Traditionally, a few months before a presidential election in Iran, the government opens the public sphere, giving more freedom to the press, more space for activists to speak out and even loosening social restrictions like the one on women’s clothing and hijab. But less than two months before Iran’s June 14 election, the situation feels very different in Tehran. In fact, the opposite is happening.
In mid-January, Iranian intelligence forces arrested more than 16 journalists and questioned many more. All of them were released after a few weeks. Iranian intelligence also summoned the managing editors of major publications and warned them against criticizing the government during the election season.
A number of political activists linked to the reformists’ camp, including former MP Hossein Loghmanian, have also been arrested in the last few weeks. And just months before the election, instead of experiencing more freedom, three major publications — Mehrnameh, Aseman and Panjareh — have shut down voluntarily to avoid likely censure and official closure. A reporter from one of these publications told me, “We all thought we were going to have a similar environment like in the past, and that the government would be more tolerant regarding the media’s performance, but the monitoring and censorship imposed by the intelligence is intensifying day by day.”
It’s not just about the media or activists anymore either. On April 30, Reuters reported that Bagher Asadi, a prominent Iranian diplomat — well-known and respected in UN diplomatic circles — had been arrested in mid-March. The government kept the arrest quiet for more than six weeks, but once the family leaked the news to the media, they confirmed it.
Former diplomat Mohammad Reza Heydari told me on Thursday that he believes the arrest occurred because Asadi was critical of Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and challenged the government’s performance on a number of occasions — something Tehran does not tolerate, especially when it comes from Iranians.
These are just a few examples of how the Iranian government is getting ready for June. Remembering the aftermath of the 2009 presidential election, the widespread protests in the streets and the massive number of arrests, the government has chosen to preempt any possible challenge to the regime’s narrative on a wide range of issues, from the government’s policies, to the candidates’ qualifications, to the ongoing crackdown on dissidents.
By now, two presidential candidates in the last election, Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi, as well as Mousavi’s wife Zahra Rahnavard, have spent well over two years under house arrest. These two were beloved politicians in the eyes of Islamic Republic founder Ayatollah Khomeini. Even so, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei can’t tolerate them. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom Khamenei supported unconditionally in his first term, now won’t pass up any opportunity to criticize the establishment.
So if the regime can’t trust a former prime minister and a former head of parliament, or even it’s current president, then whom can they, or rather, the Supreme Leader, trust? The answer is basically no one. And if you don’t trust anyone, from veteran revolutionaries to the younger generation of political figures, then what do you do with a presidential election?
The regime’s extreme sense of suspicion and distrust, and the level of squabbling amongst the political parties, who, regardless of ideology or revolutionary ideals, are all greedy for a piece of the pie, point to an unsettling future for Iran’s political sphere in the months to come. The Supreme Leader will do whatever it takes to make sure one of his loyalists ends up in office.
As Khamenei strives to keep his stranglehold on power, we should expect intensifying censorship and control over the media, civil society and political activists in the coming months. No matter who is nominated for Iran’s presidential election in the coming days, the regime is ready to avoid any surprises, regardless of the cost.