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Alan Eyre says any U.S. official who speaks a bit of Persian and is fond of Iran is seen as a spy in the eyes of the Iranian government.
The online publication of an interview with the U.S. State Department's Persian spokesman by a conservative Iranian website appears to have been pulled following official criticism and condemnation.

Iran's Culture Ministry said in a statement on April 4 that there was no justification for the Alef website to allow what it called a U.S. "intelligence officer" the opportunity to respond to questions from Iranians.

The ministry said it "condemns the extraordinary move" and "invites the media to avoid any cooperation with figures and media that are opposed to the Islamic system."

The furor began on April 3, when Alef -- which is said to have ties to conservative lawmaker Ali Tavakoli -- called on its readers to send in questions for its upcoming interview with the State Department's Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre.

The website also posted a short bio of Eyre, who is a fluent Persian speaker and who in recent months has been reaching out to Iranians via appearances on Persian-language media and social-networking sites.

'A CIA Spy'

Alef's invitation to Eyre raised eyebrows and was criticized by other conservative websites -- some of which described the decision as "odd" and accused Eyre of being an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The website of Rajanews, which is said to be close to the government, accused Alef of becoming a platform for the "evil U.S. government" at a time when Washington has imposed "the toughest pressure and sanctions" against Iran.

Rajanews said Alef failed to give its readers any background about "the enmity of the U.S. government toward the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution."

"An ordinary user might think that Eyre, the spokesman of the State Department of the evil U.S. government, is an American interested in Iran's history and civilization who intends to respond to questions...of Iranians with goodwill."

Another website, The Journalists Club, accused Eyre of being an agent for the CIA, who is using his spokesman position as cover to spy on Iranians. The site said Alef's decision to engage with Eyre had no political or national justification.

Several hours after it went up, Alef removed the webpage advertising the conversation with a "special guest" without explanation. Site editors did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

Talking About U.S. Talks Taboo

For his part, Eyre posted the story accusing him of being a CIA agent on his Facebook page and wrote that any U.S. official who speaks a bit of Persian and is fond of Iran is seen as a spy in the eyes of the Iranian government.

Eyre had earlier confirmed to RFE/RL by e-mail that he was set to be an online guest on Alef. A U.S. official told RFE/RL that government policy was to try and engage the Iranian people through Eyre and other avenues, and that the State Department hoped the interview with Alef would eventually be published in its entirety.

The very idea of direct talks with U.S. officials has been a sensitive matter in the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution, when the United States severed ties with Tehran following the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats.

In recent months, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been criticized by his opponents for talking about the possible resumption of ties with the United States. They say any decision about the future of relations with Washington is up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who always has the last say in Iran. Ahmadinejad has been engaged in a power struggle with allies of Khamenei for some time.

Ironically, Alef's plan to have Eyre as an online guest appears to have provided an opportunity for Ahmadinejad's supporters to strike back at his critics.

Rajanews asked, "How come the most insignificant statement by a government official [Ahmadinejad] about the resumption of ties with the U.S. is met with such harsh reaction...but Alef can hold an exclusive conversation with a senior White House official?"
Iranians protest against the banning of Afghans in Isfahan from a public park on April 1, also known as Nature Day. One of the signs reads, "I Am Also An Afghan."
Afghans living in Isfahan were banned from a mountainous park in the city on April 1, the 13th day of Norouz festivities, which Iranian tradition says should be spent outdoors.

The decision was announced on March 30 by Isfahan’s Committee to Facilitate Travel, which said Afghans were banned from Sofeh Park in order "to ensure citizens' welfare."

Ahmad Reza Shafiei, an official with Travel Committee's police department, was quoted as saying that the reason for the move was "the extensive presence of Afghans" at the park in previous years and "the creation of insecurities for families." By that, he meant Iranian families.

But it was Iranians who quickly condemned the decision on Facebook and other social media.

"I am also an Afghan," some wrote as their Facebook status update. Others slammed the decision as "racist" and an "insult" to Afghans living in Iran.

There was also a report of a symbolic protest on April 1 at Sofeh Park.

A picture widely shared on Facebook shows three young men holding signs decrying racism, including one that says, "I am also an Afghan."

This isn't the first time Afghans in Iran have faced discrimination. There are reportedly more than 1 million Afghan refugees and thousands of illegal Afghan migrants in the Islamic republic.

Many of them moved to Iran following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal. Others sought refuge in Iran after the Taliban took power in Afghanistan.

In recent years, reports of mistreatment of Afghans -- particularly against those who enter Iran illegally -- have increased.

A YouTube video making the rounds shows a group of Afghans being mistreated, apparently by Iranian soldiers, who tell the Afghans to hit themselves on the head, perform sit-ups, and say aloud, “We will never come to Iran anymore.”

Iranian officials are quick to remind critics that the Islamic republic has been a generous host for more than 2 million Afghan refugees for two decades, with little help from the international community.

But in recent years, Afghans who have entered Iran illegally have been forcefully deported. Some who still live in Iran say they face legal discrimination and restrictions on their right to study and access public places.

Some Iranians blame Afghans for the spread of crime and drugs while others accuse them of stealing jobs at a time of soaring unemployment.

Despite the difficulties, there are still reports of many Afghans returning to Iran in search of menial jobs that usually hold little appeal to Iranians.

-- 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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