Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is taking his own government to task for a recent crackdown on freedom of expression.
"We shouldn't arrest one or two people just like that for nothing, with some excuse, and make cases against them, and then blow it out of proportion," Rouhani said at a cabinet meeting this week.
Journalists Issa Saharkhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarin Chitsaz, Saman Safarzaee, were all rounded up in the last six days — another unnamed journalist has been arrested as well. Nizar Zakka and Siamak Namazi, two businessmen with ties to the United States were also detained in the past two months. The Revolutionary Guard, an elite force that reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, arrested the journalists and businessmen.
The arrests and Rouhani's comments are just the latest signs of a growing political fissure between the more reformist wing of the Iranian political class — headed by the president — and the hardliners to his right. While Rouhani has often clashed with these hardliners, his most recent remarks are some of the most explicit public comments repudiating conservatives in the security establishment.
Since Iran inked a nuclear deal with the US and world powers last summer, Ayatollah Khamenei — who has the final word on policy in Iran — has made it clear that the agreement should not be interpreted by Iranian as sign of political opening. That view is also held by Iran's Revolutionary Guard and the civilian militia the Basij, which forms the backbone of the Supreme Leader's political support.
Last week, Khamenei repeated warnings to be vigilant against "political and cultural penetration." That's a common euphemism that describes the attitudes of the more cultural liberal urban elite that tend to support President Rouhani.
Rouhani ran for president in 2013 on a platform of ending US-imposed sanctions, a promise he seems to be delivering on. That is making hardliners nervous, said Saeid Golkar, a visiting fellow for Iran policy at the Chicago Council. Khamenei's implicit critique of Rouhani is part of an effort by the hardliners to reassert themselves.
"Rouhani's camp has become more popular after the nuclear deal, so the hardliners are trying to make clear that the game is the old game," Golkar said. "In other words: there is no new sheriff in town."
Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari issued another threat this past week at a press conference held to denounce western "penetration" of Iranian society. He repeated the position that the Supreme Leader has taken: That the nuclear arrangement is a one-off deal, and should not lead to warmer relations with the US or other foreign powers."
"[There is a belief] among the people that since the nuclear deal there is an agreement and so on other issues we can reach an agreement," he said. "This is a danger and a sedition."
As Jafari was speaking, the Revolution Guard was in the midst of rounding up leading Iranian journalists. Four out of the five of those arrested are known to be supportive of President Rouhani. Golkar said that is not a coincidence.
"We will see more arrests of people — professors, media professionals, students — who are linked with the moderate or reformist camps," he said.
In February, Iranians will go to the polls to elect a new constituent assembly, and the recent crackdown is perhaps a signal to reformers that swift political change will not be tolerated.
"I see it as an election strategy," Golkar said. "It's to designed to help hardliners at the polls."
Meanwhile, human rights groups are calling on Iran to ease up on its embattled journalists.
"Iran's jails are already packed with journalists who are facing spurious charges, said Sherif Mansour, Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
"[They are there] for the simple act of voicing criticism or independent views."
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