Wednesday, May 27, 2015


Iranian Cartoon Contest Lampoons IS, Alleged Backers

A bearded man labeled as an Islamic State militant lies on a bed covered with a U.S. flag while a masseuse wearing sleeves embossed with Israeli flags works on his shoulders.

A man with a long dark beard sits immersed in blood in a bathtub shaped like the map of Iraq. A machine gun is propped against the wall behind him. 

Another bearded man lies on a bed covered with a U.S. flag while a masseuse wearing sleeves embossed with Israeli flags works on his shoulders. Still another bearded man poses for a selfie while holding what appears to be the trigger of his suicide bomb belt

These are just some of the cartoons displayed at an exhibition launched in several Tehran art galleries over the weekend that highlights atrocities committed by Islamic State (IS) militants -- and accuses the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of backing the Sunni-led extremist fighters.

The exhibition is organized by Iran's House of Cartoons, which previously organized a controversial Holocaust cartoon contest.

The group says that 280 works from some 40 countries -- including Australia, Brazil, and Indonesia -- have been put on display to mock IS militants and shed light on their purported backers.

The works were selected from 800 submissions, and the contest's organizers are offering cash prizes ranging from $700 to $1,500 for the top three entries.

Winners are due to be announced at a May 31 ceremony, where a book featuring cartoons from the contest will also be made public.

Speaking at a May 24 press conference in Tehran, Mohammad Habibi, the contest's executive secretary, said some of the foreign cartoonists had to use pseudonyms due to "security concerns."

Habibi claimed that selected works from the contest will be displayed in countries affected by IS militants, including Syria and Iraq.

In an interview with Iranian state television, Seyed Masud Shojayi Tababaei, the contest's administrator and head of the House of Cartoons, said the contest was organized in two parts. "In the main section, we focused on the terrorist group Daesh [IS] and its Western, Arab, and [Jewish] backers," he said.

Tababaei added that in the second part of the contest, cartoonists had been asked to depict the faces of those who support IS militants.

The "Faces" section of the contest features caricatures of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

Hard-line Iranian officials have accused the United States, Israel, and some Arab countries of either creating or backing IS militants.

On May 25, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, accused Washington of having no will to stop the extremist group. "How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometers away in Ramadi, killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?" he was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

Soleimani reportedly asked, "Does it mean anything else other than being an accomplice in the plot?" 

The Obama administration has consistently reiterated its commitment to "degrade and ultimately defeat" the group's fighters. Washington has spearheaded an international coalition against the militant group, which occupies large swathes of northern Iraq.

Iran regularly organizes cartoon exhibits while punishing cartoonists who dare mock or criticize Iranian politicians.

Iranian artist and activist Atena Farghadani reportedly went on trial in Iran last week on charges that include "insulting members of parliament through paintings."

Her initial arrest last year is said to be linked to her image that features Iranian lawmakers depicted as animals while voting on a draft law that restricts access to contraception. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Tehran's Friday Prayer Leader Calls On Saudis To Rise Up

Ayatollah Mohammad Movahhedi Kermani (file photo)

Tehran's temporary Friday Prayers leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Movahedi Kermani, has called on Saudi citizens to rise up against their country's rulers and to speak out against their "crimes."
 
"You read the Koran for hours; how much of its message do you comprehend? Why don't you express your hatred towards the oppressive government? Why are you silent?" Movahedi Kermani was quoted as saying by Iranian news agencies.  
 
The hard-line Shi'ite cleric accused the Sunni Saudi government, which he said considers itself "the main axis of the Islamic world," of committing atrocities in its air campaign in Yemen.
 
There's been a deepening of tensions and an escalation of rhetoric between the regional rivals over the Saudi campaign against the Shi'ite Huthi movement in Yemen.
 
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of arming the Huthis. Tehran has denied the accusations, saying it only provides political and humanitarian support. 
 
Iranian officials have blasted the air strikes and accused Saudis of killing innocent civilians, including children. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has described the air campaign as "genocide" while the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, has said that the Saudis are following in Israel's footsteps by carrying out air strikes in Yemen.
 
Earlier this week, senior Iranian lawmaker Alaeddin Borujerdi called Saudi Arabia's King Salam a traitor to Islam.
 
Movahedi Kermani said that, in some parts of Saudi Arabia, there are "cries and objections against that oppressor regime" while adding that this is not enough.
 
"If the entire Arabian Peninsula will rise up and shout slogans against those oppressors, then their fate will resemble the fate of Islamic Iran [which came into being after the 1979 revolution that ended the Shah's rule -- Eds.], in which the oppressors were annihilated and their criminal acts came to an end," he said.
 
Movahedi Kermani also said that two of Islam's holiest sites located in Mecca and Medina should be liberated from "the oppressors."
 
In the past few days, a number of state-sponsored protests have been held in different cities in Iran against the bombings in Yemen.
 
In recent weeks, Iranian media reported that worshippers had chanted slogans against the house of Saud, such as "Death to Al-Saud," after Friday prayers in several cities, including Tehran and Qom. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


'Why Nations Fail' Among Works Seized At Tehran Book Fair

Iranian President Hassan Rohani attends the opening of the 28th Tehran International Book Fair on May 5.

Several books have already been confiscated from one of Iran's largest cultural events, the annual Tehran International Book Fair, which kicked off last week.

They include Why Nations Fail, a 2012 treatise by Daren Acemoglu and James Robinson that examines why some nations are rich while others are poor, and argues that "it is man-made political and economic institutions that underlie economic success" or failure.

The book was translated into Persian by Mohsen Mirdamadi and Mohammad Hossein Naimipur and published in Iran last year. Mirdamadi and Naimipur, both members of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, were among dozens of political activists and intellectuals jailed following the disputed reelection of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2009 and the state crackdown on opposition members.

They reportedly translated and edited the book during their time in a general ward of Tehran's Evin prison, which for decades has housed a political prisoners' block.

Iranian media said police offered no reason for seizing the book from the fair, which runs from May 6-16 and draws some 500,000 attendees daily.

A book of poetry by Fatemeh Ekhtesari was also confiscated. RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported that officials justified that ban by citing the use of some of the book's poems by controversial Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi. Najafi, who lives in Germany, has been accused of insulting religious sanctities.

An examination of the life of the founder of Iran's post-shah Iranian republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- A Critical Introduction To Khomeini, edited by Arshin Adib Moghaddam and published by Cambridge Press -- was reportedly also confiscated. 

Censorship has been a regular facet of the Tehran International Book Fair, where in past years dozens of books -- some published with the permission of Iran's Culture Ministry -- have been confiscated and publishing houses banned from attending.

ALSO READ: Getting Past The Censors In Iran

The booth of the Hayan publishing house, run by blogger and establishment critic Mehdi Khazali, who's been detained by Iranian authorities a number of times, was shut down. Officials were quoted by domestic media as saying Khazali's publishing house, which specializes in medical literature, hasn't published a sufficient number of titles in recent years to be represented.

On the other hand, the respected Ney publication house, which has been banned for years from the fair, is participating at this year's event, according to the BBC.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Video Iranian Children Plead For Activist Mother's Release

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, (right) with her children, Ali (center) and Kiana.

The twins of imprisoned leading Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi have pleaded for her release in a heartbreaking video published by the opposition website Sahamnews.org. 

Mohammadi, the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, co-founded by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was arrested on May 5 at her Tehran home and taken to the notorious Evin prison.

"My mother does not belong in jail,' says Mohammadi's 8-year-old son Ali in the video.  "My mother has the right to freedom. I have the right to see my mother." 

He adds: "I pray every day for mother to be released from prison; the day she [was taken away], I didn't sleep at all."

His twin sister, Kiana, has a similar message:

"My mother doesn't belong in jail, I can't live without my mommy," she says. "When I was four years old, [security] agents took my father away, now it's my mother's turn."

She says she doesn't understand why the authorities jail political activists.

"That's why my daddy left this country; otherwise we would all be together now, leading a happy life."

WATCH: Narges Mohammadi's Children Plead For Her Release (In Persian, No Subtitles)

Mohammadi's husband, well-known political activist Taghi Rahmani, chose exile in France in 2011 after being repeatedly threatened, arrested, and jailed by the Iranian authorities.

His wife, Narges Mohammadi, remained in Iran with Kiana and Ali.

Mohammadi, 43, has been at the forefront of peaceful protests and campaigns on behalf of political prisoners and other victims of human rights abuses. She has also been involved in efforts to end the death penalty in the Islamic republic.

Rahmani told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on May 6 that the authorities told the family that Mohammadi had been taken to prison to serve a six-year prison term she was facing over her human rights work.

Mohammadi spent a few months in jail in 2012 before being released on bail for health reasons.

Two-hundred-and-fifty Iranian activists and intellectuals, including Ebadi, have called for her immediate release.

--Golnaz Esfandiari

You can read more about Narges Mohammadi and her arrest here


Video Man Arrested In Iran After Woman's Death Sparks Violence In Kurdish City

Tensions have been high in the mainly ethnic-Kurdish town of Mahabad in Iran after the suspicious death of a chambermaid sparked an outbreak of violence on the city's streets. 15

A day after riots were reported over the unexplained demise of a young chambermaid in Mahabad in Iran's West Azerbaijan province, local authorities announced that an individual has been detained over the death, which happened earlier this week.

Mahabad's prosecutor, Aslan Heydari, made the announcement in a May 8 interview with Iran's government news agency IRNA, while adding that an investigation into the "suspicious" death of the woman is being conducted "very carefully."

The woman, 25-year-old Farinaz Khosravani, died on May 3 after a fall from the fourth floor of the city's four-star Hotel Tara where she worked, reports said.  

The Rudaw.net news website, based in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, reported that protesters suspected foul play in her death. Mahabad with its majority Kurdish population had, in the past, been the scene of tensions and clashes between security forces and ethnic Kurds.

Some gathered in front of the Hotel Tara to express their anger amid unconfirmed rumors that Khosravani was trying to escape being raped by an Iranian security official when she either fell or committed suicide.  

However, Alireza Radfar, the deputy governor of West Azerbaijan for political, security and social affairs, was quoted by Iranian state media as saying that the "likely accused" has nothing to do with security bodies and that he was in Mahabad as a private-sector consultant who was meant to be helping to raise standards at the hotel.  

Radfar accused opposition and "antirevolutionary" groups and media of spreading lies in connection with the incident to "incite" the youth in the city.

He said the Hotel Tara was set on fire by protesters and that 25 people, including seven police officers, were injured in the May 7 violence. 

Pictures and videos shared on social media showed protesters with raised fists, some with bloody faces, while black smoke and flames were seen coming out of the hotel  building.

In some of the images, more than a dozen security officers in uniform seem to be standing near the hotel.

Reports suggested that tensions were still high in Mahabad a day after the violence and that security forces in the region remained on alert.

WATCH: Rioting In Mahabad

Rudaw.net reported that an unknown number of people had been arrested in connection with the riots that shook the provincial capital, which has an estimated population of 280,000 people.  

Deputy West Azerbaijan's Governor Radfar, however, claimed that only five people had been arrested. He said most of those detained were quickly released after receiving warnings. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iranian Teachers Protest For Higher Wages

The protests were held in several cities across Iran.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Thousands of teachers across Iran have again taken to the streets to call for higher wages.

Iran's semiofficial ILNA news agency, which focuses on labor issues, reports that silent protests were held on May 7 in more than a dozen Iranian cities, including Tehran, Tabriz, Shiraz, Isfahan, and Sanandaj.

Reports say that, in the Iranian capital, an estimated 3,000 teachers protested peacefully in front of the parliament amid the heavy presence of security forces.

Silent protests in other cities were reportedly held in front of the buildings of the Islamic republic's education ministry.

ILNA reported that, ahead of protests, numerous teachers were summoned by security officials and allowed to go free on the condition that they would not participate in the May 7 rallies.

Photographs of the protests show demonstrators holding signs warning against "discrimination" and "poverty" among teachers due to their low wages.  

"Our gathering is not political," read one of the signs held by protesting teachers in Tehran.

Another sign read: "Teacher shouts, media censors."

Some of the signs also called for the release of teachers who have been jailed due to their rights campaigns.

They include Alireza Hashemi, head of the Teachers' Organization, who was arrested last month and transferred to Tehran's Evin prison to serve a five-year sentence.

Hashemi was convicted on charges that included acting against Iran's national security.

In recent months, Iranian teachers have held several public gatherings to demand better wages. Last month, nationwide protests by teachers were held in some 20 cities against low wages and inadequate living conditions.

In a May 6 meeting with a group of teachers, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei warned that Iran's "enemies" are trying to exploit teachers' problems.

Khamenei said that "those bearing a grudge against the Islamic establishment" intend to fabricate "seditionist, factional, and political slogans under the pretext of the teachers' livelihoods and cause trouble to the [Islamic] establishment."


U.S. Flag Not On Fire In Iran

An Iranian woman stamps on a U.S. flag during a protest outside the former American embassy in Tehran in 2013. The Stars and Stripes, however, is not always treated with such contempt in Iran.

The U.S. flag attracted a lot of attention this week at an international film festival in Iran -- not so much that it was unfurled, but because it wasn't being burned.

Some on social media suggested that the public display of the American flag at the Fajr International Film Festival was a first for the Islamic republic.

It wasn't.

It is true that U.S. flags being burned or stomped upon have been a common sight since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Carrying out the fiery act of defiance against the Great Satan has become a tradition at state-sponsored events like the Tehran Friday Prayers and annual celebrations of the revolution.

But, in recent years, the Stars and Stripes has been displayed on a number of occasions at sports and cultural events without being disrespected. 

Here are a few examples:

Just last week, Iranian news sites posted pictures of the U.S. flag in front of a hotel in the city of Shiraz.

The pictures were widely shared on social media.

In June 2014, NBC reported from Iran from an international polo cup where "not only were the Stars and Stripes in full view, but Americans joined players from around the world in the sport’s birthplace."

The U.S. flag was also displayed in May 2014 at the World Cup for Greco-Roman wrestling, where American athletes said they received star treatment by Iranians chanting: "U.S.A."

Also in May 2014, hard-line websites noticed the Stars and Stripes on display at an international puppet festival.

"These days when one walks by the city's theater in the heart of the capital, a raised American flag at the cultural complex can be easily seen," Seratnews.ir wrote at the time.

A few months before that, in February 2014, Iranian news sites posted pictures of a U.S. flag at a livestock exhibit on the Island of Kish.

"The U.S. flag is raised in Iran after three decades," the caption reads.

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