Evincing no Christmas spirit whatsoever, in late December Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, and various law enforcement officials proclaimed their intention to prosecute the leaders of the Green Movement, the loosely organized opposition forces that challenged President Ahmadinejad in the June 2009, elections. Presumably, those to be arrested and hauled into court would be Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, both of whom ran for president in 2009, and possibly many others, including Ayatollah Rafsanjani, the billionaire mullah who backed the greens.

But not so fast. In nearly every case in which top Iranian officials threatened to arrest and prosecute Mousavi, Karroubi et al., they added strong caveats that they’re planning no such thing. Perhaps that’s because the economic crisis in Iran, combined with the top-down policy of ending subsidies on a wide range of goods, has great potential to stir up unrest, strikes and demonstrations, and the last thing that Khamenei and Ahmadinejad want is to give the Green Movement a chance to revive itself by taking on issues of economic fairness, unemployment and corruption. Late last year, Mousavi threatened to do exactly that, and now that prices of oil, gasoline and other commodities are spiking upwards, the potential for political instability is growing.

And the hardline Iranians are explicitly warning of exactly that.

The Washington Post, running an AP story, headlined the threats against Mousavi and Karroubi, who’ve so far escaped the post-2009 dragnet of show trials and downplayed the caveats from Tehran’s chief prosecutor, a conservative hardliner, in its lede:

Tehran’s chief prosecutor said Friday it was only a matter of time before opposition leaders are put on trial for the unrest following the disputed 2009 presidential election, the latest sign that Iranian authorities may make a potentially explosive escalation of their crackdown.

But the Post carried this quote from Abbas Jafari Dowlatbadi, the prosecutor:

“We’ve said many times…that leaders of sedition are criminals and charges against them will be investigated. That they will stand trial is definite. They (opposition leaders) undermined public trust in the system…and disrupted security in the country. Heavy punishment awaits them.:

But then it quoted Dowlatbadi thusly: “But since their backing is connected to the dirty hands of the U.S. and the Zionists, we need to handle the case with more care."

And the pro-regime, conservative Tehran Times, reporting on the comments by Dowlatbadi, stressed that the prosecutor emphasized that “officials should take action cautiously so that the seditionists are not able to resume their protests." The Tehran Times also quoted Iran’s intelligence minister, Heydar Moslehi, saying that arresting the leaders of the Greens—i.e., the leaders of the reformist movement led by former President Khatami—would only play into their hands. “They want to be arrested," said Mosleh, “because they seek to become national heroes, so the government should deal with the issue prudently." (Indeed, Karroubi said on Monday, "I completely welcome this trial.")

Indeed, the issue of whether to arrest Mousavi, Karroubi et al. has become a political football in the ongoing contest between various Iranian factions, especially the struggle between Ahmadinejad and his conservative opponents in and out of parliament, led by the Larijani brothers, including Ali Larijani, the speaker of parliament. His brother, Sadegh Larijani, Iran’s top justice official, was quoted in a Delphic manner in the New York Times:

"They ask me why I do not take positions against the sedition leaders when I said last year that they are culpable and that the charge against them is acting against the Islamic Republic system. There are certain issues which are under consideration in this regime but I am not the one who determines them."

What, exactly, are those “certain issues: that prevent the prosecution of the reformists," Larijani didn’t say. But it’s clear that whatever their differences, Iran’s top leadership isn’t ready for an all-out war against the Green Movement and the reformists, just yet. That may very well indicate that the Green Movement isn’t quite dead—indeed, that Iran’s leaders fear that a spark might revive it.

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