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Saturday 25 March 2017

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Iranian media regularly report on the funerals of Afghans killed in Syria.

Iranian media regularly report on the funerals of Afghans killed in Syria.

Iran has opened a new complex to house the families of Afghan fighters killed in the ongoing Syrian war, where Tehran has teamed up with Moscow to help regional ally President Bashar al-Assad counter an armed rebellion.

Iran has opened a new complex to house the families of Afghan fighters killed in the ongoing Syrian war, where Tehran has teamed up with Moscow to help regional ally President Bashar al-Assad counter an armed rebellion.

The rent-free residences on the outskirts of the capital are funded by one of Iran's wealthiest charities, Astan Quds Razavi, which also oversees a major holy shrine in the eastern city of Mashhad, about 200 kilometers from the border with Afghanistan.

Iranian authorities quietly began deploying armed volunteers, including many Afghans, to complement other Iranian forces advising and fighting alongside Assad's troops after civil war broke out in Syria in 2011.

The February 27 opening ceremony of the apartment complex in the town of Bagher Shahr, outside Tehran, was attended by the custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi. Raisi has been tipped by some as a possible future supreme leader, a post that holds ultimate political and religious power in Iran.

"The families of the martyrs who have sacrificed their loved one to defend Islam and the shrines of holy figures should be given priority," Raisi was quoted as saying by Iranian media at the ceremony.

The move is among the latest acts of support for the families of "martyred shrine defenders" -- Iranians, Afghans, and Pakistanis -- who have died in the conflict in Syria and neighboring Iraq. It echoes the type of state assistance provided to families of Iranians killed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq.

Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi has been tipped by some as a possible future supreme leader.

Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi has been tipped by some as a possible future supreme leader.

Iran also uses state media to publicly glorify fallen fighters and highlight their sacrifices while likening them to past "martyrs."

Iranian authorities say the fighters travel to Syria and Iraq voluntarily to defend holy Shi'ite sites. Some reports suggest Afghans are offered financial rewards and residency permits to join the fight in Syria.

The United Nations estimates the number of Afghan citizens in Iran at just under 1 million, but Tehran puts the figure closer to 3 million. Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens Kabul with mass expulsions.

Raisi personally handed keys to some of the complex's 36 units to the families of 10 Afghan fighters killed or missing in fighting in Syria. Each key, in a small box, was marked with the name of the family member lost to fighting and the number of the unit where his family would live.

Raisi said the complex had been available and authorities identified families in need to assign them a unit.

Photographs of the event showed the empty apartments decorated with the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun brigade -- the unit of Afghan militia members said to have been recruited by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Raisi said offering support to the "families of martyrs" would boost the morale of the "shrine defenders."

"The fact that some leave their country to defend Islam stems from their strong faith and beliefs," he added.

The remainder of the units were distributed among the families of the dead fighters by the leader of Friday Prayers in Bagher Shahr, media reported.

There are no precise figures on the number of Afghans killed in Syria.

Iranian media regularly report on their funerals while offering few details about the circumstances of their deaths.

The head of Iran's Foundation of Martyrs said in November that more than 1,000 fighters deployed by Iran to Syria had been killed.

Ali Alfoneh, a Copenhagen-based independent IRGC specialist, told RFE/RL that at least 580 Afghans had been killed in combat in Syria since January 2012. He recorded 17 Afghan deaths in Syria in February alone.

Alfoneh said that by mobilizing Afghans, Pakistanis, and other Shi'ite fighters, Tehran had managed to not only significantly reduce Iranian losses in Syria but also train "a multinational Shi'ite fighting force capable of fighting future wars by proxy."

Iran and Russia, which has conducted an intense bombardment campaign and has a widening military footprint in Syria, have been major backers of Assad. In addition to troops, Tehran has helped keep Assad in power through financial assistance.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won raves ahead of winning his second Oscar, for the taut "neorealist" suspense film The Salesman, but the reviews have been more mixed for his long-distance acceptance speech.

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi won rave notices ahead of winning his second Oscar, for the taut "neorealist" suspense film The Salesman, but the reviews have been more mixed for his long-distance acceptance speech.

Farhadi's reaction to this year's best-foreign-film honor -- delivered live in Los Angeles by the world's first female space tourist, Iranian-born engineer Anousheh Ansari, and another Iranian-American -- highlighted the difficult balancing act required of filmmakers (and many other artists) to practice their craft in Iran.

In it, he criticized as "inhumane" a U.S. travel ban issued last month by President Donald Trump (though currently set aside by a U.S. court) and also implicitly likened it to measures by hard-liners within Iran's clerically dominated political establishment.

Farhadi, who boycotted the Hollywood ceremony to protest the U.S. exclusion of Iranians and nationals of six other predominantly Muslim countries, lamented that such restrictions divide the world between "us" and "our enemies."

It drew fire from observers in the United States who accused Farhadi of lecturing America on human rights and democracy while his own country remains a serial abuser in both respects.

Sohrab Ahmari, an editorial writer with The Wall Street Journal, cited "a great Persian expression" for the perceived contradiction in a tweet that concluded, "Please wipe your own *** first."

Noah Pollack, a contributor to Free Beacon and the Weekly Standard, was another critic, suggesting the movie industry was abetting the injustice and concluding, "Too perfect."

An 'Insult' To Iranians

Farhadi and other outspoken Iranians had bashed the travel ban as an insult to their countrymen, and stayed away amid uncertainty about who might be prevented entry into the United States.

"My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of [the] other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhuman law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the 'us' and 'our enemies' categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war," Farhadi's statement said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif congratulated Farhadi and the cast and crew of The Salesman on their win and the "stance against #MuslimBan," adding, "Iranians have represented culture and civilization for millennia."

But for long-time Iran observers, Farhadi's statement was also a veiled criticism of the establishment in Tehran, which classifies Iranians as "khodi" (from us) if they are regarded as faithful to the ideology of the ruling system and "gheyre khodi" (outsiders) if they are not.

The first group enjoys privileges generally denied to the second group, which is routinely excluded from state structures and decision-making.

'Clever' Denunciation

The Guardian's Iran reporter, Saeed Kamali Dehghan, praised Farhadi's "clever" denunciation as challenging Trump but also underscoring the division on Iran's domestic scene.

Forty-four-year-old Farhadi lives and works in Iran, and would be well-aware of the written and unwritten red lines laid out by the leadership that has run the country since a religiously fueled revolution ousted the Shah in 1979.

In a statement sent last month to The New York Times announcing his decision to boycott the Oscar ceremony, Farhadi was more blunt in his criticism.

"In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an 'us and them' mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of 'them' and inflict fear in the people of their own countries," he said at the time.

Asghar Farhadi won his first Oscar in 2012 for the divorce drama The Separation. (file photo)

Asghar Farhadi won his first Oscar in 2012 for the divorce drama The Separation. (file photo)

"This is not just limited to the United States; in my country hard-liners are the same. For years on both sides of the ocean, groups of hard-liners have tried to present to their people unrealistic and fearful images of various nations and cultures in order to turn their differences into disagreements, their disagreements into enmities and their enmities into fears. Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals," he added.

Farhadi's choice of a prominently successful Iranian woman to read his Oscar statement on his behalf could also be seen as a message to the Iranian establishment. Islamic law as applied in Iran denies women equal rights in divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other areas, and women routinely need the permission of their father or husband to travel.

Iranian Reaction

Many Iranians cheered the win on social media.

"Thank you, Mr. Farhadi. You make us all proud," wrote a woman on Facebook.

The hard-line Rajanews appeared to downplay Farhadi's victory by suggesting that politics was behind The Salesman's Oscar.

"Following [protests] by the political opponents of the U.S. president, the Oscar for best foreign-language film was given to The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi," the news site says in a short item titled Trump Came To Help Farhadi.

Trump has suggested he would renegotiate a major deal to relax international sanctions on Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear program, and has talked about pursuing a harder line on Tehran, which the United States regards as a "state sponsor of terrorism" and a source of regional instability.

Iranian officials have in the past dismissed international cultural awards.

But on this occasion, in addition to Zarif, Culture Minister Salehi Amiri publicly congratulated Farhadi, whose first Oscar was for The Separation in 2012 about a middle-class Iranian couple drifting apart -- and battling for custody of their daughter -- under the strains of modern life in Iran.

Salehi praised Farhadi's "symbolic absence at the Academy Awards as a protest against the shortsighted and racist policies of America's novice politicians against refugees," the semiofficial Mehr news agency quoted him as saying.

"No doubt, Iranian Cinema with its major share in promoting and fostering culture and national security, can make great use of such opportunities to introduce the Iranian arts on an international level," Salehi added.

In a Twitter message, outspoken lawmaker Mahmud Sadeghi congratulated all Iranians, "particularly a generation of creative filmmakers" on the win.

Filmmakers living in Iran have arguably mastered the art of creating movies under tight censorship rules that, for example, prevent them from criticizing Islamic rules or showing couples touching each other.

Despite that, many have faced the wrath of hard-liners who accuse them of being pro-Western. Some have ended up in jail, including Keyvan Karimi, who is serving a one-year prison sentence for "insulting the sacred" in his film Writing On The City, a documentary about political slogans written on the walls of buildings in Tehran.

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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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