Friday, February 12, 2016


Khomeini's Grandson Vows To Challenge Decision to Bar Him From Election

Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of late Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, arrives to registers his candidacy at the Interior Ministry during the registration for the elections to the Assembly of Experts in Tehran on December 18.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the cleric who led Iran's 1979 revolution and founded the Islamic republic, says he will challenge a decision to bar him from running in the February election for the Assembly of Experts even though it could be fruitless.

Hassan Khomeini, 43, was quoted on January 29 as saying that he will appeal "at the request of the public and some senior religious and political figures," while adding that the move was unlikely to "open a new path."

Khomeini, a mid-ranking moderate cleric with ties to the reformist faction of the Iranian establishment, made the comments a few days after his son confirmed on Instagram an earlier media report that the Guardians Council had not approved him to run in the February 26 vote.

The powerful hard-line conservative body is in charge of vetting all election candidates in Iran, which Khomeini's grandfather ruled over as supreme leader from the revolution that ended the secular Pahlavi monarchy until his death in 1989.

The Guardians Council has reportedly approved only 166 out of some 800 candidates hoping to run for the Assembly of Experts, including Iranian President Hassan Rohani and former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

The Assembly, which is in theory in charge of overseeing the work of Iran's supreme leader, could determine the successor to current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is 76.

"It's a surprise to me and to many others that some of the respectable gentlemen jurists in the Guardians Council couldn't establish I am qualified," Khomeini said in comments published by Iranian news sites.

He added that he was barred from running despite the fact that his application included the testimony of senior clerics and others to his religious qualifications and "hours of tapes of his lectures" and "several books" he has authored.

"If the gentlemen couldn't establish I am qualified through the testimonies of grand ayatollahs, and my lectures and writings, then it's unlikely they will do so in the future," Khomeini said.

He said he had decided to run "as a duty and concern over the future of the revolution and the Islamic establishment."

Khomeini also said that despite "rumors," he had not been invited to take a qualifying test or be interviewed by the Guardians Council.

Hard-line conservatives have in past years made attempts at tarnishing Khomeini, who is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami. A reformist, Khatami has fallen out of favor of the Iranian establishment over his support for the Green opposition movement and its leaders, who are under house arrest.

Khomeini has also been attacked over his ties with former President Rafsanjani.

Khomeini's disqualification could be part of attempts by Iranian hard-line conservatives to tighten their grip on domestic politics following a July deal with global powers that placed restrictions on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

The deal has created hope among the hard-liners' opponents that their power and authority could be diminished in the long run.


Memes Circulate After Italy Hides Nude Statues For Rohani Visit

One of the ancient Roman marble statues at Rome's Capitoline Museum on Capitol Hill that was covered during a meeting between the Italian prime minister and the Iranian president on January 26.

Memes are making the rounds mocking Italy's decision to cover up nude statues at Rome's Capitoline Museum with big white boxes for a visit by Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

The decision has caused anger in Italy, where it has been condemned by critics as "incomprehensible," "ridiculous," and "submission" to principles that are against Western culture.

Speaking on January 27 in Rome, Rohani said that Tehran had not contacted Italian officials to ask for the statues to be covered up.

"This issue is something journalists and the press like to discuss," Rohani said.

He added that he didn't have "any talks" with Italian authorities on the issue.

"I know that the Italians are very hospitable, a people who seek to make their guests' visits as pleasant as possible and I thank them for that," Rohani added. 

After wrapping up his visit to Italy, Rohani arrived in France where he is expected to preside over the signing of major business contracts.

A photoshopped picture of the Mona Lisa wrapped in the Islamic hijab that is compulsory for women in Iran was being shared on social media ahead of the trip, which follows the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic republic under a landmark deal restricting its nuclear program.

"Preparations by Louvre Museum for Rohani's visit," reads the tweet.

Some Iranians have likened Italy's decision to cover up nude statues to Iran's state censorship, including tough Internet censorship that targets tens of thousands of websites.
"Smart filtering of statues during #Rohani's trip to #Italy," reads the tweet that includes a photo of the nude statues covered in the page that Iranians see when they try to access banned websites.

A photoshopped photo of Rohani posing with Pope Francis under a nude painting was widely circulated.

Here is the original photo.

Meanwhile, some suggested that there were perhaps more creative ways of covering up nude statues than hiding them behind wooden panels.

In 2013, a relief carving of a naked man at the UN's headquarters in Geneva was covered up by a large white screen apparently in an effort not to offend Iranian diplomats who were due to take part in talks over Iran's nuclear activities.


Iranian President: Mass Candidate Ban Could Make Elections Pointless

Iranian President Hassan Rohani

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's president has criticized the mass disqualification of candidates in next month's parliamentary elections, suggesting the decision could make the vote pointless. 
 
The comments by Hassan Rohani signaled continuing tensions between the president, who has presented himself as a moderate, and powerful hard-liners who control key bodies in the Islamic republic.
 
Rohani made the comments following reports that the powerful Guardians Council had barred about 60 percent of candidates from running in the February 26 vote. 
 
Reformers, who were hoping to make a comeback in the upcoming vote, have said that only 1 percent of their hopefuls have been allowed to stand in the vote for the 290-seat Majlis.
 
“If only one faction is present in the vote, and the other is not, then why are we holding elections?” Rohani was quoted as saying on January 21 in a meeting in Tehran. 
 
Another pro-reform politician, Hossein Marashi, said over the weekend that only 30 out of 3,000 reformist candidates have been qualified to run. 
 
The Majlis, which is elected every four years, has the power to draft and debate legislation, which must be formally approved by the president before becoming law.

In practice, however, unelected bodies like the Guardians Council, which is made up of six clerics and six jurists, hold vast power over what legislation gets passed and gets the final word on who can run in elections. 
 
It's been unclear why the council has moved to strike so many candidates from the elections, though in the past it has disqualified pro-reform candidates and those who are not deemed fully loyal to the clerical establishment and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
 
In addition to reformers, some conservatives have been also barred from running, including outspoken lawmaker Ali Motahari, who's been critical of the house arrest of opposition figures.
 
"The parliament is the house of the nation, not the house of one faction," Rohani said in a January 21 speech to governors and election officials.
 
"Let's allow the house of the nation to truly reflect our nation and belong to all people," he said.

Supreme Intervention?
 
Those who have been disqualified can appeal against the decision and, in recent days, Iranian media have published some of the appeal letters by those disqualified.

Former Culture Minister and presidential candidate Mostafa Moeen said the decision to bar him went against Iran's constitution and national interests. 
 
Rohani has reportedly assigned Vice President Eshagh Jahangiri to discuss the disqualifications with the Guardians Council, and Amir Mohebbian, a well-known political analyst aligned with hard-liners, said Rohani could ask Iran's supreme leader to intervene.
 
"Rohani could use his prestige and, for example, ask the leader to use his status regarding the disqualifications," Mohebbian was quoted as saying by the news site Fararu.com. "But whether the demand will be achieved is another issue."
 
Another Tehran-based political analyst, Sadegh Zibakalam, said the disqualifications have been so extensive that even some "moderate conservatives" are concerned that it would undermine the vote's legitimacy. 
 
Meanwhile, Mohammad Reza Aref, a reformist politician and former presidential candidate, said he's hopeful that some of the banned candidates will be allowed to run. Aref is among the very few reformists who've been reportedly approved by the Guardians Council.

"So far, we've had good discussions with the Guardians Council and others; I'm hopeful in the review of the disqualifications," Aref was quoted as saying. 
 
Earlier this month, Khamenei called on all Iranian citizens, even those who don't accept him and the clerical establishment, to vote in the February elections, which will also select members of the Assembly of Experts -- which is in charge of picking the country's next supreme leader.
 


Iranian, U.A.E. Ministers Trade Twitter Digs In Saudi Standoff

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (left) and U.A.E. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan (Photos: RIA Novosti/Sputnik)

Golnaz Esfandiari

The diplomatic crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia has spilled onto Twitter, where the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) -- Riyadh's staunch ally -- triggered a war of words by mocking an opinion piece by his Iranian counterpart published in The New York Times.

In the January 10 op-ed, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused Saudi Arabia of "sponsoring extremists and promoting sectarian hatred" in the region. He also denounced the kingdom's human rights record and recent execution of 47 prisoners, including prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, whose death prompted the storming of Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran. 

U.A.E. Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan hit back at Zarif and Iran, which is also accused of serious human rights violations, with a tweet to his 2.58 million followers.

"When I read the Iranian foreign minister's article in The New York Times, I thought it was written by the foreign minister of a Scandinavian country," Nahyan wrote in Arabic, punctuating the tweet with a smiley.

Zarif fired back with a tweet to his 363,000 followers that did not mention Nahyan by name but left little doubt about whom he was attacking.

"Diplomacy is the domain of the mature; not arrogant nouveau-riche," Zarif tweeted on January 13. 

Hours later, Nahyan snarkily reminded Zarif of basic principles of international diplomacy.

"Don't torch, take over or ransack embassies and consulates. Don't take diplomats hostage," Nahyan tweeted in English, adding the hashtag #DiploMaturity101. 

Saudi Arabia and its allies have severed or downgraded ties with Iran following the attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran earlier this month.

Zarif and other Iranian officials have strongly condemned the attack while vowing to bring those responsible to justice. One security official was reportedly fired over the incident.

The U.A.E., which is home to many Iranians and Iranian-owned business, downgraded ties with the Islamic republic over the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.


Popular Iranian Poet Detained Upon Return To Iran

Hila Sedighi

Golnaz Esfandiari

Hila Sedighi, a popular Iranian poet who had in the past criticized state repression and campaigned for an opposition presidential candidate, has been detained by authorities, relatives said.
 
Sedighi was arrested January 7 at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini airport as she returned from the United Arab Emirates, family members told RFE/RL. The reason for her arrest and charges were not immediately clear. The relatives asked not to be identified for fear of harassment by Iranian law enforcement.
 
It’s the second time Sedighi, 30, has been arrested. She was detained in May 2011 and held in Tehran’s Evin prison, but later released on bail.
 
In August 2011, reports said an Iranian court sentenced her to a four-month prison term that was suspended for five years.
 
Sedighi was believed to have been targeted in connection with the poems she wrote and recited in public in reaction to the brutal state crackdown that followed the 2009 mass street demonstrations over the reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
 
Sedighi was a member of the campaign team of Mir Hossein Musavi, an opposition lawmaker who lost the election to Ahmadinejad. Мusavi was put under house arrest in February 2011, along with his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, after repeatedly accusing authorities of mass election fraud and human rights abuses.
 
In one of her poems, Sedighi highlighted the plight of students arrested in the 2009 crackdown.
 
“The first day of the school year has arrived/ and I am full of memorable moments of the unforgettable memories/ the classroom is empty of you/ me and the faded flowers sitting at the desk. The weather is fall-like and it’s raining in me/ I am a prisoner of my own rage,” she wrote.
 
A video clip of her reciting the poem in a public gathering was widely shared on social media.

Her arrest comes amid what appears to be a new round of repression in Iran where in recent months a number of poets, filmmakers, activists, and journalists have been arrested or sentenced to prison.
 
Hadi Ghaemi, the head of the New York-based Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said the lack of tolerance of Iranian leaders for the "peaceful voices of the youth" indicated deteriorating tolerance for freedom of expression in the country. 
 
"Arresting writers and young poets for the peaceful expression of their opinions has become a trend in Iran and the frequency [of the arrests] over a short time is unprecedented," Ghaemi said in a statement issued on the campaign's website. 
 
Sedighi was among 41 writers around the world who received prestigious grants from Human Rights Watch in 2012 “for their commitment to freedom of expression and their courage in face of persecution.” The grants are awarded each year to writers who have been targets of political persecution.  


Iranian Soccer Player Jailed Over Photos With Unveiled Women

Sosha Makani is a goalkeeper who currently plays for Persepolis in the Iran Pro League

Golnaz Esfandiari

A professional Iranian soccer player has been jailed after photographs published on social media showed him together with several women not wearing the Islamic hijab, as required by Iranian law.

Sosha Makani, a 29-year-old goalkeeper who has competed with Iran's national team, was arrested on January 4 and jailed following a complaint by private plaintiffs, Iranian media reported.

The Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with Iran's judiciary, quoted a judiciary source as saying that one of the plaintiffs had withdrawn his complaint.

But the source added that Makani will remain in jail pending an investigation for "publishing pictures that lead to the spread of corruption and prostitution in society."

Makani's lawyer, Behnam Alimohammadi, has said that his client's account on the mobile messaging app Telegram was hacked and that two other individuals posted information from his account online.

Alimohammadi said that Makani had provided the authorities with documentation supporting his account and that Iranian cyberpolice are also looking into the case.

"If the result of the investigation is against Sosha, then he will remain under temporary arrest. Otherwise he will be released," the lawyer said.

In the images, Makani is seen sitting or standing next to two or three young women. In one photograph, he is seen holding hands with one of the women, while in another he appears to be dancing.

Makani, who plays professionally for the popular Tehran-based club Persepolis, reportedly said prior to his arrest that one of the women in the pictures is his fiancee.

Iran bans mingling between unrelated members of the opposite sex, and unmarried couple who are caught together in public can face legal action.

Police chief Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari was quoted earlier this week by the semiofficial ISNA news agency as saying that Makani's case was being reviewed by the court of cybercrimes and that the police will act based on a decision made by the judiciary.

Some reports suggested that Makani could be released on bail this week.

Meanwhile, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi on January 6 warned athletes and artists against sharing images deemed anti-Islamic on social media.

"In recent weeks, pictures that are inappropriate and against Islamic principles have been published on social media resulting in judicial cases," Dolatabadi was quoted by Iranian media as saying.

He also said that his office had taken action against those who had published online private images of others.

"In one case, after a case was filed, the accused was arrested," Dolatabadi said without elaborating.

In November, a 30-year-old man identified as Vahid was also jailed after images that showed him with unveiled women wearing revealing clothing were circulated on social media.

Iran's government, which aims to control the public and private lives of its citizens, has stepped up efforts in recent years to monitor Iranians' online activities.


The Mystery Behind The Saudi Embassy Attack In Iran

Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Two things are clear about those who ransacked and set alight the Saudi Embassy in Iran -- their actions got Riyadh's attention, and the clerical establishment in power in Tehran wants nothing to do with them.

Who actually carried out the attack on the embassy in the Iranian capital, as well as a separate attack on the Saudi Consulate in the northeastern city of Mashhad, remains a mystery, however.

Depending on who you speak to, it was official defenders of the Islamic republic; foreign-backed members of the opposition; or hard-line loyalists gone rogue who were responsible for the January 2 attacks. 

The attacks, part of protests that followed Saudi Arabia's execution of prominent Shi'ite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, prompted Riyadh and several of its allies to cut or downgrade ties with Iran.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on January 3 predicted "divine vengeance" for the execution of Nimr, and the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- a military branch tasked with protecting Iran's Islamic system -- promised "harsh revenge."

The Iranian government, officially, was quick to distance itself from the violence that followed. Even as he condemned Nimr's execution, President Hassan Rohani on January 3 denounced the attacks on the Saudi diplomatic offices as "totally unjustifiable." And the authorities announced that 44 protesters had been arrested in connection with the attacks.

Blame Game

A number of Iranian officials went on to insinuate that the attacks could have been carried out by "infiltrators" with alleged ties to foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia.

"According to comments by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei regarding the infiltration of the enemy, the recent move against the Saudi Embassy could have been planned and supported by infiltrated elements," Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said on January 5.

Some Iran watchers, however, believe hard-liners connected to the country's security establishment were more likely to be behind the attacks.

They point to the apparent ease with which the protesters entered the Saudi diplomatic missions despite the presence of police; in some cases documenting their destructive actions for posterity. "They appeared to have been well organized, they were not afraid to be identified, they took pictures with property from the embassy," Istanbul-based Iranian journalist Reza Haghighatnejad noted. 

This suggests that they may have been acting with some degree of support from the centers of power, because in the past Iranian forces have shown no reluctance to respond forcefully to opposition gatherings and protests.

"Protests are not allowed," Haghighatnejad said. "The attack on [the embassy] lasted for an hour and a half before the commander of the police arrived."

At the same time, the authorities have also had difficulty in the past controlling hard-line elements said to be involved in disrupting gatherings by reformists and critics.

Haghighatnejad a, a member of the editorial board of the news site IranWire, said the actions of the protesters were similar to those of members of the Basij force, a volunteer militia that was involved in an attack on the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011 that led Britain to cut ties with Iran.

Esprit De Corps

Aliasghar Ramezanpour, a former deputy culture minister, told RFE/RL he believes the IRGC ultimately bears responsibility because of incendiary comments made ahead of the attacks.

In a statement issued on January 2, the IRGC vowed that Nimr's execution would cost the "hated Saudi regime" dearly, predicting that "a harsh revenge from Al-Saud in a not so distant future that will lead to the collapse of the foundations of the reactionary, medieval, and terrorist-fostering Saudi regime."

In the aftermath of the violence, senior IRGC commander Mohsen Kazemeyni denied any corps involvement, saying that the "calculated and preplanned" actions were "very wrong" and "unjustifiable." Kazemeyni, who heads Tehran's Rasulollah Corps, said that "we're confident that this action was not carried out by the faithful and Hezbollahi forces [eds. regime loyalists]."

Ramezanpour, however, believes Kazemeyni was trying to wash IRGC's hands of its statement and the ensuing street violence. 

"Even if the IRGC wasn't directly involved, its statement and the harsh tone prepared the ground for [the storming] by forces that were powerful enough to go past the police forces," he said.

Anyone And Everyone

Speaking on January 4, senior Qom-based cleric Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi criticized the violence, while leaving ample room as to who may have carried it out. "A group of establishment supporters are angry at Saudi actions and policies, but sometimes they get out of control," Makarem Shirazi was quoted as saying by local media. "It's necessary for them to be cautious."

But he also named a second group that could be responsible: "infiltrators" who aim at increasing tensions between Shi'a and Sunnis.

Hard-line media outlets, meanwhile, took conspiratorial angles.

Dana.ir quoted an unidentified security official as saying that "a preliminary investigation from witnesses and those at the scene confirms that there was a fire in the embassy before the protesters entered it."

The conservative website Tabnak.ir, meanwhile, quoted eyewitnesses as claiming that Saudi infiltrators were encouraging protesters to throw rocks at and firebomb the embassy.

"Security forces say infiltrators have to be watched carefully because they want to change the direction of rightful protests by the people so that the crimes by the Saudis are not at the center of the world's attention," Tabnak.ir reported.

Israel did not escape blame, either.

Asked at a January 5 press conference whether Saudi elements and others allegedly trying to weaken the Iranian government were involved in the attack, government spokesman Mohammad Bagher Nobakht said that "even some affiliated with Israel" could be seen among the attackers.

"A few people -- with whom it's not clear which country's interests they are serving -- took advantage of people's feelings," he said, adding that the attacks were "in favor of Saudi Arabia's policies."

Whoever was behind the suspicious attacks, police chief Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari suggested on January 6, was no revolutionary. "Holding protest meetings against Saudi Arabia is acceptable, but no person who is loyal to the Islamic republic invades an embassy in this way," he said.

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