Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Lone Cleric Is Loudly Defying Iran’s Leaders

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The New York Times

A short midlevel cleric, with a neat white beard and a clergyman’s calm bearing, Mehdi Karroubi has watched from his home in Tehran in recent months as his aides have been arrested, his offices raided, his newspaper shut down. He himself has been threatened with arrest and, indirectly, the death penalty.His response: bring it on. Once a second-tier opposition figure operating in the shadow of Mir Hussein Moussavi, his fellow challenger in Iran’s discredited presidential election in June, Mr. Karroubi has emerged in recent months as the last and most defiant opponent of the country’s leadership. The authorities have dismissed as fabrications his accusations of official corruption, voting fraud and the torture and rape of detained protesters. A former confidant of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and a longtime conservative politician, he has lately been accused by the government of fomenting unrest and aiding Iran’s foreign enemies. Four months after mass protests erupted in response to the dubious victory claims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the opposition’s efforts have largely stalled in the face of unrelenting government pressure, arrests, long detentions, harsh sentences, censorship and a strategic refusal to compromise. But for all its success at preserving authority, the government has been unable to silence or intimidate Mr. Karroubi, its most tenacious and, in many ways, most problematic critic. While other opposition figures, including Mr. Moussavi and two former presidents, Mohammad Khatami and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are seldom heard now, Mr. Karroubi has been unsparing and highly vocal in his criticism of the government, which he feels has lost all legitimacy. Last week, a special court for the clergy began to consider whether Mr. Karroubi, 72, should face charges.

His response, in a speech to a student group that was reported on a reformist Web site, was withering. “I am not only unworried about this court,” he wrote. “I wholeheartedly welcome it since I will use it to express my concerns regarding the national and religious beliefs of the Iranian people and the ideas of Imam Khomeini, and clearly reveal those who are opposed to these concerns.” Despite such provocations, Iran’s conservative leadership has so far not arrested him, apparently fearful of making a powerful symbol of a man so closely associated with the founding of the Islamic republic. “His potential arrest is an acid test of the internal meltdown of the upper echelon of the regime and the final breakdown in its legitimacy facade,” said Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University. “We had heard that revolutions eat their own children, but his seems to be a case of revolutionary parricide.” Mr. Karroubi works from a villa on a quiet street in Tehran that ends at a rundown palace once occupied by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. It is one of the many symbols of his standing among the revolutionary elite. He was jailed nine times by the shah and spent years in prison, where he grew close to inmates of widely different political persuasions: nationalist, socialist, Islamist, said Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert based in Virginia. “These forced companionships, Karroubi wrote in his autobiography, made him aware of the pain of the others, and relieved him from sectarian behavior,” Mr. Nafisi said. After the overthrow of the shah, Ayatollah Khomeini put Mr. Karroubi in charge of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee and the Martyrs Foundation, two of the nation’s most important and wealthiest institutions. He also served twice as speaker of Parliament, where he earned a reputation as a conciliator; served on the powerful Expediency Council; and was appointed adviser to the subsequent supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Read more...)