Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Iranian Who Barred Soccer-Star Wife From Travel Says It's Private

Niloofar Ardalan during a practice session in Tehran in December 2014

Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian man who barred his soccer-star spouse from playing in a tournament abroad has defended his actions and criticized foreign media for covering the case.

Mehdi Toutounchi, a prominent sports journalist and television presenter, said he had to "take control" of the situation.

Toutounchi’s remarks may stoke further outrage after he prevented his wife, Niloufar Ardalan, from leaving Iran to compete the Asian Football Confederation women's championship in futsal in Malaysia.

Ardalan, known in Iran as Lady Goal, has said that her husband denied her permission to leave the country because he did not want her to miss their son’s first day of school on September 23.

The case has led to an outcry on social media, where many have sharply criticized Toutounchi’s decision and an Iranian law under which a married woman needs her husband’s consent to travel abroad. A man can also ensure his wife stays in the country by declining to sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport.

Niloufar ArdalanNiloufar Ardalan
Niloufar Ardalan
Niloufar Ardalan

Toutounchi was unapologetic.
“I really don’t like a family problem to become public,” he told the Iranian daily Ghanoon on September 17. "I feel in these cases, the man in the family has to take control."

Ardalan “was upset that she wasn’t traveling with the national team, she gave an interview. But I don’t like to talk to the media to solve the issue,” he said in brief remarks.

Ardalan is widely praised as one of Iran’s best female soccer players and has captained the national team in futsal, an indoor version in which each team fields five players.

Days after speaking to domestic media about her ordeal, Ardalan appears to have backed down.

In an interview with the Tasnim news agency, which is loyal to the hard-line conservative establishment in the Islamic country, she said that the issue is “private” and had been exploited by “antirevolutionary media,” a term used to refer to Persian-language media based outside Iran.

"I only described my problem and asked for a solution for it," she said. "It's no one else's business."

Those comments are likely to lead to concerns she faced pressure to change her tone.

Women's rights advocates have long called for reform or revocation of Iranian laws that discriminate against women, some of which were enforced only following the 1979 revolution, such as the travel law, which was introduced before it.

The Iranian website reacted to Toutounchi's comments by suggesting he was intervening on the side of Iran’s opponents in the September 21-26 tournament in Malaysia.

Toutounchi’s actions were far from a private matter because they will affect the fate of the Iranian team, said a commentary on the website, which focuses on women’s issues.

"By banning his wife from travel, Toutounchi managed to defeat [Iran’s] national team on behalf of all the players of the rival teams," it said.

Iranian Female Soccer Star Faces Husband-Imposed Travel Ban

Niloufar Ardalan has captained Iran's national team and was set to compete in the Asian Football Confederation's women's championship in futsal, an indoor version of soccer in which each team fields five players, to be held in the Malaysian town of Nilai on September 21-26.

Golnaz Esfandiari

It's a man's world for Niloufar Ardalan, one of Iran's best female soccer players and known as Lady Goal for her on-field exploits in international women's Islamic tournaments.

Ardalan says she will not be able to compete in an upcoming tournament in Malaysia because her husband has refused to grant her permission to travel abroad as required by Islamic laws enforced in Iran.

The 30-year-old athlete has captained Iran's national team and was set to compete in the Asian Football Confederation's women's championship in futsal, an indoor version of soccer in which each team fields five players, to be held in the Malaysian town of Nilai on September 21-26.

In Iran, however, married women need the consent of their husbands to leave the country and can be banned from traveling abroad if their spouses do not sign the paperwork needed to obtain or renew a passport.

Ardalan says her husband, a sports journalist and television presenter, has used this authority to prevent her from competing in the upcoming tournament because he does not want her to miss the first day of school for her 7-year-old son on September 23.

The frustrated soccer star says she had trained hard for weeks to compete in the games and make her country proud.

"But my husband didn't give me my passport so that I can [participate] in the games, and because of his opposition to my travel abroad, I [will] miss the matches," Ardalan said in a September 11 interview with the news site

In a September 12 interview with Shirzanan Global, a news portal that promotes participation in sports by female Muslims, Ardalan said that her passport had expired and that her husband had refused to sign a form required for its renewal.

The case highlights Iran's discriminatory laws that favor men, including in matters related to inheritance, divorce, and child custody, and effectively give women the status of second-class citizens.

Iranian men do not need permission from their wives to travel abroad.

"I wish authorities would create [measures] that would allow female athletes to defend their rights in such situations," Ardalan was quoted by as saying.

She added: "These games were very important to me. As a Muslim woman, I wanted to work for my country's flag to be raised [at the games], rather than traveling for leisure and fun."

There has not been any public comment from Ardalan's husband, Mehdi Toutounchi, who, according to Iranian media, has been supportive of women's soccer in the past.

Breaking The Silence

Shadi Sadr, a prominent Iranian women's rights advocate and the director of the London-based rights group Justice For Iran, says the case demonstrates the need to change the travel law, which she says affects tens of thousands of Iranian women.

"This just shows to what extent this law can impact a woman's life," Sadr said in a telephone interview with RFE/RL. "Even if a woman reaches the highest ranks in politics, sports, or culture, she still needs her husband's consent for one of her most basic rights -- traveling abroad."

Ardalan's case and her decision to go public about the travel ban have attracted considerable attention on social media, where many have condemned her husband's refusal to allow her to compete in the tournament.

"Is this the only way [Ardalan's husband] could prove he's a man?" one woman wrote in a Facebook discussion devoted to the issue.

"Many Iranian men pretend in cyberspace that they're defenders of women's rights. But in practice, and when it comes to the rights of their wives, they act more traditionally than previous generations," another woman wrote.

A man wrote: "This woman's husband must have his own reasons. We shouldn't make one-sided judgements."

Sadr welcomes the ongoing debate. She said Ardalan should be praised for publicly speaking about her plight. "She broke the silence, and this could lead to other women taking the courage to detail and shed light on other similar cases," she said.

Ardalan has said that she will pursue the case through women's rights groups.

"Boys have the issue of military service [which prevents those who have not completed their compulsory service from traveling abroad]. A solution is found for them, and something should be done for women as well," she said in an interview with the daily sports newspaper Goal.

She added, "What is the difference between us?"

Iran's Cyberpolice Call On Internet Giants To Prevent ‘Crime' Amid Telegram Concerns

Can Iranians be sure their online messages are not being read by the cyberpolice?

Golnaz Esfandiari

An Iranian cyberpolice official says the authorities have called on Internet giants like Google to cooperate with the government to prevent online crimes, a move that comes amid concerns that a renegade Russian tech mogul's messaging app may have caved in to Tehran's demands.

Hossein Ramezani, Iran's deputy cyberpolice chief for international affairs, told reporters this week that Tehran has asked Yahoo, Google, and the messaging app Telegram to "work with us in the prevention of criminal acts," the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported on September 2.

Iranian officials said earlier this year that the country could allow Internet giants to offer their services in the country if they respected Iran's "cultural rules and policies," and that the Islamic republic did not "tolerate" social-networking sites that allow the sharing of "immoral content." 

Iran maintains tough Internet censorship rules, blocking thousands of websites and monitoring the online activities of its citizens, including activists and critics of the establishment. Several activists say they have been interrogated, harassed, and sentenced to jail terms due to their online activities.

Requests for comment on their dealings with the Iranian government went unanswered by Yahoo, Google, and Telegram, a mobile messaging app popular in Iran that is backed by Pavel Durov, the enigmatic founder of Vkontakte, Russia's most popular social-networking site.

But Telegram "has not entered any agreements with any government on this planet. No plans to," Durov tweeted on September 5 in response to a question from the French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders about whether Telegram has reached an agreement with Tehran and whether there are plans for moving some of Telegram's servers there. 

Washington-based Internet researcher Colin Anderson says U.S.-based Internet giants like Yahoo and Google are unlikely to comply with requests by the Iranian government, but that the situation is less clear with Telegram.

The messaging app in recent months has become popular among Iranians, who use it to communicate with each other and share content, including pornography and political satire.

Durov, who in the past has refused to comply with Russian authorities' requests to hand over Vkontakte user data about Kremlin critics, told Vice in June that Telegram had been "the most downloaded app in Iran for some time." 

Slippery Slope?

Nariman Gharib, a London-based Iranian Internet researcher, says that in recent weeks some of Telegram's features have been restricted in Iran, apparently in connection with demands by Iranian authorities.

Some tools on the app "have become inactive for Iranian users," and "some [pornography] bots have also become inactive," Gharib says. Most of the blocked features appear to deal with the sharing of pornography, but he says that the development has led to concerns that further restrictions could follow.

"Users are worried that the limitations could go beyond porn, meaning that if the Iranian government makes other demands, for example regarding users' information, Telegram [could comply] and jeopardize users' security," Gharib says.

"It's not clear how far [Telegram] is ready to go regarding its restrictions and censorship efforts," he adds.

Anderson shares the concern. "The opaque manner in which Telegram is behaving is concerning, particularly given that their service does not provide strong security assurances by default," Anderson says.

Durov said last year that he sold his 12 percent stake in Vkontakte amid pressure from Russian authorities, including requests to shut down a page on the networking site dedicated to opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and turn over data about users tied to the 2014 Euromaidan protests that led to the ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a Kremlin ally.

Durov has said that he refused to comply with the demands.

'Sensitive Political Issues'

Following reports of disruptions of access to Telegram in Iran, Deputy Communications Minister Mahmud Khosravi was quoted by the hard-line Tasnim news agency in July as saying that Iranian authorities had contacted Telegram.

"We sent an official letter to Telegram and told them your network has a problem in Iran. Let's sit and solve the problems," Khosravi was quoted as saying. 

Weeks later, Iranian Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi told the semiofficial Mehr news agency that Telegram officials had "apologized" to Iran over its "offensive" stickers.

"They said: 'We didn't know users in Iran misuse them,'" Vaezi quoted Telegram managers as saying. He added that the features had been blocked so that Telegram could keep a presence in Iran.

"I told them if the issue is not repeated, then [the ministry] will not prevent the activities of Telegram in Iran, and Telegram will not be blocked," Vaezi was quoted as saying. 

A pro-reform journalist in Tehran who requested anonymity says that he is worried about the reports. "The number of Telegram users has grown significantly because it is said to be secure for users, especially for people like us who discuss sensitive political issues," the journalist says via Telegram. "The reports suggesting that it is now complying with the [Iranian] government's demands are worrying."

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said last week that global Internet and technology companies should avoid putting Iranian users at risk by sharing their private information with the Iranian government.

The New York-based rights group called on Telegram to issue periodic transparency reports to assure Iranian users that their online data are safe.

Iran's 'Death To America' Graffiti Reappears After Vanishing Act

The phrase 'Death to America" is regularly chanted in Iran at state-organized events and rallies. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

New "Death to America" graffiti has appeared, disappeared, and reappeared on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran in recent days, according to reports and photographs published by Iranian media.

Graffiti reading "Death To America 2015" had appeared recently in the Iranian capital at a time when hard-liners are emphasizing that the nuclear deal reached between Tehran and world powers will not end their hostility toward the United States. 

The reported removal of the graffiti from the walls of the former U.S. Embassy and other locations in Tehran raised eyebrows among many Iranians and Iran watchers who have grown accustomed to state-commissioned murals and other public art with anti-American messages., which over the weekend posted pictures showing a man painting over the graffiti, said the move was part of an effort to keep Tehran clean.

"In recent days an interesting event has been happening in Tehran, and that is the removal of 'Death to America' slogans from the streets of the city," the report said.

"This morning the work reached the walls of the former U.S. Embassy," the report said, using the term "den of spies," which has been used by officials to refer to the former diplomatic compound where anti-American artwork is displayed.

The report by, which is seen as close to Tehran Mayor Mohammad Bagher Qailbaf, was reposted by many other news sites, including the semiofficial Mehr News agency.

It sparked criticism from hard-liners, including Iran's Student Basij Organization, which accused the United States of "crimes against humanity" and said that chanting "Death to America" is not only the "right" of the Iranian people, but also the duty of Muslims and all people.

The group issued a statement aimed at those who support better ties with the United States.

"If the [nuclear] agreement will not become another reason for the nation to chant 'Death to America,' it will [definitely] not be the reason to eliminate [the slogan]," the statement said

The website asked whether the clean-up efforts were tied to the nuclear agreement reached between Tehran and world powers in July that would limit Iran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

"Even if this is a spontaneous move by the people, it seems that officials should explain whether there are rules for writing or erasing these slogans," the conservative website said.  

Officials have not publicly commented on the issue.

Finally, on September 1, said the "Death to America" slogans are back on the walls of the former U.S. Embassy, but this time they did not mention any specific year.  

The phrase is regularly chanted at state-organized events and rallies, including Friday Prayers and the anniversaries of the 1979 takeover of U.S. Embassy in Tehran following the Islamic Revolution. 

Many Iranians believe the chant is empty and senseless rhetoric that needs to be shelved. But hard-line officials appear reluctant to scrap it. 

Speaking at a September 1 press conference, the commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said that the United States remains "the Great Satan" despite the nuclear agreement.

"The hostility of the United States toward us has not ended or diminished," said Mohammad Ali Jafari, who accused Washington of using "other methods" to undermine the Islamic republic.

In another sign that hard-liners are not ready to drop the chant, the Tasnim news agency reported on September 2 that a plaque engraved with "100 titles" used by the founder of the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, against the United States was unveiled by the Basij paramilitary force at the main gate of the former U.S. Embassy.

The report said that U.S. and Israeli flags were set on fire at the unveiling ceremony while participants chanted "Death To America," "Death to Israel," and "Compromise with Satan is betrayal of the Koran." 

Prominent Iranian Activists, Intellectuals Call On Congress To Back Nuclear Deal

Film director Jafar Panahi (left) and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh are two prominent Iranians inside the country who have joined the campaign.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Parvin Fahimi, who lost her son to repression by the Iranian state, hopes the agreement global powers reached with Tehran on its nuclear program last month will not only remove sanctions and the threat of war, but also lead to improved human rights inside the country.

Fahimi, whose 19-year-old son was killed in the 2009 state crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president, is among some 50 prominent rights activists, intellectuals, and academics who have joined a social-media campaign urging the U.S. Congress to back the deal. 

Under the deal reached in Vienna on July 14 by Iran and six global powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- Iran is to significantly limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Activists who have taken to YouTube and social media in support of the agreement are hoping that it will ultimately strengthen the hands of the moderates and result in an opening up of the political situation inside the country.

Many of them are based in Iran -- including student activist Zia Nabavi, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, and top human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was released from prison in 2013.

Prominent Tehran-based filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been pressured by the Iranian establishment over his work, and exiled Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi have also joined the campaign.

The son of Mehdi Karrubi, an Iranian opposition figure who remains under house arrest for challenging the Iranian establishment over the 2009 vote and highlighting human rights abuses, has also added his voice to those publicly supporting the deal. 

Their messages, in English or in Persian with English subtitles, have been uploaded to YouTube and widely shared on social media.

"I believe that the international isolation of countries is not in the benefit of democracy and civil society, on the contrary it can lead to more repression," says Fahimi in a video where two pictures of her dead son are seen on a table behind her. 

The campaign comes days after a group of exiled Iranian activists issued an open letter opposing the deal while warning that "appeasing the Iranian regime will lead to a more dangerous world." 

Among the signatories of the letter is former political prisoner Ahmad Batebi, who appeared in a television ad by a pro-Israel group and argued that because of its torture record, Iran cannot be trusted to fulfill his commitments under the nuclear agreement. 

Organizers of the Internet campaign in favor of the deal say their effort is not a reaction to the move. But they say they want to take the human rights argument away from those opposing the deal.

U.S.-based activist Ali Abdi, who has helped coordinate the campaign in favor of the nuclear agreement, says the campaign aims to demonstrate that "those who have been directly hurt" by the Islamic republic are largely supportive of the deal.

"The main objective is to show that the Iran deal would benefit not only the economic situation in Iran and the livelihood of 80 million people, but at the same time it would be also be beneficial to the human rights situation and also for the [pro-democracy] movement, unlike what many of those who oppose the deal claim," Abdi told RFE/RL.

"War and sanctions create crisis, and crisis is the death of democracy, the death of peace and human rights," film director Panahi says. 

The jailed student, Nabavi, says in his audio message that his support for the deal is "neither a validation of the injustices placed upon me nor an approval of the human rights situation in Iran."

"I therefore hope that American citizens, like the majority of Iranian citizens, will reach out to their representatives in Congress and ask them to support this deal and to give dialogue and diplomacy a chance for success," he adds.

Sotoudeh, who was jailed for several years and banned from practice, says she criticizes "the extremist rhetoric of the Iranian hard-liners." She adds, "Likewise, I call on Americans overseas to urge their representatives in Congress to refrain from using the language of threat."

Ahead of September voting in the U.S. Congress on whether to approve the deal, President Barack Obama is seeking to win enough backing from lawmakers to prevent opponents from killing it.

Speaking to RFE/RL in June, Sotoudeh said the deal could help those who are fighting for more rights in the Islamic republic by providing them with more breathing space.

In recent weeks dozens of Iranians in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have held a number of public gatherings in support of the deal.

Earlier this month, dozens of prominent Iranian-Americans in academia, the tech industry, and business issued a letter published in The New York Times in support of the nuclear agreement.

"Diplomacy with Iran has the potential to do much more than prevent a war," the letter said. "It creates a chance for Americans and Iranians to create a brighter future that benefits all of our children."

Wanted For Terrorism, Commander Of Iran's Quds Force Is Actually Kind And Emotional, Brother Says

The commander of Iran's Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, prays during a religious ceremony in Tehran in March.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Qassem Soleimani, a top military commander in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a wanted man.

For years, he's been linked to support for terrorism, covert operations, arms smuggling, and other efforts aimed at expanding Iran's influence abroad and undermining that of its enemies.

Since 2007, he's been formally labeled a supporter of terrorism by the United States. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Soleimani for his alleged role in an assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

In fact, what he really is, according to an unusual interview with his younger brother, is misunderstood.

"He's a serious person, but very kind and emotional," said Sohrab Soleimani in an interview published on August 23 with the Fars news agency, a Persian-language news outlet affiliated with the powerful IRGC.

"Those who don't know him well can't believe what kind of personality he has," he was quoted as saying.

The interview comes at a critical time for Iran's role and influence in the region. The landmark deal reached last month aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions is poised to lift crippling sanctions and open up Iran's rusting economy to global investment and world markets.

Meanwhile, chaotic wars in Syria -- Iran's closest ally -- and in Yemen continue as proxy battlefields between Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and forces backed by Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran's deepest rival.

Soleimani has been hit by a United Nations travel ban over his alleged role in Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The UN sanctions against him will be lifted as part of the nuclear deal, although he will remain on the U.S. blacklist. Earlier this month, Washington expressed concern over reports that Soleimani had visited Moscow in late July. Russia denied the reports.

Widely picked up by Iranian news sites, the Fars interview appeared to be part of Iran's efforts to boost Soleimani's profile and portray him as a selfless national hero who plays an instrumental role in the volatile Middle East. 

"Haj Soleimani has been born in our family, but he doesn't belong to us, he belongs to the country and to the Shi'a," Sohrab Soleimani said, referring to his brother by the honorific to describe him as devout.

Fars said it conducted the interview with Sohrab Soleimani, who heads the Prisons Organization of Tehran Province, because the private life of his brother is of great interest to "many people, particularly to Iran's youth."

Major General Qassem Soleimani, accused of helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power and arming Shi'ite militia in Iraq, used to be a man in the shadows. The unit he commands, the Quds Force, was formed during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and is now believed to conduct clandestine paramilitary operations throughout the region.

Qassem Soleimani in 2013Qassem Soleimani in 2013
Qassem Soleimani in 2013
Qassem Soleimani in 2013

In recent months, he's become a celebrity, with numerous photos of his appearances on the battlefield against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq popping up on social media and news blogs. Pictures of the bearded Soleimani at funerals held for Iranian fighters killed in Syria and Iraq have also been circulating on the Internet.

Iranian officials have suggested that Soleimani does not enjoy being in the spotlight but that his growing popularity has prompted media and others to publish the photos.

In January, more than 200 Iranian lawmakers praised Soleimani and his Quds Force for playing a "determining role" in what they described as defending Muslims and regional security, and also fighting terrorist groups, namely "the criminal and evil [Islamic State group]."

Meanwhile, hard-line Iranian officials have paid tribute to the 58-year-old Qassem Soleimani through songs, social media posts, and documentaries amid rumors that he could enter politics.

In the Fars interview, Sohrab Soleimani recalled a meeting between a former regional governor and his father, who is a farmer from the same region. "[The former governor] told my father, 'Do you know how famous your son is and how much the 'arrogance' fears him?'" Sohrab said, using a term hard-line Iranian officials use to describe the United States.

Soleimani said his father responded, "They're afraid of Islam, not of my son."

Soleimani also said his older brother had always made sure that his close relatives did not take the wrong path in life. "As the head of the Quds Force, he has little time to devote to his own life, yet his attention for his [family and friends] has not diminished," he said.

The two brothers fought together during the war with Iraq when Qassem Soleimani was in charge of the IRGC's Sarallah Division. "Haj Qassem has a [belt] in karate, he used to work as a fitness coach in a bodybuilding club," he said.

Qassem Soleimani joined the IRGC following the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of Iran's U.S.-backed shah. After leaving the Sarallah Division of the IRGC, he became commander of the Quds Force following an order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom Soleimani is said to be deeply loyal.

Sohrab Soleimani suggested that the IRGC was currently concerned about the safety of his influential brother. "My brother is strongly opposed to bodyguards, his safety is probably now causing concerns for the commander of the IRGC," he said.

In the interview, Sohrab Soleimani also spoke about his brother's "love" for children of the martyrs, a term used in Iran to describe soldiers and IRGC members killed in the war with Iraq and also those killed more recently in the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

"He loves the children of the martyrs so much that sometimes his own children become jealous. He has very close ties to the martyrs' children. And he doesn't care to which faction the martyrs belong," he said.

Iran's President Questions Role Of Hard-Line Vetters, Meets With Pushback

"We have no place in this country for disqualifying experienced, caring people who want to use their knowledge in the service of the country, whatever political affiliation they may come from," Iranian President Hassan Rohani said. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's Guardians Council, long accused of being a tool for hard-liners in factional power struggles, is at the center of a new war of words among top state officials.

The exchange comes ahead of elections early next year for parliament, which is currently controlled by conservatives and hard-liners, and for the Assembly of Experts, which oversees and appoints the country's supreme leader.

It could signal a sharpening of stances with the February votes looming, the first since Iran and world powers reached a nuclear agreement that limits Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

This week, President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, questioned the role of the Guardians Council, suggesting it has a "supervisory role" rather than "an executive one."

"It is the government which actually executes the task, and in some cases it has the necessary means to prevent election disorder and possible fraud," Rohani said in an August 19 speech.

He added that the future parliament would not be controlled by any single party or group. 

"We have no place in this country for disqualifying experienced, caring people who want to use their knowledge in the service of the country, whatever political affiliation they may come from," he said.

The comments hint at concern that reformists and moderates who are supportive of Rohani's policies might be prevented from running.

The powerful Guardians Council supervises presidential and parliamentary elections and can veto candidates whose views are deemed out of line with the Islamic establishment or insufficiently loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The council also vets legislation passed by parliament for compliance with Islamic laws and the constitution.

The Iranian leader directly appoints six clerics to the 12-member Guardians Council. The other six, all jurists, are chosen from a field of candidates nominated by the head of Iran's judiciary, who is himself selected by Khamenei.

The council has over the years prevented many reformist and moderate figures (and others) from running for parliament or the presidency, including famously banning a former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a former presidential aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, from the presidential race in 2013.

One day after Rohani's speech, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari hit back with a stark warning.

Such comments weaken the "effective pillars of the revolution," namely the Guardians Council, and damage "national unity," he said. 

Without naming Rohani specifically, Jafari noted that Iran's president must also undergo screening by the Guardians Council, which is seen by its critics as a major obstacle to free and competitive elections in Iran.

"Those who have had the opportunity to emerge on the country's management arena through this council and due to its nonfactional and generous nature should use their words more wisely," Jafari said.

He referred to comments by some officials as the start of the "erosion of the independence and dignity" of the Islamic establishment.

Criticism also surfaced via the influential hard-line daily Kayhan, which said Iran's constitution gives the Guardians Council the authority to supervise elections and neither the government nor any other body has a right to interpret the constitution.

Iran's constitution states that the Guardians Council has "the responsibility for supervising" elections. It also says that "the authority of the interpretation of the constitution is vested in the Guardians Council."

Critics accuse the council of overstepping its legal boundaries and controlling the election process by acting based on political motivation.

Conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli said he was surprised that Rohani, who has a law degree, had questioned the role of the Guardians Council.

"However, this is nothing new; it was also discussed under the previous president," Tavakoli said in an August 20 interview with the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

He advised Rohani not to follow the footsteps of presidential predecessor Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who eventually fell out of favor for repeatedly challenging the Iranian establishment.

"Ahmadinejad had a phrase that led to his [downfall]. He would say, 'I don't accept a certain law,'" Tavakoli said.

Guardians Council members and other hard-line officials have in recent months warned that "seditionists" -- a term commonly used for political opponents who protested Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009 -- will not be allowed to win seats in parliament or the Assembly of Experts.

The warnings come amid signs that the reformists, who have been largely sidelined for over a decade, are poised for a political comeback in next year's parliamentary elections.

Khamenei's representative within the IRGC, Ali Saeedi, warned in June against a change in the political composition of the conservative-dominated parliament.

Saeedi told the hard-line Fars news agency that such a development would represent a "threat against the ideals of [Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini], Khamenei, and the interests of the establishment."

Therefore, he said, the Guardians Council should fulfill its duties and potential candidates should have revolutionary credentials.

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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