Iran: Book Censorship The Rule, Not The Exception
By Faraj Sarkouhi
A slimmer choice: women browse a Tehran bookshop (file)
November 26, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The swift move by Iran's Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister to ban a newly published novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez has once again put the spotlight on the phenomenon of censorship in Iran.
The ban on "Memoirs of My Melancholy Whores," published in Iran as "My Sad Sweethearts," has raised new concerns about the fate of many banned writers and hundreds of other banned books in Iran.
Censorship has intensified over the last two years, with many books appearing only in expunged versions, while others previously available -- like the Marquez novel -- have had subsequent print runs banned.
The List Keeps Growing
From the moment that Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi took office in 2005, the list of prohibited books in Iran started growing.
A quick look at the books on the list confirms that there has been an increase in the intensity and recklessness of censorship in all areas.
The wide range of the banned literature includes Persian classical literature and gnosticism, a wide array of academic university books, some of the best-known world literature, and books illustrating a number of famous people from the Islamic world.
In the two years since Harrandi took office, more than 70 percent of previously published books have been banned from being republished, even though each and every one of those books had initially been given permission from the pre-Harrandi Culture Ministry to be published the first time.
The Culture Ministry's "special examiners" have made decisions on the legitimacy of books based on the country's current political atmosphere and their own political, ideological, or personal interests. But their decisions have no basis in the law.
Because of this, prohibiting the publication of officially authorized books has also become a common phenomenon.
In Iran, there are no clear, well-publicized rules or regulations regarding the censorship of books and publications. Yet Iranian publishers are obligated to send the first edition of a book to the Culture Ministry "examiners." If the name of the writer or his work is not on the "blacklist" of banned writers, then the book will be read and inspected.
Afterwards the "examiners" make notes and comments, suggest modifications, or sometimes even annexations and send it back to the publisher. When the required changes are made, the publisher gets permission to publish.
However, even then the publisher must send several copies of the published book to the Culture Ministry for another assessment. At this point, sometimes the ministry requires new changes or even decides on an outright ban of the work. There have been several incidents in which a book that has was initially authorized is later banned from being republished.
In the last two years, the removal of parts and whole pieces of works by well-known poets such as Souzani Samarghandi, Omar Khayam, Molana Jalaledin Rumi, Nezami Ganjavi, Abid Zakani, Iradj Mirza, and even some lexicons from Ali Akbar Dehkhoda and Farhang Moeen has occurred.
Additionally, the works of popular literature by such people as Samak Ayar and Hossein Kord Shabastri have been published only after the elimination of some of their main elements.
The main target of censorship has been some of Iran's best contemporary writers and researchers, such as Sadegh Hedayat, Sadegh Choobak, Ebrahim Golestan, Gholamhossein Saaedi, Ahmad Kasravi, Ali Dashti, Ebrahim Poordavoud, Zabih Behrouz, and others.
One on a long list: Amirhossein Cheheltan (courtesy photo)
Some of Hedayat's works were banned from being published even before this newly raised fever of censorship, but the efforts made last year by numerous publishers and family members of Hedayat regarding the republication of an uncensored version of the novel "The Blind Owl" once again failed to clear the barricade of censorship.
Approval for the republication of Hedayat's novel "The Vagrant Dog" was also denied by the Culture Ministry due to its objection of the image used on the book's cover.
Publishers' efforts to reprint some of Saaedi's prominent works have been futile and the richest part of the drama literature from the 1960s and 1970s has been banned from being republished. The approval to publish one of Golestan's longest stories and two collections of his short stories have also been barred from getting published.
One of Golestan's short-story collections has, however, been allowed to be republished under the condition that some of its stories, including "To be or the role of being and Esmat's journey," have been completely removed from the collection.
That story portrays the tragic life of a prostitute who turns to Imam Reza's shrine for repentance but ends up getting involved with some criminals involved in sex trafficking.
Not Just Racy Titles
The sharp blade of censorship has even reached the republication of Bozorg Alavi's famous novel "His Eyes." Inspired by the life of the Iranian artist Kamalolmolk during the Qadjar Dynasty, which ruled Persia from 1781-1925, the novel illustrates a 1940s romantic narrative with a slight political backdrop.
The Culture Ministry's censorship has not only targeted nonreligious writers but it has even banned the republication of Jalal Aleahmad's book "A Stone on a Grave," in which the author describes the depressing story of his own infertility.
Prominent writer Amirhossein Cheheltan refused to accept an official award in protest of the extreme censorship that has existed under Harandi. Even some of Cheheltan's novels have been banned.
The Culture Ministry has also banned two long stories by Asghar Elahi and denied approval for the republication of one of Norsrat Rahmani's books. In one book, Rahmani portrays the sad and depressed mood of a lost generation in the 1930s.
Not even an official authorization made by the Culture Ministry can rescue a writer from prison. Two works by Yaghoub Yaadali -- which were legally published -- were condemned in the city of Yaasoudj, and the writer was accused of insulting the people of Lorestan Province and imprisoned.
The expansion of censorship in Iran has gone to such an extent that even the manuscript of Tahmineh Milani's movie "Zane Ziyadi" has been banned from being published despite the fact that the movie has played in movie theaters.
Also, publication of Morteza Ravandi's first and second volume of Iran's Social History has been banned regardless of the fact that it has been published on six different occasions previously.
Within the sphere of non-Iranian writers, there have not been as many bans because Iranian publishers and translators make many books acceptable for publication by modifying them to suit the Culture Ministry. But, even though self-censorship works to a certain degree, there is still a great amount of official censorship going on.
Last year the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry banned the republication of the books "Evelina," by Isabel Allende, and Nikos Kazantzakis's "The Last Temptation of Christ" -- which had been published in Iran four times previously. The novel "Girl With a Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier, already published six times, was also banned from being republished.
Censorship has not been restricted to narrative writing. Several months ago Culture Ministry "examiners" asked Khosrow Motazed, the writer of "Olamaolsoltan Memoirs," to remove the pictures in his book. When the writer refused, explaining that they are historical records, the book was banned from being republished.
The worldwide bestseller "The Da Vinci Code," which was sharply criticized even in countries that are predominantly Christian -- particularly by the Vatican -- was not banned anywhere in the world except in Iran, where the Culture Ministry disallowed a Persian translation of the book to be published because of protests by some Iranian Christian priests.
In the last couple of months, the Persian translation of a collection of Henrik Ibsen's work has also been banned. Works by that famous Norwegian playwright have been published many times before and performed on stage in Iran since the 1940s.
The Culture Ministry has constantly ignored writers' complaints regarding their situation. A complaint made by Yazdi, a former foreign minister, was bluntly overlooked by a court.
Dan Brown's bestseller was banned (Wikipedia Commons)
Yazdi's book, "Religious Broad-Mind and Serious Challenges" has also been banned. A few months ago "Poverty and Prostitution," a book by Masoud Dehnamaki that was published earlier with the Culture Ministry's approval, was recalled and banned.
Hossein Brojerdi, the son of former army commander Mohammad Brojerdi -- whose life story and books have been regarded as a great Islamic and revolutionary model -- announced in an open letter that a book he wrote about his father has been banned from being published. According to Brojerdi, the Culture Ministry "examiners" pointed out to him 70 errors in the book as the reason for it not gaining approval.
The only survivor on last year's long list of censored books is Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani's book "Towards Destiny." In it, Rafsanjani says that during the Iran-Iraq War, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini agreed to stop using the "Death to America" slogan.
The Culture Ministry tried to ban publication of the book's second edition after objections to it were made by some conservative media in Iran, but Rafsanjani's great power and influence helped him publish the second edition of his book.
A rare success story in the black hole of Iranian censorship.
(Faraj Sarkouhi was the editor of the Iranian cultural weekly "Adineh." He was arrested in Iran in the late 1990s and sentenced to prison for "propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran." He moved to Germany following his release in 1998 and is now a regular contributor to Radio Farda with a weekly book report.)
Female Doctor's Prison Death Causes Public Outcry
By Farangis Najibullah
Authorities earlier this year launched a fresh crackdown to enforce Islamic dress-code rules (file photo)
November 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Zahra Bani Yaghoub was a 27-year-old medical university graduate from Tehran who some two years ago volunteered to work in the western city of Hamadan.
Bani Yaghoub was due to return to Tehran next year to complete her medical studies and become a specialist in urology. But instead she died in suspicious circumstances in Hamadan prison on October 13.
Eyewitnesses said she was arrested by Iran's morality police while walking with her fiance in a Hamadan city park. Her fiance was released an hour later, but she was kept in prison overnight.
The next day, her lifeless body was handed over to her parents with the police claiming she committed suicide by hanging herself.
"Now people see that even an ordinary person does not have basic security; and a person simply can get arrested on a street and, instead of returning home, their bodies are buried in a cemetery." -- journalist Isa Saharkhiz
Bani Yagoub's family, however, say they have no reason to believe that their daughter would take her own life.
Her father, who reportedly works at an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps facility, accuses the police of assaulting and murdering his daughter.
The family also says her brother had spoken with her over the phone 15 minutes before the time the police claim she killed herself. Bani Yaghoub's brother said there was no indication she was minutes away from taking her life.
The family says Bani Yaghoub's body was bruised and that there was blood in her nose and in her ears.
Bani Yaghoub's death has caused worries in Iranian society about basic civil liberties and personal safety.
Iran's state media has briefly reported the official version of the event. The independent media, however, have been covering all sides of the story and public reaction to her death.
Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of the Association of Press Freedom in Iran, says the details of this woman's tragic death in prison have reached the Iranian people through the country's independent media and foreign news agencies.
Saharkhiz says that under the Islamic regime, Iranians have somehow become accustomed to political activists or independent journalists being arrested and even killed in suspicious circumstances, but this ordinary woman's death while in custody has shocked society.
"Now people see that even an ordinary person does not have basic security; and a person simply can get arrested on a street and, instead of returning home, their bodies are buried in a cemetery," he tells RFE/RL. "It has become a very sensitive issue in our society and created many questions."
Call For Full Investigation
In an open letter to the head of the Iranian judiciary this week, a group of former Iranian parliamentarians called for a thorough investigation into the circumstances around Bani Yaghoub's death.
The Iranian Alumni Association of Majlis Representatives, which brings together more than 400 former Iranian parliamentarians, urged Ayatollah Hashemi Shahrudi to fully investigate the case in order to answer all outstanding questions.
Bani Yaghoub's death attracted more attention this week with high-profile lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi discussing the possibility of an autopsy being done.
Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi (Fars)
Mehrangiz Kar, an Iranian-born, human-rights lawyer and author based in the United States, says whether the cause of death was a murder or a suicide, the police and judiciary are responsible for this tragic event.
"Who, how, and why could push such a young girl -- one who had a bright future ahead of her -- to the point of anxiety and despair?" she tells Radio Farda. "No matter what has happened, the authorities are responsible for this death."
Both Kar and Saharkhiz say the chances are slim that the authorities would hold any police officer or a prison worker responsible for Bani Yaghoub's death.
They say the authorities cannot ignore the case, which has taken on a high profile with all of the media coverage. But they believe officials will probably drag on the investigation for months and even years until publicity around it eventually fades.
Bani Yagoub's death in prison was similar to that of Zahra Kazemi, an Iranian-Canadian photographer who was arrested while taking pictures outside Iran's notorious Evin prison in 2003. Kazemi later died amid allegations that she was severely beaten, tortured, and possibly raped in prison. Prison officials, however, said Kazemi had a stroke.
Earlier this year, Iran launched a "public security and moralization campaign" during which many citizens, including many women, were arrested and questioned for their alleged un-Islamic attitude, such as Western-style hairdos or outfits.
Unmarried men and women cannot walk together in public holding hands.
There are many cases in Iran when young men and women have been arrested for walking together. However, most of them were later released after paying a fine or receiving other punishments such as flogging.
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report.)
IAEA Says Iran Cooperating, But Not Enough
IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei addressing the Vienna meeting on November 22
November 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The UN's nuclear watchdog is due to wrap
up a meeting today to discuss its latest report on Iran's nuclear
Speaking at the meeting in Vienna on November 22, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, said he cannot be sure Tehran has declared all of its nuclear material and activities to inspectors, despite what he says is Iran's increased openness about its past programs.
"Our progress over the past two months has been made possible by an increased level of cooperation on the part of Iran, in accordance with the work plan," el-Baradei said. "However, I would continue to urge Iran to be more proactive in providing information, and in accelerating the pace of this cooperation, in order for the agency to be able to clarify all major remaining outstanding issues by the end of the year."
El-Baradei's statement underlined the impasse that remains between the IAEA and Tehran, despite what both sides say has been increased cooperation in recent months. Full Cooperation?
The cooperation has centered on the two sides signing a "work plan" in August under which Tehran agreed to answer outstanding questions about its nuclear program by the end of the year.
The agreement is meant to remove all technical ambiguities surrounding Tehran's nuclear projects to ensure that they are only for peaceful purposes.
But the current IAEA report casts serious doubts on whether Iran is providing the necessary answers. The report notes that while Iran has been candid about its early procurement of material and equipment for enriching uranium, it still allows inspectors access only to sites they already know about.
In the meantime, Iran continues to ignore Security Council demands to suspend uranium enrichment -- a demand backed by the passage of two rounds of mild sanctions since December. Instead, Tehran has stepped up its efforts to master the enrichment technology, something Western states say it hopes one day to use for making nuclear weapons.
Iran says its nuclear activities are only intended to produce energy. And at the IAEA meeting on November 22, Tehran's ambassador to the organization demanded the Security Council stop pressing Iran to suspend its enrichment work.
"We will continue this mood of cooperation provided that the international community and peace-loving countries prevent the United States or others to make noise and create problems and jeopardize, in fact, this constructive approach by any measure in the United Nations Security Council," Ali Asghar Soltanieh said. "United Nation Security Council involvement has to be stopped -- the sooner the better."
Iran maintains that all matters connected to its nuclear program should be settled within the framework of the IAEA alone.
Meanwhile, the continuing impasse appears to set the stage for a heightened confrontation in the weeks ahead.
The five permanent Security Council members plus Germany agreed in September to hold a vote on a third round of sanctions unless the current IAEA report -- and a similar one to be prepared by the EU -- had what they called a "positive outcome."
The Western powers on the Security Council now look certain to say the IAEA report is far from reaching that "positive" conclusion. But Russia and China -- which favor a slower approach to sanctions -- may argue there is enough cooperation from Tehran to postpone a third sanctions debate.
The strength of either argument may now depend in large part on the upcoming report from the EU. It remains unclear when the report will be issued, but it is expected soon.
Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, said on November 22 that he will meet EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana on November 30 in London to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Solana's office has yet to confirm a date.
Nobel Laureate Ebadi Founds Peace Movement
By Breffni O'Rourke
Shirin Ebadi (file photo)
November 23, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has called for the creation of a broad-based "National Peace Council" to give voice to Iranians who want to halt a perceived drift toward military conflict with the United States.
Ebadi, a Tehran-based human rights activist and lawyer, this week invited all Iranians to participate in the creation of the national body, saying the initiative emerged from a group of activist lawyers called the Center of Human Rights Defenders, which she co-founded.
The council is seen primarily as a discussion forum, but analysts say it has the potential to offer an alternative to the pro-confrontation policies of the current Iranian leadership.
Appeal To Both Sides
Ebadi told Radio Farda's Niusha Boghrati that the council would include "individuals who are trusted by people." "The National Peace Council will discuss ways to decrease political and military tensions between Iran and the United States and Western countries," she said.
Ebadi also called on the Iranian government to suspend those sensitive nuclear activities that are at the core of Western suspicions that Iran aims to develop nuclear weapons.
The initiative "attacks Ahmadinejad's hard line, but at the same time it says that our nuclear energy rights should be recognized. And so, in that way, it is quite an important [initiative]." -- Massoumeh Torfeh, SOAS
At issue is the enrichment of uranium, which Iran has refused to abandon, despite directives to do so from the United Nations Security Council. Ebadi urged both sides to observe the norms of international law in the dispute.
"What we want is that the two sides should respect international law, and we warn them on this," she said. "The United States cannot have the right to deal with Iran outside the framework of international law, and Iran cannot build a wall around itself and say, 'I have nothing to do with international law' and pay no attention to [UN] Security Council resolutions."
Positive First Reactions
Reliable figures on public opinion are notoriously hard to come by in Iran. But Ebadi's peace initiative has struck a positive chord among the Iranian public, judging from Iranians who spoke to Radio Farda's Ruzbeh Bolhari.
"No matter to whom you talk, to the youth, workers, farmers, elder people, families, no one wants a war to begin," says Tehran journalist Siamak Taheri. "The reason is quite clear: we experienced about eight years of war, in the meeting [horrible] figures were given about the destruction of the war with Iraq. With regard to the peace-seeking nature of the Iranian people, it seems that its chance for success is very high and also [many] political activists have welcomed it."
Still defiant; Ahmadinejad at the Natanz nuclear plant, where Iran has been enriching uranium (Fars)
Analyst Massoumeh Torfeh, of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says it is too early to say what impact the National Peace Council might have on Iran's political scene. But she says that the number of prominent Iranians backing the Peace Council idea -- from the political, religious, intellectual, artistic, and student worlds -- could make it difficult for the authorities to move against them.
She also says that Ebadi has found the correct tone for the new body, by standing up for Iran's right to develop nuclear energy but pointing out that there are other rights.
"At the same time, we have another right, which is far more important, which is our right to security," Torfeh says. "So the initiative is two-pronged. It attacks [President Mahmud] Ahmadinejad's hard line, but at the same time it says that our nuclear energy rights should be recognized. And so, in that way, it is quite an important [initiative]."
'State Of Denial'
The United States has consistently said it wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, but has refused to rule out the use of force against Iran if there is no other way to prevent it acquiring techniques essential for the building of nuclear weapons.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad's government have just as consistently denied their country has any intention of developing nuclear weapons.
But Ahmadinejad has never been able to plausibly explain why Iran insists on enriching its own uranium, when suitable low-enriched fuel for civilian nuclear power plants is readily available on the world market.
Ahmadinejad vowed earlier this week that Iran "won't give the smallest concession" in its disputes with foreign powers. If Iran persists in expanding its enrichment "cascades," it would eventually be able to produce highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium, which has no place in a civil nuclear program.
Mick Gapes, chairman of the British Parliament's select committee on foreign affairs, says the Iranian leadership is in a "state of denial" about their obligations to meet the needs of Security Council resolutions 1737 and 1747, which imposed UN sanctions on Iran for its failure to stop enriching uranium.
Gapes, who has just visited Iran with a party of parliamentarians, told Radio Farda's Sharan Tabari Iran must realize that the international community is not trying to interfere with its right to develop a peaceful nuclear program.
"We have made clear to them many times that we are not trying to stop them having civil nuclear power," Gapes says. "What we were saying, what the British government was saying, what the international community was saying, was that Iran has obligations under the non-proliferation treaty to not develop nuclear weapons, and they need to reassure, and to build confidence and trust in the world that this is the case."
As One Door Closes In Nuclear Dispute, Others Open
By Breffni O'Rourke
Russia is planning nuclear fuel shipments to Iran's Bushehr power plant, in spite of Western concerns
November 19, 2007 (RFE /RL) -- The international row over Iran's nuclear program is growing increasingly complex as new ideas appear about how to resolve the crisis, while those wishing to impose harsher sanctions on Iran face new setbacks.
China, and possibly Russia, seem to be closing the door on Washington's hopes for imposing sharper sanctions on Iran at the UN Security Council.
Beijing unexpectedly canceled its attendance at a meeting set for today of the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany. Citing scheduling rather than political difficulties, the Chinese effectively scuppered the chance to agree a common line on tough new sanctions.
Neither the Chinese nor Russia favor heavily sanctioning Tehran. Regional expert Peter Lehr, explaining Beijing's reluctance, notes that "China has invested billions of dollars into Iran with regard to oil and gas, [and] it's assisting them in building up their infrastructure -- so basically China needs Iran to secure their energy supplies."
Moscow has also blown a hole in the sanctions plan by announcing that it will soon begin the process of supplying nuclear fuel for the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr.
The Russian-built plant is not yet finished. But the Russian state-run fuel supplier TVEL said on November 16 that it has arranged with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for inspectors to oversee next week the verification and sealing of the fuel containers ready for shipment to Iran.
Russia's willingness to make such a delivery at the very height of the nuclear controversy is a clear indication that Moscow is not interested in more sanctions.
In any event, the United States -- impatient with Chinese and Russian foot-dragging at the UN -- is moving along a parallel path, namely to create a coalition of countries willing to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran.
Washington already has an extensive program of financial disincentives in place to dissuade foreign bankers and investors from dealing with Iran, and it wants other countries to do the same.
It has a newfound partner in France under President Nikolas Sarkozy, who has said force may eventually have to be used on Iran. Sarkozy has closely aligned his views on Iran with those of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was quoted by "Haaretz" on November 18 as saying that Iran is one the gravest threats facing the world today. Kouchner said it's essential to press ahead with sanctions.
In light of the increasing tensions, Iranian Nobel Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi today called on Iran to suspend sensitive nuclear activities to avert the "serious" threat of a U.S. military attack. In an interview with Radio Farda, Ebadi also called on Iranians to join a "national peace campaign," and urged Washington to work within international law in dealing with Tehran.
"What we want is that the two sides should respect international law," Ebadi said. "The United States cannot have the right to deal with Iran outside the framework of international law, and Iran cannot build a wall around itself and say, 'I have nothing to do with international law,' and pay no attention to Security Council resolutions."
No EU-Wide Agreement
European Union foreign ministers met in Brussels today to consider the sanctions question, and France and Britain were pressing for an EU-wide policy of sanctions. That's not likely, however, because of the difficulty of reaching agreement among the 27 union members, some of whom do not support a sanctions approach.
Paris-based European security analyst Walter Posch says the issue could be highly divisive for the EU. Posch said the risk of a split over policy on Iran may not be as dramatic as the divisions over the war in Iraq, but Britain could again find itself in opposition to France and other EU members.
A new factor in the nuclear equation is a possible role for Switzerland. Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey confirmed that her country is seeking to facilitate direct negotiations between Iran and the United States.
She did not say who had approached Switzerland to play that role, but she noted that traditional Swiss neutrality puts it in a key position to mediate the standoff over Tehran's nuclear program.
Switzerland has represented U.S. diplomatic interests in Iran since Washington broke relations with Tehran in 1979.
Meanwhile, Iran's Arab neighbors have unveiled a plan to have Switzerland act as a custodian for enriched uranium, which would be supplied as required to Middle East countries with peaceful nuclear programs.
That would ensure reliable supplies to countries like Iran, while removing the suspicion that it was secretly developing nuclear arms. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on November 18 that he will closely study the program.
But going by previous experience, Ahmadinejad might merely be raising false hopes, as he has consistently said Iran will never give up its right to develop its own enriched uranium supplies.
Call For Release As Filmmaker's Iran Trial Starts
November 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A Canadian human rights activist is calling for international pressure on the Iranian authorities to let French-Iranian filmmaker Mehrnoushe Solouki leave the country.
In a statement issued in Montreal, Denis McCready said Solouki went on trial in Tehran on November 17 and was questioned by a judge before the three-hour hearing was adjourned indefinitely.
Solouki, who has Canadian residency, is accused of intent to commit propaganda against the Iranian government.
She was arrested on February 27, after returning to Iran to make a film documentary about burial customs among Iranian minorities.
She came to the attention of the authorities after displaying an interest in a mass grave outside Tehran that contained the remains of people summarily executed by the government in 1988.
McCready, a friend of Solouki's, says Iran has the opportunity to close this case, which he calls a minor incident inflated for no apparent reason. He says that "Iran's government has the opportunity to make a tangible gesture and allow her to leave Iran."
He notes that Solouki "is not a powerful political dissident" but simply "an independent filmmaker and doctoral student who wants to go back to France."
Solouki spent a month in the notorious Evin prison before being released on bail. But her passport remains confiscated and she has not been permitted to leave the country.
McCready says Solouki urgently needs to go to France to receive proper medical treatment for a wound to her cheek that she suffered when hit by a motorcycle in July. The wound has required four operations, and is still swollen.
The media rights group Reporters Without Borders has also taken up Solouki's case, calling on authorities earlier this year to let her leave Iran.
Women's Rights Activist And Journalist Jailed In Tehran
November 19, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Authorities in Iran have detained a women's rights activist after accusing her of undermining national security.
The arrest appears to be the latest jailing in an official clampdown to silence dissent and depict government critics as threats to the public.
Maryam Hosseikhah, a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws, was detained on November 18 and transferred to Tehran's Evin prison.
Authorities had told her one day earlier that she was being charged with "acting against Iran's national security" and publishing false information on the Women's Cultural Center and the One Million Signatures Campaign websites.
Hosseikhah's husband, Shahab Mirzayi, told Radio Farda on November 18 that his wife was active in efforts to combat gender-based discrimination:
"Maryam and some of her friends were writing on these websites," Mirzayi said. "The issues are not political, they're social issues -- they're engaged in bringing equality for men and women. They want to take a draft law to the parliament. What they're doing is legal and transparent. Unfortunately they're facing these actions -- it's not clear why they're being treated like this."
Authorities Upping Pressure
Pressure has increased recently on women's rights activists and members of the One Million Signatures Campaign.
At least two other members of the campaign have been jailed in recent months. Ronak Safarzadeh and Hana Abdi were arrested in September and October in Kurdistan Province. They remain in prison, reportedly with no access to family members or lawyers.
Earlier this month, Iran's judiciary temporarily suspended prison sentences against a women's rights activist and social worker who were arrested at a demonstration in mid-2006.
The activist, 24-year-old Delaram Ali, is among dozens of people arrested in June 2006 for protesting articles in Iranian law seen as discriminatory against women. Ali was initially sentenced to more than two years in prison and 10 lashes.
At least five other female activists who organized the Tehran protest were given suspended jail terms earlier this year.
Human rights groups have called on Iran to end official pressure on women's rights advocates and the country's civil society.
Iran: Clashes Highlight 'Demonization' Of Sufi Muslims
By Ron Synovitz
A sculpture of Islam's holy book at Tehran's annual Koran exhibition in September
November 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Clashes in Iran this week between security forces and followers of a mystic Sufi order have underlined what international human rights groups say is the increasing "demonization" of Sufi Muslims in Iran.
Dozens of people were injured and arrested during the November 11 clashes in the western city of Borujerd, and parts of the Sufis' monastery there were destroyed. Official media said the clashes came after Sufis attacked a Shi'a mosque in the city where clerics had been criticising Sufism.
Sufism is growing in popularity in predominantly Shi'ite Iran, though officials and conservative Shi'a clerics have said it is a deviation of Islam.
Sufism is a mystic tradition within Islam in which individuals pursue absolute truth and divine wisdom through mystic revelation. It is best known around the world for its "whirling dervish" dances and for the mystical poetry of 13th-century Persian poet Molana Jalal ad-Din Rumi.
In fact, Sufi Muslims believe that rituals involving dance, music, and the recitation of Allah's divine names can give them direct perception of God.
But although many Sufi orders strictly observe Islamic practices and beliefs, some conservative Shi'a clerics in Iran say Sufism is a danger to Islam.
Indeed, there have long been tensions in Iran between Sufism and more orthodox traditions of Islam. Observers such as the human-rights group Amnesty International say these tensions have worsened -- and state tolerance for Sufi groups in Iran has diminished -- since the establishment of an Islamic republic some 28 years ago.
The poet Molana Jalal ad-Din Rumi (public domain)
And since Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005, Iranian authorities appear to be increasingly confronting Sufi Muslims.
Abdol Karim Lahiji, a prominent Iranian lawyer who directs the Paris-based League for Defense of Human Rights in Iran, tells RFE/RL that the divisions between Sufis and Shi'a in Iran can be traced back more than 1,000 years.
In particular, Lahiji notes that the approach toward Islam of Sufi orders -- known as Tariqas -- differs markedly from that of Iran's conservative Shi'a clerics, who follow a strict interpretation of Islamic rules known as shari'a law.
"First it's the historical problem between two kinds of thinking about Islam," Lahiji says. "It's two schools -- the school of shari'a and the school of Tariqa. Tariqa means Sufis [orders] and all the mystic schools. In all our history, it was always a fight between two kinds of interpretations of Islam. The Sufis were more tolerant of freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The [shari'a] people were more aggressive and less tolerant of the other interpretations of Islam."
The Islamic Revolution, which brought Iran's conservative clerics to power in 1979, also established shari'a as the basis of all laws in the country.
"For that reason, the other sections of Islam -- like Sunnis, like Ismaili, like Sufis -- not only haven't the same rights in the constitution and the political and judicial systems of Iran, they aren't considered real Muslims," Lahiji says. "For that reason, all kinds of persecution of these kinds of Muslims are permitted in Iran."
In broader terms, Lahiji sees the demonization of Sufi Muslims in Iran as a strategy by Ahmadinejad's regime aimed at discrediting individuals or groups that pose political challenges to the power of Iran's conservative Shi'a clerics.
"It's not only about the other sections of Islam. It's all the sections of society. In the last two years, the civil society of Iran -- the journalists, the students, the women, the [labor unions], the teachers, the universities -- all are victims of these very, very aggressive politics," he says. "And the other Muslim groups are [treated] the same. It's the result of the political aggression of Ahmadinejad."
The November 11 clashes pitted police and Basij paramilitary troops against members of the largest Sufi order in Iran, Nematollahi Gonabadi.
Nematollahi Gonabadi is the Sufi order with teachings that most closely resemble Shi'a Islamic traditions. Nevertheless, Iranian security forces in the end used bulldozers to demolish parts of the Sufi monastery in Borujerd, known as Hossaini-ye Nematollahi Gonabadi.
There are conflicting reports about what led to the clashes, none of which could be independently confirmed. However, by all accounts, scores of people were injured and arrested during the confrontation.
Whriling dervishes performing in Istanbul (AFP)
Iran's official state-run news agencies says Sufis attacked a Shi'a mosque, the Masjid an-Nabi, that is next door to their Sufi monastery.
Those reports say the Sufis were angry about criticism from Shi'a clerics that were being broadcast from loudspeakers in the mosque's minarets.
Sufis in Borujerd describe events differently. They say Shi'a clerics feel threatened by the growing popularity of the Sufi movement in Iran, especially among young people.
One Sufi follower in Borujerd told Radio Farda that Iranian authorities had invented stories about the Sufi attack on the Shi'a mosque in order to justify the destruction of the monastery.
"[Authorities] spread a rumor that Sufi mystics had attacked Masjid an-Nabi and injured one of the clerics there," he said. "This very rumor gave an excuse for the [paramilitary Basij] to say that they must seek vengeance. By mobilizing forces around the city, they somehow gathered people together and attacked Hossaini-ye, [the Sufi's monastery.] They attacked first with sticks and stones, demolishing the ceiling of Hossaini-ye. Then, when they entered Hossaini-ye, the Sufis and dervishes resisted and forced them back out of the building. Then, they attacked again -- this time using tear gas and colored gases. So they occupied the Hossaini-ye. They burned it and destroyed it. They are persecuting Sufis for their religious beliefs."
Leaders of other Sufi orders contacted by RFE/RL have declined to comment on the Borujerd dispute, saying they fear their followers will be persecuted in Iran if they issue political statements about Ahmadinejad's regime.
The U.S. State Department says respect for religious freedom in Iran is extremely poor and has been deteriorating since Ahmadinejad came to power -- especially for Sufi Muslims and members of the Baha'i Faith.
In fact, just a week before the violence in Borujerd, Iranian Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Parviz issued a statement saying there is no place for the promotion of Sufism in Shi'a-dominated Iran.
Parviz's remarks followed complaints from Shi'a clerics about state television coverage of the Rumi International Congress, an event in Iran commemorating the 800th anniversary of the birth of the Persian poet and mystic Rumi.
Parviz, who also served as executive director of the committee for the Rumi Congress, said the clerics' complaints focused on news broadcasts about performances of Sama, the Sufi practice of gathering to listen to religious poetry that is sung and often accompanied by ecstatic dance or other rituals.
The U.S. State Department says Tehran's actions and rhetoric have created a threatening atmosphere for nearly all religious minorities in Iran.
It also says Iran's government-controlled media has intensified negative campaigns against religious minorities since Ahmadinejad's election.
It notes that in late 2005, a shari'a scholar in the holy city Qom, Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani, called for a crackdown on Sufi groups after labeling them a "danger to Islam." Since then, articles attacking Sufis have proliferated in Iranian national newspapers.
In February 2006, police closed a building in Qom that was being used as a house of worship by Sufis from the Nematollahi Gonabadi order. When Sufis responded by staging a protest in Qom, clashes broke out and Iranian authorities arrested more than 1,000 people.
Local officials in Qom said the Sufis had illegally created a center of worship and refused to leave it. They also said that some of the Sufis demonstrators had been armed.
But representatives of the Sufi order in Qom have denied the charges, saying they have been targeted for persecution because of the increasing popularity of Sufism.
(Radio Farda's Alireza Taheri contributed to this report)
Ahmadinejad's Bahrain Visit New Piece In Complex Pattern
By Breffni O'Rourke
Bahrain's ruler Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa (file)
November 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad makes a trip to the Gulf island state of Bahrain on November 17 to meet with Bahraini ruler Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa.
Ahmadinejad and the emir should have much to talk about during the Iranian leader's one-day visit to Manama.
Bahrain is former Persian territory, and an Iranian desire to reclaim it arose again recently, shocking the island state's leadership. Bahrain's crown prince recently became the first Arab leader to publicly accuse Tehran of trying to develop nuclear weapons. His kingdom is also the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which could play an important role if hostilities erupt between Iran and the United States.
Old Claim Resurfaces
Tehran's old territorial claim to Bahrain was resurrected by a senior journalist who is also reputed to be an adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "Kayhan" Editor-in-Chief Hoseyn Shari'atmadari wrote in July that Bahrain should be returned to Iran.
Regional analyst Mustafa Alani, the director of security at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, is critical of this claim emerging from a source so close to the Iranian leadership. "Basically the Iranian behavior is not acceptable on this issue," he says.
"The Shi'a community in Bahrain has strong links with Iran. A peaceful and good relation with Iran helps stability in the kingdom [and] this is why the [Bahraini leadership] believes a good relationship with Iran is necessary." -- analyst Mustafa Alani
Bahrain was indeed Persian territory in the 19th century. The British -- the power in the Persian Gulf at that time -- took a 99-year lease on the islands. Once it expired, Britain gave Bahrain independence in 1971, following a UN-supervised referendum.
Iran at the time was handed the disputed Greater and Lesser Tunb islands, and in exchange for that it agreed to put aside its claim to Bahrain, which has a mostly Shi'a Arab citizenry.
The tension inherent in Iranian-Bahraini relations was sharpened by the recent assertion of Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin-Hamad al-Khalifa that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons. The statement -- in a November 2 interview in the British daily "The Times" -- was an unusually blunt reference by an Arab leader to Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran claims is solely for peaceful purposes.
The prince said straight out that Iran was developing a bomb, or the capability for it --- thus becoming the first of Iran's Persian Gulf neighbors to accuse Tehran of lying about its nuclear program.
The prince also said the whole region could be drawn into any military conflict and called on India, as well as Russia, to help find a diplomatic solution to the present standoff.
Some see a link between the crown prince's comments and Ahmadinejad's visit two weeks later.
This is a tense time for Iran, as Western pressure mounts over the nuclear accusations and Iran's role in Iraq. The last thing that Tehran wants is for Arab neighbors to side openly with those who are convinced that Iran is hiding its true intentions.
The territorial claim led to protests in Bahrain in July (AFP)
Massoumeh Torfeh of London University's School of Oriental and African Studies tells RFE/RL that the Iranian leader could be aiming to deliver a warning to the Bahrainis that the kingdom could "put itself in danger" by such direct accusations.
Torfeh says Ahmadinejad could encourage the prince to retract his statement. She notes that Iranian press reports of the prince's comments claimed his remarks were "distorted."
She also says "Ahmadinejad is extremely nervous -- despite his pretenses to the contrary -- that an American attack on Iran could become a reality."
Analyst Alani says the Iranian involvement with nuclear power has put the six countries of the pro-Western Gulf Cooperation Council, of which Bahrain is a member, under pressure to develop their own nuclear expertise.
"The GCC feels we have the necessity now to develop at least the know-how in the field of nuclear energy," Alani says. "But the GCC program, unlike the Iranian program, will be under the supervision of the [International Atomic Energy Agency], and it's going to be a peaceful research program."
Despite the multiple tensions, Bahrain is constrained to cultivate the best ties it can with Tehran, Alani says.
"Bahrainis need Iran for a very simple reason: There's the question of the Shi'a community in Bahrain, which has strong links with Iran," he says. "A peaceful and good relation with Iran helps stability in the kingdom [and] this is why the [Bahraini leadership] believes a good relationship with Iran is necessary."
Shi'as compose some 70 percent of Bahrain's population, while the elite are mostly Sunnis. Long-standing tensions between the two communities came into the open after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.
Apparently inspired by the revolution, Shi'ite fundamentalists in Bahrain tried to stage a coup in 1981 that was aimed at installing a Shi'ite theocratic government in Manama. After it failed, the Sunni-led Bahraini government cracked down on Shi'a, and many were jailed. The suspicion lingered that Tehran was involved in the coup attempt, but Iran has always denied that.
Alireza Nourizadeh, the director of the Center for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, says that bilateral relations improved greatly under the presidency of Ahmadinejad's reformist predecessor, Mohammad Khatami. But he says they have deteriorated again since Ahmadinejad took over in 2005.
"This also can be sourced back to the relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Whenever [Shi'ia-led] Tehran enjoyed good relations with [Sunni-led] Saudi Arabia, relations with Bahrain were also very close," he says. "Now it seems that the visit of Mr. Ahmadinejad may bring back relations to the point where Khatami left off."
Another factor that deeply complicates Iranian-Bahraini relations is the fact that Bahrain is the home port of the powerful U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Ships and aircraft of the U.S. Fifth fleet (AFP)
The presence of the fleet is a constant reminder that the United States intends to keep open the Gulf, the waterway through which much of the world's oil supplies are shipped.
Positioned strategically halfway between Kuwait at the head of the Gulf and the narrow strait of Hormuz at its entrance, the fleet also faces the entire south coast of Iran. In the event of any military hostilities between Iran and the United States, the 5th Fleet's ships and aircraft could play a key role.
For Bahrain, however, the situation is as usual difficult. A staunch ally of the West, Bahrain risks the wrath of Iran in the event of conflict.
The Bahraini government has pledged that it will not allow its territory to be used to wage a conflict with any of its neighbors. But it is difficult to see in practical terms how that would work, given the logistical support provided by a home base to a fleet at sea.
Ahmadinejad's Threat To 'Traitors' Points To Widening Rift
By Breffni O'Rourke
Has Ahmadinejad further deepened the divisions in Iran's establishment? (file photo)
November 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- During more than two years as Iranian president, Mahmud Ahmadinejad has made his share of provocative statements. In October 2005, he famously denied that the Holocaust ever happened. And in New York last September, he claimed that no homosexuals lived in Iran. But until this week, the hard-line president had never publicly called his own internal critics "traitors," including those from his own conservative party in the government of the Islamic Republic.
Ahmadinejad, in a speech on November 12 at Tehran's Science and Technology University, denounced what he called "traitors" to Iran's nuclear program. He threatened to name and shame these critics unless they end pressure to change Iran's nuclear policy. The harshness of his attack points up a serious rift within the establishment about how Ahmadinejad's hard line is driving Iran into international isolation.
Given the heinous connotations of the word "traitor" and the traditional fate that awaits traitors, the accusations were grave. And consequences have followed swiftly. Iran's Intelligence Ministry announced today that Hossein Musavian, a former senior nuclear negotiator, had been charged with passing classified information to foreigners, including the British Embassy, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.
In recent weeks, Musavian had appeared to be part of a rising wave of internal criticism aimed at the president's handling of nuclear policy. Some of it has come from traditional dissidents such as students, journalists, and former leaders of the Islamic Revolution who have long since turned critical, such as the Freedom Movement of Iran.
More significantly, however, mounting opposition to Ahmadinejad's nuclear policy has appeared to emanate from former senior officials such as Musavian, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad's predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, as well as Hassan Rohani, head of Khatami's nuclear negotiating team.
Radio Farda, citing Iranian media reports, has quoted Ahmadinejad as suggesting in his speech that internal critics were encouraging the West to intensify their sanctions on Iran. He offered no names or proof, but said, "these are traitors, and on the basis of the pact we have made with the [Iranian] people, we will not retreat and sit by and watch." If they do not stop, he added, he would reveal their identities to the nation.
The first name revealed, it appears, is Musavian. "The world community wants Iran to employ moderates in the [nuclear] negotiations," Hassan Fathi, a Tehran-based pro-reform journalist, told Radio Farda on November 12. "If Mr. Ahmadinejad claims to want to name names, then in the final analysis the clues lead to these [above-cited] individuals, who time and again, in both blunt and subtle ways, have made clear their [negative] assessment of the current nuclear policy."
Policy's Style, Substance Criticized
Analysts say their criticism focuses both on the style and substance of Ahmadinejad's nuclear negotiating strategy. They say that from reformers such as Khatami to traditional conservatives such as Rafsanjani, there is a belief that Iran must tone down the fiery, provocative rhetoric heard from Ahmadinejad, but also must strive for compromise in its nuclear talks -- one that can satisfy Washington but also save face for Tehran.
The latest inside critic to voice concern is Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, the powerful conservative mayor of Tehran who is seen as a likely contender in the 2009 presidential elections.
In remarks reported by Iranian media on November 13, Qalibaf called for more "maturity and intelligence" in Iran's foreign policy, and warned the government to act more prudently amid rising tensions over the Iranian nuclear program.
"Government officials must pay attention to the grave situation where Iran finds itself on the international scene," Qalibaf said, one day after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, for the first time, publicly floated the idea of imposing sanctions on Iran's oil industry.
A traditional conservative, Qalibaf likes to portray himself as a technocrat who works with people across the political spectrum. "We could have achieved our objectives for a lesser cost," he said. "We do not need to impose an additional cost on society, because of certain methods and declarations, to reach the just demands of the people."
There has been high-level exasperation over Ahmadinejad's brushing-off of UN sanctions as "pieces of paper" and his refusal to acknowledge a possible U.S. military attack. Rafsanjani, contradicting the president, has said the threat of a U.S. strike "exists and is very serious." The powerful former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai has also said the threats of Iran's foes should not be taken as "jokes".
In a speech On October 10, Rohani offered his own revelatory critique. He said Iran now faces more international threats than ever before. And he criticized what he called the failure of Iranian diplomacy on the nuclear issue, saying that to succeed in diplomacy means preventing enemies from becoming allies with other countries -- an apparent reference to recent moves by Germany, France, and even China to more directly confront Iran over its nuclear program.
A similar criticism came from Mohsen Mirdamadi, the head of the reformist Islamic Participation Front. Mirdamadi, apparently referring to Ahmadinejad's nuclear policies, cautioned that "dangers" could arise due to "alarming" and "adventurist" behavior. His remarks on October 26 came after the United States imposed unilateral sanctions on major Iranian banks as well as on the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps and its elite Quds Force, which it labeled as a terrorist organization.
Another key sign of discord over the nuclear policy came when the head of the nuclear negotiating team, Ali Larijani, resigned suddenly in mid-October without giving a plausible reason.
Showing his disapproval with the change, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei immediately assigned Larijani to be his personal representative to the international nuclear talks. Also, a group of reform parliamentarians sent a letter to Ahmadinejad, saying he should have acted with "more tolerance and thought" rather than replacing Larijani at such a critical moment in Iran's negotiations with the world community.
Ahmadinejad replaced Larijani with a close ally, Said Jalali, prompting concerns abroad that the Iranian negotiating line would turn even harder. Pro-reform journalist Fathi says internal Iranian critics believe that such a change will not lead to success.
"We should accept the fact that the international community would never give us a concession unless it gets a concession from us [in return]," he says. "If we imagine that without giving a concession we could gain a concession, we either are not familiar with the international diplomatic process or we are under the impression that we are the world's superpower and everyone should pay us tribute."
In a final note of dissent, the Freedom Movement, which is made up of former leaders of the 1979 revolution who turned critical of it, issued an extraordinary statement on its website calling for an overhaul of Tehran's nuclear negotiations. In a clear reference to Ahmadinejad, the November 13 statement urged Iranian leaders to refrain from "provocative comments" and to take external "military, economic, and political threats" very seriously.
"All criticism or action that is not in line [with the government], and which is made at all levels of society, is suppressed by using the label 'insurrection,'" the statement said. "But [officials] are unaware of one basic point, and that is that the source of the disease and cure lie in themselves: They themselves are providing the pretext of their downfall or insurrection, yet they don't know it."
(Radio Farda's Mosaddegh Katouzian contributed to this report.)