Sunday, November 23, 2014

Iran 'Blogfather' Thanks 'His Holiness Ayatollah Khamenei' Following Prison Release

An undated photo of Hossein Derakhshan in Tehran

Iranian blogger Hossein Derakhshan has been released from prison after serving six years of his unprecedented 19 1/2-year prison sentence.

Derakhshan, dubbed Iran's "blogfather" for his role popularizing the medium, wrote on Google+ on November 19 about his release and said that he had been pardoned by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

"I am free after six years. Thank You, God. Thank you, Your Holiness Ayatollah Khamenei," he wrote.

Derakhshan said that he had been informed of Khamenei's decision after returning to Evin prison following a two-week prison leave that had not been extended.

In past years, despite his heavy prison sentence, Derakhshan had reportedly been in and out of the prison on several occasions on furlough.

Derakhshan, a highly controversial figure, was arrested in November 2008 after returning to Iran from Canada and Britain, where he had been residing.

He was put on trial and sentenced to prison on charges that included spreading propaganda against the Islamic establishment, insulting Iranian leaders, and working with hostile governments, a charge that was reportedly leveled against him over a trip to Israel.

Iranian citizens are banned from traveling to Israel, which Iran does not recognize as a state. Derakhshan said he had traveled to Israel in an effort to bridge differences between Israelis and Iranians.

Derakhshan, who was originally considered a reformist, later became a supporter of the Iranian establishment. He expressed support for former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Iran's nuclear activities.

In an interview conducted two years ago by university professor and film critic Shahab Esfandiari, whom Derakhshan had thanked upon release and to whom he referred as his brother, the blogger said that he had been in solitary confinement for eight months without access to books or newspapers.

Esfandiari wrote on Google+ on November 19 that he decided to publish the interview because of the "questions" and "lies" surrounding Derakhshan's release.

Later he said he spent nine months in what he described as "semi-solitary confinement" where he said he had limited access to books and newspapers. He said that during his time in prison he learned some French and Italian and wrote a novel.

The novel, he said, is about a young Iranian who grew up in Europe and is trying to find his true identity. After returning to Iran and under the influence of his "anti-Zionist fiancee," he said, the young man sacrifices his life for an Iranian nuclear scientist and becomes a "martyr."

In the interview, Derakhshan also addressed accusations that he had worked with security forces during his incarceration.

He said after his interrogation sessions had ended, authorities had asked him to offer his analysis about "Western efforts aimed at a soft overthrow of the Islamic republic."

Two months after the disputed 2009 presidential vote and the mass antigovernment protests, Derakhshan said he was asked to offer his analysis of the alleged "soft war" against Iran in a video interview.

He said he later found that his analysis was used in the indictment against those arrested in the postelection crackdown.

In the interview, Derkhshan also said that if released, he'd like to show the world that Iran is treated unjustly because it wants to have a "different system."

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's Game Of Drones

Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami poses with a new, locally made combat drone during an unveiling ceremony in Tehran on September 23.

"Yes, We Can," "Iranian Bat," "Inbama" (eds.: this is with us, in Persian), "The Eagle of the Persian Gulf," "Pride," "Phoenix," and "Fearless."

These are some of the names Iranians have suggested for an aircraft Tehran says it has manufactured based on a U.S. drone captured in 2011.

The suggestions come following a call by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on Iranians inside and outside the country to offer names for the Iranian drone, which Tehran claims it successfully tested on November 12. 

The Iranian replica has been praised by IRGC commanders and other Iranian officials as a major achievement and a blow to the United States. They claim that Iranian engineers have managed to improve the efficiency of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel. The Pentagon has downplayed the claims and said that the Iranian replica is an inferior copy. 

In a statement posted on Iranian news sites, the IRGC said that due to the "importance of naming" the Iranian drone, it was calling on "appreciative" Iranian citizens, particularly the youth, to text their suggestions to a number it provided.

In a separate statement, the Revolutionary Guards said that Iranians outside the country could also offer their suggestions via e-mail. The IRGC said it had been contacted by many Iranian expats and "fans of the Islamic Revolution" demanding to be able to take part in the naming of the "Iranian RQ-170." 

The individual with the best name will be rewarded with an "exquisite gift", the IRGC has promised.

Dozens of names have already been posted under the IRGC statements by readers of the website of the hard-line Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. They include "Trophy 170", "What You Can Do, I Can Do Better," and "Swallow." 

In what appeared to be a show of force and sarcasm , the commander of the IRGC's aerospace division, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, was quoted last week by Iranian media as saying that Iran could offer the United States a copy of the captured drone.

"We will not extradite the US RQ-170 drone, since it is a [war] trophy, but if Iranian sanctions against the U.S. are lifted, maybe we will give the U.S. an Iranian model of the drone," Hajizadeh was quoted as saying

--Golnaz Esfandiari 

Iranian Activists, Intellectuals Express Support For Nuclear Deal

Iranian political activist Taghi Rahmani is one of the signatories of a statement calling for a positive outcome to Iran's nuclear negotiations ahead of a November 24 deadline. (file photo)

Many Iranians are watching the new round of nuclear talks in Vienna between major world powers and Iran with great interest, hoping for a deal that would lead to the lifting of economic sanctions imposed on their country and an improvement in their daily lives.

Among those hoping for an agreement are intellectuals, political activists, opposition members, and some victims of the Iranian establishment's repressive policies.

 "We want maximum flexibility from both sides for the talks to succeed," said a statement signed by some 70 political and social activists inside and outside the country that was issued amid the looming November 24 deadline.

The signatories include Parvin Fahimi whose son was killed in the 2009 postelection state crackdown on oppositionists and the well-known national religious activist Taghi Rahmani, who has been jailed and harassed by the Iranian regime.

The statement says that a positive outcome to the nuclear talks would help peace in the region and also aid democratic progress in Iran.

The statement warns that Iranian "radicals opposed to freedom and democracy" and "pro- war forces" would be the ones to benefit should the talks fail. 

In a separate statement, over 100 Iranian intellectuals, political activists, and former student leaders have issued a similar warning.

They write that any failure to reach a breakthrough in the nuclear talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group of world powers -- composed of the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany -- would be beneficial for radical forces in the region and in Israel. 

The group has called on Iran to show flexibility in the nuclear talks and not allow the negotiations to fail over the capacity of its nuclear-enrichment program. 

"In our view, [Iran's] uranium-enrichment program does not have an economic justification, even though, in principle, based on the [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty], Iran has the right to enrich uranium."

The activists warn that the lack of a nuclear agreement would strengthen the foreign policy desired by Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which they say has had catastrophic results for Iranians.

"Its substance is the policy of no war and no peace [i.e. no conflict, but no normalized relations] in the region along with the continuation of 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' slogans," the signatories write.

They also write that the majority of Iranians are not willing to pay the price for the establishment's tension-creating policies and its nuclear ambitions.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari


Iranians Mourn Fallen Pop Star With Puzzling Public Outpouring

Mourners pay their respects to Morteza Pashaei outside the Tehran hospital where he died on November 14. The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Widespread public grieving in Iran over the death of a popular pop star has puzzled many inside and outside the country. 

Morteza Pashaei, a 30-year-old singer who released his first album only a few years ago, died of stomach cancer on November 14 at a hospital in Tehran.

Since then, thousands of Iranians across the country have taken to the streets to mourn his passing with candle vigils and renditions of his hit songs.

The crowd that gathered in the Iranian capital for Pashaei’s funeral on November 16 was so large that his burial at the Behesht Zahra cemetery was delayed by several hours, news agencies reported.

Images and videos of the funeral show men and women crying while holding his portraits.

Morteza PashayiMorteza Pashayi
Morteza Pashayi
Morteza Pashayi

The last time Iranians took to the streets spontaneously in such large numbers was following the disputed 2009 presidential election that led to the rise of the opposition Green Movement.

Iranian media have debated what exactly is driving this outpouring, which is now being called “the phenomenon of Morteza Pashaei.”

Love, Romance, And Social Media

Pashaei touched many hearts with his melancholy voice and his battle with cancer at a young age. The singer gave concerts in more than 20 small and large cities across Iran after he was diagnosed with the disease. 

While many of his songs had been banned on Iran’s government-controlled television, some of his hits were broadcast on state media, reaching millions of Iranians.

“Pashei was popular, his songs are romantic, and people here are into love and romance. [Many] have memories with Pashaei’s [songs],” a Tehran-based journalist told RFE/RL, adding that social media played a role as well. 

A Pashaei fan, also in Tehran, said the news of his death “exploded” on social media.

“People would post his pictures, his songs, and write sad status updates and send group messages on Viber,” the fan said, referring to a mobile app popular among Iranians. “The sadness that we felt over his death was doubled, tripled.”

She said that while many had taken to the streets to publicly display their sadness, others had joined the vigils out of curiosity.

“Many also came to the streets because, sadly, that’s the only entertainment they have and they felt maybe this is one of those occasions where the police would not take action,” one Pashaei fan told RFE/RL.

WATCH: A YouTube clip of Morteza Pashaei in concert:


Well-known sociologist Morteza Eghlima told the Aftabnews website that social restrictions were behind the public displays of grief. 

“Holding such gatherings is not merely because of the death of a singer but rather because of the need to fill in leisure time and people’s need for togetherness,” he said.

Iranians don’t have any public venues to vent the negative energy that accumulates due to the lack of jobs, economic security, and peace of mind, Eghlima said.

News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.
News of Pashaei's death exploded on Iranian social media.

An analyst in Tehran who did not want to be named said Iranians use every possible opportunity to reject the state-imposed ideology and culture.

“When was the last time people took to the streets for a state event without being bussed in and offered free [treats]?” the analyst said. 

Power Of Popular Music

Sociologist Azar Tashakor told the “Shargh” daily that many, including herself, were startled by the reaction to Pashaei’s death.

Both government officials and intellectuals in Iran who pay little attention to popular art and music were unaware of how deeply such works resonate with broad swathes of society, Tashakor said, adding that she believes Pashaei’s cancer evoked grassroots sympathy for the singer.

“Many people or their relatives are suffering from this disease,” she said.

Afshin Davarpanah, an anthropologist, was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Pashaei is seen as a symbol of Iran’s youth, which is mourning for itself in the face of many difficult problems and challenges. 

“[It is] an excuse to cry for a generation whose future is the constant worry of families,” he said. 

Public expressions of grief over Pashaei’s passing will soon subside, but the “secret mourning” of Iranian society will remain, Davarpahan added.

Several Iranian officials offered condolences following Pashaei’s death, as did the U.S. State Department’s Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre

Video Interview: Iran's 'Rosewater' Journalist Maziar Bahari Is 'Not Expecting A Revolution'

"Rosewater" film director Jon Stewart, Iranian subject Maziar Bahari, and Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal (left to right) pose at the Toronto film festival on September 8.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian-born journalist Maziar Bahari, whose detention and torture by Iranian authorities are given cinematic treatment in “Rosewater,” a new film by U.S. political satirist and “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, tells RFE/RL that he wants officials in Tehran to watch the film and rethink their actions.

RFE/RL: Jon Stewart’s directorial debut, “Rosewater,” is based on your incarceration in Iran during the 2009 antigovernment protests and the book you co-authored about your experience, “Then They Came For Me.” How closely does the film hew to what you really went through?

Maziar Bahari: The film is a good interpretation of the book, and the book is 350 pages about a life story and also 118 days of incarceration and many memories during that time, many other events. So we had to adapt the book for the film, but I think the film is true to the truth of the story. The reality is different here and there, but that’s not very important. The truth of the story is there.

RFE/RL: The film shows the psychological torture you were subjected to, including solitary confinement and sessions with your interrogator, whom you nicknamed "Mr. Rosewater" because of his perfume. But it does not show some of the physical torture you experienced. Why did you decide to tone down the torture?

Bahari: We didn’t want to include physical torture that much, first of all because you don’t want to numb the audience to the torture. And we see many films that are borderline torture porn right now, and we didn’t want to create that. The way that Jon Stewart describes it is that he wants it to be like the shark in “Jaws.” So he doesn’t want it to be present from the beginning. But it always lingers in the background.

And also, I think what I went through and some other people went through right after the [disputed 2009 presidential] election [in Iran], were anomalies in Iran or many other countries because most countries are not sadistic. They just want to serve their own purposes, and it is usually served through psychological torture because physical torture has proven not to be that effective -- because you either break and you just lie or you reach nirvana state and then you think you’re invincible. But with psychological torture, you can torture the prisoner as much as you want and then you can manipulate that person. And the worst kind of psychological torture is, of course, solitary confinement.

RFE/RL: How did you feel when you first saw the final version of the film?

Bahari: Jon and I, we talked about the film before he started to write the script because we wanted someone else to write the script and we sent it to different people. They were either busy or they were not interested or they wanted too much money. So after a year and a half he decided to do it himself, and we worked on the script together. And then I was on the set every day, so I saw the footage, then I saw the rough cuts, then I saw the final rough cuts.

But I remember when I saw the first rough cut, it was quite a moving moment, and I think it was a seminal moment in my friendship with Jon Stewart. I remember I was on my own in the editing room, and I didn’t know what was going on outside. I knew that the film was not finished, but what I was seeing was a great film already. It needed a little bit of adjustment here and there. And then when I opened the door, I saw Jon Stewart holding his three-legged dog. He was really afraid of my reaction, and he didn’t know what to expect. I was pleased with the film. I went there and I hugged him, I hugged the editor, and I think from that moment on he really felt comfortable with the process.

WATCH the official trailer for "Rosewater":

RFE/RL: How was it to work with Jon Stewart?

Bahari: He’s great. He’s a very good manager. He manages a huge team on a daily basis because “The Daily Show” is a big production, and also he’s very collaborative, he’s very open to ideas and suggestions and, like many geniuses I’ve met in my life, he’s very quick in absorbing people’s ideas and giving them his own twist. And also he’s very funny, which really helped us in Jordan because it was not a very easy shoot. It was really hot, it was during the Ramadan, the Jordanian film industry is less than perfect, less than prepared. So he really had to entertain people in order to mobilize them.

RFE/RL: What do you want people to take away from the film?

Bahari: I want people to think about what journalists are going through on a daily basis, not only in Iran but all around the world, in different countries. Ideally, I like when people watch the news to look at what is happening behind the scenes and have a better understanding. But also, ideally I’d like some people within the Iranian government to watch the film and regard it as a mirror of their actions, see how ridiculous they are, see how brutal they are. And if they are relatively rational -- there are many rational people within the Iranian government, they’re just serving a bad system -- just to rethink their ideas and try to change a little bit. I’m not expecting a revolution or anything. Just a little change would be fine.

RFE/RL: Iranians usually access the latest Western movies very quickly. Do you know if black-market copies of “Rosewater” are already available in Iran?

Bahari: I haven’t heard anything from Iran, but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the film is available in Iran within a week or so.

RFE/RL: A deadline for world powers and Iran to reach a lasting nuclear agreement is less than 10 days away, and there is talk of an extension. How do you think a potential deal would impact the domestic situation in Iran? Do you think it can improve the human rights situation by giving President Hassan Rohani leverage?

Bahari: I don’t think the government of Iran -- neither the president nor the supreme leader -- have any plans to improve the human rights situation. But I think the human rights situation in Iran will go through different phases. Ultimately I think it will improve in the long run, but in the short run there will be some setbacks because there are some ideological elements or people whose material interest is in suppression.

Video Video Appears To Show Police Harassment In Iran

Police officers in the past have publicly paraded alleged thieves, muggers, and others in crackdowns on "thugs" and "gangs." Law enforcement officials say it improves security.

Four young men are publicly paraded in the back of a vehicle while masked men in black who appear to be members of Iran's police force beat them up and tell them "to bleat" like sheep.

One of the young men has his hair pulled and is repeatedly hit on the head while being forced to eat leaves. "I want to see you bleat," one of the balaclava-clad men shouts.

The young men appear to have no choice but to obey. They make animal sounds while the masked men assault them.

"I eat ***," the young men shout, using a Persian slang expression that means he made a serious mistake. "I was wrong, I was wrong," another shouts. The beatings continue.

A YouTube video of the disturbing scene has circulated on the Internet since last week. 

The date and location of the video, which has raised rare public criticism in Iran, is unclear, as is the reason for the public shaming and mistreatment of the men.

On November 9, the Iranian daily "Farhikhtegan" interviewed several lawyers who said it was illegal for police to beat up suspects and criminals. The four young men in the video are likely to be "neighborhood thugs," the newspaper added.

"If the video is [genuine], then police have committed a crime [and] acted against the law even by publicly parading thugs and hooligans," lawyer Shapoor Esmailian was quoted as saying by the daily.

Another lawyer, Abdolsamad Khoramshahi, said that even if the young men in the video are thugs who have committed crimes, the police forces do not have the right to beat them up and insult them.

Police officials have not commented publicly on the video.

Police officers in the past have publicly paraded alleged thieves, muggers, and others in crackdowns on "thugs" and "gangs." Law enforcement officials have defended the moves by saying that they improve security.

The crackdowns have been documented by Iranian state media

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Dear Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei…

Besides this latest reported letter, President Barack Obama (left) has purportedly written to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (right) on three previous occasions.

U.S. President Barack Obama has penned several letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the past five years, leading American media have reported.

Obama's latest letter, his fourth, was sent to Khamenei in mid-October, according to a November 6 report by "The Wall Street Journal." 

Obama stressed in the letter that any cooperation with Iran in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants is contingent on whether Tehran and major world powers can reach a deal over Iran's nuclear program by a November 24 deadline, the newspaper reported.

Responding to the report, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice said on November 7 that Washington is "in no way" coordinating with Iran militarily to counter IS militants and that there is "no linkage" between U.S. efforts to end a standoff over Iran's nuclear activities and the campaign against IS fighters.

Here is a glance at Obama's previous reported missives to the Iranian leader.

First Letter

Obama sent his first letter to Khamenei a few weeks prior to the 2009 presidential election in Iran that resulted in the disputed re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Iranian and Western media reported. 

The letter reportedly called for improving relations between the two countries, which have been at odds since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran that saw the ouster of the U.S.-backed shah.

The Iranian leader confirmed the correspondence in his Friday Prayers sermon delivered on June 19, 2009. 

Khamenei, who spoke in the sermon about the postelection antigovernment demonstrations, accused the United States of sending mixed messages.  

"The president of America was quoted as saying: 'We were expecting the day that Iranians would take to the streets.' On the other hand, they send us letters, they express interest in [re-establishing] ties, they express respect for the Islamic republic. Which one of these remarks should we believe?" he said. 

Second Letter 

Obama sent a second letter to Khamenei several weeks later, according to Iranian and Western media reports.

The conservative Iranian website "Tabnak" reported in September 2009 that Obama used an "unprecedented" and "very polite" tone in the letter while proposing changes in bilateral ties.

The U.S. newspaper "The Washington Times" quoted Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), as saying that Khamenei responded to Obama's first letter and that Obama had sent a second letter. 

In a speech delivered on November 3, 2009, Khamenei again mentioned the correspondence while rejecting Obama's outreach.

Khamenei, who has the final say in the Islamic republic, characterized the U.S. president's expressed desire for change as merely lip service. 

"This new U.S. president had nice words, he has given us messages repeatedly -- spoken and written [messages] -- saying: 'Let's turn the page, let's create a new situation, let's work with each other to solve the world's problems,'" he said. 

The Iranian leader, however, said the Islamic republic had witnessed from the U.S. side only the opposite of what Washington was saying. 

Third Letter

Obama penned another letter to Khamenei in 2012, according to conservative Iranian lawmaker Ali Motahari, who claimed that the U.S. leader had called for direct talks with Tehran. 

"The letter said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is [Washington's] red line, and it also called for direct negotiations," Motahari said in January 2012. 

The first part of the letter contained threats, while the second part was friendly in tone, Motahari added. 

The United States broke its diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 embassy takeover and the hostage-taking of American diplomats in Tehran.

Tensions between the two countries have eased greatly since last year's election of Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who has promised moderation at home and on the international scene.

Obama and Rohani spoke by telephone in September 2013. 

The call marked the first direct talks between the leaders of the two countries since the 1979 revolution.

-- 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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