Iran: 'national security' crackdown assisted by United States

Tensions mount in Iran as a young population resists an increasingly repressive system. This latest dynamic, should it continue, will inevitably play into Washington's hands and its Middle Eastern objectives.


As the summer heat intensifies in the dusty streets of Tehran, so too has the political pressure on those who oppose the Islamic regime. A state crackdown that began in April with the arrest of more than 150,000 for immoral dress has now escalated to a level of repression not seen for many years. Scores of students, trade unionists and women's rights activists have been arrested and imprisoned for posing an alleged threat to national security. In the words of the Intelligence Minister, Gholamhossain Mohseni Ejei, “those who damage the system under any guise will be punished”.

The announcement by the US of the establishment of a ‘democracy fund' to donate $66.1 million to unidentified NGOs has in reality been a gift to the Ahmadinejad regime. With inflation running at more than 20 per cent, the economy is in dire straits. Combined with the general frustration at the lack of political and social freedoms, this has sparked a dramatic radicalisation, particularly amongst the young. The regime has had great difficulty in controlling the wave of strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins taking place daily in universities and workplaces across Iran.

Inevitably, strains have impacted on the ruling administration, with cracks opening up within the theocracy. Ironically therefore, the US's upping of the ante with its ‘regime change' democracy fund may have solved Ahmadinejad's problems for the time being. He is now able to legitimise the silencing of critics of his hardline stance by branding them the ‘enemy within'. US pressure has handed him an opportunity to act with a degree of impunity against civil rights organisations and dissidents.

Many oppositionists have protested against Washington's clumsy tactics. Time magazine recently reported that: “several mainstream Iranian reformers.. transmitted their opposition to the democracy program indirectly but clearly to American officials via the back-channel talks”. The problem is that “in the past, individual democracy activists have been arrested without a pretext, but the Bush Administration's program [has given] the regime an opportunity to go after as many as 10,000 non-government organisations and their memberships”.

In truth, it seems the US administration is unconcerned with the impact its pressure policies have on the civil liberties of the Iranian people. Even according to its own sources, this policy is a thinly disguised attempt to manipulate struggles in Iran for the benefit of US policy of regime change. The more repressive the theocracy becomes the more US state officials like it. It makes it easier to sell another military intervention to a deeply sceptical American public. And the spread of palpable desperation amongst ordinary Iranians for even a modicum of freedom – even one delivered by US bombs – is an additional benefit.

The US press has therefore given prominence to the recent arrests of four Iranian-Americans, including Halel Esfandiari, director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program in Washington. Esfandiari has been charged with espionage, despite strong denials from the Woodrow Wilson Center that any US funds were received by them. She has been held in solitary confinement and denied access to her lawyer, the noble prize laureate Shirin Ebadi. Inconveniently for the US however, while denouncing the treatment of her client, Ebadi has also been critical of the US, stating that “talk of military strikes on Iran has given Tehran an excuse to suppress its people on the grounds of national defence”.

Many others are similarily incarcerated. Mahmoud Salehi, a leading trade unionist, was arrested at his workplace on 9 April for allegedly organising a May Day demonstration in 2004. Despite ill-health, Salehi was immediately imprisoned before he could take part in or lead this year's May Day protest. Others who led the same 2004 march were given suspended sentences on condition that do to participate in any similar “illegal” acts against the state. In spite of these and other repressive tactics, militant demonstrations took place this May Day in cities across Iran, involving challenges to security forces and official state events. Speakers at these events called for Salehi's release and the release of all political prisoners.

Other prison sentences were handed down in April to leading women activists for their participation in a demonstration in June 2006, part of an ongoing campaign against discriminatory laws. Sentences of up to three years were passed on Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, Nusheen Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan and Sussan Tahmassebi for “collusion and assembly to endanger the national security”. The demonstration itself came under attack by female police officers and many protestors were injured. The event was an important turning point in popularising the women's movement, as images of the protest and the attacks were transmitted via the internet by students who used mobile phones to capture images of the demo.

A climate of fear has been created. Activists endure a sustained campaign of harassment and intimidation with regular arrest and imprisonment of activists. Any release, even temporary, is accompanied by warnings of retribution if the detainee is party to any future agitation. The regime is thus partially successful in cowing the new opposition, but is stoking more widespread anger in a society that is smouldering beneath the surface.
In particular, the street attacks on women who refuse to comply with the strict Islamic dress code have caused resentment. Young people - under 25's make up more than 50 million out of a population of 70 million – belligerently refuse to accede to the government's demands. Young Iranian women are extremely inventive in their ‘interpretations' of the chador, with high heels and colourful scarves greatly enhancing an outfit not generally known for its fashionable icon status.

In April, checkpoints were set up in many areas of Tehran, including the popular shopping district Seventh of Tir Square. Women were arrested for allowing their hair to show and young men humiliated for wearing tight t-shirts or playing western music. Some women have refused to obey and take off their scarves in defiance. Street melees ensue where youth clash with the police. Again, footage of very violent police attacks have repeatedly been captured using mobile phones and broadcast on the internet.

With the release on appeal of six religious militia men in April – who had been imprisoned for the murder of a so-called immoral couple – state forces and others now appear to have a free hand to mete out whatever punishment they deem fit. There have been recent reports of stonings, including one that was due to take place on 21 June in Takistan in the north-central province of Ghazvin. The stoning, which has been temporarily suspended because of international pressure, was to be of a woman and man who have languished in prison for 11 years since an alleged adultery took place. This and other such executions are inevitable in the current atmosphere of international tension and heightened internal security paranoia.

Students meanwhile continue to declare their opposition to all attacks on their freedoms. Protestors staging a sit-in on 27 May at Tabriz University demanded the release of fellow student Nader Mahd-Gharebagh and stated: “We will continue our objections to laws violating human and civil rights until our friend is freed without any pre-conditions. Furthermore we reserve the right to future dissent”. Protests spread to other universities and Tehran Polytechnic saw an extensive protest on 29 May that demanded freedom of expression and the release of student prisoners, as well as the end to forced retirement of professors alleged to be threats to state security.

Some students recently announced that they will be starting their own democracy fund to help workers and others in struggle. They are also initiating a debate on the politics of the movement and the need for unity.

But while the US pays lip service to some of these mass protest mobilisations, the mounting pressure on Iran is used by the theocracy to legitimise the growing internal repression of grassroots movements. The paradox is clear. And it is patent from neighbouring Iraq that the US wants to control all regime change.  The altogether less predictable scenario of masses of ordinary Iranians taking the management of their affairs into their own hands is not part of their plan.π

Anne McShane is a member of Hands off the People of Iran More:;