ISTANBUL — An Iranian opposition leader living under house arrest has ended his hunger strike after authorities agreed to lift some restrictions and consider his demand for a public trial, a family member said Thursday. The decision marked a potentially rare concession from a government generally resistant to public pressure.
Mehdi Karroubi, 79, one of the unofficial leaders of Iran’s pro-reform Green Movement, began his hunger strike Wednesday to protest his six years of confinement. He demanded that the intelligence officers stationed inside his home be removed and that Iran’s hard-line judiciary set a date for his trial. He has not been formally charged with a crime.
The former speaker of parliament has been restricted to his home in Tehran, the capital, since 2011, when authorities censured him and other opposition figures for the popular protests that rattled the regime two years earlier. Fellow reformists Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, were placed under house arrest at the same time.
Karroubi, who has a heart condition, was hospitalized in Tehran early Thursday for low blood pressure less than 24 hours after beginning his hunger strike, relatives said. Rights groups have reported that Hossein and Rahnavard are also suffering from poor health.
Any decline in Karroubi’s health would have been an embarrassment for the government, which analysts said hoped to either ignore his situation or quietly resolve his detention.
Both Karroubi and Mousavi were candidates in the 2009 presidential election that observers say was marred by widespread fraud. The two reformists challenged the victory of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a hard-liner and favorite of Iran’s security establishment, and helped galvanize protests across Iran.
Since then, moderate President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to secure the release of all three, including during his reelection campaign in May. He has reportedly faced substantial pushback from hard-liners within the regime who object to the release, including the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all matters of the state. Iran’s hard-liners often refer to the 2009 protests as “the sedition.”
Karroubi’s son, Mohammad Karroubi, posted on Twitter and told local media that the government had agreed to remove the dozen or so security officers from inside the cleric’s home. Mehdi Karroubi's demand for a public trial is also reportedly under consideration, his son said, with Rouhani working behind the scenes.
“In my view this will never happen,” said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, “because a public trial would put the Islamic Republic of Iran on trial for its egregious human rights record and legacy of authoritarianism.”
All three figures remain popular in Iran, especially among young people and intellectuals, and they enjoy support among reformists and moderate conservatives within the establishment, Hashemi said. “The fact that the regime has caved in and granted Karroubi his first demand suggests that they are feeling the pressure both from within Iran and globally,” Hashemi said. “But the regime is in a bind.”
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran warned earlier Thursday that Karroubi’s “life is in danger and the state, which has detained him without trial, is responsible for whatever happens to him while he is in custody.”
According to Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, if Karroubi had died under house arrest, “Rouhani would have much to atone for.”
The president’s supporters “tragically believed that Rouhani was interested in or could further social and political reform in the Islamic Republic,” Taleblu said. “The imprisoned and ailing Green Movement leaders will continue to be yet another political football in Iran’s domestic political game.”