- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Ali Nikoo Nesbati glanced carefully at the twentysomething couple who sat down at the table next to him. Young and dressed in fashionable Western clothes, they appeared to be natural supporters of the democracy movement that he leads. Yet their decision to sit right next to him — when the rest of the cafe in the secluded Tehran alley was empty — made him suspicious.

“They were probably just ordinary customers,” he whispered, as he walked back out to the street to talk with a reporter elsewhere, “but you never know. We sat in that cafe for 45 minutes, which is long enough for the intelligence services to find out where we are.”

Paranoia is an occupational hazard for activists such as Mr. Nesbati, whose campaign for reform of Iran’s theocratic government have led to constant run-ins with the secret police since the late 1990s.

But that sense of paranoia is greater than ever, as a long-feared crackdown by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the country’s Islamic fundamentalist leader, finally appears to be coming into force.

In what activists say is a “cultural revolution” reminiscent of the Islamic Republic’s turbulent birth in 1979, the regime has turned on its critics in all walks of life, harassing democracy advocates, shutting down dissident publications and dismissing independent-minded government officials and academics.

The onslaught has confounded early hopes that Mr. Ahmadinejad — despite his religious zealotry, harsh rhetoric about Israel and defiance over Iran’s nuclear programs — would not be as aggressive as feared when dealing with internal opponents.

When members of Mr. Nesbati’s democracy group staged a demonstration at Tehran’s Amir Kabir University last December — in which they held photos of the president upside-down and denounced him as a “fascist” — Mr. Ahmadinejad surprised the world by requesting that they not be arrested. He later cited his move as proof of the “absolute, total freedom” Iranians are given.

But the presidential pardon was short-lived. Eight of those protesters have since been jailed, the victims of what Mr. Nesbati said was a state-sponsored plot.

Ahmadinejad said nobody would touch them, but the intelligence agencies smeared them by printing a blasphemous publication which they blamed on the students,” he said. “We believe that was Ahmadinejad’s revenge. We don’t know if he ordered it himself, but we are convinced it was his supporters.”

The students, one of whom has now spent more than two months in jail, are among 70 to have been arrested since Mr. Ahmadinejad came to power. Nearly half of those detained were seized in the past four months.

More than 500 others have been suspended or expelled from college because of political activities, while about 130 student publications and 40 student organizations have been closed.

Infractions typically include “endangering national security,” spreading “rumors and lies” and “having relations with foreign intelligence agencies,” all charges that Mr. Nesbati has faced in his years as an activist.

“They’re not really charges as such. They just assume you are guilty and then ask why you did it,” said Mr. Nesbati, who has been arrested three times. “It’s stressful the first time you’re arrested, but after that it’s not so bad, although it depends what they do to you.”

Activists say the crackdown began in March, when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme spiritual and political leader, made a speech warning against the West’s “psychological warfare.” This was taken to be a reference to Washington’s funding of opposition groups, democracy movements and anti-regime satellite broadcasts.

Women’s rights groups and trade union leaders have reported being harassed, scholars have been put under pressure for refusing to sign anti-Israeli statements and Iran’s press said it has received lists of banned topics, such as the effect of threatened United Nations sanctions.

University professors have been warned against attending conferences abroad, and several visiting Iranian-American academics remain in custody after being charged with espionage.

One Western diplomat in Iran said the situation was “uneasy.”

“The crackdown has been more gradual than people expected, but over the past few months, we have been getting a lot of stories of people being hassled.”

Similar crackdowns took place under President Mohammad Khatami, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s reform-minded predecessor, whose campaign to introduce a more liberal regime was not always heeded by hard-line elements in the security forces.

However, activists say there is no longer a voice in government to speak for them.

“Back then, people would get arrested, but then Khatami would use his influence to get them released,” said Abdullah Momeni, the leader of Tahkim Vahdat, Iran’s largest student organization and a prominent critic of the regime. “Now those who are arrested are not even getting released.”

The attacks come as reformists parties struggle to recover from the internal splits and voter apathy that helped the relatively unknown Mr. Ahmadinejad score an upset victory in the 2005 presidential race. The movement is divided between more conservative elements, who prefer gradual change within the existing clerical system of government, and those who wish to replace the Islamic republic altogether with a Western-style, secular democracy.

Both sides have talked of forming an alliance to defeat Mr. Ahmadinejad in the next presidential elections, set for 2009, but no mutually credible figure has emerged to head it.

The fact that many reformists were still at large to criticize the regime, meanwhile, was not grounds for optimism, Mr. Momeni said.

“Now the judiciary and parliament and president feel so powerful that they don’t really see us as a threat anymore,” he said. “It shows that in a sense, we have lost our status and position in society.”

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