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Naji: Facing external pressure, Iranian hardliners crack down

Concern rises with U.S. troops on east and west

By Kasra Naji

CNN correspondent Kasra Naji
CNN correspondent Kasra Naji

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TEHRAN, Iran (CNN) -- Some 350 Iranian reformists, writers, university professors and intellectuals sent a letter to the country's all-powerful spiritual leader recently, urging him to choose democracy as a way of defending the country against U.S. threats.

"Resorting to violence, crackdowns and authoritarian methods, as we see today toward students, are not only illegal and lacking popular, religious and moral legitimacy, but will also bear no result and will only exacerbate the crisis," they said in the letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a reference to the widespread arrests of students after recent anti-government protests.

Such straight talking to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the country was unheard of a few months ago.

It is a measure of the strength of the political undercurrents in Iran. The letters are part of a debate developing in Iran about what it should do to deflect foreign threats at a time when there is deep and widespread internal discontent in the country, as well as growing opposition to the clerical leadership.

The debate has gained a new urgency with the arrival of the U.S. forces in Iraq on the western border of Iran, only a couple of years after their arrival in Afghanistan on Iran's eastern border. There is rising concern in Iran that it might be next on the U.S. target list.

Judging by the developments in the past few weeks, Iran's hardliners who control key levers of power and who have Ayatollah Khamenei as an ally have chosen to crack down on internal opponents, instead of ushering in greater democracy.

In recent weeks, in the aftermath of nearly 10 nights of pro-democracy protests by students and others, more than 4,000 people have been arrested, according to Iran's prosecutor general.

Iranian hardliners have blamed the recent pro-democracy protests on what they call hooligans and agents of the United States.

Former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has spoken about the need to watch out for "the internal cavalry of the enemy." The commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards has said that his forces will weed out all those who in his words act as "fifth column of the United States," in other words, the enemy within Iran.

Newspaper reports say more than two-dozen journalists have been arrested and others assaulted while covering the protests. Several newspapers have been closed down. Newspapers that have been allowed to publish have complained of severe pressure to censor politically sensitive stories.

start quoteResorting to violence, crackdowns and authoritarian methods [will] bear no result and will only exacerbate the crisis.end quote
-- Reformers' letter to Iran's spiritual leader

Even so, reformist newspapers have reported the arrests of dissidents who have been picked up in the streets, put in cars and whisked away by plainclothes men.

The leader of the biggest reform party in the Iranian parliament, Mohammad Reza Khatami -- the brother of President Khatami -- has written to the president complaining of shadowy security services that operate outside the government, in parallel with the Intelligence Ministry. He says torture is rife in prisons where dissidents are forced to incriminate themselves.

The first-ever visit to Iran by the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion has been postponed at the last minute. Foreign Ministry spokesman said there were problems in arranging some of the meetings he had requested.

There has also been a clampdown on access to Internet sites specializing in Iranian news and political commentary. The authorities have blocked some Web sites. Newspapers have published new regulations set out by the traditionally hardline judiciary. They list 20 types of online violations, including publishing articles that insult Islamic values, Iran's leadership, top clerics, revolutionary values and the ideas of the late leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In addition, the government has stepped up jamming of several Farsi language satellite TV channels that broadcast pro-democracy messages from California -- the home to the largest exile Iranian community abroad.

U.S. authorities now say they suspect a jamming station in Cuba -- an ally of Iran -- may have been commissioned by Iran to stop the broadcasts, which encourage Iranians to rise up against their clerical leadership.

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