Brewing Storm Over Hijab in Iran

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The Hijab seems to be at the center of a growing storm that threatens to pit Iranian women against the regime. The Hijab, reintroduced to Iranian women by Khomeini in 1979 has long been an issue among human rights activists and Iranian women on one side and conservative mullahs on the other.

The issue of the Hijab is growing as women fight for their freedom while the regime fights for control. Back in March, Iranian London-based journalist Masih Alinejad opened a facebook page called “My Stealthy Freedom” in which Iranian women were invited to upload pictures of themselves “Hijab-less” – it garnered over 600 thousand fans and tens of thousands of brave Iranian women who chose to break the law.  It also created a backlash by conservative hardliners who vowed to punish Alinejad and the Hijab-less women.

According to Article 638 of Iran’s 1996 Islamic Penal Code, “women who appear in the street and public places without the Islamic Hijab will serve time, between ten days and two months, and will have to pay a cash fine”. Morality police hand out tickets which are usually settled through fines although in some instances, women were imprisoned and even whipped.

At the same time, the mullahs and the army are calling for stronger measures to fight “violations of Hijab” fearing that the removing the Hijab is part of a “soft war” against Iran and the basis of the Islamic regime.

President Rouhani’s stance on the Hijab befits his moderate ideals: he is for wearing Hijabs but against zealous enforcement. His tweet congratulating Iranian born professor Maryam Mirzakhani for winning a prestigious math included two pictures of Mirzakhani – one with  a Hijab and one without. The Iranian parliament hit back immediately by issuing a “yellow card” against the Minister of Interior and 195 “hardliners” warned Rouhani to take the Hijab more seriously out of fear that liberation from the Hijab is “one of the major examples of enemiesˈ cultural invasion against Iran” by “changing the lifestyle of the Iranian women”

 

Impeachment of Minister is a Crack in Rouhani’s Wall

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Last week, hardliners in the Iranian parliament (Majlis) impeached Reza Faraji-Dana, the Minister of Science, for supporting reformist teachers who protested back in 2009, allowing students who were deemed radicals back into universities, fighting politically-motivated scholarships, being an “extremist”, purging staff from previous administrations, hiring employees not cleared by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence etc… all of which can be summed up under one main goal: undermine President Rouhani.

 

Finally, Hardliners Battle and Win

This was not an overwhelming victory by hardliners (145 votes for impeachment, 110 against and 15 abstentions) but it did send out a war cry: If we can’t topple Rouhani, we’ll topple his administration one minister at a time. To their chagrin, the hardliners may not have enough influence to derail Rouhani’s efforts for a nuclear deal with the West due to the support he receives from Khamenei, but they can legally hamper him on internal affairs in which Khamenei remains an ultra-conservative.

The final nail in Faraji-Dana’s impeachment was a video in which he said “I will not pay ransoms such as scholarships to remain a minister and avoid confrontation with the MPs” which echoes Rouhani’s attitude since his election. The hardliners are now setting their sights on impeaching Rouhani’s Culture Minister, Ali Janatti for his efforts to open up access to the Internet and ease enforcement laws regarding Hijabs for women.

Rouhani saved some face by absenting himself from the impeachment (he was on a tour of the remote province of Aderbil at the time), by rehiring Faraji-Dana as his advisor, by hiring another reformer, Mohammad Ali Nafaji as interim minister while advising him to maintain Faraji-Dana’s course and by magnanimously accepting the Majlis decision.

 

The Main Battle – the Nuclear Deal

Last month, Rouhani lashed out at hardliners by calling them “political cowards” and telling them to “go to hell“. He criticized them further by stating that they were “50 years too late”, and hampering his efforts to “change the image of the Islamic Republic, which has been tarnished in recent years”.

Rouhani needs a nuclear deal but more importantly, he needs the nuclear-based sanctions lifted in order to restore an economy on the brink of disaster. His strategy is sound since Iran’s economy began recovering with the onset of the nuclear negotiations which brought some sanction relief but more importantly opened the doors of Tehran to foreign business.

But the hardliners are worried that Western influence would undermine the power of the mullahs and the IRGC which have been the bloodline of power since Khomeini returned triumphant to Tehran. For them a nuclear deal would just mean that Westerners could increase their influence not only on foreign policy but on internal affairs as well…they are probably right.

In fact, the nuclear deal is dangerous for Rouhani in a “dammed if it succeeds and dammed if it fails” situation: if the nuclear deal is inked, hardliners will poke holes at the deal in an effort to derail Rouhani himself while if the talks flounder, Rouhani’s voters will stop supporting him out of disappointment.

If anyone doubted Rouhani’s ability to lead Iran to a rapprochement with the West in the past, their doubts can only increase. The day after may even be more difficult. The only person who can save Rouhani in his upcoming battles is Khamenei himself who also chose to remain silent on Faraji-Dana’s impeachment. In any case, Rouhani’s internal battlegrounds are beginning to materialize.

Rouhani Running Out Of Time

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Last week President Hassan Rouhani lashed out at his critics who oppose the nuclear talks with the West. The language and the tone he used were unprecedented and indicate an escalation in Rouhani’s fight to preserve his political power as we wrote in our last post.

Growing Criticism

The president, who was elected with a promise for ‘reform’ is constantly being criticized by many factions in Iran including the army, the conservatives, the religious leaders and sometimes even the Supreme Leader himself.

In fact, although his election seemed like a breath of fresh air to Western lungs, Rouhani’s role was always fragile in Iran, and he holds it solely because he still receives the general support of Khamenei even if it is mixed with doubts.

Since the Iranian people voted Rouhani in, Khamenei has voiced his ongoing support for Rouhani but not without criticism and red lines. Only yesterday, Khamenei vocalized his doubts as to the need to communicate directly with the US and although he backed FM “Dr. Zarif and his friends” he made it clear that those who wanted to “sit down with Americans at the negotiating table” were misled and misleading.

                                                                                                                                     

Unclear Future

Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, is always at the center of power struggles: keeping the IRGC, who oppose the president, at bay, as well as other hardliners. But Khamenei is getting older. He turned 75 last month, and with growing health issues, the question of his successor is yet unanswered. Rouhani knows that the next Supreme Leader might not back him and his vision of rapprochement with the West would be trashed.

It will be hard for Rouhani to continue with his planned reforms, since the next Supreme Leader will be ‘vetoed’ by the IRGC and since the IRGC is supporting Rouhani only because Khamenei does, candidates for the next Supreme Leader should be loud critics of Rouhani or at best stifle any support for Rouhani until elected.

It seems that Rouhani’s power hangs on a very loose thread. Will he be able to keep dangling? It is a question that only time can answer – but the current Middle East climate is so fragile, that one must sit and wait – as new players emerge constantly – a bet on Rouhani is not a wise one.

Iran in Deep Denial About Gays

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Listening to Iranian leaders on human rights can sound horrendous, such as when Iran’s human rights chief Mohammad Javad Larijani couldn’t find anything wrong with stoning people to death.

At other times, they can sound totally ludicrous such as when Iran’s judiciary chief Sadeq Larijani (yes, his brother) stated that gays are not persecuted in Iran while news of two more gay men were executed and while a movie about gay persecution in Iran hit the screens.

Both Larijani brothers, as well as their other successful brother, Ali Larijani (chairman of parliament), know one thing that a lot of Westerners still are not willing to understand: Iran’s state of human rights will never become better as long as the mullahs are in charge and no “moderate” president such as Rouhani can change that.

Growing Gender Segregation In Iran

segregation 2 Following our last post of gender segregation in the Tehran municipality, it seems that gender segregation is on the rise in Iran. Systematic segregation between men and women is growing in many government organizations. Lately, gender segregation seems to be on the rise in cultural events as well: Police closed down the concerts of Iranian superstar Mohsen Yeganeh forcing him to hold separate concerts for men and for women. Even the Iranian minister of culture, Ali Jannati, seemed apalled by the police’s decision and has advised the police (unsuccessfully to date) to change its decision.

Rouhani, Iran media arrests and the nuclear deal

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During the course of these extremely important events – sometimes the small things tend to slip away from the public eye. But small things are important to people, and they affect their everyday life much more than some talks that go on in Vienna, or a conflict between two countries on the other side of the middle east.

And what matters are the small things. They might not seem related sometimes, but a closer look can give us some interesting insights.

Journalists? to jail!

In a recent article by Faraz Sanei, The Iran researcher of Human Rights Watch, a simple question was presented: Is the Short Honeymoon of Media Freedom Over?

This is an important question. It comes after the arrest of Washington Post’s Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian.  In an article from July 24th in the Post, foreign editor Douglas Jehl said the newspaper has received “credible reports” that Rezaian and his wife, Yeganeh Salehi, were detained in Tehran. It is unclear who detained them or why.

Regarding the arrests of journalists in Iran, Rezaian’s arrest is not the first. According to Reporters Without Borders, there are currently 65 journalists and social media writers in prison.

Rouhani’s lack of power

Media freedom is important, so we, the people outside of Iran, can have a better understanding of its everyday life. But these arrests, especially in a politically complex country such as the Islamic republic, Are a clear sign that the regime wants everyday life in Iran to stay hidden.

After all it was Hassan Rouhani who advocated, before and after his election, that he is going to put a focus on human rights in Iran, media freedom being a key to the overall issue of human rights. But now it appears that the president is less powerful than we thought (or even he thought). In fact, those media arrests are seen by some as a ploy to weaken Rouhani.

This connects us to our opening words: The west looks at Rouhani as the figurehead behind Iran’s “true” intentions. Rouhani might even believe with all his heart that a nuclear deal must be struck. But if he loses power at home, and he does not have control in “smaller” issues, then it might be smarter not to hold our breath for the next four months over a suitable resolution of Iran’s nuclear plan.

Can Iran fight its nature?

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A Scorpion wants to cross a river, but can’t swim. He goes to a frog and asks him for a ride on its back. the frog says: “if I give you a ride you’ll sting me”. The scorpion explains that if he stings the frog, they’ll both drown. The frog accepts this logic, and the two start their journey across the water. Halfway through, the frog feels a burning spear in its back and realizes that the scorpion did sting. As they’re both drowning, the frog asks the scorpion – “why did you do that – now we’ll both die”.

The scorpion tells him: “I can’t help it – it’s in my nature.”

Syria, Israel, Lebanon, Iraq… and Iran?

The last few years prove that it is only “natural” for Iran, with no better way of putting it, to be involved in as many skirmishes as it possibly can. The 3 big ones going on at the moment – The war in Syria, the Gaza Strip contention and the ISIS-IRAQ conflict, are claiming insurmountable amounts of casualties every day.

In addition, Iran is knees deep in all sorts of terror activities.

Referring to the Israel-Palestinian arena – The newspaper Javan, affiliated with the IRGC, stated that Iran “had armed the resistance in Gaza with Fajr 5 missiles and with drones to help fight Israel and gave Iran credit for its success.” And only recently, the Iranian leadership pledged further military assistance to the terrorist organizations in Gaza, while the Supreme Leader Khamenei called for expanding this assistance, stating “We believe that the West Bank should also be armed like Gaza”.

North of there, in the bloodbath that is the Syrian civil war, Iran has earned itself a whole Wikipedia article on its involvement. But we’re discussing terror here: Iran used and is still using Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization, to carry out its interests in Syria.

Terror on your doorstep

But in Iraq, the “let’s use a terror group” tactic went a bit off. It is hard, the regime slowly learns, to deal with a terror organization when it’s coming against you.

The Iranian agents in Iraq, numbered at 32,000, both covert and unconcealed, are using any kind of weapon they can, going so far as flying Jets. It seems Iran is genuinely scared of the threat that ISIS poses. This threat has even led Iranians to question whether it was wise spending all the personnel, ammo and supplies in other arenas (like Gaza and Syria). To quote Dina Esfandiary, who wrote earlier this month: “Iranians are terrified. Many question Iran’s involvement in Syria, but they support involvement in Iraq. Syria is an optional war: a crisis where Iran can dial its involvement up or down based on its policy preferences. It is not an existential issue. But ISIS activities in Iraq pose a real threat and a genuine sovereignty concern, something Iran hasn’t seen in a long time.”

It remains to be seen, whether Iran’s quest for Middle East power will lead to its downfall. For Iran’s sake, it must be able to beat its nature.