Wednesday, July 30, 2014


Iranian Officials To Ensure World Cup Team Behaves Amid Brazil ‘Fever’

A billboard welcomes Iran’s national soccer team in Guarulhos, Brazil.

While soccer fans around the globe are fixated on who will shine at the World Cup, at least one Iranian lawmaker has other worries on his mind: temptations that could lead the Islamic republic’s players astray in host nation Brazil.

Hossein Azin says he is traveling to Brazil with two of his colleagues to ensure that Iranian players do not engage in immoral and anti-Islamic behavior in the South American country famous for raucous parties and scantily clad beach-goers. 

"I'm on a mission, and I'm not traveling to Brazil on my own desire or insistence. But the parliament aims at fighting corruption in football," Azin was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

When asked by the Tadbirkhabar website what kind of corruption he and his colleagues plan to ward off, Azin said the most important issue was "the observance of cultural and Islamic norms."

"In the past World Cups or international competitions, there have been some incidents related to cultural and Islamic issues. They shouldn't happen again, especially because the games are taking place in a country with a particular culture, such as Brazil," he said.

The lawmaker said he and his colleagues will have to keep a constant watch on the Iranian players and delegation accompanying them so that "God forbid, Islamic norms are not violated."

Azin added that he and his colleagues also have a “precise plan” to monitor Iranian fans who have traveled to Brazil to watch the games, though he did not elaborate on the plan.

He added that he did not know where the budget for his trip came from.

Iran's parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, was quoted previously as saying that lawmakers do not have the right use public funds to travel to Brazil simply by claiming that they plan to monitor behavior, fight corruption or carry out some other mission.

Larijani reportedly said that lawmakers willing to travel to Brazil should fund their own trips.

Asriran.com cited what it called an “informed source” as saying that Larijani made the comments after "a fever" to travel to Brazil had gripped the Iranian parliament.

--Golnaz Esfandiari
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Iran's Hard-line Media Told To Back Off On Rohani Criticism

The treatment of Iranian President Hassan Rohani by some of the country's media has prompted authorities to take action.

Golnaz Esfandiari
Iranian authorities are taking steps to rein in hard-line media that have attacked efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rohani to work with the West and resolve the crisis over his country's nuclear activities.
 
The apparent campaign taken by the authorities comes as a July 20 deadline for a lasting nuclear deal looms, and could signal attempts by Iranian leaders to reduce pressure on the country's nuclear negotiators as talks reach a critical juncture.
 
Two senior officials have publicly warned media affiliated with the armed forces not to do things that could undermine Rohani's administration.
 
Hojatoleslam Ali Saeedi, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's representative to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said on June 10 that media affiliated with the IRGC have not been careful enough in their coverage. Criticism of the government should be "fair," he added.
 
The Fars and Tasnim news agencies are among the media said to have links to the IRGC, which also has several publications such as the military news publication "Sobh-e Sadegh."
 
"Some media are connected to the IRGC, and it is expected that [such media], including the Fars news agency and other news outlets be [precise] in covering the news because sometimes news is being aired without accuracy or consideration," Saeedi was reported as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

'Inciting The Public'
 

Saeedi made the comments at a news conference three weeks after the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, warned media affiliated with the armed forces to reconsider their coverage or face action.
 
Without naming names, Firouzabadi had said that the managing editors of media outlets should prevent the publication of news and reports that "incite the public" and "weaken" the administration.
 
"They should reform their methods or they will be dealt with," Firouzabadi was quoted as saying on May 19.
 
Hojatoleslam Saeedi expressed support for Firouzabadi's comments and said that "negligence" does not suit the armed forces, which he added should not cause unnecessary damage. He didn't provide any examples of wrongdoings by IRGC affiliated news outlets.
 
The cleric said media should act so that the government knows they are "sympathetic."
 
The public warnings come amid reports of more private actions aimed at controlling critics.
 
Last week, the website "Entekhab" quoted Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi as saying that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had personally warned media about "spreading lies."
 
"When the supreme leader became aware of the lies, he gave a strong warning to people associated with the media that spread lies," Alavi was quoted as saying in the report.
 
The intelligence minister reportedly added that, when Khamenei realized that his warning had not had much of an effect, he summoned some media representatives and asked them pointedly, "Why are you weakening the government? Where do you think this government came from?"
 
Alavi was said to have made the comments following his June 1 meeting with Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor in chief of the ultra-hard-line and influential daily "Kayhan." It is unclear what the two may have discussed.
 
"Kayhan," along with Fars, Tasnim, and the daily "Vatan-e Emrooz," are among the loudest critics of the way Rohani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif have handled the sensitive nuclear dossier.
 
They've accused the Iranian administration of giving in to the West and making too many concessions.
 
Last week, khabaronline.ir reported that university professor Saeed Zibakalam was summoned to court after criticizing the administration's foreign policy and the performance of the nuclear negotiating team.
 
Zibakalam -- -identified by the website as one of the most important critics of the Iranian administration and the nuclear team -- had reportedly expressed his critical views at various meetings held in cities throughout Iran.

'We Have Something In Common' -- Obama's Spiritual Adviser On Iran Trip

US President Barack Obama (right) with spiritual adviser Joel Hunter (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari
Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, recently spent about a week discussing religious tolerance with officials in Iran, a country often singled out by rights groups for its intolerance toward its religious minorities.
 
Hunter, a senior pastor of Northland Church in Florida who led a delegation of U.S. religious leaders to the Islamic republic, says he was invited by Iranian religious leaders and scholars to attend a conference.
 
The conference titled "World Free of Violence and Extremism from the Perspective of Abrahamic Religions" was held in Tehran on May 25.
 
Hunter, who describes himself as someone who helps Obama get closer to God, says he will brief the U.S. President on his trip, which included a visit to the holy city of Qom.
 
Hunter's visit to Iran is likely to be castigated by hard-liners in the country as well as critics in the United States who oppose engagement efforts with an Islamic establishment that has been accused of serious human rights abuses.
 
A conservative Iranian website questioned the trip on June 2 and asked authorities whether it had been coordinated with the country's security and intelligence bodies.
 
"Is this trip part of the project to make 'America look good' by the pro-Western faction to send positive impulses to U.S. officials?" Jahannews.com asked.
 
Despite the criticism, Hunter says the trip was worth it.
 
"That's part of how we make progress, is that those of us who know we're going to be blamed by some of the hard-liners, for even having these conversations," he said. "We believe it's worth the risk because we're not going to make progress as countries or even as religious communities for not talking to one another."
 
Path To Peace
 
Hunter said he met with Iran's parliament speaker, advisers to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, officials of Iran's academy of science, Christian and Jewish leaders, and Grand Ayatollahs in Qom.
 
He added that religious extremism and violence as well as a faith-based path to peace were among the main topics he discussed with Iranian officials.
 
Asked whether he raised the issue of Iranian state pressure on religious minorities, including Christian converts, Hunter said those subjects were discussed in "sidebar conversations".
 
In his latest report, Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran, noted that religious minorities in the Islamic republic, including Baha'is and Christians, face violations entrenched in law and practice. Sufis are reportedly also coming under increasing pressure by the Iranian establishment and hard-line clerics who describe the Sufi interpretation of Islam as deviant.
 
"We didn't go over there to confront people on certain issues," said Hunter. "But...we have built enough of a relationship to address those specific conversations and we talked through those together, and what steps we could do to build a better environment."
 
Pastor Hunter also said that he was aware that his trip could be used for propaganda purposes by Iranian officials who often claim that all the country's citizens enjoy the same rights.
 
"Everybody will use our trip for propaganda purposes," he said. "It's the nature of the beast, that's what politics is."
 
Decreasing Tensions
 
Hunter said he believes religious leaders can play a role in decreasing tensions between the United States and Iran.
 
Washington broke its diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.  In the past 35 years, the two countries have been at odds over a number of issues, including Iran's support for terrorism and its controversial nuclear program.
 
In recent weeks, Iran and the United States, as well as other world powers, have been engaged in talks aimed at finding a lasting solution to the crisis over Iran's sensitive nuclear work.
 
According to Hunter, certain areas, including religious violence and persecution, can only be solved through dialogue among religious leaders.
 
"We believe that we have something in common and out of the commonality of our religious communities, we can build the kind of relationship and trust that politics simply can't," he said. "Only through religious leadership or the exchange of religious leaders, we believe peace is going to be successfully built between our two countries."
 
In an email to RFE/RL, a State Department official said that the United States is aware of independent initiatives by various U.S. religious figures to foster interfaith dialogue with Iranian religious scholars.
 
"We commend such efforts to promote interfaith tolerance and religious freedom, a foreign policy priority for the Department," the official said.
 
The official added that Washington was also aware that a small delegation of U.S. Catholics visited Iran in March, entirely independent of the U.S. government.

Video Dispute Over Heaven Rages In Iran

Iranian President Hassan Rohani delivers a speech on the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, at his mausoleum in a suburb of Tehran, on June 3.

Golnaz Esfandiari
Twenty-five years after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death, the clerical establishment ushered in by the Islamic republic's founding father is at odds over how far its influence on Iranians' lives should extend.

The debate pits powerful, hard-line religious conservatives against Iran's relatively moderate president, Hassan Rohani. And at the center of the debate is heaven, and the path leading to it.

There are few limits to the Islamic regime's interference in the public and private lives of Iranians, who, among other things, are required to follow a strict dress code dictated by the state.

During a public speech late last month, however, President Rohani called for more freedom and rights for Iranians and less state intervention in their lives. "Let people relax. Let people be mentally healthy. Do not interfere so much in the people's lives even for sympathy," the cleric-president said on May 24. "Let people choose their own path to heaven. We cannot send people to heaven by force or the lash."

The reference to lashing was a not-so-subtle nod to the punishment commonly carried out for drinking, partying, and other violations of Islamic laws over the past three decades.

Critics: Rohani Creating 'Chaos'

The comments came under scrutiny, and shined the light on the issue of the state's role in leading its flock to heaven.

The ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan" published Rohani's comments with a question mark on its May 25 front page, while describing them as "questionable."

Criticism also came from hard-line clerics, who used their May 30 Friday Prayers sermons as a platform to speak against Rohani.

During Tehran's Friday Prayers, Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami said it was the state's duty to guide people to heaven. "The mission is to smooth the path to heaven, therefore the government is duty bound to pave the way to lead people to heaven," the hard-line cleric said.
 
Ayatollah Alamolhoda, the Friday Prayer leader of the city of Mashhad, also criticized Rohani in his sermons. "We will stand against all of those preventing people from reaching heaven with all of our force, not only with a whip," he said.
 
Hojatoleslam Hamid Rohani, the founder of the Islamic Revolution Documentation Center, also blasted Rohani. "Why does the president say no one should be sent to heaven by the lash? The majority of people have voted for the establishment and said that religious rulings should be enforced," the cleric was quoted as saying by Iranian media.
 
He added that those who speak out against lashing citizens to lead them to heaven are bent on creating "chaos" in the country.
 
Rohani: Critics 'Deluded'
 
Hard-liners who control the judiciary and other centers of power believe that giving Iranians more freedom could undermine an establishment that claims to rule the country based on Islamic principles.
 
In recent weeks they have stepped up their pressure on Rohani, who is firmly rooted in the clerical establishment but is considered more a pragmatist who has pledged to bring about change, and his government.
 
On May 31, the Iranian president hit back at his opponents with a bit of sarcasm. In a speech at the department of environment, he criticized those who are adverse to change and added that those who constantly worry about religion and the afterlife are delusional.
 
He recalled that when showers were being introduced in the holy city of Qom and bathhouses were being eliminated some thought a "disaster" was in the making. "Some said that half of the religion was being destroyed," Rohani said, laughing.

WATCH: Hassan Rohani mocks his hard-line critics.  
"Some people have really nothing to do," he added. "They don't have jobs, they suffer from delusions, they're constantly worrying about religion and people's afterlife, [yet] they have no idea about what religion nor the afterlife is."
 
"They keep worrying," Rohani said to an applauding audience.
 
While criticism of the handling of the disputed nuclear program appears to be on the wane, pressure is on the rise against Rohani's social and cultural policies, which include calls for greater access to the Internet and less censorship. There have also been calls for stricter enforcement of the obligatory hijab for women.
 
The popular website "Fararu" focused on the recent dispute with a report titled, "Criticism Of Rohani Changes Course From 'Geneva' To 'heaven.'" It noted that there had not yet been any reaction to Rohani's latest speech against his critics, but it predicted that the "toughest attacks" are still to come.

Iranian Media Smears Champion Of Unveiled Women

The Iranian authorities have targeted Masih Alinejad.

Golnaz Esfandiari
The world took notice when Iranian women used a Facebook page to openly defy the clerical establishment by posting pictures of themselves in public without a hijab. 

Now the country's hard-liners appear to be using more traditional media to hit back at the woman who set up the page through a smear campaign that accuses her of espionage, drug use, and immorality that led to her rape. 

"Iranian Women's Stealthy Freedom," the brainchild of exiled journalist Masih Alinejad, has garnered more than 400,000 "likes" and received extensive media coverage since the exiled journalist started the page on May 3.

It also got the attention of hard-line blogs and news sites, including the semi-official Fars news agency close to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who have accused Alinejad of working with foreign intelligence services and promoting immorality and promiscuity in Iran. 

The latest attack came over the weekend by Iran's state-controlled television, which accused Alinejad of moral corruption and said that she was trying to deceive Iranian girls and women. 

State television claimed Alinejad had been raped in London after using drugs and undressing in public. The report said the alleged rape, by three men, took place in front of Alinejad's son in the London Underground. 
 
In an interview with RFE/RL, Alinejad dismissed the report as a lie and described those who fabricated the story as "dangerous" individuals. "They have very easily turned a rape scene they created in their imagination into news," Alinejad said. "They didn't even have pity for my son, and they made him a witness of the [fabricated] rape."

On her Facebook page, Alinejad reacted to the report by posting a video of herself singing "in the same London subway" in which -- according to Iranian state TV's "imagination" -- she had been raped. 

"If I would sing freely in my own country like I do in London, what you would do to me?" she wrote, adding that there are millions of Iranians like her who long for freedom.

"Do you ignore them or rape them in your mind?" 

Bad Hijab

Alinejad says she considers the state television report an assault on all the Iranian women who have posted their photos on the "Stealthy Freedom" Facebook page. 

"This is not just an attack against me, it's an attack against all the women who have used the Facebook page I created as a [platform] to say: 'We exist in Iran, we want our voices to be heard. We don't like the obligatory hijab.'"  

Dozens of women openly defied the Iranian establishment by using the page to post pictures themselves unveiled in public. 

One picture shows a smiling woman who has thrown her black scarf into the air as she stands on an Iranian street.

"What I want is freedom of choice not a meter of cloth! I'll remove this piece of cloth! Look! I am still a human!" she wrote. 

In another picture a young woman with sunglasses is seen sitting on a bench overlooking what appears to be Tehran. "Freedom means having the right to choose. Hoping for the day all the girls and women of my nation can taste it with their whole bodies and souls," the caption reads.

The pictures go against the official state line and propaganda that tell women that their value is exhibited through their hijab and modest appearance. 

Alinejad says the hijab is the "Achilles heel" of the Iranian establishment, and is used to show the world that Iran is an Islamic country. 

"The regime is afraid of women who unveil themselves, so they try to destroy me in front of these women," she said.

The Islamic hijab became obligatory following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the creation of the Islamic republic. Yet despite years of harassment and state pressure that can include fines and arrests, authorities have not been able to force women to fully respect the Islamic dress code.

Over the years, the scarves women use to cover their hair have become smaller, looser, and more colorful, as the coats that are supposed to cover their bodies have become tighter and shorter. 

In recent weeks, hard-liners have expressed renewed concern over "badly veiled women" and called for action to ensure that the dress code is strictly enforced. 

Asieh Amini, a well-known Iranian women's-rights activist, tells RFE/RL the smear campaign against Alinejad demonstrates that the "Stealthy Freedom" Facebook page has struck a nerve. 

The Norway-based Amini added that the state television report encourages violence against women.

"The establishment is trying to humiliate her femininity and promote the idea that she deserves to be raped," Amini says. "It is trying to belittle her."

"I think this demonstrates the weakness and desperation of an establishment that cannot enter into a dialogue with a critic or opponent at the same level of that individual," Amini concludes.

Iran's state-controlled television has a record of airing fabricated reports about critics, political activists, and intellectuals in order to discredit them. 

Alinejad said she is planning to file a formal complaint with Iran's Judiciary against state television and also a hard-line reporter she claims called her "a whore" on social media.

"I have to take action so that the world knows that the state television, through which [Iranian] leaders and officials address the people, is the same state television that is raping our intelligence."

Rights Advocate Recounts How Iranians Tried To Hack Her E-Mail With Help Of 'John Bolton'

On the case? The Iran Cyberpolice booth at an international digital media fair in Tehran in 2012

ISight Partners, a Texas-based cyberintelligence firm, reported on May 29 that Iranian hackers have conducted a hacking campaign to spy on political and military figures in the United States using fake social media accounts in the past three years. The firm has not released the names of those targeted.

The methods they use match a hacking attempt made on Kit Bigelow, the former director of the Baha'i National Center in Washington, who first spoke about it to "The Daily Beast." RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari spoke to Bigelow on May 30.

RFE/RL: In the beginning of April, you became the target of a failed hacking attempt on your e-mail that came apparently from Iran. How did it happen? 

Kit Bigelow: In February 2014, I received a LinkedIn request from a profile purporting to be [former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations] John Bolton. Because I had worked with the ambassador over a number of years on the case of the protection and defense of Baha'is, I was surprised to receive the invitation but it was not completely unexpected of former colleagues to reach out.

Over the period of several weeks, communication began between the individual purporting to be Ambassador Bolton and me through LinkedIn communication function. He asked me if I would be willing to review material he was preparing on human rights in Iran, and particularly to verify aspects [of it that] dealt with the persecution of Baha'is in Iran....

At the beginning of April, he indicated that the material that he had prepared was ready for my review and that his assistant would be sending to me login information to a website that was not yet live online. And I received the login information -- this is all the first week of April -- and I logged in, and I put in -- as requested -- I put in my e-mail address and then put in my password. It did take me to a website and it was a website all about Ambassador Bolton. So even as I entered the website, it was not evident to me that it was not real.

RFE/RL: So there was nothing to alert you? Did it all seem legitimate to you? 

Bigelow: It did. And because it was about him I thought maybe he's intending to run for public office, because it was about his accomplishments and had lots of articles and news stories, and things like that.

RFE/RL: What was the name of the website? 

Bigelow: It had the URL of Johnboltonoffice.com, and I have no idea whether it still exists. I have not gone back to it because it requires a special coding to get in, at least it did at that time, if in fact it still exists.

RFE/RL: When did the hacking attempt take place? After you logged in? 

Bigelow: I had logged in in the evening and I went to sleep that evening, and had not given it another thought. I awoke early the next morning and had received from Google -- because I had done this through my Gmail account -- I received from Google a notification that there had been an attempt to access my account from Tehran, Iran.

At that point, everything fell into place. I knew exactly how that attempt could have taken place -- because of course the evening before I had put in a password. And Google had wonderful analytics and I was able to find that there had been two attempts from the United States during the middle of the night, and they had not alerted Google because the origin of the access had been here in the United States.

But it was the attempt from Tehran, which was still early morning, that had caused Google to raise the alarm and to block whoever was attempting to access my account. Luckily I had awakened to this at 6 a.m., so I was able to jump on this immediately and change my password and minimize any damage.

It was also at that point that the profile and everything that had transpired over the previous two months had been a ruse, had been a scam to draw me in, to [lead me to believe] it was he, Ambassador Bolton, in order to try to capture my Gmail account for whatever purposes the perpetrators of this scam might have wished.

RFE/RL: Were there further attempts to hack into your e-mail? 

Bigelow: There were no further attempts. But what did continue to happen was that I was targeted through Facebook and LinkedIn and continue to this day to be targeted by several clearly fake individuals and profiles.

RFE/RL: You've worked for many years to highlight the plight of Baha'is in Iran who face state persecution. Do you think this is somehow connected to your work? 

Bigelow: I think that it is connected to the work that I did do on behalf of the Baha'is for 25 years here in Washington, D.C. I think only that the desire to appropriate my e-mail address would have been to use my address and to send out some kind of information in my name that could have been harmful, either to the Baha'is or others.

Former Iranian Revolutionary Guard Killed In Syria

People carry the coffin of Mohammad Jamali Paqale, an officer of the Revolutionary Guards reportedly killed in fighting in the Syrian capital Damascus, during his funeral in the southern city of Kerman in November 2013.

A former officer with Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been killed in the fighting in Syria, Iranian media report.
 
The reports say that Abdollah Eskandari had travelled to Syria to defend the Sayida Zeinab shrine located in the southern suburbs of Damascus. The shrine is a center of pilgrimage for Shi'a from around the world.
 
The hard-line Rajanews reported that Eskandari, who according to the report headed the Martyrs Foundation in Fars Province until 2013, was "martyred" on May 26.
 
Other news sites reported that he was killed a few days earlier, on May 22. Eskandari's body has reportedly not been sent back to Iran yet.
 
In past months, Iranian media reported that more than a dozen Iranians, including members of the Revolutionary Guards, were killed in Syria. According to the reports, those individuals had traveled to Syria voluntarily to defend the holy shrine.
 
The Netherlands-based Radio Zamaneh put the number of  IRGC officers killed in Syria since 2011 at more than 60.  
 
The burial of at least one of them, IRGC officer Mohammad Jamali, was attended by the head of IRGC's Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, who is said to be in charge of the guards' overseas operations.
 
Iranian officials deny accusations that the Islamic republic is sending forces to Syria to assist Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. IRGC commanders and other officials claim Tehran provides only humanitarian and economic assistance, as well as technical help to Assad's regime.
 
Last week, Iran denied a report by "The Wall Street Journal" that it was sending Afghans to fight in Syria. "The Wall Street Journal" said elite forces of Iran's Revolutionary Guards were offering residency in Iran and monthly payments of $500 to Afghan refugees who agreed to go to Syria to fight.
 
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham dismissed the report as "unfounded."
 
Earlier this month, an Iranian website posted pictures of what it described as the "glorious" funeral of two Afghans who, according to the report, had been killed in Syria by "terrorists." The two were identified as Hassan Mahmudi and Seyed Ahmad Hosseini.
 
The funeral in Qom was reportedly attended by the hard-line Ayatollah Haeri Shirazi, who congratulated the families of the two young men over their "martyrdom."
 
--Golnaz Esfandiari

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

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