Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Prominent Iranian Activists, Intellectuals Call On Congress To Back Nuclear Deal

Film director Jafar Panahi (left) and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh are two prominent Iranians inside the country who have joined the campaign.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Parvin Fahimi, who lost her son to repression by the Iranian state, hopes the agreement global powers reached with Tehran on its nuclear program last month will not only remove sanctions and the threat of war, but also lead to improved human rights inside the country.

Fahimi, whose 19-year-old son was killed in the 2009 state crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president, is among some 50 prominent rights activists, intellectuals, and academics who have joined a social-media campaign urging the U.S. Congress to back the deal. 

Under the deal reached in Vienna on July 14 by Iran and six global powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- Iran is to significantly limit its nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

Activists who have taken to YouTube and social media in support of the agreement are hoping that it will ultimately strengthen the hands of the moderates and result in an opening up of the political situation inside the country.

Many of them are based in Iran -- including student activist Zia Nabavi, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence, and top human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was released from prison in 2013.

Prominent Tehran-based filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who has been pressured by the Iranian establishment over his work, and exiled Iranian Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi have also joined the campaign.

The son of Mehdi Karrubi, an Iranian opposition figure who remains under house arrest for challenging the Iranian establishment over the 2009 vote and highlighting human rights abuses, has also added his voice to those publicly supporting the deal. 

Their messages, in English or in Persian with English subtitles, have been uploaded to YouTube and widely shared on social media.

"I believe that the international isolation of countries is not in the benefit of democracy and civil society, on the contrary it can lead to more repression," says Fahimi in a video where two pictures of her dead son are seen on a table behind her. 

The campaign comes days after a group of exiled Iranian activists issued an open letter opposing the deal while warning that "appeasing the Iranian regime will lead to a more dangerous world." 

Among the signatories of the letter is former political prisoner Ahmad Batebi, who appeared in a television ad by a pro-Israel group and argued that because of its torture record, Iran cannot be trusted to fulfill his commitments under the nuclear agreement. 

Organizers of the Internet campaign in favor of the deal say their effort is not a reaction to the move. But they say they want to take the human rights argument away from those opposing the deal.

U.S.-based activist Ali Abdi, who has helped coordinate the campaign in favor of the nuclear agreement, says the campaign aims to demonstrate that "those who have been directly hurt" by the Islamic republic are largely supportive of the deal.

"The main objective is to show that the Iran deal would benefit not only the economic situation in Iran and the livelihood of 80 million people, but at the same time it would be also be beneficial to the human rights situation and also for the [pro-democracy] movement, unlike what many of those who oppose the deal claim," Abdi told RFE/RL.

"War and sanctions create crisis, and crisis is the death of democracy, the death of peace and human rights," film director Panahi says. 

The jailed student, Nabavi, says in his audio message that his support for the deal is "neither a validation of the injustices placed upon me nor an approval of the human rights situation in Iran."

"I therefore hope that American citizens, like the majority of Iranian citizens, will reach out to their representatives in Congress and ask them to support this deal and to give dialogue and diplomacy a chance for success," he adds.

Sotoudeh, who was jailed for several years and banned from practice, says she criticizes "the extremist rhetoric of the Iranian hard-liners." She adds, "Likewise, I call on Americans overseas to urge their representatives in Congress to refrain from using the language of threat."

Ahead of September voting in the U.S. Congress on whether to approve the deal, President Barack Obama is seeking to win enough backing from lawmakers to prevent opponents from killing it.

Speaking to RFE/RL in June, Sotoudeh said the deal could help those who are fighting for more rights in the Islamic republic by providing them with more breathing space.

In recent weeks dozens of Iranians in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have held a number of public gatherings in support of the deal.

Earlier this month, dozens of prominent Iranian-Americans in academia, the tech industry, and business issued a letter published in The New York Times in support of the nuclear agreement.

"Diplomacy with Iran has the potential to do much more than prevent a war," the letter said. "It creates a chance for Americans and Iranians to create a brighter future that benefits all of our children."


Wanted For Terrorism, Commander Of Iran's Quds Force Is Actually Kind And Emotional, Brother Says

The commander of Iran's Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani, prays during a religious ceremony in Tehran in March.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Qassem Soleimani, a top military commander in Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a wanted man.

For years, he's been linked to support for terrorism, covert operations, arms smuggling, and other efforts aimed at expanding Iran's influence abroad and undermining that of its enemies.

Since 2007, he's been formally labeled a supporter of terrorism by the United States. In 2012, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Soleimani for his alleged role in an assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

In fact, what he really is, according to an unusual interview with his younger brother, is misunderstood.

"He's a serious person, but very kind and emotional," said Sohrab Soleimani in an interview published on August 23 with the Fars news agency, a Persian-language news outlet affiliated with the powerful IRGC.

"Those who don't know him well can't believe what kind of personality he has," he was quoted as saying.

The interview comes at a critical time for Iran's role and influence in the region. The landmark deal reached last month aimed at curbing Tehran's nuclear ambitions is poised to lift crippling sanctions and open up Iran's rusting economy to global investment and world markets.

Meanwhile, chaotic wars in Syria -- Iran's closest ally -- and in Yemen continue as proxy battlefields between Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias and forces backed by Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran's deepest rival.

Soleimani has been hit by a United Nations travel ban over his alleged role in Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs. The UN sanctions against him will be lifted as part of the nuclear deal, although he will remain on the U.S. blacklist. Earlier this month, Washington expressed concern over reports that Soleimani had visited Moscow in late July. Russia denied the reports.

Widely picked up by Iranian news sites, the Fars interview appeared to be part of Iran's efforts to boost Soleimani's profile and portray him as a selfless national hero who plays an instrumental role in the volatile Middle East. 

"Haj Soleimani has been born in our family, but he doesn't belong to us, he belongs to the country and to the Shi'a," Sohrab Soleimani said, referring to his brother by the honorific to describe him as devout.

Fars said it conducted the interview with Sohrab Soleimani, who heads the Prisons Organization of Tehran Province, because the private life of his brother is of great interest to "many people, particularly to Iran's youth."

Major General Qassem Soleimani, accused of helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power and arming Shi'ite militia in Iraq, used to be a man in the shadows. The unit he commands, the Quds Force, was formed during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, and is now believed to conduct clandestine paramilitary operations throughout the region.

Qassem Soleimani in 2013Qassem Soleimani in 2013
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Qassem Soleimani in 2013
Qassem Soleimani in 2013

In recent months, he's become a celebrity, with numerous photos of his appearances on the battlefield against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq popping up on social media and news blogs. Pictures of the bearded Soleimani at funerals held for Iranian fighters killed in Syria and Iraq have also been circulating on the Internet.

Iranian officials have suggested that Soleimani does not enjoy being in the spotlight but that his growing popularity has prompted media and others to publish the photos.

In January, more than 200 Iranian lawmakers praised Soleimani and his Quds Force for playing a "determining role" in what they described as defending Muslims and regional security, and also fighting terrorist groups, namely "the criminal and evil [Islamic State group]."

Meanwhile, hard-line Iranian officials have paid tribute to the 58-year-old Qassem Soleimani through songs, social media posts, and documentaries amid rumors that he could enter politics.

In the Fars interview, Sohrab Soleimani recalled a meeting between a former regional governor and his father, who is a farmer from the same region. "[The former governor] told my father, 'Do you know how famous your son is and how much the 'arrogance' fears him?'" Sohrab said, using a term hard-line Iranian officials use to describe the United States.

Soleimani said his father responded, "They're afraid of Islam, not of my son."

Soleimani also said his older brother had always made sure that his close relatives did not take the wrong path in life. "As the head of the Quds Force, he has little time to devote to his own life, yet his attention for his [family and friends] has not diminished," he said.

The two brothers fought together during the war with Iraq when Qassem Soleimani was in charge of the IRGC's Sarallah Division. "Haj Qassem has a [belt] in karate, he used to work as a fitness coach in a bodybuilding club," he said.

Qassem Soleimani joined the IRGC following the 1979 revolution that ended the rule of Iran's U.S.-backed shah. After leaving the Sarallah Division of the IRGC, he became commander of the Quds Force following an order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to whom Soleimani is said to be deeply loyal.

Sohrab Soleimani suggested that the IRGC was currently concerned about the safety of his influential brother. "My brother is strongly opposed to bodyguards, his safety is probably now causing concerns for the commander of the IRGC," he said.

In the interview, Sohrab Soleimani also spoke about his brother's "love" for children of the martyrs, a term used in Iran to describe soldiers and IRGC members killed in the war with Iraq and also those killed more recently in the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

"He loves the children of the martyrs so much that sometimes his own children become jealous. He has very close ties to the martyrs' children. And he doesn't care to which faction the martyrs belong," he said.


Iran's President Questions Role Of Hard-Line Vetters, Meets With Pushback

"We have no place in this country for disqualifying experienced, caring people who want to use their knowledge in the service of the country, whatever political affiliation they may come from," Iranian President Hassan Rohani said. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's Guardians Council, long accused of being a tool for hard-liners in factional power struggles, is at the center of a new war of words among top state officials.

The exchange comes ahead of elections early next year for parliament, which is currently controlled by conservatives and hard-liners, and for the Assembly of Experts, which oversees and appoints the country's supreme leader.

It could signal a sharpening of stances with the February votes looming, the first since Iran and world powers reached a nuclear agreement that limits Tehran's nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.

This week, President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate, questioned the role of the Guardians Council, suggesting it has a "supervisory role" rather than "an executive one."

"It is the government which actually executes the task, and in some cases it has the necessary means to prevent election disorder and possible fraud," Rohani said in an August 19 speech.

He added that the future parliament would not be controlled by any single party or group. 

"We have no place in this country for disqualifying experienced, caring people who want to use their knowledge in the service of the country, whatever political affiliation they may come from," he said.

The comments hint at concern that reformists and moderates who are supportive of Rohani's policies might be prevented from running.

The powerful Guardians Council supervises presidential and parliamentary elections and can veto candidates whose views are deemed out of line with the Islamic establishment or insufficiently loyal to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The council also vets legislation passed by parliament for compliance with Islamic laws and the constitution.

The Iranian leader directly appoints six clerics to the 12-member Guardians Council. The other six, all jurists, are chosen from a field of candidates nominated by the head of Iran's judiciary, who is himself selected by Khamenei.

The council has over the years prevented many reformist and moderate figures (and others) from running for parliament or the presidency, including famously banning a former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and a former presidential aide, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, from the presidential race in 2013.

One day after Rohani's speech, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari hit back with a stark warning.

Such comments weaken the "effective pillars of the revolution," namely the Guardians Council, and damage "national unity," he said. 

Without naming Rohani specifically, Jafari noted that Iran's president must also undergo screening by the Guardians Council, which is seen by its critics as a major obstacle to free and competitive elections in Iran.

"Those who have had the opportunity to emerge on the country's management arena through this council and due to its nonfactional and generous nature should use their words more wisely," Jafari said.

He referred to comments by some officials as the start of the "erosion of the independence and dignity" of the Islamic establishment.

Criticism also surfaced via the influential hard-line daily Kayhan, which said Iran's constitution gives the Guardians Council the authority to supervise elections and neither the government nor any other body has a right to interpret the constitution.

Iran's constitution states that the Guardians Council has "the responsibility for supervising" elections. It also says that "the authority of the interpretation of the constitution is vested in the Guardians Council."

Critics accuse the council of overstepping its legal boundaries and controlling the election process by acting based on political motivation.

Conservative lawmaker Ahmad Tavakoli said he was surprised that Rohani, who has a law degree, had questioned the role of the Guardians Council.

"However, this is nothing new; it was also discussed under the previous president," Tavakoli said in an August 20 interview with the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

He advised Rohani not to follow the footsteps of presidential predecessor Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who eventually fell out of favor for repeatedly challenging the Iranian establishment.

"Ahmadinejad had a phrase that led to his [downfall]. He would say, 'I don't accept a certain law,'" Tavakoli said.

Guardians Council members and other hard-line officials have in recent months warned that "seditionists" -- a term commonly used for political opponents who protested Ahmadinejad's disputed reelection in 2009 -- will not be allowed to win seats in parliament or the Assembly of Experts.

The warnings come amid signs that the reformists, who have been largely sidelined for over a decade, are poised for a political comeback in next year's parliamentary elections.

Khamenei's representative within the IRGC, Ali Saeedi, warned in June against a change in the political composition of the conservative-dominated parliament.

Saeedi told the hard-line Fars news agency that such a development would represent a "threat against the ideals of [Islamic revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini], Khamenei, and the interests of the establishment."

Therefore, he said, the Guardians Council should fulfill its duties and potential candidates should have revolutionary credentials.


Senior Iranian Official Reveals Details About Secret Talks With U.S.

"When Rohani learned about the details of the talks, he couldn’t believe it," says Ali Akbar Salehi (pictured), Iran's head of its Atomic Energy Organization.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has been credited with easing tensions between Tehran and Washington and helping secure a nuclear deal with world powers last month in Vienna.

But after he came to power in 2013, the self-proclaimed moderate was stunned to learn that secret talks between the two countries -- which ultimately paved the way for the accord -- had begun at least two years earlier, according to former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi.

"When Rohani learned about the details of the talks, he couldn’t believe it," Salehi, who currently heads Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted as saying in an interview published this week by the daily Iran newspaper.

The Associated Press first revealed the unprecedented secret exchanges between Tehran and Washington in a November 2013 report that said meetings between mid-level U.S. and Iranian officials began in 2011 in Oman. 

But Salehi’s interview, published on August 4, provides the most detailed account of the talks divulged by an Iranian official to date. 

He said that the exchanges were conducted with the blessing of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and initiated via several messages from U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration that were delivered to Iran by Omani officials. 

These included a handwritten note that Salehi says he did not take seriously at first.

According to Salehi, Khamenei set several conditions for the secret talks: Negotiators should only focus on the nuclear issue and aim for immediate, concrete results rather than talking for the sake of talking.

Khamenei, who is deeply suspicious of the United States, also said that Iran’s demands, including “its right to enrich uranium,” should be pursued in the talks, Salehi added.

After Khamenei gave the green light, disagreements remained among Iran’s decision makers, according to Salehi.

An initial meeting nevertheless took place sometime in 2012 in an undisclosed location in the Omani capital of Muscat, he said.

Elections And Lost Opportunities

Iran had sent a delegation led by the then-deputy foreign minister for European and American affairs, Ali Asghar Khaji, according to Salehi’s account.

Former Deputy Secretary of State William BurnsFormer Deputy Secretary of State William Burns
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Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns
Former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns

The U.S. delegation was led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who has since retired, he said.

"The Americans were astonished in the first session. They said: 'We can't believe this is happening. We thought Oman was joking; we’re not ready to talk to you!'" Salehi said in the interview.

The talks, he said, began against the backdrop of Obama’s election campaign against his Republican rival, Mitt Romney.

Salehi said that when Iranian officials critical of the talks were informed about the results of the initial meeting, they suggested that Iran was wasting its time and that the "Americans are not serious in pursuing the process."

But Salehi said he believed that the secret path was worth pursuing. "The Americans were willing to push the talks forward quickly and under very good conditions," he said.

Salehi said he faced problems sending negotiators to Oman for more talks because of the disagreements in Tehran.

The U.S. team then informed Iran that talks should be delayed until after the November 2012 U.S. elections, he said.

"This is how we lost that opportunity," the U.S.-educated Salehi said.

He said the two sides continued exchanging "nonpaper" messages via Oman and that a "very good" second meeting took place eight months after the first one.

Salehi said that during the second meeting, Iran demanded that Washington officially recognize its right to a uranium-enrichment program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes but which Western governments say is aimed at developing an atomic weapon.

"We haven’t come here for long negotiations. If you're serious, you have to recognize our right to enrich uranium, otherwise we can’t enter negotiations with you," Salehi quoted Khaji, the deputy foreign minister leading Iran’s delegation at the time, as having told the Americans.

The two sides remained in Oman for three days, Salehi recalled.

Finally, Oman's leader, Sultan Qaboos, wrote a letter to Iran’s then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stating that the U.S. representative had announced that he recognized Iran's right to enrich uranium. Salehi said Qaboos sent a copy of the same letter to Obama.

Some in Tehran, meanwhile, remained skeptical, suggesting Washington cannot be trusted to fulfill its commitments. "When the letter was delivered to Ahmadinejad, some friends said that the [process] isn’t leading anywhere," Salehi said in the interview.

Nevertheless, Salehi said he was preparing for a third secret meeting with the United States.

At the same time, Salehi said, Iran was preparing for its June 2013 presidential election, and a message came from Khamenei's office calling for a halt in the secret talks until after the vote, which Rohani ultimately won.

'Accelerate The Process'

Salehi said he met with Rohani before his inauguration in August 2013 and informed him about the contacts with U.S. officials. "I told him: 'After your inauguration, you should accelerate the process,'" he recalled.

He said that after Rohani took power, the conditions in the country changed.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran in December 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rohani (right) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran in December 2014

Rohani, a former senior nuclear negotiator, appointed U.S.-educated and widely respected diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif as his foreign minister and announced his commitment to decreasing Iran's tense relations with the world.

Rohani and Obama held a historic phone call in September 2013, the first top-level contact between the two countries since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and the hostage-taking of U.S. diplomats in Tehran.

The nuclear talks were subsequently pursued seriously, leading to last month’s deal between Iran and six world powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany -- to lift some sanctions against Iran in exchange for significant restrictions on its nuclear program.

Throughout the negotiations, public bilateral meetings between senior Iranian and U.S. officials became routine, including between Salehi and U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, who exchanged gifts.


Will Apocryphal Blow-Ups Come To Define Iran Nuclear Talks?

Golnaz Esfandiari

Reports from Vienna this week suggest that already-tense talks over Iran's nuclear program and related sanctions have at times descended into undisguised acrimony.

Self-imposed deadlines have repeatedly been extended, but there is clearly frustration and anger on both sides -- Iran, on the one hand, and Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States plus Germany, on the other.

One exchange in particular, seemingly based on an unnamed Russian source, has garnered the attention of two Iranian news agencies.

Iran's semiofficial Mehr news agency reported that at a July 6 meeting, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif snapped back at U.S. negotiators who had addressed him in a "threatening tone."

The other agency, Mehr, quoted the unnamed Russian source close to the talks as saying that Zarif responded by shouting at the U.S. team, "You're basically not in a position to decide about our country's missile capability." The same source added that EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reacted by threatening to leave the talks.

Zarif's riposte, as quoted by several Iranian news outlets, was the stuff of legends and memes: "Never threaten an Iranian."

One of the Iranian accounts, by IRNA, quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately adding, "Nor a Russian."

IRNA also quoted unnamed diplomats citing another spat, this time when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif allegedly shouted at each other so loudly during a recent bilateral meeting in Vienna that they were overheard by people in nearby rooms of the swank Palais Coburg hotel.

Iran's heavily censored state media are often used by its religious and political establishment for propaganda purposes.

Regardless of the accuracy of the reports, which could not be independently verified, Iranians have launched a new hashtag in support of Zarif's message: #NeverThreatenAnIranian.

Some used the hashtag to portray Iran's foreign minister as a hero (or even superhero) standing up to pressure and fighting for Iran's interests while rejecting "excessive" Western demands.

Some noted that the reports appeared to give the already popular Zarif a boost among supporters.

Others posted photos from Iran's brutal crackdown after the disputed presidential vote in 2009, suggesting that the Iranian establishment already does a fine job of threatening Iranians and that no additional help was needed.

"Never threaten an Iranian. Why? Because we take care of it inside the country," tweeted this user.

EU and Iranian officials meanwhile appeared to dismiss the reports of the spat:

 

But depending on the outcome of the negotiations and probably irrespective of its veracity, the Zarif (and Lavrov) "never threaten" remarks could provide subsequent narratives on either side with a defining moment.

 


Nuclear Noise: Iran Hard-Liners' Music Video Takes Shot At Vienna Talks

A screenshot from the music video

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian hard-liners have launched a viral-video offensive likening Tehran's counterparts in tense nuclear negotiations to wolves and stoking memories of bitter chapters in U.S.-Iranian history.

The clip presents a song titled Hotel Coburg, after the venue in Vienna of the latest round of protracted negotiations for a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany.

The lyrics suggest that Iran's negotiating partners -- and mainly the United States, whose officials past and present are repeatedly shown alongside Israeli officials -- cannot be trusted:

"I'm pessimistic about the smile of the wolf. 
I'm pessimistic about the big lie.
The talks are warming up.
The siege is getting tighter."

Iran's hard-line Fars news agency says the clip was released by the Basij House of Music following Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's recent suggestion that poets should speak out against evil.

Khamenei said on July 1 that "poets cannot be impartial in the battle between truth and evil."

"If poets and artists take an impartial position, they have wasted God's gift to them," he added, according to a text of the speech posted on website Khamenei.ir.

Fars interpreted Khamenei's comments as a call for poets to express themselves on the country's most pressing issues.

The song describes the negotiations as a chess game in which one side, Iran, is negotiating under "the shadow of threats."

It also reminds listeners some of some of the darkest historical episodes between Iran and the United States, including the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup in Iran -- known in Iran as the "28 Mordad Coup" -- and the downing in 1988 of an Iranian civilian passenger airliner by a U.S. Navy warship that reported having mistaken it for a fighter jet. 

The USS Vincennes fired two surface-to-air missiles at Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 people aboard, including 60 children.

The singer intones:

"What can I say? The bitterness of 28 Mordad can't be forgotten.
Your wave of laughter is over there.
The Vincennes is seen from here."

The song also echoes an allegation frequently leveled by Iranian officials who suggest that UN arms inspectors tasked with monitoring Iran's nuclear facilities are U.S. spies. And it blames the United States for a spate of at least four assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists in 2012 that was regarded by Tehran as an attempt to hamper Iran's nuclear program. 

"The observers of the CIA agency;
The lines of their files are visible;
It's the murder map of [senior nuclear scientist Majid] Shahryari [and others]."

Hard-liners critical of the talks have generally kept a low profile amid widespread regime support for the Iranian nuclear negotiators led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

But they have made it clear on a number of occasions that even if a nuclear deal is reached, the United States will remain "The Great Satan."  


Iranian Ex-President Says U.S. Seeks Arrest Of Hidden Imam

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is well known for his devotion to the Hidden Imam. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran's former hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has reportedly said that the United States is working to arrest the Hidden Imam, who according to Shi'ite belief went into hiding in the 10th century and will reappear to bring justice to Earth.

Ahmadinejad made the comments in a speech to a group of clerics marking the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, according to a transcript posted on June 21 on the website Dolatebahar.com, which is run by his supporters. 

Ahmadinejad is quoted as saying that the West has been building a case against the Hidden Imam to prevent his reappearance, a claim that the Islamic republic's main reformist daily newspaper, Shargh, described as "strange." 

"They've done so much research about the Hidden Imam in the human science universities of the United States that I am not exaggerating by saying that it is a thousand times more than all the work done in the seminaries of Qom, Najaf, and Mashhad," he reportedly said, referring to three Shi'ite holy cities.

Ahmadinejad, who is known for his controversial statements and his devotion to the Hidden Imam, added that U.S. universities have debriefed numerous individuals who have been in touch with the disappeared spiritual leader. 

"To quote a friend, they've completed a case against the Hidden Imam, and closed it also for his arrest," he was quoted as saying. "The only [evidence] they lack is his picture."

Ahmadinejad suggested that the West -- and particularly the United States -- sees the return of the Hidden Imam as a threat to its "empire," adding that the U.S. administration is "evil."

"It is really a government established by Satan to prevent reaching God and the Hidden Imam," Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying. " … This evil government knows that its end will come if the Hidden Imam reappears." 

He reportedly acknowledged that "some in Iran laugh about these comments."

Ahmadinejad, who served as Iran's president from 2005 to 2013, has previously suggested that the United States is attempting to thwart the Hidden Imam's return.

The launch of his website and Instagram account earlier this year was seen by some as sign that the former president may be attempting a political comeback ahead of next year's parliamentary elections.

Ahmadinejad kept a low profile after his successor, self-proclaimed moderate cleric Hassan Rohani, came to power in 2013. He has become more visible in recent months thanks to his attendance at several public events -- and because of the arrest of two of his former aides.

Hamid Baghaei, who served as Ahmadinejad's vice president for executive affairs, was arrested on June 8. The charges have not been made public, though Baghaei's arrest has fueled speculation that they may involve alleged financial improprieties. 

In January, another former deputy to Ahmadinejad, Mohammad Reza Rahimi, was jailed for five years after being convicted of corruption and embezzlement.

Ahmadinejad has sought to distance his presidency from widespread allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

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