Thursday, June 21, 2007

Intensified campaign of political repression in Iran

It's increasingly clear that the recent arrests of several Iranian-Americans holding dual citizenship (discussed here & here & here) are part of a wider campaign of intensified political repression by the Iranian regime aimed at crushing internal dissent and, in the process, cutting off Iranians from outside contact and support.

Robin Wright's story in the Washington Post suggests that this crackdown is partly a response to increasingly widespread and vocal discontent driven by economic distress and other grievances. But it would be misleading to see this campaign as purely reactive. Ahmadinejad and the hard-line tendencies associated with him are no doubt also seizing the opportunity to implement a long-term agenda they intended to pursue from the start--to 'revitalize' the theocratic regime by tightening up ideological controls, taking the country back to what they fondly remember as the intensely and monolithically committed early days of the Khomeinist revolution, and closing down the cultural and political openings of the past decade.

Whether or not they can succeed is another question. Some Iranian and outside analysts are reminded of Mao's Cultural Revolution, and some parallels are there, though so far what's going on in Iran looks rather mild and limited by comparison with that cataclysm. How far this effort will go, and how successful it will be, remain to be seen. Meanwhile, in the ongoing political infighting within the Iranian ruling elites, the more fanatical elements seem to be on the offensive, and it's probably safe to predict that repression will continue to escalate in the near future. Stay tuned....

[Update 6/24/2007: For some further elaboration, see HERE.]

--Jeff Weintraub
Washington Post
Saturday, June 16, 2007 - Page A10
Iran Curtails Freedom In Throwback to 1979
Repression Seen as Cultural Revolution

By Robin Wright

Iran is in the midst of a sweeping crackdown that both Iranians and U.S. analysts compare to a cultural revolution in its attempt to steer the oil-rich theocracy back to the rigid strictures of the 1979 revolution.

The recent detentions of Iranian American dual nationals are only a small part of a campaign that includes arrests, interrogations, intimidation and harassment of thousands of Iranians as well as purges of academics and new censorship codes for the media. Hundreds of Iranians have been detained and interrogated, including a top Iranian official, according to Iranian and international human rights groups.

The move has quashed or forced underground many independent civil society groups, silenced protests over issues including women's rights and pay rates, quelled academic debate, and sparked society-wide fear about several aspects of daily life, the sources said.

Few feel safe, especially after the April arrest of Hossein Mousavian, a former top nuclear negotiator and ambassador to Germany, on charges of espionage and endangering national security.

The widespread purges and arrests are expected to have an impact on parliamentary elections next year and the presidential contest in 2009, either discouraging or preventing reformers from running against the current crop of hard-liners who dominate all branches of government, Iranian and U.S. analysts say. The elections are one of several motives behind the crackdowns, they add.

Public signs of discontent -- such as students booing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on a campus last December, teacher protests in March over low wages and workers demonstrating on May Day -- are also behind the detentions, according to Iranian sources.

"The current crackdown is a way to instill fear in the population in order to discourage them from future political agitation as the economic situation begins to deteriorate," said Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "You're going to think twice about taking to the streets to protest the hike in gasoline prices if you know the regime's paramilitary forces have been on a head-cracking spree the last few weeks."

Despite promises to use Iran's oil revenue to aid the poor, Ahmadinejad's economic policies have backfired, triggering 20 percent inflation over the past year, increased poverty and a 25 percent rise in the price of gas last month. More than 50 of the country's leading economists wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad this week warning that he is ignoring basic economics and endangering the country's future.

Universities have been particularly hard hit by faculty purges and student detentions since late last year, according to Iranian analysts and international human rights groups. Professors still on campus have been warned by Iran's intelligence ministry about developing relationships with their foreign counterparts, who may try to recruit them as spies.

"Ahmadinejad has repeatedly stated his goal of purging Iranian society of secular thought. This is taking shape as a cultural revolution, particularly on university campuses, where persecution and prosecution of students and faculty are intensifying with each passing day," said Hadi Ghaemi, the Iran analyst for Human Rights Watch.

In recent weeks, the government has also tried to dissolve student unions and replace them with allies from the Basij -- a young, volunteer paramilitary body, human rights groups say. Between April 30 and June 6, eight student leaders involved in the elections at Amirkabir University -- where Ahmadinejad was reportedly jeered as students set his pictures on fire -- have been jailed in Evin Prison.

The campus purges have been mirrored in virtually all government-funded organizations, as hard-liners have been slotted into positions in the civil service, security apparatus, financial institutions and public services in the two years since Ahmadinejad took office, Iranian analysts said.

Leaders of groups defying the new strictures -- such as bus drivers trying to unionize, teachers protesting pay rates below the poverty line and women's activists trying to gather 1 million signatures to demand reform of Iran's family law -- have been arrested, human rights groups said. Others have been summoned for interrogations by the intelligence ministry.

Iran's Supreme National Security Council last month also laid out new censorship rules in a letter to news outlets, instructing them to refrain from writing about public security, oil price increases, new international economic sanctions, inflation, civil society movements, or negotiations with the United States on the future of Iraq, according to Iranian journalists.

"Censorship has got much worse recently," Nobel Peace Prize laureate and human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi told the BBC in Tehran this week. "Iran's government doesn't like . . . events inside the country to be reflected in the outside world."

One of the biggest crackdowns has been the campaign against "immoral behavior" launched this spring. Iran's police chief said in April that 150,000 people had been detained, but few were referred for trial. The rest were asked to sign "letters of commitment" to honor public behavior and dress codes. An additional 17,000 were detained at Iranian airports in May, the airport security chief told Iranian news agencies.

The Bush administration's $75 million fund to promote democracy in Iran is the key reason for the recent arrest of several dual U.S.-Iranian citizens in Iran, including D.C. area scholar Haleh Esfandiari. Iranian analysts contend that the U.S. funds have also made civil society movements targets because of government suspicions that they are conspiring to foster a "velvet revolution" against the regime.