Although Iranian leaders will deny this for obvious reasons, there is a growing divide which threatens to tear apart the seemingly impregnable façade of the regime. The divide centered, at first, on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani with Khamenei trying to maintain the spirit of the Islamic Revolution and Rouhani striving for “constructive engagement” and moderateness. The two have clashed on several issues including the JCPoA, the economy, women’s rights, foreign policy, free speech rights, the parliamentary elections, the rights of the IRGC, the disqualification of candidates etc…And yet, Rouhani formally rejects any inkling of division between the two, preferring to portray his acceptance of Khamenei’s will as final.
Hardliners are only too glad to support Khamenei in slamming Rouhani but they have to be careful since Khamenei has no qualms about criticizing Rouhani but he made a point repeatedly to not allow others to do so openly. So hardliners resorted to attack people who are close to Rouhani: the Iranian parliament forced some of Rouhani’s ministers to resign for various reasons and the IRGC initiated crackdowns on artists, journalists and moderate politicians. They also began to target specific politicians who are close to Rouhani such as his foreign minister Javad Zarif and his patron, supporter and former president, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The latest attacks on Zarif and Rafsanjani are special in that they aren’t based on their actions but on the actions of their family members, Zarif’s “second wife” (mistress) and Rafsanjani’s daughter: Zarif’s “second wife”, Afrin Chitsaz, was arrested for being a “spy whose crimes were proven by the official authorities” and Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faez Hashemi Rafsanjani, is to face criminal charges for “strengthening the enemies of Islam”. Both Chitsaz and Rafsanjani face charges which could be punished by death but it is obvious to all that their fate is not the issue and that it is secondary to Rouhani’s political fate.
Rouhani is not commenting on these two cases, knowing full well that any comment for or against Saaz and Rafsanjani is bound to weaken his career and his chances at getting re-elected in 2017.
Tehran fosters a culture of oppression
In order to understand the situation of Chitsaz and Rafsanjani, one has to understand how the regime in Tehran deals with criticism. Modern democracies are built to accept and even promote division – that’s what democracies are about. People in democracies enjoy a basic freedom which allows them to think and say whatever they want regardless of the narratives portrayed by the government without worrying about being censored or incarcerated. The right to free speech is a cornerstone of democracy allowing, and even celebrating, criticism by individuals, organizations, politicians and the media.
Iran presents itself as a democracy through the fact that elections are held every four years to choose a president but it is definitely a “flawed” democracy for several reasons:
- Many parts of the regime are chosen and not elected: some of the key governing bodies in Iran such as the IRGC, the Guardian Council and the Supreme Leader, to name a few, are all governing bodies which are chosen by the regime itself and are not elected by popular votes.
- Popular elections are preceded by selection by the regime: all candidates who are running for elections in Iran have to be approved by the Guardian Council which selects and disqualifies candidates based on political criteria including sex, religion and loyalty to the regime.
- Not all Iranian citizens enjoy equal rights: women may have the right to vote and get elected but are legally worth less than men and minorities such as Baha’is and Kurds are oppressed in such a manner that they are not represented equally in government.
- Political opposition is censored and shut out: harsh anti-regime and anti-Islam laws are used to brand political oppositionists as dissidents and they are either incarcerated (google crackdown on artists, journalists, activists etc… in Iran) or put under house arrest (Mehdi Karroubi and Mir-Hossein Mousavi).
- Fair trials in Iran are flawed by a politicized judiciary: Iran is notorious for informal arrests, torture during interrogations, forced confessions, incarceration without trial, preventing council with lawyers, impartial trials, “two-minute” trials, harsh sentences etc…all of which are sheltered by the Iranian constitution, “security laws” and the regime.
Zarif’s “second wife” is a spy?
The case of Zarif’s “second wife” being accused as a spy broke last week when Mohammad Hossein Rostami, who holds the incredibly long title of “the head of Iran the Revolutionary Guards-affiliated Center for Electronic Resistance, of Amariyun Strategic Center for Resistance to the Soft War waged Against Iran”, posted on his facebook page the following message: “I am about to unveil information that would cause a political earthquake…Afrin Chitsaz, Zarif’s second wife, is a spy whose crimes were proven by the official authorities”. Rostami made it clear that Saaz was not the problem and emphasized that the more urgent issue was that “the movement of foreign influence has arrived to your (Zarif’s) bed” implying that Zarif may have been an unwitting partner in her crime. Asked on the reliability of his information, he ominously wrote that all was true and that “when they sue me or the allegation being denied, then I’m going to publish the documents”.
Chitsaz’s “crime”, it must be understood, is punishable by death according to Iranian law but Chitsaz is just a pawn mean to hurt Zarif and subsequently hurt Rouhani. Chitsaz, an independent journalist, was arrested in the crackdown of November 2015 along with three other journalists charged with colluding with foreign “influences” to wage a “soft war” on Iran. She was denied access to a lawyer and is being held incommunicado in Evin prison and nothing was heard about her until she was sentenced to 10 years in jail for “collaborating with foreign governments” and “assembly and collusion against national security”.
The problem is that Zarif has never even acknowledged that he was having an affair with or is married to Chitsaz and he has not commented on her arrest or on the allegations of Rostami. Chitsaz’s connection to Zarif was implied by the IRGC last year prior to her arrest but Zarif didn’t bite the bait. So, for now, Chitsaz is still in jail for being a journalist and Zarif is ignoring the issue.
The regime is not only guilty for incarcerating a journalist, thereby exemplifying the lack of freedom of speech, it is guilty for trying to hurt Rouhani through Zarif.
Rafsanjani’s daughter is an enemy of the state?
The case of Rafsanjani is much clearer but equally as troublesome. Rafsanjani has distinguished herself as a political activist who openly criticized the regime since the notorious 2009 elections in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected despite accusations of a fixed elections which sent opposition leaders Karroubi and Mousavi to house arrest. She herself was arrested several times for her open protests. She was finally taken to trial in December 2011 and was sentenced to 6 months in jail which she served to completion in Evin prison. Rafsanjani is dangerous to the regime not only because she is the daughter of a president who is himself critical of certain aspects of the regime but because she is not willing to accept customs which are not “beneficial to society, especially to girls and women”. To make matters worse, she claims that her time in jail was the “best time of my (her) life” and that she forged lasting relationships with some of her inmates.
It is exactly one of these relationships which is threatening to send Rafsanjani back to jail: two weeks ago, Rafsanjani visited a former inmate, Fariba Kamalabadi, a Baha’i activist serving 20 years in jail for being a part of “Friends”, a Baha’i organization aimed at supporting Baha’is in Iran. Kamalabadi was on a five day furlough from jail to visit her family and Rafsanjani made a point of visiting her former cellmate at her home. The main problem with this visit is that Baha’is are facing discrimination by the state in regards to the Baha’is “economic, civil an deducaitonla activities” since Baha’ism is viewed by the regime as a “deviant” and “fake” sect which is opposed to Islam and Baha’is are suspected of being “agents of Israel and America”. But the problems really began when a picture of Rafsanjani and Kalamabadi’s family was shared on social media.
Hardliners smelled blood and went on the attack by demanding that she be tried for her “crime”. The spokesman of the judiciary didn’t mince words: “This was a very ugly and obscene act
” and was further angered by the fact that Rafsanjani was not apologetic. In fact, Rafsanjani refused to apologize stating that she “didn’t regret it” and that she was ready to “pay the price” if necessary. Even her father admonished her visit: “Faezeh made a bad mistake and needs to correct it and make up for it…the misguided Baha’i sect is a colonially built sect and deviant”.
Once again, the regime is guilty not only of discriminating against Baha’is and anyone communicating with Baha’is, it is guilty of trying to hurt Rouhani through Rafsanjani.