Fear of Post-Nuclear Deal Rapprochement with West Drives Intensified Repression

November 9, 2015—Several journalists were arrested in Iran over the past week in an intensifying campaign of repression that is based on the belief, spearheaded by Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, that the US intends to use any post-nuclear deal opening in Iran to “infiltrate” and undermine the Islamic Republic.

The journalists, arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization, include Isa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzaei, with a probable fifth whose identity is unconfirmed.  All were critical of hardline policies or close to the Rouhani administration, which pushed for the nuclear negotiations and Iran’s re-engagement with the world. The seizures follow the arrests of numerous activists, dual Iranian-American nationals, and cultural figures over the last several months.

The crackdown, which has been building in intensity over the past months, appears to be aimed at squashing any expectations of a broader rapprochement with the US following the nuclear deal. It has been kicked into high gear with vitriolic statements first made by Khamenei regarding a US-led “infiltration plot,” and then echoed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Members of Parliament demanding the arrest of such “infiltrators” and “spies.”

“Hardliners have thrived on isolation and vilification of the US. They are terrified of re-engagement with the West,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “And Iranian citizens are paying the price for their fear.”

During a speech to commanders of the Revolutionary Guards on September 16, 2015, Khamenei urged the Guards’ Intelligence Organization to counter a US-led “infiltration plot,” stating, “The enemies’ attempts to infiltrate are one of the biggest threats…economic and security infiltration is obviously dangerous and can have serious consequences but political and cultural infiltration by the enemy is a much more dangerous issue.”

Hardliners seized upon Khamenei’s exhortations to launch an accelerated assault on perceived foes. Soon after the leader’s remarks, Member of Parliament Bijan Nobaveh Vatan, noted in an interview with Khabar Online that 12 MPs had signed a letter addressed to Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati and Minister of Intelligence Seyed Mahmoud Alavi on September 21, 2015, demanding that the authorities “seriously confront” the infiltration of Iranian (reformist) newspapers and media by “hundreds” of spies from Western intelligence services. “A list of twelve or thirteen of these [spies] has been announced, and this issue is under investigation and the relevant ministers are also informed of the issue,” said Nobaveh Vatan.

On November 2, 2015, Mohammad Ali Jaafari, the Commander of the Revolutionary Guards, who reports directly to Khamenei, weighed in as well, warning of a “new sedition which is being led by the US government to infiltrate the country” and asserting that Americans were looking to use the post-deal era “to normalize relations beyond the nuclear issue [and] find ways to infiltrate the country.”

The Guards have their own reasons to fear an opening to the West. New business competition from foreign investors will threaten the Revolutionary Guards’ dominance in the economy, and bring a standard of transparency that could create problems for corrupt networks. Indeed, a number of the arrests seemed tailor-made to dissuade foreigner investors from setting up shop.

In an unusually direct response that challenged Khamenei’s entire premise of “infiltration,” President Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting on November 4, 2015, “We mustn’t pick one or two people from here and there on excuses, in order to fabricate a case for them, and then aggrandize this case in the country and say this line is the “line of infiltration,” or that current is the “current of infiltration.” He added, “We must not play with the word ‘infiltration.’ Playing with words is to the detriment of our country. It is to the detriment of national unity.”

But Khamenei made clear his views and apparent intention to clip Rouhani’s wings when he stated to Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and high-level Iranian diplomats on November 1, 2015, “The foreign policy of Iran is based on long-term interests, principles and values. It does not change with the coming and going of different administrations [holding] various political outlooks. Administrations only have a role in tactics and executing foreign policy principles.”

The crackdown has gathered urgency as the country approaches Parliamentary elections in February 2016. The Rouhani administration has gained political standing amongst the Iranian citizenry from the deal, and hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards, the Parliament, and the Judiciary are using the supreme leader’s green light for a crackdown to try to weaken Rouhani and his allies.

The seriousness with which hardliners perceive the threats arising from the nuclear deal cannot be overstated. Officials themselves liken the present situation to the periods of greatest threat to the Islamic Republic.

In the November 2, 2015, comments by Revolutionary Guards Commander Jaafari, he called the [post-nuclear deal] era the “fourth sedition,” noting that the Iran–Iraq war was the first (sedition), the 1998 student uprisings the second, and the 2009 post-presidential election protests the third.  He added, “If the public begins to believe that now that we have reached an agreement in the nuclear issue, agreements can be reached in other issues, then that is a danger and sedition.”

The current arrests and those over the last months are a visible expression of the crackdown, but there has also been an intensifying harassment campaign against journalists out of the public eye. Numerous journalists in Iran have been called, harassed and threatened by security and intelligence organizations, the Campaign has learned, in a clear pattern of intimidation.

This pattern has a precedent: In January 2012, two months before Iran’s previous Parliamentary election, a wave of arrests of Iranian journalists, bloggers, and civil activists took place. The sitting Minister of Intelligence at that time, Heydar Moslehi, claimed on January 8, 2012, one day after several arrests, that individuals who were pursuing US goals had been arrested, and that the arrested “spies” had been in touch with contact points abroad through social media networks.

Those 2012 elections resulted in a hardline Parliament that has blocked most of Rouhani’s more moderate initiatives and propelled forward ultraconservative and repressive legislation.

“These arrests are a blatant campaign of intimidation,” said Ghaemi. “Rouhani should speak out in defense of his citizens and the international community should forcefully register its utter rejection of such unlawful behavior.”