As the Libyan uprising was gathering force in late February, Iran’s presi- dent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, criticized Libya’s leader, Muammar Qaddafi, for using violence against his own people and advised him and other Middle Eastern heads of state to listen to their publics. The irony was not lost on anyone. Only two weeks earlier, on February 14, Ahmadinejad had sent hundreds of riot police, paramilitary Basijis, and plainclothes, baton-wielding goons to disrupt demonstrations in Tehran called by Mir Hussein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi, leaders of the opposition, in solidarity with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. By the end of the day, 1,500 protesters had been arrested; two had been killed.
The next day, 222 of the 290 deputies of the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, approved a resolution to put Moussavi and Karroubi on trial for sedition. Several dozen of the deputies, raising clenched fists, then began to shout out calls to execute the two men. The supposedly “moderate” speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani, quietly joined in. Karroubi and Moussavi, already under house arrest to prevent them from attending the rallies they had hoped to lead, were held incommunicado and denied visits even from their children and families.
Here was another irony, in view of the recent pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East that Ahmadinejad purported to support. Karroubi, a senior cleric, is a former speaker of parliament; Moussavi was prime minister and guided the country through the difficult years of the Iran–Iraq war in the 1980s. Their “crime” was to have posed a serious challenge to Ahmadinejad as candidates in the 2009 presidential elections, which many Iranians believed were blatantly rigged. Millions of Iranians poured out into the streets to protest when Ahmadinejad’s victory was announced. “Where is my vote?” became the slogan of the protesters, and some even cried “Death to the dictator!”—meaning Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei—an almost unprecedented attack on the regime itself.
But then the security forces and Basijis cracked down with brutal force; according to the government’s own figures, some six thousand were arrested during the election protests. That crackdown, and the mass show trial of protesters broadcast on state television that followed, muted but did not silence the opposition Green Movement. Protests have been attempted periodically since and invariably suppressed by government forces, as they were again in March.
We are witnessing today the intensification of the post-election crackdown, perhaps the severest the country has experienced since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. This campaign is aimed not only at the usual dissidents among the intelligentsia, political activists, students, and journalists, but also at men once considered regime insiders. Iran’s leaders have turned against their former comrades-in-arms, fearing that …