Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Monday, October 20, 2014

Defining the limits of power and freedom

Once again, events in Iran demonstrate that there are many centers of power and many challengers to all of them.

Iran’s Jailing of Activist Offers Hint of Liberty Under Rouhani
Ghoncheh Ghavami
In a country that has virtually no tolerance for activism, Ghoncheh Ghavami, 25, an Iranian-British national, provided a nearly textbook example of how to get arrested in Tehran, activists say. Yet if Ms. Ghavami, who began a hunger strike last week to protest her indefinite detention, was guilty of anything, activists say, it was a naïve enthusiasm that Iran was changing.

Now, as Ms. Ghavami languishes in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison without charge, her case has raised anew the question of how far the limits of personal expression and rights can be stretched in the Iran of President Hassan Rouhani.

The answer, many here say, is not that far. The judiciary and Parliament remain firmly in the control of hard-liners, and they can come down unexpectedly on those seemingly not involved in opposition politics…

Iran can also be deceptive, activists here say, especially for people like Ms. Ghavami who spend most of their lives abroad. The return to the motherland can feel warm and surprisingly safe, but dangers lurk, especially for those who return with the idea of promoting change…

“Within four months she burned herself up in Iran, she fell victim to her own optimism,” one of her friends said, identifying himself only as Ali to avoid reprisals from the authorities. “Ghoncheh seriously thought Iran was opening up and saw no danger.”…

There had been some changes after Mr. Rouhani took office. The uniformed men who had been posted on almost every busy square under his outspoken predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, disappeared. The Internet, still under intense scrutiny, had been allowed some higher bandwidth speeds.

“Around that time, people, including myself, were enthusiastic and hopeful about the improvement of social and civil activities,” said Mojghan Faraji, a journalist. “We all thought there would be change. Now, we are no longer hopeful.”…

Why the authorities have come down so hard on Ms. Ghavami remains something of a mystery, though many activists believe her British citizenship has something to do with it.

Historically, Iran holds a deep grudge against the country, which for decades pumped Iranian oil in exchange for pennies and maintained an imperialist grip on the government. Currently, Iran’s leaders view Britain as a center of opposition, home to a pair of Persian-language satellite channels: the Persian service of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is paid for by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and Manoto, a private undertaking. Both are critical of the Islamic republic’s policies…

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