ISTANBUL, Turkey — In an apparent bid to ease mounting global pressure on a host of issues, Iranian officials say they will release one of three US hikers held for more than a year.
Though the US says it knows nothing of the release, journalists in Tehran received a text message from Iran’s Islamic Guidance ministry, saying they could witness the event at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Esteghlal Hotel – the same spot where the American detainees were allowed to meet their mothers before news cameras last May. [Update: Iranian officials have announced the name of the hiker: Sarah Shourd. The status of the other hikers, Minnesota native Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, remains uncertain.]
“Obviously we would be hearing from Iranian leaders that [they have] not given in and it has been on humanitarian grounds, but … the amount of criticism which has been building up against the Islamic regime recently has been too much,” Prof. Sadegh Zibakalam of Tehran University told Al Jazeera-English. “Maybe it’s a move trying to alleviate some of the pressure that has been building up against the Islamic regime at international level.”
The announcement comes a day after Iran said it was suspending a sentence of death by stoning of a woman convicted of adultery, after European leaders decried the sentence as “barbaric beyond words.”
Much of the outside pressure, which also includes the increasing bite of fresh UN Security Council sanctions – coupled with deeper measures from the US, Europe and, most recently, South Korea – has been driven by Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
But another source of tension hits closer to home: Iran’s harassment of its beleaguered opposition leaders.
Opposition leader’s house besieged
Last week in Tehran, groups of hard-line vigilantes for five days surrounded, vandalized, and laid siege to the house of Mehdi Karroubi, the cleric and former opposition presidential candidate. The action aimed explicitly to prevent Mr. Karroubi from joining pro-regime marchers as they marked Jerusalem Day on Friday, an annual event of solidarity with Palestinians that was hijacked a year ago by the opposition Green Movement to protest fraud in the June 2009 presidential election.
In scenes reminiscent of the political violence that has sometimes marred Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and long before that, last week firebombs were thrown by the mob and one of Karroubi’s bodyguards was beaten unconscious, the latest acts that prompted widespread condemnation inside and outside Iran.
The assault prevented Karroubi from joining the rally, as basiji militiamen broke down the front door and guards fired warning shots, according to the pro-opposition Sahamnews website. Security cameras were torn down, graffiti sprayed, and plainclothes men riding motorcycles used by pro-regime vigilantes came by the dozen.
Karroubi writes scathing letter, wins high-ranking sympathy
In a scathing letter written Sept. 8, Karroubi lambasted “thugs headed and organized by an ungodly and doomed group” who had engaged in “vulgar shows and childish intimidations.”
“I ask myself what has happened to this revolution that today the security and police forces and the judiciary management of this country of 70 million people is weak and pathetic and in control of a few goons, letting the world and global community criticize our civilized people,” wrote Karroubi.
Police did not intervene, though Karroubi is a former speaker of parliament and two-time presidential candidate. Especially loathed by hard-line supporters of the government because of charges he made last year of rape in Iranian prisons, Karroubi nonetheless won some high-ranking sympathy amid last week’s assault.
Criticism of the attacks from many quarters, including ranking clerics and the reform-leaning family members of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution – was so severe that the Revolutionary Guard, uncharacteristically, claimed that its forces and the basiji under its command were not responsible.
“That statement is another lie, but fortunately because of the pressure on the government, they had to issue a statement saying they didn’t do this action,” says Fatemeh Haghighatjou, a former reformist parliamentarian sentenced to jail time, who left Iran several years ago and now teaches in Boston. She remains in touch with opposition leaders.
“It is impossible in Iran’s atmosphere that somebody without permission can surround Mr. Karroubi’s house for five days, and nobody does anything,” says Haghighatjou. “The government is testing the sensitivity of [Iran’s] people and the international community to prosecute the Green Movement leaders.”
Almost 15 months after the contested election, which saw unprecedented street protests against the officially declared landslide reelection of archconservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the regime has not quelled the underlying anger. Scores if not hundreds were killed, and 4,000 were arrested in the first weeks of violence.
“They are constantly testing and probing to see how far they can go. And that cat-and-mouse game will continue, probably indefinitely,” says Anoushiravan Ehteshami, an Iran expert at Durham University in England.
“It tells me that, despite the virtual blanket black-out that [opposition leaders] have had to endure, their popular space remains strong. It may not be a reflection of their strength, but rather the continuing fragility of the governing coalition,” says Professor Ehteshami, author of a book on the rise of Iran’s neo-conservatives.
And Karroubi spoke of that weakness, when he chastised the “camp of the totalitarian dictator [where] despair and hopelessness, division and doubt” reigned supreme.
“A group of rogue elements? Iran’s vast intelligence, security, judiciary, and military forces, who claim to have control over the world, claim to be incapable of identifying and punishing them!” Karroubi wrote. “They are trying to cover a lie with another lie….”
Where Iran’s hubris comes from
Criticism spread far beyond Iran’s borders, of actions in Iran against the opposition.
“It is definitely our policy to support freedom and human rights inside Iran. And we have done so by speaking out,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday. “We have strongly condemned the actions of the Iranian government, and continue to do so. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Iran is morphing into a military dictatorship with a sort of religious ideological veneer.”
Despite such outside pressure, Iran’s top leadership has repeatedly affirmed that it is in complete control and its enemies – notably the US, Israel, the West, and those Iranians “inspired” by them – are failing.
“The front opposing us is not just unloved, but is also hated. Their flags and pictures are burned and their [effigies] stepped on…. America has a bitter experience of their military operations,” Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, said in a speech last month.
Iran, by contrast, has huge global support, said Ayatollah Khamenei, and “has been successful wherever it felt that it was duty-bound to go. This is confessed by everyone. This is why our opponents are very unhappy.”
“There is a strong element of hubris, that they are invincible,” says Ehteshami. “But at the same time, [some ranking conservatives] are acutely aware of the structural weaknesses that the system has, and are therefore much more measured.”
That was the point some have drawn from the assault on the Karroubi residence last week.
“Of course this is a sign of weakness. What would happen if Karroubi would go to Qods [Jerusalem] Day? Maybe they feel this will give enough encouragement to the Greens to come again,” says Mrs. Haghighatjou, the teacher in Boston.
“More than slogans, they are afraid that if they allow the Greens to come to the street, this coming to the street will continue, and they want to show to the West that the Green Movement is over….They want to say that the Green Movement is dead. [Proof to the contrary] is their main fear.”