As is often the case in Iran, the country is in the grip of a series of events that are both shocking, and somehow not entirely surprising. Since Friday, July 8, at least 11 well-known public figures have been arrested. They include Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister and trenchant critic of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; six of the “Mothers for Justice”, women who lost their sons in the nationwide protests of November 2019 and have since become activists; filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, two of the most decorated directors in Iranian cinematic history; and Mostafa Aleahmad, a noted documentary filmmaker.
The mass arrest of opposition politicians and pro-justice activists is, at this juncture, fairly standard behavior for the authoritarian Islamic Republic. But why the filmmakers?
Of all the various groupings in Iranian civil society, filmmakers are hardly the foremost rabble-rousers. With their careers in their country of birth dependent on being tolerated by the cultural censors, even those who are naturally critical of the regime have to walk a fine line.
But in May this year, after the collapse of the Metropol building in Abadan led to dozens of deaths and widespread protests which were, as usual, suppressed, many filmmakers decided they’d had enough. On May 29, around 170 people in the industry signed an open letter expressing solidarity with the protesters, and asking security forces to “put down your guns”. Among them were the directors Masood Kimiyayi, Reza Dormishian, Pooran Derakhshandeh and Mani Haqiqi, and actresses Taraneh Alidoosti (known for her collaborations with the Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi), Pegah Ahangarani, and Hanie Tavasolli.
It was no surprise that the signatories included Rasolouf and Panahi. After the 2009 pro-democracy Green Movement, both were arrested on their own film sets and sentenced to six years in prison; Rasoulouf got out after one, but Panahi was also hit with a 20-year ban on filmmaking and leaving the country. Both have been in and out of court ever since then, facing – and bravely pushing back against – an endless barrage of judicial harassment. They haven’t given up on cinema despite the stifling circumstances. Rasoulouf’s latest film, There is No Evil, won the Golden Bear at Berlinale while Panahi’s Three Faces won the best screenplay award at Cannes. As they’re not allowed to leave Iran, their daughters often represent them at festivals, collecting awards on their behalf. They’ve dazzled the world by their commitment to their craft in the face of adversity. Not surprisingly, their plight has been condemned at Cannes, Berlinale and many more across the world.
The arrests have shaken the wider Iranian filmmaking community. Instead of cowing people, the regime appears to have pushed many normally risk-averse individuals toward activism. Shortly after Rasoulouf and Aleahmad were arrested – on Friday, a couple of days before Panahi – more than 200 of their colleagues, including household names like Farhadi, Bahman Ghobadi and Fatemeh Motamed-Aria, signed a statement calling unequivocally for their release, as well as Panahi himself, who was taken into custody after he went to Evin Prison to follow up on Rasoluof and Aleahmad’s conditions. The statement described Rasoulof and Aleahmad as “critical and committed filmmakers” whose arrests had come in the midst of “a planned raid”.
According to Rasoulof’s lawyers, he is currently under interrogation in a solitary cell in Evin. He already had a one-year sentence against him for the making of A Man of Integrity, which won the top award in Cannes’s Un Certain Regard section in 2017. He is now serving that one year while also facing new charges for signing the May 29 statement.
Speaking to IranWire on the condition of anonymity, a leading Iranian director said: “People in the film community are both afraid that they might be next, and really fed up. They already know what terrible conditions people are in. They hear it everywhere they go. Now there’s been an attack on our core members. Who knows who’s next?”
The timing of the arrests has also led to a great deal of speculation. Most of them are carried out by the IRGC, the main power base for Khamenei and practically in charge of the country at this stage. The IRGC saw a major change to the leadership last month when its longtime intelligence chief Hossein Taeb was sacked and replaced with a relative unknown, Mohammad Kazemi. Taeb’s time in the driving seat had been marked by successive waves of state-sanctioned brutality against protesters and civil society actors across Iran, but also significant security gaps that allowed Israeli forces to repeatedly infiltrate, steal nuclear archives and assassinate some of leading IRGC figures.
“The new wave of arrests has something to do with power struggles inside the IRGC and the regime,” another source with intimate knowledge of internal Iranian regime dynamics told IranWire. “We can’t know who is doing what exactly, but even people in the Leader’s Office have been named as potential suspects that might get arrested. These are people who work with the Supreme Leader himself.”
No such suggestion has appeared in Iranian state-controlled media, of course. On July 11, the IRGC-owned Fars News Agency ran a piece on Tajzadeh, mocking his wife, Fakhrolsadat Mohtashamipour, for having taken to Instagram straight after his arrest on Friday to denounce the “cowardly IRGC” and Khamenei. She in turn became the target of pro-regime trolls who clearly had a problem with a woman standing up to them, and speaking independently. But separately on July 8, Alireza Soleimani, the editor-in-chief of the conservative Raja News website, had tweeted presciently: “Mostafa Tajzadeh won't be the last.”
The prediction turned out to be true, with several of the Mothers for Justice – older women who have only ever peacefully called for their sons’ killings to be properly investigated – arrested and accused of “foreign intelligence forces” or taking cash from “foreign financial agents”. Faezeh Hashemi, another political heavyweight and prominent critic of Khamenei's policies, was also charged with a new set of alleged crimes.
As always, the wave of arrests speaks more to regime fragility and insecurity than strength or resolve. Popular protests against the country’s terrible governance continue, and the iron-fist approach is no longer working. Meanwhile, the IRGC and security architecture have managed to inject a new spirit of resistance and solidarity into the cinematic community.