Iran is crackind down on a press it accuses of fostering a "creeping coup."
Ham Mihan, a pro-reform newspaper, and the ILNA online news agency were both shut down by the authorities last Tuesday. The reformist and liberal press has been criticizing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for failing to deliver on his electoral promise to improve the economy but the regime is interpreting any negative press as proof of a plot.
"There are some signs of a creeping coup in the press," Culture Minister Hossein Saffar Harandi said on Saturday. Speaking to the Iranian news agency ISNA, he said that meant "a person moving within a framework of action to overthrow (the system)."
The government has accused the United States of using intellectuals and activists to undermine the Islamic Republic and engender a "soft revolution." President Ahmadinejad is now reported to have set up a special unit to counter "black propaganda against the government." And Iran even launched its own English-language news channel, Press TV, last week in a bid to break what it called the West's "stranglehold" over the world's media.
Mohammad Jafar Behdad, Ahmadinejad's communications advisor, told the Shargh newspaper this weekend that "the daily plots against the government plans and actions have turned into direct insults and mockery of the president." And the president's press officer, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, told the same paper: "As long as some publications serve the agenda of parties and power-seeking groups, relevant authorities should intervene."
Journalists are under intense pressure not to step out of line in an increasingly intolerant Iran. Since 2000 Iran's Press Supervisory Board and judiciary have closed down more than 100 publications, although many simply reopened or changed names. Observers see this as part of a wider squeeze on intellectuals, feminists, trade unionists and pro-reform students.
Four Iranian-Americans are currently under arrest, charged with spying after being identified as part of a US-led plot aimed at toppling the mullah regime. A number of women's rights activists have been arrested in recent months, accused of undermining national security.
Sanctions Are Having an Impact
The crackdown is thought to be linked to the rising international pressure over Iran's nuclear ambitions. The West accuses Tehran of using its civilian nuclear energy program to build atomic bombs and there are now moves to impose a third round of United Nations sanctions.
The new British Foreign Minister David Miliband said Monday that he was ready to work on a third resolution. "We think it's very, very important that the international community remains clear and united on this issue," he told the Financial Times. He said Iran "has every right to be a secure, rich country," but "doesn’t have the right to set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East."
The two UN sanctions imposed in December 2006 and March 2007 have already made deep inroads on Iran's foreign trade and pushed up inflation. Although Iran is rich in crude oil, and is the second biggest oil exporter in OPEC, it has limited refining capacity and cannot make many improvements due to the sanctions. This has forced it to import more than half of the gasoline consumed in the country. Last year these imports cost Tehran an estimated 5 billion.
In late June the government attempted to reduce its reliance on imports by imposing a system of rationing for subsized gasoline. The move caused widespread unrest in the country, with many gas stations set alight and frustrated Iranians shouting slogans like "death to the president."
Iranians Frustrated with Ailing Economy
Undeterred the Iranian leader is now pushing through energy price increases. Up to now even big companies have only had to pay a few cents for electricity. Political observers in Tehran see the move as highly risky. While many Iranians feel they have a right to cheap gas and electricity, the president is now asking them to make the sacrifice of paying more for energy and managing with less fuel while cracking down on any critical voices. It is particularly the poor who are angry, as Ahmadinejad specifically promised to represent their interests in his presidential election campaign in 2005.
Mohammed Atrianfar, a liberal commentator and policy director at the newly banned Ham Mihan, told the Guardian newspaper: "The government is angry because the media sees the difference between its slogans and performance." But he insists that "the number of critical newspapers is very low and cannot conduct anything against the government that could be described as a coup."
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