Friday, December 19, 2014


Nuclear Program Has 'Hurt Iran More Than Iraq War'

Professor Sadegh Zibakalam (left) speaks as former legislator Ahmad Shirzad looks on at a conference about Iran's nuclear program at Tehran University on December 17.

Iran's nuclear activities and ambitions faced rare, blunt criticism at a roundtable at Tehran University, where one of the speakers said the damage done by the nuclear program was greater than that by the 1980-88 war with Iraq, which left tens of thousands dead and caused much devastation.

"The imposed war [with Iraq] did not damage us as much as the nuclear program has," professor Sadegh Zibakalam said at the December 17 roundtable, according to reports by Iranian semiofficial news agencies.

Zibakalam also criticized the lack of public debate about the nuclear issue.

Other speakers were also critical of the nuclear program and its costs for Iranians, who have come under unprecedented U.S.-led sanctions that have made life more difficult.

Speaking at the event, former reformist lawmaker Ahmad Shirzad said nothing had come out of the nuclear program, "not even a glass of water."

"If you ask me why we're moving on the nuclear path, I must say I have no idea," Shirzad was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency. "This is exactly like the continuation of the war [with Iraq] after the liberation of Khorramshahr," he added.

Shirzad said that he welcomed Iran's official line, according to which the country is against building and acquiring nuclear weapons.

The former lawmaker also seemed to suggest that Iran would be better off without a civil nuclear program. "Iran doesn't have the primary resources and know-how for a nuclear program," he was quoted as saying by ISNA. He said Iran could assert itself in areas such as petrochemistry and natural gas, where the country has the resources and the knowledge.

Former diplomat and professor Davoud Hermidas Bavand said Iran's nuclear program should not be compared to the nationalization of the oil industry in 1951, a comparison made by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

"What happened under the government of [Prime Minister Mohammad] Mosaddegh was a struggle for rights under international laws. But in the nuclear issue, the resistance against bullying has been going in a direction that, in the long run, some other inalienable rights of the people are being [taken away]," Bavand said.

He added that it is the duty of President Hassan Rohani, to the people and history, to resolve the nuclear issue in a peaceful and constructive manner.

Open Debate Welcomed

Criticism of the nuclear issue has been a red line in Iran, where media face tough censorship rules in their news coverage.

Shirzad said the nuclear issue has turned into a matter of "honor." "When something becomes a matter of honor, discussing it is not possible anymore. And that has been our problem for the past 11 years," he said.

Zibakalam said that under Iran's previous administration, criticism of the nuclear issue was impossible. "Unfortunately from 2003 to 2013, debate about the different aspects of the nuclear issue was not possible. I believe that whenever people and the press are prevented from expressing their opinions on different issues, the result is not good," he was quoted as saying.

He added that during those years whenever he would send a slightly critical piece to the press, "the editors would dump it in the closest trash can."

Zibakalam credited hard-liners opposing nuclear talks with the West for the opportunity to criticize the nuclear program.

He noted that those who had gathered under the slogan "We're Worried" had harshly criticized the nuclear deal reached in Geneva last year, saying that Iran had made too many concessions. "For the first time, the general policies of the establishment were challenged," he said.

Reports suggest that in recent months, hard-liners have been told to tone down their criticism of Rohani's government over nuclear negotiations with the West.

Last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called for an end to domestic criticism of the extension of the nuclear talks between Iran and major world powers. 

The talks are aimed at finding a lasting solution to the crisis over Iran's nuclear program in exchange for the removal of the sanctions.

Velayati said on November 30 that since the supreme leader had endorsed an extension of the talks for several months, people should stop their criticism. Khamenei has the last say in all state matters in the Islamic republic, including the nuclear program.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Iranian nuclear program


Iran's President, Revolutionary Guards 'Enjoy Very Good Relations'

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) and Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari (left) attend the annual military parade marking the Iraqi invasion in 1980 in Tehran in September.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), says President Hassan Rohani and the IRGC enjoy "very good relations," based on mutual trust. 

Jafari was reacting to a question regarding recent comments by Rohani, who warned against the monopolization of power and the spread of corruption in Iran, saying that corruption is brought about when guns, money, and media are concentrated in one institution.

The comments were widely interpreted as a veiled reference to the IRGC, which, apart from its military activities, is also engaged in economic, political, and media activities. 

But Jafari told the official IRNA news agency that Rohani had been asked about his December 8 remarks and that the Iranian president had said that he wasn't talking about the IRGC, but rather he was making come general comments.

Jafari said Rohani has full trust in the IRGC. "The enemies of the establishment and revolution, especially the foreign-based counterrevolutionaries, cannot harm this relationship, which was established since the imposed war [with Iraq]," he said. 

Rohani and the IRGC appear to disagree on some issues, including the extent of the IRGC's role in the economy and cultural policies. 

Yet IRGC officials have been generally supportive of Rohani's government's nuclear talks with the West. They have, however, warned that Washington cannot be trusted and that Iran does not need ties with the United States.

Speaking at a December 16 event, Jafari warned against those who are trying to decrease opposition against the United States. 

Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran expert with the Washington Institute, says the pragmatic Rohani knows that he shouldn't pull the IRGC's tail, because that would mean challenging Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom the IRGC answers directly.

Khalaji wrote in January about how Rohani, unlike previous presidents, seems unwilling to directly challenge the influence of the IRGC over "various aspects of Iran's political and economic life."  

"Instead, his approach has been to refashion the IRGC's functions through the supreme leader -- who is commander in chief of the entire armed forces -- rather than taking independent initiative. This means convincing Khamenei to improve the economy by adjusting the IRGC's role in politics and business, limiting its influence over the public sector, and weakening its ability to compete with the private sector," Khalaji wrote.

Rohani "has already curbed the IRGC's role in some economic projects, and so far the military leadership has not viewed his actions as a threat," he adds.

In his analysis, Khalaji quotes from an article on the Alef website affiliated with prominent conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli. The article describes Rohani as someone who understands the power relations in the Islamic republic and who is aware that in order to advance his policies, he needs to be constructively engaged with influential institutions.

--Golnaz Esfandiari


Tensions, Slogans During Speech By Hard-Line 'Kayhan' Editor

Iranian students holding handwritten signs in green – the color of the opposition movement -- chanted in protest during a speech by Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan."

Tensions were reported at a December 15 speech by Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the ultra-hard-line daily "Kayhan" who spoke at an event at Tehran University about the 2009 antigovernment protests.

Iranian news agencies reported that students chanted against and in support of the feared Shariatmadari who claimed that the idea of imposing sanctions against the Islamic republic came from Iranian opposition figures.

"There are documents available that demonstrate the leaders of the sedition were engaged in treason. I sent parts of the documents to a sedition element who said, 'We won’t allow these documents to be published,'" claimed Shariatmadari.

Sedition is a term hard-liners use in Iran to refer to the protests over the 2009 disputed reelection of former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Shariatmadari's comments appeared to be part of attempts by the hard-line "Kayhan" editor and commentator to discredit opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi , his wife Zahra Rahnavard, and reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi who have been under house arrest since February 2011.

The opposition figures appear to still enjoy popular support despite being banned from contact with the outside world. 

"Kayhan" is known for launching smear campaigns against opposition figures and dissidents.

Some students chanted: "Shame on You, Liar. Leave the University" and "Ya Hossein, Mir Hossein" according to reports by Iranian news agencies.

"Haj Hossein, Disclose," Others chanted. 

"There are also documents that prove that sedition leaders proposed sanctions to the United States.," Sharitmadari said.

He added: "I say to the seditionists, if it wasn’t for Hizbullah, you would be polishing [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu’s boots now."

More protest chants followed.

"I feel sorry for you, you have been deceived," said Shariatmadari.

Pictures by Iranian news agencies Fars and ISNA show students holding hand-written signs in green – the color of the opposition movement-- against Shariatmadari including one that read: "The university is not a place for a liar".

Another sign said: "Dictatorship will not last."

Shariatmadari’s supporters were also holding signs including one that said: "The sins of the seditionists are unforgivable".

-- Golnaz Esfandiari  


Iran Documentary Lifts Lid On One Syria-Bound Fighter

Friends and family remember Khalili as a deeply religious, brave, active, social, and fun individual who was deeply devoted to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and who was eager for martyrdom.

Martyrdom was one of the greatest wishes of Iranian Basij member Mohammad Hassan Rasoul Khalili. In the words of his father, "this world was like a cage to him."

Khalili, a devotee of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, finally achieved his death wish last year in Syria, when a bomb he was trying to defuse exploded.

Khalili, 27, was among a number of Iranians who have joined the fight in Syria against rebels and the extremist Islamic State (IS) group.

Figures are not available. Every now and then news of their deaths and large funerals pops up on Iranian news agencies and hard-line blogs that refer to them as the "defenders of the Sayeda Zeynab shrine," while claiming that they had traveled to Syria voluntarily. The shrine, located in the southern suburbs of Damascus, is a holy site for Shi'a around the world.

But a documentary about Khalili recently posted on a hard-line Iranian website offers greater-than-usual detail about one of the Iranians who have joined the fight in Syria.

The documentary, titled "Abou Khalid," one of Khalili's noms de guerre, includes interviews with those who knew him, including his parents and friends. They all speak in glowing terms about the young man, who according to their accounts, was involved in the 2009 state crackdown on opposition activists who took to the streets to protest the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

They remember him as a deeply religious, brave, active, social, and fun individual who was deeply devoted to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and who was eager for martyrdom.

Khalili, they say, was at the forefront of the war on "seditionists," meaning members of the opposition Green Movement. "In 2009, Rasoul was in the middle of the streets; when I say 'in the middle' I mean he was a flag-carrier," says one of his friends.

Khalili's father says his son defended the establishment and failed to come home for a week during those days.

Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.
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Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.
Khalili was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician.

Khalili's friends say he was trained by the Basij force as a bomb-disposal technician. He had joined the paramilitary when he was just 13. It is not clear from the documentary whether the Basij force had facilitated Khalili's presence in Syria.

His mother says that during his first travels to Syria, he was assigned an office job. But she says the war front was where Khalili wanted to be. And according to the documentary, he later made it to the battleground.

Khalili had traveled to Syria when conditions were very bad, says an unidentified man who is obscured in the documentary. "We saw everything as leading to martyrdom [then]," he says.

The man says he befriended Khalili in Syria. He says the war in Syria is very difficult and different from Iran's bloody eight-year war with Iraq.

In pictures posted on the hard-line Mashreghnews site, Khalili is seen holding an IS flag, reportedly in Aleppo. The website says the picture was taken after Khalili and his fellow fighters had managed to free parts of Syria from IS militants. The website doesn't say when the picture was taken.

Khalili had traveled to Syria several times as a volunteer to fight supporters of "American Islam," "Saudi mercenaries," and also to defend the Zeynab shrine, according to hard-line Iranian news sites.

He was reportedly killed on November 18, 2013. A friend of Khalili said the young man had tried to defuse a bomb after forces of the Lebanese Hizballah and Syrians failed to do so.

The documentary says that it took three days to bring his body back to Iran because of the location where he died –- where transfer during the day was not possible -- and also bad weather conditions that prevented a helicopter from taking off. 

According to Khalili's friends interviewed in the documentary, the young man was buried in a cemetery where other Iranian "contemporary martyrs" have been laid to rest, including senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Hassan Shateri, who was killed in Syria in February 2013.

In an interview with a conservative website, Khalili's mother says if her sons and others did not defend holy sites in Syria, those involved in "crimes" there would soon attack Iran.

Reports say Iran provides its main regional ally Syria with financial aid and military advisers. Tehran has denied reports that its IRGC forces are directly involved in the fighting in Syria.

Video footage released in September by Syrian rebels appears to show Persian speakers in military fatigues fighting alongside forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Calls For Release Of Jailed Students, Opposition Figures On Iran's Student Day

Audience members chanting at a Student Day event at Tehran University on December 7.

Some students in Iran used Student Day, celebrated on December 7 with speeches and other events at universities, to call for the release of opposition figures and jailed students.

Iranian semiofficial news agencies Mehr and Fars reported that a speech by President Hassan Rohani at Tehran's University of Medical Sciences was disrupted by students chanting in support of opposition figures.

Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and wife Zahra Rahnavard, as well as reformist cleric Mehdi Karrubi, have been under house arrest since February 2011 despite a campaign promise by Rohani to release them.

A group of students chanted during Rohani's speech, "It's been 1,000 days that Musavi has not returned," and, "Our message is clear, house arrest must end," according to news reports and a YouTube video of the protest shared on social media.

The chants were reportedly muted on Iran's state-controlled television. 

Rohani was said to have responded to the chants by saying that he has not forgotten his promises.

"Our path is the same as we promised you from day one. I will not break my promises to you," Rohani was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

At the same event, some students reportedly chanted against Musavi, a former prime minister and defeated presidential candidate, who before being put under house arrest repeatedly challenged the Islamic leadership over alleged election fraud and human rights abuses. 

In one of the YouTube videos making the rounds, a "Death to Musavi!" chant is heard.

At an event at Chamran Hall in Tehran, organized by the Islamic student association of Tehran University, students held hand-written signs calling for the release of jailed students and opposition figures.

"Political prisoners must be released," "Our friends are missed," "House arrest must end," and "Universities are alive" were among the slogans displayed, according to photos by Iran's ILNA news agency.

Speeches by hard-line figures critical of Rohani's government, including "Kayhan" editor Hossein Shariatmadari and lawmaker Hamid Rasayi, were canceled on Student Day, according to reports by hard-line news agencies. An official at Amir Kabir University, where Shariatmadari was reportedly due to speak, said the university had no problem with the presence of the "Kayhan" editor. He said there had been a lack of coordination.

The head of the student Basij, Mohammad Heydari, suggested that this year's Student Day should be named "Government Day."

Iran's universities came under intense pressure under the previous administration in an effort to silence dissent.
A number of prominent student activists, including Bahareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli, ended up in jail following the 2009 crackdown after mass street protests over the 2009 reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Many students were also banned from studies.

A number of them have reportedly been allowed to resume their studies under Rohani, whose former science minister, Reza Farajidana, was successfully impeached for trying to ease restrictions on universities.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has warned that universities should not become centers of political activities.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


IRGC Adviser Says Quds Force Commander Soleimani Is 'No Rambo Or Rocky'

Qassem Soleimani (left), commander of the IRGC's Quds Force

Qassem Soleimani is no "Rambo" or "Rocky" from Hollywood movies, says a senior media adviser to the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Hamidreza Moghadamfar made the comments in response to a question by the semiofficial Mehr news agency about the numerous photographs of the commander of the IRGC's Quds Force that have been circulating recently on social media and news sites. Several of Soleimani's pictures were posted in early November on the Facebook page of former Iranian diplomat Sadegh Kharrazi, including one that appears to be a selfie.

The images have attracted much attention and sarcasm because Soleimani, who is said to be in charge of the overseas operations of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, had been described until recently as a shadowy and mysterious figure.

But the "shadowy" figure has become one of the IRGC's most photographed commanders, with images of him with Iraqi officials and others in the battlefield against the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Iraq popping up frequently on social media.

Some analysts and observers have suggested that the publication of Soleimani photos appears to be a PR attempt by Iran to boast its military presence in Iraq.

"The idea is to get across that Iran is very much present in Iraq and it is there to defend its interests," Dina Esfandiary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies told "The Guardian" in October.

In November a former senior Iranian official was quoted by the "Financial Times" as saying that the photographs were a move to distract from the failure of Iranian intelligence to oversee regional developments after IS managed to take control of swaths of neighboring Iraq.

"Publishing pictures comes more out of weakness than strength and is an effort to show that Iran is in control; it is a reaction to a big failure," the former senior official said.

On December 5, IRGC adviser Moghadamfar offered two reasons for the many images of Soleimani's that have been making the rounds. He claimed that while Soleimani himself does not liked to be photographed, his popularity and the desire of the people in the region to know him have prompted media to publish his photo.

He added that "Zionist media" are also to blame because they want to give the "false" impression that Iran has a military presence in the countries in the region.

Moghadamfar said Soleimani was present in Iraq as an adviser to Iraqi forces in the fight against "terrorists groups" including the IS at the request of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government.

He said Western media were trying to reduce Soleimani, a "heavenly man" and a guardian of the Islamic Revolution, to a "superstar" like those in Western action movies.

"Western media are trying to turn Soleimani into a Rambo or Rocky of American movies," he said, adding that Soleimani and those like him are not "revengeful and spiteful."

Previously some Iranian hard-line websites had quoted Iraqi sources as saying that Soleimani had been playing a key role in defeating IS militants in Amerli and other towns.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Rise In Cohabitation Has Iran Officials Railing Against 'White Marriage'

Two young people chat outside the Imamzade Ismayil Mausoleum in Qazvin, Iran. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Raana and Hamed have been living together for four years.

They eat together. They both contribute to the household and share a savings account. They fight "like husbands and wives in a registered marriage." They even wear wedding rings and introduce themselves as a married couple.

But they're not. Because, as they also told Iranian daily "Ebtekar" in May, they don't believe in marriage.

Their arrangement is being described in Iran as a "white marriage," a relatively new phenomenon that is worrying Iranian authorities. 

Officials there see couples like Raana and Hamed as an affront to the Islamic values that are preached and enforced by the state through pressure and harassment.

On November 30, Mohammad Mohammad Golpayegani, the chief of staff for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticized cohabitating couples as "shameful" and warned that an entire generation would be doomed.

Golpayegani said "their halal generation will be extinguished and they will become bastards."

He declared that "the Islamic ruler should strongly fight this kind of life."

One day later, a deputy at Iran's Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports blamed the media for fueling interest in so-called white marriages.

Mahmud Golzar allowed that some young Iranians might be cohabitating -- following the example of Western countries -- but he added to the semiofficial Fars news agency that such reports had not been confirmed.

If confirmed, he warned, the Islamic republic would confront those "ominous marriages," which have "very negatives effects" in Western countries, including the United States.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of couples cohabitating in Iran, where sexual relations outside of marriage are punishable by law. But public acknowledgement and warnings by officials, as well as media reports and anecdotal evidence, suggest that a number of Iranians in major cities have chosen cohabitation over wedlock.

Thirty-three-year-old Ali, who asked that RFE/RL not use his real name, is an engineer by profession who lived with his former girlfriend for several months before they broke up last year.

"We didn't want to get married but we wanted to be together, so she moved in," he said.

He added that they cohabitated despite their parents' disapproval.

Ali told RFE/RL that some of his friends and acquaintances had also chosen the unmarried route over wedlock.

"We basically want to live our lives the way we want," Ali said. "Now you can call it a white marriage or whatever you want."

He said he was aware of the risk he was taking, adding that "everything is risky and illegal in Iran, even partying."

Kids Will Be Kids

A Tehran-based observer said the possible rise in unmarried couples should be seen in the context of a new generation of Iranians who are turning their backs on tradition and state-promoted values. 

"Attitudes are changing, a number of young people don't care about what other people might think or how the state might react, they are becoming increasingly independent," he told RFE/RL.

A desire to be free from the responsibilities and financial burden that come with wedding and married life appears to contribute to the perceived trend.

Mostafa Eghlima, the head of Iran's Society of Social Workers, believes that the so-called white marriages are similar to what "engagements" used to be like in Iranian society. 

Eghlima told "Ebtekar" that one of the main reasons that families accept white marriages is because they want to be freed from the burden of responsibility.

"Girls and boys [in white marriages] can easily end their relationship without any problem and without any expectation," he said.

'Cultural Invasion'

Javid Samoudi, a psychologist based in the holy city of Qom, home to many of Iran's senior clerics, blamed such cohabitation on "cultural invasion," fading religious beliefs, weakening family ties, rising economic costs, and a desire for diversity and noncommitment among young people.

In an interview with the semiofficial ISNA news agency, he likened white marriages to "a microbe that pollutes men's views and damages the character and personality of women."

Sociologist Majid Abhari was quoted by Iranian media as saying that the "growing influence" of the Internet and satellite channels was behind white marriages.

The spread of cohabitation comes amid another headache for Iranian authorities: a reported decline in marriages and a soaring divorce rate.

Media reports suggest that in major cities such as Tehran, more than 20 percent of marriages end in divorce.

Authorities have said that marriage should be encouraged and facilitated for young people in order to preserve morals and fight the declining birthrate. 

On December 1, presidential adviser Hessamedin Ashna noted that many people are concerned about white marriages. He suggested that if getting married was easy and affordable, Iranians would not choose cohabitation. 

Ali, for his part, says he is not planning to get married anytime soon. With a laugh, he says the idea of another white marriage is more appealing to him.

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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Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at esfandiarig@rferl.org