The world put Iran's Islamic rulers on notice this week, and not for violating nuclear norms. The 192-member United Nations General Assembly voted its "deep concern" over escalating atrocities in Iran, such as stoning, repression of female dissidents, and persecution of human rights defenders.
The government's mounting campaign against its own people, as the Monitor's Scott Peterson reports from Tehran, has targeted Internet cafes and even young women who show too much hair. Executions – many of them in public – are up at least 19 percent over last year.
At universities, dozens of students and teachers who are too liberal or speak out against the regime have been arrested or silenced – especially after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heckled during a speech last year at the prestigious Amirkabir University of Technology.
The leadership's paranoia over what Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari calls "internal threats" now extends to its own ranks. Former chief nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian was arrested recently on espionage charges – which even drew a sharp response from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
What's behind this harsh crackdown? It would be easy to say the regime simply fears alleged American meddling, like the CIA kind that was behind the infamous 1953 coup. And that's certainly a convenient excuse used by Iran and its friends to justify repression.
But the hard evidence is that Iran's 70 million people – two-thirds of whom are younger than 33 years old – are alienated from their government and tired of nearly three decades of "revolution" with little to show for it. They also resent the reckless, wasteful spending of billions of dollars in oil revenues.
Public frustrations could explode in the lead-up to March elections for parliament or the 2009 presidential vote. Riots erupted last June, for instance, when subsidized gasoline prices were raised.
As rigged as elections are by the ruling clerics, they do spark struggles between conservatives and reformers that reflect the public mood. And the mood now is focused on an inflation rate of about 20 percent – which is matched by a similar rate in unemployment.
When he was elected in 2005, Mr. Ahmadinejad promised to put "the oil money on people's dinner tables." Instead, people are eating inflated prices for food and other basics, barely coping in an economy rising too slowly for Iran's population growth.
All this discontent led 21 opposition parties to form a coalition last week in the name of saving Iran from "crisis." Former president Mohammad Khatami has inspired the opposition to be bolder in its claims that it represents the interests of Iran's poor, not the current leadership. And such a move puts the lie to the current president's claim that America is behind discontent. Economic mismanagement and political repression are the real foes.
Current UN economic sanctions on Iran for its nuclear misdeeds add a measure of pressure on the regime. Next month, the Security Council may impose stiffer sanctions.
But a regime that violates its own people's human rights and squanders the nation's oil wealth is faltering on its own just fine.