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CHALLENGES 2006-2007: Iranians See Tougher Times Ahead

Kimia Sanati

TEHRAN, Dec 31 2006 (IPS) - As 2006 closed Iranians witnessed two events that will impinge on their lives in the new year. The hardline government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came a cropper in two key elections and the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to put the country under sanctions for its defiant nuclear enrichment programme.

Iran has lived under sanctions for many years now and hardliners say they are prepared to face sanctions, however dire. In an editorial released after the Security Council resolution, the Keyhan newspaper&#39s editor demanded that Iran exit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of which the country is a signatory.

The hardliners and conservatives who dominate Iranian parliament responded to the sanctions, adopted on Dec. 23, by approving outlines of a bill which binds the government to reconsider its relations with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"Access to peaceful nuclear technology is our right. I can&#39t see why the world has closed its eyes to Israel&#39s possession of nuclear weapons, not speaking of the nuclear arsenals of the great powers themselves. Everybody knows that Israel, a very aggressive state, has them. They haven&#39t even joined the NPT like us," a 45-year-old engineer told IPS, asking not to be named.

"I do, however, believe that Iran could have pursued its goal of achieving nuclear technology for peaceful purposes with much less cost to our nation. It is like the (1980-1988) war with Iraq. The Iraqis invaded us, they attacked our cities with missiles and they used chemical weapons on our civilians. The world did nothing to stop them because we were the ones who antagonised the world unnecessarily," he said.

But what worries many Iranians is the steady erosion of their civil rights. Tens of political activists, students and journalists were jailed in Iran in 2006 and some of them are still awaiting trial and others are serving their sentences. A few are in detention but not formally charged.

Reports of maltreatment of prisoners and denying them proper legal counsel were abundant in the past year. Akbar Mohammadi, a former student activist, died during a hunger strike.

Iran continued to sentence minors to death and carry out executions after they reached legal age. Stoning sentences for adultery continued to be passed and there were at least two cases of actual stoning in 2006.

Censorship increased during the past year and several newspapers and other publications were banned with journalists losing their jobs. "The print media is in a very tragic condition now. Journalists are victims of arbitrary detention. Trials are not fair and there are no juries. Some journalists are threatened by phone and many have to surrender to self censorship for the fear of their lives," Masahallah Sahmsol Vaezin, chairman of the Society to Defend Freedom of Press and former chairman of the Journalists&#39 Union told IPS.

"The government is refusing to issue new publication permission for the printed media and the existing ones are under the pressure of censorship. The judiciary is butchering the newspapers and the prosecutor-general of Tehran, Saeed Mortazavi, is acting as the chief editor of the press," he added.

"Job security is lost in our profession following the banning of the newspapers and periodicals. We have thousands of unemployed journalists now," Shamsol Vaezin said.

Censorship of the Internet intensified greatly in the past year, earning Iran a position among 13 countries in the world labelled as ‘enemies of the Internet&#39 by the Reporters Without Borders for being hostile to freedom of expression over the Internet.

Iranian universities experienced even tighter control during the year and there were several cases of unrest in universities. On Dec. 10 Ahmadinejad was booed and his posters where burned in the auditorium of a university in Tehran where he was addressing students on the occasion of the national Student Day. The students were angry with limitation of freedom of speech in universities, bans on tens of student societies and publications, forced retirement of professors and reintroduction of ideological screening of students.

Widely practiced in the 80s, ideological screening was abandoned in early 90s and its reintroduction has deprived tens of students of continuing their education at graduate and post-graduate levels, something that Iran&#39s higher education minister stubbornly denies, to the great chagrin of students.

"Disciplinary committees are constantly sentencing politically active students to suspension or expulsion now. Our publications are banned and a number of our friends like Keyvan Ansari are in jail," a student activist from a university in Tehran told IPS..

"Families of politically active students are sometimes threatened by intelligence people and the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated ‘Basij&#39 militia is gaining more and more power in universities. We expected all this to happen when hardliners took power last year," the activist added.

But the worst grievances were those related to Ahmadinejad&#39s economics. One of the very first steps taken by his administration was the establishment of a fund to give interest-free loans to young people to help them get married or for self-employment. The government has been giving out the loans but there are hundreds of thousands of applicants.

"I really thought I could find a job and get one of those loans the government promised. I dreamed of renting a proper place and of getting married. Here I am, still running this stall. Prices are increasing by the day and I can barely feed myself. Rents have almost doubled since last year. Finding a proper job and getting married seem only a distant dream now," twenty four year-old Reza who works at a snack stall in one of Tehran&#39s shopping areas told IPS.

"On my meagre salary I won&#39t even be able to pay back the loan, if I manage to get one, let alone support a family," he said. Reza graduated in humanities two years ago and has since been looking for a permanent job.

"There even is no question of going back to my village (in northern Iran). Last year the government lowered fruit import tariffs to bring down the price of fruits. All local citrus farmers went bankrupt. Now my father and other farmers can&#39t even pay the low interest loans they got to improve farms," Reza said.

While the administration promised to quickly sole the unemployment problem it has been rising steadily and now stands at close to 12 percent. Inflation has grown by 14.7 percent since the same time last year according to latest Central Bank of Iran&#39s statistics.

"The country&#39s oil reserve fund was drained by the government&#39s insatiable thirst for money this year and if oil prices go down, with the ever increasing liquidity and inflation rates, there will be no money to lavish next year to please the masses," an economic and political observer told IPS.

"It&#39s only the high oil prices that support the extravagances of the administration. Many factories were not able to pay their workers or laid them off this year. There is going to be more serious labour unrest and even urban riots in poorer suburbs in the next year if things continue in the same way. The beginning of the first stage of sanctions and the grave prospects of further and more serious international action against Iran is now making the picture even more complicated. The future doesn&#39t seem promising at all," he added.

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