TEHRAN — An opposition leader long under house arrest has written a letter to President Hassan Rouhani demanding a public trial, putting the president in a difficult spot and highlighting a deepening rift inIran’s reformist wing.
In the letter, published Sunday on a foreign-based Persian-language website, Saham News, the opposition leader, Mehdi Karroubi, does not ask the president to grant him his release, “since this is not in your power.”
Yet even asking for a trial presents a problem for Mr. Rouhani, a moderate who in the past has promised to end house arrest for Mr. Karroubi and two other leaders of the so-called Green Movement, Mir Hussein Moussavi and his wife, Zahra Raghnavard. Either he grants Mr. Karroubi’s request — risking confrontation with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his hard-line supporters — or he denies it and looks weak.
So Mr. Rouhani has chosen to ignore the letter and instead allow his infuriated supporters to respond to Mr. Karroubi.
“This man is good for nothing,” said one of those, Farshad Ghorbanpour, a political analyst with close ties to the Rouhani government. “His words mean nothing. We, the mainstream reformists, do not want to distract public opinion from supporting President Rouhani.”
The chilly reception, analysts say, reflects a divide in the reformist movement between the older-style reformists like Mr. Karroubi, who are willing to aggressively challenge the system, and the mainstream moderates now in ascendancy.
The moderates want to concentrate on reviving Iran’s moribund economy, which is the primary concern of average Iranians. They want to avoid political challenges to the hard-liners and Ayatollah Khamenei, believing that would open them to accusations of undermining the Islamic republic. They say they prefer to work within the system, biding their time until a new, possibly more liberal Parliament is sworn in this summer.
Mr. Karroubi, 78, is a cleric who, during his career, occupied several top positions in the Islamic republic, including Parliament leader. He has been under house arrest since 2011 for supporting the Green Movement, which helped lead the widespread antigovernment protests that grew out of the 2009 presidential election, regarded by many Iranians as fixed.
In his letter, Mr. Karroubi, who with Mr. Moussavi was a candidate for president in 2009, contended that Iran’s Constitution provided that people charged with political offenses must be tried in open court.
He was prepared, he said, to go to jail, writing, “I emphasize that I will accept the sentence given in this trial with my soul and heart, and will welcome it forgoing the right for appeal.”
That did little to mollify supporters of Mr. Rouhani, who won office in 2013 on a promise of reaching a deal with world powers over Iran’s disputed nuclear activities, lifting Western economic sanctions and ending the country’s isolation, but also of bringing Iranians more personal freedom.
Mr. Rouhani has managed the first three but has made little or no progress in the personal freedoms sphere. That failure is becoming a political liability that reformists would rather not highlight with demands like Mr. Karroubi’s.
The three opposition leaders were once the face of the Green Movement, which was ultimately suppressed by the security forces, with hundreds of activists, journalists and politicians arrested and three people executed. They supported Mr. Rouhani in the 2013 elections and called upon Iranians to vote for the reformist-moderate coalition in the February parliamentary elections. Iranians supported the coalition in great numbers.
In turn, Mr. Rouhani promised to bring an end to the house arrests, but lately has been silent on the matter. Many reformists, as a result, have narrowed their aspirations, giving up on politics and trying to do what they can to improve their lives.
“Priorities have changed,” said Nader Karimi Joni, a journalist close to the reformist camp. “For now, everything is about making ends meet economically, and not about the house arrest. Also, generally, people have forgotten about the opposition leaders.”
While Mr. Rouhani is focused on reviving the economy, he still calls occasionally for more freedom, whether opening Iran’s restricted Internet or granting greater rights to women. But these rhetorical flourishes are not followed up with concrete proposals.
“We must allay worries from hard-liners and convince supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei that President Rouhani’s government is in line with his thoughts and policies,” Mr. Ghorbanpour said. “Otherwise, we will face resistance.”
In his letter, Mr. Karroubi also indirectly speaks out against the ayatollah for supporting the winner of the disputed 2009 election, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he called “a trickster and a liar who was forced upon the nation and the country.”
Such words lead only to alienation, said Hossein Ghayoumi, a cleric and self-described moderate reformist.
Mr. Karroubi’s letter raises several complaints, notably what he describes as the rampant corruption, mismanagement and blind political ambition in the establishment. In more veiled criticism of Mr. Rouhani, he portrays himself as a man who has spoken out, where others fear to. “Let’s not doubt that the delay and shortcoming of elites of today will cost dearly for the country and the people in the future,” Mr. Karroubi concludes.
Over the past decade Iran’s reformist movement has morphed into an establishment faction, analysts say. Those favoring confrontation have been marginalized.
All political choices have consequences, Ali Reza Behesti, a former aide to Mr. Moussavi, warned with carefully chosen words in the reformist Shargh newspaper on Tuesday.
“If a movement stops listening to its supporters once it achieves power, it forgets its previous demands,” said Mr. Behesti, who was himself imprisoned after the 2009 elections. “In fact, its leaders might end up diluting or even standing against those demands,” he warned. “This is a pest that has infested most social movements.”