NEW YORK TIMES: Iran Expanding Effort to Stifle the Opposition

Nov 24, 20090 comments

Published: November 23, 2009

NYT6000BDAMASCUS, Syria — After last summer’s disputed presidential election, Iran’s government relied largely on brute force — beatings, arrests and show trials — to stifle the country’s embattled opposition movement. Now, stung by the force and persistence of the protests, the government appears to be starting a far more ambitious effort to discredit its opponents and re-educate Iran’s mostly young and restive population. In recent weeks, the government has announced a variety of new ideological offensives. It is implanting 6,000 Basij militia centers in elementary schools across Iran to promote the ideals of the Islamic Revolution, and it has created a new police unit to sweep the Internet for dissident voices. A company affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards acquired a majority share in the nation’s telecommunications monopoly this year, giving the Guards de facto control of Iran’s land lines, Internet providers and two cellphone companies. And in the spring, the Revolutionary Guards plan to open a news agency with print, photo and television elements. The government calls it “soft war,” and Iran’s leaders often seem to take it more seriously than a real military confrontation. It is rooted in an old accusation: that Iran’s domestic ills are the result of Western cultural subversion and call for an equally vigorous response. The extent of the new campaign underscores just how badly Iran’s clerical and military elite were shaken by the protests, which set off the worst internal dissent since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been using the phrase “soft war” regularly since September, when he warned a group of artists and teachers that they were living in an “atmosphere of sedition” in which all cultural phenomena must be seen in the context of a vast battle between Iran and the West. He and other officials have since invoked the phrase in describing new efforts to re-Islamize the educational system, purge secular influences and professors, and purify the media of subversive ideas. The new emphasis on cultural warfare may also reflect the rising influence of the Revolutionary Guards, whose leader, Mohammad Ali Jafari, has long been one of the main proponents of a “soft war” strategy, analysts say. In October, Masud Jazayeri, a leading ideologue within the military’s Joint Forces Command, published a letter in the conservative newspaper Kayhan in which he called for a more aggressive campaign of countersubversion. “If we had a better understanding of the enemy, and if we had sufficient determination and motivation to define the defensive lines,” he wrote, “we would never have allowed the enemy to penetrate our Islamic society.” There have been periodic earlier campaigns to reinforce the government’s Islamist message throughout society. Some analysts say that the new efforts are unlikely to be any more effective than those in the past, and may even backfire. “By trying to gain more control of the media, to re-Islamize schools, they think they can make a comeback,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran expert and professor at Syracuse University. “But the enemy here is Iran’s demographics. The Iranian population is overwhelmingly literate and young, and previous efforts to reinstall orthodoxy have only exacerbated cleavages between citizens and the state.” Still, the idea has returned with new force in the months since the disputed June presidential elections, which brought millions of Iranians into the streets to denounce President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s landslide victory as a fraud. In the weeks that followed, the government’s aura of sacred authority seemed to erode further, with many protesters denouncing Iran’s supreme leader as a dictator for the first time. Iran’s military and clerical leaders made clear soon afterward that they saw in those attacks the signature of a foreign plot, and perhaps a more subtle and insidious one than those of the past. It was, in a sense, the only way for the Iranian leadership to reconcile the internal challenges they were facing with President Obama’s mild calls for reconciliation and engagement. In early September, Brig. Gen. Muhammad Bagher-Zolghadr, the former deputy chief of the Revolutionary Guards, outlined the “soft war” concept in a speech: “In a hard war, the line between you and the enemy is clear, but in a soft war there is nothing so solid. The enemy is everywhere.” General Zolghadr said that a soft war was fought in large part through the media, and that the West was “better equipped” to fight it than Iran. Soon after his speech, the authorities unrolled a series of measures seemingly aimed at redressing that imbalance. This month, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the head of the Basij militia, announced a new era of “super media power” cooperation between the media and the Revolutionary Guards, according to the state-owned official press. The Revolutionary Guards plan to start a news agency called Atlas in the spring, modeled on services like the BBC and The Associated Press, according to semiofficial Iranian news sites. The Revolutionary Guards already largely control the Fars news agency, which reflects views of Iran’s hard-line camp. Two weeks ago Iran formed a 12-person unit to monitor the Internet for “insults and the spreading of lies,” a phrase used to describe opposition activities, the semiofficial media reported. And the government has teamed up with private companies to begin giving out free home Internet filtering software, the semiofficial ILNA news agency reported Monday. The authorities have also cracked down on dissent within the educational system, hinting that professors who do not toe the official line will be purged. A number of hard-line clerics have called for the university humanities curriculums to be Islamized further. Mohammad-Saleh Jokar, the head of the student and cultural section of the Basij, said the group was opening the elementary school centers because “students of this age are more open to influence than older students, and for this reason we want to promote and establish the ideas of the revolution and the Basij,” according to Iran’s official state news agency. But the size and bureaucratic complexity of the school system make such goals profoundly difficult, former teachers say. In the same way, the state’s new efforts to inoculate Iranians against dissident ideas in the media may be difficult — or even counterproductive, analysts say. This month a high-ranking official at IRIB, the state broadcaster, seemed to unwittingly concede the point when he announced that 40 percent of Iranians — twice as many as last year — had access to satellite television in their homes. “The enemy no longer invests in the military to advance their goals,” said the official, Ali Daraei. “Their primary investment is in the media war through satellite channels.” Source: