They were hardly revolutionaries, both being men of "the system." They ran on kinder, gentler Islamic Republic of Iran tickets and captivated the country’s youth, who, having learned from their parents’ stories how bloody revolution can be and figured reforming the system from within would be better than toppling it, figured it was the safer, more stable way to get the change they craved.
But those two men who ran for change were sent home from where they’ve essentially never been allowed to leave. This week marks 10 years that Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi have been under house arrest, and Amnesty International has renewed calls for their release.
They had run against then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.
"Why has this process lasted so long?" former Iranian diplomat Mehrdad Khonsari asked of their irregular, unjustified detention. "Why has there been no trial? Why has there been no amnesty? Part of President [Hassan] Rouhani’s manifesto when he first got elected eight years ago was to release these people. Why has that not happened? It’s because the kind of accession to demands of the deep state required by Khamenei was not met by them."
Khonsari contends that Iran is controlled and events are scripted by a "deep state" kabal led by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his hard-line inner circle. Presidents, foreign ministers and presidential candidates are merely contractors employed to act as a buffer between that deep state and the rest of the Iranian nation and the world. They do the regime’s dirty work and clean up, too, Khonsari told Fox News.
A moderate president makes Iran approachable to the outside world, a smattering of relatively liberal political candidates stimulates voter turnout and lends legitimacy to the country’s claims of democratic process. He says Mousavi and Karroubi broke the rules of that game by challenging the supreme leader’s pre-set plan to have incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad win a second term.
Hundreds of thousands of Iranians, defying police, basij paramilitary groups and the long arm of the regime took to the streets waving the flags of the "Green Movement" that came to symbolize change. The mantra was "Where’s my vote?" and the driving force was a belief that the election had been rigged after results came out after just a couple hours. The crackdown on demonstrators was brutal. Some estimates are 100 people were killed.
And Khonsari said Mousavi and Karroubi are paying a price for upholding their supporters’ contention of a fraudulent election.
"Khamenei wants them to repent, actually. To say that what happened in 2009 happened in the way that he and Ahmadinejad at the time interpreted events to be ... not to query them ... to accede that they made a mistake, that they were beguiled by foreign propaganda ... manipulated."
Mousavi, who ended up coming in second per official numbers, is a former prime minister and Karroubi is a cleric and former Parliament speaker. They both served the Islamic Republic faithfully over the years.
Khonsari said, "I have no personal connection or any kind of sympathy with either of them in the past, but I respect the fact that these two people, against all odds, have stood firm and have not acceded to the demands of the deep state and this is a very, very important factor. They have proven their integrity and their commitment to the kind of ideals they have and that is precisely why they have continued to be deprived of their freedom."
As always, there are lessons to learn from history and I ask Khonsari what advice he would have for President Biden when it comes to Iran.
"My advice would be that any kind of negotiations or agreement has to be made directly with the deep state if it is to stand."
He says for the first time in the 42 years since the Islamic Revolution, there may be a direct line. Many believe the next President of Iran, to be elected in June, will be a hardliner from the orginal dedicated and entrenched crew.
"It’s trickled down to a very small minority of people who hold all the key levers of power," Khonsari says.
He explains this hardcore now controls the Parliament and Judiciary, so if they take the Presidency they will have all the key branches of government in their hands.
"Once you negotiate with that body, then you are negotiating with the deep state," Khonsari concludes. "You are not negotiating with somebody who has a veneer of liberal democratic thought and can beguile you into thinking that he is in a position to effect the kind of changes that you want which has sadly ended in huge disappointment over the last 30 years."