Tuesday, January 27, 2015

'Je Suis Charlie' In Tehran

Human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh shows her solidarity with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 09.01.2015 07:19

Iranian security forces prevented a January 8 gathering by a group of Iranian journalists who wanted to express their solidarity with the victims of the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Nevertheless, according to this tweet by the French Embassy in Tehran, some Iranians expressed their solidarity by laying flowers and lighting candles in front of the embassy’s gate in the Iranian capital.

There were also online shows of solidarity, including by Iran’s prominent human rights lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Sotoudeh posted a picture of herself holding a pen on her Facebook page. Many of those who have taken to the streets in the past two days to show their solidarity for those killed in the Charlie Hebdo massacre, have held up pens and pencils. 

“Those who claim they’re defending a particular religion should know that no religion recommends this violence,” Sotoudeh wrote while expressing her condolences to the families of the victims and the French people.

Reza KhandanReza Khandan
Reza Khandan
Reza Khandan

“I thank the French government and French people for not denying other citizens freedom, under the excuse of creating security and order,” Sotoudeh wrote on Facebook.

Her husband, Reza Khandan, also expressed his solidarity by posting a picture of himself with a candle and a Charlie Hebdo pen on Facebook.​

Iranian journalist and political satirist Pouria Alami condemned the attack on his Facebook page.

"People can solve their problems by talking, not with acid [through violence]. Fools, however, can't laugh, they can't debate, they can't solve their problems, [so] they shoot. As a fool, they attack a satirist, four cartoonists, they shoot at 12 intelligent and civilized people," he wrote.

Alami added that the "foolishness of the fools" is laughable, even with "eyes full of tears."

Sobhan Hassanvand, a journalist with the reformist Shargh daily, expressed his sympathy with the victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on Twitter. 

Tehran condemned the killing on January 7, with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzieh Afkham saying, "All acts of terrorism against innocent people are alien to the doctrine and teachings of Islam."

But Afkham also said that "making use of freedom of expression...to humiliate the monotheistic religions and their values and symbols is unacceptable."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Analysts Weigh In On Rohani's Call For Referendums

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) and President Hassan Rohani in a combo photo

A call by Iranian President Hassan Rohani for possible referendums on key issues and a greater say in state affairs for the Iranian people has created a debate in Iran and among Iran watchers.

"As the enforcer of our constitution, I would like -- even just once -- to see conditions ripe for the implementation of a tenet of the fundamental law [the constitution] calling for major economic, social, political, and cultural issues to be put to a public referendum," Rohani said in his January 4 speech.

The Iranian president noted that provision of the constitution had never been used.

The remarks are seen as a warning to hard-liners who control key state institutions including the judiciary, state broadcasting, and security forces. They are unlikely to accept such a proposal.

The parliament, which under the country's laws would have to approve a referendum, is also controlled by conservatives and hard-liners who oppose reforms.

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the RAND Corporation, tells RFE/RL that even if Rohani could legally hold a referendum, he would need the support of the establishment, especially the supreme leader, who has the last say in Iran:

"Rouhani's bold statement is a sign that he may be preparing to sell a potential nuclear deal at home. He knows the conservatives will brand any agreement as a defeat, especially since they fear that a nuclear deal may empower Rouhani at home and lead to some political reforms.

"While Rouhani controls the executive branch, the rest of the establishment is out of his control. So he has to appeal to the public which voted for him, and he is using popular opinion as a weapon. He may not intend to hold a referendum, but may see the threat of doing so as a deterrent against the conservatives."

Reacting to the call, the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan listed the results of some recent opinion polls conducted in Iran and claimed that the views of the Iranian people on key issues like the nuclear one are clear. Polls conducted in the Islamic republic can be unreliable due to an unwillingness to express genuine opinions about important issues:

"Regarding the nuclear issue, the latest opinion poll of the Public Opinion [and Social Development] Research Centre of the University of Tehran indicates that '91 percent of the Iranian people assess the development of the nuclear program to be very important for the country,' the daily wrote in a piece published over the weekend."

The daily added:

"Nevertheless, the honorable president must be asked, assuming that even if he circumvents the dignified outlook of the people and halts all the nuclear activities and causes imperialism to become more impudent and demanding, then what will he do? Suppose that even if 90 percent of the Iranian people were not supporting national technology and national honor -- as they are, and they are standing by them -- then will he negotiate from a position of power, or a position of absolute weakness?"

Other hard-line outlets, including the daily Javan and the website Mashreghnews, were also critical of Rohani's comments.

And as Professor Nader Hashemi, who teaches Middle Eastern politics at the University of Denver, explains, the "hysterical reaction" from hard-liners is unsurprising:

"This is not a surprise to me because it shines a spot on the crisis of legitimacy facing the Islamic Republic, specifically its authoritarian and non-democratic nature. The preferences of the Iranian people, specifically the sizeable Iranian youth population and the urban and middle classes, are at odds with the policies of Iranian hardliners. The threat of including their voices in policy decisions (i.e. the threat of democracy) has petrified the Iranian conservative establishment. It is precisely and exactly for this reason that they protesting so vociferously against Rouhani today."

Inside Iran, moderate media outlets and reformists have welcomed the call.

Reformist politician Mohammad Reza Khatami, the younger brother of former President Mohammad Khatami said it would be good to get people's views on two major issues.

The first, he said, is the nuclear issue.

"I as a citizen expect the nuclear issue to be solved without a grudging match, but some hard-liners have other views for solving the nuclear issue. The suitable solution for resolving this is to get people's views," he said.

Khatami also said that the other issue on which Iranian people should be allowed to express their opinions is the house arrest of opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi. The three have been held under house arrest since February 2011.

In 2010, Musavi called for a referendum on what he described as the "destructive policies" of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

A year earlier, a call for a referendum was made by ex-President Khatami in the wake of the crisis over Ahmadinejad's disputed 2009 reelection. Khatami said a referendum on the legitimacy of the government would restore trust in the establishment.

The calls were seen as a challenge to Ayatollah Khamenei.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Video Prominent Iranian Musician Banned From Traveling Abroad

Iranian musician Majid Derakhshani (left) performs at a festival in Tunisia earlier this year.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A prominent Iranian musician and composer says authorities are preventing him from traveling abroad. 

Majid Derakhshani told the Iranian daily Etemad on January 5 that security officials confiscated his passport at Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport over the weekend while he was on his way to Dubai.

Derakhshani quoted the officials as saying he was banned from leaving the country. 

They did not give any explanation for the ban, but Derakhshani said he believes the presence of female solo singers on recent video clips of his ensemble, named Mah Banoo, is the reason behind the move.

"I believe that [authorities] don't want us to [have] female solo singers performing, even with full Islamic hijab," 59-year-old Derakhshani said.

The clips have been watched on the Internet by tens of thousands of people. They were also reportedly aired by Persian language satellite channels broadcast outside Iran. 

WATCH: The Mah Banoo Ensemble, Featuring Majid Derakhshani 


Derakhshani said he and other members of Mah Banoo have been interrogated several times by police in recent months.

In an interview with the BBC, Derakhshani said the questions focused on performances by female singers. 

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, female singers have been banned from performing solo. The ban is supported by hard-liners and conservative clerics who claim female singing leads to the corruption of society.

The head of the music department at Iran's Culture Ministry said on January 5 that it has had nothing to do with Derakhshani's travel ban. 

The semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted Pirouz Arjomand as saying women are allowed to perform solo only before female audiences. 

He added that the presence of female solo singers in video clips is banned under Iranian laws, apparently because men can watch those clips. 

"We've notified musicians and we expect them to respect the laws and regulations," he said.

WATCH: More Music From The Mah Banoo Ensemble


Nuclear Program Has 'Hurt Iran More Than Iraq War'

Professor Sadegh Zibakalam (left) speaks as former legislator Ahmad Shirzad looks on at a conference about Iran's nuclear program at Tehran University on December 17.

Iran's nuclear activities and ambitions faced rare, blunt criticism at a roundtable at Tehran University, where one of the speakers said the damage done by the nuclear program was greater than that by the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which left tens of thousands dead and caused much devastation.

"The imposed war [with Iraq] did not damage us as much as the nuclear program has," professor Sadegh Zibakalam said at the December 17 roundtable, according to reports by Iranian semiofficial news agencies.

Zibakalam also criticized the lack of public debate about the nuclear issue.

Other speakers were also critical of the nuclear program and its costs for Iranians, who have come under unprecedented U.S.-led sanctions that have made life more difficult.

Speaking at the event, former reformist lawmaker Ahmad Shirzad said nothing had come out of the nuclear program, "not even a glass of water."

"If you ask me why we're moving on the nuclear path, I must say I have no idea," Shirzad was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency. "This is exactly like the continuation of the war [with Iraq] after the liberation of Khorramshahr," he added.

Shirzad said that he welcomed Iran's official line, according to which the country is against building and acquiring nuclear weapons.

The former lawmaker also seemed to suggest that Iran would be better off without a civil nuclear program. "Iran doesn't have the primary resources and know-how for a nuclear program," he was quoted as saying by ISNA. He said Iran could assert itself in areas such as petrochemistry and natural gas, where the country has the resources and the knowledge.

Former diplomat and professor Davoud Hermidas Bavand said Iran's nuclear program should not be compared to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951, a comparison made by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

"What happened under the government of [Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh was a struggle for rights under international laws. But in the nuclear issue, the resistance against bullying has been going in a direction that, in the long run, some other inalienable rights of the people are being [taken away]," Bavand said.

He added that it is the duty of President Hassan Rohani, to the people and history, to resolve the nuclear issue in a peaceful and constructive manner.

Open Debate Welcomed

Criticism of the nuclear issue has been a red line in Iran, where media face tough censorship rules in their news coverage.

Shirzad said the nuclear issue has turned into a matter of "honor." "When something becomes a matter of honor, discussing it is not possible anymore. And that has been our problem for the past 11 years," he said.

Zibakalam said that under Iran's previous administration, criticism of the nuclear issue was impossible. "Unfortunately from 2003 to 2013, debate about the different aspects of the nuclear issue was not possible. I believe that whenever people and the press are prevented from expressing their opinions on different issues, the result is not good," he was quoted as saying.

He added that during those years whenever he would send a slightly critical piece to the press, "the editors would dump it in the closest trash can."

Zibakalam credited hard-liners opposing nuclear talks with the West for the opportunity to criticize the nuclear program.

He noted that those who had gathered under the slogan "We're Worried" had harshly criticized the nuclear deal reached in Geneva last year, saying that Iran had made too many concessions. "For the first time, the general policies of the establishment were challenged," he said.

Reports suggest that in recent months, hard-liners have been told to tone down their criticism of Rohani's government over nuclear negotiations with the West.

Last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an end to domestic criticism of the extension of the nuclear talks between Iran and major world powers. 

The talks are aimed at finding a lasting solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the removal of the sanctions.

Velayati said on November 30 that since the supreme leader had endorsed an extension of the talks for several months, people should stop their criticism. Khamenei has the last say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, including the nuclear program.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Iranian nuclear program

Iran's President, Revolutionary Guards 'Enjoy Very Good Relations'

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) and Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (left) attend the annual military parade marking the Iraqi invasion in 1980 in Tehran in September.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), says President Hassan Rohani and the IRGC enjoy "very good relations," based on mutual trust. 

Jafari was reacting to a question regarding recent comments by Rohani, who warned against the monopolization of power and the spread of corruption in Iran, saying that corruption is brought about when guns, money, and media are concentrated in one institution.

The comments were widely interpreted as a veiled reference to the IRGC, which, apart from its military activities, is also engaged in economic, political, and media activities. 

But Jafari told the official IRNA news agency that Rohani had been asked about his December 8 remarks and that the Iranian president had said that he wasn't talking about the IRGC, but rather he was making come general comments.

Jafari said Rohani has full trust in the IRGC. "The enemies of the establishment and revolution, especially the foreign-based counterrevolutionaries, cannot harm this relationship, which was established since the imposed war [with Iraq]," he said. 

Rohani and the IRGC appear to disagree on some issues, including the extent of the IRGC's role in the economy and cultural policies. 

Yet IRGC officials have been generally supportive of Rohani's government's nuclear talks with the West. They have, however, warned that Washington cannot be trusted and that Iran does not need ties with the United States.

Speaking at a December 16 event, Jafari warned against those who are trying to decrease opposition against the United States. 

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert with the Washington Institute, says the pragmatic Rohani knows that he shouldn't pull the IRGC's tail, because that would mean challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom the IRGC answers directly.

Khalaji wrote in January about how Rohani, unlike previous presidents, seems unwilling to directly challenge the influence of the IRGC over "various aspects of Iran's political and economic life."  

"Instead, his approach has been to refashion the IRGC's functions through the supreme leader -- who is commander in chief of the entire armed forces -- rather than taking independent initiative. This means convincing Khamenei to improve the economy by adjusting the IRGC's role in politics and business, limiting its influence over the public sector, and weakening its ability to compete with the private sector," Khalaji wrote.

Rohani "has already curbed the IRGC's role in some economic projects, and so far the military leadership has not viewed his actions as a threat," he adds.

In his analysis, Khalaji quotes from an article on the Alef website affiliated with prominent conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli. The article describes Rohani as someone who understands the power relations in the Islamic republic and who is aware that in order to advance his policies, he needs to be constructively engaged with influential institutions.

--Golnaz Esfandiari

Tensions, Slogans During Speech By Hard-Line 'Kayhan' Editor

Iranian students holding handwritten signs in green – the color of the opposition movement -- chanted in protest during a speech by Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan."

Tensions were reported at a December 15 speech by Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan" who spoke at an event at Tehran University about the 2009 antigovernment protests.

Iranian news agencies reported that students chanted against and in support of the feared Shariatmadari who claimed that the idea of imposing sanctions against the Islamic republic came from Iranian opposition figures.

"There are documents available that demonstrate the leaders of the sedition were engaged in treason. I sent parts of the documents to a sedition element who said, 'We won’t allow these documents to be published,'" claimed Shariatmadari.

Sedition is a term hard-liners use in Iran to refer to the protests over the 2009 disputed reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Shariatmadari's comments appeared to be part of attempts by the hard-line "Kayhan" editor and commentator to discredit opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi , his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi who have been under house arrest since February 2011.

The opposition figures appear to still enjoy popular support despite being banned from contact with the outside world. 

"Kayhan" is known for launching smear campaigns against opposition figures and dissidents.

Some students chanted: "Shame on You, Liar. Leave the University" and "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein" according to reports by Iranian news agencies.

"Haj Hossein, Disclose," Others chanted. 

"There are also documents that prove that sedition leaders proposed sanctions to the United States.," Sharitmadari said.

He added: "I say to the seditionists, if it wasn’t for Hizbullah, you would be polishing [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s boots now."

More protest chants followed.

"I feel sorry for you, you have been deceived," said Shariatmadari.

Pictures by Iranian news agencies Fars and ISNA show students holding hand-written signs in green – the color of the opposition movement-- against Shariatmadari including one that read: "The university is not a place for a liar".

Another sign said: "Dictatorship will not last."

Shariatmadari’s supporters were also holding signs including one that said: "The sins of the seditionists are unforgivable".

-- Golnaz Esfandiari  

Iran Documentary Lifts Lid On One Syria-Bound Fighter

Friends and family remember Khalili as a deeply religious, brave, active, social, and fun individual who was deeply devoted to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and who was eager for martyrdom.

Martyrdom was one of the greatest wishes of Iranian Basij member Mohammad Hassan Rasoul Khalili. In the words of his father, "this world was like a cage to him."

Khalili, a devotee of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finally achieved his death wish last year in Syria, when a bomb he was trying to defuse exploded.

Khalili, 27, was among a number of Iranians who have joined the fight in Syria against rebels and the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

Figures are not available. Every now and then news of their deaths and large funerals pops up on Iranian news agencies and hard-line blogs that refer to them as the "defenders of the Sayeda Zeynab shrine," while claiming that they had traveled to Syria voluntarily. The shrine, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus, is a holy site for Shi'a around the world.

But a documentary about Khalili recently posted on a hard-line Iranian website offers greater-than-usual detail about one of the Iranians who have joined the fight in Syria.

The documentary, titled "Abou Khalid," one of Khalili's noms de guerre, includes interviews with those who knew him, including his parents and friends. They all speak in glowing terms about the young man, who according to their accounts, was involved in the 2009 state crackdown on opposition activists who took to the streets to protest the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

They remember him as a deeply religious, brave, active, social, and fun individual who was deeply devoted to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and who was eager for martyrdom.

Khalili, they say, was at the forefront of the war on "seditionists," meaning members of the opposition Green Movement. "In 2009, Rasoul was in the middle of the streets; when I say 'in the middle' I mean he was a flag-carrier," says one of his friends.

Khalili's father says his son defended the establishment and failed to come home for a week during those days.

Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.
Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.
Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.

Khalili's friends say he was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician. He had joined the paramilitary when he was just 13. It is not clear from the documentary whether the Basij force had facilitated Khalili's presence in Syria.

His mother says that during his first travels to Syria, he was assigned an office job. But she says the war front was where Khalili wanted to be. And according to the documentary, he later made it to the battleground.

Khalili had traveled to Syria when conditions were very bad, says an unidentified man who is obscured in the documentary. "We saw everything as leading to martyrdom [then]," he says.

The man says he befriended Khalili in Syria. He says the war in Syria is very difficult and different from Iran's bloody eight-year war with Iraq.

In pictures posted on the hard-line Mashreghnews site, Khalili is seen holding an IS flag, reportedly in Aleppo. The website says the picture was taken after Khalili and his fellow fighters had managed to free parts of Syria from IS militants. The website doesn't say when the picture was taken.

Khalili had traveled to Syria several times as a volunteer to fight supporters of "American Islam," "Saudi mercenaries," and also to defend the Zeynab shrine, according to hard-line Iranian news sites.

He was reportedly killed on November 18, 2013. A friend of Khalili said the young man had tried to defuse a bomb after forces of the Lebanese Hizballah and Syrians failed to do so.

The documentary says that it took three days to bring his body back to Iran because of the location where he died –- where transfer during the day was not possible -- and also bad weather conditions that prevented a helicopter from taking off. 

According to Khalili's friends interviewed in the documentary, the young man was buried in a cemetery where other Iranian "contemporary martyrs" have been laid to rest, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Hassan Shateri, who was killed in Syria in February 2013.

In an interview with a conservative website, Khalili's mother says if her sons and others did not defend holy sites in Syria, those involved in "crimes" there would soon attack Iran.

Reports say Iran provides its main regional ally Syria with financial aid and military advisers. Tehran has denied reports that its IRGC forces are directly involved in the fighting in Syria.

Video footage released in September by Syrian rebels appears to show Persian speakers in military fatigues fighting alongside forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

-- 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