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Iranian Authorities Intent on Stopping the Opposition from Taking to the Streets

Political detainees report being stripped naked and forced to stand outside in plunging temperatures during the night; electricity supplies to Kurdish areas are cut to suppress a simmering rebellion over the execution of prisoners; activists complain of blanket surveillance and of threatening phone calls from intelligence agents.

Twelve months after an election campaign that crackled with democratic promise by featuring Western-style campaigning and live televised debates, Iran is in the grip of a relentless, Kafkaesque drive to snuff out political dissent altogether.

Human rights campaigners and analysts say the Islamic regime has launched an intensified crackdown aimed at killing off the opposition Green Movement and preventing mass protests to mark the anniversary of last June's bitterly disputed poll, won by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad amid allegations of mass voting fraud.

The reformist opposition leaders, Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi -- both defeated candidates in the election -- have urged their supporters to stage peaceful demonstrations on the anniversary date.

But those calls may prove impossible to heed in a climate of repression more pervasive than the brutal yet periodic clampdowns launched to crush the unrest in the election's immediate aftermath. In the months after the poll, government opponents were able to register limited criticism and exploit state-sponsored public events -- such as the anti-Israel Quds Day gathering in September -- to organize protests.

Now the regime is deploying a wide array of measures calculated to deter further challenges to its authority and eliminate the scope for the mildest expressions of opposition.

The authorities are determined to prevent a repeat of the deadly clashes between protesters and state forces that marred the Shi'ite religious ceremony of Ashura last December, an event that left at least nine dead and threatened to plunge the Islamic republic into an existential crisis.

'Enemies of God'

Revolutionary Guard commanders have warned that even peaceful protest will be seen as tantamount to waging war against the regime, according to Hadi Ghaemi, director of the International Committee for Human Rights in Iran.

"It is intensified in the sense that we've had periods during the past 11 months where there has been some ability for people to express themselves, either in public or in writing," Ghaemi says, "but right now the message that is being given is that there is zero tolerance so they are saying peaceful protests are the same as taking up arms against the state."

In a chilling display of intent, the authorities this month executed five activists -- four of them Kurds -- in Tehran's Evin prison for alleged involvement in terrorism, despite vigorous denials by their families and lawyers.

Those executions have triggered concerns for the fate of other prisoners, particularly six who were given death sentences after being convicted of "mohareb" (waging war against God) for allegedly participating in the postelection protests.

Among the condemned is Jafar Kazemi, arrested last September and accused of acting for the banned Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). Relatives say he was sentenced to death after refusing, despite being tortured, to sign a false confession admitting involvement in the Ashura protests, which occurred three months after his arrest.

Ghaemi has warned that there may be further executions in the run-up to the election anniversary -- with unforeseeable consequences. "There are dozens of political prisoners, particularly Kurdish prisoners, who are accused of terrorism charges," he says. "So if the government goes ahead and carries out more executions in the name of fighting terrorism, or even worse, if they carry out executions of postelection people, particularly on those who participated in Ashura, on the one hand they will hope it will be having a deterrent effect in intimidating the population," Ghaemi continues. "But based on the experience of last week's executions, I think it will only inflame passions."

Intimidation in the air

However, the regime has also used other less lethal -- if equally menacing -- methods to convey its uncompromising message with intimidating effectiveness.

Activists talk of tension on the streets and an atmosphere of surveillance that suggests telephone calls, text messages, and e-mails are being monitored. Some activists have declined to respond to e-mail inquiries from Western journalists. Others say they have received threatening phone calls by security agents. The widespread belief that the authorities are intercepting and monitoring electronic communications is a major obstacle to organizing the peaceful protests that Musavi and Karrubi have called for.

Security forces were deployed in large numbers for International Labor Day on May 1 in a move almost certainly prefiguring similar tactics on June 12.

Human rights groups say detainees in Evin prison have complained to relatives of torture and ill treatment during interrogations.

The award-winning film director, Jafar Panahi -- who had been held in Evin since March until his release on May 25 -- claimed in a letter released through his family that he and other prisoners had been forced to strip naked and stand outside in a prison courtyard for an hour-and-a-half in the middle of the night. Panahi also said interrogators had threatened to arrest his family and incarcerate his daughter in a detention center for dangerous criminals.

The wife of Mohammad Nourizadeh, a former pro-regime filmmaker and journalist arrested after bitterly criticizing the postelection crackdown, says he was severely beaten by five prison guards and has protested to Tehran's chief prosecutor, Jafar Dolatabadi. Similar treatment is said to have been meted out to less well-known figures. Detainees speak of lengthy periods of solitary confinement.

Isolated leadership

The crackdown has extended far beyond Tehran and into rural areas. The authorities acted swiftly to quell widespread anger in Kurdish areas over this month's executions of activists, says Mehrdad Khonsari, a senior consultant at the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London.

"That resulted in a major strike that was adhered to in most of the major areas, the major population areas in the province of Kurdistan and resulted in certain retaliation on the part of state, from economic retaliation by switching off people's electricity and that sort of behavior, to outright arrests, intimidation, torture," Khonsari says.

The ferocity of the crackdown has rekindled speculation that the regime might finally arrest Musavi and Karrubi. Fears for Musavi's safety have intensified after Dolatabadi declared that he might be arrested and tried after he publicly condemned this month's executions. The impression that the screw is being tightened on the reformists' main talisman was further strengthened last week when Musavi's website, "Kaleme," announced that his senior bodyguard, Ahmad Yazdanfar -- who has protected him since he was prime minister in the 1980s -- had been arrested.

However, Khonsari says the regime has so successfully isolated Musavi and Karrubi through detaining their aides that there is little need to arrest them. The two have also contributed to their growing impotence, he believes, by repeatedly professing their loyalty to the Islamic system even though it is being used to crush their political supporters.

"By essentially taking the ground from underneath the feet of Mr. Musavi and Mr. Karrubi they are left in limbo, where they are incapable of [inflicting] any damage," Khonsari says. "And especially since they are very guarded also in what they say -- as long they keep saying, 'we believe in the Islamic constitution and we believe that we can just reform the system,' then why should the regime feel that they need to do anything against them?"

Renting consent

The durability of the regime's success in stifling protest may depend on how far discontent extends beyond last year's election result. Some Western observers say Ahmadinejad has created a loyal constituency by improving living conditions amongst the poor, whose electoral support he has courted.

American journalist Stephen Kinzer reported being told by several people during a recent visit to Iran that living standards had improved during Ahmadinejad's tenure, a development attributed to the president's habit of traveling around the country commissioning public-works projects.

That view contradicts other accounts of widespread grumbling against a backdrop of persistently high unemployment and raging inflation. It is also contested by many economists. Jamshid Assadi, an Iranian economist at the ESC Groupe Business School in Dijon in France, says Ahmadinejad's approach does not signify long-term success, but has instead created the worst economic situation in the Islamic republic's 31-year history.

"He has distributed some money towards some people and they are satisfied. But he has given that money. This is not a dynamic process of economic activity," Assadi says. "In other words they don't have a new job but they have a new revenue and they are satisfied. But because that was because of the oil revenue, when the oil revenue decreases, they are not going to have that revenue any more."

For now, the regime's repressive policies appear to be working, but their Achilles' heel may lie in this economic fragility and the presence of concerns over issues beyond a bygone election.

"Some people may say that they are succeeding in the sense that you do not see very visible signs of anger or very noisy protests as you did in the initial several months," Khonsari says. "But I think that is really a very cosmetic appearance because you have to bear in mind that public dissatisfaction with the regime was not confined merely to the fact that were gross irregularities in the course of the election process.

By. Robert Tait

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  • Anonymous on May 28 2010 said:
    It is sad that Robert Tait accepts this regime as legit, by referring to the reformists as those who were defeated. How can you say that when Ahmadinejad claimed he counted 40 million votes in 2 hours.

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