Nothing - neither economic sanctions nor the threat of military action - worries the regime in Tehran more than the fear of a "soft revolution". The Islamic theocracy is showing signs of panic, says Bahman Nirumand
A spectre is on the prowl in Iran — the spectre of a "soft revolution." It is a major topic, often the object of analytical articles, and it has been making headlines in the conservative press for months.
It became an issue after both the government and public opinion began to be convinced that, while the USA had put aside its plans for a military intervention in Iran, at least for the time being, it had not given up its intention of encouraging regime change.
According to the commentators, the change in the public perception of the Iraq war among the American people had led the US government to the view that a war against Iran would be even more catastrophic than the war against Iraq.
As a result, the regime should be brought down not with weapons but by other means. Among them could be the creation of a front of Sunni states in opposition to Iran's dominant Shiites, the encouragement of ethnic and religious conflicts inside Iran, or the mobilisation of the mainly secular Iranian civil society against the country's theocratic rulers.
Pressure from outside, pressure on the inside
Such attempts by the USA are certainly underway, and if one observes everything which, in spite of the authorities' rigorous filtering, gets into the country via the Internet or on smuggled videos and DVDs, it is clear that they are having an effect. They awaken desires and yearnings, especially among young people, which can never be fulfilled within the dominant system.
It is therefore no wonder that the regime feels threatened and reacts accordingly. The most recent cause for panic was provided by an official announcement by the US Department of State that it had made 78 million dollars available to support activities in Iran aimed at liberty and democracy.
This massive pressure from outside is not just a threat to the government; it puts Iranian civil society, the active opposition, into a precarious, even desperate situation.
Protests denounced as being directed from abroad
The regime deliberately makes no distinction between provocations and attempts to undermine it which come from outside and the activities of critical citizens within the country. On the contrary, the fact that the West is known to be carrying out such activities is used as a justification, so that any social and political criticism or activity which displeases the government can be denounced as being directed from abroad.
The state's propaganda apparatus is operating at full power with the aim of putting women, students, journalists, artists, academics and human rights activists under the suspicion of being agents of foreign secret services.
Even a strike by teachers, who have been calling for years for improvements to their pay, and a strike by factory workers and bus drivers demanding independent unions have been linked to foreign influence. And everyone who travels abroad to take part in a conference or a training course runs the risk of being suspected of being an agent.
Forced confessions broadcast on state television
Over the last few months, this has led to a series of arrests. It does not matter when, how, or under what pretence someone is arrested, the prosecutors find exactly the same formulations for the charges: activities against the order of the state and national security, and cooperation with foreign secret services or embassies.
A large number of those arrested have been forced under torture to make confessions. They admit they have been in contact with foreign organisations and their activities have been financed from abroad. The forced confessions are recorded and broadcast on state television.
The journalist Siamak Purzand, for example, admitted to receiving money from abroad and distributing it among journalists critical of the regime.
The internationally renowned sociologist and cultural studies expert, Ramin Djahanbeyglu, said on camera that he had made contact with US and Israeli secret service officials while he was attending conferences abroad and had received an assignment to prepare a study on the chances for a "soft revolution" in Iran.
The Iranian minister for culture and Islamic leadership has accused critical journalists of supporting plans to carry out a putsch against the government. In early July, the minister told the state news agency IRNA, "There are signs in the press of a gradual coup."
The conservative Internet newspaper "Baztab" reported that the ministry of education had written to university professors, requiring them to register their plans to travel abroad in advance. Whether their trip was for research or holiday, the ministry had to be informed about the plans in detail.
Since Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has become president, hundreds of university teachers who have been accused of spreading Western ways of thinking have been forced into retirement.
Students and women are targeted
The minister in charge of the secret services, Mohsen Ejehi, has accused women and students of letting themselves be instrumentalised as "carriers of the soft overthrow."
He said a conspiracy of the enemies of the Islamic Republic was under way, with plans to bring about a "soft overthrow of the state" with the help of the students' and women's movements. Some groups had even been invited abroad and given training for that purpose. Money and propaganda were being made available to try to divide the masses of the people from the government and to make the government look incompetent.
The minister emphasised that not everyone who was involved in the activities was necessarily a paid agent. But such people made themselves guilty if they took part in the activities and let themselves be used as part of the strategy.
The poison of denunciation
The secretary of state in the interior ministry, Mohammad Bagher Zolghadr, has also warned of the existence of a "soft threat" aimed at destabilising the system.
Washington was trying to influence the Iranian press as well as non-governmental organisations. These machinations must "be put a stop to as quickly as possible," he said. Zolghadr was deputy commander of the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards before he was called to the interior ministry.
The continual accusations have led the initiators of a women's campaign which is collecting a million signatures calling for equal rights for both sexes to issue a public statement in which they declare that they have never received any financial assistance from abroad and will not take such assistance in the future.
The mistrust sown by the regime has had devastating consequences. It leads to fear and insecurity on the part of critics, who subject themselves to permanent self-censorship.
Even within the opposition, those whose activities are registered by the foreign media find themselves becoming objects of suspicion. Foreign human rights organisations, unions, associations and institutions which want to support Iranian civil society are forced to keep a low profile, in order not to put their contacts at risk.
The atmosphere is drenched with the poison of conspiracy theories, suspicions and denunciations; this is a deadly situation for the opposition, but for the radical Islamists, it is the best weapon they could have against the "soft revolution."
© Neue Zürcher Zeitung / Qantara.de 2007
Bahman Nirumand was born in Tehran in 1936. He is now a writer based in Berlin. He is considered one of the most renowned experts on Iran in Germany.