Saturday, April 19, 2014


Iran Media Censors Polish FM On Iranian Media Censorship

The Polish foreign minister was in Iran to explore business opportunities in the country.

Golnaz Esfandiari
WASHINGTON -- Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski expressed shock after seeing Iranian media censorship at work during his recent trip to Tehran, and bewilderment after discovering his critical message was not aired on Iranian television.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on March 1, Sikorski publicly put his counterpart on the spot.

"I would also like to add that I mentioned to the minister that yesterday from Isfahan I tried to log onto a website of a major Polish newspaper and, unfortunately, I could not do it. I was told that the website was blocked by censorship. For us, coming from a country that fought for freedom of speech, this came as a shock," Sikorski said.
The Polish foreign minister went on to say that he also stressed to Zarif the need for human-rights dialogue, and underscored that the world has taken note of the recent rise in executions in the Islamic republic. 
A video later released by the Polish Foreign Ministry puts Sikorski's comments on the record for all to see, but Iran's tightly controlled media left his criticisms on the cutting floor.

Iran's English-language Press TV coverage of the press conference focused on the two ministers' efforts to expand bilateral relations, highlighting Zarif's work to set the stage for Polish companies to operate in Iran.

Press TV noted that Sikorski had said that Iran was "an important country for Poland," according to the commentator, and "voiced his country's interest in improving cooperation with Tehran, especially in the fields of medicine and the food industry."
The Iranian Students News Agency led with Sikorski "pledging to persuade the international community about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear work," according to its interpretation of the foreign minister's wording, and "expressing hope that hostilities on the country's nuclear issue would be ended."
Isfahan provincial television went with the expansion of ties in the spheres of culture, economy, and tourism, while showing Sikorski visiting historical sites in the central province.
On March 6, the Polish foreign minister took to Twitter to fill in the gaps left by Iranian media. 
There was at least one exception that Sikorski may not be aware of. In an article published on the Iranian Students News Agency's website on March 1, the wire service led with Sikorski "pledging to persuade the international community about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear work," according to its interpretation of the foreign minister's wording, and "expressing hope that hostilities on the country's nuclear issue would be ended."

But ISNA did note the Polish foreign minister's comments regarding media censorship and human rights, albeit in the last paragraph and lacking his expressed concern over the "rise" in executions.

Sikorski -- the first Polish Foreign Minister to visit Iran in 10 years -- arrived in Tehran on February 28 for a three-day visit. Because of the escalating crisis in Ukraine, he cut short his visit and returned to Warsaw on March 1. 
With a delegation of 20 Polish business leaders, Sikorski's entourage was exploring business opportunities that could become available if Iran reaches a permanent agreement with world powers on its nuclear program. 

Disturbing Video Of Public Iranian Execution Sparks Debate

An Iranian soldier prepares a noose ahead of a public hanging. Will watching a video of such a hanging spur opposition to the practice, or just desensitize the viewer?

Golnaz Esfandiari
To share or not to share. That's the question being asked following the emergence of a video of a public hanging in Iran.

Those who have shared the disturbing video on social media argue that it sheds light on the cruel methods the Islamic establishment employs to mete out justice. Opponents, however, believe that sharing the video helps promote a culture of violence in Iran fueled by acts such as public executions.

The video, which was reportedly shot in late February in the city of Karaj, shows dozens of Iranians assembled to watch the hanging. Reports say the man who was hanged had been sentenced to death over the gang rape of a pregnant woman who lost her unborn child as a result.

With the help of the digital age, however, what started as a small audience of eyewitness has expanded to tens of thousands of viewers.

'My Child, My Child'

The video shows a man standing on a platform with his hands tied behind his back. He is surrounded by his hangmen. It's dark. A light is shining above the makeshift gallows. It almost looks like the stage of a dance show or a theater.

The man calls out for his mother. "Bring my mother, I want to see her," he shouts. "Will you let me see my mother?"

The executioners ignore his demand. A woman cries out: "My child, my child."

The man struggles with his executioners, kicking the bench where he is supposed to stand. He kicks a guard who attempts to help bring him under control. "Don't beat him, kill him," says one of the spectators.

Several other guards rush to the stage. More struggle ensues. The man is finally forced to stand on the bench, as a noose is placed around his neck. He is quickly hanged to chants of "Allah-hu Akbar" (God is great) by the crowd. His body is left suspended in the air.

'Can It Keep People From Going?'

The chilling video appeared on YouTube and social-networking sites last week. A man identified as Mohammad Reza Abbasian told the Balatarin website that a friend in Iran had sent him the footage. He said his friend received it on his phone via Bluetooth.

Abbasian says he decided to post the video on his Facebook page to deter Iranians from attending public hangings, which the authorities say help deter crime. "I wanted to show people that an individual who has been sentenced to death is being beaten up [before being hanged]. Look at the conditions in which he left this world," he says. "The painful nature of it pushed me to post it for people to see. I was [hoping] it would reach human rights activists and the video would become a symbol and that it would prevent people from going to watch executions."

Some have spoken out against the practice of sharing such videos. "What is the difference between those who attend public executions and those who share the video of these executions online?" a young man in Tehran asked on Facebook.

Roya Kashefi, the head of the human rights committee of the Paris-based Association of Iranian Researchers, agrees. She says those who watch such videos unwittingly do the state's bidding by helping it sow fear among the Iranian people. "I think when we are invited to watch videos like this, it's as if we have been invited to attend the actual execution itself," she adds. "That is something that I would not choose to do."

Desensitizing, Or Raising Awareness?

Kashefi doubts that the dissemination of such footage can help the cause of those fighting against the death penalty and public hangings in Iran. She says it has a desensitizing effect. "The fact that people think it's their right to sit and watch it because they're watching it behind their computer monitor is giving them immunity," she says. "It's as if they're safe, they're one step removed, which is very dangerous, especially if we're going to talk about the future and the consequences of watching a violent scene. Taking someone's life in any shape or form is a violent act."

Prominent U.S.-based Iranian sociologist Hossein Ghazian was among those who shared the video on Facebook, warning about its graphic content. Responding to criticism, he wrote on his page that he wasn't convinced that watching an execution leads to the promotion of violence and capital punishment. "I don't think anyone would accept the death penalty by watching this video. On the contrary, I think, most likely it would make one hate executions."

Ghazian added that his intention in sharing the video was to raise awareness about the rights of the accused, who some may write off as deserving whatever they get.

Last month, the United Nations human rights office warned about a spike in executions in Iran. The UN said 500 people were known to have been executed in Iran in 2013, including 57 in public.

Reading Ukraine In Iran

Iranians hard-liners see the crisis in Ukraine as representative of the dangers of democracy.

Golnaz Esfandiari
WASHINGTON -- "Kyiv's historic day" or "Dem-wreck-cracy!"

The way Iranian media have portrayed Ukraine's turmoil depends on which side of Iran's political divide they stand.

Hard-line media have given readers the impression that the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych following months of antigovernment protests is a cause for mourning. Those skimming through the reformist press were likely to become excited about the developments in the eastern European country.

The differences highlighted the stances and world views of the two sides: on the one hand hard-liners' wariness of the West and popular protests, and on the other, a hunger for change among reformists who have been increasingly pushing for the release of Iranian opposition leaders.

In one example, the reformist daily "Etemad" carried the following headline about the February 22 freeing of Yulia Tymoshenko, a jailed leader of Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution: "The release of the Orange Lady on Kyiv's historic day." And next to the story, the daily published comments by Iran's parliament speaker regarding Iranian opposition figures who are under house arrest.]

"Regarding the house arrest of [Mir Hossein Musavi] and [Mehdi Karrubi], I have to say that there is no reason for individuals to be under arrest. These things should be fixed," Ali Larijani was quoted as saying in an interview with the French "Le Figaro."

The front page of another reformist daily "Shargh" also appeared to welcome Tymoshenko's release, with a front page that proclaimed: "The Orange Day."

That coverage was in contrast with the hard-line and conservative press, which have been quick to dismiss the events in Ukraine as a Western-backed coup that will bring the country only darker days ahead.

  • Men help pull one another out of a crushing stampede as a Crimean flag is waved near the regional parliament building in Simferopol on February 26.
  • Pro-Ukrainian and Pro-Russian supporters during the protest near the parliament building in Simferopol.
  • Police could not keep the opposing crowds apart.
  • Riot police stand guard inside the parliament building in Simferopol.
  • Crimean Tatars rally near the regional parliament building.
  • Pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian crowds jammed the plaza in front the Crimean parliament.
  • Pro-Ukrainian activists shout during a rally in front of the Crimean parliament.
  • Pro-Ukrainian activists fight with pro-Russian activists.
  • A man receives assistance after being injured in a stampede during the clashes.
  • Ukrainian police try to separate the opposing sides on February 26.
  • The scene is quieter on February 27 after the Crimean parliament was seized by what appeared to be a pro-Russian armed group.
PHOTOS: Clashes in Crimea

The newspaper "Vatan-e Emrouz" chose an apocalyptic scene for its front-page story devoted to events in Ukraine. A man holding Ukraine's flag walks along a street strewn with rubble against a smoke-filled backdrop. "Dem-wreck-cracy!" read the headline of the hard-line daily, which said Kyiv had fallen as the result of a pro-Western street coup.

"With the coming to power of the Orange [forces] and the influence of the United States and the West in the country, Ukraine's dark days have just begun," wrote the ultra-hardline daily "Kayhan."

The daily claimed that CIA and other Western intelligence services had helped repeat "the Orange Revolution" and brought down Yanukovych.

The conservative "Resalat" said the situation in Ukraine was the result of "Western meddling" in the country's affairs and that the real crisis had just begun.


The hard-line media have been using some of the same language in their coverage of the 2009 antigovernment protests that shook the Islamic establishment. The protests and the opposition movement have been described as "sedition," while protesters have been accused of trying to launch a color revolution with the backing of Western countries.

State controlled television, which is controlled by the hardliners, has referred to the pro-Russian Yanukovych as Ukraine's " lawful president" while presenting Tymoshenko as someone jailed for abuse of power and economic corruption.

Warnings about Western influence in Ukraine were echoed by the chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi, who said the events in Ukraine should be a warning to independent countries that they should not be duped by the United States.

"The lesson America and Westerners who believe in liberal democracy gave to the people of Ukraine is a historic lesson for all independent nations to be wary of the smiles and satanic ideas of capitalism," Firouzabadi was quoted as saying in the Iranian media.

What Are Yanukovych's Options?

The reports also said that Firouzabadi had expressed "regret" over the events in Ukraine.

U.S. based Iranian political analyst Mohsen Sazgara says Iranian leaders are wary of popular uprisings against dictators, unless they can put their own spin on it. They did so in the case of uprisings in Arab countries, which Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described as an "Islamic awakening" that had been inspired by Iran's 1979 revolution.

"A people's revolution, armed forces joining the citizens, the release of opposition figures, and the fall of the government is a mirror in which the Islamic Republic sees its own destiny," Sazgara told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

On February 24, Iran's Justice Minister Mostafa Pourmohammadi went to great length to explain that Ukraine was not Iran and the Iranian media should not get excited about events in Ukraine.

"Our country and our establishment are not comparable to these places," Pourmohammadi said, while adding that the Iranian regime was "stable" and "powerful."

Pourmohammadi added that the Iranian press should show not go overboard in its coverage of the events in Ukraine and feel "victorious."

"Something has happened in Ukraine, some newspapers put a headline as if it had happened in Iran," he said.

Radio Farda broadcaster Mohammad Reza Yazdanpanah contributed to this report 

Iranian Police Dismiss Reports Of Cyberthreats Against Nuclear Negotiators

It's unclear whether the nuclear negotiators, led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right), actually received the alleged threats.

Iranians who believe Tehran's nuclear negotiators are capitulating in their talks with world powers are taking a new, lyrical, approach of attack.

In recent days, a number of threats, in the form of poetry, have been published on Iranian news sites, while nuclear negotiators have reportedly been sent e-mails warning of "revenge."

The resulting attention led Iran's deputy police commander, Mohammad Reza Radan, to deny on January 29 that there have been any credible threats against the negotiating team. But reports have claimed that the poetic warnings were sent "extensively" via e-mail. It wasn't clear from the reports whether they were sent directly to the nuclear negotiators, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who leads the team.

"If there have been slogans against the nuclear team," Radan was quoted by Iranian news agencies as saying, "it is the result of agitation by some individuals." However, he added that the police would deal with any potential cyberthreats against the negotiators.

Under the deal that came into force on January 20, Iran has committed itself to curb its sensitive nuclear work in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

While many inside Iran, including some citizens, have welcomed the deal, a number of hard-liners have criticized it, saying that the negotiators made too many concessions and that the country's nuclear rights have been trampled on.

One hard-line newspaper went as far as calling the deal a "nuclear Holocaust."

The poetic threats also reflect the hard-liners' discontent over the deal.

"We swear to God, we will seek revenge," reads one of the verses.

It continues:
"We will take revenge through prayers,
We are going to let go of your blood
We will take revenge [for] the martyrs
Go to the negotiating table
We will take our revenge from you."

Iranian lawmaker Mohammad Reza Mohseni Sani suggested in an interview with the parliament's news agency, ICANA, that Iran's cyberpolice should take action against those behind the threats.

Mohseni Sani said some of the threats come from those opposed to the Islamic republic, adding that some inside the country were also creating problems for the negotiations.

"Unfortunately these groups connected to Western intelligence services and political interests are after causing chaos and disturbances in the country. Although there are also some inside the country who don't believe in the work of the nuclear negotiating team toward resolving [nuclear] issues," he said.

The lawmaker added that Iran's "enemies" have misused the situation.

The popular conservative website Tabnak was also critical of the threatening poetry. It asked, "In reality, which of these poems help advance the national interests of the Iranians? Can a threat be called criticism?"

For now ultra-hard-liners critical of the deal and nuclear negotiators appear to be in the minority. Even their use of poetry, which is highly popular among Iranians, is not likely to change the minds of those of their compatriots who want an end to sanctions and better ties with the West.

Iran's highest authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has also expressed support for the nuclear negotiating team and called the nuclear negotiators "sons of the revolution."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Iranian nuclear program

Iran's Basij Force Issues Report On Alleged Rights Abuses In U.S.

Young members of the Basij militia display their truncheons as they sit streetside and eat ice cream in an undated photo from Iran.

Iran's paramilitary Basij force has published a report about the human rights situation in the United States.

The report has been issued in Persian, English, and Arabic.

The Basij force, which has been accused of brutality and involvement in state repression against opposition activists in Iran, says the United States is "one of the main violators of human rights."

"As soon as we all hear the phrase 'human rights,' the painful memories of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Bagram prisons remind us of the human rights violations committed by the U.S. government," the report says.

The paper goes on to say: "However, these violations are not limited to the violent incidents after 9/11. The United States, which has presented itself as the sole protector of humanity and for that claim threatens and even attacks other countries, is violating human rights inside its own borders in terms of torture of prisoners, police brutality, and racial discrimination."

The report has several sections that include the situation of detainees, the violation of online privacy, and death sentences.

The face of a masked Basij member during a paramilitary forces parade (file photo)The face of a masked Basij member during a paramilitary forces parade (file photo)
The face of a masked Basij member during a paramilitary forces parade (file photo)
The face of a masked Basij member during a paramilitary forces parade (file photo)
The hard-line Fars news agency, which is said to have ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), says Basij commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi; the head of the judiciary's human rights commission, Mohammad Javad Larijani; and senior lawmaker Alaedin Borujerdi were among officials present at the unveiling of the of the report, which took place at Tehran University.

The report appears to be a tit-for-tat move for criticism of the human rights situation in Iran by the United States. It comes amid criticism by hard-liners in the Islamic republic of a nuclear deal reached between Iran and the P5+1 group of world powers, which includes the United States. Hard-liners have in recent months gone to great lengths to demonstrate that despite talks over the nuclear issue, the United States remains Iran's enemy.

Iranian officials often reject criticism of the human rights abuses in the country by rights groups and other countries as interference in Iran's internal affairs.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's Writers Association Criticizes State Pressure

President Rohani has said he will ease restrictions on artists.

Iran's Writers Association says security officials have prevented the group from holding its monthly advisory meeting.

In a recently issued statement, the group says the meeting was due to be held on January 14 at the home of one of the members. But according to the statement, a few days before the scheduled meeting, the individual was summoned by the Intelligence Ministry and "forced"  to cancel the gathering.

The statement comes two weeks after Iran's President Hassan Rohani pledged to ease restrictions on artists.

Rohani said art shouldn't be viewed as a security threat.

"Art without freedom is nonsense and creativity is developed in the light of freedom," he was quoted as saying in the January 8 meeting with a group of artists, writers, and poets. At least one prominent member of the Writers Association, leading author Mahmud Dolatabadi, was reportedly present at the meeting.

"Can one speak of freedom of art while the activities of the Writers Association -- which has fought for freedom of expression for half a century and believes freedom is necessary for literature and creative art -- be banned?" asks Iran's Writers Association in its statement.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, the group's secretary, Nasser Zarafshan, blamed Rohani for the pressure against the Writers Association.

"The Intelligence Ministry is part of the [government]. Ministers work directly under the supervision of the president.  It would be [a mess] if Rohani wouldn't have control and supervision over his own ministries," Zarafshan said in a telephone interview from Tehran.

In recent years, a number of the members of Iran's Writers Association have been summoned by the authorities, threatened, put on trial and sent to jail. The group says Iranian authorities have not only tried to shut down the association and neutralize it, but they have also attempted to create similar groups.

In 1998, two members of the Writers Association became victims of the so-called chain murders of intellectuals and dissidents by "rogue agents " of Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

U.S. State Department's Spokesman Makes Gesture Toward Iranian Opposition

Iranian opposition figure Mehdi Karrubi (file photo)

The U.S. State Department's Persian-language spokesman Alan Eyre has sent condolences via Facebook over the death of one of the sisters of opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi.

In a message in Persian posted with a picture of Karrubi, Eyre writes that it was with "with deepest regret" that he found out about the death of Fatemeh Karrubi, the sister of the former Iranian parliament speaker.

The Facebook message is a small gesture by the State Department toward Iran's opposition movement, which has been under intense pressure from the country's leaders.

Iranian authorities have been holding Karrubi under house arrest with reportedly almost no contact with the outside world in an apparent effort to silence him and make the public and his supporters forget him.

In a letter issued last week, Karrubi's wife wrote that the 74-year-old cleric had recently undergone back surgery. She said Karrubi had been hospitalized in Tehran's Arad hospital for nine days. 

Karrubi's family has expressed concern over his health, which they say has deteriorated under house arrest. Karrubi is reportedly being held at an intelligence ministry safe house.

Opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi along with his wife university professor Zahra Rahnavard are also being held under house arrest.

The three opposition figures were put under house arrest in February 2011 after calling for a demonstration in solidarity with uprisings in Arab countries. Tens of thousands of opposition supporters responded.
Alan EyreAlan Eyre
Alan Eyre
Alan Eyre

Since the election of Iran's President Hassan Rohani, calls for their release have increased.

In his election campaign, Rohani had promised to release political prisoners.

The social-media-savvy Eyre had previously used Facebook to send his condolences over the death of the mother of Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

At the time, some users criticized Eyre for reaching out to an Iranian official.

--Golnaz Esfandiari

About This Blog

Persian Letters is a blog that offers a window into Iranian politics and society. Written primarily by Golnaz Esfandiari, Persian Letters brings you under-reported stories, insight and analysis, as well as guest Iranian bloggers -- from clerics, anarchists, feminists, Basij members, to bus drivers.

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