Recent history suggests that it is not unlikely that the Iranian regime could use this new source of contact among Iranian citizens and foreign visitors as a means to bring prosecution on the basis of some of its vague and repressive laws. Iranian political prisoners have frequently been jailed simply on the basis of affiliation with persons or groups deemed a threat to national security. These might include labor unions, which are illegal in the country, dissident groups like the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran, and the governments of the US and other countries listed by hardliners as “hostile nations.”
In some cases, this prosecution even leads to the death penalty, the prevalence of which has been the subject of much recent activism by groups like Amnesty International. One example of such a political execution came last year with the hanging of Gholamreza Khosravi, who was prosecuted solely on the basis of having contributed money to a satellite television network supporting the PMOI.
The launch of this service comes at a complicated time for Iran’s relations with the rest of the world. On the one hand, it is clear that the launch was allowed to go forward in the first place in order to compensate for a shortage of professional accommodations in the midst of a surge of trade delegations from countries that are anticipating the end of economic sanctions under the Iran nuclear agreement. But notwithstanding Tehran’s eagerness to court foreign investment, the regime’s aggressive rhetoric toward Western governments has not abated since the finalization of the agreement.
This fact is not only illustrated by speeches from military officials and the supreme leader urging resistance to “infiltration” by the West; it is also illustrated by the continued detention of four Americans on vague and unsubstantiated charges.
Saturday marks the passage of the third year of an eight year sentence for Pastor Saeed Abedini, who was targeted for helping Iranian Christians to practice their faith through the community’s house-church movement. Abedini may also have been specifically targeted on the basis of his having relocated to the United States following his conversion from Islam.
Association with the West is very clearly behind the targeting of former US Marine Amir Hekmati and Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, both of whom have been charged with national security-related crimes. Hekmati has served four years of a ten year sentence, while Rezaian is still awaiting a verdict and sentencing after more than 400 days in detention. Neither of these men’s cases have been articulated by the Iranian judiciary, and the espionage accusations levied against Rezaian apparently stem at least in part from his having simply discussed Iranian current events with friends and colleagues in the United States.
Clearly, this sets a precedent for the users of an Iranian Airbnb-style service to be subject to similar accusations, based on having either hosted Westerners in their homes or having stayed in the homes of persons with a past history of activism, political dissent, or pro-Western sympathies.
What’s more, such close associations among relative strangers could open the door for the Islamic theocracy to apply its vague religious laws with even greater impunity. The danger of these laws was illustrated recently when the lawyer for artist-activist Atena Farghadani was brought up on charges of “non-adultery illicit contact.”
Farghadani was sentenced in June to 12 years and nine months in prison for having posted a single political cartoon to her Facebook page criticizing Iranian officials for their actions against women’s rights. The case against her lawyer may have been a further punitive move against women’s rights activism as well as being an example of fundamentalist enforcement of Islamic law. The file specifically indicates that the alleged illicit contact consisted solely of the attorney and his client shaking hands prior to an interview.
As the Farghadani case illustrates, the danger posed by an Airbnb-style service also stems from the prevalence of monitoring and censorship of online communications. Facebook, Twitter, and various social media applications are banned across the board in the Islamic Republic. However, many citizens circumvent these restrictions, and in so doing open themselves up to prosecution on such charges as “insulting the supreme leader” or “enmity against God.”
If Airbnb communications are monitored in the same way as many other social networking sites, the possibility exists for those communications to be a further source of evidence in manufactured legal cases against activists, dissidents, and minorities, regardless of whether it leads to actual, in-person contact among users.