As the editor of the Iranian Feminist Tribune, a website devoted to women's issues, Parvin Ardalan used to sit at her home computer each night, posting news articles on the site that the country's print press would never carry. She spread the word about sit-ins and seminars. At its busiest, the site attracted 70,000 visitors a day. But late last year, Ardalan received a text message from a friend informing her that the site had disappeared. Along with thousands of other websites--including opposition blogs like regimechange.blogspot.com and online retailers like Bloomingdales.com--the Feminist Tribune was blocked as part of a censorship campaign by Iran's new hard-line government but is still accessible outside Iran. "We lost one of our greatest tools," Ardalan says. "It's hindered our work, which I suppose was the goal."
For Western governments as much as for activists like Ardalan, the aims of the Iranian regime grow more alarming every day. Led by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's elected government--whose powers are circumscribed by the country's ruling ayatullahs--has made confrontation the guiding tenet of its policies at home and in the world. The regime made its most provocative move yet last week, resuming work on its uranium-enrichment program, which the U.S. and some of its allies believe is a critical step toward the eventual production of nuclear weapons. The resumption touched off a flurry of international condemnation and raised the likelihood that Iran will be referred to the U.N. Security Council. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that by resuming enrichment activities, Iran has "shattered the basis for negotiation."
What happens next is still up in the air. The Bush Administration is pushing what one official calls a "very carefully calibrated, incremental approach." The first step would be a Security Council statement urging Iran to comply fully with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. If the Iranians refuse, the U.S. would urge the Security Council to issue a legal demand to Iran to suspend enrichment work. If all else fails, the U.S. and its allies are likely to pursue "targeted sanctions" against Tehran, such as restricting the regime's access to international financial channels and squeezing its ability to trade and travel. But getting agreement on the nature of sanctions--and avoiding a veto by Russia or China, which both have deep economic interests in Iran--could take months.
To many Iranians, Ahmadinejad's strategy of confrontation and refusal to compromise reflects the regime's unease as much as its pugnacity. At home, the new administration has sought to roll back the moves toward liberalization pursued by former President Mohammed Khatami and is imposing Islamic strictures and cracking down on even nonpolitical forms of expression, like women smoking in cafés and satellite TV. Some Iranians believe that the country's rulers fear further engagement with the West will embolden young people to demand greater freedoms, which may fatally undermine the regime's authority. "They feel danger, and their strategy of dealing with it is by attacking rather than cooperating," says a former senior reformist official.