He ran a strong campaign. Early on in the vote-counting after the June 17 election, he was running second only to Rafsanjani. He was later declared in third place, after Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad, and therefore disqualified from the round-off (no candidate can get elected without at least 51% of the vote). It is widely believed that irregularities and fraud resulted in his third place showing.
In response, Karroubi wrote an angry public letter to the Supreme Leader, denouncing the intervention of his son, Mojtaba Khamanei and several commanders of the IRGC on behalf of then barely known Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He declared that fraud and vote rigging had taken place. In widely cited example of vote rigging, Karroubi pointed out that the Guardian Council had counted 298,000 votes in South Khorasan province, whereas officials had previously stated that only 270,000 eligible voters existed!
The Guardian Council rejected Karroubi's accusations, but the Interior Ministry, which runs the elections, was still under the control of reformists, declared about a week later that a prominent military figure, who had admitted to committing electoral violations, was arrested.Ayatollah Khamenei responded to Karroubi in a terse letter, rejecting the accusations and implicitly threatening Karroubi. He said that Karroubi's actions may result in a national crisis. "Feeling the full wrath of God and his power, I for one will not allow any individual to create a crisis in this country," wrote the Supreme Leader. Karroubi responded by publicizing a second letter, calling the elections "the blackest page in the history of ideological struggle in Iran," referring to the various political trends taking shape in the country. He resigned from his post as a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, and from membership in the Expediency Council, a Constitutional body that arbitrates over differences between the Guardian Council and the Majles. He was even put under house arrest for several days.
Soon afterward, Karroubi also resigned from the leftist Association of Combatant Clerics, and founded his own National Trust Party, and a daily newspaper, which acted as its mouthpiece, Etemad-e Melli [National Trust]. Etemad-e Melli was shut down by the hardliners after the June 12 election.
The 2009 Presidential Election
In the fall of 2008, the National Trust Party formally announced Karroubi as its official candidate for the 2009 presidential election. Karroubi was not endorsed by any of the major reformist groups. Even the Rouhanioon, which in its founding Karroubi had played a leading role in 1988, endorsed Mousavi. Khatami attempted to persuade Karroubi to stand down in favor of Mousavi, but he refused.
However, some leading reformist figures endorsed Karroubi, including Mohammad Ali Abtahi, Khatami's vice president and close adviser [who is now in jail]. His campaign manager was Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the popular former Mayor of Tehran and a member of the leadership of the Executives of Reconstruction Party (EoRP), a moderate reformist group. But the EoRP officially endorsed Mousavi.
However, Abbas Abdi, an outspoken reformist who was jailed for his opinions; Hossein Marashi (Rafsanjani's brother-in-law); Eshagh Jahangiri and Mohammad Ali Najafi, ministers in the administrations of Rafanjani and Khatami (Najafi, who is a current member of the Tehran City Council, was briefly jailed after the election); Reza Amrollahi (former head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran); and Ataollah Mohajerani (the relatively liberal Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance during Khatami's first term); all leading figures of the EoRP, endorsed Karroubi and campaigned for him.
Moreover, Jamileh Kadivar, Mohajerani's wife and Dr. Mohsen Kadivar's sister, who served as a Tehran deputy in the 6th Majles, was part of Karroubi's campaign. (Mohsen Kadivar is a leading progressive cleric and outspoken critic of the conservatives; he now lives in the United States.) In addition, leading figures such as Dr. Ahmad Zaydabadi, a distinguished journalist [currently in jail], Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush [the distinguished Islamic scholar], Emad Baghi, a well-known human rights advocate, and others also supported Karroubi's election bid.
Karroubi has endorsed the continuation of Iran's uranium enrichment program. He has repeatedly criticized Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, but at the same time condemned Ahmadinejad's rhetoric against Israel. Karroubi has said repeatedly that, "Some of the Palestinians have criticized our support of their cause," implying that Iran's support for Hamas has not been in Iran's national interest. He has also endorsed détente with the United States.
Karroubi has harshly attacked the Guardian Council and its power to vet candidates, calling it illegal and against the Constitution. He has been at odds particularly with Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati (pictured on the right), the old and powerful Secretary General of the Guardian Council.
His daily, Etemad-e Melli, was Iran's best reformist newspaper. It was consistently critical of the government, until it was shut down by the hardliners after the election.
One of the best characteristics of Karroubi is his bluntness and honesty. Karroubi speaks his mind freely and courageously. During the 2009 campaign, he openly spoke about the need to revise the Constitution to make it more democratic. It was a very courageous act in 2005 to accuse, in a public and widely distributed letter, the Supreme Leader's son and the high command of the IRGC (and, hence, indirectly the Supreme Leader himself) of vote rigging, and then resigning after not receiving a satisfactory response.
The Aftermath of the Election
Since the rigged June 2009 election, Karroubi has proven to be the strongest critic of the hardliners. He has spoken with utmost clarity against the IRGC and the ultra-right; he has declared Ahmadinejad's government illegitimate and illegal; he has not cowered in the face of Ayatollah Khamenei's warnings and threats; he has fiercely attacked state media for its one-sided coverage of political developments, and has declared time and again that he will not give up the fight to make Iran a more democratic nation. He is now widely respected by people from all walks of life.
One of Karroubi's most courageous acts since the rigged election has been revealing crimes that have taken place in detention centers, where thousands of people who peacefully demonstrated against the election fraud were being held. Many were tortured, beaten up, raped and sodomized. Seventy-two people have been confirmed murdered, with scores still missing.
Once again, Ayatollah Khamenei declared that for the sake of hefz-e nezaam, preserving the political system, and maslahat, expediency, the critics should stay silent. But a few days ago, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri declared that preserving the political system is not necessarily an Islamic duty. He said that an Islamic system must be preserved if that system actually stands for the true teachings of Islam. But in a situation when not only the true teachings of Islam are neglected, but everything implemented is against Islam, then nothing justifies the attempt to preserve the system.
In a historical fatwa, Grand Ayatollah Montazeri also declared that Iran's political system is neither Islamic nor a republic, but one in which the view of only one person matters (i.e., an absolute dictatorship of Ayatollah Khamenei). In another historical fatwa, he declared that Ayatollah Khamenei has no legitimacy because he has lost the respect of the people.
To appear as if the judiciary has taken Karroubi's accusations of rape seriously, it formed a committee of three to look into the accusations. The panel then declared that Karroubi's accusations were baseless, although several others, including members of the Majles and the Expediency Council, have stated that the accusations are true.
Will Karroubi be put on Trial?
November 4 is the 30th anniversary of the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran. Demonstrations are always held to commemorate the event. The Green Movement has made it clear that similar to Qods [Jerusalem] Day, it has every intention of using the occasion to showcase its strength. That has caused a sudden ratcheting up of pressure on the leaders of the Green Movement, and in particular Karroubi.
Top commanders of the IRGC, including Brigadier General Yadollah Javani, the head of the IRGC political directorate, and Major General Mohammad Ali (Aziz) Jafari, the top overall commander, have called for the arrest and trial of Karroubi, Mousavi, Khatami and Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoiniha, the head of the Association of Combatant Clerics.
On Friday October 16, Ahmad Jannati, a Friday prayer leader of Tehran, an ultraconservative and hard-line ally of Ahmadinejad, called for the arrest of Karroubi and others (without naming them explicitly), and accused them of being agents of foreign powers.
Last week, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejehei, the nation's Prosecutor General, declared that Karroubi will be put on trial. Tehran's Prosecutor General, Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi, also declared that a case has been opened against Karroubi in the Special Court for the Clergy (SCC). The SCC is an extra-judicial court, which is illegal because the Constitution contains no Article that allows for the formation of such a court. In effect, the SCC is an instrument for controlling dissident clergy.
Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Ahmadinejad's former Interior Minister and the present head of the National Organization for Inspection, held a press conference on October 17 and accused Karroubi of damaging the credibility of the political system, a credibility that does not exist.
Ayatollah Hossein Nouri Hamadani, a conservative cleric, said "Talking about the Kahrizak problem [the detention center where three young detainees were murdered and scores were raped], and claiming that rapes had taken place there have been very costly for the Islamic Revolution. The supporters of, and opposition to, the government can unite only if the opposition repents and admits that it has erred." He was referring to the news that a plan is being drawn up by moderate figures within the conservative camp to bring the opposite sides together.
As usual, Karroubi swiftly responded to Nouri Hamadani in a letter, asking "Is it allowed in Islam to state and take a definitive position regarding an important issue by only talking to one side? The three candidates [other than Ahmadinejad] were close aides of Imam [Ayatollah] Khomeini. You could have at least talked to them."
"You are protesting the nation that demands its rights, rather than those who are in power."
Karroubi has announced that he will use the trial not only to present credible evidence of the rapes, but also to talk about many issues that he has publicly avoided over the last several years regarding what is happening in the country. Karroubi's trial, if it goes through, promises to be on a par with the trial of Abdollah Nouri in 1999 by the SCC, a mid-rank cleric and Khatami's first Interior Minister. He too was put on trial for "speaking against the Nezaam," but he used it to courageously speak against all the crimes that have taken place.
Nouri was given a five-year jail sentence. After spending three years in jail, he was freed by Ayatollah Khamenei, after Dr. Alireza Nouri, Abdollah's brother and a Tehran deputy in the 6th Majles, was killed in a car accident.
Karroubi is married to Fatemeh Karroubi, the daughter of wealthy family from his hometown Aligoudarz. Fatemeh Karroubi has been a social activist herself, and involved in women's issues. They have several children.
Regardless of what happens in the coming months and years, Mehdi Karroubi has demonstrated that he is a courageous politician and a true patriot. He is likely to be judged very favorably by history.
Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau