At risk of reigniting unrest, Iranian leaders are tightening the brakes on dissent

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s religious leaders are cracking down on dissent ahead of the anniversary of the death of a young woman in morality custody, fearing a resumption of nationwide protests that have rocked the Islamic Republic for months.

Journalists, lawyers, activists, human rights defenders and students have been arrested, summoned or otherwise subjected to a campaign that one activist described as “instilling fear and bullying”.

In February, Iran’s justice system announced a broad amnesty, which included releases, pardons or sentence reductions for those arrested, charged or detained during the previous unrest.

Iranian judicial authorities were not immediately available to comment on the current situation.

However, senior officials have defended the new crackdown as necessary to maintain stability. But some politicians and insiders said the growing crackdown could deepen a crisis between religious leaders and society at large at a time of growing popular discontent over economic hardship.

Police announced on Sunday that vice squads have stepped up a crackdown on women who flout the mandatory dress code. In a show of civil disobedience, unveiled women have frequently appeared in public since the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini on September 16.

Amini fell into a coma and died three days later after being arrested by vice squad for allegedly breaking the Islamic dress code.

The incident sparked years of pent-up anger on issues ranging from tightening social and political controls to economic hardship, triggering the clerical establishment’s worst crisis of legitimacy in decades.

Security forces crushed months of unrest in which protesters from all walks of life called for the fall of the Islamic Republic and women removed and burned the compulsory headscarf in fury.

A former senior Iranian official said authorities should not ignore the realities on the ground this time around.

“People are still angry about Amini’s death and they are frustrated because of their daily struggle to bring food to their tables,” the former manager said, asking not to be identified.

“These bad decisions can have painful consequences for the establishment. People can’t take any more pressure. If this continues, we will see street protests again.”

Social media was awash with furious comments from Iranians criticizing the return of the vice police, who had largely disappeared from the streets since Amini died in their custody.

Rights advocates said the state stepped up its crackdown to “get people off the streets” ahead of the anniversary of Amini’s death.

“The Islamic Republic feels threatened. By redeploying the morality police, the regime is fueling the people’s revolution,” said Atena Daemi, a prominent human rights activist in Iran.

“People are very angry about the repression, rights abuses and worsening economic problems. All of this will lead to renewed street protests.”

Iran’s former president, pro-reform cleric Mohammad Khatami, denounced such moves as “self-destructive” that “would make society even more inflamed than before”, Iranian media reported.

Iran has been hit by the double hammer blows of continued US sanctions over its nuclear program and its mismanagement which offers little comfort to middle and low income Iranians who bear much of the burden of economic woes, from inflation of over 50% to rising prices for utilities, food and housing.

The mood is ominous for a parliamentary election slated for next February, when Iranian leaders are hoping for a high turnout to show their legitimacy, even if the result won’t change any major policies.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Michael Georgy and Angus MacSwan)

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