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Under fire from US, Iran reacts by cracking down at home

The government has restricted media, targeted academics, and, in one month this spring, stopped or detained 150,000 people – including four Iranian-Americans. [Editor's note: The original subhead mischaracterized the number detained.]

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey

While running for president of Iran in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went out of his way to counter charges from opponents that his victory would bring to power "Islamic fascism" and the "Iranian Taliban."

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The archconservative said Iran had bigger issues to deal with – economic, nuclear, and growing threats from the US and the West – than the status of women's head scarves, and the extent of personal freedoms that had grown under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

But today Iran is in the grip of the most widespread crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with targets that range from women and student activists, to the media, to four Iranian-Americans accused of using US funds to undermine the regime. Analysts say the message of the repressive steps is clearly that hard-liners remain in charge, despite US efforts against the Islamic Republic and severe economic woes that led to the torching of 19 gas stations last month, when rationing was abruptly imposed.

"Their argument is that no matter what happens in Iran, no matter how many social disturbances exist, we are in control, and our position will not change," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

This tougher "security outlook," as it is called in Iran, has been enabled by a top-down transformation of the ministries of intelligence, interior, and culture and Islamic guidance since Mr. Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies took over, says Ms. Farhi. But it's also been facilitated by US actions, including $75 million for "pro-democracy" activities the regime sees as intended to foment a revolution.

"Ultimately, the policy that is pursued by the Bush administration is causing paranoia, and it is counterproductive [because] it benefits the hard-liners in Iran" by giving them a pretext to crack down, says Farhi.

This week, officials launched new investigations into two of the Iranian-Americans now held in Tehran's Evin prison: Haleh Esfandiari, a grandmother and Middle East expert with the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington; and Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner who has worked with the Soros Foundation and the Iranian government.

'They're trying to instill fear'

But the US-Iran tug of war is just one factor in a growing number of hard-line moves that some argue have been aimed at preemptively quelling wider unrest, when the regime is under intense pressure both at home and abroad.

"They are trying to instill fear in the population, to let people know that while Iran may be getting a bit beaten up internationally, they are still very much in control domestically," says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington. "And people should not think for one second that it is safe to agitate politically, to indulge themselves by engaging in criticism."

Iranian news organizations have been instructed not to report negative news regarding social unrest, gas rationing in the world's fourth-largest oil exporter, the nuclear program, or the impact of UN sanctions on Iran.

Last week, the head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance warned darkly that he saw "signs of a creeping coup" in the Iranian media. On Wednesday, a ban was reinstated on a moderate Iranian news agency, just as, last week, a ban of seven years on Ham-Mihan newspaper was extended after a brief interlude of publishing.

In a one-month period this spring, security forces stopped or detained 150,000 people – women for insufficiently covered hair and tight-fitting clothes, and men for Western haircuts and attitudes. Most were released quickly, but many "hoodlums and thugs" were arrested, police said.