Islamic Republic of Fear

Restoring the revolution, taking away civil liberties

The Economist

THE head of Iran’s judiciary is a confident man. Despite foreign attempts at slander, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi Shahrudi recently declared, his country has presented a fine image to the world of Islamic law at work.

If news were limited to such mercies as the recent release, on bail, of Haleh Esfandiari, a 67-year-old Iranian-American academic, after six months in jail on charges of espionage, or the amnesty granted to 4,000 other prisoners on the occasion of the birthday on August 20th of Imam Hussein, a revered Shia martyr, Mr Shahrudi’s confidence might be justified. But these welcome developments come against a darkening backdrop, as the administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intensifies a campaign to reimpose the moral fervour, and xenophobic zeal, of the 1979 Islamic revolution’s early years.

The rest of the world may be more concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But for many Iranians, the issue that has begun to outweigh other troubles, such as poverty, unemployment and the danger of war with America, is human rights.

This is not surprising. Recent months have seen the largest crackdown on civil liberties since the 1980s. Purges of suspected liberals have decimated university faculties, and repeated closures have all but silenced the once-vociferous opposition press. Ms Esfandiari was the best-known of four Iranian-American scholars incarcerated earlier this year for alleged ties to American intelligence. Her colleagues remain in prison. But since the spring a wave of arrests has targeted everyone from women’s-rights advocates to student leaders, trade unionists and critical journalists, packing the country’s prisons so tight that police are commandeering other buildings as makeshift lock-ups.

Political activists are not the only ones at risk. Security officials boast that their campaign against “bad hijab”, which includes the warning, booking or detaining of women deemed insufficiently clad, but extends also to youths sporting “Western-style” haircuts, rock-music fans, shopkeepers selling indecent garments, and unmarried couples, has alone netted more than 500,000 offenders since April. And unlike previous dress-code enforcements, which tended to relax after a few weeks, this one appears to be growing stricter. Signs have appeared outside public hospitals declaring that only women wearing the head-to-floor chador, and not merely the headscarf, will be helped.

As much as the scale of the crackdown, its severity is raising eyebrows. Much of the police action has been accompanied by complaints of brutality, and in many cases by documentary evidence such as graphic footage of beatings, posted on dissident websites. Despite prison crowding, punitive use of solitary confinement appears to have grown more common. The number of executions nearly doubled last year, to 177, bringing Iran the unsavoury distinction of being the world’s heaviest user of capital punishment per head of population. This year has seen not only a further jump in the number of judicial killings but a return of mass public hangings, which are sometimes broadcast on state television.

Such harsher treatment, say rights activists, is partly a product of the paranoid atmosphere generated by a government that has deliberately associated any form of civil disobedience with alleged foreign plots. Recent remarks by the country’s chief of police made this link explicit. Once they had dealt with “propagators of moral decay”, he said, his forces would turn their attention to those who “theorise on corruption”, such as critics whom he tied to foreign conspiracies aimed at a “soft overthrow” of the Islamic Republic.

But foreign spies and decadent liberals are not the regime’s only critics. Mr Shahrudi, the chief judge, has himself voiced dismay over the government’s policies. In July he condemned the stoning to death of a man accused of adultery, and sponsored this month’s mass amnesty in what was seen as a sign of discomfort with police excess. He has also joined a broad range of former officials, economists, oil executives and businessmen in attacking Mr Ahmadinejad’s erratically autocratic economic policies, which have included forcing banks to slash interest rates, splurging on costly infrastructure projects and replacing respected technocrats with cronies.

Many establishment figures agree that, rather than American bluster, it is these policies that endanger the country. To paraphrase Mr Shahrudi in a recent interview, if Iran wishes its revolution to be a model, a good start would be to get its economy in order. Another way might be to treat its people better.

August 26, 2007 | Comments Off on Islamic Republic of Fear

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