President Khatami was pushing things too far. Ayatollah Khamenei needed a subservient figure to shore up his power and found his man in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the conservative mayor of Tehran. After it was announced that Ahmadinejad had won the presidential election in 2005, reformists assumed that Khamenei and his allies had manipulated the votes. Yet, Ahmadinejad was popular with many poor and disenfranchised Iranians.
To bolster his base of support, the new president took advantage of the rising price of oil to lavish handouts on the poor. He appointed key allies to head the country’s cultural organizations and awarded lucrative contracts to former Revolutionary Guards officers. He adopted an aggressive tone toward the United States and Israel and increased Iran’s aid to Hezbollah in Lebanon and to Hamas in Gaza. He also rapidly developed Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Dissidents, activists, and students were once again subject to harassment and jail. Many newspapers were shut down.
The conservative establishment also redoubled its pressure on Iran’s minorities. Baha’i students admitted to universities at the end of the Khatami presidency were expelled. In March 2006, a confidential Iranian document about the Baha’is was leaked to Asma Jahangir, the UN’s special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief. The information revealed in it was grim, but not surprising: it was now confirmed that Khamenei ordered law enforcement and intelligence agencies to identify Baha’is and monitor their activities.
The government-sponsored newspaper Kayhan, edited by one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s representatives, began a series of anti-Baha’i articles just four days after Ahmadinejad’s election. The usual accusations were all in evidence, including alleged complicity with Britain or Russia before the Second World War, support for Zionism, espionage for the West before and after the Islamic Revolution, and immoral conduct. In July 2006, a woman called Mahnaz Ra’ufi, claiming to be a former Baha’I, published more stories in Kayhan, including allegations that Baha’i institutions were driven by greed and were corrupt.
Films propagating misinformation about the Baha’is were broadcast on state television, their melodramatic imagery and music meant to fan hysteria among the Iranian public. Some said that the Baha’is tried to brainwash innocent Muslims in order to control them.
The hate speech had its intended effect. In Yazd province, a Baha’i cemetery was desecrated, its trees uprooted and its graves disinterred. Other acts of violence against the Baha’is in Yazd and elsewhere across Iran become more common.
With the government’s propaganda and monitoring on the rise, Iranian companies felt the pressure to dismiss Baha’i employees. Landlords started to refuse lease renewals to Baha’i-owned businesses. The authorities ordered Baha’i entrepreneurs to shut down their ventures. Some Baha’i business owners were threatened with death.
The authorities began to arrest large numbers of Baha’is, interrogating them and holding them for a time, before releasing them without charge. This pattern of “revolving door” arrests seemed specially designed to intimidate the Baha’i community into submission. More than 100 Baha’is were detained in the first year of Ahmadinejad’s presidency, with many more arrested over his full two terms in office.
All Baha’is were at risk: in 2006, 54 young men and women in Shiraz, who had been conducting a UNICEF-modeled education program cleared by the local authorities, were jailed. A number of those arrested were charged with spreading propaganda against the Islamic government.
Seven other Baha’is, members of the community’s ad hoc leadership group, were arrested in the spring of 2008 and held in Evin Prison for more than a year without charge. When they were finally brought to trial it was on trumped-up on charges ranging from espionage to “spreading corruption on earth”.
Keyvan Rahimian and his wife, Fereshteh, were among those arrested while Ahmadinejad was president. Both of them were released, but Keyvan would find himself in prison again just a few years later.