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A Tricky Campaign Pledge: Can Iran's Newly Elected President Release Political Prisoners?

This Thursday, June 20 marks the global day to support political prisoners in Iran. Created in honor of Neda Agha-Soltan -- the young woman whose gruesome death in the post-June 2009 presidential election protests in Iran made her a martyr symbol for a movement -- the day should be of special interest to those who demand that Iran's newly elected president Hassan Rouhani prioritize the release of political prisoners in Iran.

The call to free political prisoners in Iran was a prominent theme in the lead up to the presidential vote on June 14. At rallies and gatherings in support of the moderate candidate and now president-elect, Hassan Rouhani, crowds in the cities of Mashhad and Tehran and in Mazandaran province chanted for the freedom of political prisoners in Iran and the release of the reformist opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard, who have been under house arrest since February 2011.

While Rouhani stopped short of making an express promise to release Iran's political prisoners, he did voice his hopes that circumstances would change so that prisoners of conscience could be freed in the future. At a campaign speech at the University of Tehran, he noted his leading role in ending the house arrest of Ayatollah Montazeri, a reformist and dissident cleric, and claimed he intended to do the same for Mousavi and Karroubi.

By most accounts, Rouhani is a regime insider and a moderate-leaning cleric at best, however by riding to a win on the support of the reformist vote, he has, somewhat unwittingly, become the symbol of people's hope for civil and political domestic reforms.

But even if Iran's new president-elect should want to, can he deliver and bring freedom to the hundreds of prisoners of conscience languishing in Iran's jails?

At first blush, this seems to be a daunting task. In the aftermath of the Iranian government's crackdown on the popular protests that followed the disputed presidential election in June 2009, hundreds of protesters were arrested and scores of activists and journalists were jailed or forced into exile. Even now, four years later, some continue to be held in Iran's jails. Many of those in custody were forced to make false confessions, subjected to physical and mental torture, and denied basic rights of fair trial.

Further, even under the best of circumstances Rouhani's efforts will be limited by the circumscribed powers of his office. The Supreme Leader holds absolute power in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the Judiciary technically controls prosecutions of criminal defendants and the operation of prisons. Only the Supreme Leader and the head of the Judiciary can grant requests for clemency.

The President does wield some influence in that he can present a list of names to the Supreme Leader for appointments to the Intelligence Ministry, an organ which holds increasing de facto powers in criminal prosecutions and interrogations in politically-related cases, however there is the added problem that even the President's de jure powers can be undercut by the influence of other players as a result of power struggles behind the scenes. During the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami--a period in which civil society and a freer press were permitted to flourish--journalists, human rights defenders and political dissidents were arrested and thrown into "secret prisons" operated by a parallel intelligence apparatus under the effective authority of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, which revealed a conservative establishment at odds with the relatively tolerant and reformist approach of Khatami's leadership.

However the prognosis is not all bleak. Faced with crippling international sanctions and increasing isolation from the global community, the regime may be looking for a way to ease some of the pressure by passing some much-needed reforms at home. Furthermore, the power dynamics between the Office of the President and the Supreme Leader are not static and the events since Khatami's presidency including the 2009 protests and the tumultuous relationship between former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader may suggest a shift in this overall power dynamic. In that respect, Rouhani--with his seemingly cheery disposition--may be the smiling conduit through which some demands can be implemented, while the regime publicly saves face. In this regard, the Burma model is illustrative.

Iranian voters should also be heartened by precedents in other country contexts, where power-sharing agreements and campaign promises for the release of political prisoners did in fact come to fruition, like in Georgia this year, and in South Korea in the late 1980s. While the concessions in Georgia came through a power-sharing arrangement the likes of which are not at play in today's Iran (and the counter-example of which is the case of Zimbabwe where the ruptured power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has, short of releasing all political prisoners, failed to release even some supporters of Tsvangirai's own opposition party), the example demonstrates that, at the very least, shifting power dynamics within a state can lead to positive consequences on domestic concerns.

What is clear however is that Rouhani must demonstrate decisive leadership if he hopes to exert influence against the overriding de jure and de facto powers of the Supreme Leader and other unelected bodies. While unlikely, only then, just maybe, might the calls of those who demand justice for Neda and other victims of the 2009 unrest and prisoners of conscience, be heeded.

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