Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Photogallery Wave Of Forgiveness Washes Over Iran

  • The convicted killer, identified only as Balal, is led to the gallows. He was sentenced to death for fatally stabbing another young man, Abdollah, in a fight seven years ago, when both were 17.
  • The day before the planned execution, Balal's mother said she had lost hope that he would be pardoned.
  • People gather to watch the planned execution in the town of Noor in Mazandaran Province.
  • The family of the murder victim was expected to participate in the hanging by pushing a chair out from under the prisoner. The custom is endorsed by a part of Sharia law known as "qisas," or retribution.
  • Balal's relatives cry as the time of the execution approaches.
  • The victim's parents stand by as the noose is put around Balal's neck.
  • At the decisive moment, the victim's mother approached Balal, slapped him in the face, and said that she forgave him.
  • The decision meant that the prisoner's life was spared. The victim's parents removed the noose from his neck.
  • A member of the security forces thanks the victim's father, Abdolghani Hosseinzadeh, for the family's decision to forgive the killer.
  • The mother of Balal, left, and the mother of Abdollah, the victim, cry together.
  • Relatives of Balal thank Abdollah's father for their family's decision to pardon him.
  • Relatives of Balal embrace. The pardon does not mean that he will be freed; the victim's family only have the right to call off the execution.
  • The parents and sister of the victim, Abdollah Hosseinzadeh, at their home. The family had lost another member, their 11-year-old son, in a motorbike accident.
  • Abdollah's parents visit his grave.
Golnaz Esfandiari

April 16 was supposed to be the last day of Balal's life. Seven years after stabbing another teen dead in a street fight, Balal was to be publicly executed in front of his victim's family, in a small town in Iran's northern province of Mazandaran.

Instead, Balal was given a new lease on life when, in the very last minute, he was spared by his victim's mother. The dramatic scenes of Balal, his neck in a noose, being pardoned have received extensive coverage in the media and on social-networking sites.

Since then the scene has been reenacted dozens of times in a wave of forgiveness that belies the authorities' efforts to push the death penalty.

Last week alone, according to the reformist "Shargh" daily, nine individuals sentenced to death were pardoned by victims' families.

Observers say a concerted publicity campaign is at play, but money is also a factor.

Artists, television celebrities, and rights activists have been publicly calling on citizens to spare the lives of those sentenced to death and the media have been sympathetic in their coverage.

In Balal's case, for example, popular TV presenter Adel Ferdowsipour spoke to an audience of millions  in favor of him being pardoned.

But Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, a well-known Iranian lawyer who has represented several convicted killers, says that what media call a wave of mercy is in fact a "business."

Under Islamic laws applied in Iran, the families of convicted murderers are able to buy their kin's freedom from victims' families. The official rate for blood money is 150 million toumans -- or about $50,000 -- but often the sum requested is higher.

In Balal's case, his victim's family reportedly received blood money of about 300 million toumans.

"Based on the information I have about some of the cases, I have to say that a large part of the reconciliations in Qisas" -- a reference to the Islamic law of retribution -- "cases are happening in exchange of enormous sums of money from the families of those convicted," Khoramshahi said earlier this month in an interview with fararu.com.

The Tehran-based lawyer added that media should encourage people not to request huge sums of money for showing mercy.

Iranian Prosecutor General Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ejei said in April that during the past Iranian year -- from March 2013 to March 2014 -- the lives of 358 condemned Iranians were spared under the Islamic law of retribution.

Mahmood Amiry Moghaddam, spokesman of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organization, says it is not clear how many pardons were prompted by the lure of financial compensation.

But Moghaddam thinks that some Iranians are finding "value" in showing mercy.

"I think as much as the establishment is trying to promote executions," he says, "a culture that goes against it -- a culture of mercy -- is being promoted." 

Moghaddam says Iran's civil society and anti-death-penalty groups should be given credit for the trend.

One of the groups active against executions is the "Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty In Iran" campaign, founded by a number of prominent intellectuals and rights activists including former Tehran University chancellor Mohammad Maleki.

Maleki tells RFE/RL there's a growing distaste for the death penalty in Iran and a tendency toward mercy.

He agrees that many families spare the lives of their relatives' killers for money. At the same time, he says he's come across a number of cases where the families pardoned convicted killers out of compassion.

"It will take time before it becomes ingrained in the society," he says in a telephone interview from Tehran. "People have to realize slowly that money cannot replace forgiveness and sacrifice."

Maleki notes that the trend comes as the Iranian establishment continues to hold public hangings.

"The establishment only knows violence and blood," he says.

One journalist in the Iranian capital says the establishment is already benefiting from the wave of forgiveness because "it shows a more human face of Iran."

But others fear that violence is so deeply rooted in Iranian society that it will take a long time before things change.

The country carried out 665 executions in 2013, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center.

And with Iranians under tremendous pressures that discourage communication and dialogue, the wave of mercy is not likely to last, according to prominent university professor and sociologist Mostafa Eghlima.

"It's not easy [for people] to forgive someone who has killed their children," he concludes.


Explainer: How Iran Could Help Iraq Fight ISIL

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps would be the most likely force to help Iraq.

Golnaz Esfandiari

To help Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government battle militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Iran could potentially offer significant assistance through its powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which reportedly has been active in Iraq during the past decade, analysts say. 

What Can Iran Offer? 

Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East analyst with the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), believes Iranian military assistance to Iraq would likely focus on several areas: advising, training, planning and coordination; information and intelligence; and supplying military materiel. "I suspect whatever assistance Iran provides at this time will be limited to these areas and kept mostly behind the scenes," Ostovar says.

Light Footprint

Geneva-based researcher Farzan Sabet says Iran is likely to deny any military involvement in Iraq, even in the face of credible reports. 

Sabet says Iran's preference for "a light footprint" has been confirmed on a number of occasions since its 1979 Islamic revolution.

"It has relied on small and discreet special operations and intelligence units which gather vital information and act as trainers and advisers to realize its goals," Sabet wrote in a June 30 piece analyzing Iran's potential military intervention in Iraq.

Quds Force

Reports suggest that Iran has already dispatched units of IRGC's elite Quds Force to help Maliki, amid denials by Iranian officials who say they are ready to send arms to Iraq if asked to do so.  

Ostovar says the Quds Force detachment and other specialized IRGC units are likely to be relatively small -- in the hundreds.

He believes the role of the Quds Force in Iraq is likely to be similar to the role it has played in Syria, where through training and other measures it has helped Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad stay in power. 

"Quds Force is probably helping at two main levels: the political level, helping garner support for Maliki among Shi'a militants and streamlining the response to [ISIL]; and the ground level, helping train, organize and coordinate irregular Shi’a forces."

Involving Shi'ite Militias

Mohsen Milani, the executive director of the Center for Strategic and Diplomatic Studies at the University of South Florida, believes that Iran will try to mobilize Shi'ite militia that have been dormant in recent years.

"It will surely try to regroup and rearm the Iranian-trained Badr Brigade (although many of its members have since joined the Iranian national security forces). It will probably also take the more controversial step of encouraging the Shi’a militant cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's powerful Mahdi Army to join the fight," Milani wrote in a June 22 analysis published at Foreignaffairs.com. 

Milani added that Iran will turn to smaller Shi'ite insurgent groups to push them to join the fight against ISIL. 

"Iran believes that the Sunni insurgency can only be defeated if Iraq's fractious Shi’a militias agree to cooperate," he wrote. 

Ostovar says the Quds force is likely to coordinate the role of the Shi'a militant groups in the fight against ISIL and help train new recruits.

"Qods Force commanders have worked closely with Shi'a militant groups in the past and helped organize their involvement in Syria, so any effort in Iraq will likely be a continuing evolution of this relationship," Ostovar says.

'Iran Origin' Jets Arrive In Iraqi
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July 02, 2014
Video released by the Iraqi Defense Ministry shows SU-25 ground attack aircraft arriving in Baghdad. Russia on June 28 delivered a batch of Sukhoi jets to help Iraq quell an offensive by Islamic militants. The new video shows a second batch of aircraft delivered July 1. The defense ministry did not say where the planes came from. But an analysis of the video, conducted by defense experts of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, concluded that the latest warplanes originated from Iran. (Iraqi Defense Ministry handout video)

WATCH: 'Iran Origin' Jets Arrive In Iraq

Military Materiel

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said on July 2 that imagery analysis of a video released by the Iraqi authorities suggests that Iran has supplied Iraq with Sukhoi jets. The report said it wasn't clear whether the jets will be maintained and piloted by Iranian forces. 

Ostovar says it is important to note that these jets are part of IRGC's air fleet. 

"I highly doubt that the IRGC would just give them away. I also would be surprised if IRGC pilots were not acting at the very least as advisers and trainers for these aircraft," he told RFE/RL in an email.  

Direct Confrontation With ISIL

Analysts believe that for now Iranian forces are not likely to get directly involved in the fight against ISIL.

Ostovar says Iran's calculations could change if ISIL manages to penetrate important Shi'ite shrines, or if ISIL fighters reach the Iranian border. 

"If the latter happens, Iranian forces will likely confront [ISIL] directly as a matter of border and national security,” he says.

Sabet also believes that penetration of the Iranian border by ISIL's forces,  or threats to Shi'a holy sites or Baghdad, may force Iran to engage in overt operations, including "a pursue-and-destroy mission into Iraqi territory."

Military Cooperation With The U.S.?

Ostovar says direct military coordination or collaboration in Iraq between the United States and Iran is highly unlikely. 

"It is possible that, in their respective advisory and training roles, the missions of the U.S. and Iran might come to overlap at some point. However, neither the U.S. nor Iran’s Quds Force want to work with each other, " he says.

U.S. officials have ruled out military cooperation with Iran.

Last month, the spokesman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of Iran’s parliament, Hossein Naqavi Hosseini, said that Iran will never stand alongside the United States.

"America wants to achieve its political goals in Iraq through Iran, therefore Iran will never stand next to the U.S.," Hosseini was quoted as saying by Iranian media on June 24.


Iranian Official Dressed Down Over Revealing Women’s Leggings

Iranian police warn a woman wearing leggings about her clothing and hair during a crackdown to enforce the country's Islamic dress code. (file photo)

Skin-tight leggings popular among Iranian women have sparked an uproar in the Islamic republic's parliament, where the interior minister was dressed down over the female population's fashion choices.

Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli received a warning from parliamentarians at a June 24 hearing amid accusations that he is not doing enough to stop women from wearing the elastic leggings known as "supports" in Iran.

Fazli was summoned to the conservative-dominated parliament to answer questions regarding the enforcement of Iran's obligatory Islamic dress code, which requires women to cover their hair and bodies.  

Lawmakers questioned Fazli specifically about the form-revealing leggings, which hard-liners have criticized as a symbol of decadent Western culture. 

"Why is the Interior Ministry indifferent to the phenomenon of women who wear supports in Tehran and other cities?" lawmakers asked the official. 

Fazli was also asked why a "small budget" designated for enforcing the dress code had been eliminated. 

He responded by saying that the Interior Ministry is just one of 22 entities responsible for enforcing a law requiring women to wear the Islamic hijab, which became obligatory following the 1979 revolution and the creation of the Islamic republic. 

During the past three decades, the clerical establishment has used force and cultural measures to compel many women to wear the hijab. 

'National Security Issue'

Fazli said his ministry is actively working on the issue, which he said could not be solved in the short term. Budgetary funds have been allocated to promote the hijab, he added.

The interior ministry has taken several measures to encourage the Islamic dress code, including the creation of nongovernmental organizations and dress-code supervision at department stores, airports and student dormitories, Fazli said 

Iranian media reported that the official did not manage to convince lawmakers, who proceeded to issue him a warning -- or a "yellow card" in soccer parlance. 

Lawmaker Ali Motahari said women who wear leggings should not be allowed into official buildings. 

Motahari claimed that a majority of Iranian women have accepted the hijab but that there are "rare" exceptions that threaten the foundation of families. 

"It is the government's duty to act against clear sins. The government should prevent support clothing from being promoted," Motahari was quoted as saying by the semi-official news agency ISNA.

Iranian news agencies reported that Motahari caused a commotion during the hearing when he used large monitors to display photographs of women wearing leggings.  
 
Motahari reportedly reacted by saying that lawmakers appeared to enjoy viewing the pictures. 

Commenting on the debate in the parliament, a Tehran-based woman wrote sarcastically on Facebook that leggings are becoming a "national security issue" in the Islamic republic. 

"Forget the nuclear issue, poverty and inflation, and the advances of ISIL [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant]. Support pants are the priority for our lawmakers."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

 


Men's Sports, Shorts Not For Women In Iran

Men's sports events, such as volleyball, in Iran are often exclusively male affairs as women are banned from even watching the contest. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian women are free to love sports, as long as they do it in the safety of their own homes.

Female fans got a harsh reminder of this when they attempted to cheer for their men's soccer and volleyball teams this week.

Women attempting to attend World League volleyball matches being held this month in Tehran learned from the national police chief that their presence "was not in the public interest," while a female lawmaker argued that women at sporting events was a source of "disrespect and rape in society."

In an added slight, it was made clear that women and televised World Cup soccer matches were not a good match either -- at least not in public. The authorities made that clear by preventing public screenings of the game, which could result in mixed crowds, and putting pressure on cafes and restaurants to not show the games.

Defiance Wins

The strong-arm tactic backfired, because women promptly and publicly defied the authorities' efforts by assembling at small businesses to watch games and in the streets to celebrate Iran's World Cup performance. 

And, while Iranian men and foreign women enjoyed the June 20 volleyball match between Iran and Italy at Tehran's Azadi Stadium, security forces dealt harshly with a small group of Iranian women outside.

The women had gathered to protest a longstanding ban on female spectators at sports stadiums, earning them physical and verbal abuse and, for some, police detentions. 

They did succeed in highlighting gender inequality and discrimination against women in Iran, however.

Women were banned from attending sports events after the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the creation of the Islamic republic. Since then some exceptions have been made -- for example, during a 2006 World Cup qualifying game against Qatar played in Iran, and generally for volleyball and basketball games.

Hard-liners have claimed it is not inappropriate for women to attend such events, because men often use crude language and players wear shorts. 

Some who oppose the ban -- including former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who in 2006 wrote to Iran's Physical Education Organization asking that women be allowed into stadiums -- have argued that the presence of women would improve the atmosphere at sporting events and push men to refine their behavior.

But Iran is not quite ready to lift the ban, apparently.

Playing With Rape

While in 2013 women were allowed to attend Volleyball World League games, fans who tried to buy tickets to league matches scheduled to be played in Tehran were told they would not be allowed.  And while an exception had been made for women journalists, this month they too were barred.

Amid the ensuing outcry, female lawmaker Fatemeh Alia dismissed the idea of women spectators, saying their duty was to raise children and take care of their husbands, not to watch other men play volleyball.

"There is no reason for women to go to a venue where thousands of men have gathered," she said. "It [creates] the grounds for disrespect and rape in society." 

Another female lawmaker, Sakineh Omrani, told payamno.com that women can watch sports matches at home, on television, if they wish, but not in stadiums "because while doing sports, men are not fully dressed."

Pouring salt in the wound is the fact that foreign women have been allowed to attend a series of Volleyball World League matches played in Tehran this month. 

The indignity has attracted much attention, including from lawmaker Kamaledin Pirmoezen, who, after a mid-June series against Brazil said that "Iranian women, like Brazilian [women], should benefit from volleyball matches."

But bad news, accompanied by clarity regarding recent events, came on June 22. With Iran preparing for a second-leg match against Italy, it was announced that women journalists would be barred from attending World League contests for the rest of the month.

The same day, Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, explained that "in the current conditions, the mixing of men and women in stadiums is not in the public interest." 

Ahmadi Moghadam also noted that Ahmadinejad's 2006 call for women to be allowed into sports stadiums had been opposed by senior clerics. 

"The stance taken by religious scholars and the supreme leader remains unchanged, and as the enforcer of the law, we cannot allow women to enter stadiums," he said. 

Where Is My Seat?

"Stadiums for all" read one sign at the small protest organized outside Azadi Stadium on June 20.  "Women ask: Where is my seat?" read another.
That was enough to attract the strong arm of the law, with protesters and eyewitnesses saying that several of the women, their male supporters, and at least one journalist were forcefully detained. 

Iranian police forbid Iranian women from entering a stadiums to see volleyball game in Tehran earlier this month.
Iranian police forbid Iranian women from entering a stadiums to see volleyball game in Tehran earlier this month.

Well-known journalist Jila Baniyaghoob is among the most vocal critics of the ban on women fans and sports correspondents. 

"The Islamic republic once again violated its commitment regarding women's rights," she wrote recently on her Facebook page.

There has also been criticism in the Iranian media. 

Earlier this month, entekhab.ir likened the ban on women at sports stadiums to Saudi Arabia's driving ban for women.

"It's a simple issue, an issue that is common, banal, and normal all over the world, but in Saudi Arabia it has become a security problem." 

Outside Iran, activists such as Leila Mouri are making sure the world is aware of the gender games being played.

Mouri was a member of the "White Headscarves" campaign that was launched in Iran in the 1990s to push for the ban to be lifted. 

Under the rallying cry, "Women's rights equal half the freedom," the campaign shot to fame when it forced the authorities to allow women to attend the 2006 World Cup qualifier played at Azadi Stadium. 

Mouri, who left Iran in 2006 and is now based in New York, says the election of Iran's relatively moderate President Rohani has created a space for activists to renew their call.

"Women feel the [political] atmosphere is slightly more open, they feel they can repeat some of their past demands, at the same time because of the [successes] of Iran's volleyball team, women decided they want to enter the stadium.


Iran's Repressed Religious Minorities Using Internet To Practice Faith

Iranian dervishes dance their traditional collective dance. Minority Iranian religious groups like these, who face persecution from authorities, have turned increasingly to the Internet for mutual support and to reach out to potential fellow believers.

Golnaz Esfandiari
Majzooban.org, a website dedicated to news and information about the Gonabadi dervishes in Iran, has been blocked more than 40 times since its launch in 2007.
 
Iranian authorities have also arrested most of its founders.
 
The website is an example of dozens of sites, social-media networks, and online communities that religious minorities in Iran depend on to make their voices heard, practice their faith, highlight abuses by the state, and reach out to potential followers.
 
A new report by the London based non-profit group Small Media says the Internet is playing an "essential role" in empowering Iran's repressed religious minorities who are banned from public places and platforms.
 
Among the minorities are the Baha'is, who are not recognized in the Constitution of the Islamic republic; evangelical Christians, who can face the death penalty for converting from Islam; and Sufis, such as the Gonabadi dervishes, who have come under attack over their interpretation of Islam.
 
Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Iran, wrote in his March report that Baha'is are "almost exclusively" prosecuted for facilitating educational services and publicly engaging in religious practices. Shaheed wrote that Christian converts have also faced a similar pattern of persecution. He also noted increased state pressure on Sufis and also Sunni Muslims who face limits in their religious practices.
 
The report by Small Media, titled "Heretics," says these groups have turned to the Internet to create faith networks that span not just Iran, but the world.
 
The increasing use of the Internet by these groups comes amid state filtering of all their major websites.
 
"As the Iranian state cracks down on Christian and Baha'i evangelism and minority political activism on the ground, it is simultaneously waging a war against religious minority communities online and on the airwaves," the report notes.
 
Countering Oppression With Creativity
 
Despite this ongoing war, religious activists are migrating to cyberspace in an effort to evade state surveillance and get news of the state's human rights abuses out to the international community.
 
James Marchant, research manager at Small Media, said religious communities are using the Internet and satellite channels creatively in the face of the state oppression they face.
 
Marchant told RFE/RL that different groups make use of online technology based on their needs.
 
"For the Baha'i community, one of their greatest issues is the lack of access to [university] education," he said. "And so they've set up the Baha'i institute of Higher Education [BIHE], connecting Baha'is in Iran to Baha'is around the world, faculty students, and providing Baha'is with an education."
 
BIHE has increasingly been using the Internet -- including the organization of online and Skype-based courses -- to educate young Baha'is. It has been targeted by Iranian authorities who have arrested a number of its staffers over the years.
 
Evangelical Christians are developing "some of the most innovative and imaginative forms of resistance to state pressure," the report says.
 
Marchant says televangelism, chat-room evangelism, distance learning, and closed Facebook groups, are among the platforms used by Christians to spread the word in Iran.
 
An unnamed Iranian pastor is quoted in the report as saying that online churches are working alongside house churches that have faced police raids.
 
"They are an important tool to support us in our work, but there is no substitute for ministering personally to Christians," he said.
 
The pastor also said that many evangelical Christians use the social networking site Facebook.
 
Farhad Nouri, who serves as editor in chief of majzooban.org from outside the country, told RFE/RL that the Internet has allowed Sufis to inform others about state crackdown more quickly and to reach a wider audience.
 
At the same time, he says, Sufis active in cyberspace have come under attack from Iranian authorities.
 
The Small Media report says recognized minorities -- including Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians -- who are free to perform their rites and ceremonies within the laws, use the Internet mostly for cultural purposes and also to connect with the diaspora.
 
Their major websites remain unblocked, according to the report by Small Media.

Iran IRGC's First 'Martyr' Versus ISIL?

One of the photos that the Ghasam.ir website was publishing, purportedly of the coffin of IRGC member Alireza Moshajari from his funeral in Tehran on June 16.

Several hard-line Iranian websites and blogs are reporting that Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has lost one of its members as the result of the fighting in Iraq.
 
The reports claim IRGC member Alireza Moshajari thus became the first Iranian "martyr" in the fight against the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
 
Other conservative sites, however, have reported that Moshajari was killed in an accident in Iran while on duty. It wasn't clear from the reports whether he had been on a mission inside of Iran or returning from a mission from abroad.
 
According to the reports, Moshajari was killed on June 14. His funeral was held in Tehran on June 16.
 
There has been no official Iranian reaction to the reports, which also suggested that Moshajari was among Iranians who had previously traveled to Syria to defend the Sayida Zeinab shrine on the outskirts of Damascus (here and here).
 
The hard-line Tasnim news agency, affiliated with the IRGC, posted pictures of Moshajari's funeral while saying that he was killed in "an accident" in Iran's Western provinces while on "a mission."
 
The report appears to have been removed.
 
A picture of Moshajari wearing his IRGC uniform has been widely shared on Google+, a preferred social media network of hard-liners, who have "congratulated" him over his "martyrdom" in Iraq.
 
A picture of Moshajari's bloodied face was also making the rounds.
 
One user, who said he was a friend of Moshajari, wrote that he was killed after he returned from a mission in Iraq.
 
"My good friend martyr Alireza Moshajari is the first martyr of the defense of the Askari shrine" -- a Shi'ite shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra -- "he had also traveled a number of times to Syria to defend the shrine of Zeinab and Roghayeh," Abbas Kolahduz wrote on Google+.
 
He added that through his "martyrdom," Moshajari had joined "his master Imam Hussein," the first imam of Shi'ites.
 
Another social-media user who identified herself as Moshajari's neighbor described him as "the first martyr of the support for Iraqi Shi'ites against Takfiris," according to a report by Shahidnews.com.
 
The website said the user, Hanieh Pourahmad, had written about Moshajari on the Iranian social network Cloob.com.
 
Pictures of Moshajari's funeral, posted by an IRGC website, show dozens of people carrying a casket shrouded in the Iranian flag.
 
Ghasam.ir did not explain Moshajari's death.
 
Nasimonline.ir, which also covered Moshajari's funeral, was silent about the circumstances of his "martyrdom."
 
Western media have reported that the IRGC has dispatched several of its units to help the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki battle the ISIL's militants and halt their rapid advances.
 
Iranian officials have denied the reports while expressing readiness to help Iraq in its fight against ISIL.
 
-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran Enters The Fray In Iraq

A militant of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) poses with a trademark Islamist flag after the group allegedly seized an Iraqi Army checkpoint in the northern province of Salah al-Din on June 11.

Golnaz Esfandiari
Iranian government officials including President Hassan Rohani have expressed readiness to help the government of their Iraqi ally, Nuri al-Maliki, fight the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) amid Western media reports that the country's powerful Revolutionary Guard has already dispatched forces to Iraq.

Rohani warned that Tehran is not ready to stand by and tolerate the recent violence in Iraq. He did not elaborate on the time and measures Iran could take to assist Maliki. Iran's police chief, Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam, was quoted as saying that Tehran could intervene to protect Shi'ite shrines and cities.

"The Wall Street Journal" and "The Times" of London reported on June 12 that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has deployed units of its elite Quds Force to help Iraqi troops halt the advances of ISIL forces. According to "The Wall Street Journal," "Iranian security sources" have said that two battalions of the Quds Force have come to the aid of Maliki's government. The Quds Force is said to have been active in Iraq for more than a decade.

The reports come after several Iranian websites on June 9 posted a picture of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani purportedly holding hands with Iraqi Shi'ite lawmaker Qassem al-Araji. The websites claimed that Araji had posted the picture on his social-networking page with the caption "Haj Qassem is here!"

There was no immediate reaction from Iranian officials to the reports of Iran's intervention in Iraq.

Earlier in the day, deputy IRGC commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami said that Iran was not worried about any threats related to the events in Iraq. "Undoubtedly, the trend of extreme groups' movements in Iraq will be reversed," Salami was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency.

He compared the situation in Iraq to that of Syria, where Iranian forces are believed to have helped President Bashar al-Assad remain in power. "Things were reversed in Syria," he said, adding that the same would happen in Iraq.
 
ALSO READ: Iraq And Syria -- Past, Present, And (Hypothetical) Future Maps

The IRGC official blamed the United States and other countries for the crisis in Iraq. "Incidents that are taking place in various countries, such as Iraq, are the result of the U.S. and Western governments' military interference," he said.

Other hard-line officials and also some media outlets took a similar approach in their reactions to the crisis in Iraq.

Among them was the supreme leader's representative to the IRGC, who also blamed the United States. "In fact, the colonialist policies of the United States boost the presence of extremist terrorists in Iraq and the recent events in [that country]," Hojatoleslam Ali Saidi was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

Saidi also accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which, he said, invested a lot into creating chaos in Syria. "Today they feel that all their plots have failed in Syria," he said. "[So] they've opened a new front in Iraq to lift the morale of those to whom they made promises."

The hard-line website Javanonline.ir also pinned the blame on Saudi Arabia. "The intellectual roots of ISIL is from the school of thought of Wahhabism and takfirism [eds. which considers Shi'a and non-practicing Muslim infidels], which receives its unhealthy legitimacy against humanity in various regions (currently in Iraq and Syria) from muftis sitting in Riyadh."

The hard-line Fars news agency, which has been running a live-blog covering Iraq events, posted comments by the commanders of Iran's Basij force, who said the United States was manipulating the "Takfiri terrorists" in Syria and Iraq to tarnish the image of Islam.

Other Iranian news agencies, including Mehr, have also been running live-blogs dedicated to the crisis in Iraq. Most websites have also focused a significant part of their news and analysis to Iraq.

The popular website Fararu.com interviewed the head of Iran's Center for Strategic Studies, Amir Musavi, about the reasons behind ISIL's rapid advances in neighboring Iraq. Musavi, identified as a Middle East expert, said the most important factor was a dispute over power-sharing with the central government and elections, which he said had moved security issues to the margins.

"Another factor that has been effective in the rapid progress of the ISIL in Iraq is the support of Israel and Saudi Arabia, aimed at challenging the security of the Islamic republic," Musavi added.

Khabaronline quoted Iranian lawmaker Nozar Shafiee as saying that the ISIL was not a threat to the Islamic republic. However, he warned that in the long term the ideas of the group could pose a threat to Iran.

On June 12, Iran's Supreme National Security Council held a meeting to discuss the situation in Iraq. Reuters reported on June 13, quoting a senior Iranian official who spoke on condition of anonymity, that Iran's leadership had discussed and was open to the possibility of cooperating with the United States to help Iraq.

Meanwhile, a group of clerics in the holy city of Qom issued a statement expressing concern over the possibility that Shi'ite shrines in Iraq could be destroyed by the ISIL. In a separate statement, another Qom-based cleric, Ayatollah Nuri Hamedani, said that the ISIL's invasion was an attack against Islam, and that it was necessary for Muslims to defend Islam with full force.

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

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