Friday, May 06, 2016

'Tehran Is Now Free' -- Iranian Election Results Spark Gleeful Social-Media Response

An Iranian supporter of the reformist camp flashes a victory sign during the run-up to national elections elections on February 26. The success of the reformists and relative moderates has given rise to a wave of jokes across Iranian social media.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Many pro-reform Iranians who voted in the February 26 elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, mainly to make sure fewer hard-liners get elected, have been sharing jokes about what appears to be a landslide win for reformists and relative moderates in the Iranian capital.
"Dear citizens! Attention please, attention please: Tehran is now free," said a message widely shared on social media, including on the hugely popular, anonymous messaging app Telegram, which remains unfiltered despite pressure from hard-liners.
The joke started making the rounds on February 27 right after preliminary results showed that allies of President Hassan Rohani had made a clean sweep of all 30 parliament seats in the capital.
Rohani and his ally, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, are also leading the race in Tehran for the powerful Assembly of Experts, which has the power to select the country's next supreme leader.
Hard-line former parliament speaker Haddad Adel ended up being the butt of many jokes when, at one point, it appeared that he would have a battle on his hands to be the only conservative to make it to the new legislature from the Tehran constituency. (He now appears to have been eliminated, according to the latest results.)
One popular Telegram joke described Haddad Adel forlornly resting his head on the legs of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and telling him: 'I won’t go the parliament!!!'"
Khamenei responds by saying: "Don’t be afraid, my little one. You'll find new friends.'"
Another joke, also shared on Telegram, said:
"To keep things calm, [the head of the Guardian Council Ayatollah] Jannati has told reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref [who's leading the parliament race in Tehran]:" Take this kid with you, he will promise to be good. Right, Gholamali [Haddad Adel]?"
Reformists had campaigned to push Jannati and two other ultra-hardline clerics, Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi and Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, out of the new Assembly of Experts, which could end up choosing the successor to 76-year-old Khamenei who underwent prostate surgery in 2014.
According to preliminary results, Yazdi and Mesbah Yazdi appear to have lost their seats and Jannati's fate seems to be hanging by a thread.
"Don’t push me [out]!" pleads Jannati in one Telegram skit, a reference to the fact that he is currently languishing in 15th place near the bottom of the list of assembly candidates from Tehran. 

Another popular joke alludes to the house arrest of Iranian opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife, university professor Zahra Rahnavard, and fellow reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi.
The three oppositionists, who seem to enjoy enduring popularity, were put under house arrest in February 2011 after repeatedly challenging the Iranian establishment over the 2009 disputed presidential vote and criticizing human rights abuses.
The joke has the trio's supporters declaring that "if Jannati doesn't get elected, we will take to the streets to protest and claim we're his fans so that they put him under house arrest." 
Several jokes also highlighted the reformist win in Tehran and perceived concerns among Iran's hard-liners that the contagion could spread to the rest of the country.
One of the most widespread Telegram memes had hard-line Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, declaring that it was"haram" [forbidden] to continue counting votes
Plenty of Twitter users also riffed on the same theme:


​TRANSLATION: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei: "Please end the vote counting. Please don't stretch it any longer." 


People also poked fun at Iran's highest authority Ayatollah Khamenei who had said before the vote that even those who don't approve of him should participate in the February 26 elections.
A viral Telegram message lampooned the supreme leader by having him say: "I told those opposing the system to vote. But not like this!"
Many of the jokes also recognized the role former President Mohammad Khatami played in encouraging people to vote for the list of pro-reform and relatively moderate candidates known as the List Of Hope.
Khatami, who is under a media ban, urged people to vote for reformists in a YouTube video that became an instant hit and helped mobilize support for the reformist camp, something that some witty Twitter users were quick to acknowledge:

Khatami's video also inspired a Telegram gag that referenced the controversial frontrunner for the Republican nomination in the U.S. presidential election.
In the joke, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamamd Javad Zarif calls up his U.S. counterpart John Kerry and says: "Hey, man, if Donald Trump is really becoming a problem for you guys let me know. I'll tell our Mohammad [Khatami] to send a message."​

Iran's Hard-Liners Accuse Britain Of Backing Moderates In Upcoming Vote

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (left) and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani have called the insinuation an insult to voters' intelligence.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian hard-liners are trying to undermine their moderate opponents ahead of the February 26 parliamentary elections by alleging that their list of candidates is supported by Great Britain.

The vote will pit moderates against hard-liners running for the parliament's 290 seats and the 86-member Assembly of Experts that could choose Iran's next supreme leader. Many prominent reformists have been reportedly barred from running by the conservative Guardians Council that screens all candidates for office in the Islamic republic.

"The British government is evil, and when it supports only some of the election lists, we should be worried," said Ayatollah Hassan Mamduhi, a member of the Assembly of Experts.

Speaking to the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Mamduhi added that "those candidates that are being supported by Britain" should declare their innocence.

Many pointed the finger at the BBC, claiming that the British news service had told Iranians which candidates to vote for.

Among these accusers was ultraconservative cleric Ahmad Khatami, also a member of the Assembly of Experts, who claimed that "arrogant powers" are intent on an "infiltration" of Iran's center of power.

"Isn't it interference by the British media to present a list of candidates and tell [people], 'Vote for this, don't vote for that'?" Khatami said over the weekend.

The Persian service of the BBC appears to have angered Iranian hard-liners due to its popularity and attempts to provide Iranians with news and information they don't get from heavily censored Iranian state broadcasts.

The news portal posted pictures of several people in the western province of Ilam holding signs that said "I will not vote for the BBC candidate."

The "British list" allegations prompted a sharp reaction from Iranian President Hassan Rohani, a self-proclaimed moderate, who said the intelligence of Iranian voters should not be insulted. "There is no need to add color to the old face of worn-out colonial [powers] and belittle the people," Rohani was quoted as saying on February 24.

Rohani's ally, former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, also dismissed the allegations of British meddling. "Such interpretations regarding a 'British list' [of candidates] is an insult to the Iranian people's wisdom," Rafsanjani said on February 23.

'House Cleaning'

Both Rohani and Rafsanjani are running for the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with monitoring the performance of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76, and choosing his successor should he die or become incapacitated.

Pro-reform activists have called on voters to back an alliance of reformist and moderate candidates to provide a counterweight to hard-liners in the parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

Among those who have taken to social media to encourage Iranians to vote for moderates is Parvin Fahimi, whose son, Sohrab Arabi, was killed in the 2009 crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

"I will vote for the list of reformists, the list that has been endorsed by [former reformist President Mohammad] Khatami," Fahimi said in a video while holding a picture of her dead son.

The daughters of Iranian opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi and Zahra Rahnavard have also announced that they will participate in the elections despite "pressure and shortcomings."

Musavi and his wife, Rahnavard, as well as reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 for repeatedly challenging the Iranian establishment and condemning human rights abuses.

Karrubi's family has urged voters to participate in the elections to push for a "house cleaning" in the parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

Video Iranian TV Show Angers Afghans

A screen grab from the Iranian TV series Outbrea, which features a storyline about an Afghan man carrying a biologically engineered virus

Golnaz Esfandiari

A new show on Iran's state-controlled television has angered critics who say it promotes hatred against Afghan refugees living in the Islamic republic.

The show, titled Outbreak, features a storyline about an Afghan man carrying a biologically engineered virus who is sent to Iran by the United States. 

The attack will be foiled by Iran's Civil Defense Organization with the help of an astute young doctor who attempts to treat the Afghan man. 

The Civil Defense Organization, which in the past has warned about biological and cyberthreats against Iran, was reportedly involved in the production of the show, which began airing on February 20.

Some Afghans have said that Outbreak is likely to lead to increased discrimination and harassment of Afghan migrants and refugees residing in Iran, where, according to activists, they often face rights abuses. 

WATCH: An Episode Of Outbreak (in Persian, no subtitles)

There are reportedly up to 3 million Afghans living in Iran, both legally and illegally.

"This series will negatively influence public opinion. It will make people look at refugees as spies," one Facebook user wrote. 

"I am an Afghan. The show's director has not found anyone else to pick on? It's really shameful," wrote another.

Others suggested that the show could damage ties between Tehran and Kabul.

"Authorities from both countries should create bridges between the two nations and prevent these unfriendly acts," a social media user wrote. 

A group of Afghans reportedly condemned the show in a letter to the Iranian embassy in Kabul.

"It would be better if instead of creating a rift between Muslims, Iranian media would focus on emphasizing unity," the letter said, according to the BBC.

There was also criticism in Iranian domestic media, including in the hard-line Tasnim news agency, which said the series has created "grave concern" in society.

The semiofficial news agency said the show displayed a "lack of taste."

"For years divisive foreign media have been working to create distance between the people of the two countries, and now that a series is revealing the plots by occupying countries in Afghanistan, carelessness and negligence is turning it into an unpleasant event," Tasnim said.

The show's producer dismissed the criticism in a brief interview with the semiofficial, hard-line Fars news agency.

"The show's audience should not make a hasty judgement," Bijan Shirmarz told Fars on February 23.

He added that by watching the show's 12 episodes, critics will realize that Afghans have not been insulted.

"Why would we insult those we consider our brothers? We have no enmity with them," Shrimarz said.

In 2015, a children's show that aired on Iran's state television triggered protests among members of the country's large Azeri community who said the show was offensive.

The television channel later apologized for the "unintentional offense" caused by the show.

Dog-Beating Video Sparks Protests In Tehran

Pet ownership, particularly of dogs, is reportedly on the rise in Iran despite criticism and disapproval by the country's hard-liners, who have denounced dog ownership as a "blind imitation of decadent Western culture" and called for action against dog owners.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A disturbing video of a hunter in northern Iran brutally beating his dog has triggered a rare public protest in the capital, where dozens gathered to call for an end to animal cruelty.

Pictures and videos of the protest on February 22 posted on social media showed participants calling for the animal rights to be protected, and for legal measures to be taken to ensure the safety of animals.

The protest, held in front of the state environmental-protection organization, was held several days after the emergence online of the graphic video. The clip, which was posted some time ago, according to officials, shows a man repeatedly kicking and throwing a dog during an apparent hunting trip, as onlookers laugh. The dog, seeking to escape the beating, jumps into the bed of a large truck. The man follows the dog, and can be seen swinging a shovel downward above his head at full strength, as the dog cries out in pain.

The incident in the northern province of Golestan also led to a small protest gathering there on February 21.

An Iranian police official said on February 21 that the man involved was arrested within 24 hours after the video was published online, according to the semiofficial news agency ISNA. He said the dog was receiving treatment.
Sharq Daily tweeted images of the arrested man, his face blurred, in handcuffs, and other pictures of people tending to the wounded and apparently malnourished dog.

Hamidreza Khildar, who heads the environmental-protection department of the Iranian police, called for the "severest of punishments" for the man because he had "disturbed public opinion" by posting the video online. It wasn't clear if the man himself posted the video, which was later published by rights groups.

He said the man could be sentenced to a fine and up to three months in prison.

The head of the environmental-protection department of Golestan Province, Esmail Mohajer, said the man had become upset after the dog ate his food, prompting the beating.

"This man is a simple-minded individual with little knowledge, he didn't even know that his action was considered a crime," Mohajer was quoted as saying by ISNA.

In an apparent reaction to the incident and the ensuing outcry, an Iranian environmental official said on February 21 that a bill had been presented to the government to ensure the safety of stray animals.

Mohammad Darvish, head of the public-participation and education department of the state environmental-protection organization, told the government news agency IRNA that the adoption of the bill would ensure better treatment of animals.

In 2015, animals-rights activists protested in several cities after footage emerged showing the killing of stray dogs by lethal injection.

The head of Iran's environmental-protection organization, Massoumeh Ebtekar, promised at the time that the government would introduce laws to protect animals.

Pet ownership, particularly of dogs, is reportedly on the rise in Iran despite criticism and disapproval by the country's hard-liners, who have denounced dog ownership as a "blind imitation of decadent Western culture" and called for action against dog owners.

'I Was Becoming Afraid Of Writing': Iranian Poet Flees Because Of Crippling Censorship

Iranian poet Fatemeh Ekhtesari was sentenced to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes for "insulting sanctities" in her writing.

Golnaz Esfandiari

To get her first book of poetry past the Iranian censor, Fatemeh Ekhtesari did what other Iranian writers often have to do: She used dots for words and sentences she thought would not get past the authorities. But Ekhtesari wasn't prepared for her voice to be silenced, so after the book was published in 2010, she wrote the words back in herself and sent copies to her friends.

Now, six years later, Ekhtesari, a 29-year-old poet who has been targeted by the country's hard-liners for her explorations of gender discrimination and domestic violence, has fled the Islamic republic, after being sentenced last year to 11 1/2 years in prison and 99 lashes. 

"Abandoning one’s country is very difficult. It was a tough decision," Ekhtesari tells RFE/RL over the phone from an undisclosed location. But she says she had to leave because of a lack of hope that an appeal process would lead to her acquittal. The sentence was pending as she was waiting for her case to be heard by an appeals court.

Ekhtesari was arrested in December 2013 by the intelligence branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) and was held in solitary confinement for 38 days in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. While incarcerated, she says she was subjected to psychological pressure and repeated interrogation about some of her poetry and contacts abroad. The charges against her included "insulting sanctities" and "spreading propaganda against the state" through her poetry.

Ekhtesari says one of her interrogators' main objections was that one of her poems was used by exiled Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, who has been accused of apostasy by hard-liners in Iran over a song deemed heretical. 

In the music video for the song (below), a woman covered in the black chador, which Iranian hard-liners praise as the superior form of hijab, is seen running on a beach with uncovered legs. "You're a wolf and we have to run away to a place farther than the house's garden," sings Najafi.

"It’s a love poem, a rebellious one that was published in my book, and [Najafi] turned it into a song," she says. “In the eyes of the IRGC interrogators, anyone who cooperates with an individual accused of 'insulting sanctities' is also 'insulting sanctities.' This was the basis of the charge against me.” 

She says the lashing sentence was due to her shaking hands with members of the opposite sex who were not relatives and appearing without the compulsory hijab while on a trip to Sweden. She says the IRGC found pictures of her trip on her laptop, which was seized after her arrest.

According to Ekhtesari, she escaped from Iran last month with fellow poet Mehdi Musavi, who was sentenced at the same time in October 2015 to nine years in prison and lashes for some of his poems. The two describe themselves as “postmodern Ghasel” poets, a reference to a traditional form of poetry comprising a series of couplets.

Ekhtesari, who studied as a midwife, declined to discuss details of their “difficult escape.” Ekhtesari and Musavi are applying for political asylum at a location that they don’t want to make public because of safety concerns.

Ekhtesari says she felt she didn’t have any choice but to flee the country she loves so she could continue her work without being harassed, jailed, and forced into self-censorship.

"I used to say I have to be in Iran, I need to be in close contact with my audience. I need to see their problems and feel their pain. But I was forced to [flee]. I was forced to leave behind the people that I love, the people for whom I’ve been writing poetry," she says. 

Ekhtesari and fellow poet Mehdi Musavi both escaped from Iran last month.
Ekhtesari and fellow poet Mehdi Musavi both escaped from Iran last month.

Since Iran’s moderate President Hassan Rohani came to power in 2013, there has been a growing standoff between reformists and powerful hard-liners that are in charge of key institutions, including the IRGC and the judiciary. The struggle has intensified ahead of this year's February 26 elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with electing and removing Iran's supreme leader.

Under Rohani, who has promised to give Iranians more rights and freedom, Ekhtesari says there has been slightly more cultural freedom. Two of her books that had been banned for several years were allowed to be published following Rohani's election. 

But hard-liners, who oppose liberalizing society and politics, have in recent months hit back by canceling concerts and handing poets, filmmakers, and others stiff prison sentences.

“Several [parallel] bodies are making decisions for Iran,” says Ekhtesari, who added that one of her books that was published with permission from the Culture Ministry was later removed from Tehran’s Book Fair, reportedly after criticism from hard-liners.

Ekhtesari believes the prison-and-lashing sentences against her and Musavi are part of an attempt by hard-liners to instill fear in Iran’s intellectual community.

"They’re warning poets and writers to watch out. [The authorities] are telling them this could happen to them as well,” Ekhtesari says.

She says such moves result in increased self-censorship among intellectuals. 

“Self-censorship was among the reasons I left Iran," she says. "I was becoming afraid of writing. I feared that anything I write would be used by IRGC interrogators against me.”

Capture Of U.S. Sailors Reenacted At Celebrations Of Iran’s 1979 Revolution

Iranian students reenact the arrest of U.S. sailors by Iran's Revolutionary Gaurds Corps during a ceremony marking the 37th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on February 11.

Golnaz Esfandiari

The capture of 10 U.S. sailors by Iranian forces last month was reenacted at rallies in Iran celebrating the anniversary of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Images published by Iranian news agencies and shared on social media show actors in fatigue pants walking in the streets, some with their hands tied and with chains around their necks.
In images from a rally on February 11 in the city of Qom, a man wearing red lipstick is apparently posing as the female U.S. sailor who was among those detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on January 12 after mistakenly straying into Iranian territorial waters.

A similar scene played out in the Iranian capital, Tehran.

The sailors were released on January 13 following several phone calls between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Their capture was a moment of glory for Iranian hard-liners who consider Washington their enemy despite an accord reached last year by Tehran and global powers including the United States that places restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The hard-liners, who are worried that their power could be diminished as the result of the deal and the opening up of Iran, have repeatedly used images of the U.S. sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads for propaganda purposes.

They have also released footage and images that appear to show one of the sailors apologizing and another crying.
They seem clearly aimed to embarrass the United States and project an image of power to an Iranian audience.

Despite the nuclear accord, which has significantly decreased tensions between Tehran and Washington, at some of the rallies in Iran the U.S. flag was set on fire while some of those participating in the carnival-like gatherings held signs with “Death To America” slogans.

Tehran Just Had A Crazy Car-Wash Attack

The incident occurred over the weekend, when dozens of municipal workers were said to have attacked a car wash in Tehran, beating up the staff and demolishing the property.

A land dispute in the Iranian capital has sparked violent clashes that reportedly left several workers at a local car wash badly injured.

The incident occurred over the weekend, when dozens of municipal workers were said to have attacked a car wash in Tehran's Saadat Abad neighborhood, beating up the staff and demolishing the property.

Iranian media reported that Tehran's city government and the Qods mosque have been battling over ownership of the land where the car wash is located for several years.

Footage released by Iranian news sites shows several men with large sticks attacking a property that appears to be the car wash. A number of men in dark uniforms are also seen in the footage.

The video also shows images of the apparent aftermath of the attack: broken windows, damaged cars and properties, and car-wash workers with bandaged heads and arms. Reports said 10 workers had been hospitalized following the incident.

"I think they were Daesh. Daesh is the worst that we have," said one of the injured workers, using an alternative term for the Islamic State extremist group.

One man said the municipal workers arrived at 1:30 a.m. local time on February 7 to shut down the car wash. "We told them: '[Show] us your order. If you have an order, then we'll [obey],'" he said.

"There were eight of them at first, then there were 200, 300. Maybe 500," he added.

He said they attacked the car-wash workers with bricks and knives, and that their cars bore the logo of Tehran's municipality.

The injured car-wash employee who referred to the municipal workers as Daesh claimed they also used stun guns and tear gas. "My arm has been [hurt].... One of my ribs has been broken, they also injured my head with a cutlass. I don't know who to complain against. Do we even have someone to complain to?"

Speaking on February 10, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said the released footage showed only part of the incident, adding that municipal workers had also been injured.

"They injured the municipal workers with rocks and [sticks]," he said, suggesting that the city employees were enforcing the law.

However, he was also critical of the way the municipal workers handled their duty. "Our agents shouldn't have gotten involved in clashes. They should have chosen an alternative way to do the work and resolve the issue with an appropriate response," Qalibaf was quoted as saying by Iranian news sites.

He said the city will deal with the workers who misbehaved during the car wash incident. But he added that Tehran must fulfill its legal obligations.

Qalibaf praised the members of the board of directors of the Qods mosque as "trustful and respected" individuals, while adding that the land where the car wash is located belongs to the city, which has assigned it to another organization.

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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