Iran: Internet Cafes Shut Down In Drive Against Un-Islamic Behavior
Iranian state media quote the police as saying that in the past few days, they have closed down 25 Internet cafes and given warnings to 170 cafe owners for "using immoral computer games and storing obscene photos," and for the presence of women without "proper hijab" on the premises.
At least 23 people -- including several women -- have been detained for similar reasons.
The owner of one of the Tehran Internet cafes that was inspected and temporarily closed down by police, who gave his name as Hessam, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that police started questioning him when they found some family photos -- with a female member of the family among them -- on a computer.
"We had a few family photos in our system. They asked, 'Who is this girl that is sitting close to you?'" Hessam said. "Just because of those private photos, they closed this place for three or four days. [The police pressure] has reached that level! It has become a headache, a problem for everybody. We don't know what to do."
The Internet, and Internet cafes, have become increasingly popular in Tehran and other Iranian cities in recent years.
According to official state figures, 60 percent of the country's population has access to the Internet. However, independent sources say that figure is exaggerated, given the fact that many Iranians villages do not even have electricity. International estimates say that some 20 percent of Iranians have access to the Internet.
Most of the customers at Internet cafes are young people who come to play computer games, check their e-mail, or take part in website chat rooms and blogs.
Some Iranian journalists describe the latest campaign as an attempt by the authorities to limit access to a major source of alternative news and information and restrict Iranian's intellectual and social freedom.
Badrolsadat Mofeedi, an independent journalist and a campaigner for media rights, told RFE/RL from Tehran that the latest assault on Internet cafes is no surprise. Mofeedi said that "in addition to a crackdown on independent media, every now and then the Iranian authorities put pressure on all other sources of news and information, such as satellite dishes, the Internet, and even bookshops."
In October, several Tehran bookstores were given a 72-hour ultimatum to close down coffee shops that were operating inside their stores. Amaken-e Omomi, a state body that controls retail trade, said that operating a cafe inside a bookshop is an "illegal mixture" of trades.
"Some Internet sites have been filtered. A variety of measures has been taken to restrict the political and social atmosphere for those who are involved in the distribution of the information," Mofeedi said.
The Iranian authorities say they have blocked access to "immoral websites" such as pornographic sites.
According to Iranian independent journalists, however, many political websites -- including personal weblogs or blogs -- and many independent news sources are blocked with a filter so that Iranians cannot access them. Those sites includes radiofarda.com.
Hassem, the Internet-cafe owner, says the "heavy filtering of the websites has slowed down the Internet in Iran, reducing its speed by almost 50 percent."
The clampdown has coincided with the ongoing police campaign against anyone who violates a strict Islamic dress code.
The police have even installed mobile stations on Tehran's busiest streets to stop women who disobey the dress code, for instance by wearing a hat instead of a head scarf or by tucking their pants inside of their boots.
Isa Saharkhiz, an independent journalist and a member of the Association for Press Freedom in Iran, told RFE/RL from Tehran that enforcing these restrictions -- on everything from dress to the Internet -- has been part of the Iranian government's policy since President Mahmud Ahmadinejad came to power in 2005.
Saharkhiz said the closure of the cafes was partially aimed at preventing young people and intellectuals from getting together, as well as trying to restrict the free flow of information.
"None of these practices brought any results in the past," Saharkhiz says. "No one is able to put barriers on news and information and, especially, no one can shut down the Internet -- in Iran or elsewhere in the world."
Cafe owner Hassem said that no matter how hard the authorities try to block access to websites, young Iranians will succeed in circumventing the filter and find their way to the prohibited sites.
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Sariborz Soroosh contributed to this report.)
Iran/Azerbaijan: Faith, Oil, And Power Threaten Historic 'Brotherhood'
In the local mosque, an imam from Iran preaches. The men sit cross-legged and listen, the wind whipping through a tarpaulin separating the men's side from the women's.
"Azerbaijan and Iran have been brothers for ages," the imam says. "They are sisters, they are one house. They have the same blood, same language, same faith. There is no difference between them."
Iran and Azerbaijan both have majority Shi'a populations, and at least 25 percent of Iran's population is ethnic Azeri. But cultural and ethnic similarities aside, there is much that divides the two countries.
One is a largely secular, post-Soviet state eager to use its energy wealth to secure powerful friends in both the West and the East. The other is a repressive Islamic society whose combative policies have left it almost completely isolated from Europe and the United States.
Still, the relationship between Baku and Tehran is considered a critical linchpin in the vital, and volatile, Caspian region. Links between the two have come under the spotlight in recent weeks, with the trial and ultimate conviction of 15 Azerbaijani men found guilty of passing information on Western embassies and companies operating in Azerbaijan to Iranian intelligence.
The closed-door trial, which opened in Baku in early October, concluded on December 10, with the country's Court for Serious Crimes convicting the defendants on charges of treason and sedition.
The defendants, all members of Nima, a small Islamist group, were found guilty of cooperating with Iranian special services in plotting a coup against the government of President Ilham Aliyev. The group's leader, a young cleric who staunchly denied any ties to Iranian intelligence, received 14 years in prison.
Iran expressed deep anger over the verdict and the accusations, by extension, that it sought to destabilize the Azerbaijani government. Officials in Tehran summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador to the Foreign Ministry and called the court proceedings a "comedy."
But in Azerbaijan, the verdict is a serious reflection of official worries about the encroachment of Iran's political brand of Shi'ite Islam. Officially secular Azerbaijan has seen a growth in Islamic faith since the breakup of the Soviet Union, fueled by money and missionaries sent by foreign groups.
In the early 1990s, it was common for Iranian imams to be preaching in Azerbaijani mosques. Azerbaijani authorities have since sought to rein that in, tightening controls on religious education.
But Yadigar Sadigov, the local head of the opposition Musavat party in the southeastern town of Lankoran close to the Iranian border, says that Iran's radical version of Islam is still making inroads into religious life in the town.
Sadigov says that Iran broadcasts Azeri-language religious programs into Azerbaijan; Lankoran bookshops are full of ideological works from Iran. "The propaganda promotes the Islamic regime in Iran and says that our secular system is not good," Sadigov says.
Alimardan Aliyev, the local mayor's spokesman, denies that Islam is making inroads in the region. "This region doesn't have a problem with extremism, especially Iranian-sponsored extremism," he says. "You won't find an Iranian speaking in our mosques."
Many observers see relations between the two countries worsening -- and say that it's a growing economic rivalry, rather than religion, that's to blame.
Steve LeVine, a former "Wall Street Journal" correspondent and the author of a recent book on Caspian oil, "The Oil and the Glory," says that there is no brotherly love between Iran and Azerbaijan.
"There is a rivalry of sorts involving oil. Iran is putting its oil on the Gulf and Azerbaijan is putting its oil onto the Mediterranean and they're headed for the same market," LeVine says.
Underscoring the economic rivalry is the ongoing dispute over the delimitation of the Caspian Sea.
The dispute centers on whether the Caspian is classified as a sea or a lake, which affects the littoral states' claims on its resources.
Russia, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan have all signed bilateral agreements about their sectors, but Iran still insists on a multilateral agreement among all five states, including Turkmenistan.
LeVine says that Russia and Iran are allies in the strategy of thwarting a Caspian resolution "in order to stop any trans-Caspian pipeline," in particular a pipeline that would ship oil from Central Asia to the Mediterranean, via Azerbaijan.
The rivalry between Azerbaijan and Iran is increasingly being sharpened by an anti-Western axis of Russia, Armenia, and Iran.
Federico Bordonaro, a Rome-based senior analyst with the "Power and Interest News Report," says that a Russian-Armenian-Iranian strategic partnership is very profitable for Russia if Moscow is to check the U.S. and NATO penetration in the South Caucasus. Such an axis, he says, also works for Iran.
"Iran does not want a very strong Azerbaijan -- first of all, because Azerbaijan is pro-United States, and second, because the Azeri minority in Iran must be checked by the Tehran central government," Bordonaro says.
The alliance between Muslim Iran and Orthodox Armenia and Russia -- at the expense of predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan -- is testament to how geostrategic and economic interests tend to override religious or cultural ties in the region.
What isn't clear is whether Azerbaijan's and Iran's economic rivalry will be characterized more in the future by accusations of skullduggery and worsening relations.
'Everything Could Be Here'
In the past, Azerbaijan has tried to play a skillful balancing act between Moscow, Washington, and Tehran, and has been careful to maintain friendly relations with its large southern neighbor.
Baku faced a profound diplomatic challenge this year when Russia offered an Azerbaijani radar base to the United States for use in an antimissile program aimed squarely at Iran. But the potentially divisive proposal appears to have stirred only minor ripples.
Ahmadinejad and Aliyev pledged continued cooperation at friendly talks in Azerbaijan in August, just weeks before U.S. and Russian officials were scheduled to inspect the radar facility in Qabala.
More troublesome, it seems, is the question of Iranian meddling in Azerbaijan's state security. Azerbaijani officials have recently said that there are other terrorist groups at large.
Vafa Guluzade, a former adviser to late Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, says he is 100-percent convinced that Iran has a good intelligence network operating in Azerbaijan.
"This network can work to destabilize the situation: explosions, suicide bombers, I don't know, everything could be here," he says.
Perhaps more worrying for the Azerbaijani authorities is popular sympathy for the Iranian regime.
In towns close to the Iranian border, there is a large population of Talysh, who are linguistically and ethnically similar to Persians. Many locals regularly travel across the border to visit their ethnic Azeri relatives in northern Iran and sell food and clothes.
There is also growing disenchantment in Azerbaijan with the regime of Ilham Aliyev, which is viewed by many as deeply corrupt and antidemocratic. Yadigar Sadigov, the opposition party head in Langkoran, says that dissatisfaction at home could easily create ears receptive to Iranian propaganda.
"In the first years of independence, people supported the secular system, democracy, but the government didn't keep its promise," he says. "They are not optimistic about democracy and the secular system -- and then people will orientate themselves to the Iranian side."
Iran: Wrapping Up For Winter And The Morality Police
Last year, Setareh went for a winter stroll through the streets of Tehran. She quickly ended up behind bars. "Police stopped me because my trousers were slightly short and my ankles were showing," Setareh, who asked that her surname not be used, told RFE/RL by telephone from the Iranian capital. "I was walking with my male friend. The police said to him: 'She has a lax-dressing problem. We are taking her to the police station.'"
Setareh was thrown in a detention area with several other women, aged between 20 and 40. She says police were insulting and rude, but that she was finally freed after her mother arrived with her documents. "My mom pledged I wouldn't violate the dress code any more," she said.
This week in Tehran and other cities, officials began a fresh crackdown on women -- and men -- who violate rules for winter garb, such as sporting overcoats that are too short or hats instead of head scarves. Police in Tehran have set up mobile centers and stationed cars in busy areas, such as bustling Valiasr Street, to implement a new phase in the enforcement of the dress code.
"Boots that are worn over pants, also hats worn without head scarves, body-hugging clothes, and coats that are shorter than knee-length will be targeted," General Ahmad Reza Radan, Tehran's police chief, told reporters at the launch of the winter campaign on December 9. "And these rules should also be obeyed when [women] are in their cars."
Radan added that cars will be stopped and their female occupants inspected to make sure that they are not violating the winter dress code while inside their cars. He also warned the owners of restaurants, cafes, and stores to ensure that their customers do not violate the dress code; otherwise the owners will face consequences.
Iranians have been informed about the police operation through an advertising campaign on radio and television. Billboards dot the streets warning women to dress properly. But it is the first time police have launched a winter crackdown on what is called "lax dressing" or noncompliance with Iran's strict Islamic dress code.
The crackdown has been gaining in intensity under President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and hit a new peak this past summer. But the "morality police" have traditionally targeted women whose small head scarves reveal a portion of their hair or pants that do not cover their ankles. Such women are given a warning and forced to write a pledge that they will no longer dress "immodestly." The police sometimes fine or briefly arrest those who argue with them.
Rezwan Moqaddam, a Tehran-based women's rights activist, says many Iranians believe police should focus on problems more important than dress. "There are many other social issues in society," Moqaddam said. "There are men who bother and harass women on the streets, people who bother others on the streets at night, and drug traffickers and those who spread drugs among young people and create societal problems. The police should be tackling those issues."
Iran's state-run media recently reported on an opinion poll that purportedly showed that more than 80 percent of Iranians favor strict enforcement of a dress code. But Moqaddam said that police interference in personal matters such as their clothes has angered many Iranians, especially young people. She says such campaigns will only backfire on the government.
Farid Modarres, an independent political analyst in Tehran, says that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic dress code is just one of many social restrictions and pressures that Iranians have been putting up with. While such restrictions are widely resented, he believes it is unlikely that such pressure will trigger any immediate protests.
"As far as I understand Iranian society, I don't think that the day after such measures [as the dress code crackdown] some kind of radical protest will take place," Modarres told RFE/RL. "This matter -- along with many other social, political, and cultural issues where we have restrictions -- will have an impact in the middle- and long-term future."
Although the winter campaign focuses on women, men are not exempt. Police forbade them from wearing short-sleeved shirts, having tattoos, plucking their eyebrows, or using hair gel. And last summer, police reportedly inspected hundreds of barbershops in Tehran cautioning barbers who offer Western hairstyles and facial cosmetics for men.
Ali Hussein, a young Iranian living in Dubai, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that during a trip to Iran he was stopped by a police officer who fined him for "wearing a tattoo -- and therefore harming his own body."
Despite opposition to the restrictions, authorities have vowed that the crackdown will continue through winter. And this time, they have pledged to root out what they consider un-Islamic dress "completely."
For Setareh, that could mean another run-in with police this winter, as she refuses to be cowed by such warnings.
"I'll keep dressing the way I want to," she said.
(Radio Farda correspondents Fariborz Soroosh and Niusha Boghrati contributed to this report)
Terrorist Freed In Germany Is Welcomed By TehranThere once was a well-known restaurant in central Berlin called Mykonos. Its Greek fare was said to be good, but it is now remembered for an altogether different reason: on the site of the former restaurant is a plaque -- to which Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad personally objected -- that lists three Iranian-Kurdish leaders who were "murdered [here in 1992] by the then-rulers of Iran. They died fighting for freedom and human rights."
The infamous "Mykonos Operation," which shone an unprecedented light on the Islamic republic's campaign to assassinate critics in the Iranian-exile community and sparked a diplomatic crisis between Europe and Iran, is back in the headlines. Some 15 years after Iranian agents killed three top members of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and one of their supporters in a Berlin restaurant, Germany on December 10 released and deported two of the crime's masterminds.
One of them, Kazem Darabi, was greeted by senior Foreign Ministry officials upon his return home. Leading the welcome at Tehran's airport was Ali Baqeri, the acting head of the Foreign Ministry's Europe section, in what some say amounted to an Iranian admission of complicity in a crime for which the regime has long denied responsibility.
Baqeri himself denied any such conclusion. But Shohreh Badei, the widow of one of the Mykonos victims, begged to differ.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, she criticized Germany for releasing Darabi and his Lebanese accomplice, Abbas Rhayel, in what German media are now speculating might be part of a planned prisoner swap between Israel and Lebanon's Hizballah militia, which is backed by Iran. Rhayel, reportedly a Hizballah agent, was one of the convicted Mykonos gunmen and was deported this week to Lebanon.
"It was just a deal for the sake of political and economic gains," Badei says. "Two terrorists, who have been so very loyal to the Iranian regime and their policies, have been released so easily, 10 years ahead of time. It has angered all Iranians."
Mehdi Ebrahimzadeh was sitting at the same table in the Mykonos restaurant with the four men who were killed that day in September 1992. He realizes he is lucky to be alive.
"I saw a very tall person -- taller than average -- about 180-185 centimeters, whose face was covered up to his eyes," he says. "Only his forehead was visible. He shouted some insulting words, probably to get our attention. Then I noticed some rays of light coming out of a handkerchief or cloth. Later I realized that the rays actually were bullets coming from his gun, which was wrapped in a sack."
Ebrahimzadeh said he also disagrees with the decision by the German government to release the two men. "Personally...I don't support vengeance," he says. But "justice should be done, and justice should be restored in a democratic way."
Iran's Assassination Program Exposed
After a trial that lasted 3 and 1/2 years, a German court in 1997 concluded the Iranian government was "directly involved" in the killings. Chief Federal Prosecutor Kay Nehm issued an arrest warrant for Iran's intelligence minister at the time, Ali Fallahian, and said Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and then-President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani had knowledge of the crime. Other warrants were issued for two Tehran-based agents of the same ministry.
In reaction to the case, EU governments withdrew their ambassadors from Tehran and dropped their "constructive engagement" policy with the Islamic regime.
Darabi was identified as an agent of the ministry based in Germany. He recruited four Lebanese nationals, including Rhayel, to assist in the operation, whose primary target was PDKI leader Sadegh Sharafkandi, who had taken over the Iranian-Kurdish party after the killing in Austria of the previous PDKI head, Abdol-Rahman Ghassemlou.
According to court papers, the killers' final preparations took place in the Berlin home of Darabi, who had "organized these killings for the Iranian secret intelligence. He was aware of the aim and had intentionally taken part in the murder of those four people."
To be sure, Iranian officials have been implicated in several other overseas terrorist acts, including the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish center that killed 85 people; the 1990 assassination of Kazem Rajavi, a professor, in Switzerland; and Ghassemlou's killing in Vienna. But the Mykonos case is widely seen as being the most significant, according to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, an organization based in the United States.
That's because the trial brought out operational details about Iran's program to silence its exiled critics through a brutal program of overseas assassinations. The trial also included unprecedented testimony from a former high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer with direct experience in such operations. And the public release by German authorities of important intelligence exposed Iran's program of assassinations in Western Europe.
For Darabi, though, all of that means little now.
In comments carried by the state-run IRNA news agency, Darabi said the decision to free him "proves I am innocent." He denied any links to Iranian intelligence or any other organization: "I was only a member of the association of Muslim students in Europe. It was for this reason that I was arrested."
He added that he intends to write a book in German. "I have spoken with a number of German authors who are going to come to Iran in the next months, and I will write about this scandal from the beginning to the end," he said. "And with evidence, facts, and logic, I will prove to everyone that I was arrested without any evidence and that I am innocent."
Nearly 10 years ago, a German court reached a different verdict. It's still there to see at the former site of the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin's Wilmersdorf's district: "They died fighting for freedom and human rights."
(RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report.)