Regime-Change Fears Drive Iran's Vice Crackdown

Article excerpt

It is no secret in Iran: Authorities have gone out of their way to publicize a crackdown against thugs and smugglers that has also enveloped academics and women whose dress is deemed "un-Islamic."

Masked police dressed like black-clad storm-troopers have been arresting, humiliating, and parading criminals. Cameras follow cops on nighttime raids against drug dealers that net hundreds in a single night.

But analysts say that what appeared to be just another cleanup when it began last spring is proving to be a strategic effort to protect the regime from "vulnerabilities" that could be exploited by archenemies such as the United States. Picking up criminals and intimidating all potential opponents of clerical rule, they say, aims to prevent a repeat of history by preempting violence that could spin out of control.

"The girls are not the target," says an Iranian journalist, noting that many women still deliberately flout the rules. "The core reason is dealing harshly with thugs. Now they are preempting - they are keeping a potential threat from growing," says the journalist. "They are looking at modern history [and] going onto the Internet."

That history shows how the CIA in 1953 staged a coup against Iran's popular Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq. A crucial factor in its success were mobs organized by CIA-paid agents to rampage and take over the streets; others soon joined the rioters.

And on the Internet, Iran's security services have become familiar with American regime-change neoconservatives such as Michael Ledeen, who has argued that with US support, "we could liberate Iran in less than a year."

The Iranian journalist paraphrases those ideas - and the threat perceived from them - this way: "In the war with Iran, the US will not be the foot soldiers," but will "just provide the trigger" for Iranians to rise and topple the government.

In Iran, anticriminal measures against those called "knife- pullers" in Farsi are widely lauded. Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei, has told police that they "must strongly continue with the 'social security plan' ... so that its goals are institutionalized in society."

But in one of the most far-reaching drives since the 1979 Islamic revolution, enforcement has spread far beyond criminal offenders to young women showing too much hair and Western-educated academics accused of being "agents" for US-inspired regime change.

This past weekend, 24 Internet cafes and coffeehouses were shut down in a sweep of 435 such locales, Reuters reported. Police said they were shut for "using immoral computer games [and] storing obscene photos." A fresh "winter" crackdown was announced last week on un-Islamic dress, which includes women's high boots.

"Their vulnerable spot is these 'Westoxicated' Iranians - the threat is not military attack, but Iranians who 'live differently from us,' who listen to the West," says a veteran analyst who asked not to be named. "Many would follow those [thugs] who are willing to attack."

Iran's new Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in late September that the "main responsibility" of his forces is to counter "internal threats." One vigilante newspaper has railed against the risks of "freedom."

The morality enforcement is a reversal in some ways. For years, conventional wisdom held that conservatives would not risk a serious social crackdown, fearing a popular backlash that could threaten their grip on power. But women and labor activists have been arrested as well as students who have staged protests against the president and government policies in the past year. Three who have been in prison for eight months - their fate sparking a number of demonstrations - are to be released Saturday, acquitted of "insulting religious values" and other charges.

Amnesty International notes that the number of executions has risen from 177 in 2006 to more than 210 so far this year. …