Sunday, March 29, 2015


The Iranian Politicians Rumored To Have U.S. Green Cards

Hardliners have speculated that Mohammad Nahavandian, a presidential adviser, holds a U.S. green card.

Golnaz Esfandiari

"Death to America" might be a common refrain in Tehran, but several Iranian officials and parliamentarians reportedly hold documents allowing them to live and work in the United States.

Controversy over Iranian officials and politicians possessing the documents -- which give holders permanent-residence status, allowing them to live and work in the United States -- erupted after a group of hard-line conservatives suggested that a senior official in the presidential office should be dismissed for holding U.S. "citizenship."

The 13 lawmakers, most of whom belong to the hard-line Endurance Front, did not name names, but media have speculated that top presidential aide Mohammad Nahavandian was the target of their criticism.

Nahavandian, who is Iranian President Hassan Rohani's chief of staff, reportedly obtained permanent residency in 1993 while living in the United States. It is unclear, if true, whether his green card is still valid.

The lawmakers warned that government jobs should not be given to individuals who "pledge their oath of allegiance to the flag of foreign countries," adding that Rohani should dismiss the individual or find an appropriate solution.

Rohani's office has categorically dismissed the claim, saying it was a "pure lie" that is "absolutely" not true.

"Recently and with the deepest regret, we saw that a number of respected lawmakers repeated the false defamation by some extremist media affiliated with the Zionists, as a reminder to the president without doing any research or questioning," the president's office said in a statement posted online.

When asked during his weekly media briefing about the alleged dual citizenship of an official, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht was quoted by domestic media as saying: "This is 100 percent lie, no official in the presidential office has a green card or dual citizenship."

Ebrahim Aghamohammadi, one of the 13, subsequently told Tabnak.ir that "two to three" government officials are believed to hold green cards, which he said he and his colleagues consider to be "a type of citizenship."

The U.S.-educated Nahavandian has not responded to the controversy. 

Reports that he possessed a green card first surfaced in 2006, when The Washington Times and other media reported that he traveled to New York to deliver a message to Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, current Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. 

More recently, the hard-line website Seratnews.ir claimed that during trips by President Rohani to New York -- presumably in September 2013 and 2014 when he attended the United Nations General Assembly -- Nahavandian was the only person in the entourage who did not need a U.S. visa. 

Foreign Minister Implicated

Nahavandian is far from the only Iranian official or lawmaker whose name has been linked to U.S. green cards.

Media have also made suggestions that current Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has a green card or has applied for one.

The U.S.-educated Iranian foreign minister rejected the claims during his 2013 confirmation hearing before parliament, saying he had never applied for permanent U.S. residence despite being eligible to do so for 10 years. He also said his children were living in Iran. 

There are several other U.S.-educated individuals among Rohani's cabinet members, including Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi, leaving open the possibility that that they obtained permanent residence while living in the United States.

And former nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian, a Rohani ally, has a green card. 

A source familiar with the situation told RFE/RL that Mousavian obtained his green card "unusually quickly" after he moved to the U.S. in 2009. 

Mousavian has published two books in the United States, including his memoirs relating to the nuclear crisis. He has acted as an unofficial government representative while discussing the nuclear issue and U.S.-Iranian ties during his many media appearances and opinion pieces published in the United States.

Two hard-line politicians have also been rumored to have green cards.

One is parliament member Hojatoleslam Morteza Agha-Tehrani, who used to be described as a moral adviser to former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Agha-Tehrani suggested in an interview conducted some four years ago that his green card was not valid anymore.

"Those people who speak about my green card should be asked whether they have seen my invalid [U.S. residency permit]? Do they even know what I was doing in the U.S.?" Agha-Tehrani was quoted as saying by Iranian media in 2011. 

Green cards must be renewed after 10 years for holders residing in the United States, and would expire after only two years for those granted "conditional permanent residence."

Reports have also circulated tying former Health Minister and presidential candidate Kamran Bagheri Lankarani to U.S. permanent residence.

The allegations emerged after media reported that Lankarani's father had lived in the United States for more than three decades. 

In a 2013 interview with the hard-line Fars news agency, Lankarani said: "while many would kill themselves for a U.S. green card, I stayed in Iran and proudly [completed] my board exam."

An Ahmadinejad adviser who was a frequent contributor to the ultra hard-line daily "Kayhan", academic and author Hamid Mowlana has U.S. citizenship. 

In a report issued last week, Iran’s official government news agency IRNA said that Rohani's critics attack him and his team, while ignoring Mowlana's U.S. nationality and the green cards of members of their own camp. 


Iran Filters Outspoken Lawmaker's Website

Conservative Iranian parliamentarian Ali Motahari leaves Interior Ministry building in Tehran after registering as a legislative candidate for Iran's 2012 election.

The website of conservative Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari has been filtered by Iran's judiciary, according to the hard-line Fars news agency.

The report says no official explanation has been provided for the decision to block Motahari's website, which is also inaccessible from outside the country. 

The official IRNA news agency says "unconfirmed reports" suggest the judiciary is behind the filtering. 

The move appears to be part of attempts by hard-liners to silence the outspoken Motahari, who has criticized the house arrest of opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi; Musavi's wife, Zahra Rahnavard; and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.

In January, lawmakers disrupted a speech by Motahari during which he blasted the house arrests and said that they violate Iran's constitution.

Motahari's website has been temporarily blocked in the past.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iranian Groups Challenge West With Holocaust-Denial Cartoon Contest

Under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (in file photo), who called the Holocaust a “myth” and repeatedly denied its scale, numerous events and seminars questioning the Holocaust were held in Iran.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad on the latest cover of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has been denounced in Iran, where two organizations say they are challenging the West’s commitment to free speech with a cartoon contest aimed at questioning the Holocaust.

The contest follows the release of the January 14 issue of Charlie Hebdo -- the first since the January 7 massacre at its Paris office that left a dozen dead -- that featured a cover showing Muhammad crying while holding a sign that reads: “Je Suis Charlie,” a rallying cry for the magazine’s supporters.

The contest organizers, House of Cartoon and the Sarcheshmeh Cultural Center, say that by questioning the Holocaust, which they don’t recognize as a historical fact, they aim to demonstrate that Western countries have double standards when it comes to freedom of expression.

“If freedom of expression knows no boundary, the issue of the Holocaust must also be critically and freely reviewed,” the Sarcheshmeh center said in its announcement of the contest last week.

Masud Shojaei Tabatabaei, the contest’s administrator who is also the head of House of Cartoon, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that the West is “sensitive” about the Holocaust.

Therefore, “we decided to use it to confront them,” he was quoted as saying.

Shojaei Tabatabaei added that the April 1 deadline for contestants to submit their entries was chosen intentionally.

“April 1 is called the day of ‘the big lie.’ The Holocaust is also a big lie [created] by the Zionists to occupy Palestine,” he said.

The contests’ organizers are offering cash prizes ranging from $5,000 to $12,000 for the top three entries.

It is the second time that a cartoon contest focused on Holocaust denial is being organized in Iran.

The first was held in 2006 after the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Postens published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. That contest was condemned by the United States, Israel, and other countries.

‘Reprehensible And Condemnable’

Under former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who called the Holocaust a “myth” and repeatedly denied its scale, numerous events and seminars questioning the Holocaust were held in Iran.

Since self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani’s ascent in 2013, Tehran has toned down the anti-Israeli rhetoric in Iran that was common under Ahmadinejad.

In a 2013 interview with CNN, Rohani said the killings of Jews by the Nazis was “reprehensible and condemnable.” He also said that “when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect.”

That same year, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif claimed on Twitter that Iran never denied the Holocaust. Zarif made the statement in an exchange with Christine Pelosi, the daughter of Democratic U.S. lawmaker Nancy Pelosi, the current minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Yet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, has publicly questioned the Holocaust and referred to it as “an event whose reality is uncertain.”

As a result, hard-liners feel free to question the Holocaust even if it is damaging to Iran’s international image and standing. 

The director of the Sarcheshmeh center, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, was quoted by Iran’s official state news agency, IRNA, as saying that the Holocaust is the “Achilles heel” of the West.

“In this contest, we’re just raising a question. We’re not insulting anyone or making threats, even though we’re angry over the insult to Prophet Muhammad. But instead of resorting to violence, we are reacting through cultural [means],” he said.

The contest was announced some two weeks after an Iranian daily was shut down over its front page photograph of Hollywood actor George Clooney with the headline: “I Am Charlie, too.”

Iranian authorities also prevented journalists from holding a vigil in solidarity with victims of the attack on Charlie Hebdo by Islamist militants.


Iranian Acid-Attack Punishment Delayed As Physicians Refuse To Administer Sentence

Iranian acid attack victim, Davood Roshanayi, talks to reporters

In a very rare ruling, a man who threw acid on another man in Tehran about a decade ago has been sentenced to be blinded based on the Islamic eye-for-an-eye retribution law.

But his punishment has been delayed as physicians have refused to administer the sentence, according to an Iranian judicial official who recently spoke to domestic media. 

The official, introduced as Judge Dashtban, oversees the implementation of judicial sentences in one of the Iranian capital's districts.

Dashtban said earlier this week that a court has ordered a "surgical operation" to be performed on the eye and ear of the attacker, identified as Hamid S, but he added that no doctor has agreed to take on the job yet.

"No physician has accepted to apply Qisas [the Islamic law of retribution] on the eye and ear of the convict through surgery," Dashtban was quoted as saying by Iranian media on January 22. 

It wasn't clear when the sentence was issued. The acid attack occurred in 2005.

The victim, Davood Roshanayi, has said that he was walking in Tehran's Majidiyeh neighborhood when he noticed someone was following him.

He said he didn't know the man. 

Based on Roshanayi's account, the man splashed him with a jar of acid when he asked him why he was chasing him.

Roshanayi lost his left eye and right ear and he was badly disfigured as the result of the assault.

"My hands, legs, and my chest were also hurt in the incident and I have only 20 percent of vision in my right eye," he said in a 2012 interview with the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

 "It would be better if I was asked which part of my body had been left unharmed in the incident," he added.

Roshanayi said the attacker had at different stages offered various "excuses" for his action, including that he had mistaken his victim for someone else.  

Dashtban said the bureau of forensic medicine is in charge of overseeing the implementation of the sentence against Hamid S, which has been confirmed by Iran's Supreme Court. 

"We can't tell the forensic office or a doctor that 'You have to do this,'" he said 

Dashtban added that, at one point, the prerequisites were in place for the sentence to be carried out. But he said that, a day before the scheduled date, the family of the victim offered some conditions under which they would give up their demand for the retribution punishment to be implemented. 

"After two months, the family of the convict announced that they couldn't fulfill the conditions and the victim renewed his demand for the sentence to be administered," he said. 

Norway-based Iranian lawyer and human rights advocate Mohammad Mostafaei says the judgment against Hamid S. is highly unusual in the Islamic republic.

Islamic law adheres to the notion of an "eye for an eye" under the Qisas principle, but Mostafaei says making such rulings is very complicated due to the many conditions that need to be fulfilled.

For example, he says it has to be demonstrated that the intention of the attacker was to blind the victim.

"In these cases, the people's aim is to destroy the beauty of their victims, but they might not intend to make them blind," Mostafaei told RFE/RL.  

He said that, according to Iranian laws, if a person is killed in an acid attack, the perpetrator is sentenced to death. In other cases, he says, perpetrators are usually sentenced to prison and ordered to pay compensation. 

Violating Medical Ethics

In a 2011 case that garnered lots of media attention, a court ordered acid to be dropped into the eyes of a man who had blinded and badly disfigured a woman in 2004. 

The sentence was not carried out after the victim, Ameneh Bahrami -- who had originally supported the punishment and had expressed a willingness to do it herself -- pardoned her assailant. 

Mostafaei says obliging a doctor to administer such a punishment would violate medical ethical codes. 

"It is totally against their oath to heal the sick and not harm anyone," he said.

Iranian media report that Roshanayi is eager for the Qisas sentence against his attacker to be carried out.

In his interview with ISNA, Roshanayi said he was hoping to receive compensation money to pursue needed medical treatment. 

Last December, judiciary spokesman Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said sentences in the case of two acid attacks will be carried out and that a Qisas punishment would be administered on the eyes of the convicted attackers, meaning that they will be blinded. 

He didn't provide details about the cases. But he acknowledged "difficulties" in the "medical system" in administering acid-attack sentences. 

According to reports, one of the two cases involves a 2012 acid attack against Mohsen Mortazavi who lost one of his eyes and was horrifically disfigured when a colleague splashed him with three liters of acid. 

His attacker has been reportedly sentenced to the administration of Qisas on one eye and ear. He has also been ordered to pay financial compensation. 

Mostafaei said the sentences violate human rights and amount to torture. 

"The aim of these sentences is to create fear among people [and prevent such attacks]," he added.

Last October, a string of acid attacks targeted a number of young women in the city of Isfahan. Some of the victims were badly burned, disfigured, and blinded. 

Authorities say they have so far not been able to identify and arrest the perpetrators of the attacks, but they have vowed tough punishment against the assailants. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iran’s Leader Urges Western Youth To Learn About Islam

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called on young people in Europe and North America to gain a better understanding of Islam and not judge it based on Western media reports.

In an unusual letter published January 21, Khamenei said he decided to address Western young people directly in the wake of “recent events in France and similar ones in some other Western countries.”

“I am addressing you, [the youth], not because I overlook your parents, rather it is because the future of your nations and countries will be in your hands,” the Iranian leader writes in the letter, which was posted on a website that chronicles Khamenei’s public statements and writings. 

The deadly attacks by Islamic extremists this month on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris have sparked fear and anti-Islamic sentiment among some Westerners. 

Charlie Hebdo’s latest issue, which features a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on its cover, has resulted in a string of protests in Muslim countries, including Iran. 

In his letter, which was published in English, French, German and other languages, Khamenei claims that the truth about Islam has been distorted in the West. Young Westerners, he writes, should try to learn about Islam from its primary sources: the Koran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad.

“Many attempts have been made over the past two decades, almost since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, to place this great religion in the seat of a horrifying enemy,” writes Khamenei, who is deeply distrustful of the United States and other Western countries.

In the letter, he also asks readers to question the Western media’s portrayal of Islam. 

“Why does the power structure in the world want Islamic thought to be marginalized and remain latent? What concepts and values in Islam disturb the programs of the superpowers, and what interests are safeguarded in the shadow of distorting the image of Islam?”

'Outsized Confidence'

Khamenei, the leader of an Islamic republic that uses force to pressure citizens to accept the state’s ideology, writes that he does not “insist” that Western youth “accept my reading or any other reading of Islam.” 

“What I want to say is: Don’t allow this dynamic and effective reality in today’s world to be introduced to you through resentments and prejudices. Don’t allow them to hypocritically introduce their own recruited terrorists as representatives of Islam.”

Karim Sadjadpour, a senior Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of an in-depth profile of Khamenei, said the letter is revealing of the Iranian leader’s “outsized confidence, dogmatic worldview, and victimization complex.”

“He's a 75-year-old man who last left Iran in 1987, yet he feels he knows what ails the youth of North America and Western Europe. What ails them, of course, is a lack of Islam, and this is because their governments are inherently hostile to Islam,” Sadjadpour told RFE/RL.

The letter has been shared widely in Iran’s state media and on social media accounts believed to be maintained by Khamenei’s publicity team.

Under the Persian-language version of the letter posted at the Khamenei.ir account on Google Plus -- one of Iranian hard-liners’ preferred social media platforms -- there are dozens of comments praising Khamenei for his “excellent” and “enlightening” letter.

“Those behind the recent incidents don’t want this message to reach people in Europe and America. But these social-networking sites should be used to spread the message,” one comment reads.

Another comment states: “May my life be sacrificed for the leader.”

But the post featured critical comments as well.

“It appears that [Khamenei] believes that, like the country he rules, intellectual websites in the West are filtered so young people can’t access the Koran and books about the history of Islam,” one commenter wrote. 

The user notes that while Khamenei says young Europeans, for example, are not obliged to follow his reading of Islam, the Iranian government uses repression to enforce its interpretation of the religion among the populace.


Iran's Hard-Liners Irked By Zarif's Geneva Stroll With Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) speaks with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as they walk on a street in Geneva on January 14.

A 15-minute stroll in Switzerland with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has landed Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in hot water.

The two men took a stroll in downtown Geneva and along the Rhone River on January 14 as part of bilateral talks to reach a lasting deal over Iran's nuclear program.

Iranian hard-liners say the stroll was a grave mistake and that it damaged Iran's authority. Hard-liners are also irked over a short trip Zarif took to Paris last week to meet his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius, to narrow the differences over Tehran's nuclear activities.

The pictures of the stroll, which could give the impression of friendliness and closeness between Kerry and Zarif, were widely shared on social media and news sites.

The head of Iran's paramilitary Basij force, Mohammad Reza Naghdi, said by walking with Kerry and sharing a friendly moment with an "enemy of humanity," Zarif showed disrespect to tens of thousands of Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War.

"Zarif's walk with U.S. Secretary of State [Kerry] was a [violation] of the blood of the martyrs," Naghdi said in an interview with the conservative Dana.ir site.

In the January 21 interview, Naghdi said he'd lost respect for Zarif over some of his recent actions, including the infamous stroll and last week's trip to Paris that came following the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the magazine's latest issue that is deemed insulting by many Muslims.

"Traveling to Paris on the same day when the French prime minister showed the insulting cartoon of Prophet Muhammad in front of cameras, was even worse and even more unforgivable [than the stroll]," Naghdi was quoted as saying.

Naghdi was referring to the January 14 cover of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo that features Muhammad shedding tears while holding a sign that says "Je suis Charlie." Over the weekend, Iranian hard-liners protested against the cartoon in front of the French Embassy in Tehran, while some of them accused the government of having a weak reaction to the controversy.

The Basij commander said Zarif's "repeated mistakes" had called under question his ability to defend the rights of the Iranian nation. Naghdi said he had so far refrained from publicly criticizing Zarif because he didn't want to weaken his stance in the nuclear talks. But he said some of his mistakes were unforgivable.

Iranian hard-liners appear to generally support a nuclear deal with the United States that would give Iran relief from economic sanctions. But they've made it clear that they strongly oppose normalization of ties with "the Great Satan," which they see as a threat to their authority.

Naghdi said Zarif's recent "amateurishness" demonstrated that the Iranian foreign minister, who is widely praised for his diplomatic abilities, doesn't know "the ABC of diplomacy." "No justification or excuse is accepted in this matter," he said, adding that Zarif had to apologize to Iranians and commit himself not to repeat such behavior.

Criticism also came from hard-line lawmakers, including Javad Karimi Ghodousi, who warned Zarif he could be questioned by the conservative-dominated parliament over his stroll and his Paris trip.

"We are preparing a motion for intensive questioning of the foreign minister, over his walk with the U.S. secretary of state, and his visit to France given the insult to the Prophet. We will submit this to the presidium [on January 25] with a large number of signatories," Ghodousi told the Fars news agency on January 21.

His colleague, Javad Naghavi Hosseini, the spokesman of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, was also critical of the stroll. "What does it mean to take a walk with the foreign minister of a country that, in the history of our nation, has only committed crimes and treason?"

Government spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht dismissed the criticism in his weekly briefing with reporters. "What's wrong with Zarif taking a walk in Geneva with Kerry? Did you object because they didn't get into a car after the stroll?" he asked.

"People don't accept these talks. Some say these things because they see that the [nuclear] talks are making good progress," Nobakht was quoted as saying by domestic media.

Nobakht also dismissed criticism of Zarif's trip to Paris and said that the Iranian foreign minister had taken a "decisive" stance. Iran has condemned the attack on Charlie Hebdo while also denouncing "insults" against religious teachings and beliefs.

In response to a question about the new Charlie Hebdo cover, Zarif said last week, "We believe that sanctities need to be respected."

Zarif had also come under hard-line criticism in the past for some of his comments regarding Iran's national security, including for saying that the United States could destroy Iran's defense system with a single bomb.

Despite the criticism, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has publicly praised the Iranian nuclear team headed by Zarif. Khamenei has the final say in the Islamic republic.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Iranian nuclear program


6,000 Receivers Destroyed In Iran's War On Satellite Dishes

A police car carries dismantled satellite dishes from Iranian homes. (file photo)

Six thousand satellite receivers and dishes have been destroyed in a stadium in the city of Shiraz, according to reports by Iranian news agencies that posted photos of the police action, in the latest phase of Iran's ongoing war on banned satellites.

The dishes were decorated with slogans highlighting all the ills and threats that Iranian officials claim satellite channels bring into society.

"Rule of Satan on Life," read one of the hand-written slogans.

Others included "Enemy of Islam," "Enemy of the Family," "Spread of Prostitution," "Drug Addiction," "Lies," "Insecurity," and "Death to Zionism."

Iranian authorities regularly crack down on satellite dishes by raiding homes, dismantling their equipment, and fining the homeowners. Iran also jams foreign broadcasts.

In September 2013, Iranian news sites reported that the Revolution Guards (IRGC) used a tank to crush dozens of satellite dishes and receivers in Shiraz in a symbolic move against Western cultural influence.

Despite all their efforts and warnings, officials have acknowledged that the use of satellite dishes to access news and entertainment channels has been on the rise.

Last year, Ezatollah Zarghami, the head of Iran's state broadcasting entity at the time, said that 40-50 percent of Iranians use satellite dishes. 

According to Culture Minister Ali Jannati, in the Iranian capital, Tehran, 70-80 percent of citizens watch satellite channels.

-- 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.

Guerrilla Translators

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