After months of attention to nuclear talks, the notable shift in Iran in the last week was on the domestic front, with key members of the regime using a campaign against “sedition” to box in President Rouhani on issues such as political prisoners.
The initial platform for the campaign was the 4th anniversary of the Ashura protests, in which demonstrators challenged — and pushed back — security forces who had repressed them since the disputed 2009 Presidential election. The Supreme Leader’s office said the “sin” of “sedition” was unforgivable, and politicians, the judiciary, and hard-line media all indicated that political prisoners should not be given leniency.
However, after the December 30 anniversary passed, the campaign did not ebb. To the contrary, the Tehran Friday Prayer Leader said the 2009 protests were “worse than the Iran-Iraq War”, and the head of State broadcaster IRIB said authorities “must seriously confront the ‘Heads of Sedition’ and stop tolerating them”.
There was trouble also for a key ally of the Ahmadinejad Government. Authorities confirmed the arrest of billionaire Babak Zanjani on charges linked to the Social Security Fund, headed by Presidential advisor Saeed Mortazavi, in the Ahmadinejad years.
On the nuclear front, Iran’s negotiators said agreement had been reached to implement the interim six-month deal over uranium enrichment and sanctions from January 20.
The immediate effect of the campaign against “sedition” will be to tie President Rouhani’s hands over any move to release prominent political prisoners or lift the 35-month house arrests of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi.
The campaign is also likely to stymie any consideration by the Rouhani Government of further relaxing censorship and opening up cultural space.
The silver lining, if there is one, is that the attention to domestic “sedition” has temporarily shifted the focus from challenging Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy. However, one MP warned that a bill mandating enrichment of uranium to 60% could be passed within the next two weeks.