The recent arrest of 14 pro-reform journalists is an unprecedented act against the press in the Islamic Republic of Iran, especially in the pre-election period though the country has a long record of jailing journalists and shutting down papers.
Iran has been ranked the world’s second-worst jailer of journalists but still, the recent arrest of journalists was unusual. The arrests were the first time security forces raided offices of five papers in one day (27 January) and rounded up ten journalists.
Since 2000, more than 120 pro-reformist papers have been shut down and many journalists have been imprisoned on vague charges of “insulting authorities, acting against national security and connection with western states and counter revolutionaries and opposition groups.”
Yet not only the way of arresting is unprecedented, but the timing is also an alarming signal that helps reveal the new strategy for the upcoming presidential elections due to be held in June. Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s second term comes to an end and potential contenders in the upcoming elections include hardliners close to the supreme leader, Mr Ahmadinejad’s team, and reformists.
Hardliners control most sources of power including military and security forces and openly stress that they won’t allow two other possible rivals to take part in the elections. Despite the continuous crackdown on the media, press and political activists were traditionally given more room to speak out freely, at least in the run-up to key elections, presidential ones in particular.
This relative “free political atmosphere and media openness” was meant to increase participation in the election since high turnout is interpreted as proof of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic.
Given the impact of the controversial 2009 presidential elections and their aftermath, it seems the authorities now have other more pressing priorities than public participation.
After the election, protests known as Green Movement were cracked down and many reformists and journalists were jailed.
Prior to the 9th parliamentary elections that was held in March 2012, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that the election should not be a security challenge for the system, alluding to 2009 presidential elections. In absence of reformist candidates, the hardliners close to the supreme leader captured the parliament and increased pressure on Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s supporters and the authorities were able to control all processes as they wished.
Since then, those political figures who call themselves “absolutely obedient of the supreme leader” and more importantly high ranking members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and intelligence services have repeatedly warned that they foresee upcoming unrest that could potentially become more widespread than what happened in 2009.
They suggest different reasons for this possible unrest, but are united and focused on the most important part of the augury: the modus operandi to confront reformists and Ahmadinejad’s allies. Last month Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative in the IRGC, said that “reasonable and logical engineering of elections was an inherent duty of the IRGC.”
Meanwhile, some reformist figures who were trying to hold a session of main reformist groups and parties to decide about whether or not they should introduce any candidate, announced that they had been summoned by the intelligence ministry and told that they could not prepare for the election unless they supported the candidate introduced and approved of by the security forces. The planned session never took place.
“Fake reformists” and “Free elections”
Hardliners close to the supreme leader publicly say that reformists can run in the elections only if they “truly repent” and condemn the leaders of the Green Movement: Mir Hossein Mussavi and Mehdi Karrubi, both of whom are under house arrest since February 2010.
On the other hand, The Islamic Iran Participation Front, the country’s main and biggest reformist party, has warned that some middle or low ranking figures posing as reformist candidate. The Front labelled them as ‘fake reformists’, citing their lack of genuine belief in political reform.
It seems just like the 9th parliamentary elections, the regime prefers to bring everything under control before the upcoming elections rather than deal with issues they may face after a “free election.” Recently Ayatollah Khamenei prohibited campaigning for free elections.
Allowing some unknown figures and small groups to run as reformists in the election could be part of the strategy of “confrontation with the roots of new sedition” as hardliners call it. The recent wave of arrests of journalists rather than shutting down the newspapers they work for, as they did in the past, can be seen as another part of a novel strategy to muzzle dissenting voices in the press.
It seems that security forces are trying to keep the papers running and have some activists on the scene do their job, but only on regime’s terms and conditions. This could help centers of power keep the pre- and post-election climate calm and contained, but also makes it much easier for them to ‘engineer’ the elections.