Saturday, November 28, 2015

Senior Iranian Cleric Refuses To Meet With Culture Minister

Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi's office issued the statement a few days after the Culture Ministry claimed that Jannati had not been able to meet the ayatollah during last week's trip to Qom due to the cleric's "illness."

Golnaz Esfandiari

Senior Qom-based hard-line Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi has refused to meet with Iranian Culture Minister Ali Jannati to demonstrate his disapproval of the ministry's policies, deemed too liberal by hard-liners.

In a statement issued on November 18, Makarem Shirazi's office said the senior ayatollah had "major objections" to some of the books that have been published, and also to some movies and music that have been released.

Publishers have said that Iran's tough censoring of books has slightly eased since the 2013 coming to power of self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani.

"In case of change, [the ayatollah] will not only meet with [Jannati], but he will also praise and thank him. [Otherwise] meeting him would be a sign of approval," the statement said.

Makarem Shirazi's office issued the statement a few days after the Culture Ministry claimed that Jannati had not been able to meet the ayatollah during last week's trip to Qom due to the cleric's "illness."

Jannati had reportedly met a few other senior ayatollahs, including Nouri Hamedani and Safi Golpayegani.

Hard-liners have been critical of some of the cultural and social policies of Rohani who has promised Iranians more rights and less state intervention in their lives.

The Culture Ministry has been accused of allowing solo singing by women, which has been banned since the 1979 revolution and the creation of an Islamic republic. Jannati has said that the "rumors" are spread by those giving false information to senior clerics and lawmakers.

In February, Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani criticized a newly released album of traditional music that included female singing.

Qom, the base of a number of influential senior clerics, is considered one of the centers of power in the Islamic republic.

Government officials and authorities often travel to Qom for lobbying purposes and also in order to receive support for their policies.

Red-Wine Lines: French Impasse Highlights Iranian Envoys' No-No's

Iranian President Hassan Rohani won't be asking to see the wine list at any state functions he attends on his trip to Europe, nor will he be shaking hands with any women.

Golnaz Esfandiari

French and Iranian officials have abandoned a plan to break bread next week when Iran's president comes to Paris as part of a European tour aimed at reengaging diplomatically and perhaps economically. 

Specifically, the two sides reportedly nixed the idea of a state dinner for Hassan Rohani after Tehran requested that the French avoid serving wine at the function and ensure that the meat is halal, or prepared according to strict Islamic standards. A counteroffer from the avidly secular French to make it a breakfast meeting was said to have been dismissed by the Iranians as excessively "cheap." 

The rest of Rohani's official visit -- which comes on the heels of a landmark nuclear deal that could thaw decades of frosty relations -- will go ahead.

It was unclear whether Rohani's team was running into a similar problem on the first leg of his European tour, in Rome, where Italians' fondness for wine has trumped diplomacy before.

But there have been notable instances in the past when cultural constraints that the Islamic Republic of Iran places on its officials practicing statecraft abroad have caused friction.

And they are not limited to meals. Some of the other prohibitions that Iranian envoys must follow on state visits include no handshakes between men and women and a no female dancing.

Afternoon Tea

Drinking alcohol and physical contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex are also banned domestically. 

An unnamed official in charge of protocol at Iran's Foreign Ministry told the ISNA news agency on November 11 that "according to Islamic values and teachings, Iranian officials do not attend banquets where alcohol is served."

In October 1999, a trip to France by the Iranian president at the time, reformist Mohammad Khatami, was postponed after he refused to attend a reception at the Elysee Palace because his request for alcohol-free meals was rejected.

Khatami visited France several months later, when his French counterpart Jacques Chirac invited him for afternoon tea.

In 2002, Spain canceled a state banquet in honor of Khatami after Tehran insisted on the alcohol ban. 

A former deputy head of mission at Iran's embassy in Finland, Hossein Alizadeh, says such rules and sensitivities are transmitted and coordinated with host countries through the Foreign Ministry's office of protocol. In the case of diplomats, he says, the rules are transmitted via embassies.

"For example, authorities are reminded that [male Iranian officials] don't shake hands with women so that women [attending events with Iranian officials] don't try to shake hands and feel embarrassed [when the gesture is not reciprocated]."

Instead of shaking hands with the opposite sex, Iranian diplomats often bow or clutch their hands close to their chests.

'Nonsensical Law'

Alizadeh, who resigned from his post and sought political asylum following the 2009 presidential election and crackdown, says that, during his time as a diplomat, he would shake hand with women when he felt it was safe -- meaning no one was around to report back to Tehran and create problems. 

He says he didn't want to go to great lengths to explain why he wouldn't shake hands with women due to a "nonsensical law."

"[Diplomats] often apologize and say that they don't shake hands with women, then try to explain by saying that they respect women and that they don't mean to insult anyone, and so on. In practice, we would see that many women become offended."

Perhaps that's why Khatami decided to shake the hands of several women who approached him during a visit to the Italian city of Udine in 2007. A video and pictures of the handshakes with women who greeted the former president after a speech brought him trouble. 

Hard-liners said he should have been defrocked for endangering Islam. 

Khatami's office dismissed the photos as tampered-with and denied any handshakes had taken place.

For hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2013, it was a sympathetic hug that prompted an avalanche of criticism. 

Ahmadinejad consoled and embraced the 78-year-old mother of his deceased friend, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, at the funeral, pictures of the event released by news agencies showed. 

Hard-liners condemned Ahmadinejad's behavior and said he had violated Islamic norms. Again, presidential aides claimed the pictures had been photoshopped.

In 2006, Ahmadinejad was criticized for another perceived faux pas. He was said to have attended a ceremony at the Asian Games in Qatar that included women singing and dancing, The Guardian reported. 

Conservatives questioned why he had attended an event where Islamic laws had been violated. Ahmadinejad's aides maintained that he was not present during the performance.

Rohani Hits Back At Iranian Hard-Liners Over Spate Of Arrests

While Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his ministers have expressed a desire for better ties with the West, hard-liners have made it clear that the nuclear deal should not result in a rapprochement with the United States.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has criticized a recent wave of arrests carried out by the intelligence branch of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

The arrests appear to be a backlash against Iran's landmark nuclear agreement reached with world powers in July, as well as part of hard-liners' efforts to stifle the political atmosphere ahead of national elections early next year.

While Rohani and his ministers have expressed a desire for better ties with the West, hard-liners have made it clear that the deal should not result in a rapprochement with the United States.

Speaking at a November 4 cabinet meeting, Rohani appeared to criticize the IRGC directly. "We should not arrest people gratuitously, making up cases against them and saying they are a part of an infiltration network," he said.

In a statement issued the day before, the IRGC's widely feared intelligence branch said it had arrested members of an "infiltration network" who had links with "hostile governments."

The statement said the arrests followed "months" of surveillance efforts. No names were provided, but the IRGC said it would provide further information in the future.

Speaking in a telephone interview with Iran's state television on November 3, an "expert" with the IRGC's intelligence unit said the arrested members of the alleged network wrote against "Iran's national interests" and "the values of the Islamic revolution" at the behest of foreign intelligence services.

"Beautifying the U.S.'s image, creating false cases of human rights [violations], and paving the way for the presence of Americans in Iran, was among their activities," said the IRGC member, who was identified only as Asef.

At least four journalists, including a former deputy culture minister, have been arrested in the past three days, while others have been reportedly summoned and threatened by the IRGC's intelligence unit.

Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese IT expert who had attended a conference in Tehran, and Siamak Namazi, an Iranian-American businessman who was visiting his relatives in the Iranian capital, have been also targeted in recent weeks.

Their arrests come amid warnings by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior officials about Washington's alleged efforts "to infiltrate" the Islamic republic.

Khamenei has called on the authorities to remain vigilant about U.S. "political and cultural" penetration in the wake of the nuclear agreement.

IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari also warned this week about post-nuclear-deal "sedition."

"It seems that [the sedition] will be longer and will last for several years," Jafari was quoted as saying by domestic news sites on November 2.

The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said the arrested journalists -- Issa Sahakhiz, Ehsan Mazandarani, Afarine Chitsaz, and Saman Safarzaee -- were victims of "the supreme leader's paranoia and infighting among the ruling elite's various factions."

"Such paranoid discoveries of 'spies' and 'espionage networks' occur with tragically comic regularity in the run-up to elections," the organization said in a November 4 statement.

Iran's reformists are hoping to make a comeback in elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts that are slated to be held in February 2016.

Iranian Authorities Clip Bogus KFC's Wings

A man walks past the fried chicken shop Halal KFC, which Iranian authorities closed on November 3.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Nothing says "America" quite like the opening of a bogus Kentucky Fried Chicken in the Iranian capital.

Too American, it seems, for Iranian authorities, who apparently spoiled the grand opening of a Turkish-born, Muslim-focused, "KFC Halal" restaurant in Tehran because they considered it a serious cultural threat.

Just two days after it opened, potential customers were greeted on November 3 by locked doors bearing an announcement that the restaurant had been closed down.

No reason was given, but criticism on hard-line websites suggested that the restaurant -- whose signage includes images of the American chain's iconic mascot, Colonel Sanders, before a red-and-white striped backdrop that some suggested resembled the U.S. flag -- could be viewed as American influence on Iranian culture, and thus is a grave danger to the Islamic republic.

It was a sharp reversal from the fanfare that accompanied the restaurant's November 1 opening, when pictures posted on the store's website showed customers lined up to get a taste of southern fried chicken.

In reporting the closure, Tasnim described the restaurant as the first branch of the U.S. fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken.

But that was news to KFC's parent company, Yum! Brands.

"We are shocked with the news that an illegitimate KFC outlet has opened in Tehran, Iran," the Kentucky-based company said in a statement sent to RFE/RL. "No franchise rights have been granted to any party in Iran. We are in contact with local authorities and external advisers and will be filing a legal action against any company or individuals claiming to have rights to open KFC."

Tasnim and other Iranian media reported that the restaurant did not have a license to operate in Iran, but the restaurant's manager has said a mistake has been made.

"The shutting down of KFC Halal was due to a misunderstanding," the store's manager, Abbas Pazuki, was quoted as saying by Tasnim. "We are part of a brand known as KFC Halal, which comes from Turkey. It belongs to Muslims and its target market is Muslim nations."

Lest there be any doubt, Pazuki clarified that KFC Halal was indeed a rival of the American chain. "We as Iranians didn't like to work with Americans, [so] we worked with Turks."

In the "about us" section of KFC Halal's website, the company draws on mythology and Iran's history of overcoming its enemies, and characterizes the opening of the new restaurant as an example of a modern, scientific business model. 

Ali Fazeli, the head of Iran’s chamber of commerce, confirmed that KFC Halal has no connection with the U.S. fast food chain.

"In accordance with orders from the Supreme Leader, we do not give any authorization to Western brands" in the fast food sector, Fazeli was quoted as saying by ILNA news agency.

The restaurant’s closure comes amid growing warnings in Iran by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and other senior hard-line officials over alleged efforts by the United States "to infiltrate" the Islamic republic following the landmark nuclear deal reached in July.

Khamenei was quoted on November 1 as telling officials to be to "be watchful about irregular imports after lifting sanctions and seriously avoid importing consumer goods from the United States."

On November 3, Iranian media reported that 16 lawmakers had issued a letter to the interior and commerce ministers, warning against the opening of "Western-style" cafes and restaurants, particularly fried chicken restaurants.

Iran already has numerous Western-style restaurants that operate under names such as "Pizza Hat" and "Mash Donald's." In other cases, such as with the Starbucks impersonator Raees Coffee, company logos closely resemble those of American brands.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda 

Iranian Activists Campaign To Bring More Women Into Parliament

The nine women in the Iranian parliament make up about 3 percent of the legislature, far below what the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union says is a worldwide average of about 22 percent.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's parliament has 290 seats, and only nine of them are filled by women.

Women's rights activists want to change that. A group of Iranian activists is seeking to dilute the dominance of men in the country's parliament, pushing for a greater female presence in the legislature following elections in February 2016.

They also plan to promote candidates of both sexes who support greater rights for women -- and to "name and shame" those who do not, through a system of "red cards" and weekly reports parsing candidates' stances on gender equality.

Taking on Iran's patriarchal political world, organizers of the campaign hope to see the number of women in parliament eventually grow to at least 50, or 30 percent -- if not in the February elections, then in the future.

The campaign, called Changing The Parliament's Male Face, includes prominent activists and intellectuals such as publisher Shahla Lahiji and author Noushin Ahmadi Khorasani, a leading figure in the Islamic country's women's movement.

The activists warn that the tiny female presence in parliament thwarts efforts to grant more rights to women in Iran. It is not "surprising" to witness "the passing of laws that make women weaker day by day, instead of empowering them," they said in a statement at the official launch last week in Tehran.

The campaign comes ahead of the February elections in which reformists are hoping to make a comeback in a country dominated by a conservative religious and political elite.

The nine women in the Iranian parliament make up about 3 percent of the legislature, far below what the Swiss-based Inter-Parliamentary Union says is a worldwide average of about 22 percent. 

More Women No Guarantee

Members of the campaign realize that the mere presence of more female lawmakers will not guarantee of greater rights for women, because some female lawmakers have supported legislation restricting women's rights.

With that in mind, the campaign aims to support candidates who favor gender equality while drawing public attention to those whose records or statements show that they do not.

"We shouldn't allow candidates who do not support equal rights for women to enter the parliament; therefore we have to take steps to end the passivity among women," says Shiva Nazar Ahari, a rights activist and former political prisoner.

Members say they will scrutinize the life and work of potential candidates and offer weekly reports to the public, and will question them on women's issues and past legislation. They want to interview the wives and daughters of male candidates to get a taste of their attitudes toward women.

Campaigners also plan to educate the public and raise awareness through meetings, campaign materials, and video clips outlining their call for 50 parliamentary seats for women.

Nayereh Tohidi, the director of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at California State University, Northridge, says the campaign could have a positive impact on Iranian society even if it falls short of its goals. "The discourse, the different committees they're planning to create, giving red cards to antiwomen candidates, these are all an exercise in democracy," she says.

Tohidi, an expert on Iran's women's movement, believes Iran's political system -- in which a Muslim religious figure, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the "supreme leader" -- is the reason for the low representation of Iranian women in parliament and public office. "If you look at it symbolically, on top there's a father-figure, a dictator, who has absolute power. This in itself strengthens patriarchal relations on the political scene," Tohidi says.

Challenging The Status Quo

Despite state-imposed restrictions and discriminatory laws, Iranian women have made strides in recent years. They make up about 60 percent of university entrants and their economic role is also increasing.

Women have played key roles in elections, particularly the 1999 election of reformist Mohammad Khatami as president. In 2013, many women voted for the moderate President Hassan Rohani, who has spoken out against gender discrimination.

Speaking at the launch of the campaign in Tehran, researcher Pardis Ameri said women had played an important role in the country's political movements. But she added, "To this day, they have not reached a fitting share in the political structure, they have a weak role in this area."

Fatemeh HaghighatojuFatemeh Haghighatoju
Fatemeh Haghighatoju
Fatemeh Haghighatoju

Fatemeh Haghighatjou, a reformist who served in parliament from 2000 to 2004, says it will take time for women to have a greater presence on the political scene.

Haghighatjou, who now lives in the United States, says that her political activism as a student and her membership in Tehran's city council helped her gain a seat in the male-dominated parliament. "I was well-known and my background brought me the support of influential political parties," she tells RFE/RL.

Haghighatjou says that a quota system could help women gain seats in the parliament, and that women should have greater self-confidence. "Because I was a parliament member, I know that many of our women are more capable than some of the current lawmakers. But they have to put themselves out there and there should also be a change and growth in the society so that women get votes," she says.

Writing in the daily Bahar on October 29, Ahmadi Khorasani said that even if the powerful Guardians Council blocked candidates who support gender equality from running, their "numerous presence" could pose a challenge to those who don't.

"This is why we in the campaign Changing The Parliament's Male Face intend to use all the existing capacity and legal methods to directly challenge candidates who have a record of misogynistic views and background," Khorasani wrote.

Fresh Journalist Arrests In Iran Include Former Culture Official

Ehsan Mazandarani (right) and Issa Saharkhiz (composite photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian authorities have arrested two journalists, including a former deputy culture minister who was jailed in the 2009 crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

The son of ex-official Issa Saharkhiz told RFE/RL that his father was arrested on November 1 at his residence in Tehran on charges that include "insulting the supreme leader" and "propaganda against the regime."The arrests are likely to have a chilling effect on journalists and activists ahead of major elections early next year in Iran.

Meanwhile, a relative of Ehsan Mazandarani, editor in chief of the Iranian daily Farhikhtegan, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Mazandarani was detained the same day, also in the capital.

Mehdi Saharkhiz said his father was taken to an unknown location by seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), who also confiscated some of his personal belongings.

He linked the elder Saharkhiz's arrest to planned February 2016 elections for the parliament and the Assembly of Experts in which reformists are hoping to make a comeback.

Mehdi Saharkhiz said hard-liners appeared determined to stifle the country's political atmosphere, which some say has eased slightly since the election of relative moderate President Hassan Rohani.

"It seems as the election date approaches, [hard-liners] want to increase [the pressure] and take away the little power President [Rohani] has," he told RFE/RL.

Mehdi Saharkhiz said his father had vowed that upon arrest, he would launch a hunger strike.

Saharkhiz was released from jail in 2013, four years after his conviction on security charges, including "acting against Iran's national security." He was among dozens of journalists, intellectuals, and activists to have been arrested and put on trial in 2009.

Saharkhiz served as the head of the Culture Ministry's press office under former reformist President Mohammad Khatami.

Following his release from prison, Saharkhiz had remained outspoken in his criticism of the Iranian establishment and human rights violations.

Mazandarani was also taken into custody on November 1 at his home in Tehran, one of his relatives confirmed in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda. 

It was unclear what allegations he might be facing.

Mazandarani was previously arrested in 2013 and held at Tehran's Evin prison. Hard-line websites claimed at the time that he had been jailed over ties with "counterrevolutionary" media.

In recent weeks, several activists and intellectuals, including two poets, have been sentenced to heavy prison terms and lashes.

Siamak NamaziSiamak Namazi
Siamak Namazi
Siamak Namazi

Meanwhile, Iran has arrested a fourth Iranian-American, businessman Siamak Namazi, who was reportedly detained about three weeks ago by the intelligence branch of the IRGC. 

The reason for his arrest is unclear. But some observers regard it as a move by hard-liners who oppose any possible thaw in relations with the United States following a landmark nuclear agreement reached in July.

Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was convicted by an Iranian court last month after being put on trial on espionage charges dismissed by his paper and his family as absurd. 

With reporting by Radio Farda's Roozbeh Bolhari

Iran Airbrushes Late Dissident Cleric From TV

Iranian dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, dead since 2009, is apparently still capable of making Iran's state apparatus nervous.

Golnaz Esfandiari

It's been six years sincedissident Iranian Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri passed away.

Montazeri, one of the architects of the Islamic republic who turned into one of its fiercest critics, died of natural causes in December 2009 at the age of 87. But apparently he's still capable of making Iran's state apparatus nervous.

Iranian state-controlled television airbrushed Montazeri, who spent several years under house arrest, from an October 25 report showing a 1984 Friday Prayers speech by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. 

In the original, unedited video of the speech, a picture of Montazeri hangs next to an image of the Islamic republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. 

But in the footage of the speech aired in the recent state television report, Montazeri's portrait has been erased.

At the time of the speech, Montazeri was seen as Khomeini's potential heir. But his outspoken views and criticism of human rights abuses resulted in his persecution and house arrest.

In 2009, Montazeri became known as the spiritual father of the opposition movement that protested the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Montazeri blasted the postelection abuses and expressed support for the protest movement.

Some Iranian news sites and social-media users highlighted state TV's censorship of Montazeri's image, posting before-and-after images demonstrating the airbrushing. 

Last year, the editor in chief of the pro-reform Iranian daily newspaper Ruzan said the prosecutor's decision to suspend the publication was likely related to a December 20 edition featuring a front-page story about Montazeri.

Iran's state television, a major source of news and information for many in the country, is known for its censorship practices and propaganda

Earlier this month, the website of Iran's former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, accused state television of editing Rafsanjani out of a video of a meeting to commemorate Iranians killed last month in the hajj stampede in Saudi Arabia.

Iranian media had reported that senior officials, including Rafsanjani, who heads the Expediency Council, attended the October 5 meeting. The council's website posted pictures of Rafsanjani sitting next to Khamenei at the event. 

Rafsanjani also appeared in at least one picture of the ceremony posted on Khamenei's website. 

But Rafsanjani's website said that state television had "skillfully" censored footage of the event in its news bulletins "so that no viewer could tell that the head of the Expediency Council was also present at the ceremony."

Rafsanjani angered hard-liners after he criticized the 2009 postelection crackdown. His website was temporarily blocked in 2011.

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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