Friday, July 31, 2015


The Eyes Have It: Iran's Health Minister Performs Surgery On Opposition Figures

In addition to working on Mehdi Karrubi, Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi (above) also reportedly performed eye surgery on another outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, university professor Zahra Rahnavard.

Iran’s health minister has performed eye surgery on an opposition leader who has been under house arrest since 2011, the government critic’s son told RFE/RL.
 
Mohammad Taghi Karrubi, the London-based son of reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, said his father underwent a cataract operation this week in Tehran performed by Iranian Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi.
 
The younger Karrubi told RFE/RL that Hashemi, an ophthalmologist, had examined his father's eyes in recent months and promised to provide a follow-up consultation to the opposition leader after the surgery.

Mehdi KarrubiMehdi Karrubi
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Mehdi Karrubi
Mehdi Karrubi

The son said he did not want to read too much into the fact that a government minister personally treated his father, who remains under arrest for challenging the Islamic establishment in Iran.
 
“I see it more as [Hashemi’s] personal approach and personality,” he said in a telephone interview. “But the atmosphere inside Iran has also changed.” 
 
Hashemi also reportedly performed eye surgery on another outspoken critic of the Iranian regime, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, who remains under house arrest together with her husband and fellow opposition leader, Mir Hossein Musavi.
 
“Mother’s eye was operated by Dr. Hashemi; no one from the family was there with her,” the couple’s daughter, Narges Musavi, wrote in a May 29 post on her Instagram account.

On May 28, the opposition website Kalameh, which is close to Musavi, reported that Rahnavard’s eye surgery was performed by “a physician trusted by the government.”
 
Musavi, Rahnavard, and Karrubi were placed under house arrest in February 2011 after their calls for a demonstration in solidarity with large antigovernment street protests in Egypt and Tunisia. They have not yet been formally charged.
 
The three repeatedly challenged the Iranian establishment over the disputed 2009 reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and also criticized postelection human rights abuses.
 
During his election campaign, current Iranian President Hassan Rohani promised to work for the release of the three activists.
 
Iranian hard-liners have spoken out publicly against their possible release. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Photogallery Revamped Khomeini Shrine Shocks Even His Fans

A debate has erupted over the merits of a grand expansion and renovation of a mausoleum to honor the late founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, forcing an official defense of the project.

Angered by fresh images of the shrine, which lies on the southern outskirts of Tehran, Iranians have questioned whether the famously ascetic leader of the 1979 revolution would have approved of such an "extravagant," presumably costly facility.

Even ardent Khomeini supporters are among the critics.

The photographs of the palacelike construction show a high ceiling decorated with tiles and glitter, and new latticework alongside the tomb for Khomeini's remains.

Some shared the images on social media with quotes from Khomeini and his allies about living simply and modestly. There have been comparisons with palaces built under the Pahlavi regime that the 1979 revolution, led by Khomeini, brought down.

"Is this the mullahs' idea of a simple lifestyle?" one man asked sarcastically on Facebook.

Another suggested that what was needed was a museum to remind everyone of Khomeini's "crimes" and not a "palace" to celebrate the man who took Iran back to the "dark ages."

"They've built a palace for the leader of [slum-dwellers]?!" read one comment posted on a forum posted on Fardanews.com. 

The news site had asked its readers to react to the images and comment on whether the site matched the status and ideals of Khomeini, who is referred to as "Imam Khomeini" by his admirers.

Many wrote that the "imam" himself would have disagreed with such a construction, while others said that the site damages Khomeini and his legacy.

"I wish they would have spent the money to promote Khomeini's ideas," wrote a reader.

Criticism also came from conservative media.

In a May 18 op-ed piece, Masih Mohajeri, the editor in chief of the conservative Jomhuri Eslami daily, said that a recent visit to the mausoleum had left him disturbed for days.

"The very wide area, the ceiling and the strong foundation, the thick concrete walls around [all] grabbed my attention so much that I wasn't able to engage in pilgrimage as usual," Mohajeri wrote.

He added that he has no doubt that the growing complex -- which includes a hotel, several halls, shops, large and small domes, and other structures -- is ill-suited to be Khomeini's resting place.

Mohajeri said a "simple shrine" is sufficient as a pilgrimage site for Khomeini's admirers to pay their respects and for commemoration ceremonies on the anniversary of his death.

The conservative website Alef.ir called the project reminiscent of houses in "Hollywood films" or "the myths of Persian kings."

Alef said the expansion of the site at a time when many Iranians are suffering economically could engender pessimism among the poor about Khomeini's legacy.

But Mohammad Ali Ansari, who oversees the complex, dismissed the criticism as unfair at a May 26 press conference.

Ansari said that "millions of people" visit Khomeini's mausoleum: "Could we hang a sign and write on it that since the imam led a simple life, we wouldn't do anything...?"

"The truth is that people have demanded something different of me in the past 25 years," he added.

Ansari said the shrine, which he described as a "magnificent and national project," has been built to last "500 years."

He also discussed plans to mark the 26th anniversary of Khomeini's death on June 4, when he said some 800,000 people are expected to visit the shrine.

He said 400 foreign guests will attend the ceremony to unveil the newly renovated shrine. 

He didn't say how much the project has cost.

-- Houshang Jeirani and Golnaz Esfandiari


Prison To Exile: Iranian Journalist Banished To Provincial City

Ahmad Zeidabadi (left), a prominent Iranian journalist and political activist,on his release from prison last week. he was reportedly

Iranian authorities have sent a celebrated journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi into internal exile after nearly six years in prison, dashing the hopes of his family and displaying continued intolerance for freedom of speech in the Islamic republic.

Zeidabadi, widely respected and seen as upholding the honor of Iran's journalists and intellectuals, was arrested in the 2009 state crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president in June of that year. 

Zeidabadi and scores of other intellectuals and political activists were tried on charges that included plotting to overthrow the Islamic establishment.

Zeidabadi, a former student leader, was sentenced to six years in prison, five years in exile in the northeastern city of Gonabad, and a lifetime ban from journalistic, political, and social activity.  
 
After completing his prison term last week, the 49-year-old father of three was banished to the northeastern city of Gonabad -- and reportedly had to personally cover the cost of his transfer there.

Zeidabadi's family and supporters had hoped that the exile sentence would not be enforced. But ahead of his release, authorities had reportedly told his wife, Mahdieh Mohammadi, that he would be sent directly to Gonabad.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the move as a continuation of the persecution of Zeidabadi by Iranian authorities.

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the world's most oppressive countries," the head of RSF's Iran desk, Reza Moini, said in a May 22 statement. "It does not limit itself to arbitrary arrests and sentences, but also imposes 'complementary sentences' on its citizens with the aim of silencing them forever.”

Zeidabadi won the 2010 Golden Pen award from the World Association of Newspapers and the 2011 UNESCO Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize for his commitment to freedom of expression and democracy and for showing courage in the face of persecution. 
 
Media reports said Zeidabadi was tortured in prison and held in solitary confinement for several weeks.

It is widely believed that Zeidabadi's criticism of Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and of the supreme leader's lack of accountability, is among the main reasons for his arrest and the pressure against him.

Zeidabadi's association with opposition figure and defeated presidential candidate Mehdi Karrubi is also believed to have angered Iranian authorities.

Karrubi, an outspoken critic of the Iranian establishment, has been under house arrest since February 2011.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iranian Cartoon Contest Lampoons IS, Alleged Backers

A bearded man labeled as an Islamic State militant lies on a bed covered with a U.S. flag while a masseuse wearing sleeves embossed with Israeli flags works on his shoulders.

A man with a long dark beard sits immersed in blood in a bathtub shaped like the map of Iraq. A machine gun is propped against the wall behind him. 

Another bearded man lies on a bed covered with a U.S. flag while a masseuse wearing sleeves embossed with Israeli flags works on his shoulders.

These are just some of the cartoons displayed at an exhibition launched in several Tehran art galleries over the weekend that highlights atrocities committed by Islamic State (IS) militants -- and accuses the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of backing the Sunni-led extremist fighters.

The exhibition is organized by Iran's House of Cartoons, which previously organized a controversial Holocaust cartoon contest.

The group says that 280 works from some 40 countries -- including Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia -- have been put on display to mock IS militants and shed light on their purported backers.

The works were selected from 800 submissions, and the contest's organizers are offering cash prizes ranging from $700 to $1,500 for the top three entries.

Winners are due to be announced at a May 31 ceremony, where a book featuring cartoons from the contest will also be made public.

Speaking at a May 24 press conference in Tehran, Mohammad Habibi, the contest's executive secretary, said some of the foreign cartoonists had to use pseudonyms due to "security concerns."

Habibi claimed that selected works from the contest will be displayed in countries affected by IS militants, including Syria and Iraq.

In an interview with Iranian state television, Seyed Masud Shojayi Tababaei, the contest's administrator and head of the House of Cartoons, said the contest was organized in two parts. "In the main section, we focused on the terrorist group Daesh [IS] and its Western, Arab, and [Jewish] backers," he said.

Tababaei added that in the second part of the contest, cartoonists had been asked to depict the faces of those who support IS militants.

The "Faces" section of the contest features caricatures of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

Hard-line Iranian officials have accused the United States, Israel, and some Arab countries of either creating or backing IS militants.

On May 25, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, accused Washington of having no will to stop the extremist group. "How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometers away in Ramadi, killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?" he was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

Soleimani reportedly asked, "Does it mean anything else other than being an accomplice in the plot?" 

The Obama administration has consistently reiterated its commitment to "degrade and ultimately defeat" the group's fighters. Washington has spearheaded an international coalition against the militant group, which occupies large swathes of northern Iraq.

Iran regularly organizes cartoon exhibits while punishing cartoonists who dare mock or criticize Iranian politicians.

Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani reportedly went on trial in Iran last week on charges that include "insulting members of parliament through paintings."

Her initial arrest last year is said to be linked to her image that features Iranian lawmakers depicted as animals while voting on a draft law that restricts access to contraception. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Tehran's Friday Prayer Leader Calls On Saudis To Rise Up

Ayatollah Mohammad Movahhedi Kermani (file photo)

Tehran's temporary Friday Prayers leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, has called on Saudi citizens to rise up against their country's rulers and to speak out against their "crimes."
 
"You read the Koran for hours; how much of its message do you comprehend? Why don't you express your hatred towards the oppressive government? Why are you silent?" Movahedi Kermani was quoted as saying by Iranian news agencies.  
 
The hard-line Shi'ite cleric accused the Sunni Saudi government, which he said considers itself "the main axis of the Islamic world," of committing atrocities in its air campaign in Yemen.
 
There's been a deepening of tensions and an escalation of rhetoric between the regional rivals over the Saudi campaign against the Shi'ite Huthi movement in Yemen.
 
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of arming the Huthis. Tehran has denied the accusations, saying it only provides political and humanitarian support. 
 
Iranian officials have blasted the air strikes and accused Saudis of killing innocent civilians, including children. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has described the air campaign as "genocide" while the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, has said that the Saudis are following in Israel's footsteps by carrying out air strikes in Yemen.
 
Earlier this week, senior Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Borujerdi called Saudi Arabia's King Salam a traitor to Islam.
 
Movahedi Kermani said that, in some parts of Saudi Arabia, there are "cries and objections against that oppressor regime" while adding that this is not enough.
 
"If the entire Arabian Peninsula will rise up and shout slogans against those oppressors, then their fate will resemble the fate of Islamic Iran [which came into being after the 1979 revolution that ended the Shah's rule -- Eds.], in which the oppressors were annihilated and their criminal acts came to an end," he said.
 
Movahedi Kermani also said that two of Islam's holiest sites located in Mecca and Medina should be liberated from "the oppressors."
 
In the past few days, a number of state-sponsored protests have been held in different cities in Iran against the bombings in Yemen.
 
In recent weeks, Iranian media reported that worshippers had chanted slogans against the house of Saud, such as "Death to Al-Saud," after Friday prayers in several cities, including Tehran and Qom. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


'Why Nations Fail' Among Works Seized At Tehran Book Fair

Iranian President Hassan Rohani attends the opening of the 28th Tehran International Book Fair on May 5.

Several books have already been confiscated from one of Iran's largest cultural events, the annual Tehran International Book Fair, which kicked off last week.

They include Why Nations Fail, a 2012 treatise by Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson that examines why some nations are rich while others are poor, and argues that "it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success" or failure.

The book was translated into Persian by Mohsen Mirdamadi and Mohammad Hossein Naimipur and published in Iran last year. Mirdamadi and Naimipur, both members of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, were among dozens of political activists and intellectuals jailed following the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2009 and the state crackdown on opposition members.

They reportedly translated and edited the book during their time in a general ward of Tehran's Evin prison, which for decades has housed a political prisoners' block.

Iranian media said police offered no reason for seizing the book from the fair, which runs from May 6-16 and draws some 500,000 attendees daily.

A book of poetry by Fatemeh Ekhtesari was also confiscated. RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported that officials justified that ban by citing the use of some of the book's poems by controversial Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi. Najafi, who lives in Germany, has been accused of insulting religious sanctities.

An examination of the life of the founder of Iran's post-shah Iranian republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- A Critical Introduction To Khomeini, edited by Arshin Adib Moghaddam and published by Cambridge Press -- was reportedly also confiscated. 

Censorship has been a regular facet of the Tehran International Book Fair, where in past years dozens of books -- some published with the permission of Iran's Culture Ministry -- have been confiscated and publishing houses banned from attending.

ALSO READ: Getting Past The Censors In Iran

The booth of the Hayan publishing house, run by blogger and establishment critic Mehdi Khazali, who's been detained by Iranian authorities a number of times, was shut down. Officials were quoted by domestic media as saying Khazali's publishing house, which specializes in medical literature, hasn't published a sufficient number of titles in recent years to be represented.

On the other hand, the respected Ney publication house, which has been banned for years from the fair, is participating at this year's event, according to the BBC.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Video Iranian Children Plead For Activist Mother's Release

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, (right) with her children, Ali (center) and Kiana.

The twins of imprisoned leading Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi have pleaded for her release in a heartbreaking video published by the opposition website Sahamnews.org. 

Mohammadi, the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, co-founded by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was arrested on May 5 at her Tehran home and taken to the notorious Evin prison.

"My mother does not belong in jail,' says Mohammadi's 8-year-old son Ali in the video.  "My mother has the right to freedom. I have the right to see my mother." 

He adds: "I pray every day for mother to be released from prison; the day she [was taken away], I didn't sleep at all."

His twin sister, Kiana, has a similar message:

"My mother doesn't belong in jail, I can't live without my mommy," she says. "When I was four years old, [security] agents took my father away, now it's my mother's turn."

She says she doesn't understand why the authorities jail political activists.

"That's why my daddy left this country; otherwise we would all be together now, leading a happy life."

Mohammadi's husband, well-known political activist Taghi Rahmani, chose exile in France in 2011 after being repeatedly threatened, arrested, and jailed by the Iranian authorities.

His wife, Narges Mohammadi, remained in Iran with Kiana and Ali.

Mohammadi, 43, has been at the forefront of peaceful protests and campaigns on behalf of political prisoners and other victims of human rights abuses. She has also been involved in efforts to end the death penalty in the Islamic republic.

Rahmani told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on May 6 that the authorities told the family that Mohammadi had been taken to prison to serve a six-year prison term she was facing over her human rights work.

Mohammadi spent a few months in jail in 2012 before being released on bail for health reasons.

Two-hundred-and-fifty Iranian activists and intellectuals, including Ebadi, have called for her immediate release.

--Golnaz Esfandiari

You can read more about Narges Mohammadi and her arrest here

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at esfandiarig@rferl.org