Joan Smith: Iran is employing its old tricks to quell internal dissent

The theocratic regime is creating an artificial crisis over its nuclear ambitions
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In the current atmosphere of suspicion and loathing, any state which annoys the United States and Israel is bound to win friends. This is especially true when that state is America's old enemy Iran, which skilfully exploits Western double standards on a whole range of issues. I've even heard people express sympathy with the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as though Iran is a model democracy courageously standing up to bullying from the Bush administration.

This could not be more misguided. Iran has long been a terror state, sponsoring organisations such as the Lebanese terrorist group Hizbollah. But anyone who knows the country's history will recognise that the theocratic regime is up to its old tricks, creating an artificial crisis - on this occasion over its nuclear ambitions - to unite the population and quell dissent. I'm not saying that the Iranian government doesn't pose a threat to international stability but right now its chief victims - and here there are parallels with Iraq under Saddam Hussein - are Ahmadinejad's own people.

A year ago, the regime publicly hanged two young gay men; some reports suggest the victims, who died a lingering death by strangulation, were as young as 17. Last month, police armed with batons and pepper spray broke up a demonstration in Tehran by about 200 women demanding equal divorce and marriage rights.

Women are not allowed to stand in elections - all 89 female candidates were barred from taking part last summer - but they are allowed to join the police, leading to bizarre scenes in which policewomen ripped off their chadors to grapple with demonstrators wearing headscarves and jeans.

Bloggers used the internet, the only medium that isn't completely controlled by Iran's strict censorship laws, to publish photographs of the hangings and the women's protest. Almost 100 newspapers have been closed and writers, journalists and bloggers are routinely arrested. In detention, they are subject to various forms of physical and psychological torture to make them write letters of "repentance" or make confessions on television in a modern version of Stalinist show trials.

I have talked to one dissident, a magazine editor, who had his jaw broken during beatings in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran. On Monday, I spoke to another, the journalist Akbar Ganji, who has recently finished a six-year prison sentence for supposedly "acting against national security".

Ganji has been a thorn in the authorities' side ever since he exposed the involvement of government officials in the murder of Iranian intellectuals and journalists in the 1990s. Later this week he will begin a three-day hunger strike to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners in Iran, including the leader of a bus drivers' strike who has been held in solitary confinement for months.

The human rights situation is steadily getting worse. Amnesty International documented 94 executions last year and many cases of torture, including that of Arezoo Siabi Shahrivar, a photographer arrested in September when she took part in a ceremony commemorating the 1988 massacre in Evin prison in which thousands of political prisoners were executed. During her detention she was suspended from the ceiling, beaten with a wire cable and sexually abused.

In fact, according to Ganji, Iran has fewer political prisoners than might be expected, a circumstance he ascribes to the regime's success in terrorising its own people. It does not allow organised political activities, opposition figures are isolated and elections are a sham, with more than 1,000 presidential candidates disqualified last year by the Council of Guardians, which reviews laws and policies to make sure they meet Islamic standards. "The important thing is that there should be an atmosphere of repression," Ganji told me. "If the regime succeeds in doing that, it doesn't need political prisoners."

What it has done very successfully is manipulate the Bush administration, using rhetoric which is popular on Iranian streets - arguably Ahmadinejad's primary audience - while driving the Americans and Israelis into a frenzy. "The issue of nuclear weapons is being used to obscure the question of human rights," Ganji says, a judgement which confirms the need for an urgent re-think of Western policy towards Iran.

Responding in a calm, measured way to the Iranian President's inflammatory statements would be a good start; negotiations on the nuclear issue should continue without American or Israeli grandstanding, unless the international community as a whole is convinced that there is a genuine crisis. In the meantime, Western governments should talk to both the Iranian government and the Iranian people, using every kind of modern technology, including radio broadcasts, to encourage democracy and human rights.

If there is one thing we know about Iranian theocracy - it has been demonstrated time and time again since the Islamic revolution - it is that it needs to be embattled. If it were genuinely popular, it would not need to maintain such an iron grip or depend so heavily on the paranoid rhetoric that has been its hallmark since the overthrow of the Shah. Taking away the regime's victim status may be the one sure way of removing its raison d'être.