Iran is gearing up for elections and it isn't pretty

The arrest of at least 10 reporters since the turn of the year and new Internet restrictions point to a battening down of social control ahead of Iran's March elections.

The international focus may be on Iran's nuclear program and all the war talk that's surrounded it. But less noticed is that Iran is gearing up for parliamentary elections in March. Every early sign is that it will be as closely controlled an affair as the 2009 presidential contest that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power for a second term.

Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have called Mr. Ahmadinejad's landslide victory a "divine assessment." But forces other than God probably had a hand in Ahmadinejad's victory; there was strong evidence of widespread fraud, which sparked protests on a scale not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

While those protests have since been quashed, the grievances behind them remain. If anything, they have gathered in strength, with an economy suffering blows from US-led international sanctions and ongoing crackdowns against citizens. The smart money is on a parliamentary election whose results are massaged, much as the presidential elections were. But even fixed results will still show shifts in Iran's complex political landscape.

All of this matters because Iran isn't the religious dictatorship that the West imagines. A democracy? Hardly. But there are factions within the elite, and powerful forces in broader society that have influence. Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's power may be vast, and in theory stems from him being an emissary of God on earth, but in practice he has to bow to more prosaic concerns. There has been persistent speculation throughout the year that Ayatollah Khamenei is fed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad's obsession with end-times millenarian beliefs, representing just one of the fissures on the right in Iran.

Though the country is putting on a brave face internationally, there is evidence that the contradiction of having nominally democratic institutions under a theocratic umbrella is growing ever tougher to sustain. The country is desperately trying to tamp down on the free flow of information.

Journalists, computer programmers targeted

Human Rights Watch reports that 10 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the start of the year and the arrests "appear to be part of the government’s most recent campaign to disrupt the free flow of information ahead of parliamentary elections."

Most of those were arrested by armed government agents storming their homes. Human Rights Watch says all of the detainees "have been associated with reformist papers or websites critical of government policies."

The Committee to Protect Journalists says that Iran had 42 reporters locked up last year, the highest number in the world.

Earlier this month Vahid Ashgari, a computer programmer who has been in detention since 2008, was sentenced to death for spreading "corruption." He says that under torture he confessed to being involved in pornography, a capital crime in the Islamist Republic. Until his detention, he'd been involving in helping to set up websites critical of the government.

Last week the government also sentenced Saeed Malekpour, detained since 2008, to death. Mr. Malekpour is a computer programmer resident in Canada who was detained on a trip home to visit relatives. His pornography conviction stems from his development of an Internet photo-sharing tool that has been used by others to share pornography.

Amir Hekmati, an American-Iranian and former Marine translator, was also seized on a home visit and sentenced to death earlier this month, in his case on charges of spying, notwithstanding that he'd informed the Iranian government of his past in the US military and his travel plans before his visit.

Strict monitoring of online activity

And beyond Iran's arrests of reporters and death sentences, there are other attempts to intimidate would-be cyber dissidents.

This month, new rules require Iran's Internet cafes to install monitoring cameras and maintain logs of all browsing history, as well as requiring photo IDs from customers. Iranians complain that browsing speeds have been throttled down, access to many websites are blocked, and the security services have stepped up their monitoring of social networks. With the use of the Internet to organize protests in Iran in the past, and more successfully in Egypt and other Arab states in 2011, Tehran is determined to deny that outlet to unhappy citizens.

The big international news story will remain the fear and posturing around Iran's nuclear program, including its repeated recent threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz and drive up international oil prices (Scott Peterson looks at Iran's ability to do this in a piece yesterday). Ahmadinejad may insist that international economic sanctions can't hurt his country. But the rial has tumbled to record lows against the dollar recently and the Iranian Central Bank this week increased the interest for some deposits to 21 percent in an attempt to shore up its beleaguered currency.

That's the atmosphere ahead of the March elections. While the Green Movement doesn't appear from the outside to be anywhere close to what it was, the men running the show in Iran appear to be taking no chances.

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