August 08, 2009
Background and Aftermath of Mass Trials in Iran
Saturday, August 1, marked the beginning of mass trials in
Indeed, there has been much speculation about whether top leaders of the reformist movement, such as Mir Hossein Mousavi or Mohammad Khatami, will also stand trial. Statements made by conservative supporters have fueled these speculations. Iranian lawmaker Hamid Resaee, for example, told the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) that the trials “opened the way to dealing with the leaders of the unrest. There is no longer any reason to tolerate or compromise." More explicitly, Iranian cleric Elias Naderan argued that “Those within the inner circle who managed the unrest must be put on trial. We shouldn't chase after weak, second-class figures with no influence."  The semi-official conservative newspaper, Kayhan, has called not only for the arrest of reformist leaders, but also for their execution. Parliamentary member Ali Akbar Oliya, however, has said that the prospect of impending trials is merely a “rumor” propagated by “hardliners.”
IRNA reports indicate that more trials will follow in the coming weeks, although no specific details have been released.  Future judicial proceedings will probably take place without warning in order to foster an atmosphere of uncertainty and apprehension in
Accusations and Confessions
Other means of intimidation have been the widely broadcasted “confessions” of the defendants. These confessions, which many believe were obtained under duress or torture, attested to the validity of the election results and underlined the importance of submitting to the guidance of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In one of the most pivotal confessions, Abtahi claimed that “the issue of fraud in
Whether such forgiveness will be granted remains to be seen. The defendants are accused of serious crimes such as attacking military and government buildings, establishing ties with “terrorist” opposition groups (mainly the Iraq-based group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization), and conspiring against the ruling system by promoting a “velvet revolution” in Iran. The minimum punishment for these acts is five years in prison. If the defendants are deemed a threat to national security, however, the prosecutor has the authority to sentence them to death. Although officially unrelated to the trials, the number of executions in
The leaders of the opposition movement have denounced the trials, claiming that the government forced the defendants to testify falsely. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading reformist challenger in the elections, claimed that the hardliners “expect to prove that the election was honest by putting on a show trial in which everything is fake.” He argued that the illegitimacy of the judiciary proceedings significantly weakened the position of the Iranian regime vis-à-vis its opponents.
Khatami echoed this sentiment, stating that the “most significant effects of these show trials will be the harm [they do] to the political system and the [destruction of the] public’s trust [in the system].” He condemned the trials as “illegitimate” and “contrary to the constitution and the law.”  Even conservative presidential challenger Mohsen Reza’i, former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, criticized the trials for being one-sided. He stated that those who violently suppressed the protests (most of whom were under the command of the current IRGC Commander) should also be tried, an interesting comment given his ties to those leading the post-election crackdown.
Motivations and Implications
Despite such criticism, the authorities have strong incentives to continue the show trials. The regime, given the numerous post-election challenges, likely feels the need to reassure its conservative power base that the elections were, in fact, legitimate. Hardliners may also be using the trials to build a foundation for future rulings banning major reformist parties from the political arena. The regime seems to believe that these actions, along with the threat of continuing arrests and mass trials, will strengthen its position vis-à-vis the opposition movement. Beyond these domestic rationales, the trials seem to be intended to signal to the international community that the regime is resolutely prepared to do whatever necessary to defend the current political structure.
The Iranian regime, however, has miscalculated the effect of the trials on both the domestic and international levels. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has condemned the proceedings as a “sign of weakness,” demonstrating that the “Iranian leadership is afraid of their own people, and afraid of the truth and the facts coming out.”  Officially, the Obama administration remains committed to diplomatic engagement with