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Iran resorts to ‘maximum repression’ in fighting perceived domestic threats

Gohardasht Prison - Karaj, Iran. (Ensie & Matthias/Wikimedia Commons)
September 13, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Political satirist Kiumars Marzban could spend more than a decade in an Iranian prison just for doing his job.

Marzban is among the recent victims of an intensified state crackdown in Iran that has resulted in unusually harsh prison sentences for journalists, human rights lawyers, women protesting the compulsory hijab rule, labor rights activists, and others.

Marzban, who returned to Iran from his home in Malaysia in 2017 to care for his ailing mother, has been sentenced to a total of 23 years and three months in prison after being convicted of several charges, including “cooperating with an enemy state” — meaning the United States — and insulting Iranian authorities.

According to Iranian law, those convicted of multiple crimes will serve the longest of the terms they received of the concurrent sentences. In the case of Marzban, who freelanced for RFE/RL’s Radio Farda and other media outlets, he will have to serve 11 years in prison if his sentence is upheld.

Just within the past month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has listed the cases of 13 activists who were sentenced to a total of more than 100 years in prison for their peaceful activities. They include journalist and labor activist Sepideh Gholian, who is facing a 19-year prison sentence, and prominent labor rights activist Esmail Bakhshi, who received a 14-year sentence.

Analysts believe the crackdown and the increased intolerance towards any kind of dissent is Iran’s response to perceived internal and external threats, including potential unrest over a deteriorating economy and a campaign of “maximum pressure” by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

‘National Security Crisis’

Washington’s decision last year to leave the historic 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose crippling sanctions that have targeted Iran’s banking sector and its oil exports — its major source of income — have made financial transactions increasingly difficult for the Islamic republic and damaged the economy.

“The timing of this increased repression is directly proportional to the increased fear that the regime has today during a moment of a national security crisis,” Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, told RFE/RL.

“It is clear to me that Iranian hard-liners are seizing this opportunity to expand their repression,” he added. “They are hoping that fear of external aggression will deflect attention away from their internal repression.”

Iran faced large-scale protests over the economy, mismanagement, and corruption in late 2017 and early 2018 in more than 80 cities and towns. Many of the protesters chanted slogans against the Iranian establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Amnesty International reported that in 2018 more than 7,000 protesters, students, journalists, environmental activists, workers, and human rights defenders — including lawyers, women’s rights activists, minority rights activists, and trade unionists — were arrested. Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or flogging and at least 26 protesters were killed, the rights group reported.

The repression level has remained high in 2019, even though the number of protests has dropped significantly — by 38 percent according to Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli — with analysts suggesting that the poor economy is likely to weaken citizens’ ability to hold public protests.

‘Deep Frustration’

Saeid Golkar, assistant professor at the Political Science Department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, says the establishment remains worried that there could be mass unrest due to “deep frustration” among Iranians and the “ineffectiveness of the regime.”

The establishment’s concerns have been heightened by some in the U.S. administration — including former national-security adviser John Bolton — who have promoted policies aimed at regime change and military action in Iran.

Some of them also have close ties to the exiled and unpopular opposition group Mujahedin Khalq Organization, which aims to overthrow the Iranian regime.

“Any further protests will be supported by Trump,” Golkar said. “So, it seems the best strategy for [Iran] is tightening its grip on society. Sending signals that we won’t hesitate to suppress any unrest, especially if pressured.”

“They don’t want to show any weakness,” he added.

The appointment in March of a new head of the Judiciary, hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who is accused of serious human rights violations from his role in mass executions at prisons in the 1980s, appears to be another factor behind the intensified crackdown.

“In addition to his [controversial] history, he has an eye on the post of the supreme leader. He wants to prove to Khamenei that he’s not afraid of suppressing the dissenters to guard the regime,” Golkar said. “[Raisi is] a revolutionary…who doesn’t comprise his principles just because of outside critics.”

‘Sweet Taste Of Justice’

In addition to those imprisoned, many others are feeling the heavy hand of the current clampdown.

In a statement posted online on September 11, more than 260 activists in Iran warned that in recent days an increasing number of women’s rights activists, workers, teachers, lawyers, writers, artists, and others have been pressured by authorities who have summoned them, searched their homes, and even detained them.

“The new head of the Judiciary came to power with the slogan: ‘the sweet taste of justice,’ but so far activists have gained nothing but heavy sentences and astronomically high bail amounts,” the statement said.

It’s unclear if Iranian officials will ease the repressive atmosphere ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2020 and 2021 in hopes of encouraging people to vote and gain legitimacy, a step that has occurred in previous election cycles.

It is unknown if Bolton’s departure from the government will lead to significant change in U.S. policy towards Iran and a decrease in tension between the two countries — which is fostered by Tehran’s fear of Washington’s efforts to bring regime change.

Iranian officials have responded cautiously to Bolton’s exit — which Trump announced on Twitter on September 10 — while suggesting that the move will not necessarily result in a meeting between the presidents of the two countries, which Trump has been pushing for.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani said on September 11 that the U.S. must not only remove “warmongers” but also abandon “its warmongering and maximum pressure policies” before such a meeting could take place.