This week’s news of Iran filing suit against the United States in the International Court of Justice is indicative of the regime’s effort to confront its longstanding adversaries on the international stage. There is little expectation of the suit having a practical impact on the future of US sanctions against the Islamic Republic, even if it is somehow successful. But such confrontation is essential to Tehran’s post-revolutionary identity as a bulwark against Western influence in the Persian Gulf region.
While these sorts of international efforts proceed, there are also domestic analogues to them inside Iranian territory, and these promise to be more successful. They also serve the practical role of enforcing the separation between Iranian and Western culture, which runs contrary to the clearly expressed desires of the Iranian public, an overwhelmingly young and well-educated population that has been broadly participating in protests over the past several years calling for regime change and democratic governance.
The regime has consistently shown similar antipathy toward both Western culture and the advocacy for Western-style democracy. As such, it has repeatedly cracked down on online activities that seemingly exhibit an interest in either of these phenomena. Among these crackdowns are several instances of regime authorities arresting models, photographers, and other contributors to an underground fashion and beauty industry on social media.
The latest such incident was announced by regime officials on Monday, according to the Associated Press. It involved at least 42 arrests in the city of Bandar Abbas, with police insisting that the targets had been “damaging public virtue through the organized spreading of anti-cultural [activities].”
Such crackdowns play both cultural and political roles and are arguably connected to the regime’s anxiety over ongoing protests. Authorities have made similar claims about foreign “infiltration” networks in response to its own moral panic over social media activity and also in response to large-scale public protests. This has been employed as justification for crackdowns on Western media and for the arrests of Western nationals, although the infiltration narrative has also been contradicted by high-level officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei when they acknowledged that the domestic opposition group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran had played a leading role in the nationwide uprising that emerged at the beginning of this year, and in subsequent protests.
Even so, unsubstantiated claims of infiltration have long persisted alongside the regime’s concerns about the PMOI and its affiliates. As such, crackdowns on foreign nationals and domestic activists tend to proceed in tandem, and at times the same activities may target both. This is the case with the regime’s recurring attacks on satellite broadcasting, which provides countless Iranians with access to banned foreign media such as the BBC Persian Service as well as news networks associated with the Iranian Resistance.
As one example of this ongoing crackdown, the Center for Human Rights in Iran reported on Monday that the Iranian judiciary handed down a death sentence last week for Mohammad Hossein Maleki on charges of “spreading corruption on Earth.” Maleki had been arrested for participation in a large and active black market for media. Specifically, he sold access cards for the website CCcam, which provides digital access to as many as 6,000 television channels.
Maleki’s arrest took place in March of last year, but his family remained silent about his case until after the passage of his death sentence. The families of political prisoners in Iran are frequently instructed not to speak to the media and are assured that silence will result in a quicker and more favorable reconciliation of their cases. An associate of Maleki’s was quoted by CHRI as saying of their decision to remain silent: “We all made a mistake.”
Meanwhile, two other reports by CHRI illustrate that the regime’s demands for silence are increasingly inapplicable to high-profile cases or cases of mass arrests. In the first place, the organization notes that 120 Iranian academics have signed a letter calling for the release of approximately 150 students who were arrested for their participation in the nationwide protests at the start of the year.
CHRI calls the letter a “stark display of societal outrage… over President Hassan Rouhani’s complicity in rights violations,” as well as a recognition of his failure to live up to his reputation as a relatively moderate Iranian official. The report also points out that the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security, which is largely under the control of the president, has actually become a greater contributor to human rights violations under Rouhani’s tenure. This observation is in keeping with previous statements by other human rights organizations and Iranian opposition groups like the National Council of Resistance of Iran regarding the apparent trend toward worse outcomes in some areas of Iranian human rights during recent years.
In the second place, CHRI highlights the international outcry that has emerged in the wake of last month’s arrest of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a renowned Iranian human rights lawyer who had recently made headlines for her defense of Iranian women protesting against mandatory veiling, and for her criticism of the Iranian judiciary’s enforcement of rules that limit defendants to choosing their representation from a small list of state-approved attorneys. The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute sent a letter to Supreme Leader Khamenei on July 10 urging Sotoudeh’s immediate release and underscoring the right of lawyers to carry out “legitimate professional activities without fear of intimidation, harassment or interference, in accordance with international human rights standards.”
International advocacy for the enforcement of these standards may be very important at this historical moment, with no fewer than 150 students and potentially thousands of other arrestees facing the threat of politically-motivated charges for their role in peaceful anti-government protests. The Iranian judiciary warned in January that those deemed responsible for the January uprising could face the death penalty. And the threats against such individuals can reasonably be extended to each new group that is caught up in Iran’s ongoing crackdowns, whether it be social media personalities, satellite broadcasters, women’s rights activists, etc.