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Mehdi Karrubi (left) and Mir Hossein Musavi were put under house arrest in 2011 after their call for a demonstration in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt attracted a significant number of protesters.
In what appears to be a significant softening of tone, a hard-line Iranian cleric, Mashhad Friday Prayer leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, has said that it is wrong to consider opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi as "seditionists."

Alamolhoda was speaking to the semiofficial Fars news agency, which is said to be affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. He said that "unjust" accusations shouldn't be made against the two.

"We saw that on Student Day the picture of the imam [a reference to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic] was burned, yet neither Musavi nor Karrubi were capable of burning the imam's picture, or even recommending others to do so," Alamolhoda said.

The hard-line cleric didn't directly blame Musavi and Karrubi for the postelection demonstrations that pushed the Islamic republic into serious crisis. He only said that through their stances, the two men paved the way for "foreign elements" to create unrest.

"The sedition" is the term Iranian leaders have used to refer to the opposition Green Movement that emerged following the disputed 2009 reelection of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Officials have repeatedly referred to Musavi and Karrubi as the leaders of the so-called sedition and accused them of being behind the postelection unrest.

Alamolhoda himself has been quoted as saying that Musavi and Karrubi should either repent or be charged as "enemies of God," which carries the death sentence. He has also famously called opposition members "a bunch of calves and lambs."

His change of tone comes just a day after a senior conservative politician, Habibollah Asgar Oladi, the secretary-general of the Islamic Coalition Party, said that the Islamic republic should not give up easily on Musavi and Karrubi.

Asgar Oladi said on December 27 that he didn't believe that the two men had ever had "seditious" intentions.

Musavi and Karrubi, both losing candidates in the 2009 vote, have accused officials of massive fraud in that election and condemned postelection human rights abuses.

Musavi, a former prime minister, and Karrubi, a former parliament speaker, were put under house arrest in 2011 after their call for a demonstration in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt attracted a significant number of protesters.

The reason for the change of tone regarding the two opposition figures is not clear. According to relatives who have managed to meet with Musavi and Karrubi, their stances remain unchanged.

However, the new milder tone could signal an effort by the Iranian establishment to reach out to reformists and opposition members ahead of the 2013 presidential election and encourage them to participate.

It could also be a sign of new behind-the-scenes debates about the fate of Musavi and Karrubi.

Last week, Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, appeared to confirm that the two men had been put under house arrest on the orders of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In an interview with the hard-line "Kayhan" daily, Ahmadi Moghadam said that during the 2009 postelection unrest, security officials had presented Khamenei with a list of 40 individuals who they believed had played a role in the protests.

He added that Khamenei had opposed the arrest of several of them while taking responsibility for their fate.

--Golnaz Esfandiari
Another "like" for Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei?
Thanks to a Facebook page in the name of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, supporters and opponents of Iran's supreme leader now agree on one thing: Iran should free up access to the social-networking site.

"Khorasan" last week published an opinion piece titled "Why Don't They Unblock Facebook?" in which the conservative daily's editor in chief praised Khamenei's debut on that network earlier this month.

Calling it a "wise and smart" move by Khamenei's office, which is believed to be behind the initiative, Mohammad Saeed Ahadian said the page was cause for Iranian officials to seriously reconsider which websites they block. He said that while exceptions should be made for sites like Facebook, which the op-ed argues could be a valuable networking tool, Iranians should be completely and permanently denied access to "immoral" sites.

"It is illogical not to use the very suitable [platform] of the social-networking site with hundreds of millions of users to spread the profound, intelligent, and effective views of [Khamenei], and to close the door to tens of millions of people outside the country," Ahadian wrote.

A similar argument was made within days by former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi, who was jailed amid the unrest that followed Iran's contentious 2009 presidential election.

'Western Tool'

Abtahi, an active Facebook user, said Khamenei's Facebook presence should be welcomed. He praised it as a demonstration of the leader's will to keep up with the modern world.

Writing on his popular blog, Abtahi said that Khamenei's Facebook page can facilitate communication between the supreme leader and Iranians inside and outside the country, and necessitates halting any efforts to obstruct it.

That people inside Iran have to resort to antifiltering software in order to connect with Iran's highest authority via the Internet, Abtahi writes, "is an insult to [Khamenei] and the Iranian people."

Similar calls have been made on Khamenei's Facebook page itself, which since its launch on December 13 has been "liked" by more than 20,000 people.

Khamenei supporters suggested that, if the supreme leader is on Facebook, perhaps the Iranian state should not block it. Opponents, meanwhile, argued that the Iranian establishment no longer has an excuse to filter Facebook.

"Isn't Facebook an evil Western tool? How come Khamenei has joined it? Is he going to be arrested?" one user writes, referring the effort to counter weapons Tehran claims its enemies use in the "soft war" being waged against the Islamic republic.

Question Of Authenticity

As recently as December 25, Iran's Secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace Mehdi Akhavan Behabadi said the authorities had no plans to unblock Facebook.

Behabadi also said Khamenei's office had issued no statements confirming the leader's presence on Facebook. He has suggested the page is a spontaneous move by Khamenei's fans.

Iran observers have argued that because the link to the Facebook page and its contents were first posted on Khamenei's Twitter account, there is little room for doubt about its authenticity.

Adding to the confusion regarding the origin and authenticity of the supreme leader's purported social-media initiatives, Khamenei's office has never either denied or confirmed his Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram accounts.

Facebook user Abtahi writes that, according to his investigations, Khamenei's office is behind his Facebook page. And in his opinion piece, "Khorasan" editor Ahadian clearly is of the view that the Facebook page was launched by the office in charge of disseminating Khamenei's views.

Mahmood Enayat, director of the Iran Media program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells RFE/RL that the supreme leader's image in the media is so carefully controlled that it is highly unlikely his office would allow a false Khamenei Facebook page to exist.

Deemed 'Permissible'

But Enayat does not believe the page's existence will prompt the authorities to unblock Iranians' access to the social-networking site, which is highly popular in the country. "The calls for the unfiltering of Facebook are likely to die out," he says. "The only time Iran could perhaps unblock Facebook would be around next year's presidential vote. We have to wait and see."

Iran restored access to Facebook a few months ahead of the 2009 presidential vote, apparently in an attempt to create a sense of freedom and win the support of young voters. But shortly afterward, amid increased use of the social-networking site by supporters of opposition candidate Mir Hossein Musavi, the site was again blocked.

Since then, many Iranians have relied on antifiltering software to gain access to Facebook.

When asked in 2011 by one of his followers about the use of Facebook, Khamenei responded that as long as it was not aimed at damaging the Islamic republic and Islam, it was fine.

"In general if it requires engaging in [immorality and evil acts] (such as spreading corruption, lies, and false materials) or if there is concern that it is sinful, or it strengthens the enemies of Islam and Muslims, it is not permissible. Otherwise it's fine," Khamenei wrote in a statement posted on Iranian news websites.

By launching a Facebook page for Khamenei, the Iranian establishment has essentially acknowledged the popularity of the social-networking site, which is effectively being used by opposition members to spread news and information about human rights abuses in the Islamic republic.

In the early days of its launch, Khamenei's Facebook page became a platform for criticism of his policies. Many of the negative comments and criticism have since been removed by the page's administrators.

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About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.


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