Friday, April 18, 2014


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Iranian Cleric Says Unhealthy Satellite Jamming Un-Islamic

Despite Iran's efforts to jam satellite channels and the crackdown on satellite dishes, many Iranians -- according to some estimates more than half -- watch foreign satellite TV channels.

Even if satellite jamming is a useful tool in protecting Islamic values, it is not permissible under Islamic law if it poses a health threat.

That's according to an Iranian grand ayatollah who recently made a ruling on the issue following an inquiry by a Shi'ite news agency.

Shafaqna, whose Persian-language material is produced in Tehran, recently posed the question:

"Given the enemy's exploitation of satellite channels in order to [push forward] its goals against Islam, [and considering] the interests of the Islamic world and Islamic culture one the one hand, and on the other the jamming of these channels, which increases the risk of neurological disorders, heart arrhythmias and cardiac arrest, death of children and newborns, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, and incurable diseases and the silent death of Muslims and other citizens of Muslim countries -- are the transmissions of these permissible under Islamic laws or not  and what is the verdict?"

Grand Ayatollah Musavi Ardebili, in a written response to Shafaqna, wrote, "If it is proven that jamming signals cause significant problems such as those mentioned in the question, then their transmission is not permissible."

The ruling, which was described as a "fatwa" by several popular news sites that reposted it, comes amid a long-running debate in the Islamic republic about the possible health effects of satellite jamming.

Iran is known to use jamming technology to prevent satellite transmissions of foreign-based television and radio channels in Iran. After Iran claimed to have downed a U.S. drone in 2011 after disrupting its communications system, the question arose whether Tehran had acquired or developed sophisticated jamming equipment, possibly including laser-burst technology that could target satellites.

But while little is known about the precise technology Iran employs to scramble satellite transmissions, Iranian newspaper reports and also some officials -- including Massoumeh Ebtekar, a former member of Tehran's city council and currently vice president -- have suggested that the practice could cause health problems for citizens.

"What we know is that these signals have an impact on people's health and the body's cells," Ebtekar was quoted as saying in 2012. "As an immunologist and researcher, I'd say that these signals could be the source of many illnesses."

In February, Iranian Health Minister Hassan Hashemi said that a committee was looking into whether jamming indeed poses a health threat. "The initial reports show that the existing jamming signals pose no physical harm, but the committee needs to carry out its investigation thoroughly," he said.

He also said that there were widespread "rumors" about jamming's effects and consequences on people's health, while adding that "most of the rumors have no scientific basis."

The inquiry by Shafaqna appears to reflect the concerns about the potential health hazards of jamming. In addition to Ardebili, the website asked two other clerics, Ayatollah Sohani and Ayatollah Shabiri Zanjani, about the permissibility of jamming. Neither had a straight-forward answer.

Sohani said it wasn't up to a jurist to make a ruling and that a judge could make a decision in such a case. Zanjani said that the answer to Shafaqna's question would depend on how negatively satellite broadcasts were influencing audiences on the one hand, and the extent of health dangers on the other.

The reports in Iranian media about the adverse effects of satellite jamming, including miscarriages and increased cancer rates, appear to largely rely on anecdotal evidence.

An unidentified World Health Organization representative told the Small Media Foundation in 2012 that, without knowing the exact strength of the jamming frequencies, it would be impossible to draw any conclusions about the health risks.

Iranian authorities are not transparent about their jamming efforts and the systems they use.

Ali Akbar Musavi, a U.S.-based rights activist and a former lawmaker who investigated jamming in Iran about a decade ago, says that at that time jamming centers were scattered in and around major cities and operated by "military bodies."

Musavi says Iran jammed satellite signals and also used "local jamming," by using trucks in specific locations to interfere with reception at the ground level. He says it is not clear what kind of jamming techniques authorities are using now.

Earlier this year, the United States reportedly waived sanctions on Iran's state broadcaster after it determined that "harmful satellite interference" was not currently emanating from Iran.

Musavi says officials should make public information about the bodies that currently conduct jamming and the techniques they use. "The concern is that mobile jamming stations could get close to people," he tells RFE/RL. The authorities "should announce whether they're observing international standards."

RFE/RL's Radio Farda is a target of Iran's jamming efforts. Radio Farda Director Armand Mostofi says that there has been no change to the extent of jamming faced by the Persian-language service since President Hassan Rohani came to power in 2013.

Despite Iran's efforts to jam satellite channels and the crackdown on satellite dishes, many Iranians -- according to some estimates more than half -- watch foreign satellite TV channels.

The authorities increase their jamming efforts during politically sensitive times, including at time of unrest.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Hard-Liners Outraged Over U.S. Scholar’s Planned Burial In Iran

Richard Frye

An American scholar who asked to be buried in the central Iranian city of Isfahan has been called “Western garbage” and a “CIA spy” by a local cleric amid an uproar by hard-liners who oppose the planned interment in the Islamic republic.

"The people of Isfahan will not allow authorities to bury the body of a CIA spy in the city," Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, the city's Friday prayers leader, said of the burial plans for U.S. scholar Richard Frye, the hard-line Fars news agency reported.

His comments came amid an escalating dispute over Frye's wish to be buried in the Iranian city, where two other U.S. experts on Iran -- Arthur Pope and Phyllis Ackerman -- already have been laid to rest.

Dozens of hard-liners in Isfahan protested against the plan on April 10. The demonstration followed attacks on the deceased scholar in the hard-line media, including the influential "Kayhan" daily, which often carries the views of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

Frye, a prominent and highly respected scholar of Iranian studies, had asked in his will to be buried next to the Zayandeh Rud river, which flows through Isfahan.

"Act upon the will of Imam Khomeini [the founder of the Islamic republic], not the will of Frye," read one banner held by demonstrators at this week’s protest.

"Isfahan, the city of martyrs. Not the burial site of the dirty American spy Frye," read another banner held by a young man.

Earlier on April 10, Ahmad Salek, a lawmaker from Isfahan and a member of the parliament's cultural committee, called on Iranian President Hassan Rohani not to allow the burial of Frye, whom he called a "cultural bandit," in the Islamic republic.

Not everyone agreed, though.

Another member of the parliament's committee, conservative Ali Motahari, said Rohani should facilitate Frye's burial beside the Zayandeh Rud. He said Iran should fulfill its previous commitment to honor Frye’s request, which reportedly had been approved by former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in 2007.

Frye, sometimes referred to as "dean of the world's Iranologists," died on March 27 in Boston at the age of 94. He has been credited with helping establish the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.

His death was mourned by many Iranian intellectuals who say he played an outsized role in introducing and promoting Iranian culture in the West.

Syracuse university professor Mehrdad Boroujerdi said that whenever Frye was referred to as an "Iranologist," he would say that he is in fact an "Irandust," or "friend of Iran."

"He was proud to have been given the title 'Irandust' when he was young by [prominent Iranian linguist] Ali Akbar Dehkhoda," Boroujerdi told RFE/RL following Frye's death.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid his public tribute to Frye on Twitter a day after the scholar's death.

"Deeply saddened by passing of Prof Richard Frye: true friend & scholar of #Iran. His legacy as giant will forever live on. God rest his soul," Zarif tweeted on March 28.
 


Zarif and other government officials have not commented publicly on the controversy over Frye's possible burial in Iran.

On April 8, prominent Iranian journalist and writer Ali Dehbashi was quoted by Iranian media as saying that Frye's burial presented a "very rare opportunity" for Iran's foreign policy system.

"His burial in Iran is a symbolic act and it is significant for us that an American scholar has selected Iran for his eternal resting place," Dehbashi was quoted as saying.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Violent Videogame Targeting Iran's Opposition Removed

The game allows players to accrue points by targeting opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi (pictured), his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and others.

Call it "Moral Kombat."

A computer game that encouraged players to shoot digital effigies of Iran's opposition leaders appears to have been removed from a website after it sparked controversy in the Islamic republic.

The game, titled "The Return of Mokhtar," allows players to accrue "wisdom" points by targeting opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard, former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, and others.

"Some time ago a game related to the assassination of [Iranian President Hassan] Rohani was available in the market for a while. The publishing of such games raises the question whether there is any kind of supervision," the popular Fararu.com website wrote earlier this week.

Authorities had said legal action could be taken in connection with the game, which was available for download on April 9 at Honarenab.ir. The page hosting the download was removed from the site later that day.

The site claims to be run by a group of young people who are spreading the values of the Islamic Revolution and Islamic art via digital media. There was no immediate explanation posted on the site about why the game was removed.

Honarenab.ir said that the game allowed players to take revenge against enemies of the Islamic republic. "In this game, by crossing through corridors and shooting at the heads of the leaders of the sedition -- including Mir Hossein Musavi, Mehdi Karrubi, and Seyed Mohammad Khatami, you can expose their evil faces," the website wrote in promoting the game.

Musavi and his wife have been under house arrest since February 2011, as has reformist cleric Karrubi.

Rohani promised in his election campaign to release opposition figures who have challenged Iranian leaders and criticized human rights abuses. There have been reports that their detention conditions have improved slightly in recent months.

Symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel are also among the targets that the game's users must destroy in order to increase their score. The game's producers say the three countries are the driving force behind the "sedition," a term used in Iran to refer to the 2009 postelection protests and the opposition movement that was brutally repressed.

The game came under scrutiny following reports by Iranian reformist media.
Players must also destroy symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.
Players must also destroy symbols of the United States, Great Britain, and Israel.

"The producers of the game did not request a license from the foundation," the ISNA news agency quoted Hossein Moazami, an official with Iran's computer-games foundation, as saying. Moazami added that his foundation will report the game to relevant authorities at the Culture Ministry, police, and judiciary for "legal action."

On April 9, Iranian websites quoted the government daily "Iran" as saying that it was not clear whether the game had become inaccessible following an order by the judiciary.

Other controversial computer games are still available at Honarenab.ir, including one titled "Catch the Sedition." The website says the game, produced in 2010, is a reminder to Iranian authorities to prosecute the leaders of "the sedition."

Another game on the website targets Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi, who has been described by the website as an "apostate." 

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Hard-Liners Decry Proposed EU Office in Tehran

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) meets with EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton in Tehran in March.

Golnaz Esfandiari
A call by the European Parliament to open an EU office in Tehran has come under fire from Iranian hard-liners, who say the proposed headquarters would allow outsiders to meddle in the country’s affairs.

"The people of Iran will not allow another house of spies to be created in the country," Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani, Tehran’s temporary Friday Prayers leader, said on April 4.

The cleric’s comments came a day after the European Parliament passed a resolution stating that the first steps toward opening a delegation in the Iranian capital should be taken by the end of the year.

The resolution criticizes human rights abuses in Iran and calls for a more active EU role in addressing the rights situation in the country and supporting civil society.

It also advises EU members to focus on human rights in their ties with the Islamic republic, a recommendation that has angered Iranian hard-liners in recent days. The resolution, they say, constitutes interference in Iran’s internal affairs.

Movahedi-Kermani added that the Europeans should learn their lesson from "America’s house of spies," a reference to the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that was seized by a group of students following the 1979 revolution.

He called the resolution "shameless" and dismissed EU concerns over serious human rights violations in the Islamic republic as "Western illusions."

Friday Prayers leaders in Iran are said to receive their talking points from the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

'Worse Than Quadrupeds'

A day earlier, the head of Iran’s Basij force, Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Naqdi, had harsh words for the EU and its proposed office in the Iranian capital. "The European Union is a good example of the Koran verse that says they’re worse than quadrupeds," Naqdi was quoted as saying by the hard-line Fars news agency.

Naqdi said the Basiji force will organize a human rights exhibition in Iran for EU representatives to visit. "Homosexuals [in Europe] have intercourse like animals. They have a surge in drug production, which they sell to their young people at a cheap price. Then in their resolution they say: ‘You don’t have the right to execute drug dealers, and release the homosexuals,’" he said, adding that the EU would not dare open an office in Tehran.

The resolution was also blasted by several lawmakers, including Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, who said that the proposed EU office was aimed at creating unrest in the country. Another lawmaker, Mohammad Saleh Jokar, said an EU office in Iran would be devoted exclusively to espionage.

The parliamentary resolution says the opening of an EU delegation in Iran would be an efficient means of influencing Iranian policies and fostering dialogue on human rights.

But Rouzbeh Parsi, a senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden, says that Iranian hard-liners oppose any kind of opening with the West.

"They don’t want to have normal ties with Europe or other [Western] countries. They know that as a result of better ties with the EU and a removal of tensions, there could be more exchanges and give-and-takes. They’re afraid of that. That’s not something they want," Parsi says.

Is Ahmadinejad Coming Back In From The Cold?

Will Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (left) patch things up with ex-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad?

After months of silence, Iran's former President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is back, or at least he seems to be trying to make a comeback.

On April 1, Ahmadinejad made a short speech in Khuzestan, at an Iran-Iraq War battlefield site where the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had spoken just a week ago, and called for resistance against the United States.

"We will find peace only when the flag of the martyrs will be waving atop of the White House," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying by the hard-line Basij news agency.

In its coverage of Ahmadinejad's comments, the news agency noted that the location of Ahmadinejad's speech was important because of Khamenei's earlier appearance and also the fact that the first "martyrs" of the war with Iraq are buried there.

A day earlier, at a March 31 religious mourning ceremony, Ahmadinejad was seen sitting very close to Khamenei. Only Khamenei's close allies and top officials are usually given such a privilege. There was only one official -- the former head of Iran's judiciary, Hashemi Shahroudi -- sitting between the two men. Pictures of the meeting posted on the leader's website could suggest that despite past differences and a power struggle that resulted in Ahmadinejad, a former protege of Khamenei, falling out of favor, the former president has still a place in the larger circle of the establishment's insiders. 

As BBC Persian analyst Hossein Bastani noted, it's highly unlikely that former President Mohammad Khatami would be allowed to sit near the supreme leader in public. Khatami, a reformist, was never considered to be close to Khamenei, who publicly expressed support for Ahmadinejad's anti-Western stances. 

Bastani believes that Khamenei could use Ahmadinejad to put pressure on Iran's new government team, which has been accused by hard-liners of giving in to the West and the United States. 

The Basij news agency reported that Ahmadinejad's trip to the southern region of Iran was part of his Norouz vacation. His family and Gholamhossein Elham, who acted as government spokesman during Ahmadinejad's first term, accompanied him on the trip.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Mahmud Ahmadinejad


Iran Rights Lawyer Ignores Intelligence Ministry Summons

Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh speaks on the phone alongside her husband, Reza Khandan, at their house in Tehran in 2013.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent and widely respected human rights lawyer in Iran, has turned a deaf ear to a telephone call in which she was ordered to appear at the Intelligence Ministry on short notice.

There has been no public reaction from Iranian authorities.

Sotoudeh was summoned to Iran's Intelligence Ministry on March 30, according to an account by her husband that was posted on his Facebook page, which Reza Khandan has used to keep his wife's supporters informed about her situation.

Khandan wrote that the summons was delivered during a trip to the province of Khuzestan.

"A few minutes ago, we were shopping in the bazaar of the city of Dezful when the Intelligence Ministry called and summoned Nasrin and our host in an illegal and impolite manner," Khandan wrote on Facebook on March 30. "They were told to present themselves to the Intelligence Ministry within an hour."

A few hours later, he wrote that because the summoning -- from the Dezful office of the Intelligence Ministry -- was done "illegally," via telephone, she decided to ignore it.

Instead, he said, the couple went horseback riding. He later posted a picture of himself and his wife on horseback. 
x


In an interview with RFE/RL, Khandan explained more fully why Sotoudeh decided to ignore the call: "Lawyers have always said that summoning via telephone is illegal and no one should abide by those calls," Khandan said. "Summoning may only take place through the judiciary; it should be done via an official written summons."

The reason for the summons is not clear. It followed by just a few days the posting of a speech by Sotoudeh in which she referred to the Islamic republic as a "big prison" and which was shared on social media and news sites.

In the speech, Sotoudeh criticized the house arrest of Iranian opposition figures. "We seem to be free. But our heart is always, always divided between two groups -- those who are under arrest in their owns homes, [Zahra] Rahnavard, [Mir Hossein] Musavi, and [Mehdi] Karrubi, they are prisoners of conscience...[and] those who are serving their terms in prisons in different cities of Iran," she told a cultural gathering. 

Sotoudeh is one of a small number of human rights lawyers who take on sensitive political cases in Iranian courts.

In her speech, Sotoudeh mentioned two colleagues -- Abdol Fatah Soltani and Mohammad Seifzadeh -- who have ended up in jail over their defense of political activists and students. 

It is unclear when Sotoudeh made the speech. A video of her comments was posted online on March 28.
Sotoudeh was among a dozen political prisoners freed in September ahead of a trip by Iranian President Hassan Rohani to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2010 after her conviction on a number of charges, including acting against national security. An appeals court later reduced her sentence to six years. 

Her defense of activists, opposition members, and juvenile offenders on death row and her outspokenness are thought to be the reason for the state pressure she has been facing. 

While in prison, she refused to be silenced. She reportedly launched several hunger strikes to protest her condition and alleged state harassment of her family. 

Sotoudeh and dissident Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi were awarded the European Parliament's Sakharov prize for Freedom of Thought in 2012.

To many Iranians, Sotoudeh, a mother of two, has become a symbol of resistance against repression in their country.
 
-- Golnaz Esfandiari with contributions by Radio Farda correspondent Hossein Ghavimi

Ashton Under Fire For Meeting With Iran Rights Activists

Catherine Ashton (L), the European Union's top foreign policy diplomat, at a meeting with Narges Mohammadi (right), an Iranian human rights activist and mother of Sattar Beheshti, who died in Iranian custody.

Golnaz Esfandiari
WASHINGTON -- On her recent two-day trip to Iran, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton met with human rights defenders, including the mother of a blogger who died in prison in 2012.

The meeting has infuriated Iranian hard-liners, who harshly criticized Ashton.

Media outlets close to the government reported that a protest by "students" would be held on March 12 in front of the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, where Ashton’s meeting with the activists took place.

Among those protesting Ashton’s action are lawmakers, at least one senior military commander, and conservative media close to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

They say the meeting between Ashton and a number of "seditionists" was clear interference in Iran's internal affairs. Sedition is a term used in Iran to describe the actions of demonstrators at antigovernment protests in 2009 that shook the Islamic establishment.

"The parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee strongly calls on the government to prevent these intolerable and interventionist actions by foreign delegations that travel to our country," said a statement signed by lawmakers on March 11.

Iran's Foreign Ministry has said it sent an "official caution" to the Austrian Embassy for arranging the meeting.

The Fars news agency, which is close to the IRGC, said Ashton's "suspicious" meeting with women's rights activists made it clear that the main purpose of her trip to Iran was to launch "human rights interference" in the Islamic republic. 

Brigadier-General Masoud Jazayeri, the deputy joint chief of staff of Iran's armed forces, said Ashton’s meeting was a violation of diplomatic principles and a prelude to more "interference."

Jazayeri said such meetings should be prevented while adding that "Ashton should instead think of resolving women's rights issues in Europe."

The hard-line daily "Javan" was also critical of the meeting. But it went even one step further than other media outlets.

The daily removed Gohar Eshghi, the mother of blogger and Facebook activist Sattar Beheshti , from a picture where she was seen with Ashton and well-known rights defender Narguess Mohammadi, who served time in prison on charges of acting against national security.

The original picture with Eshghi had been widely shared on social media and Iranian newssites outside the country before it was altered by "Javan."

Beheshti died in prison after being arrested by Iran's Cyber Police. He was allegedly beaten during his interrogations.

The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI) reported that a Tehran court ruled last year that Beheshti's death was a "quasi-murder."

His death in custody was embarrassing to Iran's leaders and his mother became a thorn in their side due to her repeated protests against the court ruling and the death of her son in custody.

Ashton met with the activists shortly after arriving in the Iranian capital on March 8, which was International Women's Day.

"Not surprisingly, there was a big focus on human rights," Ashton said the following day. "I met with women activists on International Women's Day and talked to them about the situation that women [in Iran] find themselves in."

Ashton had traveled to Iran to discuss the country's controversial nuclear program, the interim deal reached in November between Tehran and six world powers to curb that program, and ties between Iran and the EU.

ICHRI spokesman Hadi Ghaemi says hard-liners in Iran are angry that Ashton included human rights on her agenda while visiting Tehran.

"Hard-liners in Iran are under the illusion that the government of [President Hassan] Rohani should only pursue nuclear negotiations with the West without paying any attention to international human rights concerns," Ghaemi says. "But given the serious state of human rights in Iran, Western countries should not ignore violations and Ashton's visit demonstrated that Europe wants to have these issues on the table."

A meeting in December between members of a European parliamentary delegation and two prominent dissidents in Tehran was also sharply criticized by hard-liners.

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