Intimidation of regime opponents with arbitrary detention or house arrest is nothing new in Iran. But the country's current crackdown against citizens angry at the apparent rigging of the June 12 presidential election in favor of the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is its broadest since the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in 1979.
Despite the effectiveness of beating and shooting protesters upset with the results of the June 12 presidential election – the streets of major Iranian cities were quiet over the weekend – the pace of arrests has hardly slowed as Mr. Ahmadinejad and his supporters try to consolidate their victory.
On Sunday, the government-linked Fars news agency reported that eight Iranian employees of the British Embassy in Tehran were arrested and stood accused of inciting the unrest over the election. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband called the arrests "harassment and intimidation" and added, "the idea that the British embassy is somehow behind the demonstrations ... is wholly without foundation."
The embassy workers join roughly 40 reporters and hundreds of student protesters, academics, and political activists held in detention centers around the country.
Basiji militiamen, shock-troops loyal to Iran's most hard-line clerics, have raided and beaten residents in their homes for shouting "God is great" from their rooftops – a form of protest borrowed from lead up to the 1979 revolution.
"It's the scale of the arrests that's so incredible," says Babak Rahimi, an American academic who specializes in Iran at the University of California San Diego, who recently returned from a trip to Iran. He fled his home country in 1982 after his father was executed for political activity. "The last time there was something close to this was the 1999 student uprising – but then it was just the students. Now, we're talking about leading reformist politicians, 40-something journalists, everyone's at risk."
Opposition leaders cut off from supporters
Trita Parsi and Reza Aslan, two academics who focus on Iran, said in a report on Friday for Foreign Policy magazine, that the regime is apparently achieving its short-term goal of choking off the ability of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi to communicate with protesters – and perhaps emerge as a stronger leader for change.
"A source close to Mousavi says that the first and second circle of people around Mousavi have all been arrested or put under house arrest," they write. "Mousavi himself has limited ability to communicate with his team and his followers. The lack of leadership is visible on the streets, where demonstrators exhibit unparalleled will and courage, but lack direction and guidance."
The government has increasingly sought to portray the protests against the election as "engineered" by the US or Britain, painting its political opposition as essentially tools of a foreign power, though this has been dismissed as absurd by both the protesters and Mousavi.
In a sermon on Friday, influential cleric Ahmad Khatami – close to the views of both Ahmadinejad and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei – labeled the protestors enemies of God, a category of crime that results in execution in the Islamic republic. "I want ... rioters punished firmly, without any mercy, to teach everyone a lesson," he said.
While Mousavi would like reforms to Iran's theocratic system, he was among those who helped overthrow the Shah and worked closely with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the country's first supreme leader who died in 1989, when Mousavi was the country's prime minister in the 80s. "I am fully aware that your justified demands have nothing to do with groups who do not believe in the sacred Islamic Republic of Iran's system," he said in a letter to supporters last week.
Among those detained are foreigners, like Greek journalist Iason Athanasiadis, Iranian national Maziar Bahari, a documentary filmmaker and reporter for Newsweek, and Ardeshir Arjomand, who is Mousavi's chief legal adviser.
But in the case of journalists more generally "this is the widest crackdown that I can think of in memory, and I've been at the CPJ for the last 10 years," says Mr. Smyth. "The scale of the arrests is extraordinary. At the moment, there are more journalists in custody in Iran than anywhere in the world."
Mr. Rahimi says that detentions of regime opponents in the past at least conformed to the appearance of legality – with the location of a detainee generally known. But he says his contacts in Tehran now report more ad hoc situations.
"It's like the disappearances [under former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet] in the 1970s, we simply don't know anything about the circumstances of their detentions," he says. "One guy who was arrested and released told me there's a large prison in the basement of the Interior Ministry. Another journalist went into hiding when the Basiji came to arrest him at his house – even his wife doesn't know where he is now. There's something mafia-like about the messages the government is sending now, you now, 'we're going to get you and your family.' "