Wave of Repression Spreads in Iran Against Artists and Dissidents


In a new crackdown on dissidents and artists, Iran has arrested three renowned filmmakers within the past week, as well as a prominent reformist politician and the family members of protesters killed in anti-government uprisings in 2019.

The directors, Jaffar Panahi, Mohammad Rasolouf and Mostafa Aleahmad, have all been vocal critics of the government. Mr. Rasolouf recently organized a social media campaign that called for the country’s security forces facing protesters to put down their weapons and join the people.

The latest arrests come as a new chief takes over the powerful intelligence wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, following the ouster in late June of its former head, Hossein Taeb. Mr. Taeb, an influential and feared figure, was removed from his job after a series of embarrassing failures associated with Israel’s campaign to target Iranian nuclear and military officials and sites, according to analysts in both countries.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in a public speech in late June that the “psychological safety” of Iranians was threatened by commentary on the web and on social media, and called for the authorities to take measures to control content similar to those enacted during the more repressive 1980s.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran, an independent, New York-based advocacy group, said at least 15 activists and dissidents had been arrested in Iran so far this month.

“The new I.R.G.C. intelligence chief appears intent on swiftly bringing about a new reign of terror just as Khamenei demanded a few weeks ago,” Hadi Ghamei, the director of the organization, said in an interview. “The arbitrary mass arrests are an attempt to silence leading voices and opinion makers.”

In May, a different group of prominent documentary filmmakers was arrested briefly and then released pending trial.

The latest arrests sparked an outcry among international film festivals. In a statement, the Cannes Film Festival demanded the immediate release of the filmmakers and condemned what it called “the wave of repression obviously in progress in Iran against its artists.”

Mr. Panahi won the Berlin International Film Festival’s top Golden Bear award in 2015 for his movie “Taxi,” in which he posed as a cabdriver and discussed social issues with passengers, and the Venice International Film Festival’s Golden Lion award in 2000 for “The Circle,” about the challenges Iranian women face as they fight for more rights in a conservative society.

Mr. Rasolouf tackled the subject of the death penalty in Iran in “There is No Evil,” which won Berlin’s top prize in 2020. He also won a prize at Cannes in 2011 for his film “Goodbye,” which tells the familiar story of young professionals desperate to leave Iran.

Both men had previously been prosecuted on murky charges. Mr. Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison in 2011, was banned from leaving the country and was banned from making movies for 20 years on charges of creating propaganda against the government. Mr. Rasolouf was sentenced in 2019 to a year in prison, and was given a two-year ban on making films and on leaving the country, on charges of colluding with the enemy against national security

Kaveh Farnam, a Dubai-based producer who has collaborated with Mr. Rasolouf on his films since 2015, said the government’s intention was to silence artists. “Their goal is only to create fear and terror among the cinema and artistic community so nobody dares to criticize them,” he said. “They think if they can shut down Rasolouf and Panahi, everyone else will be silenced, too.” said

Mr. Rasolouf and Mr. Aleahmad were arrested on July 8 when security forces raided their homes and offices and confiscated their equipment, according to Mr. Farnam. They were taken to Evin prison and placed in solitary confinement, where prisoners typically undergo intense interrogation, he said.

On Monday, a group of the men’s supporters, including Mr. Panahi, gathered outside the prison to demand their release. Mr. Panahi was called to the prosecutor’s office inside the prison, but when he went there, accompanied by a lawyer and another film associate, he was also arrested, said Mr. Farnam.

The politician affiliated with the reformist faction who was also arrested in the crackdown, Mostafa Tajzadeh, is a former minister and adviser to the president. Mr. Tajzadeh said in a television interview that he no longer believed in the Islamic Republic and that Iranians were better off during the reign of the Shah before the 1979 revolution. Mr. Tajzadeh, in talks on social media and in tweets, has blamed Mr. Khamenei for much of the country’s current woes, from corruption to economic hardship.

At least eight family members of protesters killed in the November 2019 anti-government uprising, including parents and siblings, were also arrested. The families of those protesters have become vocal critics of the government, demanding accountability for the deaths of their loved ones.

The judiciary has not announced the reason for the arrests nor the charges the detainees face. But their families, colleagues and media reports offer a clue.

Fars News, affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported that Mr. Tajzadeh was arrested on charges of “acting against national security” and “publishing lies with the intent to disturb the public mind.”

The state news agency IRNA reported that Mr. Rasolouf and Mr. Aleahmad were communicating with Iran’s enemies to create a public crisis and disturb the “psychological security” of the public, because they were collecting signatures demanding accountability after a high-rise collapsed in the city of Abadan in May, killing more than 40 people.

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