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Under fire from US, Iran reacts by cracking down at home

The government has restricted media, targeted academics, and, in one month this spring, stopped or detained 150,000 people – including four Iranian-Americans. [Editor's note: The original subhead mischaracterized the number detained.]

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While running for president of Iran in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad went out of his way to counter charges from opponents that his victory would bring to power "Islamic fascism" and the "Iranian Taliban."

The archconservative said Iran had bigger issues to deal with – economic, nuclear, and growing threats from the US and the West – than the status of women's head scarves, and the extent of personal freedoms that had grown under his predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.

But today Iran is in the grip of the most widespread crackdown since the 1979 Islamic revolution, with targets that range from women and student activists, to the media, to four Iranian-Americans accused of using US funds to undermine the regime. Analysts say the message of the repressive steps is clearly that hard-liners remain in charge, despite US efforts against the Islamic Republic and severe economic woes that led to the torching of 19 gas stations last month, when rationing was abruptly imposed.

"Their argument is that no matter what happens in Iran, no matter how many social disturbances exist, we are in control, and our position will not change," says Farideh Farhi, an Iran expert at the University of Hawaii in Honolulu.

This tougher "security outlook," as it is called in Iran, has been enabled by a top-down transformation of the ministries of intelligence, interior, and culture and Islamic guidance since Mr. Ahmadinejad and his hard-line allies took over, says Ms. Farhi. But it's also been facilitated by US actions, including $75 million for "pro-democracy" activities the regime sees as intended to foment a revolution.

"Ultimately, the policy that is pursued by the Bush administration is causing paranoia, and it is counterproductive [because] it benefits the hard-liners in Iran" by giving them a pretext to crack down, says Farhi.

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