Since the mass unrest that followed the June 2009 presidential election, the Iranian authorities have succeeded in suppressing street protests and decapitating the opposition movement.
The two leaders who stood against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the election, Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, are in detention, as are dozens of their supporters.
The conservative factions that run Iran should be feeling confident they can win the parliamentary election later this year virtually unopposed.
That hope may be premature. At the end of March, a 70-year-old cleric who had hitherto kept out of the headlines came out of the shadows.
News websites run by conservative groups – often the first sources of such information – reported that Ayatollah Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha was making plans to ease the way for a number of candidates, presumably with opposition leanings, to get through the vetting process that might otherwise exclude them and stand for election.
A leftist cleric, Khoeiniha is an influential figure widely regarded as one of the driving forces behind the opposition Green Movement, and reviled by the conservatives now at the helm in Iran.
Despite hinting that they would like to see him arrested along with other opposition leaders, the authorities have been unable to touch the man they call the "Reformist Godfather" and the "Grey Man of Reforms."
A month ago, Hossein Shariatmadari, editor-in-chief of the hardline newspaper Keyhan and a close associate of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, described Khoeiniha as one of the main figures behind the opposition’s “sedition". A few months before that, a Revolutionary Guards Corps commander was quoted as saying the cleric was plotting to topple Khamenei.
Neither Khoeiniha nor his supporters have responded to reports that he is plans to take on a more public role in politics.
In recent years, Khoeiniha has been a major force behind the reformist opposition movement. Days before the 2009 election, Khoeiniha issued a statement raising concerns that the ballot would be rigged, and urged Iranians to try to ensure their votes were cast and counted properly.
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Khoeiniha has progressed from revolutionary firebrand to advocate of reforms. Yet a closer look at his role over the years suggests consistency rather than a radical shift in his views; what has changed is the Iranian political landscape around him.
Khoeiniha belongs to a left-wing strand in Iranian clericalism that was powerful in the early years of the revolution.
He was spiritual leader of the leftist students who occupied the United States embassy in Tehran in 1979. When they sought his advice on the plan, he told them to go ahead and storm the embassy without informing the leader of the revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was only after the fact that he told Khomeini, but the latter was delighted. Khoeiniha then acted as link man between the students and Khomeini’s office throughout the 444-day hostage crisis.
This was a formative moment for the respect Khoeiniha still enjoys among the former radical students, many of whom went on to become part of reformist president Mohammad Khatami’s administration in 1997-2005.
Many members of today’s conservative factions opposed the hostage seizure. They would ultimately be the winners in the confrontation with the leftist Islamists.
Although this divide was already emerging, Khoeiniha wielded considerable power through the 1980s thanks to his student supporters and the blessing of Ayatollah Khomeini.
He served as deputy speaker of parliament and in 1985 became prosecutor general and was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Council.
Meanwhile, leftist ayatollahs split from the Society of Combatant Clerics, a quasi-political party, to form a new group called the Assembly of Combatant Clerics in 1988.
Khoeiniha has been secretary general of the Assembly since 2005, following Karroubi’s resignation from the post.
The Assembly of Combatant Clerics may not wield much clout as a political group these days, but its founding membership reads like a roll-call of today’s pro-reform movement – Khoeiniha, future president Khatami, Karroubi, and Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, the founding father of Hezbollah in Lebanon, who would go on to run the opposition’s election monitoring scheme in 2009.
With Khomeini’s death in 1989, and the ascent of Ayatollah Khamenei to the Supreme Leader role, Khoeiniha’s star waned rapidly and he was edged out of official life.
In 1990, the supervisory Guardian Council disqualified him as a candidate when he sought election to the Assembly of Experts, the body charged with monitoring the Supreme Leader’s actions. He was allowed to run in a parliamentary election this year, but withdrew his name after the right-wing-dominated Guardian Council barred many other leftist parliamentary candidates.
After newspapers refused to publish a letter of protest written by Khoeiniha and others of like mind, the Assembly of Combatant Clerics opened its own newspaper, Salam, in 1990.
Khoeiniha ran Salam for nine years, during which time it was an important platform for voices opposed to the conservatives, and was the main media outlet used by Khatami’s campaigners in the 1997 presidential election.
In 1999, Salam was shut down by court order after publishing information that was deemed confidential and, more to the point, annoyed the conservative-dominated parliament. This prompted widespread student protests, and in turn a crackdown on them by security forces in July 1999.
Khoeiniha was prosecuted and convicted in the Salam case. Initially stringent penalties were reduced to a suspended sentence and a fine.
Instead of trying to re-enter the political scene, Khoeiniha has taken a backseat role since then, as facilitator, coordinator and general spiritual leader for the reformists who now make up the opposition.
Arash Ghafouri is a journalist who left Iran after the 2009 election, and now lives in the United States.