The regime in Tehran is built on Islamic laws with zero-tolerance and Iranian citizens who deviate from these laws are deemed criminals. These “crimes” have nothing to do with “hard” criminal acts such as terrorism, murder, theft or rape, crimes which are viewed around the globe as acts which justify arrests and incarceration. No, these crimes are much “softer” and are based on the repressed freedoms which are taken for granted in the West: criticizing the regime in any way, being a religious or cultural minority, protesting lay-offs , visiting people in jail, dressing up in “Western” fashion, emphasizing female beauty, partying with the opposite sex, drinking alcohol, watching foreign content on the internet or on TV, owning a dog…the list goes on and on and on.
The problem is that enforcing the laws against these “crimes” is turning the majority of Iranians into “criminals” in the eyes of the regime and the regime is reacting the only way it knows how: crackdowns. A bigger problem is that although the regime may view these crackdowns as a show of force but the Iranian population views them as a sign of the inherent weakness of the regime which can only resort to force when faced with the demands for change.
Whether the regime likes it or not, criminalizing so many Iranians is bound to blow up in its face. It’s OK to imprison or execute hardened criminals but when Iranians realize that according to the law, most of them are de facto criminals, they are bound to re-question the legitimacy of these laws and of the regime.
“Everything” can be a crime in Iran
- Criticizing the regime is a crime: the authorities have been cracking down on activists, reporters, bloggers, artists since the signing of the JCPoA. These men and women are arrested, are sometimes flogged and are convicted to long sentences in jail for charges that usually include “spreading propaganda”, “undermining the regime”, “insulting the sacred/regime/Supreme Leader”, “working against national security”, “spying” etc…all legal terms for criticizing the regime and supporting social changes. But these are definitely the “hardcore” few who are willing to risk their careers and their lives to stand up against the regime to fight for change. The majority of “criminals” in this category are much more naive: they may have posted a joke about the regime on social media but since all social media is monitored and censored in Iran and since the authorities have the legal right to search their phones and computers, sharing “critical” content makes them criminals. If every person who shared content which was deemed critical by the regime were arrested, there would not be enough prisons in the world to hold them.
- Partying is a crime: Alcohol and mixed-gender parties are a crime in Iran but the laws against having a good time are no match for the will of younger secular Iranians who want to enjoy themselves. These people aren’t denying all of Islam but are simply demanding the freedom to choose which laws and regulations to observe and which not too. Their exposure to the experiences of Muslims and non-Muslims in other countries convince them that dancing with someone of the opposite sex is not necessarily a crime, nor should it be. Last month, 35 students celebrating at a graduation party were imprisoned and flogged (99 lashes each) and now 50 more students were picked up for the same reason. As one Iranian official stated, “families must be more vigilant regarding their children to make sure they do not end up in such circumstances” and “law-breakers who use excuses such as freedom and having fun in birthday parties and graduation ceremonies” will not be tolerated. Sources within Iran claim that these few arrests belie a situation in which millions of Iranians can be found to be criminals for drinking alcohol or for smoking drugs or for social interactions between non-married people. As younger Iranians grow away from religion, their will to choose how to party is bound to grow creating more tension with the religious autocratic and outdated regime. It’s only a matter of time until these secular youths decide to stand up against the overbearing religious regime.
- Enjoying foreign content is a crime: Every few months, Iranian authorities crack down on Iranians who want access to content and have confiscated satellite dishes which are also illegal in Iran. In the last round of crackdowns, 100,000 dishes were confiscated and destroyed and fines of approximately $2,800 were handed out. The satellite dishes are not meant only for watching foreign TV shows and movies, they are used also for freer access to the internet. The problem is that in a digital age, where there is a demand for content, people will find ways to access it and if they can’t access it through satellite dishes, they will do so through mobile appliances. The minister of culture has estimated that 70% of Iranian homes have satellite dishes or other means of accessing foreign content. In other words, 70% of Iranians are breaking the law! Imagine what would happen if millions of Iranians resisted the authorities’ attempts to confiscate their satellite dishes…
- Dressing up in a “Western” fashion is a crime: The morality police has led another crackdown on women not wearing their hijabs properly. Hundreds of thousands of women are approached, harassed and fined and in some cases, they are arrested as well. But the fear of “improper hijab” is now accompanied by the fear of people wearing clothes with Western words and icons on them and youngsters sporting “Western” haircuts. It’s not clear exactly how a spiked haircut or T-shirt with an American flag or “Don’t Worry, I’m a Queen” written on it can be illegal but the morality police doesn’t really care and the “criminals” who are wearing these clothes feel powerless to fight back. You have to listen to the official take on this “problem” in order to understand just how strained the situation is: “In the early years of the revolution people accepted the hijab without much force, but this trend did not continue and now we have a situation where we are moving from lax observance of the hijab to no hijab at all…the spread of these kinds of products (“Western” clothing) are against public morality and indicate a lack of attention by the officials in charge of cultural matters…there are dirty and disdainful phrases printed on the back of these manteaus and so they should be banned from sale and removed from stores as soon as possible”. Unlike criticizing the regime, partying or enjoying foreign content, the issue of clothes is even more personal since people are harassed on the spot for how they look, what they are wearing and how they are wearing it. Millions of Iranian women want hijab to be worn by choice…millions.
- Owning a pet is a crime: Yep, owning a dog is illegal in Iran but many Iranians went ahead and adopted dogs anyway. But every once in a while, the authorities carry out massive crackdowns on pet-owners by either injecting acid on dogs in the streets or picking up dogs from their houses under the pretext of vaccinations and then making the dogs “disappear”. Nobody knows how many Iranians own pets but it is estimated to be close to a million people. One million Iranians are now criminals for simply owning a pet and have to watched their loved ones being killed or taken away forcibly. Some of the pet owners are even forced to endure floggings (74 lashes). It’s hard to imagine how many more pets will have to die before Iranian pet lovers will stand up against the regime.
- Visiting family in Iran is a crime: the number of dual nationals who are imprisoned while visiting their families in Iran is growing. There have been at least 15 known arrests within the past year and since Tehran doesn’t legally recognize dual-nationality, they have no support from the embassies and governments of the countries they live in. The charges against them mirror the charges against critics of the regime but their situation is worse since their loved ones are powerless and thousands of miles away. Too are systematically denied legal advice and medical care, and are literally cut off from contact with their loved ones. Their only real hope is that at some point in time, Iran will initiate or accept a swap of prisoners as it did following the signing of the JCPoA. The result of this crackdown is that millions of Iranians living abroad, along with millions of their loved ones in Iran, are rethinking their plans to reunite in Iran, knowing full well that such a trip could easily turn into a one-way ticket to jail.
- Being a minority in Iran is a crime: Despite Iranian laws against discrimination against religious and cultural minorities, minority groups such as Baha’is, Sunnis, Kurds, Ahwazis and Christians are systematically persecuted by Iranian authorities and the communities they live in. Places of worships are destroyed or blocked, shops and businesses are shut down, further education is denied and leaders of the these communities are arrested and sometimes executed. These “criminals” and their followers are in real danger since their crimes legally merit executions in many cases. But once again, the problem is not the tens of thousands of people who have been arrested but the millions of followers who understand that they are second class citizens and even criminals in the eyes of the regime.
What’s important to notice is the sheer number of Iranians who are “criminalized” by the regime for not adhering to laws which seem outdated and irrelevant even to the majority of the Iranian population. This isn’t about a few hundred or even a few thousand Iranians who can be marginalized. This is about millions of Iranians who may still be afraid of the powerful regime but who may, at any time, decide that they don’t want to fear the regime any more for “crimes” which are viewed in their eyes as legitimate freedoms.
When a criminal minority becomes a criminal majority
For now, the regime believes that it can control these “deviants” by simply cracking down on them: fining them, arresting them, interrogating and torturing them, flogging them, incarcerating them and even executing them. What the regime doesn’t seem to comprehend is that such a situation is bound to blow up in its face: as long as a small minority of the population is viewed as “criminal”, the weight of the majority is enough to stifle out any aspirations to change the regime. But when the majority begins to question the laws and the legitimacy of the regime because it is deemed as criminal by the regime and when this majority is aware of the alternatives to such a regime, this is the stuff that fuels counter-revolutions.
For now, the regime in Tehran is stuck between a rock and a hard place: if it tones down its crackdowns, increases its tolerance and allows for more personal freedoms, it may appease the “criminal majority” but it will anger the ruling bodies of the regime – the Supreme Leader, the IRGC, the mullahs, the Assembly of Experts, the Basij volunteers…in short, the “hardliners”. On the other hand, if it doesn’t tone down its crackdowns, the chances of an uprising will rise.
But it’s not only the regime which is stuck in the middle: President Hassan Rouhani, the self-proclaimed “moderate” president is in a more delicate predicament. During his election campaign and throughout his presidency he maintained that he encouraged more personal freedoms for Iranians and less policing of laws which curtail these freedoms. This attitude was immediately pounced upon by the hardliners who are using every opportunity to impede his political power and his popularity. But Rouhani, without a popular grass-roots support, cannot stand up to the hardliners and is destined to remain a small voice of reason drowned out by the loud raucous of the sanctimonious hardliners who want to maintain the status quo.
As it is, the tensions in Iran are mounting and the regime is reacting the only way it knows how: crackdowns. Not only do these crackdowns increase the tensions, they are scaring away would-be foreign investors who are hard-put to invest in a country with a volatile political climate. The wariness of foreign investors is explained by the regime to the Iranian people as the fault of US sanctions but whether the Iranians believe this or not, the end result is the same: more pressure on the economy and a declining popularity in supporting Rouhani.