Home Blog Tehran Faces Dual Threats From Protests and Its Own Repressive Public Image

Tehran Faces Dual Threats From Protests and Its Own Repressive Public Image

“Do not imagine that the risk of overthrow is gone,” Khatami was reported as saying. “No, the enemies will not give up thinking about the overthrow even for a moment.” The hardline cleric and Friday prayer leader for the city of Tehran went on to attribute the uprising specifically to the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, which is the leading Iranian resistance organization and main constituent group in the NCRI coalition.

Previously, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei also acknowledged the prominent role played by the PMOI in the nationwide protests, as well as accusing both the United States and Arab powers led by Saudi Arabia of being involved in the advance planning and financing of the uprising. While these accusations against Iran’s regional and global enemies are certainly nothing new, the supreme leader’s offer of credit to the PMOI for popular protests is out of keeping with the regime’s usual strategy of downplaying the size and social influence of the democratic resistance.

Khatami referred not only to the January protests but also to the 2009 Green Movement and popular protests in 1996 as “PMOI sedition,” before applauding Iranian security forces for the suppression of each of these incidents. He went on to urge all supporters of the regime to inform on suspected PMOI members and sympathizers, thereby hinting at the broad response that the regime has given to the protests and their aftermath.

Soon after those protests began, the judiciary warned that persons deemed responsible for it would likely face death sentences. This threat was concretely reiterated recently when, according to the CHRI, some protesters in Hamadan and Khuzestan Provinces were brought up on charges of enmity against God and spreading corruption on Earth, both of which are punishable by death under Iran’s Islamic laws.

Such laws have helped Iran to maintain the highest per-capita rate of executions in the world. The charge of enmity against God was used in the 1980s to justify mass executions of PMOI members and other political dissidents following a fatwa on the subject by the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ruhollah Khomeini. An estimated 30,000 political prisoners were hanged in the summer of 1988 alone, and the legacy of this incident has been cited by various NCRI activists and supporters in recent days as they have sought to encourage international action to forestall Iran’s crackdown on protesters and other targets of politically motivated arrest.

The CHRI report on detainees in Hamadan and Khuzestan noted that in the city of Izeh alone, 50 people are known to still be in custody. While protests were ongoing, the Iranian judiciary acknowledged only a few hundred arrests, but officials have subsequently admitted to figures ranging into the thousands. Drawing on reports from within the domestic activist community, the NCRI has determined the likely figure to be upward of 8,000. Those same reports have aided in the identification of at least 11 people who have apparently been tortured to death during their detention for participation in the protests.

There are reliable indicators that such participation has not been the only factor driving arrests in the weeks following the uprising. The NCRI, CHRI, and other activist groups have reported on warrantless raids and apparently arbitrary arrests of social and political activists during that time. In one report on Friday, CHRI highlighted the cases of three individuals whom Iran’s security forces targeted for arrest but could not immediately locate. Family members of each of these individuals, and apparently a number of others besides, have been summoned for interrogation or arrested outright as part of an effort to pressure them to join the ranks of those caught up in the latest crackdown.

Those efforts arguably contradict media reports and statements coming out of Tehran, which suggest that the number of detainees is shrinking as most arrested protesters are released. Such claims reflect the regime’s clear attempts to portray its response to the latest uprising as being more moderated that its response to the Green Movement and earlier mass protests. Al Jazeera highlighted this same trend on Saturday in its report on members of the Iranian parliament visiting detained protesters in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison.

Those legislators had reportedly promised to investigate reports of deaths in police custody, some of which were written off by regime officials as suicides despite the bodies showing clear signs of torture. The Al Jazeera report noted that dozens of MPs had previously signed a letter urging the government to avoid “witch hunts” like those that followed the Green Movement demonstrations. But the same report also pointed out that the parliament’s Judicial Commission had only advised security forces to be lenient with some protesters and not with those that appeared to threaten the regime itself.

Al Jazeera went on explain that superficial defense of some protesters by Iranian lawmakers and the administration of President Hassan Rouhani was an example of “doublespeak” by regime authorities. This same phenomenon was arguably on display in the statement made by 40 MPs on the detention of Iranian university students, which was quoted in a report by CHRI last week.

The statement called for the judiciary to release those students “and particularly the female students” as soon as possible, but it also thanked security forces for the “numerous arrests” they carried out “in order to prevent discontent from spreading.” In the midst of an ongoing crackdown, such commentary underscores the notion that there is only weak and conditional advocacy for the Iranian people’s rights, even among supposedly reformist politicians.

Indeed, this was a major focus of certain slogans in the January protests. Some of these referenced both the “reformist” and “conservative” factions of government and suggested that neither was more suited to promoting the interests of the Iranian people. A number of reports on the protests suggested that one of their major causes was the supposedly moderate Rouhani administration’s release of a new national budget which imposed austerity on ordinary Iranians while allocating more money to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other hardline institutions.

This budget was also the focus of a recent report by the NCRI, which Fox News identified as leading to the conclusion that “Iran spends billions on weapons programs, terrorism while ignoring Iranians’ basic needs.” The report identifies 55 billion dollars as the cost of “keeping the clerical regime in power.” Half of this money comes from the official state budget’s allocations – with the general support of “reformist” lawmakers – for the IRGC, military, and security projects. The other half consists of money controlled entirely by the IRGC and the supreme leader.

This phenomenon of channeling money to hardline projects from sources other than the official budget was the focus of a report by IW regarding Khamenei’s recent decision to transfer four billion dollars from the National Development Fund of Iran to projects that the fund’s charter does not technically allow it to charter. Of that total, 150 million dollars is being allocated to a state media outlet and 2.5 billion is being used to “bolster defense.” Meanwhile, allocations are being cut for public transportation, teacher retirement funds, and so on.

Insofar as these spending priorities demonstrate a greater commitment to projects that strengthen the regime than to those that safeguard the interests of the Iranian people, they can be expected to further support the conclusions of those, like Ahmad Khatami, who believe that popular discontent will continue to spread even in the aftermath of the early January protests. This in turn underscores the regime’s perceived need to continue suppressing dissent, even as it strives to present a more moderate public image.

Accordingly, Al Jazeera’s report emphasized that this image has been consistently undermined by the climate of fear that seems to linger over media inquiries about the protests.
“Nearly all those Al Jazeera tried to contact – even those who had marched in favour of the government in counter-protests – declined to speak,” the report noted. “Many said they were not sure what the red lines were for the government or police and were worried they might say the wrong thing and land themselves in a prison cell.”