Five months ahead of a presidential election, Iranian authorities have launched a crack-down on an institution they believe is rife with disobedience and dissent: coffee shops in Tehran.
Owners of cafes have been ordered by morality police and government officials to install cameras to spy on and record customers' conversations and then turn over such recordings to the authorities, according to a report in the Guardian newspaper of Britain.
"Most people thought they were part of the security systems installed by owners to protect against theft," one Iranian told the paper.
Since last summer, many café owners have acceded to the government’s demands but at least one refused to do so.
The owners of the Café Prague, which was very popular, especially among students at Tehran University, activists and intellectuals, closed down last week after they defied orders to put in secret cameras on the premises.
Interestingly, the owners decided to shut down the shop themselves -- before the state could -- because they recognized that the government would continue to harass them, until they complied with the surveillance order.
On the Café Prague’s Facebook page, the owners stated: "We always knew this day would come and, in the midst of Tehran's grimy winter, our end has finally arrived in spite of our many attempts to stay afloat … But as much as it pains us and as much as we will miss our friends and all of you who stood by our side in the past four years, we take comfort in knowing that we at least didn't let Big Brother's glass eyes scan and record our every step, minute and memory from dawn till dusk."
The Guardian noted that the Café Prague was a key meeting place for political events and activism.
A photographer named Amir Hussein said of the venue:
"I have four years' worth of memories in that café. I am sad that I didn't spend more time there. Café Prague wasn't just a café; it was like home, a safe haven for us to forget all our daily troubles and burden."
This is certainly not the first time that the Islamic Republic authorities have targeted coffee shops, which have been a mainstay in Tehran for almost a century.
Last July, police shut down dozens of coffee shops and restaurants on accusations that such places were promoting “immoral” and “un-Islamic” behavior. They also arrested several women for wearing clothing that were deemed to offend Islamic sensibilities.
"These places were shut for not following Islamic values, providing hookah to women, and lacking proper licenses," Tehran police official Ali Reza Mehrabi, told the Iranian Student's News Agency (ISNA) at the time.
Older conservative Iranians view coffee shops as a “Western import” in stark defiance of traditional values, since such businesses tend to attract young people on dates, far away from the prying eyes of their parents and the authorities.
Indeed, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the government of Ayatollah Khomeini shut down many coffee shops for the very same reasons.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.