Iran targets dissidents

Regime imposes moral, political crackdown

June 24, 2007|By New York Times News Service

Iran is in the throes of one of its most ferocious crackdowns on dissent in years, with the government focusing on labor leaders, universities, the press, women's rights advocates, a former nuclear negotiator and Iranian-Americans, three of whom have been in prison for more than six weeks.

The shift is occurring against the backdrop of an economy so stressed that although Iran is the world's second-largest oil exporter, it is on the verge of rationing gasoline. At the same time, the nuclear standoff with the West threatens to bring new sanctions.

Analysts say the hard-line administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad faces rising pressure for failing to deliver on promises of greater prosperity from soaring oil revenue. It has been using U.S. support for a change in government as well as a possible military attack as the pretext to hound the opposition and its sympathizers.

Some analysts describe it as a "cultural revolution," an attempt to roll back the clock to the time of the 1979 revolution, when the newly formed Islamic republic combined religious zeal and anti-imperialist rhetoric to try to assert itself as a regional leader.

Equally noteworthy is how little has been permitted to be discussed in the Iranian news media. Instead, attention has been strategically focused on Ahmadinejad's political enemies, like the former president, Mohammad Khatami, and the controversy over whether he violated Islamic morals by deliberately shaking hands with an unfamiliar woman after he gave a speech in Rome.

The country's police chief boasted that 150,000 people - a number far larger than usual - were detained in the annual spring sweep against clothing considered not Islamic.

More than 30 women's rights advocates were arrested in one day in March, according to Human Rights Watch, five of whom have since been sentenced to prison terms of up to four years. They were charged with endangering national security for organizing an Internet campaign to collect more than a million signatures supporting the removal of all laws that discriminate against women.

Eight student leaders at Tehran's Amir Kabir University, the site of one of the few public protests against Ahmadinejad, disappeared into Evin Prison starting in early May. Student newspapers had published articles suggesting that no humans were infallible, including the Prophet Muhammad and Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The National Security Council sent a stern three-page warning to all the country's newspaper editors detailing banned topics, including the rise in gasoline prices or other economic woes, such as possible new international sanctions, negotiations with the United States over the future of Iraq, civil society movements and the Iranian-American arrests.

The entire campaign is "a strong message by Ahmadinejad's government, security and intelligence forces that they are in control of the domestic situation," said Hadi Ghaemi, an Iran analyst for Human Rights Watch. "But it's really a sign of weakness and insecurity."

At least three prominent nongovernment organizations that pushed for broader legal rights or civil society have been shuttered outright, while hundreds more have been forced underground. A recent article on the Baztab Web site said that about 8,000 nongovernment organizations were in jeopardy, forced to prove their innocence, basically because the government suspects all of them of being potential conduits for some $75 million the United States has earmarked to promote a change in government.

Professors have been warned against attending overseas conferences or having contact with foreign governments, lest they be recruited as spies. The Iranian-Americans are all being detained basically on the grounds that they were either recruiting or somehow abetting a U.S. attempt to achieve a "velvet revolution" in Iran.

Analysts trace the broadening crackdown to a speech in March by Khamenei, whose pronouncements carry the weight of law. He warned that no one should damage national unity when the West was waging psychological war on Iran. The country has been under fire, particularly from the United States, which accuses it of trying to develop nuclear weapons and fomenting violence in Iraq.

The three Iranian-Americans, held in the notorious Section 209 of Evin Prison, the wing controlled by the Intelligence Ministry, have been denied visits by their lawyers or relatives. Iran recognizes only their Iranian nationality and has dismissed any diplomatic efforts to intervene. A rally to demand their release is set for Wednesday outside the United Nations.

The three:

Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planning consultant with the Open Society Institute.

Ali Shakeri of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at the University of California, Irvine.

A fourth, Parnaz Azima, a journalist who works for Radio Farda, a U.S.-financed station based in Europe, has been barred from leaving the country.

Ahmadinejad told students in Qom this month that the Muslim savior would soon return. The appeal of such a message may be limited, however.

Iran's sophisticated middle class wants to be connected to the world, and grumbles that the country's only friends are Syria, Belarus, Venezuela and Cuba. But it might play well with Ahmadinejad's main constituency.

"They are the poor, the rural," said Vali Nasr of the Council on Foreign Relations. "They don't travel abroad, they don't go to conferences. He is trying to undermine the social and political position of his rivals in order to consolidate his own people."

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