On Tuesday, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) published a statement by Hossein Abedini, a member of its Foreign Affairs Committee, regarding that day’s celebrations of the ancient Iranian fire festival of Chaharshanbe Suri. The statement declared that Iranian authorities “anxiously expect new anti-regime protests in the coming New Year,” starting with gatherings on Chaharshanbe Suri, which precedes Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, by one week.
This publication came after days of reports from the NCRI and its affiliates regarding the regime’s planned deployment of civilian militias and other repressive forces to obstruct holiday celebrations and stop them from turning political. Expectations of a politically motivated uprising have been fueled by the recent memory of nationwide demonstrations that gave rise to bold chants of “death to Rouhani” and “death to the dictator” in January, referring to the Iranian president and supreme leader, respectively.
The NCRI’s reports come in the midst of various other indicators of the regime’s effort to control public dialogue in the weeks following the mass uprising. This effort has certainly targeted protest participants and known political activists, but also dissenting and reformist voices inside Iranian establishment politics.
Agence France Presse reports, for instance, that the University of Tehran political science professor and prominent political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam had recently been sentenced to 18 months in prison and a two year ban on all political activities, on charges of spreading propaganda against the regime. The report notes that “Zibakalam is known for his criticism of Iran's foreign policy, in particular its bitter rivalry with the United States and Israel,” and also that his conviction resulted in large part from accounts of his contact with foreign media outlets.
This news follows close on the heels of reports that journalists affiliated with the BBC Persian Service are planning to speak to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other international bodies over the harassment they have faced at the hands of Iranian authorities. Last summer, the BBC announced that 150 of its contributors had been made subject to an assets freeze and ban on all transactions in the Islamic Republic, as a result of their professional affiliations.
As Iran News Update reported in its more detailed reporting on the BBC’s response, Iranian paranoia regarding foreign “infiltration” has been growing in recent years. This trend has contributed to the arrest of numerous dual citizens of Iran and Western nations, as well as the arrest of Iranians with supposed links to the West or a history of expressing pro-Western sentiments. Frequently, such individuals are accused of espionage, even in absence of any publicly released evidence.
On Tuesday, the Christian Times reported upon another instance of this trend, and one that also relates to the Iranian regime’s systematic persecution of religious minorities. The report indicated that a Christian retreat center owned by the Council of Assemblies of God has been ordered to close after a nearly three-year legal battle following unsubstantiated accusations that it maintained links with the CIA.
A decision by Iran’s Revolutionary Court in December 2016 declared that the retreat was “funded by the US through the CIA spy agency to infiltrate the Islamic world, and particularly Iran, by conducting evangelistic activities.” But in addition to rejecting this finding, the Christian Times noted that there are not even clear links between the Iranian Christian institution and the West in general, given that the church had no formal affiliation with the Assembly of God denomination in the United States.
The report went on to say that the accusation of CIA connections gives the regime an opportunity to confiscate private property while also opening up church leaders to possible national security charges. The latter possibility is particularly alarming in light of the recent deaths in custody of political prisoners, including those who participated in the nationwide demonstrations of late December and January.
Some of these deaths, along with the death of Gonabadi dervish Mohammad Raji and Iranian-Canadian environmentalist Kavous Seyed-Emami, were the focus of an in-depth statement by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday, calling on the Islamic Republic to halt its persecution of families who stand to break the regime’s censorship and expose some of its recent human rights abuses.
The HRW statement started by saying that at least five individuals have died under suspicious circumstances since December while in police custody. But the NCRI has tracked arrests and acts of repression since the outbreak of protests that month and has determined that at least 14 participants in the uprising have died under torture so far.
Whatever the number of victims, HRW detailed some of the efforts that regime authorities have put forth to conceal their own culpability for the deaths. These include withholding bodies that show signs of torture, detaining and interrogating the families of those victims, pressuring them to sign documents agreeing not to speak to the media, and using state media outlets to disseminate attacks on the character of the deceased, describing them as drug addicts and insisting that several of them committed suicide out of guilt over their supposed crimes.
The statement also called attention to the issue of property confiscation that was also highlighted in the case of the Assembly of God church. HRW reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps twice raided the home of Seyed-Emami’s family, “seized many of their belongings… and threatened that they would be stripped of their assets if they pursued legal action.”
Human Rights Watch also criticized the supposedly moderate government of Hassan Rouhani for merely paying lip service to concerns over these and other human rights violations. The Iranian president has appointed a committee to investigate certain recent accusations, but its members are not impartial and its proceedings are not transparent. The statement concludes that these half-measures are in keeping with a “long-standing pattern of impunity in the country,” which naturally contributes to concerns about similar repressive measures recurring in the context of new protests that might emerge around the time of Nowruz.
In the interest of addressing the recent abuses and preventing more of the same, the Human Rights Watch statement urged the Islamic Republic to accept the presence of United Nations human rights experts as observers and participants in an independent commission of inquiry.