Hardliners Pounce on Rouhani Campaigner’s Criticism of Iran’s Military Policy in Syria
Gholamhossein Karbaschi, the reformist former mayor of Tehran and a supporter of President Hassan Rouhani, has come under attack for publicly criticizing Iran’s military engagement in the Syrian civil war.
Karbaschi, a former advisor to detained former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi, said that by “butchering” his speech, hardliners are trying to make Rouhani, who will be running for re-election on May 19, 2017, look weak in the face of an allegedly looming military threat.
“This is basically media hype,” said Karbaschi, the secretary general of the moderate Executives of Construction Party, in an interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on May 2. “They say I said something insulting, but that’s a complete lie.”
Karbaschi spoke to CHRI after the chief prosecutor in Isfahan, Ahmad Khosravani-Vafa, announced he had sued him for “insulting the martyred defenders of holy shrines,” a reference to Iranian military casualties in Syria.
“These absolute lies are basically political games before the elections,” said Karbaschi. “In Iran, no one dares to affront martyrs and fighters.”
A video posted online on April 30 shows Karbaschi criticizing Iran’s military presence in the Syrian war at a campaign event for Rouhani in the city of Isfahan.
“Should we be proud of this religious fervor in the name of defending things like, I don’t know, the holy shrines…? Listen! We also want to see peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. We want to defend the oppressed and strengthen the Shia populations there. But can we achieve that just by giving money and weapons and killing and pounding?” says Karbaschi.
Karbaschi clarified his comments in the interview with CHRI: “What I meant was that the government should use diplomacy alongside other efforts, but they butchered my speech.”
“They do these things during elections for propaganda,” he added. “Remember, this kind of cut-and-paste is always part of the election climate.”
“Diplomacy is a strong tool that can be put to use in various important situations around the world,” he said on May 2. “But when we are dealing with blind terrorism and the lack of regard for people’s lives, then I believe force is the language to respond with to their cowardly acts.”
“Proposing diplomacy in the face of terrorism is not right, or at least it’s debatable,” added Ghasemi.
Iranian conservatives, strongly supportive of Iran’s militaristic policy towards Syria, have slammed Karbaschi for allegedly dishonoring the memory of Iranian soldiers killed in Syria while allegedly attempting to “defend the holy shrines.”
The Iranian government often justifies sending troops to Syria as a necessity to protect the Sayidda Zeinab Mosque in southern Damascus, believed by Shia Muslims to contain the graves of the daughter of the first Shia imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad.
“Karbaschi’s speech in Isfahan undermines the core of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s foreign policy,” commented the hardline conservative newspaper, Kayhan, in an unsigned editorial on May 2.
“There was a time when even anti-revolutionaries bowed to the bravery of the defenders of the holy shrines,” added the editorial. “These kinds of comments expose Karbaschi’s true nature.”
Jahan News, another hardline conservative site, called Karbaschi’s comments “shameful,” while Raja News, which maintains close ties with the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), accused him of “Inviting Daesh (ISIS) to attack Iran … using diplomacy as an excuse.”
“Our courageous young revolutionaries and supporters of the supreme leader are being blown to bits so that Mr. Karbaschi can sip his Nescafe and talk nonsense,” said conservative former member of Parliament Mansour Haghighatpour in an interview with the hardline Young Journalists Club on May 2.
He added: “If we are living securely, it’s because of our presence in Syria and Iraq, otherwise Mr. Karbaschi would have been looking for a rat hole to hide in.”
According to Isfahan’s Chief Prosecutor Ahmad Khosravani-Vafa, Karbaschi will be summoned to court soon because his speech was “criminal in nature.”
It remains unclear which law could be used to prosecute citizens for being critical of the government’s foreign policy.
After serving as the mayor of Tehran for a decade, Karbaschi, 63, was tried in 1998 for alleged financial corruption and sentenced to three years in prison. He served two years before being pardoned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in January 2000.
Karbaschi advised former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi during the widely disputed 2009 election. Karroubi, along with former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Zahra Rahnavard have been under extrajudicial house arrest since February 2011 for disputing the vote count in 2009 and leading the widespread peaceful protests that came to be known as the Green Movement.
In May 2014, Karbaschi was reelected as secretary general of the Executives of Construction Party, which supports the Rouhani government.