It was going to happen. For the past 20 months, not a day has gone by without the opposition voicing the fear that the Green Movement’s two leading figures would be arrested. Now those concerns have been borne out, as Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, along with their wives and political activists Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karroubi, were detained. But whether they were arrested now or 20 months ago makes little difference.
The two men, holed up in their homes and guarded by security forces, already had very little freedom of movement; they have effectively been under house arrest for the past several months. So there is no shock in their transfer to a house of detention, run by the Ministry of Intelligence and/or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. Instead, the significance lies elsewhere, as an indication of how the political situation has changed on the ground in Iran.
Since the dispute Presidential election of June 2009, the regime has done everything it can, step by step, to defeat the opposition. Propaganda, violence, intimidation, arrests, torture, and murder have been deployed. But so far, this does not seem to have won victory. On the contrary, a galvanised opposition was able to generate public protests on 14 and 20 February.
If you’re a member of Iran's ruling elite, you may be thinking along these lines: I did everything I could to crush them, but it has all failed. What do I do now? What is it that I haven’t done? Oh, wait! The men and women who are supposedly their leaders. They’re still out. Maybe if we arrest them, the movement will die. Why didn’t we think of this before?
Thee truth is that the regime has thought of this before. Members of the families of Mousavi and Karroubi have been accosted, detained, and killed; Karroubi himself has been beaten on at least one occasion. Their homes have been surrounded and vandalised. Their residences have been raided. Their offices have been shut down.
Each time, the regime thought this might finally put away the opposition figures. Maybe they will stop this time, the authorities thought, "Maybe we do not have to take a more extreme step." Each time, they took that step.
Now that the regime has used its trump card, they face a new threat from supporters of Mousavi and Karroubi inside the political establishment and the clergy. Expect a lot of noise from members of Parliament and political parties sympathetic to the two leaders. Watch out for condemnation in the coming days from ayatollahs. [Editor's Note: Grand Ayatollah Sane'i and Ayatollah Dastgheib have already denounced the house arrests, although they have not specifically commented on the transfer of Mousavi and Karroubi to detention.]
So this is not just a case of the regime v. the "Green Movement". Indeed, the paradox is that the Government, having declared its triumph over the opposition, has now taken a step which proves beyond doubt that it still fears "sedition". And that could bring a renewed challenge from inside, rather than outside, the ruling system.
Indeed, that is why Mousavi and Karroubi had technically been "free", with Iran's judiciary holding out against arrest and trial because it might give them status as martyrs of oppression. That illusion of freedom is gone now, and with it so goes the illusion of a regime prevailing by law. In the coming days, weeks and months, many more will be detained, as the Government tries to purge the evil of opposition inside and outside its ranks.
This will be a lengthy process, but as it happens, anyone who falls out of favour with the regime will have a decision to make. Accept the blows or think of moving towards the opposition.
This is why, even when public protests did not happen for several months, Green Movement supporters were busy keeping resistance alive. The regime has a non-violent enemy, an enemy that will not disgrace you if you befriend them, as an organisaton like the "monafeghin" of the Mujahedin-e-Khalq would.
This has always been a race between hope on the protesters’ side and fear on the regime’s side.
And the difference between fear and hope is simple: one makes you enemies, the other makes you friends.