Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 4 September 2020

Facing unprecedented pressure, Iran uses its most reliable tool: Brutality

Opinion by Jason Rezaian

September 05 at 4:25 am AEST

“Some regimes oppress people so much that, one day, they are toppled for reasons that never occurred to them,” journalist Bahman Ahmadi Amouee writes in his devastating memoir, “Life in Prison,” in which he chronicles the years he spent as a political prisoner in Iran, from 2009 to 2014. Those words hold an important lesson for Iran today.

The arrest and long-term detention of prisoners of conscience is a tradition that goes back centuries in Iran — as it does everywhere. Now, mass arrests are experiencing a tragic revival, putting at risk thousands of people guilty of no other crime than protesting the Islamic Republic’s abuses of power.

This year the Islamic Republic, facing extraordinary external and domestic pressure, has embarked on its most prolific period yet of arrests aimed at silencing dissent. These are not the moves of a confident regime, but of one that recognizes its own deficiencies and is leaning on its most reliable tool: brutality.

That strategy will fail in the long run. No political system lasts forever. But in the process, many innocent lives will be destroyed, and the best years of some of Iran’s most gifted people — individuals who were trying to help their country — will have been wasted. It’s an important reminder that the biggest threat posed by the Islamic Republic has always been directed at the people of Iran.

The regime’s acceleration in detaining perceived opponents is drawing intense criticism. Two reports published this week by human rights groups highlight the epidemic of arrests plaguing Iran during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Iranian prosecutors became complicit in the campaign of repression by bringing national security charges against hundreds of people solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, while judges doled out guilty verdicts on the basis of torture-tainted ‘confessions,’ ” says Amnesty International.

The second report, by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, explains that “because Iran’s leaders chose to exacerbate overcrowding with more arrests and ignore prison officials’ pleas for additional resources and for criminal justice reform, the pandemic now threatens the health and lives of tens of thousands of prisoners, many of whom do not belong in jail.”

One of the most well-known figures being detained is Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who is in prison for defending Iranian prisoners of conscience. Sotoudeh went on a hunger strike last month, and authorities responded by shamelessly detaining her 20-year-old daughter.

Others include dual nationals arrested while visiting family in Iran, journalists, environmentalists, siblings of activists abroad, artists and musicians, athletes, homegrown tech wizards and parents of protesters killed by security forces. 

Iran’s security forces have even begun trying to capture or lure exiles back to the Middle East in elaborate abduction schemes.

These are just some of the cases we’ve heard about.

It’s no coincidence that this is happening during a season of unprecedented challenges to the Islamic Republic’s hold on power. In the face of mounting economic, diplomatic and public health crises, the regime in Tehran believes the security of its state is under threat.

As if covid-19 weren’t difficult enough, Iran has been rocked by widespread protests over several of its own disasters, including shooting down a passenger plane and killing all 176 people aboard, an economy decimated by sanctions, and environmental catastrophes, while also being on the verge of war with the United States multiple times.

In this context, Amouee’s book, presented as a series of letters from prison to his wife, a fellow journalist, is an instructive read, as Iran faces the broadest wave of repression since he and thousands of others were rounded up after the contested 2009 elections. Recently translated into English, the book also provides a window into the miserable conditions that many detainees are suffering through.

“I cannot imagine how resilient we are to endure all this and still wait. It is like too much history has been compacted into such a short time. Unlucky that we are, this concentration has happened during our lifetime,” Amouee writes. He was talking about the years after Iran’s 1979 revolution, but the challenges facing his country today may be even graver.

“It is as if that chronic historical backwardness of Iran has caught us by the throat again. In all these years, we should have learned and prepared ourselves better for events,” he continues. “Today, it is not enough to simply regret.”

That is true at this moment, too. At the start of every Iranian New Year, Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, announces the official slogan for the year. With Iran’s economy sputtering and the coronavirus ravishing the country, in March he proclaimed this the year of “surge in production.”

So far, the only surge has been in arbitrary arrests.

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