Wednesday, August 05, 2015

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

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, 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.

Iranian Hard-Liners Protest Women's Presence In Sports Stadiums

In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball. (file photo)

Golnaz Esfandiari

Iranian hard-liners demonstrated in front of the Sports Ministry in Tehran on June 17 to protest the possible presence of women in sports stadiums.
The protest followed reports that a limited number of Iranian women could be allowed to attend two upcoming international male volleyball matches, including one on June 19.
Iranian women are currently banned from entering stadiums to watch male sporting events. But earlier this month, Iran's vice president for women and family affairs, Shahindokht Molaverdi, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban will be partially lifted and that women will be allowed into stadiums to watch sports such as men's volleyball, basketball, and tennis. 
Molaverdi's announcement followed criticism by the international soccer and volleyball officials -- as well as women's rights advocates -- that angered hard-liners who vowed to fight the initiative.
Amid the controversy, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli was quoted by domestic media as saying that there are no new "instructions" regarding the presence of women in sports stadiums. 
Iran's official news agency, IRNA, reported that demonstrators at the June 17 protest in Tehran said allowing women to watch male sporting events is against Islam and that those behind such moves should be put on trial.
Iran's reformist Shargh daily reported on Twitter that some of the protesters called for Molaverdi to be sacked. 

The group of protesters, which IRNA said numbered less than 100, later held prayers in front of the Sports Ministry. 

The controversy highlights the power struggle in Iran between the government of self-proclaimed moderate President Hassan Rohani, who favors fewer social restrictions, and powerful hard-liners who oppose any kind of relaxation of strict social and political rules in the Islamic republic.
In the past, women in Iran had been allowed to attend some male volleyball and basketball games. Last year, however, they were banned from entering sports stadium to watch men's volleyball.
Authorities in Tehran used force to disperse women's rights activists who staged a June 2014 protest against the ban. One of the protesters, Iranian-British activist Ghoncheh Ghavami, was arrested and later sentenced to a year in prison.
Ghavami was released on bail after spending five months in jail. In April, an appeals court dropped the charges against her.
Iranian women's rights advocates have for years campaigned for allowing women to attend all male sporting events, including soccer, which is immensely popular in Iran.
Hard-liners have argued that women's presence at male sporting events is inappropriate because of the athletes' uniforms and the crude language common in the stadiums.

Iran's Nuclear 'Diplomatic Warriors' Are Back In Vogue

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by a hard-line lawmaker at a closed-door session of parliament in May.

Golnaz Esfandiari

"Diplomatic warriors" who defend Iran's interests, or "traitors" who sell out their country to enemies.

Both are recent labels given domestically to Iran's negotiators at sensitive international talks on a comprehensive nuclear deal that would curb Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

But with the June 30 deadline for a deal fast approaching, senior Iranian officials have appeared increasingly eager to present a united front, muzzle critics, and publicly back the negotiators, who are led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Defenders have included senior clerics, the head of the powerful judiciary, and several lawmakers who expressed concern that domestic criticism could undermine the Iranian negotiation team.

A wave of support for Iran's negotiators came after Zarif was reportedly branded a "traitor" by hard-line Endurance Front party lawmaker Mehdi Kouchakzadeh at a closed-door session of parliament on May 24.

Portions of a heated exchange between the two men were documented on a cellphone and posted online. In the poor-quality video, Zarif is heard reacting to a man, apparently Kouchakzadeh, who calls him a "traitor" and invokes the name of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has warned against negotiating under threat.

Zarif reacts by saying, "He calls me a traitor?"

The man responds, "I speak on his behalf."

The Iranian foreign minister then says angrily, "You have no right to speak on his behalf," adding that the supreme leader is the most influential voice.

A few days after the exchange, judiciary head Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani spoke out against undermining the nuclear negotiators since, he suggested, national interests were of the utmost importance. "Insulting negotiators or publishing closed-door parliament discussions with the negotiating team does not help the negotiations," he was quoted as saying on May 28.

Parliament deputy speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar also came to the defense of the nuclear negotiators. Speaking on Iranian state television, Bahonar said Iran's "enemy" was "cunning" and therefore the concerns of those who say they're worried over the nuclear talks were legitimate.

But he added that it was an "injustice" to accuse the negotiators of selling out Iran's interests.

'Fatal Poison' Of 'Discord'

On June 10, hard-line senior Qom-based cleric Nasser Makarem Shirazi warned over divisions over the nuclear talks. The cleric was quoted by domestic media as saying that "discord" was "a fatal poison" in dealing with "the enemies who wish to collapse [the] nuclear deal between Iran and the West."

Two days later, on June 12, hard-line cleric Ahmad Khatami went to great lengths during Friday Prayers in Tehran to express his backing for the negotiators, which he described as "the children of the Iranian nation." "They are warriors of the diplomacy front, and everyone should help them carry out their duties," he said, adding that nuclear negotiators should not be branded "traitors."

Friday Prayer sermons in Iran are said to hew closely to talking points provided by the office of Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has called the negotiators "children of the revolution" and given his blessing to the talks despite his stated distrust of the United States.

In a speech also on June 12 , Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi said the nuclear negotiators would "never" cross the red lines set by Khamenei, who has the last say in all state affairs in Iran.

Moslehi said that "unfortunately, while the supreme leader supports the nuclear team, some try [to pretend] as if in the negotiating process [the negotiators] have sold Iran's interests out to the foreigners." Moslehi also decried calls for public protests as unnecessarily sowing division.

Closing Ranks

Elements in Iran that have been critical of the negotiations had generally kept a low profile amid reported progress in the talks. But those naysayers have seemingly become more vocal amid hints of a stall in recent weeks and criticism by officials of what has been described as excessive Western demands, such as access to Iranian military sites.

Such criticism was alluded to in a May 20 speech in which Supreme Leader Khamenei said he would "not give permission for foreigners to come and speak with the scientists, the prominent and dear children of the nation."

Days after Khamenei's remarks, dozens of hard-liners took to the streets of Tehran, Mashhad, and other cities to protest under the banner "We Will Not Give Permission," a phrase they borrowed from Khamenei's speech.

More protests were reportedly being planned.

But on May 30, state media quoted Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli as warning that no demonstrations on either side of the nuclear argument would be allowed.

Meanwhile, public attacks on Zarif have continued, including by people suggesting via the Internet that while Iranians were fighting against Saddam Hussein's army in the bloody Iran-Iraq War, Zarif was breezily studying in the country they call "the Great Satan." 

The criticism could increase as the deadline nears.

"If a good deal is reached, then there would be less criticism; but if they reach a bad deal, [negotiators] will come under greater fire," says a Tehran-based analyst who does not want to be named. At the end of the day, he adds, how the establishment sells any emerging deal will be the key.

In the abovementioned Friday Prayers sermon, Ayatollah Khatami said the government should not label any criticism or protest gathering as an attempt at "character assassination."

In fact, he said, such gatherings could give Iranian negotiators more leverage in their talks with Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany. But he added that the nuclear team should not be "weakened" by demonstrators.

Acclaimed Iranian Musician Denied Tehran Concert In Brewing Culture Row

Kayhan Kalhor plays in Wahdat Hall in Tehran in July 2010.

Golnaz Esfandiari

An iconic U.S.-based Iranian musician was set to delight music lovers in Tehran this week in what reportedly would have been his first concert in the country of his birth for several years.

For fans of Kayhan Kalhor, it sounded too good to be true. And unfortunately for them, it was.

The planned June 9 concert by Kalhor, a Grammy-winning virtuoso of the kamancheh, a traditional Iranian bowed string instrument, was called off after police tasked with overseeing public events failed to issue a permit.

The news broke two days before the planned concert, in which Kalhor was to be joined by the New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

The website, dedicated to news about Iran's music scene, reported on June 7 that police decided not to sanction the event due to "security considerations."

Kalhor, meanwhile, was quoted by the website as saying that as long as Iran's "culture and art" was hijacked in a power struggle between different political factions, he would refrain from engaging in any cultural activities in the Islamic republic.

A day later, on June 8, the head of the music department at Iran's Culture Ministry criticized the decision not to issue a permit for Kalhor's concert.

"Not giving a license to an Iranian musician who has worked hard to promote Iranian music in the world is not right in our view," Pirooz Arjomand said in an interview published by the hard-line Tasnim news agency.

Arjomand said that the necessary consultations had been made with Iran's Foreign Ministry, and that the visa issues for the musicians had been taken care of.

He added that the police should explain the decision, and that the move runs counter to the policies of President Hassan Rohani's government aimed at encouraging cultural diplomacy.

"With this approach by the police, we have to close the doors of cultural interactions with the world," Arjomand was quoted as saying.

The incident is the latest in a series of concert cancelations in Tehran and other Iranian cities that appear to be related to pressure from hard-liners who criticize the government's cultural policies as too liberal. 

Iranian media have reported that more than a dozen concerts have been called off in recent months.

On June 10, a concert by well-known Iranian musician Parvaz Homay was canceled, Iranian news sites reported. It would have been Homay's first performance in eight years.

The website reported that those who purchased tickets for Homay's concert received a text message a few hours before it was to begin informing them that the event was called off until further notice following an order by Iran's judiciary.

The pressure is seen as an attempt by hard-liners to hurt Rohani, who has promised greater cultural and social openness and less censorship.

A Tehran-based journalist with a reformist daily told RFE/RL in February that like the Iranian government's negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program, the cultural sphere had become an "Achilles heel" for Rohani.

"When concerts are canceled, musicians face problems, books don't get published, and so on, Rohani is being blamed and accused of being incompetent," the journalist said.

Arjomand of the Culture Ministry told the Tasnim news agency that police had also failed to issue a permit for a concert by the popular French band Gipsy Kings.

He added that there were other similar cases that have not been publicized, though he did not provide details.

Conservative Cleric Calls Iran's Veiling Policy Wrong-Headed

A conservative Iranian cleric has sharply criticized enforcement of the obligation for women to wear the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, since the 1979 revolution and the creation of Iran's Islamic republic.

For more than three decades, Iranian clerics and officials --mostly men -- have praised the purported benefits of the hijab while employing punishment, including violence, to force women to fully cover their hair and body in public.

As a result, tens of thousands of women have been harassed physically and verbally, detained, or forced to pay fines for noncompliance with the state-imposed dress code.

Enforcement usually intensifies during the hot months of summer, when hard-liners frequently call for more action against women who are pushing the boundaries by showing more hair and wearing tighter and shorter coats.

Hojatoleslam Mohammad Reza Zaeri, a former editor of the popular Hamshahri daily, agrees with his conservative fellows that hijab is a "value" that they claim keeps society safe. But he acknowledges what critics have long argued: that the policy of enforcement has been a failure.

Speaking last week on the compulsory hijab at a seminary in Qom, conservative home to many of Iran's senior clerics, Zaeri was quoted by Iranian news sites as saying: "I strongly believe that the policy of mandatory hijab has been totally wrong."

The cleric, who has authored two books on the hijab, added that giving women a choice would make it easier to convince them of the perceived benefits.

"If the hijab were free, there would have been more respect for its sanctity," Zaeri said at the May 27 seminar.

He said promotion of strict Islamic dress would be easier in Jakarta than in Tehran or Qom, for instance, because the hijab is not compulsory in Indonesia.

He also said the popularity of the chador, which is being promoted by Iranian authorities as the "superior hijab," has been on the decline as most women opt for scarves and short coats.

Zaeri has made similarly controversial remarks before, including in an hourlong debate focused on the hijab that was aired on state-controlled television in March.

"It's as if I closed the door of this room and told you that you had to stay here for three hours and watch a movie, then I repeatedly explained to you that this movie had won an Oscar for its artistic value. When you're forced into [something], the praise is meaningless," he said on the show.

In a May interview with the conservative, Zaeri said Iran's Islamic establishment had put too much focus on the hijab while neglecting the issue of "social justice."

He said he agreed with those who suggest that seeing women who are not properly veiled leads to "sexual excitement" among young people and "trauma and emotional abuse" in society.

But he questioned whether seeing luxury cars and homes was not a greater source of distress in a society in which many are struggling with economic problems. 

In another debate held last year, Zaeri said a dialogue with what are often described as "badly veiled" women was more important that talks with the United States.

"How come we're ready to hold talks with Ashton" -- a reference to former EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, who at one point led international nuclear negotiations with Iran -- "out of necessity and compulsion but we don't see this necessity in our social issues?" he asked.

A young woman in the Iranian capital told RFE/RL that the cleric had a point.

"He's right that the policy has failed, [authorities] have failed to convince us to respect the hijab -- we wear head scarves because we have to, not because we want to," she said.

However, she added that she believes if women were given a choice in Iran, the majority would go without the hijab. She said that the authorities "know it -- that's why they use force."

Last month, senior Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi suggested that the Islamic establishment could not exist without the compulsory hijab. "If one day the hijab is removed [from Iranian society], the establishment will be removed, therefore there should be investment on the issue of hijab," the hard-line cleric was quoted as saying on May 25.

In recent months, hard-liners critical of the social policies of Iranian President Hassan Rohani have increased their warnings about improper veiling. Rohani, a self-proclaimed moderate, has spoken in favor of the hijab while offering some criticism of the use of force to impose it. 

-- 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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