Their shadowy nature makes it difficult to discern a resurgence in a systematic way, but their activities arguably mirror the existence of perceived or actual political tensions between right-wingers and their critics.
The victims are generally students, journalists or other perceived liberals, but included a reformist cabinet minister on at least one occasion.
Since the election of the conservative Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2005, ex-President and current Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani has become a figurehead for moderate political forces and even reformers. It is a position previously occupied by former President Mohammad Khatami.
Hashemi-Rafsanjani has also adopted public postures favoring economic liberalization.
Alikhani said the men rode by the newspaper's offices on motorcycles at 2 a.m. and threw incendiary objects at the windows.
The tilt has earned him sharp criticism from some radicals. In June, he was heckled at a speech in Qom, in north-central Iran, by apparent "pressure group" types.
Heckling is one way that prominent regime figures are warned or intimidated in Iran. And Hashemi-Rafsanjani's treatment was perceived by sympathizers as a measure of the dissatisfaction some radicals feel with his moderate postures in the past two years. But a cleric as prominent and solidly entrenched in the system as Hashemi-Rafsanjani would have to fall very far from grace to suffer physical harm, as ordinary citizens have done.
An example of that type of pressure was the violent breakup of a press forum in northern Iran in late February. Reformist journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin said that as he began to address the assembly at the invitation of the Golestan Province Press House, individuals stormed in and began beating up members of the audience, provoking an abrupt end to the session, ISNA reported on February 27.
Shamsolvaezin was led out by police, and he said that "these people" pursued his car into the evening. He observed that an unspecified group had already issued a statement denouncing that press meeting and threatening to respond if it took place.
Shamsolvaezin apparently did not mention any intervention by the police -- saying merely that they had led him out of the building. This suggests impunity for some, and a familiar scenario of police inaction with people thought to have friends in high places.
Similarly, Mohammad Alikhani, the parliamentary representative for Qazvin, near Tehran, claimed to ILNA on February 28 that "the pressure group" threw Molotov cocktails at the offices of his weekly publication "Taban." He said the men rode by the offices on motorcycles at 2 a.m., their faces covered, and threw incendiary objects at the office windows.
Reformist journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin (AFP file photo)
Alikhani said he though the attackers were "the pressure group acting this way because of the magazine's positions and [its staff's] positions as public representatives." He noted that "such actions are not unpredictable," and said grimly that he expected to "have to pay a greater price than this."
It was not the first violation of a newspaper office in Iran. The early morning attack was reminiscent of another suspect incident: an overnight break-in and theft from the Tehran offices of two cultural and diplomatic foundations run by Khatami on February 10-11. In that case, the culprits took computers, phones, and equipment -- which arguably have some commercial value, so it would be difficult to assert that that was not a theft. But suspicions remain in these cases, as they are rarely solved so as to satisfy a wary public.
More Serious Allegations
Another type of activity that Iranians associate with "rogue" or shadowy elements in Iran -- if not directly with the so-called "pressure group" -- is the disappearance of dissidents or writers. Notorious examples include a string of murders in the 1990s that authorities blamed on a few rogue elements in the Intelligence Ministry. But there is a persistent suspicion that a greater number of unresolved disappearances or deaths in the decades since the 1979 revolution were the work of unidentified agents who went unpunished.
The recent complaint by the wife of editor Hasan Sarahi about her husband's inexplicable disappearance nearly a year ago indicates that such mysterious incidents still happen -- despite assertions by the former reformist administration that the Intelligence Ministry was cleansed of such extrajudicial activities. Indeed, who can say if Sarahi was kidnapped -- much less whether this was the work of people associated with that ministry or members of some other grouping or state-affiliated clique?
Such lawless acts occur in Iran against a backdrop of impunity. And the only check on such activities in past years has been an emboldened public opinion and increased media attention, pressuring officials to respond.
But increasing pressures on the press and free speech under Ahmadinejad's administration might have created more favorable conditions for this type of lawlessness -- reducing the political cost of acting against dissidents or critics.
At the same time, these acts might be seen as nasty reactions to the perceived strength or prevalence of liberal or reformist views. Criticism of Iran's leadership appeared to gain momentum and prominence under the Khatami administration. Now there may be a perception that Ahmadinejad's conservative government -- for whom the "pressure group" would logically have an affinity -- is under pressure from parliamentarians, centrist politicians or regime veterans, students, and foreign governments.
But the persistent trait of these lawless elements remains a surreptitious and sporadic nature. The culprits must maintain a relatively low profile in order to avoid public scandal or publicity that could force authorities to recognize their existence and act. They must avoid too much public mockery of the law if they wish to continue their harassment of opponents.