WASHINGTON— As Iranians go to the polls Friday to select the country's next president, human rights activists say the regime and its security forces are likely to try to stifle dissent. From the selection of candidates to curbs on journalists, activists say the government is determined to have an election devoid of protest and controversy.
This is the exception -- Iranians at a funeral of a reform-minded cleric in Isfahan earlier this month chanting, "Death to the dictator" while cheering on the appearance of moderate candidate Hassan Rowhani.
It has been described as Iran's biggest anti-government protest in two years, yet such bouts of enthusiasm have been rare.
“The Revolutionary Guard is playing a much more hands-on role than it did in previous elections," noted Middle East analyst James Phillips at the Heritage Foundation.
Phillips said the post-election protests of 2009, following allegations of vote rigging that gave President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term, have been seared in the minds of security officials -- some talking publicly about the need to make this election, in their words, more reasonable.
“I think the regime is sitting on a volcano and it knows it,” he added.
With the vote drawing near, Amnesty International has described what it calls a surge in human rights violations -- detailing the recent arrests of supporters of Hassan Rowhani at a June 1 rally, as well as the ongoing arrests and harassment of activists and union leaders.
Much of it is subtle, done by plain-clothed or undercover agents.
“They are very, very aware of what can happen," Human Rights Watch researcher Faraz Sanei said, "that there are trigger points that may lead to larger protests and as a result the security situation in Tehran and in other cities around the country is very, very different and much more stifling than it has been in the past.”
There are also the national police and the Basij, a paramilitary force loyal to the Revolutionary Guard known for violent attacks, including several on reformist leader Mehdi Karroubi and his son, one attack leaving both with bruises and bitemarks.
Despite the crackdown, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is calling for high voter turnout.
“Iran is not a totalitarian state, it is an authoritarian state, which means these elections do provide an outlet for criticism of policies and of the situation of the status quo," noted the Atlantic Council's Barbara Slavin.
Part of what some analysts say is an overall plan to give Iranians just enough of a voice to keep the calm.