Two Iranian poets jailed for their work and sentenced to 99 lashes apiece for shaking hands with members of the opposite sex are the latest targets in a crackdown that analysts say pits hard-liners against those offering new glimpses of life in the Islamic Republic.

The sentences follow a pattern of arrests and convictions targeting activists, journalists and artists that has served as a grim backdrop to President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to soften the country’s image and improve relations with the West, including through the landmark nuclear agreement reached last summer.

Hard-liners in the police, judiciary and military view any rapprochement with the West as a threat to the Islamic Republic and a sign of moral decay. Rights groups and analysts say those targeted in the ongoing crackdown on expression in Iran also serve as pawns in the hard-liners’ struggle with moderates ahead of February’s parliamentary elections.

“I think people thought with the nuclear deal, there would be sort of a bit of a thaw as well or a bit of an opening up,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the director of Free Expression Programs at PEN America, an organization promoting literature and freedom of speech. “I think the judiciary is sort of pushing back and trying to make clear that there isn’t going to be that opening people were hoping for.”

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