Many Iranians live with far more freedom in their daily lives than the legal codes they live under formally allow. Often rules are simply disregarded. A former high-ranking government official argued that one way to achieve progress is by not enforcing rules that are still in place, rather than waging public battles on hot-button issues. She called this approach “productive corruption,” in which an opportunistic public argument that a “perfect society” is only attainable in the afterlife might allow for greater tolerance in the here and now. She identified former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as an exemplar of this approach, noting that Rafsanjani has often been accused of corruption but that individual freedoms, as well as privatization of state businesses, increased under his government. By contrast, a young secular women’s rights activist we met disagreed with this tack, complaining vehemently that “productive corruption is a Band-Aid solution, as it keeps women vulnerable to parallel security forces and skirts the fundamental problem of lawlessness in Iranian society.”
Iranians who take on the current order in explicit terms, however, have faced unrelenting pressure. Over the past four years, the Iranian authorities have ordered the closure of more than 100 newspapers. In the fall of 2006, the government closed the daily Sharq, a paper that had in some ways accommodated government controls while trying to secure means for reform-minded journalists to continue their work. Sharq’s editors, like those of earlier reformist papers, have been threatened, attacked, and sometimes put in prison. A professor of law at the University of Tehran told us that reformist academics, particularly in the political science and humanities departments, had been forced into retirement under Ahmadinejad. Besides the impact of these retirements, including potentially his own, the professor complained that the overseers of Iran’s universities now are “men who lack experience in academic administration.” The situation is so dire that the majority of Iran’s prominent intellectuals and activists either have fled the country or are remaining silent within Iran, engaging in tangential occupations and waiting for a more conducive time to again speak up.
University students in Tehran and Shiraz told us that in the face of the government’s blocking of websites and online newspapers, they have solicited friends outside Iran to forward the sites’ content to them as e-mail attachments. While such inventiveness is likely to preserve the circulation of dissident opinion among a small group of dedicated students and techies, other Iranian citizens ranging from a restaurant owners to an environmental expert complained that the regime’s interventions were effectively removing the Internet as an alternative theater of debate.
A few activists remain resolute. “If the regime expects me to keep silent about the violation of Iranian citizens’ human rights, it is wasting its time,” the journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi told us boldly. “Even if they decide to execute me, like Thomas More, I will not relent.”