Friday, December 19, 2014

Iranian Human Rights Lawyer Vows to Continue Protest

Nasrin Sotoudeh (center, holding flower) demonstrates in front of Iran's Bar Association last month along with a number of supporters.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Well-known Iranian human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh says she's determined to continue protesting a decision to ban her from practicing law.

Sotoudeh started picketing outside the offices of the Iranian Bar Association in Tehran a month ago, holding signs reading "right to work" and "rights of dissenters," after the association, reportedly under official pressure, banned her from working as a lawyer for three years.

"If my sentence is not overturned, I will keep protesting until the end of the three-year ban," Sotoudeh told RFE/RL by telephone on November 26.

She also said the independence of the Iranian Bar Association must be restored.

Sotoudeh was released from jail last year after serving half of a six-year sentence on charges that included acting against Iran's national security and spreading propaganda against the establishment.

Sotoudeh, the co-winner of the European Parliament's Sakharov human rights prize in 2012, said her peaceful protest had received the support of many activists and intellectuals in Iran.

"Every day from 9:30 a.m. until 12 p.m., I protest in front of the Bar Association. I've been joined by many political and social activists and also social figures," she said.

Sotoudeh added that some of those who have joined her picket have been pressured by the authorities and threatened with arrest.

Sotoudeh said intelligence officials detained and interrogated her for several hours on November 25 after she took part in a gathering against acid attacks targeting women in Isfahan.

"I was asked how long I was planning to keep protesting and I also heard some threats that day," she said. "[But] I don't believe that my seven-hour detention on that day was not connected to my ongoing protest in front of the Bar Association."

The rights advocate told RFE/RL that many passersby had also expressed support for her actions.

"Sometimes they even say from a distance, 'We're with you,' and they flash victory signs."

Sotoudeh has gained the respect of many people inside and outside of Iran for her defiance in the face of state repression.

Before her arrest in 2010, Sotoudeh was involved in sensitive political and human rights cases.

During her time in prison, she went on hunger strikes several times to protest her sentence and a travel ban imposed on her daughter.

Mixed Reaction In Iran To Nuclear Talks Extension

An Iranian man looks at newspapers displayed outside a kiosk in the capital Tehran on November 25, a day after an extension to talks on the country's nuclear program was announced in Vienna.

Iranian reformists and even some conservative newspapers have welcomed the extension of the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program until July 2015.

Hard-line dailies, however, have been sharply critical of the extension that was announced in Vienna on November 24. 

The front pages of Iran's major reformist daily "Shargh" and the hard-line "Vatan-e Emruz, a critic of the nuclear negotiations with the West, highlight the divide. 

 "Shargh" referred to the extension of the nuclear talks for another seven months as the "Extension of Hope."

"Vatan-e Emruz," on the other hand, suggested that the nuclear talks were a failure. 

"Nothing!" reads the headline on the newspaper's front page on November 24.  The daily wrote that, a year after the Geneva deal, "talks for removing sanctions" failed to bring results.

On November  25, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reacted to the extension of the nuclear talks with one sentence:

"In the nuclear issue, the United States and colonial European countries got together and did their utmost to bring the Islamic Republic to its knees, but they failed, and will continue to fail," Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as saying by Iranian media. 

Khamenei has the final say on all issues in the Islamic republic. 

--Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran 'Blogfather' Thanks 'His Holiness Ayatollah Khamenei' Following Prison Release

An undated photo of Hossein Derakhshan in Tehran

Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan has been released from prison after serving six years of his unprecedented 19 1/2-year prison sentence.

Derakhshan, dubbed Iran's "blogfather" for his role popularizing the medium, wrote on Google+ on November 19 about his release and said that he had been pardoned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"I am free after six years. Thank You, God. Thank you, Your Holiness Ayatollah Khamenei," he wrote.

Derakhshan said that he had been informed of Khamenei's decision after returning to Evin prison following a two-week prison leave that had not been extended.

In past years, despite his heavy prison sentence, Derakhshan had reportedly been in and out of the prison on several occasions on furlough.

Derakhshan, a highly controversial figure, was arrested in November 2008 after returning to Iran from Canada and Britain, where he had been residing.

He was put on trial and sentenced to prison on charges that included spreading propaganda against the Islamic establishment, insulting Iranian leaders, and working with hostile governments, a charge that was reportedly leveled against him over a trip to Israel.

Iranian citizens are banned from traveling to Israel, which Iran does not recognize as a state. Derakhshan said he had traveled to Israel in an effort to bridge differences between Israelis and Iranians.

Derakhshan, who was originally considered a reformist, later became a supporter of the Iranian establishment. He expressed support for former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Iran's nuclear activities.

In an interview conducted two years ago by university professor and film critic Shahab Esfandiari, whom Derakhshan had thanked upon release and to whom he referred as his brother, the blogger said that he had been in solitary confinement for eight months without access to books or newspapers.

Esfandiari wrote on Google+ on November 19 that he decided to publish the interview because of the "questions" and "lies" surrounding Derakhshan's release.

Later he said he spent nine months in what he described as "semi-solitary confinement" where he said he had limited access to books and newspapers. He said that during his time in prison he learned some French and Italian and wrote a novel.

The novel, he said, is about a young Iranian who grew up in Europe and is trying to find his true identity. After returning to Iran and under the influence of his "anti-Zionist fiancee," he said, the young man sacrifices his life for an Iranian nuclear scientist and becomes a "martyr."

In the interview, Derakhshan also addressed accusations that he had worked with security forces during his incarceration.

He said after his interrogation sessions had ended, authorities had asked him to offer his analysis about "Western efforts aimed at a soft overthrow of the Islamic republic."

Two months after the disputed 2009 presidential vote and the mass antigovernment protests, Derakhshan said he was asked to offer his analysis of the alleged "soft war" against Iran in a video interview.

He said he later found that his analysis was used in the indictment against those arrested in the postelection crackdown.

In the interview, Derkhshan also said that if released, he'd like to show the world that Iran is treated unjustly because it wants to have a "different system."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's Game Of Drones

Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami poses with a new, locally made combat drone during an unveiling ceremony in Tehran on September 23.

"Yes, We Can," "Iranian Bat," "Inbama" (eds.: this is with us, in Persian), "The Eagle of the Persian Gulf," "Pride," "Phoenix," and "Fearless."

These are some of the names Iranians have suggested for an aircraft Tehran says it has manufactured based on a U.S. drone captured in 2011.

The suggestions come following a call by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Iranians inside and outside the country to offer names for the Iranian drone, which Tehran claims it successfully tested on November 12. 

The Iranian replica has been praised by IRGC commanders and other Iranian officials as a major achievement and a blow to the United States. They claim that Iranian engineers have managed to improve the efficiency of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel. The Pentagon has downplayed the claims and said that the Iranian replica is an inferior copy. 

In a statement posted on Iranian news sites, the IRGC said that due to the "importance of naming" the Iranian drone, it was calling on "appreciative" Iranian citizens, particularly the youth, to text their suggestions to a number it provided.

In a separate statement, the Revolutionary Guards said that Iranians outside the country could also offer their suggestions via e-mail. The IRGC said it had been contacted by many Iranian expats and "fans of the Islamic Revolution" demanding to be able to take part in the naming of the "Iranian RQ-170." 

The individual with the best name will be rewarded with an "exquisite gift", the IRGC has promised.

Dozens of names have already been posted under the IRGC statements by readers of the website of the hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. They include "Trophy 170", "What You Can Do, I Can Do Better," and "Swallow." 

In what appeared to be a show of force and sarcasm , the commander of the IRGC's aerospace division, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, was quoted last week by Iranian media as saying that Iran could offer the United States a copy of the captured drone.

"We will not extradite the US RQ-170 drone, since it is a [war] trophy, but if Iranian sanctions against the U.S. are lifted, maybe we will give the U.S. an Iranian model of the drone," Hajizadeh was quoted as saying

--Golnaz Esfandiari 

Iranian Activists, Intellectuals Express Support For Nuclear Deal

Iranian political activist Taghi Rahmani is one of the signatories of a statement calling for a positive outcome to Iran's nuclear negotiations ahead of a November 24 deadline. (file photo)

Many Iranians are watching the new round of nuclear talks in Vienna between major world powers and Iran with great interest, hoping for a deal that would lead to the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on their country and an improvement in their daily lives.

Among those hoping for an agreement are intellectuals, political activists, opposition members, and some victims of the Iranian establishment's repressive policies.

 "We want maximum flexibility from both sides for the talks to succeed," said a statement signed by some 70 political and social activists inside and outside the country that was issued amid the looming November 24 deadline.

The signatories include Parvin Fahimi whose son was killed in the 2009 postelection state crackdown on oppositionists and the well-known national religious activist Taghi Rahmani, who has been jailed and harassed by the Iranian regime.

The statement says that a positive outcome to the nuclear talks would help peace in the region and also aid democratic progress in Iran.

The statement warns that Iranian "radicals opposed to freedom and democracy" and "pro- war forces" would be the ones to benefit should the talks fail. 

In a separate statement, over 100 Iranian intellectuals, political activists, and former student leaders have issued a similar warning.

They write that any failure to reach a breakthrough in the nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of world powers -- composed of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany -- would be beneficial for radical forces in the region and in Israel. 

The group has called on Iran to show flexibility in the nuclear talks and not allow the negotiations to fail over the capacity of its nuclear-enrichment program. 

"In our view, [Iran's] uranium-enrichment program does not have an economic justification, even though, in principle, based on the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], Iran has the right to enrich uranium."

The activists warn that the lack of a nuclear agreement would strengthen the foreign policy desired by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which they say has had catastrophic results for Iranians.

"Its substance is the policy of no war and no peace [i.e. no conflict, but no normalized relations] in the region along with the continuation of 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' slogans," the signatories write.

They also write that the majority of Iranians are not willing to pay the price for the establishment's tension-creating policies and its nuclear ambitions.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iranians Mourn Fallen Pop Star With Puzzling Public Outpouring

Mourners pay their respects to Morteza Pashaei outside the Tehran hospital where he died on November 14. The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Widespread public grieving in Iran over the death of a popular pop star has puzzled many inside and outside the country. 

Morteza Pashaei, a 30-year-old singer who released his first album only a few years ago, died of stomach cancer on November 14 at a hospital in Tehran.

Since then, thousands of Iranians across the country have taken to the streets to mourn his passing with candle vigils and renditions of his hit songs.

The crowd that gathered in the Iranian capital for Pashaei’s funeral on November 16 was so large that his burial at the Behesht Zahra cemetery was delayed by several hours, news agencies reported.

Images and videos of the funeral show men and women crying while holding his portraits.

Morteza PashayiMorteza Pashayi
Morteza Pashayi
Morteza Pashayi

The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election that led to the rise of the opposition Green Movement.

Iranian media have debated what exactly is driving this outpouring, which is now being called “the phenomenon of Morteza Pashaei.”

Love, Romance, And Social Media

Pashaei touched many hearts with his melancholy voice and his battle with cancer at a young age. The singer gave concerts in more than 20 small and large cities across Iran after he was diagnosed with the disease. 

While many of his songs had been banned on Iran’s government-controlled television, some of his hits were broadcast on state media, reaching millions of Iranians.

“Pashei was popular, his songs are romantic, and people here are into love and romance. [Many] have memories with Pashaei’s [songs],” a Tehran-based journalist told RFE/RL, adding that social media played a role as well. 

A Pashaei fan, also in Tehran, said the news of his death “exploded” on social media.

“People would post his pictures, his songs, and write sad status updates and send group messages on Viber,” the fan said, referring to a mobile app popular among Iranians. “The sadness that we felt over his death was doubled, tripled.”

She said that while many had taken to the streets to publicly display their sadness, others had joined the vigils out of curiosity.

“Many also came to the streets because, sadly, that’s the only entertainment they have and they felt maybe this is one of those occasions where the police would not take action,” one Pashaei fan told RFE/RL.

WATCH: A YouTube clip of Morteza Pashaei in concert:


Well-known sociologist Morteza Eghlima told the Aftabnews website that social restrictions were behind the public displays of grief. 

“Holding such gatherings is not merely because of the death of a singer but rather because of the need to fill in leisure time and people’s need for togetherness,” he said.

Iranians don’t have any public venues to vent the negative energy that accumulates due to the lack of jobs, economic security, and peace of mind, Eghlima said.

News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.
News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.

An analyst in Tehran who did not want to be named said Iranians use every possible opportunity to reject the state-imposed ideology and culture.

“When was the last time people took to the streets for a state event without being bussed in and offered free [treats]?” the analyst said. 

Power Of Popular Music

Sociologist Azar Tashakor told the “Shargh” daily that many, including herself, were startled by the reaction to Pashaei’s death.

Both government officials and intellectuals in Iran who pay little attention to popular art and music were unaware of how deeply such works resonate with broad swathes of society, Tashakor said, adding that she believes Pashaei’s cancer evoked grassroots sympathy for the singer.

“Many people or their relatives are suffering from this disease,” she said.

Afshin Davarpanah, an anthropologist, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Pashaei is seen as a symbol of Iran’s youth, which is mourning for itself in the face of many difficult problems and challenges. 

“[It is] an excuse to cry for a generation whose future is the constant worry of families,” he said. 

Public expressions of grief over Pashaei’s passing will soon subside, but the “secret mourning” of Iranian society will remain, Davarpahan added.

Several Iranian officials offered condolences following Pashaei’s death, as did the U.S. State Department’s Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre

Video Interview: Iran's 'Rosewater' Journalist Maziar Bahari Is 'Not Expecting A Revolution'

"Rosewater" film director Jon Stewart, Iranian subject Maziar Bahari, and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (left to right) pose at the Toronto film festival on September 8.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, whose detention and torture by Iranian authorities are given cinematic treatment in “Rosewater,” a new film by U.S. political satirist and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, tells RFE/RL that he wants officials in Tehran to watch the film and rethink their actions.

RFE/RL: Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” is based on your incarceration in Iran during the 2009 antigovernment protests and the book you co-authored about your experience, “Then They Came For Me.” How closely does the film hew to what you really went through?

Maziar Bahari: The film is a good interpretation of the book, and the book is 350 pages about a life story and also 118 days of incarceration and many memories during that time, many other events. So we had to adapt the book for the film, but I think the film is true to the truth of the story. The reality is different here and there, but that’s not very important. The truth of the story is there.

RFE/RL: The film shows the psychological torture you were subjected to, including solitary confinement and sessions with your interrogator, whom you nicknamed "Mr. Rosewater" because of his perfume. But it does not show some of the physical torture you experienced. Why did you decide to tone down the torture?

Bahari: We didn’t want to include physical torture that much, first of all because you don’t want to numb the audience to the torture. And we see many films that are borderline torture porn right now, and we didn’t want to create that. The way that Jon Stewart describes it is that he wants it to be like the shark in “Jaws.” So he doesn’t want it to be present from the beginning. But it always lingers in the background.

And also, I think what I went through and some other people went through right after the [disputed 2009 presidential] election [in Iran], were anomalies in Iran or many other countries because most countries are not sadistic. They just want to serve their own purposes, and it is usually served through psychological torture because physical torture has proven not to be that effective -- because you either break and you just lie or you reach nirvana state and then you think you’re invincible. But with psychological torture, you can torture the prisoner as much as you want and then you can manipulate that person. And the worst kind of psychological torture is, of course, solitary confinement.

RFE/RL: How did you feel when you first saw the final version of the film?

Bahari: Jon and I, we talked about the film before he started to write the script because we wanted someone else to write the script and we sent it to different people. They were either busy or they were not interested or they wanted too much money. So after a year and a half he decided to do it himself, and we worked on the script together. And then I was on the set every day, so I saw the footage, then I saw the rough cuts, then I saw the final rough cuts.

But I remember when I saw the first rough cut, it was quite a moving moment, and I think it was a seminal moment in my friendship with Jon Stewart. I remember I was on my own in the editing room, and I didn’t know what was going on outside. I knew that the film was not finished, but what I was seeing was a great film already. It needed a little bit of adjustment here and there. And then when I opened the door, I saw Jon Stewart holding his three-legged dog. He was really afraid of my reaction, and he didn’t know what to expect. I was pleased with the film. I went there and I hugged him, I hugged the editor, and I think from that moment on he really felt comfortable with the process.

WATCH the official trailer for "Rosewater":

RFE/RL: How was it to work with Jon Stewart?

Bahari: He’s great. He’s a very good manager. He manages a huge team on a daily basis because “The Daily Show” is a big production, and also he’s very collaborative, he’s very open to ideas and suggestions and, like many geniuses I’ve met in my life, he’s very quick in absorbing people’s ideas and giving them his own twist. And also he’s very funny, which really helped us in Jordan because it was not a very easy shoot. It was really hot, it was during the Ramadan, the Jordanian film industry is less than perfect, less than prepared. So he really had to entertain people in order to mobilize them.

RFE/RL: What do you want people to take away from the film?

Bahari: I want people to think about what journalists are going through on a daily basis, not only in Iran but all around the world, in different countries. Ideally, I like when people watch the news to look at what is happening behind the scenes and have a better understanding. But also, ideally I’d like some people within the Iranian government to watch the film and regard it as a mirror of their actions, see how ridiculous they are, see how brutal they are. And if they are relatively rational -- there are many rational people within the Iranian government, they’re just serving a bad system -- just to rethink their ideas and try to change a little bit. I’m not expecting a revolution or anything. Just a little change would be fine.

RFE/RL: Iranians usually access the latest Western movies very quickly. Do you know if black-market copies of “Rosewater” are already available in Iran?

Bahari: I haven’t heard anything from Iran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film is available in Iran within a week or so.

RFE/RL: A deadline for world powers and Iran to reach a lasting nuclear agreement is less than 10 days away, and there is talk of an extension. How do you think a potential deal would impact the domestic situation in Iran? Do you think it can improve the human rights situation by giving President Hassan Rohani leverage?

Bahari: I don’t think the government of Iran -- neither the president nor the supreme leader -- have any plans to improve the human rights situation. But I think the human rights situation in Iran will go through different phases. Ultimately I think it will improve in the long run, but in the short run there will be some setbacks because there are some ideological elements or people whose material interest is in suppression.

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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