Iranian election strategy comes through loud and clear

The government is already rounding up ’dissidents’—an early warning sign to the opposition
A woman adjusts her scarf after seeing the morality police in a cafe during a crackdown on "social corruption" in north Tehran June 18, 2008. Picture taken June 18, 2008. REUTERS/Stringer (IRAN) - RTX73ZV

Iran’s disputed 2009 election, which returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the presidency, led to mass protests and a brutal crackdown that saw dozens killed and thousands arrested. This time, the government is taking early steps to silence potentially disruptive voices. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast last week warned that Iran’s “enemies” are planning to foment unrest as part of an “all-out war” against the Islamic Republic, pre-emptively defining protesters as anti-Iranian. Elections aren’t until June.

Late last month, 16 journalists were arrested and taken to Tehran’s infamous Evin prison, where they are reportedly being held in wing 209—the same cellblock where Canadian Zahra Kazemi was murdered in 2003. (In an ironic twist, Saeed Mortazavi, the former prosecutor who sent her to prison, was arrested this week—possibly as a result of a power struggle within Iran’s political elite—and is now in Evin himself.) Arash Azizi, an Iranian journalist living in Canada says the arrests have shocked journalists in Iran, in part because several of those arrested were not obvious targets, even for Tehran’s thin-skinned government. “We are used to these kind of attacks, but this was unexpected. This was an attempt to bring an atmosphere of intimidation before the election.” It is not just journalists who are being subjected to increased state pressure. Coffee-shop owners have been ordered to install video cameras and provide the recordings to authorities. Cafés are popular with Iranian youth and intellectuals who enjoy the chance to drink, smoke, talk and listen to live music. Dozens were raided last summer, ostensibly for offences such as allowing women to smoke hookah water pipes.

The owners of Café Prague, near Tehran University, refused to install the cameras and instead shut down to avoid continued harassment. Patrons cried during the café’s closing party. Other forms of more overt pressure are also increasing.

Mansoureh Behkish is a prominent member of Mothers of Khavaran, a group of women who meet regularly to mourn at the Khavaran cemetery, where thousands of prisoners massacred in the 1980s—including Behkish’s siblings—are buried in unmarked graves.

According to Behkish’s brother, Jafar, she was sentenced to six months in jail for “spreading propaganda against the system” eight months ago but was only summoned to begin serving that sentence last weekend; after two hours, she was sent home.

“They give activists prison terms and gradually summon them to serve their term to maintain the state of terror,” says Jafar. “Mock imprisonments also help them to escalate the mental pressure on the activists without keeping them in prison. They want to silence her, and many others.”