Sunday, April 26, 2015

Increasing Number Of Afghans, Pakistanis Killed In Syria Buried In Iran

Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (left) with Afghan Alireza Tavasoli, commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, who was killed fighting in Syria.

An increasing number of Afghans and Pakistanis killed in the fighting in Syria have been buried in Iran in recent months.

There is little information about the circumstances of their presence in Syria and their subsequent deaths in the fighting.

They appear to be among recruits by the Islamic republic to help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight the rebels. Last year, The Wall Street Journal reported that Iran had been recruiting thousands of Afghans to fight in Syria, offering them financial rewards and residency. 

Iranian media often cover large funerals held for them in Iranian cities, usually attended by local and religious officials. The reports refer to them as the "defenders of the Sayeda Zeynab shrine," a group believed to have been established by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The group also includes Iranian fighters. 

Fatemiyoun Brigade

On March 1, Iranian hard-line websites reported that an Afghan named Alireza Tavasoli, who was described as "one of the bravest commanders" in the fighting in Syria, had been killed in Daraa.

Tavasoli was the commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade that, according to Iranian media reports, is made up of Afghan volunteers who fight in Syria to protect holy Shi'ite shrines. Tavasoli, known as "Abu Hamed," was reportedly a resident of the Iranian city of Mashhad and a graduate of a university in Qom.

The hard-line said Tavasoli was trusted by the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani. The website posted a photo of Soleimani and Tavasoli in military uniform.

The report said Tavasoli was buried along with six other Afghan fighters in Mashhad. 

Zeynabiyoun Brigade

Iranian hard-line media has reported that Pakistanis killed in the fighting in Syria and buried in Iran were members of the Zeynabiyoun Brigade, which has reportedly been established by Pakistanis fighting in Syria.

On April 9, seven Pakistanis killed in Syria were buried in Qom. 

The hard-line website identified them as Taher Hossein, Jamil Hossein, Javid Hossein, Bagher Hossein, Seyed Razi Shah, Ghader Ali, and Ghabel Hossein, and said they were from Pakistan's Parachinar region.

Two weeks later, on April 23, Iranian media reported that five more Pakistanis killed in combat in Syria had also been buried in Qom. The reports said a large number of citizens, including Pakistanis residing in Qom, had attended the procession. 

The names of the two brigades that include Afghans and Pakistanis have relatively recently popped up in Iranian hard-line news sites.

Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, says establishment of the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun brigades suggests that the number of Afghans and Pakistanis who have joined the fighting in Syria has increased.

Alfoneh believes that the Afghans and Pakistanis are being buried in Iranian cities and the presence of Iranian officials and their families at their funerals is evidence that they have been recruited from among the country's refugees and immigrants.

Alfoneh has documented in the past two years the case of about hundred Afghans killed in Syria and buried in Iran. "There has been a rising trend, which seems to be because of several military setbacks for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and advances of the opposition in the field," Alfoneh told RFE/RL in a telephone interview.

Reports suggest Iran provides Syria, its main regional ally, with financial support and military advisers. Iran denies reports that its forces are fighting in Syria to keep Assad in power.

Iranian officials have also dismissed reports suggesting Tehran is recruiting Afghans living in Iran to fight in Syria.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Prospect Of Iranian Nuclear Deal Stirs Hope For Detained Americans

An undated picture of dual U.S.-Iranian citizen Saeed Abedini with his wife Naghmeh and their two children. He has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012.

Golnaz Esfandiari

When Iran and the United States found some common ground at the negotiating table earlier this month, it gave Naghmeh Abedini a welcome glimmer of hope. 

Her husband, Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen, has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012 on charges of threatening the country's national security through private religious gatherings.

Could the prospect of a final nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers help secure his release?

So far, she told RFE/RL, not only has there been no improvement in his situation, it has gotten worse.

"We just know that, pretty much a few days after the deal was reached, he was threatened and harassed by guards more," she said.

The precise reasons for this are not clear. The answer could be a relatively simple case of Abedini's guards carrying out a personal vendetta. Or it could be much more complex, and serve as a defiant hard-line statement against improved relations with the United States.

In recent months, longstanding tensions between the two countries have significantly eased. But while hard-liners have been supportive of the nuclear negotiations, they have made it clear they don't want to see moves toward normalized relations.

While the release of Saeed Abedini and other Americans is not up for discussion in the ongoing nuclear talks, for Naghmeh Abedini, their outcome holds the key to her husband's fate.

"If a deal is reached, there's better relations and we're hoping that would mean Iran would let my husband go free," she told RFE/RL in a telephone interview. "But if somehow, for some reason, no deal is reached, that is bad news."

"This is the best chance for Iran to show good-faith effort by releasing Saeed and other Americans," Naghmeh Abedini added.

Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. marine, has been held in Iran on espionage charges since 2011.
Iranian-American Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. marine, has been held in Iran on espionage charges since 2011.

Pawn In Nuclear Negotiations?

The family of former U.S. Marine is also hoping that a nuclear deal could help lead to his release, a spokeswoman told RFE/RL. Hekmati, a dual U.S.-Iranian national, has been in jail in Iran since August 2011 on espionage charges.

Amy Mueller, the coordinator of the "Free Amir" campaign, said Hekmati has been told by Iranian authorities that his case is dependent on the outcome of the nuclear negotiations.

"There's been indications even made to Amir by some Iranian officials that the deal is really attached to it," Mueller said. "He's basically a bargaining chip attached to that deal."

It is also believed that the case of Washington Post bureau chief Jason Rezaian is tied to the outcome of the nuclear talks and infighting in Iran over improved relations with the United States.

Rezaian, who was detained in Iran nine months ago, was this week charged with espionage and three other security crimes, including "collaborating with hostile governments." 

Before being formally charged, hard-line media -- including the Fars news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) -- had accused Rezaian of spying.

The charges have been dismissed by Rezaian's family and The Washington Post as baseless.

Rezaian's lawyer, Leila Ahsan, said in a statement that the judiciary has not provided evidence to back the charges, which she said are related to his journalistic work.

Ahsan suggested that a nuclear deal could help Rezaian's case.

"Even though legal affairs are outside the bounds of politics, I hope the nuclear talks and its developments will have a positive effect on a speedy release of my client," she wrote.

Separate From Nuclear Talks

A State Department official told RFE/RL in an e-mail, on condition of anonymity, that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Undersecretary Wendy Sherman have raised the cases of the detained and missing Americans repeatedly with Iranian officials and will continue to do so until they are all home. 

However, the official said the issue will remain "on the sidelines" of the nuclear negotiations.

"We have also been very clear that our discussions with Iran about our concerns over these U.S. citizens are a separate issue from the nuclear talks," the official wrote. Detained U.S. citizens "should be returned to their families independently of political negotiations with Iran; their freedom should not be tied to the outcome of these negotiations.‎"

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that, in the event of a deal, the likelihood of the release of detained Americans goes up.

"But it's difficult to predict and each of their circumstances are different."

Sadjadpour believes the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent and contractor with the CIA who vanished during a 2007 trip to Iran's Kish Island, is the most complicated given his links to U.S intelligence.

Tehran has said it is not aware of Levinson's whereabouts. 

For Levinson's wife, Christine Levinson, there is still hope.

"I definitely believe that if the United States and Iran work together it's very possible that they can resolve the issue of where Bob is and how we can get him home," she told RFE/RL.

Iran Teaching Head Sent To Jail

Teachers have recently protested across Iran.

The secretary-general of Iran’s Teachers' Organization was arrested on April 20 and transferred to Tehran’s Evin prison to serve a five-year sentence, Iran’s semi-official ILNA news agency reported.

Alireza Hashemi was sentenced to prison in 2010 for “pursuing union demands” and “meeting with relatives of jailed teachers,” his deputy, Tahereh Naghiyi, told ILNA.

Naghiyi said Hashemi had been convicted of charges that included “acting against national security.”

The organization said the move was an attempt to radicalize the teachers' movement, which it said has been following a rational path. 

The organization also called on the government of Iranian President Hassan Rohani to listen to the voices of the teachers calling for greater rights and to prevent the creation of a “security [state] atmosphere” in the country.

Hashemi’s arrest comes amid what activists describe as increased state pressure on teachers calling for higher wages.

The pressure is reportedly connected to last week’s protests by thousands of teachers in more than two dozen cities, including the capital Tehran.

The teachers who took part in the silent rallies on April 18 called for increased wages and also for the release of their jailed colleagues.

In recent months, Iranian teachers have held several protests against low wages and inadequate living conditions.

A number of them have been arrested and jailed for calling for more rights. They include Rasoul Bodaghi and Alireza Ghanbadi, who remain in jail.

-- Roozbeh Bolhari

Animal-Rights Activists In Shiraz Protest Apparent Stray-Dog Killings

Animal rights activists in Shiraz protesting the purported dog culling.

Hooman Askary

A group of animal-rights activists protested on April 17 in the city of Shiraz, the capital of Iran's Fars Province, against animal cruelty and abuse of stray dogs.

The rare protest, in front of the building of the provincial department of environmental protection, was organized after a disturbing video emerged on social media showing four men giving stray dogs what appeared to be lethal injections.

Some activists inside Iran claimed the injections contained "acid." Many users on social media expressed outrage over what they described as excruciating whines and cries the dogs made in the moments before their graphic deaths.

The men claimed they were getting paid for killing stray dogs. Less than $5 for each dead dog, they said.

A photo shared on social media of the apparent application of lethal injections to stray dogs.A photo shared on social media of the apparent application of lethal injections to stray dogs.
A photo shared on social media of the apparent application of lethal injections to stray dogs.
A photo shared on social media of the apparent application of lethal injections to stray dogs.

Activists claimed the men were working for Shiraz city contractors.

According to state news agency IRNA, the protesters demanded punishment for the dog killers. Some of them reportedly said stray dogs should be killed painlessly and under the supervision of veterinarians, while other called for the creation of shelters for such dogs.

In photos of the protests, activists are seen holding signs against animal cruelty.

“Teaching of religion: compassion toward animals," one sign reads.

Another activist is seen holding a hand-written sign that reads: "Animals are God's creatures like us, lest we take the lives of God's creatures."

In one of the most-circulated photos, half a dozen young girls are holding a slogan adorned with small paw prints: "Be the voice of the voiceless."

A number of Iranian celebrities also protested in cyberspace. They shared messages on Facebook and Twitter -- both filtered by Iranian authorities -- and the partly filtered sharing site Instagram.

On his official Facebook page, cinema star Bahram Radan voices anger at the killing of dogs. Addressing the alleged dog killers, Radan wrote sardonically: "Do not pay attention to their whines and yelps, inject the poison proudly into their spines, my friend! Teach your child to tell his friends about his father's job at school, that his dad kills dogs for a living; he kills dogs with acid. But only know that although you created abominating moments with that horrendous clip for us all, we have no complaints. For my God is the same as yours and those dogs' you killed. We ask of Him to judge you Himself."

Hosein-Ali Ebrahimi-Karnami, head of Fars Province Department of Environmental Protection, promised an investigation into the footage. At the same time, Qasem Akbari, a district mayor in the city of Shiraz, denied any involvement by the municipality in the process.

It appears that the protests are far from over, and activists were already asking for another gathering on April 18, this time in front of Shiraz's administrative offices.

In another recent case of apparent dog abuse, a clip of a man dragging a dead dog behind his car led to protests among Iranian netizens. Some reports suggested that the man in that case was arrested.

Iranian News Agency, U.S. Spokesman Spar Over Jailed Reporter

Jason Rezaian in a Washington Post photo taken in 2013

The continued detention of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian in Iran on security charges has led to an online spat between a Persian-speaking U.S. State Department spokesman and an Iranian news agency affiliated with the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The exchange occurred after the hard-line Fars news agency issued a report accusing Rezaian, a dual Iranian-American citizen imprisoned in Tehran for nearly nine months, of spying and sharing information about the impact of sanctions on Iran with his contacts in the United States who work as "errand boys" for the U.S. Congress and the Treasury Department, and are connected to the Central Intelligence Agency. 

"Selling Iran’s economic and industrial information at the time of sanctions is like selling food supplies to the enemy at a time of war and this is just one example of spying by [Rezaian]," the April 12 report said without providing any specifics on the accusations.

Alan Eyre, a fluent Persian speaker with the State Department who often quotes Persian proverbs and poetry in his interviews, dismissed the allegations by Fars as baseless.

"What a wrong reasoning by the Fars news agency," Eyre wrote on his popular Facebook page.

"It seems that Fars wants to use the U.S. insistence for the release of Jason Rezaian to conclude that he was a spy!" he added.

"The truth is that we are calling on the government of Iran to release all the U.S. citizens who are unjustifiably [held] in Iran’s prisons. We're also calling on Iran to help us find U.S. citizen Bob Levinson and return him to his family."

Eyre then politely advised Fars reporters to read a book by assassinated Iranian cleric and philosopher Morteza Motahari titled Manteq Falsafe that deals with philosophy and logic, apparently to tell them to improve their reasoning skills. 

Fars reacted by thanking Eyre for his book recommendation while saying that the majority of its reporters have already read the book and other works by Motahari, "the teacher of the revolution."

Fars added that it was delighted that "finally in a government that provides weapons and advice to Israel and Saudi Arabia for killing innocent children in Gaza and Yemen, someone is found who instead of weapons and missiles, recommends books to another."

In its relatively lengthy response to Eyre's short Facebook post, Fars also said that it had "unveiled" alleged spying activities by Rezaian based on "documents" that it didn't feel the need to release for now.

The news agency that is referred to by critics as "Farce" or "False news" over some of its biased and inaccurate reporting, added that the alleged documents will be released publicly as soon as "legal entities" in the Islamic republic permit.

The semiofficial Fars news agency also accused the United States of jailing and torturing U.S. citizens and foreign nationals on baseless charges.

Eyre shared Fars' response on Twitter, while calling it "a silly joke." In an April 14 interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Eyre reiterated that Rezaian was innocent and that he should be released immediately.

Rezaian’s family and The Washington Post have also dismissed the espionage charges against him.

In an April 14 statement, Washington Post executive director Martin Baron said Rezaian had been subjected to "Kafkaesque restrictions," including only one hour meeting with his lawyer in preparation for his trial. The court date has not yet been set. 

"The idea that Jason -- or anyone -- could be allowed only one hour with a lawyer before standing trial on serious charges is simply appalling," it said.

The statement added that since his arrest on July 22, Rezaian had been subjected to "harsh interrogation, months of solitary confinement, and poor living conditions" that have seriously impacted his health.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari 

Rohani: Iran Not Negotiating With U.S. Congress

Iranian President Hassan Rohani speaks to a crowd in the city of Rasht on April 15.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani says the Islamic republic is not negotiating with the U.S. Congress on a potential nuclear deal.

"Our counterpart is not the U.S. Senate or the Congress, our counterpart is the group known as P5+1," Rohani said in an April 15 speech in the northern city of Rasht. 

The comment came a day after legislation giving the U.S. Congress a vote on any potential final nuclear deal with Iran was unanimously passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The White House suggested President Barack Obama would not veto the version of the bill that was passed by the committee.

The bill sets up a 30-day congressional review period and requires the administration to regularly update Congress on Iran's compliance. 

Rohani's comments mark the first official Iranian reaction to the April 14 vote.

"What does the Senate say? What does the Congress want? What are hard-liners in the U.S. after? What are U.S. mercenaries saying in the region? These are not the problem of our government and our people," Rohani was quoted as saying by Iranian state media. 

The Iranian president also reiterated Tehran's demand that sanctions imposed on Iran over its sensitive nuclear activities should be lifted when a final nuclear agreement is signed. "If there is no end to sanctions, there will not be an agreement," Rohani said.

Speaking to journalists in Lisbon, Portugal, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said President Obama was "responsible" for making sure that Washington respected a final agreement over Iran's nuclear program, despite the green light for the Congress to have a say on the accord.

"It is the obligation of the government of the United States to implement its international agreements. And we will hold the U.S. government, the U.S. president accountable" for the application of the treaties that they sign, Zarif was quoted as saying.

Zarif also said Iran would study the bill "to see if it infringes upon or hinders the capability of the president to carry out the obligations that he is going to assume with Iran." 

Iran and the six major world powers reached a tentative nuclear framework agreement in Lausanne on April 2. The agreement paves the way for a final deal that would curb Iran's nuclear activities in exchange of sanctions relief.

The deadline for a comprehensive deal is June 30.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

Tags:Iranian nuclear program

Khamenei's Nuclear-Deal Comments: Posturing Or A Negotiating Tactic? ​

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

In his first comments since the nuclear framework was announced, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did not offer his full backing to the tentative agreement.

Khamenei, who has the last say in all state affairs in the Islamic republic, said there was nothing to celebrate, as a deal is far from done, while, again, reiterating his full support and trust in the Iranian negotiators.

"I neither oppose nor agree [with the tentative nuclear agreement]," he said on April 9 according to a text of his speech posted on his website.

Khamenei said sanctions should be removed on the day a final nuclear deal is signed. He also rejected international inspections of Iran's military sites.

Such demands could be a deal-breaker, as the United States has said that sanctions will only be lifted if and when Iran fulfils this and other commitments under a comprehensive deal.

U.S. State Department Acting Deputy Spokesperson Jeff Rathke was asked about Khamenei's comments at his April 9 press briefing.

"Well, I'm not going to – again, we're not going to respond to every public statement made by Iranian officials or negotiate in public," he said. "Just as one example, though, under the agreed-upon parameters, sanctions will be suspended in a phased manner upon verification that Iran has met specific commitments under a finalized joint comprehensive plan of action."

Khamenei's comments could be just posturing, as the French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud reminded us on Twitter. It could also be a negotiating tactic.

Overall, Khamenei's comments and his attacks on the United States, which he accused of "devious" behavior, underlined the difficulty the negotiators from both sides are likely to face in trying to reach a final deal by the June 30 deadline.

Khamenei said he's never been "optimistic" about negotiations with the United States. But, interestingly, he also suggested that, if a lasting nuclear deal is reached, the two sides could have engagement in other areas.

"If the other side refrains from its normal devious actions, this experience can be continued on other issues," Khamenei said.

He added:" If we see that once again they repeat their devious actions, it will only strengthen our previous experience of not trusting America."

Khamenei also left the door open for a possible extension of the nuclear talks beyond the June 30 deadline.

He said: "They might say that we have only three months left. Well, if three months becomes four months, the sky won't come falling down." 

Speaking on state television later in the day, Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister and senior nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi thanked Khamenei for his "wise and precise" guidelines and support and said that talks could be extended if this was needed to meet the requirements of the Iranian leader.

-- 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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