TEHRAN - As economic sanctions are applied to this country for its nuclear activities, hardliners in the government are getting strengthened and successfully demanding even harsher curbs on individual liberties.
The sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council, at the behest of the United States and its allies, have done nothing to dampen Tehran's enthusiastic pursuit of a nuclear programme, according to analysts who insisted on anonymity.
Twelve months ago, Iran was struggling to break out of numerous social, cultural and political straitjackets and evolving towards freedom and democratisationÃƒÂ¹in halting, imperfect and paradoxical ways. Despite detours, the direction was unmistakable.
Today, it is palpably more unfree, tense, apprehensive and insecure.
The contrast between 2006 and this year is evident in the streets, most visibly in the official drive against the wearing of skimpy headscarves by women, which has led to 150,000 detentions according to local reports. But there is a less visible gathering wave of repression.
2006 saw the release of Jafar Panahi's film 'Offside' on the female fan who smuggles herself into a football stadium. Offside, a scathing critique of officialdom and patriarchy, and a celebration of women's defiance, won two prizes at the Berlin film festival.
Last year, Kiarostami - the "Poet of the Cinema", of whom Jean-Luc Godard has luminously said, "film begins with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami" --produced a documentary, an unusual genre for him.
Experimental theatre, indigenous opera, digital art, and satirical puppetry all found growing audiences.
A new spring was in the air in Tehran. A cool semi-Bohemian sub-culture thrived in the Iranian Artists' Forum -- an enchanting institution near Tehran's city centre, with exhibition halls, galleries and seminar rooms, and with a liberal, plural ethos, which any democracy would be proud of -- and in student "hang-outs" like "CafÃƒ© 78" in Aban Street.
These were sites of sparkling conversation on music and history, Marx and the mullahs, multiculturalism and nationhood. Tehran's living-rooms would be abuzz with lively discussion over endless glasses of wine or liquor. (Yes, Iranians consume alcohol with great passion, prohibition notwithstanding.)
Iran couldn't have presented a stronger refutation of "Taliban Lite".
Debate thrived in Iran's universities and intellectual forums. Academics talked freely -- in a typically colourful, dramatic, manner, favouring grand, totalising theories.
They would often be acerbic about President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's grandiloquent pronouncements, even about the wisdom of vilayat-e-faqih (government guided by the clergy). They would debate everything from Persian culture to tapping high oil revenues for social welfare.
Last year, Iran's growing feminist movement launched a campaign to collect a million signatures demanding pro-gender justice amendments to the Constitution.
Votes against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency produced consternation, not paranoia. Iran signalled it was ready to engage with the world and keen to be accepted as a normal state.
However, last fortnight, "CafÃƒ© 78" was closed down. The Artists' Forum witnessed tighter self-censorship -- in anticipation of pressure from the culture Ministry.
The government took other repressive measures, arresting scores of feminists involved in the signature campaign. Schoolteachers were arrested for agitating for higher pay. Some 28 students' unions and 47 publications have been banned.
Even worse were purges of secular university teachers, said to number at least 40. More pro-reform publications were closed down, including the daily "Sharq"ÃƒÂ¹besides the 110-plus shut over six years.
Now, Tehran University for the first time has a cleric, Ayatollah Amid-Zanjani, as its chancellor --which sparked vigorous student protests, including the knocking off of his turban.
Fear and apprehension pervade Iran's intellectual institutions today. Some of the scholars who spoke candidly to this correspondent a year ago did not answer calls this time. There is resistance and angry opposition to the repression. But the state's broad-spectrum coercion has made the task of defending freedom and promoting democracy considerably more difficult.
What explains the present repressive climate? According to many social scientists and political analysts, three factors are at work.
A first, short-term, cause lies in Security Council sanctions on Iran. These have had an adverse economic impact -- on top of high unemployment, and profligate spending by Ahmedinejad, which has blown a hole through the 40 billion US dollar special fund created from oil revenues.
This has further eroded the government's popularity -- as was starkly evident in the defeat of the President's nominees in last year's important local elections.
Even more significant than the sanctions' economic impact is their political effect: resentment at Iran's unfair isolation for what's seen as a legitimate nuclear programme --despite some non-disclosure and minor infringements of International Atomic Energy Agency procedures.
Resentment and fear of victimisation have encouraged Tehran to become more, not less, repressive.
The regime's hardliners and conservatives have drummed up a nationalist response through the slogan of defending Iran and Islam "in peril". Britain played straight into Iranian hardliners' hands when its sailors entered Iran's waters in March.
Western pressure is generating the opposite of its intended effect -- not least because of Iran's bitter memories of the West's interference, bullying and betrayal, especially the CIA's toppling of elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and imposition of the Shah dictatorship.
A second factor is the need for "regime maintenance". The strategy is to periodically crack the whip to assert the Islamic-clerical basis of government, and show who's boss.
This reflects a shifting balance-of-power inside Iran's multi-centred ruling apparatus in favour of conservatives vis-ÃƒÂ -vis reformists, who were isolated as moderate leaders weakened their links with Left-leaning secularists.
Third, the shift reflects a generational change. Many of the cadres who organised the 1979 Revolution, then in their 20s, have grown into ambitious middle-aged leaders and now demand a share in power.
The locus of their struggle has shifted from the street to high offices. Ahmedinejad's election in 2005 represented this shift, and the growing aspirations of the rural/semi-urban poor and lower middle classes.
These trends will be strengthened if the West intensifies its ugly confrontation over Iran's nuclear programme by demanding its suspension.
Iran is still some years away from a nuclear weapons capability. Contrary to the claim that it is enriching uranium on an "industrial scale" with 3,000 gas centrifuges, the IAEA estimates it only has 1,300 centrifuges of a primitive kind and is nowhere near "industrial-scale" enrichment.
It is unlikely that Iran has stabilised these delicate, fragile machines, which spin hexafluoride gas at enormous speeds like 1,000 revolutions per second and can break down under the slightest strain, seismic activity or material imbalance.
According to independent experts, Iran's gas conversion facility produces hexafluoride with high impurities. This probably makes enrichment near-impossible.
Iran is certain to accelerate its nuclear programme if it is threatened, taunted, derided and targeted through low-intensity military operations at its borders.
The world Iran sees around itself is deeply hypocritical: a handful of states refuse to give up their nuclear weapons, or (like India, Israel and North Korea) are rewarded for having them, amidst the more than 180 countries held down to pledges never to make them.
The U.S. encouraged the Shah's Iran to build a 23,000-Mw nuclear power programme and even offered it fuel reprocessing facilities (which can double up for military use). Now, "rather like confirmed alcoholics complaining about teenage drinking", as a commentator said, Iran cannot have enrichment even under strict IAEA inspections.
Iran is willing to negotiate nuclear restraint -- without suspending its nuclear activities or without stipulations that it enriches uranium on foreign soil. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has confirmed this.
This window of opportunity will soon slam shut. The West would be ill-advised to miss it -- out of mulishness and prejudice. The more it corners Iran, the more intransigent will Tehran become.
Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based writer for IPS. A well-known campaigner for international peace and nuclear disarmament he is a member of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists against Proliferation.
Copyright © 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.