Inheriting a revolutionary legacy and projecting power as a revisionist actor on the world stage, the Islamic Republic of Iran constantly prides itself as an historically superior system to the ancien regime that perpetuated itself for a quarter of century with the help of American power and a notorious secret service.
Today, in light of the official news of the house arrest of two leading opposition figures, Mir Hussain Mousavi and Mehdi Karubi, the regime risks fueling the furnace of anti-Iran forces in the West as well as in the Middle East, which count on the debilitating consequences of internal strife to weaken Iran's rising power.
According to Hojatol Eslam Ejehi, a spokesperson for the Justice Ministry, "The first step" against Mousavi and Karubi, referred to as leaders of "sedition" (fetneh), has begun by cutting off their telephone and Internet services and curbing their movements, in essence placing them under house arrest. This while, according to opposition websites, both men and their spouses have been transferred to Heshmatieh prison in Tehran.
Western governments and rights organizations have denounced the move against the opposition leaders, who have a long track record, ie, Mousavi was prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and Karubi was a speaker of parliament (Majlis). The German government, for instance, which has recently moved nearer to Iran, is hopeful that Tehran will show sensitivity to their expressed concern over the fate of Karubi and Mousavi, after summoning Iran's envoy to Berlin. The Germans recently favored a United Nations Security resolution condemning Israel's illegal settlements, which was vetoed by US, and succeeding in securing the release of two of its nationals from Iran's jails accused of spying; this was made possible by a Tehran visit of German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.
The risk is that the German stance against Iran may harden and negatively affect its attitude in future rounds of the "Iran Six" talks with Tehran on its nuclear program. The other members of the of the six are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.
On a broader level, how the Iranian government behaves towards its internal dissent has a direct impact on its image in the region, a key issue nowadays that much of the Arab world and North Africa is engulfed in revolutionary upheavals and the question of which model to emulate has acquired a new significance.
If Iran is perceived as moving away from the rule of law and toward arbitrary and autocratic exercise of power, this will undermine its efforts to enhance its net of solidarity, including in countries such as Egypt, which has just overthrown its entrenched dictator, Hosni Mubarak.
Consequently, it is vitally important for the sake of Iran's foreign and regional agenda to disallow the harm to its external image that would in turn diminish its chance of ingratiating itself to the newly democratizing regimes in the region. Tehran can do this only by remaining loyal to its own Islamic constitution, in which the rights of political opposition operating within the constitutional framework, ie, refraining from overthrowing the regime, are enshrined.
Political factionalism has been, from the outset of the post-revolutionary system, tolerated, giving the Islamic Republic a semi-pluralistic image that cannot and should not be compromised for the sake of any faction in Iran.
Nowadays, factionalism has focused on, among other matters, the upcoming election for the 86-member Assembly of Experts, presently headed by pragmatist former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is vilified by some hardline groups over complicity with leaders of the opposition Green movement.
Trying to distance himself from the Green leaders, in a recent television interview Rafsanjani implicitly criticized them for joining forces with known counter-revolutionary groups by refusing to take part in the official pro-Egypt rallies last month and, instead, calling for a separate rally that turned out to be an anti-government spectacle with some protesters chanting death to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In retrospect, the Green leaders' decision - to reject the government's small olive branch by inviting "all groups" to take part in the pro-Egypt revolution rally - appears to have been misguided and a major miscalculation that has backfired. If their intention was to spread the democratic fever gripping the rest of the region to Iran, they underestimated the extent of the government's stern reaction that essentially nipped it in the bud, thus setting the stage for today's prosecution of those leaders and some of their followers.
"The Green leaders missed a unique opportunity to demonstrate their political acumen by moving toward reconciliation," says a Tehran University political science professor who supports reformist politics in Iran, adding that in his opinion the only future available to the Green movement is to "de-radicalize", or it is doomed.
However, speaking on the condition of anonymity, the professor advised the rulers to refrain from taking any action against Karubi or Mousavi "outside the legal framework ... there may be short-term gains by putting them under house arrest, but for how long? It is better to commence legal proceedings against them and allow them to have legal representation and defend themselves against the allegations." Pointing at Iran's "culture of martyrdom", the professor stated that the Green movement may actually be energized by the prosecution of its leaders and even further "radicalized".
Path toward political reconciliation
Democracy, as English author George Orwell once put it, is the counting of heads and not breaking them. Iran's unique experimentation of Islam and electoral politics, as a key manifestation of an Islamic democracy, hinges on the sustaining power of political competition and tolerance of dissent, not to mention the politics of compromise, a dread word in Iranian political discourse.
But, with important parliamentary and presidential elections approaching next year and the year after that respectively, the only logical path toward political evolution in Iran is to harmonize inter-elite factionalism and to steer clear of arbitrary exercises of power against the groups and parties known as reformists.
This is by all indications a two-way process and the reformists have their work cut out, since they have lost much of their momentum since the summer of 2008, when huge mass protests followed the presidential elections that culminated in the victory of incumbent President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
According to Ahmad Montazeri, son of the late dissident ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri, in his letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei, political reconciliation could materialize if there is an initiative from the top to form a reconciliation committee. The leader is simultaneously being lobbied by conservative factions to take decisive action against the "heads of sedition and their accomplices".
How the leader responds to these contrary pressures will likely hinge on his perception of the balance between internal stability and the protection of the rights of opposition figures, a delicate issue at a time when Iran's enemies are anything but shy about the importance of exploiting the pro-democracy movement in Iran to undermine the regime's foreign objectives.
Concerning the latter, David Frum, a neo-conservative who was former US president George W Bush's speechwriter and who is credited with coining the term "axis of evil" in a speech he wrote for his boss' state of the union address in 2002, has questioned President Barack Obama's Iran policy, urging him to seek regime change partly through the democracy movement. If it turns out that the Obama administration is tilting toward endorsing the neo-conservative agenda against Iran in the coming weeks or months, then it is clear that the Tehran rulers will intensify their efforts to stamp out "Americanist dissent", a pejorative term used by Iran's conservatives to label Green supporters and their leaders presently suffering the indignity of house or prison confinement.
The release of political prisoners and the retracking of government-opposition hostilities toward reconciliation is now most certainly in the country's best national interests.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry, click here. He is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and his latest book, Looking for rights at Harvard, is now available.