12/14/2006, 00.00
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Ahmadinejad tightens social control noose

by Dariush Mirzai
By placing his men in top public administration and economy posts, the president is imposing lifestyles and restrictions on freedoms. In universities, “liberal” lecturers have been pensioned off. And then there are indirect methods, like fining taxi drivers if their clients are not “perfectly covered”, thus turning them into watchdogs too.

Teheran (AsiaNews) – A vociferous protest by students from the University of Amir Kabir in Teheran against President Ahmadinejad has confirmed fears of dramatic changes in the field of human rights. These fears were first expressed by many foreign observers in the summer of 2005, when Ahmadinejad had just been voted in. Misgivings were rife although at first glance, it seemed as if nothing had changed: in the north of Teheran, girls continued to walk about “imperfectly covered”, no new laws were introduced by a parliament that was rather hostile to the new president and myriad restrictions, which Khatami could or would not do away with, continued to exist: media censorship, social control and so on.

The first measures taken by Ahmadinejad – a president who however is not the real head of state (this is Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Guide) – consisted of placing his men, who come from the Pasdaran or Bassij revolutionary militias, in posts within the public administration and regime-controlled economic sectors (in effect, 70% of the Iranian economy). These changes appeared to be minor but they paved the way for the application, nearly a year after the election, of a programme of stricter social controls: women (their dress code, personal freedoms and so on), intellectuals, trade unionists and minorities were targeted. This autumn, it seems that the ‘Ahmadinejad’ programme has entered a new phase. An official of the municipality of Teheran denounced: “Last year they did not touch our hierarchy but last week, a new director-general appeared, a total surprise. He is a Pasdaran. He put a prayer mat in his office and on his desk, his computer has made way for a big book stand for the reading of the Koran. He gathered us all and explained that first of all, we must pray and respect religious proscriptions, so things would function more smoothly in Teheran. And then, he said we must put an end to all cooperation with foreign countries and towns, because it is useless. It is enough just to pray.” An employee of the Internal Affairs Ministry said she, together with her colleagues, had received new instructions: it is no longer licit to carry a handbag unless it is black. “The pressure is nearly always on,” said another. “Those of us who work for the public authorities are subjected to even more restrictions.” In other cases, like universities, the method used consists of changing rectors (this was done in 2005) and, as is happening now, pensioning off dozens of lecturers who are held to be “too liberal”.

The functioning of the Iranian system largely depends on informing and indirect responsibility. The taxi driver who accepts to give a ride to an “imperfectly covered” woman risks a fine or even more severe penalties – so he must always keep an eye on the rearview mirror, not because of the chaotic traffic but because of passengers. Some shopkeepers have found a way of living in peace and showing loyalty to the regime: stickers at the entrance of the shop indicate that only “properly covered” women are accepted.

The dictatorship is not complete – there is ample space for “freedom” or rather grey areas and de facto tolerance. For the regime, this is a sort of safety valve. And it is very useful to allow some freedom in exchange for information and perhaps a bit of money too. Controls linked to trips abroad are significant. Anyone wanted to leave Iran must ask for an “exit visa” after having obtained a visa for the country he is about to visit. The cost of this stamp on one’s passport depends on one’s destination – the most expensive is Dubai, where many Iranians with Canadian or US passports “change citizenship” and proceed with their journey to less “Islamic” destinations. The “exit visa”, however, is also a means of compelling people to go to vote. An Iranian ID card, in fact, is a booklet that is used for voting purposes too: participation in elections is indicated by a stamp on the document. Systematic abstention is not banned – but then, it may be more difficult to get papers and permits from official bodies, like exit visas, for example. This system was already in place before Ahmadinejad’s time, but the grey areas have shrunk: social control is growing not least thanks to self-censorship and collective discipline.

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