Tuesday, June 28, 2016


Leaked Salaries Cast Iran Officials In Harsh Light, But To What End?

Iranian President Hassan Rohani greets supporters in the southeastern city of Kerman last month. Some have suggested the publication of the pay slips is an attack on him ahead of next year's presidential election.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Simmering anger in Iran's hard-line media over official salaries has forced President Hassan Rohani's administration onto the defensive with a likely reelection bid for the relative moderate on the horizon.

The purported pay slips from earlier this year of executives from government-owned insurance agencies and banks were recently leaked online, and appear to show inflated salaries, bonuses, and other benefits that could prove politically divisive in a country where roughly 30 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Instances cited by conservative media suggest an insurance executive received about $30,000 in monthly compensation and a bank manager was paid more than $65,000 for a month's work, as much as 200 times what modestly paid government employees make and more than 100 times the official average household salary.

The original source of the leaks remains unclear.

The scandal has already prompted the resignation of Iran's state insurance regulator, Mohammad Ebrahim Amin, and a reported jail term for an unnamed government executive who was said to have refused to explain and document his income to the head of the General Inspectorate Organization, Nasser Seraj.

Some Iranians have taken to social media to criticize the officials' salaries and post their own pay slips to highlight the disproportion. Blue-collar laborers in Iran frequently wait months for their wages, teachers struggle to make ends meet, and union leaders are among the most influential critics of the country's leadership.

Under pressure from conservative media and expressions of public outrage, Rohani in a letter urging official action in mid-June acknowledged "unconventional payments" but blamed holdover legislation from previous administrations and promised action.

On June 27, Rohani's first vice president, Eshagh Jahangiri, vowed that the government would act against those who receive "illegal" or "extraordinary" salaries.

"Society and public opinion expect the government to return illegal payments to the treasury and dismiss the violators on this issue," Jahangiri was quoted by a government website as saying.

Political Attack?

Rohani supporters have suggested the publication of the pay slips is aimed at hobbling Rohani and dimming his chances of reelection in next year's presidential vote.

Health Minister Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi was quoted by the hard-line Fars news agency on June 20 as saying that "people believe the leaks are politically motivated."

Rohani swept into office in 2013 on pledges of reform that included greater rights for women and dialing down persecution of dissent and public criticism of the government, although such efforts have mostly stalled.

He also successfully concluded an agreement with the United States and other world powers to curb Tehran's fiercely disputed nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief that could revive trade and other ties with the West, further angering hard-liners in Iran.

He has come under increased pressure to deliver on promises to improve Iran's economy, including through tangible benefits from the nuclear deal.

Reformers and political allies with Rohani's explicit or implicit backing returned in significant numbers to Iran's parliament in elections earlier this year, although most of the power in the country's clerically controlled system resides with the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The state-run daily Etelaat, which has shown sympathy in the past to reformist causes and politicians, suggested earlier this month that the online leak of the pay slips in the final year of Rohani's presidential term was a "planned" move aimed at chipping away at public trust.

An ultra-hard-line daily, Kayhan, last week rejected that argument as a "weak defense that doesn't convince anyone" and said, "Even if that is the case [that the leak was orchestrated], then solve the problem and don't give an excuse to critics."

Kayhan called on the government to make the pay slips of its executives public: "The pay slips of managers is not among confidential documents. Transparency is the most principled way to act against these issues."

It added that "a real and acceptable apology will be when the government gives all access to the pay slips of its managers."


Red Card For Yellow Pants: SpongeBob Gets Iran Soccer Player In Hot Water

Goalkeeper Sosha Makani represented Iran at the 2014 soccer World Cup in Brazil.

RFE/RL

An Iranian soccer player has been banned from domestic matches for six months over "inappropriate" behavior that included the wearing of SpongeBob SquarePants trousers.
 
Iranian media reported on June 7 that the morality committee of the Iranian Football Federation based its decision on goalkeeper Sosha Makani's "unconventional attire."
 
A photo shared by Shargh Daily shows Makani -- who represented Iran at the 2014 World Cup and currently plays for Persepolis in Iran's Pro League -- looking trendy in a seemingly candid moment clad in the bright yellow pants, a playful azure T-shirt, and yellow-trimmed high-tops.

SpongeBob SquarePants is an anthropomorphic yellow sea sponge at the center of an animated children's series that has spawned billions of dollars in global merchandising revenues for U.S.-based Nickelodeon and MTV Media Networks.
 
A member of the morality committee was quoted by sports website Varzesh3 as saying that Makani had been summoned repeatedly by the Football Federation to explain his attire but had failed to do so.
 
"We made the decision based on the clothing of this national football team player and the impact it can have on society," the unnamed official from the federation's morality committee said.
 


 
The reports say Makani can appeal the decision, and the ruling does not prevent him from playing in international matches.
 
Makani's headache began after the snapshot was posted online and shared widely on social media. Some news sites criticized his attire as "inappropriate" and accused him of setting a bad example for fans.
 
Hojatoleslam Alireza Alipour, the secretary of the federation's moral charter, told the hard-line Tasnim news agency in May that celebrities "should watch their behavior."
 
"These people are, intentionally or unintentionally, a role model for the youth," the cleric told Tasnim.
 
Some Iranians mocked the ban on him via social media.
 
"Are we in a kindergarten?!!! Why do they care about what he's wearing," tweeted one user.

"If Makani's banned over yellow pants, then this mullah should be defrocked," another Twitter user wrote alongside what appeared to be a screengrab from Iranian state television showing a cleric in a yellow shirt.
 


 
Makani has not commented publicly on the controversy, which is his second perceived misstep in the eyes of Iran's hard-line establishment.
 
The 29-year-old was arrested and jailed earlier this year over photos posted online showing him with unveiled women. He was later released and allowed to return to join his Persian Gulf Pro League team in Tehran. 
 
Under Islamic laws enforced in Iran following the 1979 revolution, women must cover their hair and body while men are required to dress modestly in public.
 
Iranian officials appeared to step up their vigilance against Western influences following the signing in July of an international deal to ease UN and U.S. sanctions in return for curbs on Tehran's nuclear program.

 


Khomeini Grandson Defends Decades-Old Mass Political Executions

Ali Khomeini, an Iranian cleric who is the grandson of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Ali Khomeini, a grandson of revolutionary leader and Islamic Republic of Iran founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has defended thousands of summary executions of political prisoners in 1988 following a fatwa by his grandfather.

Some sources claim that more than 5,000 members of the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO) and further leftist groups, students, and others were executed in the span of a few months. The prisoners were said to have been executed after brief interrogations by three-member committees -- dubbed "death commissions" -- about their political and religious beliefs. 

Speaking at a June 1 event in Qom marking the anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death, Ali Khomeini, a cleric, suggested that the executions of political opponents, particularly MKO members, was a wise move.

"Today, some people feel sorry for the hypocrites" -- a term used by Iranian authorities to refer to MKO members -- "and say, 'Why did you execute them?' These were people who stood against the establishment and committed crimes that [militant Islamist group Islamic State] would not commit," the younger Khomeini was quoted as saying by Iranian media.

"They assassinated the president, the prime minister, and many other senior figures," Khomeini, who teaches at the Qom seminary, said in reference to a series of bombings by the MKO in the 1980s.

Known in Iran as "The Little Ali," Khomeini added that if his grandfather had shown flexibility toward them, "the country would not experience any peace even after 30 years."

He also claimed that Khomeini’s "management" of the crisis -- he was the country's first supreme leader under Iran's postrevolutionary theocracy -- that Iran faced following the 1979 revolution brought peace to the country.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)
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Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989)

"Maybe several years ago, it wasn’t as easy as today to speak about the management of The Imam," he said of the elder Khomeini in an allusion to the "Arab spring" uprisings for social justice that swept some states in the Middle East and northern Africa in 2010-11 but many critics say were reversed in what some dub an "Arab winter." "It’s easier to speak about it today."

"Who today has a clear idea of the fate of those revolutions? Beside it, we have to look at why Iran’s Islamic revolution was successful." He said, according to the text of his speech published by the hard-line, semiofficial Fars news agency.

The 1988 executions are rarely discussed publicly in Iran, where families of the victims have faced state pressure and harassment for attempting to hold commemorations for their lost loved ones.

Amnesty International has called on Iran "to uphold the right to truth, justice and reparation of the families of those killed" in the 1988 executions, which the rights group said will remain known to Iranians as The Prison Massacre. 
 


'Islamic' Chair Cover Gets Iranian Activist In Trouble

Shai Sadr sits on the "Islamic" couch with a wine glass (click for full image).

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 03.06.2016 08:09

Golnaz Esfandiari

A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer and women's rights activist has created a controversy by posting a picture on social media that shows her sitting on a chair with Islamic motifs while holding a glass of wine.

The chair in the photo of Shadi Sadr is covered with a material used in Iran for events marking the Ashura, the martyrdom of Imam Hossein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It is a work by Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar, whose parents were among intellectuals and political activists killed in the late 1990s by Intelligence Ministry agents.

Hard-line conservative Iranian media, including state-controlled television and the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), accused Sadr of insulting Islamic sanctities and disrespecting Islamic values.

Sadr, one of many activists and intellectuals who had to flee Iran to escape imprisonment in a crackdown after the 2009 presidential elections, told RFE/RL that the photo was not insulting and that she posted the photo to highlight the plight of nonbelievers in Iran.

"Shadi Sadr, the fugitive feminist and a so-called journalist who supports women's rights, has entered her pro-Western orientation into a new phase: insulting values and the holiest of the holy symbols of the Iranian nation; the symbol of the mourning for [Imam Hossein]," a state television report said.

Fars called Sadr's picture "an excuse to insult religious sanctity," while accusing her of questioning Islamic principles for years.

The news agency posted a statement by "a group of professors and law experts" calling for Sadr's extradition, trial, and punishment over what it said was her "antireligious" move.

The statement said that according to Islamic penal law, those convicted of insulting sanctity and holy figures can be either sentenced to death or to one to five years in prison.

Sadr told RFE/RL that she posted the photo on social media to highlight what she saw an as "interesting contrast."

"I was sitting [with friends] and discussing Ashura practices and our memories and experiences from childhood when I realized the contrast between the [chair] I was sitting on, the material on it, and myself with that glass in hand. I asked someone who was there to take my picture," she said in a telephone interview from London, where she is based.

"I thought there's an interesting contrast in the picture where a woman without the hijab and full of joy is sitting on that chair. It represents the many freedoms those who are not believers have been deprived of in Iran in the name of [religion]. That's all," she added.

Sadr dismissed allegations that her picture was an insult to Islamic sanctity.

"As someone born in a Shi'a family, I think I'm familiar enough with that culture to know that there is nothing insulting in that picture," she said.

She added, "The material [that covers the chair] is not considered sanctity, nor there is any insult in that picture."

She said she believed the outrage among critics stemmed from the contrast she highlighted in the picture, which is rarely seen in Iranian society.

Sadr's picture on Instagram generated over 34,000 comments, including many threats and warnings.

"You insulted the beliefs of a large number of people. It is really deplorable," read a comment posted under Sadr's post.

Another said that he hoped Sadr's would be "punished" soon.

"You keep talking about human rights and the need other people's beliefs. How come you disrespect other people's beliefs while making such claims," another user commented.

Some praised Sadr for the post.

"What a wonderful picture, full of positive energy," one woman wrote, adding that those who were angered by it should learn "to relax."

Sadr said she'd been threatened with death and rape over her picture. "Most of the threats I received [over the post] were threats of rape, [many] left obscene comments while defending holy figures," she said.

Some described in detail how they would rape Sadr if they would lay their hands on her.

Sadr's post was removed from Instagram on May 31. She said she hadn't received any notification from Instagram about the reason for the move.

Instagram has not yet responded to an RFE/RL inquiry about the removal of Sadr's post. The picture is still available on Sadr's Facebook page.

UPDATE: Sadr's photo is now available on Instagram after being temporarily removed. “We removed this image by mistake and we apologize for the inconvenience caused. We worked to rectify this as soon as we were notified and have already taken steps to prevent this from happening in the future,” an Instagram spokesperson told RFE/RL in an e-mail. 


Leading Iranian Human Rights Defender Sentenced To 16 Years In Prison

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children Ali (center) and Kiana

Last updated (GMT/UTC): 19.05.2016 19:30

Golnaz Esfandiari

A leading Iranian human rights activist has been sentenced to a total of 16 years in prison after being convicted of charges that include membership in a campaign for the abolition of the death penalty.

The heavy sentence against Narges Mohammadi, the deputy head of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) co-founded by Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was issued on top of a six-year-prison sentence she is already serving.

“It’s revenge [against] a human rights defender to keep her in prison and intimidate other rights activists,” Mohammadi’s husband, Taghi Rahmani, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Rahmani, who is based in Paris with their two children, said that 10 years of the 16-year prison sentence was issued for “establishing” the outlawed campaign called Step By Step To Stop The Death Penalty in Iran.

But he said Mohammadi was merely a member of the campaign, not a founder.

“She’s not one of the founding members of the campaign,” Rahmani said in a May 19 telephone interview.

“Why is working to decrease the high number of executions in Iran a crime?” Rahmani asked.

He said Mohammadi was sentenced to five years in prison for “meeting and conspiring against the Islamic republic,” and one year for “acting against Iran’s national security.”

Rahmani said the charges stem from Mohammadi’s interviews with Persian-language media based outside of Iran and also for a 2014 meeting in Tehran with former EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Under Iranian laws, a person sentenced to multiple prison sentences will serve only the most severe, which means that in practice Mohammadi has been sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment.

The sentence can be appealed.

The French media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned the sentence as the outcome of “a flawed trial” held on April 20 under the influence of Iran’s intelligence ministry and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"Such a heavy sentence shows the iniquitous character of Iranian justice," the group’s secretary-general, Christophe Deloire, said in a May 19 statement.

He added: "President [Hassan] Rohani cannot remain silent in the face of such a judicial outrage even if everyone knows the judicial system takes its orders from the supreme leader."

WATCH: Jailed Iranian Activist Given Press Freedom Award In Absentia

Jailed Iranian Activist Given Press Freedom Award In Absentiai
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May 03, 2016
On the eve of World Press Freedom Day, Reporters Without Borders honored imprisoned Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi at an event in Paris. Mohammadi's husband, Tagi Rahmani, who lives in exile in France, collected the "Heroes of Information" award on behalf of his wife at the May 2 ceremony.

Amnesty International said the “shocking” prison sentence against Mohammadi was “an all-out attack on human rights defenders in Iran.”

“The authorities have made clear their ruthless determination to silence human rights defenders and instill fear in would-be critics of their policies,” Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Luther said it is shameful for the Iranian authorities to treat a prominent human rights defender as a criminal.

“It exposes their lip service to human rights as utterly meaningless and shows their deep disdain for the basic principles of justice,” he said.

Mohammadi, who has been honored by RSF as an information hero for her defense of human rights, was arrested in May 2015. 

She had been detained before and sentenced to prison over her human rights activities on several other occasions.

Radio Farda broadcaster Roya Karimimajd contributed to this report

Iranian Political Activist Tabarzadi Arrested

His son said Heshmatollah Tabarzadi had "very likely" been arrested on May 17 and reportedly was transferred to the special wing of a Tehran prison notorious for housing political prisoners for the country's intelligence service.

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iran has reportedly rearrested political activist and journalist Heshmatollah Tabarzadi, who was released last year after spending more than five years in jail for his outspoken criticism of the Iranian establishment.

His son said Tabarzadi had "very likely" been arrested on May 17 and reportedly was transferred to the special wing of a Tehran prison notorious for housing political prisoners for the country's intelligence service.

The reason for his arrest is unclear.

Iranian authorities routinely withhold information from relatives and the public about detainees and the charges against them, even once their trials have begun.

Abtin Tabarzadi wrote on social media that his father left the house in the morning and had not returned by evening.

He added later that he had received information that his father had been transferred to Section 209 of Evin prison, in the capital.

"[My father] had said repeatedly that in case of arrest, he will immediately go on an indefinite hunger strike," Tabarzadi wrote on Facebook.

Tabarzadi, the head of the banned Democratic Front of Iran, has been in and out of jail for the past two decades.

He was among the many activists and intellectuals arrested in the crackdown that followed the disputed reelection of Mahmud Ahmadinejad to the presidency in 2009. Tabarzadi was later sentenced to nine years in prison on charges that included "insulting Iran's leader" -- a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- and "spreading propaganda against the [Iranian] establishment."

Since his release from prison in July, he had continued to criticize the Iranian authorities while accusing them of committing human rights abuses and staging unfair elections.

In an act of defiance, Tabarzadi registered as a candidate for Iran's February parliamentary elections. As expected, his candidacy was not approved by the powerful Guardians Council that vets all of Iran's election candidates.

On May 11, Tabarzadi posted on Facebook pictures of a meeting with a former Baha'i cellmate who had been released from prison. In the post, Tabarzadi criticized the perceived persecution of Baha'is in the Islamic republic, where their faith is not officially recognized.

Several journalists have been arrested in Iran in recent months.

Earlier this week, Iranian news sites reported that the manager of a popular blogging service, Mehdi Butorabi, had been detained.

Iranian authorities also announced that they had arrested eight people involved in a modeling network on Instagram where pictures of female models were posted without the obligatory Islamic head covering. 

Iran Targets Models, Bloggers In 'Values' Crackdowni
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May 18, 2016
Iran has arrested eight people and is investigating scores of models, bloggers, designers, and others in a crackdown on social media related to the fashion industry. Some of the detainees are reportedly women who posed online without the mandatory head scarf. Authorities say they are targeting people who aim "to undermine the foundation of family values in Iran."


Iran's Leader Tells Families Of Afghans Killed In Syria: 'I'm Proud Of You'

In the March meeting, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the families of some of the Afghans killed in Syria that "martyrs who die on this path are privileged."

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has praised families of Afghan combatants killed in the fighting in Syria, according to a newly released video that could be aimed at boosting morale among troops deployed to support Tehran's regional ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

"I'm proud of you," Khamenei told the families in the March 27 meeting, video footage of which was first made public this week.

The release of the video on May 12 comes amid Tehran's mounting casualties in Syria, where 13 Iranian military personnel were killed last week in clashes with insurgents near Aleppo. It was Iran's heaviest single-day death toll in the conflict.

A few hundred Iranian and Afghan fighters are believed to have been killed in Syria during the five-year-old war, including several senior members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

In June 2015, Iran's state IRNA news agency reported that about 400 Iranians and Afghans had been killed in Syria in the past four years.

About 150 more are believed to have been killed since then, according to reports by local media outlets that have been publishing their names and photos of their funerals.

Tehran says it has deployed only "military advisers" to boost Assad. In April, it said it has deployed a commando unit of its army to Syria to serve as "advisers."

Iranian media claim that Iranian and Afghan combatants who join the fight in Syria are "volunteers" who defend holy Shi'ite sites and are referred to as Defenders of the Shrine.

Afghans are being deployed as part of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which reportedly consists of Afghan refugees, mainly Hazaras, living in Iran. Fatemiyoun's commander, Alireza Tavasoli, was killed in Syria in March 2015.

Human Rights Watch says thousands of them are undocumented Afghans recruited by the IRGC since November 2013, including some who, according to the rights group, have been coerced into joining the fight in Syria.

"Iran has not just offered Afghan refugees and migrants incentives to fight in Syria, but several said they were threatened with deportation back to Afghanistan unless they did," Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, said earlier this year.

In the March meeting, Khamenei told the families of some of the Afghans killed in Syria that "martyrs who die on this path are privileged."

"In fact your children have created a shield with their life to protect the holy shrines from these evil [forces]. Therefore their status is very important," he said.

Despite the rising death toll, Iranian authorities have suggested that Tehran will not accept any compromise on the fate of its ally, Assad, who has Russia's backing as well. The United States and its allies accuse Assad of indiscriminately bombing his own people and insist on his exit.

Iranian state media quoted Khamenei's adviser on international affairs, Ali Akbar Velayati, on May 8 as saying that Iran's red line is Assad remaining in power until the end of his term.

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.

Guerrilla Translators

Seen anything in the Iranian blogosphere that you think Persian Letters should cover? If so, contact Golnaz Esfandiari at esfandiarig@rferl.org