Insider news & Analysis in Iran

By INU Staff
INU - On Wednesday, new details emerged about the widely reported arrests and prosecutions of Iranian Instagram models, photographers, and others. Although this crackdown, the result of an online sting operation known as Spider II, only became major international news this week, an Iranian human rights group points out that the interrogations leading to 29 criminal cases so far took place mainly between November 2015 and March 2016.

The group adds that of the roughly 170 people who were caught up in the sting operation, several of them were interrogated so frequently during this period that they felt compelled to flee the country for places like Turkey or Dubai. Those relocations apparently met with little to no resistance from Iranian authorities, suggesting that they may have been satisfied to drive some popular social media personalities out of the country without the need to prosecute them.

Nevertheless, 29 people who remained in Iran in the midst of this crackdown are now being prosecuted. And most of the 170 individuals identified by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cybercrimes unit were interrogated at one time or another. In some cases, these interrogations led to targeted individuals providing information about other members of the modelling network, and in other instances they led to persons confessing to “crimes” and repenting of activities that the regime portrayed as attempts to influence the Iranian youth and do harm to family values.

The group highlighted one such penitent in its latest report on the incident on Tuesday. It noted that because of the “sudden change in [Elham] Arab’s statements and tone, the veracity of her public expressions of regret are deeply suspect.”

Iranian authorities have a long track record of using physical and psychological torture and other coercive tactics in order to elicit false confessions from persons arrested on the basis of political activities or undesirable social views. And indeed, in the present case, the International Campaign reports that information is steadily trickling out of Iran regarding the coercive methods that were used to elicit repentant public statements from some of the targets of Operation Spider II.

In the meantime, there is also ongoing discussion about the Iranian authorities’ motivations behind this sting operation and the ensuing public exposure. It goes without saying that the crackdown is part of a larger project of rooting out foreign or secular influence in order to reinforce the hardline Islamic identity that is the lynchpin of the current regime. In this way, the Instagram arrests go hand-in-hand with earlier arrests of largely Iranian journalists who were accused of being members of an “infiltration network” rooted in the United States. This paranoia about foreign influence is also reflected in the particular pressures exerted on dual nationals and persons who have recently returned to Iran after living abroad in the West.

But the Daily Beast published an article on Tuesday alleging that the large-scale Instagram crackdown is different from the more explicitly political crackdown on journalists and activists in that it has specifically targeted people who are not social activists, and who are therefore unlikely to push back against the regime’s pressures.

The article went on to say that by broadcasting forced confessions and widely publicizing the crackdown in state media, the regime expects to be able to prevent challenges to the status quo from other people who are not serious activists but are simply interested in alternative lifestyles, some of which might be characterized as Western.

Elham Arab’s apparently forced statements to Iranian media explicitly endorse the clerical establishment’s closely held views about the mandatory Islamic dress code and other standards of moral behavior that are based in the regime’s fundamentalist Shiite ideology. She said, for instance:

“Many women have contacted me on my page and asked for advice. But good boys will never choose a model as their bride… Instagram is one of the most important tools for tricking youth into believing that modeling and posting photos on the Internet will lead to success. On the contrary, all the girls who dream of marriage and starting a family know that boys and men might hook up with models, but they will never desire marrying them.”

This reference to “tricking” the young Iranian population is also reminiscent of much of the regime’s official rhetoric on this and other social issues. That is to say that whether cracking down on reformist journalism or commenting on social pressures in favor of women’s rights, many Iranian officials are prone to portraying virtually all forms of dissent as being rooted in foreign governments.

Toward that end, a number of media outlets including the Express Tribune have reported on Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit spokesperson Mostafa Alizadeh’s bizarre comments to Iranian media accusing American model and reality television star Kim Kardashian of being a foreign operative tasked with “making Instagram modeling native” in Iran.

Alizadeh’s comments also alleged that the CEO of Instagram had approached Kardashian with this explicit request, although the Iranian official cited no evidence to support this claim. The Cyberspace Crime Unit accused the targets of Operation Spider II of “promoting a culture of promiscuity, weakening and rejecting the institution of family, ridiculing religious values and beliefs, promoting relationships outside moral rules, and publishing the private pictures of young women,” and it further suggested that these activities were in service of a foreign-based mission to “target young people and women” with aspirational images of a lifestyle that is contrary to the Iranian regime’s vision of Islam.

It was presumably this online influence, at least in part, that the Iranian parliament had in mind on Tuesday when referred to “spiritual damage” done to the Islamic Republic by the US. This was cited in legislation by the outgoing, conservative-dominated parliament, demanding unspecified compensation from the US for supposedly anti-Iranian activities spanning a period of 63 years.

Iranian courts, meanwhile, have apparently ruled that the US owes Iran 50 billion dollars for “hostile actions,” according to CNN. The Iranian legislative and judicial measures are both presumably responses to a US Supreme Court ruling last month which upheld a lower court’s determination that victims of Iran-backed terrorism could claim compensation from Iranian assets frozen in US banks. But in a larger sense, these measures may be regarded simply as contributors to a recent surge in rhetoric directed at the US and its allies.

At the same time, the voting margins in Tuesday’s legislation may help to underscore that that rhetoric is likely to outlive the current parliament, which was reported as suffering major defeats from reformist challengers in national elections in February and April. But CNN notes that the incoming parliament, which is set to take office on May 28, has only 83 reformists out of 290 seats. Meanwhile, the legislation demanding compensation from the US passed by a vote of 174 to seven, suggesting that the new parliamentary demographics are unlikely to reverse current trends.

Critics of the Iranian political system tend to believe that this is true not just of foreign policy but also of Iran’s domestic politics. While some optimistic observers have claimed that the new parliament will provide Iranian President Hassan Rouhani greater freedom to pursue a program of domestic reform, others feel that the absence of such reforms during his first three years in office are indicative of a lack of genuine interest in the same. If the latter perspective is the correct one, it is unlikely that there will be much high-level pushback against the recent IRGC-led crackdown.

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