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Iranian defeated presidential candidate
Iranian defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi (R) speaks with an unidentified cleric following Friday prayers at Tehran University in the Iranian capital on July 17, 2009.  Getty Images

How a Hunger Strike in Iran Spells Trouble for Hassan Rouhani

A relatively stable period in Iranian politics came to an end this week when one of the country's main opposition figures announced he would go on hunger strike to protest his detainment under extrajudicial house arrest since 2011, piling pressure on President Hassan Rouhani just as his second term gets going.

Mehdi Karroubi, 79, is one of the leaders of the opposition Green Movement, the popular protest movement that arose in the wake of the 2009 elections. Karroubi ran for the presidency that year and contested the official result when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was named the victor. He launched his hunger strike on Wednesday, just days after having a cardiac pacemaker implanted to prop up his ailing heart.

Lawmakers were busy debating the proposed cabinet of the recently re-elected President when news started to filter through that one of the few remaining first generation revolutionaries had stopped eating and drinking since the morning, demanding a public trial and an end to the 24 hour presence of intelligence agents inside his house.

The political establishment was caught off guard, as lawmakers, reformist figures and general members of the public lined up to criticise the 7-year decision by the Islamic Republic to hold Karroubi under house arrest, as well as fellow opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi, and his wife Zahra Rahnavard. The three are being held without prospect of trial or due legal process.

The live coverage by state TV of the Parliament session was cut short when members of parliament began discussing Karroubi’s strike instead of the planned votes of confidence on the new cabinet. Former president Mohammad Khatami was among the reformist voices urging Rouhani, a moderate who owed both of his election wins to the support of reformists, to act immediately. Many reminded the President of his promise, in his first election bid four years ago, to try to have the house arrest lifted.

The reaction on Twitter and other social networking apps was even more outspoken, with many denouncing the house arrest, and a campaign to go on hunger strike in solidarity gaining traction.

However, it was only when news broke that Karroubi had been rushed to hospital at 1 a.m. on Thursday with his condition deteriorating and his son Mohammad asking for people to pray for him, that the state began to react. With armed security forces and supporters amassing at Karroubi’s home and at the hospital where he was being treated, Rouhani gave in to Karroubi’s demand for security agents to leave his home immediately. He promised that the government would do its best to have a public trial — although that decision is under the jurisdiction of the judiciary, over which the Supreme Leader holds authority.

What made this whole rather short-lived saga remarkable was the level of reaction from politicians to activists and supporters of the detained leaders of the Green Movement, which was long thought to be over and ended. Rouhani, who had been under fire from reformists for not satisfying their requests for cabinet ministers, was suddenly faced with a united and belligerent front from his supporters demanding action. Just as he begins his second term, he is already being torn between the demands of reformists, and the constraints of the state.

It may be too soon to say whether the incident marks the return of a resurgent Green Movement, but it has serious implications for Rouhani's second term. If Karroubi and Mousavi continue to be held without trial, the President's perceived inability or unwillingness to do anything about it will harass him throughout the next and final four years of his presidency.

And if either of these now elderly men should die in the meantime, public anger against Rouhani and the state could boil to levels not seen since the 2009 protests that birthed the Green Movement in the first place.

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