Iran tightens the screws on internal dissent

Times Staff Writer

The government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in the midst of one of the most intensive crackdowns on domestic dissent in the last two decades, targeting groups as diverse as banks and labor unions, students and civic organizations.

In the United States, attention has focused on the detention of four Iranian American dual nationals, three of whom have been charged by the government in Tehran with endangering Iran’s national security. But according to human rights activists and ordinary Iranians who described the events, the effect of the crackdown has been far more widespread at home.

The first extensive detentions came in April aimed at people wearing clothes deemed not to comply with Islamic strictures. Security forces swarmed streets in Tehran and grabbed people wearing skimpy head scarves, short overcoats or tight shirts. By the end of the month, about 150,000 had been stopped or detained, the chief of the national police said. Most were held only briefly.


Since then, the campaign has widened. Student and union leaders have been arrested, and scholars have been harassed for refusing to sign statements denouncing Israel, human rights groups say. Private banks have come under attack for their interest rates.

The government moves have been met with resistance in Tehran and other parts of the country. But government officials have taken a tough line. “Those who damage the system under any guise will be punished,” Intelligence Minister Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei declared in April, shortly after the campaign began. He accused women and student groups of attempting to overthrow the government under the guise of civil society movements.

The U.S. Congress appropriated $66.1 million this year to support Iranian opposition groups, and Bush administration officials have talked openly of seeking “regime change.” Iranian leaders say they believe the U.S. is trying to manipulate domestic groups to overthrow their rule the way Western-backed civil society organizations helped unseat the Ukrainian government in that country’s Orange Revolution 2 1/2 years ago. The U.S. government has refused to say which groups in Iran received its money.

Although the internal crackdown has been widespread, it has attracted relatively little attention outside Iran, in part because the government has also clamped down on the news media.

Iranian news outlets have been issued a three-page letter from the Supreme National Security Council listing forbidden topics. Barred subjects include the enforcement of Islamic restrictions on dress, the effect of United Nations sanctions on everyday life, international sanctions on Iranian banks and travel bans on Iranian nuclear and military officials. Also on the do-not-publish list are stories about tensions between Iran’s Shiites and Sunnis, ethnic clashes in the provinces, and strained relations between Iran and other Muslim countries worried about Tehran’s regional ambitions.

Western news organizations have also felt intimidated. The bureau chief of one in Tehran likened present-day Iran to the former Soviet Union, where foreign journalists writing about human rights abuses would have their visas revoked and local staffers were regularly summoned to interviews with intelligence officials.


“There are many things that I would like to write about, but can’t,” the journalist said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They would shut down our office and kick us out.”

‘Security paranoia’

Why the regime has cracked down now remains unclear, and analysts offered several overlapping theories.

Ahmadinejad has always been strongly conservative on Islamic issues, but he downplayed those views during his 2005 presidential campaign. “Is hijab the real problem of our people?” he said during a campaign speech, referring to the Islamic head covering. “Don’t we have much more important things to deal with?” The speech is now played frequently on satellite channels and websites run by Iranians abroad.

Now, some view the government’s strict enforcement of dress codes and moves against opposition groups as an attempt by a hard-line faction close to Ahmadinejad to sabotage any possible rapprochement with the West by disrupting groups that advocate closer ties.

Others see the repression as an attempt to establish firm control over the domestic situation as the country girds for possible war, international isolation or economic sanctions. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the senior cleric who carries ultimate authority over political and security matters in Iran, urged Iranians in March to resist the West’s “psychological warfare.” Many in the country view his speech as having been the first sign of the campaign against dissenters.

Iranian leaders cite Washington’s backing for opposition groups as a justification. “Currently, some factions in the government view all dissidents and critics as parts of America’s secret plan for a nonviolent ‘velvet revolution,’ ” Ahmad Zeidabadi, a leading Iranian dissident, wrote in a May 30 article that appeared in Roozonline, an Internet journal. “Unfortunately, a significant part of the security and intelligence apparatus shares this view.”


Iran’s government may also be particularly frightened lately. The U.S. has flooded the Persian Gulf with military hardware, including two aircraft carrier groups and a Marine expeditionary group. Washington also reportedly has embarked on covert efforts to stir unrest among Iran’s many minority groups.

Kaveh Afrasiabi, a former Tehran University political science professor who lives in the United States, described a “national security paranoia connected to the U.S. military buildup in Iran’s vicinity, reports of the White House’s authorization of espionage activities inside Iran, and the various acts of terrorism by fringe minority groups ... reportedly supported by the CIA.”

Ahmadinejad also has managed over the last two years to purge Iran’s institutions of officials chosen by his more moderate predecessor, President Mohammad Khatami. In their place, he has put hard-liners in key posts overseeing banks and universities as well as prisons and security agencies.

“The new administration is a sort of military kind,” said Ebrahim Yazdi, leader of an outlawed but tolerated opposition group called the Freedom Movement of Iran. “The mentality and the management style of military men is blind obedience, no questions and no criticism.”

Satellite dishes gone

The first move came in early April with mass collections of satellite dishes, which are illegal but had been widely tolerated. From there, the campaign quickly grew.

Militiamen posted checkpoints along many streets, including the popular downtown Seventh of Tir Square, where women shop for coats, and began arresting and questioning women. Barbers were fined for giving Western haircuts or trimming men’s eyebrows. In mid-April, an appeals court released six religious militiamen who allegedly had killed a young couple deemed immoral. The release contributed to an atmosphere of impunity for security forces, New York-based Human Rights Watch said.


On the streets, young men wearing tight T-shirts or clothes decorated with Western brand names were paraded in humiliation, with water cans used in toileting strung around their necks. “When we see people being beaten, hit, arrested -- no one wants to go to prison,” said one Tehran resident, an engineer, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retribution.

Footage of the campaign was broadcast on state television. In one scene, a woman in an all-covering black chador, backed by two members of the security forces, approached a fashionably dressed woman and sternly reproached her for not dressing appropriately for an “Iranian woman.”

But more violent footage, often taken by cellphone video cameras, surfaced on the Internet and on satellite channels beamed from abroad, including the U.S.-funded Voice of America.

Those videos are one sign of resistance to the crackdown. Others include reports of melees that erupted in some Tehran neighborhoods as young people fought back against the morality enforcers.

In recent days, street-level harassment has begun to wane, and young people have turned up the volume of pop music playing on their car stereos and allowed their head scarves to recede.

“I dress how I dress and wear my hair like this because I like it,” said Amir, the fashionably dressed and elaborately coiffed 22-year-old co-owner of a video store in northern Tehran. “They bother me on the streets,” he said. “They’ve thrown me up against the wall. They’ve told me to change how I look. The next day, I go out like this again.”


Despite press restrictions, newspapers have again started criticizing Ahmadinejad for his most recent anti-Israel remarks, and judiciary officials allowed the reopening of two shuttered dailies in recent weeks.

But even as the government has eased some restrictions, it has moved forcefully against new targets. Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence issued a statement warning university professors to avoid being recruited by Western spying networks while attending “so-called scientific conferences” abroad.

And in late May, prosecutors charged three dual-nationals with espionage and endangering Iranian national security. The three are Haleh Esfandiari, director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington; Kian Tajbakhsh, with George Soros’ Open Society Institute; and Parnaz Azima, a journalist with U.S.-funded Radio Farda who remains free on bail but is forbidden to leave the country. Relatives and colleagues deny the charges.

A fourth detainee, Ali Shakeri, a founding board member of the Center for Citizen Peacebuilding at UC Irvine, has been jailed, but not formally charged.

Beyond the four Westerners, the government’s actions appeared aimed at those critical of or considered a threat to Ahmadinejad and his circle.

Among the most notable was Hossein Mousavian, an experienced Iranian diplomat close to former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, a rival to Ahmadinejad. Mousavian was arrested and charged with espionage after meeting with German diplomats.


Students at Amir Kabir University in Tehran were jailed on charges of lampooning Khamenei in a campus newspaper. Members of student groups in the capital and the northern province of Mazandaran were arrested, hauled away by plainclothes security officials. Trade unionists reported the arrests of labor leaders in the heavily Kurdish areas bordering Iraq and Turkey.

Banks under attack

The country’s burgeoning private banking sector has also come under attack.

In late May, Ahmadinejad ordered banks to cut interest rates on loans, a move consistent with his populist economic policies. “Those who misuse people’s money should know that the private sector is all of Iran’s 70 million people,” the president said on state television.

Many economists consider the interest-rate cuts inflationary and a potentially damaging blow to the banks, powerful and growing institutions that don’t answer directly to the government.

The crackdown has had an extraordinary effect on the life of the country, especially in the capital.

“Overall, it’s a very scary time,” said a business consultant in Tehran, who spoke on the condition that his name not be published.

“It’s a nerve-racking time. We’re all worried, about ourselves and our friends.”