The Man Who Stood Up to Khamenei
The most explosive issue in Tehran isn’t the nuclear agreement ⎯ it’s the continued imprisonment of the leaders of the Green Movement. And one unlikely parliamentarian is picking a fight with Iran’s hardliners over their fate.
TEHRAN — A shard of glass hit Ali Motahari's face first. Then a brick smashed into his shoulder. Finally, rotten tomatoes flew in through the car's shattered windows. The 57-year-old member of Iran’s parliament escaped the attack in the southwestern city of Shiraz with a bloodied head, and other cuts and bruises. It could have been worse.
TEHRAN — A shard of glass hit Ali Motahari’s face first. Then a brick smashed into his shoulder. Finally, rotten tomatoes flew in through the car’s shattered windows. The 57-year-old member of Iran’s parliament escaped the attack in the southwestern city of Shiraz with a bloodied head, and other cuts and bruises. It could have been worse.
There had been warning signs. A few dozen men were waiting for Motahari upon his arrival in Shiraz, which is best known as the birthplace of Hafez, Iran’s most famous poet, whose works chronicled love and wine but also included regular takedowns on religious hypocrisy. The assailants, roughly 50 men on motorcycles, were determined to prevent Motahari from giving a speech to reformist students at Shiraz University — and after the parliamentarian left the airport alone in a taxi, they pounced.
After a three-hour wait in a police station, where officers chose not to arrest a few of the assailants even as they lingered with impunity outside, Motahari returned to Tehran. His attackers had achieved their immediate goal — Motahari did not deliver his speech.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani described the March 9 attack on Motahari as “shocking and unfortunate.” Motahari, the son of a famous ayatollah and founding member of the Islamic Republic, was more blunt: His attackers, he said, “came with [the] intent to kill or mutilate.”
The outburst of violence was caused by the fact that Motahari dared to touch the third rail of Iranian politics — an issue far more explosive than the ongoing nuclear negotiations: the contested 2009 presidential election. The street protests that followed the announcement of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, which Iran’s dyed-in-the-wool revolutionaries accuse the United States, Israel, and other Western states of backing, haunt Iran’s leaders. Two men have borne the brunt of the regime’s anger: Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi — the two reformist candidates who alleged that the election was rigged — have been held under house arrest for four years. The bloody beatings of protestors at the hands of the regime’s Basij militia that crushed the nascent Green Movement are still a wound that has not healed.
The official death toll from the 2009 unrest was 36, but many in the opposition say it was in the hundreds. Thousands of ordinary Iranians were locked up, and many figures within Iran’s clerical establishment have called for Mousavi and Karroubi to be executed for treason.
They would never admit it, but the overhanging trauma of 2009 lies at the root of the regime’s current outreach to the United States and other world powers in the nuclear talks. The protests, in the eyes of millions of Iranians and the reformist movement, severely damaged Iran’s political legitimacy. In a country where your vote is your greatest right, people chafed at allegations that it was stolen. President Rouhani, having pledged to tackle the issue of Mousavi and Karroubi’s detention before he was elected, has since stepped back, sensing danger.
Ali Motahari is the sole member of Iran’s political elite who has dared to confront Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on this issue. The parliamentarian is as close to a maverick as Iran has produced: He’s a hardliner on cultural issues, staunchly opposing efforts to allow women into sports venues to watch male athletes. When the last government raised the issue, he said women would want cabaret performances next. He has also condemned any suggestion of easing the laws that require mandatory veiling, which have been in force since the 1979 revolution.
Mousavi and Karroubi’s plight is more remarkable because of their previous roles in the regime — Mousavi was prime minister from 1981 until 1989, while Karroubi served twice as parliament speaker. The two men have been detained under a decree issued by Khamenei himself, citing national security reasons. The supreme leader has rejected appeals for Mousavi and Karroubi’s release, saying their offenses were too grave and that the government was treating them with “kindness.”
In the past year, Motahari has said the unsayable, implying that Khamenei has exceeded his powers in ordering the holding of the Green Movement leaders. He even reportedly suggested that had his father, Ayatollah Morteza Motahari, a philosopher and aide to the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, not been murdered by anti-revolutionaries just months after the regime came into being, Khamenei would not have ascended to Iran’s ultimate position of power.
Before he was attacked in Shiraz, Motahari’s speeches had gone where others fear to tread. “The leader’s opinion is this, that he says their crime is severe, and if they are prosecuted, their sentence will be severe, and right now, we are treating them gently,” he said at Ferdowsi University in the city of Mashhad in November. “[But] this is not the place for a ruling decree. The Prophet of Islam himself cannot say that a person’s sentence is severe, without prosecution and defense, and hand down a judgment without hearing their defense. I have not been convinced by this argument, and I still urge that house arrest without judicial order is oppression and is unjust.”
The students listening to Motahari applauded his comments. No one had confronted Khamenei so publicly since 2009.
It is a sign of Iran’s complicated power structure — and the leverage held by a few families — that Motahari has raised this issue so openly. He has impeccable establishment credentials: Beyond his father’s heroic status and his own status in parliament — he has represented a Tehran neighborhood since 2008 — his sister is married to Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani, who himself hails from one of Iran’s most powerful families.
Many believe that if Motahari were not the son of a man Khomeini once called “the apple of my eye,” he would already have faced censure. In an incredible scene on Jan. 11, he received a very public signal that he was on notice for perceived disloyalty. In a speech before Parliament in which he argued that Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s house arrests contravened the constitution, he was assaulted and dragged off the podium by three parliamentarians who were former members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite military organization formed by Khomeini to protect the Islamic Republic from both domestic and foreign threats. Motahari’s opponents chanted “death to seditionists” as he spoke; state television cut Parliament’s live broadcast.
Motahari was not so easily silenced. On May 3, after his assault and just days before he returned to Mashhad, where he delivered his incendiary comments the previous November, to make another speech, a student Basij leader issued a page-long threat which was published by Iranian news agencies.
“You are the son of dear Morteza,” the letter read. “We don’t expect you to serve seditionists and fighters against Islam…. We recommend you cancel your trip, or else if you repeat your previous positions, Mashhad’s revolutionary students will not remain quiet.”
Motahari did not submit to intimidation but reached his venue and spoke without interruption.
Instead of backing down, Motahari has taken a new step in rattling the regime over the events of 2009. Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s last reformist president, has been exiled from public life ever since he considered running again six years ago and subsequently supported the Green Movement. Khatami has become a pariah and was recently the subject of an order from Tehran’s chief prosecutor barring media from using his image.
On June 16, Motahari sent a letter asking the prosecutor to cite the law on which the order was justified. He has not yet received a response.
The reason for the ban, though not admitted, is next year’s parliamentary elections. Iran’s security establishment — having smashed the reformist movement in 2009 — fears that the vote will give the remnants of the Green Movement, now organized in two fledgling parties, a platform to call for change on the back of the nuclear deal. If Iran opens up to foreign investment, some analysts believe that limited cultural reforms could follow — though hardliners are resisting the possibility.
Motahari’s lonely campaign — and the attempts to silence him — also contain a potential warning regarding the looming nuclear deal with Tehran. The aggressive intervention by the judiciary and former members of the IRGC is proof, critics of a deal say, that no agreement can be relied upon. While Rouhani has urged more personal freedom, including the removal of Internet censorship, his efforts have been greeted with contempt from hardliners. He may be the president — but he cannot control the likes of the IRGC, which reports directly to Khamenei, who has supported the group over presidents before, such as when student protests were crushed in 1999 against Khatami’s will.
Just as Rouhani’s government recently pushed to allow women into a men’s volleyball match but were stopped by security officials, a similar manipulation of the administration’s authority could play out when it comes to verifying that Iran’s nuclear activities are peaceful. Yes, the Islamic Republic may agree that U.N. monitors will be allowed to visit nuclear or even military sites — but it’s possible that the IRGC could still stop anyone from entering the bases. Iran has played such games before: In May 2003, for instance, it allowed International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors into a site, but then refused to let them take samples.
The political machinations of the judiciary and the IRGC are also seen by many to be behind the arrest and near year-long detention of Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, a dual Iranian-American citizen now on trial in Tehran. Rezaian’s jailing and ongoing trial, in secret, is an embarrassment to Rouhani, who has responded uneasily when questioned about it by reporters in Tehran, most recently on June 13.
Such examples of interference highlight the limitations placed on Rouhani. While he looks to the West for investment and possible future cooperation in the event of a nuclear deal, such an outlook terrifies hardliners, who can mobilize powerful forces to take to the streets against him or use the legal cover of the judiciary to jail or sideline those they deem a threat to the revolution.
Motahari could be the first victim of the hardliners’ backlash. The parliamentarian’s raising of Mousavi’s and Karroubi’s detention is likely a harbinger of calls during next year’s election campaign for them to be freed or put on trial. Any renewed focus on their plight could prompt another security clampdown.
The poll in February will also present Motahari’s detractors with an opportunity to silence him: All candidates have to be approved by Iran’s Guardian Council in a vetting process used to filter out those deemed unreliable. Motahari may be targeted for exclusion. His attackers, meanwhile, remain unidentified.
AP Photo/Vahid Salemi
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.