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Head of the BBC Persian service Sadeq Saba
Security officials with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) have used the Internet to interrogate an employee of the London-based BBC Persian service, according to a February 2 report on the opposition website "IranGreenVoice."

The report says the sister of a BBC reporter was detained and put in Tehran's Evin prison, where the IRGC is thought to exert considerable control.

IRGC officials then contacted the reporter in London using e-mail information obtained from her detained sister.

They told the BBC staffer that if she talked to them, her sister would be released.

No names were mentioned in the "IranGreenVoice" report, which said the BBC reporter consulted with the head of BBC’s Persian service before she agreed to speak over the Internet with IRGC security officers.

The conversation lasted 40 minutes and took place at her home in London, according to the website.

It said “IRGC officials could see her but she could only hear their voices.”

Following the online interrogation, her sister was released.

Not An Isolated Incident

Two sources familiar with the situation have confirmed the report to RFE/RL.

Sadeq Saba, the director of the BBC’s Persian-language television service, told RFE/RL that a relative of a BBC Persian staff member had been detained in Tehran in an attempt by authorities to put pressure on the London-based BBC employee.

He said he could not discuss any more details because of security issues, but indicated that it wasn't an isolated incident.

“In recent months, the Iranian establishment has put a lot of pressure on the families of some of the BBC Persian service staff," he said. "In some cases, they have been interrogated. In other cases, their passports have been confiscated.

"These measures have been going on in Iran for several months. Recently, a member of the family of a BBC Persian employee was detained and through that person they pressured the BBC staff member in London.”

In October, the BBC reported that Iranian police and officials had been harassing BBC staff by arresting, questioning, and intimidating their relatives in Iran.

'Hideous' Tactics

Peter Horrocks, the director of BBC Global News, said as many as 10 BBC staffers have experienced such treatment.

Saba claimed Iranian officials are trying to get the BBC staffers to quit their jobs, and he called their tactics "hideous."

“[Iranian authorities] probably feel that the BBC’s style of information is not to their benefit, therefore they want to discredit the BBC and frighten members of the BBC Persian service so that they stop working," Saba said. "These methods by Iran -- particularly, pressuring the families -- is not acceptable in the modern world."

He also said the BBC is determined to continue its work and is exploring possible ways to condemn what he called Iran’s “inhumane” actions through the European Union and human rights groups.

Iranian officials have had a tendency to harass the families of their targets, including political activists and prisoners, but this appears to be the first time they used the Internet for that purpose.

Relatives who have publicized the cases of their loved ones have also been targeted.

In December, the mother of a jailed human rights activist was sentenced to 23 months in prison for talking about her son’s case in an interview.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
Iranian soldiers commemorate Ayatollah Khomeini's triumphant return to Iran in 1979 with a cardboard cutout.
On February 1, 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini -- the leader of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution -- returned triumphantly to Tehran on an Air France flight from Paris after 14 years in exile.

Now, 33 years later, that return was reenacted in a bizarre ceremony that saw guards carrying a giant cardboard cutout of Khomeini down the stairs of a passenger plane and a waiting crowd paying their respects to "him."

Iranians have been faced with many unusual and absurd events in the past three decades of the rule of the clerics. The February 1 ceremony, however, may have topped them all.

A series of pictures posted by the semi-official Mehr news agency shows two solemn looking guards carrying a cardboard Khomeini as others give the serious-looking, white-bearded cleric a military salute. A marching band is seen playing music in the background.

Another cardboard Khomeini -- this one smiling and seated -- popped up at a ceremony attended by Education Minister Hamid Reza Haj Babayi and other officials to mark the ayatollah's return to the Refah School, where he set up his headquarters 33 years ago. This cardboard Khomeini sat there while the others -- some looking a bit uncomfortable next to him -- drank tea and chatted.

The ceremonies with the cardboard Khomeini were aimed at glorifying an important moment in Iran’s modern history. But they appear to have had the opposite effect, producing several jokes and mocking comments among Iranians.

Upon returning to Tehran, Khomeini was asked by a foreign reporter how he felt about coming back to his homeland after so many years. He famously replied, “Nothing.”

One joke making the rounds of social media parodies that well-known exchange:

Khomeini’s cardboard cutout is asked how he feels about returning to Iran. "Khomeini was a human and even he didn’t have any feelings. I’m just a cardboard cutout," he says.

"We don't have any Akbar here."
"We don't have any Akbar here."
Khomeini’s cardboard cutout arrived in a very different Iran than the one the real Khomeini promised Iranians. He talked of freedom and justice, but the gap between the rich and poor has been widening and the country is frequently criticized by international human rights groups for its repressive policies.

The revolutionary fervor is long gone amid widespread disillusionment.

More than three decades after the 1979 revolution, Iran has repressed many of the children and founding fathers of the revolution with whom Khomeini helped establish the Islamic state.

They include Khomeini’s protege, former prime minister turned opposition leader Mir Hossein Musavi, who has been under house arrest since last February. Reformist cleric and opposition leader Mehdi Karrubi, one of the founding fathers of the revolution, is also under house arrest.

Former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has been isolated and sidelined because of his rivalry with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his criticism of the 2009 postelection crackdown.

Some of Khomeini’s relatives have also come under pressure over their support for the opposition movement.

A Photoshopped picture of Khomeini's cardboard cutout making the rounds on the Internet alludes to the present-day situation. It shows the seated Khomeini saying to officials next to him:

"Hi, guys. Very nice meeting you. But have you seen Akbar, by any chance? Hashemi?" Those sitting next to him pretend they have no idea who "Akbar" is and try to change the subject. “We don’t have any Akbar here.” They add: “We also don’t have [Mir Hossein Musavi] and [Mehdi Karrubi]. Let's change the topic. How are you?”

A man in Tehran told RFE/RL that the cardboard Khomeini ceremonies are a “huge charade.”

"Is this how [Iranian authorities] want to regain legitimacy? By creating a cardboard idol?” he asked.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari

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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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