Saturday, October 25, 2014

In Washington, Poetry Diplomacy With Iran

U.S. nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman

In an October 23 keynote speech on the status of nuclear negotiations with Iran, U.S. chief nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman cited a verse by the great Persian poet Saadi.

“Have patience; all things are difficult before they become easy,” Sherman, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs, said in remarks that came a month before the November 24 deadline for Iran and major world powers to reach a lasting nuclear deal.  

The citation appeared to be an attempt by Sherman to reach out to Iranians by showing respect for their culture and love of poetry, an approach employed earlier by other U.S. officials as well, including the American leader.

U.S. President Barack Obama has recited Persian poetry in his efforts to engage Iran, as has State Department Persian language spokesman Alan Eyre, who frequently uses poetry in his media appearances and video messages to Iranians.

In his 2011 message for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Obama recited a verse from Simin Behbahani, a poet known as “The Lady of Iran’s Ghazal” who passed away in August and repeatedly faced pressure from Iranian authorities. 

“Old, I may be, but, given the chance, I will learn. I will begin a second youth alongside my progeny. I will recite the Hadith of love of country with such fervor as to make each word bear life,” Obama said in his citation of Behbahani.

Behbahani later told VOA’s Persian Service that she appreciated the gesture.

For Obama’s 2013 Nowruz message, his speechwriters included a verse by the 14th century poet Hafez, whose book of poetry is part of almost every household in Iran. 

“Plant the tree of friendship that bears the fruit of fulfillment; uproot the sapling of enmity that bears endless suffering," Obama said in the video message. 

There have been few public acknowledgements of this poetry diplomacy from Iranian leaders, who have called on Washington to recognize “Iran’s rights to uranium enrichment” and give up its “hostile” policies.  

As Sherman noted in her speech, despite progress in the nuclear negotiations, there is still a “forest of distrust” on both sides. 

“Given what has happened in past decades, how could there not be? But I can affirm to you this afternoon that the United States will not accept any arrangement we can’t verify, and that we won’t make any promises we can’t keep. Just as we will demand good faith, so will we demonstrate good faith,” she said.

Sherman said the remaining time before next month’s deadline for a final nuclear deal should be used “wisely and with a sense of urgency and purpose.” 

“We hope the leaders in Tehran will agree to the steps necessary to assure the world that this program will be exclusively peaceful and thereby end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation and improve further the lives of their people,” she said. “If that does not happen, the responsibility will be seen by all to rest with Iran.” 

Sherman warned that a failure of the talks could lead to an “escalation” on all sides.

That could also mean an end to poetry diplomacy. 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Hundreds Of Iranians Protest Acid Attacks

Hundreds are estimated to have turned out for the protests in Tehran and Isfahan.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Large crowds numbering in the hundreds have demonstrated in Tehran and Isfahan against several recent acid attacks on women that apparently occurred because they were not properly veiled. 
Hundreds gathered in front of the parliament building in Tehran on October 22, while eyewitnesses said hundreds came to the Justice Ministry building in Isfahan, the central-western city where the acid attacks took place.

Demonstrators carried signs against the vicious attacks while calling on the state to protect women against violence.

"Where is my face," read a sign held up by a woman. While another sign said: "A secure street is my right."  

"Don't allow crimes against women to become legal in the name of religion and Islam," said another sign, which also called for an end to violence against women.

"Acid attacks are a crime, security, security," chanted protesters, including many men.

WATCH: Protests Against Acid Attacks In Isfahan

Other chants and slogans targeted extremists and religious zealots who are believed to be behind the violent attacks.

"Death to the Daesh [Islamic State] School of Thought," some chanted. 

Some also called on the parliament to drop a proposed bill that provides protection for religious zealots who attempt to enforce Islamic codes and take action against men and women who they believe violates those rules. 

ALSO READ: Iran's Isfahan Outraged Over Acid Attacks

A deputy governor in Isfahan Province declared the rally there illegal, and there was a large police presence at the protest.

At least two survivors of acid attacks attended the demonstration in Tehran, as did leading human rights advocate Nasrin Sotoudeh, dissident Mohammad Nourizad, and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi.

Leading Iranian rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh (far left) and Mohammad Nourizad (far right) attend a rally in Tehran to protest recent spate of acid attacks on women.
Leading Iranian rights activists Nasrin Sotoudeh (far left) and Mohammad Nourizad (far right) attend a rally in Tehran to protest recent spate of acid attacks on women.

One of the protesters, activist Peyman Aref, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Nourizad was beaten up and detained by the police.

Officials from Iran's Interior ministry have said that "three to four" people were arrested in connection with the attacks in Isfahan.

Authorities say four women have been targeted in the attacks in Isfahan.  However, local media have said that between six to eight women have become victims of the attacks. 

These incidents have led to outrage among many Iranians who have accused hard-liners of instigating the attacks by spreading hatred against women. 

PHOTO GALLERY: Acid Attack Protests In Tehran (ISNA)

Desired Traits Of A Nameless Soldier Of The Hidden Imam

"The nameless soldiers of the Hidden Imam are under cover and do not have identity cards." (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

What makes a good intelligence agent in the eyes of the Islamic republic?

Complete obedience to the supreme leader is crucial, along with moral behavior, dedication, courage, sincerity, honesty, and devotion.

This according to Iran's Intelligence Ministry, which listed the traits it requires of agents in a magazine issued to mark its 30th anniversary.

The lengthy publication, titled "30 years of Silent Endeavor," was reportedly distributed with a major daily last week.

The ministry draws on various sources to make its case for devotion to the supreme leader, including Koranic verses such as: "Oh you who have believed, obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those in authority among you."

The ministry says the supreme leader needs others to follow his commands because of "the extraordinary sensitivity" of his mission.

The Prophet Muhammad’s intelligence forces would follow his commands fully and precisely while on missions, the ministry argues, emphasizing that the Prophet's intelligence agents would never take a step that would violate his orders.

More references to the Koran and sayings by the Prophet Muhammad and Shi'a's first imam follow.

Imam Ali had instructed one of his commanders to choose intelligence agents from among brave people because, according to a saying cited by Iran's Intelligence Ministry, cowards would not provide accurate reports to their commanders.

Intelligence agents also need to be virtuous and pious to enable them to complete their missions and reports, banish personal passions and spite, and work for the satisfaction of God, the ministry advises. 

The list of necessary traits for intelligence agents also includes the need to learn the languages of "the enemy" and be able to read and write in those languages. 

Again there's a reference to the Prophet Muhammad.

"The Prophet of Islam committed his intelligence agents to learn the language of the enemy based on the type and location of their missions," writes the ministry, adding that intelligence agents also need to become familiar with the use of coded language.

The ministry adds that intelligence agents in charge of the security of an Islamic society should come from an Islamic background and advises citizens to be wary of anyone who claims to be working for Iranian intelligence.
"The nameless soldiers of the Hidden Imam," it says, are under cover and do not have identity cards. 

"Anyone who introduces himself as an employee of the Intelligence Ministry and aims at abuse is definitely a crook."

Tehran In No Mood To Laugh At Khomeini Jokes

The leader and founder of the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, waves from a Tehran balcony during the country's revolution, in February 1979.

Golnaz Esfandiari

A friend of the Imam asks him, "Would you like to drink vodka or tequila?" Outraged at the indignity, the pious Imam slaps the man in the face.

"What's wrong with homemade aragh sagi?" he asks.

This knee-slapper, which mocks Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fierce rejection of alcohol and his promotion of domestic production (aragh sagi is a home-distilled liqueur), is among hundreds of "Imam" jokes making the rounds via text messages and social media in Iran.

And while the anecdotes may seem harmless enough, Iranian conservatives say they are an insult to the founder of the Islamic republic.

On September 3, Iranian police chief Esmail Ahmadi Moghadam warned that action would be taken against those insulting Khomeini.

“The fact that our streets are open and there is freedom in our country doesn't mean that drivers can drive at the speed they want in the streets," he was quoted as saying by the hard-line Tasnim news agency. "These insulting acts are considered a crime."

Ahmadi Moghadam flatly added that those who fail to respect "the limits of freedom" and violate the country’s laws will be dealt with.

Ayatollah Khomeini is a revered figure in the Islamic republic, where he is commonly referred to simply as "the Imam." Iranian state media generally portrays him as religious, knowledgeable, insightful, kind, merciful, and deeply caring about his countrymen. 

The recent slew of jokes largely mocks those traits.

He is depicted drinking alcohol, making fun of others, cursing and using crude language, and as uncompassionate, merciless, and mean-spirited. 

Some of the jokes appear to reflect common criticisms of Khomeini, while others highlight unfulfilled promises he made to Iranians, including his pledge to provide them free water and electricity.

"The Imam comes home and sees bills for water, electricity, and gas on the ground. He asks, 'Weren't these free?'" The joke concludes: "Forgetfulness was one of Imam's weaknesses."

Another is about a man who complains to the Imam that there is often no electricity and he has to eat his dinner in the dark.

"Imam suggests he use an oil lamp," goes the punch line, capped by the reminder that "bringing oil to people’s tables" was one of Khomeini's main characteristics.

London-based Iranian Internet researcher Nariman Gharib says the jokes first appeared on the instant messaging app Viber and later on Facebook.

One Facebook page, titled "Imam's Distinctive Characteristics," has received more than 20,000 "likes." The page administrators wrote that the page was created "only for a bit of fun and laughter" and that it didn't belong to any political party.

Iranians are no strangers to making jokes about their leaders, including Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati. The Guardians Council head has been targeted over his advanced age and his more-than-three-decade presence on the country's political scene.

But jokes about Khomeini were relatively rare, at least until recently. But the power of social media to inspire trends and memes have helped spread the Imam jokes like wildfire.

Mocking Khomeini, Gharib says, has become "normalized."

"I think [conservatives] are angry because ayatollah Khomeini has lost his grandeur and making jokes about him has become very easy for people,” the researcher concludes.

Earlier this week, prominent Tehran-based political scientist Sadegh Zibakalam suggested that the jokes were being spread by hard-liners in a backhanded effort to put pressure on the government of President Hassan Rohani.

Rohani has promised Iranians more freedom, online and offline. But he's met with resistance from hard-line opponents who criticize his policies, including in the cultural sphere.

"[They want to say], 'Why is the Culture Ministry not acting against these behaviors? Therefore Rohani's government is to blame," Zibakalam was quoted as saying on September 2.

He suggested that hard-liners could also be using the jokes to oppose the introduction of high-speed Internet by the government and the potential halt of filtering of some social-networking sites.

Zibakalam said hard-liners could argue that considering the fast spread of Imam jokes even with slow Internet and blocked social media sites, the situation would get much worse once speeds rose and filters were removed.

The government recently granted licenses for 3G services to two major mobile operators, drawing criticism by hard-liners who claimed faster Internet would facilitate the sharing of un-Islamic content.

Amid the spread of the jokes, an image of a "secret letter" emerged online bearing the logo of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. It called on Communications Minister Mahmud Vaezi to filer social-networking sites by which the jokes are being spread.

Vaezi on September 4 was quoted by state media as saying that the letter was fake.

He added, cryptically, that those who attempt to put pressure on a government body in order to further their aims should know that they have not chosen "the right goal."

Senior Iranian Ayatollah Says High-Speed Mobile Internet Is Un-Islamic

A leading conservative cleric in Iran is worried about the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services.

A senior Iranian hard-line cleric says high-speed mobile Internet and third generation mobile services are "un-Islamic" and violate "human and moral norms".

Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi said Iranian authorities should introduce measures that would prevent access to the "negative features" of high-speed mobile Internet and 3G services before making them widely available. 

Makarem Shirazi, a Shi'ite source of emulation, said expanding Internet services hastily can result in the spread of corruption including the access of young people to anti-Islamic movies and other content.

Makarem Shirazi made the ruling in response to an enquiry by a group of online activists.

In a statement posted on his personal website, Makarem Shirazi wrote that authorities should consult with the Supreme Council of Cyberspace (SCC), which formulates and oversees Iran's Internet policies including its tough online censorship.

"Authorities should not merely think about the financial earnings of this program, and consider it as a type of religious intellectualism and academic freedom," Makarem Shirazi wrote. 

The ayatollah added that Iranian judiciary officials should also not remain "indifferent" regarding this "vital issue." 

The online activists had written in their enquiry to Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi that Iran's Ministry of Communication has announced it will soon give more mobile providers licenses for high-speed Internet services.

One company, mobile operator Rightel, had exclusive rights to provide 3G services in Iran, but in recent weeks two other mobile providers have also obtained 3G licenses. Yet 3G subscribers still account for only a tiny share of the overall mobile market in Iran.

The activist group added that Iran does not have the necessary  structure to prevent the "harm" that could result from such services, including "access to immoral movies and photos," "the weakening of family structures," and "spying and the sale of the country's confidential information."

The exchange highlights the pressure President Hassan Rohani faces from hard-liners in implementing his promises to lessen online censorship and give Iranians greater access to information. 

Rohani is the chairman of the SCC, the Internet body that Makarem Shirazi advised the government to consult. But the Iranian president is not the sole decision-maker in the SCC, which is dominated by conservative and hard-line members including the head of Iran's judiciary, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, and the head of state broadcasting.

The oversight body was established in 2012 following a decree by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who said Iranians should be protected from the "damage" caused by the spread of information and communication technologies. 

Earlier this year, Rohani said that the Internet should not be seen as something that should be feared.

"We ought to see [the Internet] as an opportunity. We must recognize our citizens' right to connect to the World Wide Web," Rohani was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency on May 20.

Ayatollah Naser Makarem ShiraziAyatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi
Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi

The enquiry to Makarem Shirazi and his ruling, however, demonstrate that, for hard-liners, the Internet remains a cause of concern which they see as a threat to morality and national security, despite Iran's strict censorship, which leads to the filtering of thousands of websites and social media.

It's not the first time Makarem Shirazi has weighed in against 3G. Last year he spoke against video calls, saying they had more downsides than benefits.

His latest ruling has sparked criticism online.

"We're already facing filtering. What else do you want? What kind of nonsensical question is this?" wrote an Internet user in the comments section of one of the websites that posted Makarem Shirazi's ruling.

"The Internet is as necessary as water and food," wrote another user, while someone else maintained that the Internet should be seen as a tool for progress.

"In our backward country we see only the negative sides. According to this [argument] grapes should be considered haram because they can be used to produce wine!!!" the user said.

The ayatollah's ruling was also criticized on social media by some Iranians who said the cleric should not issue statements about issues he's not familiar with.

"You shouldn't speak about things you know nothing about," wrote a young man on Facebook.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

NOTE: On September 3, days after this story was published, Ayatollah Shirazi said his comments regarding 3G services had been distorted. The cleric said he is not against technology while adding that Western technologies are like muddy unclean water. "Water is the source of life yet when it is dirty it must be refined," the cleric was quoted as saying on his website. 

Thousands Attend Iranian Poet Behbahani's Funeral

Women hold pictures of Iranian poet Simin Behbahani at her funeral in Tehran on August 22.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Thousands of Iranians, including prominent intellectuals, artists, and rights activists, have attended a funeral ceremony held in Tehran for celebrated poet and women’s rights advocate Simin Behbahani.

Behbahani, known as Iran’s lady of "ghazal" for her use of a traditional genre that employs a series of couplets, died on August 19 in a hospital in the Iranian capital of heart failure and respiratory problem.

The two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature was 87.

Iran’s most famous classical singer, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, said Behbahani had made history: “Simin [Behbahani] will always remain alive in our history and live on in us,” Shajarian was quoted as saying by Iranian news agencies.

“Simin Behbahani, the crown of Iran’s women,” some chanted, according to a participant who spoke to RFE/RL.

Behbahani was laid to rest at Tehran’s Behesht Zahra cemetery, where her father is buried, Iranian media reported.

Her burial location has led to some controversy amid reports that Iranian authorities had prevented the family to lay Behbahani to rest at Imamzadeh Taher cemetery, where many prominent literary figures and dissidents have been buried.

Ahead of the ceremony, Fariborz Raisdana, a friend and colleague of Behbahani's in the Iranian Writers Association, wrote on his Facebook page about official pressure and said that in protest he would not attend the funeral.

Writer and journalist Ali Dehbashi, who attended the ceremony, told RFE/RL that the family had said that Behbahani had included two options in her last will for her burial place, including the Imamzadeh Taher cemetery. 

According to Dehbashi, a relative said at the funeral that the family had chosen the second option, which was Behesht Zahra.

The outspoken Behbahani had faced the wrath of Iranian authorities, who had censored her work and banned her from traveling to an International Women’s Day event in Paris in 2010.

In her poems, Behbahani tackled topics such as patriotism, women’s issues, war, peace, revolution, poverty, justice, and other challenges facing Iran and its people.

One of the speakers at Behbahani's funeral, writer and poet Javad Mojabi, said the poetess always remained loyal to her people.

Iranian tenor Shahram Nazeri sang one of Behbahani's popular poems, titled “My Country, I Will Build You Again."

Among the participants at Behbahani’s funeral was prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh.

Many Iranians are mourning the death of Behbahani, who touched their hearts through her words and her stanzas in support of human rights and freedom of speech.

"Simin Behbahani, you are in our hearts," some chanted while paying their last respects to the poet.

With additional reporting by Radio Farda's Mohammad Zarghami

Famed Iranian Poet Simin Behbahani Dies At 87

Simin Behbahani (right) during a visit by human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh (center) in 2010.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Simin Behbahani, one of Iran’s most prominent literary figures and a vocal human rights defender who was targeted with censorship and smear campaigns by Iranian authorities, has died in Tehran. She was 87.

A two-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in literature, Behbahani died on August 19 of heart failure and respiratory problems at a hospital in the Iranian capital, according to local news agencies.

Behbahani gained renown as master of “ghazal,” a traditional genre of Persian poetry comprising a series of couplets, much like the Western sonnet. Her words resonated deeply among Iranians, both in intellectual circles and the general public. Some of her poems were set to music, and many are widely known by heart among Iranians.

Behbahani reconciled ghazal with modernity and reinvented the literary form, which traditionally had been reserved for men, says Farzaneh Milani, who has translated some of Behbahani’s poems into English and written the first collection of articles about her poetry.

“Ghazal was defined as a poem that a man wrote for a woman. Simin Behbahani changed that age-old pattern,” says Milani. “Now it’s a woman who is singing her love for a man. One can say that Iranian men were finally unveiled in a Persian ghazal; they became the object of love rather than the loving subject.”

Milani, who teaches Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, says that, as a woman, she takes “great pride in the fact that [Behbahani] desegregated the arena of this old Persian form.”

“It’s no longer possible to talk about ghazal and only talk about men,” Milani says.

In her hundreds of poems, Behbahani tackled issues such as patriotism, women’s issues, war, peace, revolution, poverty, justice, and other challenges facing Iran and its people.
Behabahani, the winner of several international poetry and human rights awards, told RFE/RL in a 2012 interview that her work reflected her concerns for her compatriots, their joy and suffering.

Literary Roots

Behbahani was born in Tehran on July 20, 1927, into a family of intellectuals. Her mother was a poet and a French teacher, while her father was a writer and the editor of a newspaper. She wrote her first poem during World War II at the age of 14.

“Our country had also been affected, and after the war, people were facing a tough situation,” Behbahani told RFE/RL. “And I wrote a poem that began as follows: ‘Oh, poor and distressed nation, what holds you back?’” 

Her concern for social issues remained with her throughout her life, which was marked by two personal tragedies: the death of her second husband and the loss of a grandchild.

“In all my poems I want to be with my people and share [their worries and problems], and I don’t know if I’ve been up to the task or not,” she told RFE/RL's Radio Farda in 2012.

Respected Activist
Behabahani touched Iranians not only through her literary achievements, but also through her political stances.

Iranian rights activists often turned to her for moral support and inspiration, and she became the spiritual mother the women’s movement in Iran that has pushed for greater rights and equality in the Islamic republic. 

When an initiative called the “One Million Signature Campaign Against Discriminatory Laws” was nominated for the Simone de Beauvoir Prize for Women’s Freedom in 2009, the campaign organizers asked Behbahani to travel to Paris to accept the award.

A year later, Iranian authorities banned her from traveling to Paris for an International Women’s Day Event.
“Iran’s women’s rights movement lost its greatest advocate,” activist Talat Taghinia wrote in an article celebrating Behbahani’s legacy. “The encouraging presence of the lady of Iran’s ghazal in the women’s movement and her determination made activists more hopeful about the clear but bumpy road of achieving equal rights.” 

Behbahani, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1999 and 2002, was among numerous poets and writers who were blacklisted by Iranian hard-liners and denounced as subversive.

Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, a friend of Behbahani’s, said the poet greatly contributed to the fight for freedom of expression in Iran.

“Simin Behbahani was for many years active in Iran’s Writers Association. She was a major supporter of those who had ended up in prison over their writings,” Ebadi told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Iranians have flooded social media with tributes to Behbahani by posting her pictures and work, including her poem “Stop Throwing My Country to the Wind.”

Behbahani wrote the poem after Iran’s brutal 2009 crackdown on opposition activists who took to the streets of Tehran and other cities to protest alleged election fraud: 

Stop this extravagance, this reckless throwing of my country to the wind.
The grim-faced rising cloud, will grovel at the swamp's feet.
Stop this screaming, mayhem, and bloodshed.
Stop doing what makes God's creatures mourn with tears.
My curses will not be upon you, as in their fulfillment.
My enemies' afflictions also cause me pain.
You may wish to have me burned, or decide to stone me.
But in your hand match or stone will lose their power to harm me.

In one of her last interviews with RFE/RL, Behbahani said she wanted to be remembered for her honesty and sincerity.

“In my life, I’ve always said what my heart told me to say, and I’ve expressed the way I felt. If anyone wants to remember me, [he or she] should remember me as an honest and sincere person whose heart was always with the people,” she said.

Radio Farda broadcaster Elahe Ravanshad contributed to this report

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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