August 26, 2023

By David S. Cloud

The Wall Street Journal

Iranian authorities are arresting activists and pressuring citizens not to resume antigovernment protests, seeking to head off a new outbreak of civil disobedience around the anniversary of last year’s nationwide demonstrations.

The tactics signaled deepening concerns among Iran’s clerical leadership that the grievances that sparked protests last year haven’t abated, and that a resumption of clashes that brought parts of the country to a near standstill remains possible, even though calm has reigned for months.

Last year’s protests began in mid-September, set off by the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s strict Islamic dress code. Demands for greater freedom quickly escalated into calls for the overthrow of the clerical leadership, in one of the biggest challenges to the Islamic Republic since its founding four decades ago.

In putting down the protests over four months, government officials vacillated between violent tactics and conciliation. At least 537 people were killed by security forces and at least 22,000 people were arrested, according to Iran Human Rights, an Oslo-based group that tracks judicial actions inside Iran. The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency cited a similar number of arrests.

The arrests in recent weeks of activists and government critics have occurred across Iran, including in the country’s Kurdish areas, which in 2022 saw some of the most violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces. Many of the detained are women and students, who in many cases were at the forefront of last year’s unrest, staging campus sit-ins and chanting slogans critical of Iran’s clerical authorities.

Authorities have raided the homes of other Iranians who participated in last year’s protests and family members of protesters killed in the unrest, ordering them to sign pledges not to join new demonstrations, according to human-rights groups.

“They are going after people who can potentially lead protests or those that follow them,” said Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of Iran Human Rights. “What the regime is hoping is that they manage to reassert control and that people lose faith.”

Nearly 3,000 students have been summoned to disciplinary committees at universities and pressured to promise that they won’t engage in protests, said Skylar Thompson, the senior advocacy coordinator at Human Rights Activists in Iran, a U. S-based group that documents allegations of human-rights violations in Iran.

One woman in Tehran who was arrested in last year’s demonstrations told The Wall Street Journal that she received a telephone call three weeks ago ordering her to report to the Ministry of Intelligence. There, she said, she was forced to sign a document promising she wouldn’t join protests again.

In Gilan province, northwest of Tehran on the Caspian Sea, 11 women’s-rights activists and one man were arrested in multiple raids Wednesday, according to a social-media post from Bidarzani, a women’s-rights group. Prosecutors refused to provide information to families about the charges, Bidarzani said.

The semiofficial Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said the dozen individuals have a “history of numerous anti-security activities over the past year’s riots” and were “preparing unrest and insecurity” in the province.

On Thursday, Sadeq Rahimi, the deputy chief of Iran’s judiciary, said security and intelligence services are monitoring potential protesters. Any resumption of protests will be dealt with harshly and participants will be prosecuted and no pardons will be granted, he said, according to Iran’s official judiciary news service Mizan.

“If the small number of such people are seen that would want to take to the street and break norms in the coming days with any excuse, causing problems for the country and the people, they will be tracked down and delivered to the judiciary system,” Rahimi said.

Many protesters who were arrested in last year’s unrest have been granted pardons since February, in a move by the government to keep the protests from recurring.

This time, said Thompson, authorities “are taking pre-emptive action to stifle any possible resurgence of popular unrest.”

Among those taken into custody in recent days are Nasrin Alizadeh, whose sister was killed during the 2022 protests in the city of Chalus. She was arrested Wednesday by security forces at her Isfahan residence and taken to an undisclosed location, according to Human Rights Activists News Agency. Her deceased sister’s husband was taken into custody a week earlier.

Amnesty International, a London-based rights group, said in a report this month that it had evidence that 33 families of protesters killed last year had been targeted by authorities for harassment and intimidation in 10 cities.

Security forces recently raided the family home of 21-year-old Houman Abdollahi, who died last December after being shot with metal pellets during antigovernment protests in the predominantly Kurdish city of Sanandaj, Amnesty said.

The family had pressed publicly for authorities to identify and prosecute their son’s killer, but they were told “they will be harmed if they continue their advocacy efforts,” Amnesty said.