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The genuine article, of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton after the meeting in Baghdad on May 24
While the eyes of many pundits, policymakers, journalists, and Iranian citizens were glued to reports emerging from this week's nuclear talks in Baghdad, some Iranians were focusing their attention on what European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who led the meetings on behalf of the 5+1 group, was wearing.

Their jest that Ashton might turn up in a black chador on the second day of talks didn’t materialize. Instead, the EU leader wore a demure brown top that showed little of her neckline.

Iranian media and followers of social media have suggested that Ashton was dressing more conservatively than at her last meeting with Iranian authorities, in Geneva last year.

In photographs from those talks with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Said Jalili, Ashton is wearing a black blouse that is apparently too revealing for Iranian newspapers. They retouched the picture, raising the neckline to make it acceptable for the official standards of the Islamic republic.

The practice is common among Iranian newspapers to avoid trouble and possible warning and closure by authorities.
Spot the fake, courtesy of Otooboos.com.
Spot the fake, courtesy of Otooboos.com.

Then, during last month's nuclear talks in Istanbul, Ashton was seen in official pictures next to Jalili wearing a black suit with a white scarf tucked around her neck.

That brought praise from Iran’s state television, which suggested that Ashton had made an effort to respect a “special” dress code in her meetings with Iranian officials.

The scarf was also noticed by Iranian news sites, including the conservative “Tabnak,” which said her appearance showed that Ashton respects the customs and traditions of Iran. “In fact, Ashton’s move was a positive step which demonstrated that the status of the Islamic republic is important for her and the West,” the site's editors commented.

During this week's round of talks in the Iraqi capital, Ashton went a step further. For her first day of meetings with Jalili, she wore a long, burgundy-colored jacket with a tight collar -- the kind of thing she could easily wear on the streets of Tehran (with the addition of a scarf to cover her hair) without getting arrested by the morality police.

The conservative outfit prompted some observers to predict wryly that for the second day of talks with Jalili, Ashton would turn up in a black chador -- the cloak that covers the entire body and that Iranian officials consider the most preferable type of hijab.

“Is Ashton becoming a Chadori?” asked one Iranian on Facebook. Another person wrote that Ashton would be welcomed in the city of Qom, which is home to religious seminaries and senior clerics.
Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.
Not genuine, obviously, since Jalili hates charcoal.

Male-female relations are a delicate matter in Iran, where diplomats and officials generally don't shake the hands of their female counterparts. Under Islamic guidelines as they are enforced in Iran, men and women who are not related cannot shake hands and should also avoid prolonged eye contact. Some Iranian officials and conservatives don’t even look at a woman’s face while talking to them.

Ashton is trying to avoid offending Iranians officials, lest her attire take the focus off the business at hand, says a London-based former Iranian diplomat, Mehrdad Khonsari.

“Westerners, particularly Ashton, pay attention to the [sensitivities] of Iranian officials so that there is no excuse for things to go wrong and the main issue to go off track,” Khonsari says.

Ashton appears to have succeeded on all counts in Baghdad.

She announced on May 24 that a new round of talks between Iran and world powers would be held in June in Moscow on June 18-19. "Iran declared its readiness to address of issue of 20-percent [uranium] enrichment and came with its own five-point plan, including their assertion that we recognize their right to enrichment," she said after the meetings.

Unprecedentedly tough international sanctions and the threat of military strikes are being credited with bringing Iran back to the negotiating table.

It’s unclear to what extent, if any, Ashton’s dress diplomacy has helped keep negotiations alive.

But one thing is clear: In the upcoming Moscow talks, her décolletage -- or lack thereof -- will again take center stage.

-- Golnaz Esfandiari
The Iranian regime has made repeated attempts to use social media to influence the country's youth.
Hadinet.ir is Iran’s latest foray into the social media sphere, the domain of young, middle-class Iranians that's often reserved for poking fun at state policies and religious rulings.

The new social-networking site is devoted to Imam Naghi, a Shi'ite saint. Employing a basic layout, it features a collection of quotes attributed to the imam and posts by members who express their love and devotion to the ninth-century figure.

Iran's semi-official Mehr news agency says the site, which will be officially unveiled on May 23 by Iran's Culture Minister, is a reaction to "insults" against the imam.

But critics, including many ordinary Iranians, say the site will likely join the list of previous, largely unsuccessful attempts by the establishment to make use of social networking.

Many young Iranians say they are unlikely to be interested in the new site.
Many young Iranians say they are unlikely to be interested in the new site.
Mehr's mention of "insults" toward the imam appears to be a reference to a popular Facebook page titled, "The Campaign to Remind Shi'ites about Imam Naghi," which satirizes political and religious sayings and attributes them to him.

The page says it was launched to eliminate "superstitions" from Iranian society with humor. It is also a reaction to a rap song titled "Naghi," which has been deemed insulting. The song was widely shared on social networking sites.

Hard-liners have blasted the satirical page as highly offensive and vowed to take measures against those behind it.

Death Threats

Last year, hard-line blogs published the names and pictures of some of those who had liked the Facebook campaign in order to force them to quit the page.

Recently, prominent Iranian rapper Shahin Najafi has faced death threats over his new song, named after Imam Naghi. He told RFE/RL it was inspired by the Facebook page.

The song, in which Najafi calls on Naghi to return and save the world instead of the Shi’ite messiah, Imam Mahdi, has been deemed heretical. Several senior clerics have reportedly issued fatwas calling Najafi an apostate and justifying his killing. Iranian officials have not publicly commented on the fatwas.

The new social-networking site, however, demonstrates that they have taken note of the controversy and are now trying to strike back with the same tools used by young Iranians.

But even before its launch, critics said the initiative was destined to fail.

Nima Mina, a lecturer at London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies, notes that the same material on Imam Naghi can be found on scores of religious websites and on the state-controlled media's religious programming.

“I think those who like [the satirical Facebook page about Imam Naghi] are exactly running away from [the content] that Hadinet.ir is offering," he says. "Recent data shows that Internet users are usually middle-class Iranians living in cities, most of whom loathe this repetitive talk. They’re looking for something else [online].”

Mina, who studies Iran’s blogosphere, predicts that the social-networking site will soon join other unsuccessful online initiatives promoted and launched by the Iranian establishment.

Conquering Cyberspace

In recent years, Iranian officials have encouraged hard-liners and pro-government activists to become active online to counter the "soft war" they claim Iran's enemies are waging against the Islamic republic.

Officials have also claimed that thousands of members of the Basij force are ready to conquer cyberspace.

In practice, extensive filtering of sites and the harassment and arrest of bloggers and online activists have been the government's weapons of choice to fight the free flow of information and discussion of taboo subjects online.

Some hard-liners have admitted in recent weeks that their online activities have been fruitless. “The Society of Hezbollah Bloggers failed and the Society of Muslim Bloggers failed. The Coordination Committee of Cyber Activists of the Islamic Revolution failed,” wrote prominent hard-line blogger Mohammad Saleh Meftah earlier this month.

In 2010, a social-networking site was launched in Iran that was devoted to the followers of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. The site failed to attract many members and two years later, it does not exist.

Hadinet.ir is likely to have the same fate, a young man in Tehran who did not want to be named told RFE/RL recently.

"I haven’t 'liked' the Imam Naghi campaign on Facebook because of the sensitivity of the issue, but every now and then I visit the page and have a good laugh," he said. "I think it helps freedom of speech."

Hadinet.ir, he said, had zero attraction for young Iranians like himself.

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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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