Middle East


Crackdown on Intellectuals

Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie (L) at a joint press conference with Iraqi Minister of State for Security Shirwan al-Waili (R) in Tehran on Jan. 14. (Photo: AFP-Getty Images)

As the international community, alarmed over an allegedly suspicious nuclear program, is stepping up pressures on Iran through United Nations sanctions, the Islamic Republic in return has accelerated its pressures on Iranian intellectuals that it accuses of "conspiracy against the system."

Increased incidents in which journalists and intellectuals have been barred from traveling abroad and individuals who attend international forums and conferences outside the country have been prosecuted, has led to what Human Rights Watch describes as a "national house arrest" on the elite.

Targets of the newly-launched crackdown include a diverse group of Iranian intellectuals including women's rights advocates, university activists and lecturers, writers, and most notably journalists, resulting in such persons being cut off from international cultural, civil and political interaction.

In the latest instance of this clampdown, Ali Farahbakhsh, a journalist and economist, was arrested on Nov. 27, 2006 on his way back from Bangkok, Thailand after attending a conference on the issue of "Government and the Media," organized by Thai NGOs.

Farahbakhsh spent 40 days in detention before the news of his arrest was formally announced. Nearly four months after his detention, Tehran's judicial authorities announced that the former reform press journalist had been sentenced to three years in prison.

"Mr. Farahbakhsh has been convicted of espionage and receiving money from foreign sources" said his lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaee, stating that his client protested the ruling.

According to the verdict issued by the Islamic Revolutionary Court, Farahbakhsh had allegedly received $2,300 from "foreign sources," with no more details made public.

Human rights activists have expressed deep concern over the health condition of the journalist, who is currently in Tehran's Evin prison and suffers from severe heart problems, according to his parents.

Two days after the verdict against Farahbakhsh was issued, Iran's Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie, in response to the questions concerning the heaviness of the sentence stated that, "The individuals who gather information from inside of the country and provide it to the enemy will be strongly confronted."

This remark from Iran's top intelligence official raised the question of what the criteria was for this alleged information providing, and where exactly the red line was for scholars attending international events.

The fact is that Farahbakhsh, like many others who have been arrested on similar charges, is only an ordinary researcher and journalist. In a conservative country like Iran, in which a large percentage of the political, economical, and even social data is considered "classified" and access to it denied to non-governmentally approved researchers, how could a regular journalist obtain information which if revealed could endanger the country's "national security"? And if Farahbakhsh did not have access to any "top secret" information in order to allegedly "provide it to enemies," then exactly where does the tolerance threshold of the Islamic Republic stand?

However, a hypothesis regarding the travel bans and arrests of intellectuals suggests that the recent stance of the Islamic Republic is only a preemptive strike aimed at confining the flow of information.

Following the mounting pressures by the international community on Tehran and the reestablishment of a view which suggests that after the failure of the reform movement a regime change in Iran is the only way to reach freedom, Iranian authorities have intensified pressures on the elite as an intimidation technique in order to preemptively curb any possible future organized opposition within the country.

Perhaps one of the first examples of the aforementioned wave of intimidation against intellectuals who travel abroad could be traced back to last year's arrest and prosecution of the prominent Iranian-Canadian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo.

Jahanbegloo was arrested on his way to India and was charged with espionage after spending months in Evin prison. He was accused of being involved in a "conspiracy for a Velvet Revolution" in Iran.

The scholar was later released from prison, and accepted the charges in an interview with the semi-official ISNA news agency on the day of his departure. Human right activists have described the confession as being "false," and provided in trade for his release.

According to human rights watchdogs, there have been other cases similar to those of Farahbakhsh and Jahanbegloo:

  • On Feb. 4 two prominent reform activists, Hashem Aghajari and Abdollah Momeni, were prevented from departing on a plane to attend an international conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on political reform in Iran. Aghajari is a history professor at Tehran's Tarbiat Modarres University, and Momeni is a spokesman for an organization of former student activists.

  • On Jan. 26, 15 female journalists were detained for questioning by Ministry of Intelligence as they were about to take a flight from Tehran to attend an educational workshop on journalism in India. Twelve of the women were freed after several hours, but warned that they should not attend the training or they could face unspecified consequences on their return to Iran. Three others — Farnaz Seyfi, Mansoureh Shojaie and Tala'at Taghiniya — were taken to Evin Prison and held for 24 hours before being released. They are now accused of "acting against state security" on account of their planned participation in the workshop.

  • On Jan. 13 security forces at the airport prevented Taghi Rahmani, a writer and civil society activist, from traveling to Copenhagen, where the PEN Association of Denmark had invited him to deliver a series of lectures.

  • In November 2006, 21 Iranian journalists were detained at Tehran's airport on their return from training in the Netherlands, and were questioned for several hours. Their laptops, notebooks and other material were confiscated. Some of them subsequently reported being summoned for questioning by the intelligence services.

Some other elite individuals, who according to watchdogs have been barred from leaving the country, include members of the directing board of Iran's Journalists Syndicate Issa Saharkhiz; reformist journalist and founder of the Organization for the Defense of Prisoners' Rights Emadoddin Baghi; journalist and women's rights activist Fatemeh Govarai; and theologian seminary lecturer Ahmad Ghabel.

Contrary to what Iran's intelligence minister asserts, none of the mentioned individuals have been in a position to provide any particularly "sensitive" information to the conferences that they were about to attend.

On the other hand, and from the legal point of view, foreign travel bans can only be issued in Iran by court order for persons "formally accused of criminal offenses." However, neither the activists nor journalists subject to being barred from traveling abroad have been charged with such an offense.

Meanwhile, many observers believe that the new crackdown has a close connection with the mounting international pressures on Tehran.

In most cases where travel is barred, judiciary and intelligence officials' accusations against intellectuals of "conspiracy for Velvet Revolution" are of the same kind experienced in some former Eastern Bloc countries during the Communist era. Iranian authorities claim that the conferences which the aforementioned individuals were invited to could follow a path leading to regime change in Iran, and thus presumably consider them as a threat to the Islamic Republic.

However, except for Ramin Jahanbegloo whose "confession" on the same day of his release rang the familiar tone for many activists of previously coerced statements from political figures, other banned individuals have so far rejected such accusations.

In the case of Ali Farahbakhsh, his family has told Human Rights Watch that, "before detaining him, the security services took him in for interrogation each day and pressured him to make confessions that he had endangered national security. After he refused, the authorities detained him."

Nevertheless, apart from intimidating intellectuals, a closer look at the whole atmosphere surrounding the recent accusations concerning plots of a "Velvet Revolution" suggests that the situation is possibly being utilized as a "media feed" for the Islamic Republic on a larger scale in order to convince the Iranian public that foreigners are actually interfering in Iran. The country's authorities have long been accusing "foreign hands" for its misfortunes.

This populist goal, regardless of being true or false, can at least buy some publicity for a government that is situated in an intense confrontation with the West.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Niusha Boghrati.