Hunger strikes hit Iranian regime hard

 

As more political prisoners in Iran are choosing hunger strikes in order ot obtain the justice they didn’t receive in the Iranian courts, the regime is feeling the pressure and desperately wants these hunger strikes to end. At this very moment, there are at least 10 Iranian political prisoners who are on hunger strikes and some may be breathing their last breaths on earth. Saeed Shirzad, Nizar Zakka, Ahmadreza Jalali, Ali Taheri, Ali Shariati, Arash Sadeghi, Morteza Moradpour,  Mehdi Rajabian, Hossein Rajabian and Vahid Sayyadi Nasirpour are all refusing to eat until their demands are met. Their hunger strikes are their final weapon to hit back at the intolerance of the regime which put them behind bars in the first place and the regime is scrambling to find a suitable way to handle these stubborn and brave “criminals”/activists.

Hunger strikes put the regime in an uncomfortable position: As long as they live, they are an embarassment to the regime and a magnet for their supporters and the moment they die, their status as a cause skyrockets up to the level of martyrs. All of the hunger strikers are taking the long road by allowing themselves to drink, effectively prolonging their strike and their ordeal – the record hunger strike to date is 16 years by Indian human rights activist Irom Sharmila.

As such, the hunger strike is one of the most effective forms of protest ever developed by pacifist activists. Many remember Ghandi’s famous hunger strikes, but human history is filled with examples of men and women who chose to shut their mouths in order to make the loudest noise.

These hunger strikers are not “ordinary criminals”. They are not rapists, thieves, murderers etc…Some are activists who have tried to bring about change in human rights and were sent to jail for charges such as “propaganda against the state” while others are simply people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, dual nationals who visitied Iran and were thrown in jail for charges such as “colluding with enemy states”. But these “criminals” have a lot in common: their presence bothers the regime, they didn’t have fair trials, their judges showed no mercy and their basic human rights and freedoms were torn out of their lives suddenly and violently.

So, what are the regime’s options? Apart from simply allowing the hunger strikers to continue their hunger strikes, the regime has very few options and all of them lead to dead ends:

  • Giving in: Giving in to the hunger striker’s demands is dangerous for the regime since it will be a sign to other political prisoners that hunger strikes are effective. But then again, the authorities don’t have a problem in promising promises that they don’t intend to keep as in the cases of the Rajabian brothers and Arash Sadeghi who ended their hunger strikes following promises by the authorities and then resumed their hunger strikes once it became clear that the authorities would not uphold their promises. The end result is the prolongation of the hunger strike and an increase in the possibility that the hunger striker will die.
  • Force feeding: The option of force-feeding the hunger strikers has not yet been tested but it is also a “dead end”. Force-feeeding the hunger-strikers is not only viewed as a form of torture, it would only serve to prolong the hunger strike and the embarassment and would lead to more pressure on the regime.
  • “Disappearances”: There is already one hunger-striker, Ali Taheri, who has gone missing after falling into a coma. No one knows if he is alive or dead and no one even knows his where-abouts. The regime has, in the past, made people disappear and such a solution has obviously crossed some of the Iranian leaders’ minds. But a “disappeared” hunger striker, just as a dead hunger striker, is more worrisome to the regime than a live one since he or she will tak eon the status of a martyr.

So what’s Tehran to do? The only thing that it knows how to do best: Blame others. Blame the prisoners since they are “convicted criminals who deserve to rot in jail”. Blame the media since it is the media which is amplifying the hunger strikes by communicating them to the Iranian population and the world. Blame the protesters and activists for giving the hunger-strikers the support that strengthens their convictions to conntinue to the inevitable end. Blame the UN and the West for turning these “criminals” into human rights causes. Blame Rouhani since he’s blamed for everything anyway. Blame anyone who can be blamed, deny all wrong doing and, most importantly, evade responsibility.

The regime has to wake up to a new world, a world in which activists can emulate Ghandi’s heroic and successful struggles using hunger strikes instead of hitting the streets and protesting. A world in which, no matter how many walls are erected by the regime to isolate the hunger strikers from the world, words, images and videos will always find their way out. A world in which human rights activists and supporters will increase their pressure on the regime for every day that a hunger striker shuts his or her mouth. A world where the simple act of not eating can turn a prisoner into a hero. A world in which a president such as Rouhani cannot pass himself off as a moderate as long as so many political prisoners are willing to die for justice.

 

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IRGC is gowing stronger under Rouhani

President Hassan Rouhani is toeing a very fine line: On one hand, he has openly called for the privatization of the Iranian economy which is dominated by the IRGC’s formidable network while on the other hand, he is weary of confronting the IRGC head on since that will essentially pit him against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The IRGC’s business empire reaches far beyond the military fields which once embodied the organizations main scope. Over the years, and especially under Rouhani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and during the years of global sanctions in Iran, the IRGC expanded its empire to include the fields of construction, telecommunication, oil and gas, finance, infrastructure etc…Huge governmental and private projects are regularly awarded to the IRGC conglomerate of affiliated companies in which, incidentally, Khamenei is sometimes named as a shareholder. Furthermore, the IRGC affiliates such as “Khatam-al Anbiya” also enjoy the special privilege of tax exemptions and there are strict orders by the regime which forbid the monitoring of IRGC affiliates by external agencies. As such, the nature of the ties between the IRGC and the regime is problematic to say the least since the IRGC was born as a military organization dedicated to the preservation of the regime.

The ties between the IRGC and innumerable cases of human rights abuses and links with terroristic activities have led to sanctions which remain in effect following the signing of the nuclear deal. Since the IRGC is so well connected to Iran’s economy, these sanctions are especially worrisome to foreign investors who want to capitalize on Iran’s economic potential but do not want to find themselves in contravention of these sanctions after partnering with the IRGC.

Furthermore, the IRGC has not sat idly by during Rouhani’s presidency: although the IRGC has tacitly supported Rouhani in his efforts to sign the long-awaited nuclear deal which freed Iran of sanctions, IRGC leaders have continuously criticized Rouhani over the years on numerous subjects including the nuclear deal itself. Since the IRGC answers directly to Khamenei himself, it’s obvious that such criticism could not be levelled at Rouhani without Khamenei’s approval or request.

Khamenei is not averse to intervening in all of the aspects of the governing of Iran including the economy. He has maintained, for the last two years, the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” which places a huge emphasis on keeping the Iranian economy free of foreign intervention or influence. The “Resistance Economy” is a part of Khamenei’s strategy to allay his paranoia of a “soft war” in which foreign states would weaken the regime through cultural and economic “infiltration”. The IRGC, of course, fully supports the “Resistance Economy” since it is exactly such an economy that made the IRGC the economic behemoth it has turned out to be. Rouhani, on the other hand, continues to support the ideal of the “Resistance Economy” but he seems to be doing so not out of a real belief in this strategy but because he understands too well that were he to oppose such a strategy, he would find himself, once again, fighting a losing battle against Khamenei.

Rouhani fully understands that clashing directly with the IRGC could easily result in being banned from the upcoming presidential elections since the body which authorizes or disqualifies presidential candidates, the Guardian Council, is an unelected body dominated by the IRGC and Khamenei. Just to make it clear, a spokesman of the Guardian Council has released a statement claiming that Rouhani has still not been officially allowed to run for president next year.

In a strange development, Rouhani has agreed to award plans for “rural development” to the IRGC. Handing over the billion-dollar projects was meant as a means to allow Rouhani to continue with the privatization of the economy while giving the IRGC enough economic clout back. Unfortunately for Rouhani, the IRGC took over these plans, establishing its Progress and Development Headquarters but has not lifted any pressure from expanding in other commercial projects. In fact, Hossein Dehghan, Rouhani’s minister of defense who just happens to be an ex-IRGC commander and the godfather of Hezbollah, has announced that the IRGC will be awarded 50 more huge construction contracts to build highways, dams, gas-fields etc…

The strength and fate of the IRGC is directly correlated to the strength and fate of the regime itself and both are dependent on Islamic Revolutionary ideals and money, lots of money. Rouhani and any other elected president doesn’t have the power to weaken the IRGC nor the regime as long as Tehran is governed at the end of the day by an theocratic dictator whose sole interest is to preserve the status quo of the regime.

Rouhani lies outrageously about minorities in Iran

Once again, President Hassan Rouhani is in his campaigning for the presidency mode which means that he allows himself to paint a wonderful picture regarding the state of human rights in Iran. The last time he campaigned, according to the RouhaniMeter, he issued 74 promises of which only 18% (13) were fulfilled and another 36% (27) are “still in progress. The unfulfilled promises include, settling diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, free the Green Movement leaders who are still under house arrest, assuring equality for women and men, submit bills to empower women’s rights, strengthen the value of the Rial, ending the expulsion of students and teachers because of political reasons etc… Specifically, for this article, he also promised teach Azeri to Azeris in schools,  to respect minorities and appoint members of Iran’s minority groups to become vice presidents.

Well, for the past three and a half years, the minorities in Iran have been oppressed just as they were before Rouhani took office. Sunni mosques were shut down, Christian pastors and believers were arrested, Baha’is have been oppressed through economic and academic sanctions, Kurds and Ahwazis have suffered wave after wave of oppressive measures by the regime, and the Azeris are still forbidden to learn their language in school.

One could easily put such promises aside and throw them in the garbage can labelled “promises by politicians” were it not for Rouhani’s latest take on minorities during a meeting with Sunni clerics in which he glowingly praised the positive role of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. He began by slamming the fate of minorities under the Shah’s rule, pre-1979, which “espoused a strategy of iron fist where ethnic and religious minorities found no opportunity to live their social and political life”, a mentality which still exists in “some countries” (not Iran, of course). Rouhani then sells his rose-tinted pitch: “We believe however that ethnic diversity provides opportunities for a country, and that ethnic and religious minorities should be given equal opportunities and rooms for social and political activity”.  But that isn’t all…Rouhani then echoed his earlier promise to draft a “Citizenship Rights Charter” which would soon see the light of day and that he wants to appoint Sunnis ministers in his government

Of course, Rouhani doesn’t need to mention any other minorities since they did not have representatives in the room. He spoke to Sunnis so he spoke about Sunnis. There were probably some women in the room, so he spoke about “gender equality”, being “no less important” and added that he wanted to include “Sunni women” as governors.

Of course, Rouhani is no fool and he knows that his listeners can easily find out that nothing has changed since he was elected president the first time. That’s why he adds this telling excuse: “efforts have been directed” to equality for minorities “however, there have been glitches and lack of coordination in some areas, to be honest”.

Well, judging from the fate of the minorities in Iran under his presidency, including the largest “minority” in Iran, women, minorities should not hold their breath until Rouhani’s promises will be fulfilled. Rouhani fully understands that the regime which was born from the Islamic Revolution in 1979 is racist in nature towards women, religion and ethnicity even though it claims to respect women and to strive for Islamic unity. There is no gender equality, nor religious or ethnic equality in Iran and in order for a woman or a Baha’i to be treated equally in Iran, the whole regime would have to fall. So why does Rouhani continue to lie? Well, the obvious answer is that he wants to get re-elected. But can he really expect his disillusioned voters to trust him again after he failed them the first time? Or perhaps, and this is where it could get really interesting, he will blame the “glitches” on the regime and try to renew his promises together with a much bigger promise: to place his fate in the hands of his voters instead of the regime.

 

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Nazanin Ratcliffe’s freedom is up for ransom

For those who don’t know who Nazanin Ratcliffe is, here’s a summary: Nazanin is a British-Iranian mother who was arrested on April 3ed at the airport in Tehran, with her 2 year-old daughter,  following a visit to her family in Iran. At first she was charged with spying but then the regime clamped down on any information regarding her case. After 150 days in jail, during which she had limited contact with her family and her lawyer, she was convicted to 6 years in jail in a closed-door court for “secret” charges. Obviously, no evidence regarding Nazanin’s “crimes” was shared with the world and she continues to maintain her innocence. But then again, Nazanin’s case only exemplifies the fact that in cases in which the regime is intent on arresting or executing someone, the ideal of “innocent until proven guilty” is traded for “guilty until proven innocent” mixed with severe restriction on a proper legal defense. Her daughter is living with Nazanin’s parents and is not allowed to leave Iran while her husband has remained in the UK out of fear that he too would be arrested. Nazanin’s physical and mental health is deteriorating and word has leaked out that she has become suicidal.

Nazanin is not alone: 6 other dual-nationals from the West (Canada, US and the UK) were arrested under similar circumstances. Dual-nationality is not recognized in Iran and the unfortunate dual-nationals who were arrested were stripped of their foreign passports, losing their rights to involve the help of foreign embassies in Tehran Furthermore, it’s important to remember that following the signing of the JCPoA, 4 dual nationals were freed from jail in what some claim was one of the biggest case of ransom since the US flew out $400 million to Iran just before the prisoners were freed – President Barack Obama claimed that the money had nothing to do with ransoming the prisoners and everything to with the initial implementations of the nuclear deal but no one really knows.

The arrests of dual and foreign nationals is not something that President Hassan Rouhani would really want in view of his repeated invitation for foreign investments in Iran but then again, that’s probably why these people are in jail: Rouhani’s opponents, hardliners within the regime including the IRGC which is responsible for all of the arrests of dual/foreign nationals, are probably using these arrests to weaken Rouhani to the world. These are the same forces which have actually increased the number of executions under Rouhani, knowing that he is powerless to block these travesties of justice. One thing is certain, the hardline elements in Tehran have no qualms of imprisoning or executing people in order to weaken Rouhani.

The issue of ransoming dual-nationals imprisoned in Iran has come again in regards to Nazanin. Word is spreading that Nazanin is being held as a bargaining chip for a debt of 500 million pounds which the UK owes to Iran. The UK foreign office has denied these allegation and maintains that it is doing all it can to help free Nazanin but there is no evidence that such efforts are a reality – the foreign office might be pressuring Tehran behind the scenes as part of its renewed diplomatic relations with Iran but any such efforts, if they exist, are hidden from public scrutiny.

Whether or not Nazanin is being held for ransom, or simply as added pressure on the UK or because Tehran really believes that Nazanin is guilty of some crime which justifies being sent to jail for six years is not clear. But the ransom alternative makes a lot of sense: Tehran needs money, as cash payments or through foreign investments. The UK, on the other hand also wants money by either selling its goods to the Iranian market or through investing in Iran. So, both sides stand to gain financially from good relations. The outstanding 500 million pound debt is bound to be an issue between Tehran and London which will have to be finalized at some point in the near future. Demanding that normalized diplomatic relations should carry a price tag, 500 million pounds, can be “sweetened” by freeing Nazanin. Just as Obama denied paying ransom for hostages, so will the UK government. But at the end of the day, if money exchanges hands and prisoners are freed, the definition of ransom fits the bill.

In the meantime, Nazanin remains in jail, separated from her family while her family in in Iran and in the UK helplessly look on as human rights organizations continue to pressure Tehran without success. Whether Nazanin really is a spy or not is irrelevant to the regime since she is a perfect bargaining chip to make money and a perfect pressure point to weaken Rouhani.

Montazeri jailed for 6 years for airing father’s audio-tape of 1988 massacre

The Iranian judiciary has added insult to injury yet again – this time, by jailing Ahmad Montazeri.

On Agust 9th, Ahmad Montazeri published an audio-tape of his late father Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri from 1988 in which Montazeri senior, who was slotted to become the Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, is heard attempting to dissuade the regime from carrying out Khomeini’s horrific orders to execute all political prisoners who supported the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). In the tape, Montazeri senior calls the planned executions “the greatest crime committed during the reign of the Islamic Republic, for which history will condemn us, has been committed by you (the officials in the meeting). Your (names) will in the future be etched in the annals of history as criminals…Beware of fifty years from now, when people will pass judgment on the leader (Khomeini) and will say he was a bloodthirsty, brutal and murderous leader…We will not be in power forever… Executing these people while there have been no new activities (by the prisoners) means that … the entire judicial system has been at fault…the people are now revolted by the Velayat-e Faqih (the regime)”.

Montazeri senior then tried to gain support from regime officials to try to change Khomeini’s mind and claimed that his willingness to defy Khomeini resulted from his fear of “not having an answer on Judgment Day” and out of his “duty to warn Imam (Khomeini)”. Montazeri senior’s objections were unsuccessful and an estimated 30,000 political prisoners were systematically massacred within a few months while Montazeri senior was doomed to live under house arrest for the rest of his life.

All of this had been suppressed by the regimes in the following decades but the surfacing of the Montazeri senior tape brought the massacre back to life. And sure enough, within three days, Montazeri junior received a phone call from the ministry of Intelligence “requesting” to delete the audio-file which he subsequently did. But Montazeri junior’s tribulations had just started. Within days he was “invited” to two successive interrogations which were then followed by formal charges of “sharing state secrets”. Two days ago, he was convicted to 6 years in jail. In fact he had been convicted to 21 years in jail (10 years for “acting against national security”, 10 years for “publishing a secret audio file” an done year “propaganda against the state”) but the sentence was then commuted to 6 years because, as Montazeri junior claims, his brother “was a martyr” or as the court claims, they took “into account his age and lack of prior criminal record”. The court which handled Montazeri junior’s case is the Special Court for the Clergy in Qom which is independent from the Judiciary and is under Khamenei’s direct authority.

Montazeri junior’s defense was simple: the audio-tape was never marked as a secret and that the contents of the tape were published earlier in his father’s memoirs so publishing it was not a crime. But the court at Qom decided that the recording was a secret anyway and Montazeri junior claims that the verdict, which he plans to publish, “contains things that were never mentioned during the trial” . But why did Montazeri junior publish the tape in the first place? He claims that he did so following continuous attacks on his father’s memory by hardliners. In fact, his defiant publication of the recording echoes his father’s calls to stop the massacre, albeit 28 years after the fact: “What I’m insisting on is that eventually the state manage and settle the issue about the 1988 executions instead of trying to hide it…If the Islamic Republic is transparent about it, and forms a truth commission, as suggested by MP Ali Motahhari, and possibly rectifies any wrongdoings, it would be a big step in restoring the greatness of the Islamic Republic”.

Well, the regime has a different idea of what “the greatness of the Islamic Republic” should be and that is suppressing Montazeri junior just as it suppressed Montazeri senior and 30,000 helpless political prisoners.

 

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Rouhani under heavy fire from all sides

Since he was elected, President Hassan Rouhani has been the target of repeated attacks from hardline elements in the regime but lately, the pressure against him is building up dramatically, culminating in a harsh criticism by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.

The attacks are based on two main themes:

  • The nuclear deal: Hardliners are bashing Rouhani for signing the deal which although has brought Iran in from its isolation, the economic benefits of the deal are still far from being fulfilled.
  • Internal politics: Rouhani’s open criticism of hardline elements in regards to freedom of speech, regime corruption, women’s rights and political opposition is exasperating hardliners who want to maintain the status quo at all costs.

Let’s start with Khamenei since his criticism holds more weight than all the other critics together. Although Khamenei allowed Rouhani to lead Tehran into the JCPoA, he always did so reluctantly. The nuclear deal’s weaknesses from Khamenei’s perspective is twofold: 1) the nuclear deal opens Iran to the influence/”infiltration” of all countries who want to trade with Tehran and 2) the JCPoA has forced Tehran to deal with the Great Satan, the US, which is contrary to Khamenei’s revolutionary ideals. The issue of foreign infiltration, or as Khamenei calls it “the soft war”, is not a clear cut issue since Khamenei has no real qualms in dealing with non-Western countries such as Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan etc…What he is really worried about is specifically Western infiltration from the EU and, of course, from the US. His fear from the EU is also not too well defined since it depends on just how much EU countries support the US and Israel. But Khamenei’s harshest criticism of Rouhani is based on relations with the US. During the negotiations, Khamenei issued several “red lines” to Rouhani and his negotiators and one of them was to not deal with the US on any subject apart from the JCPoA. At the same time, he banned 227 American brands from entering the Iranian market and has never stopped from aiming his fiery rhetoric at the US on issues of human rights, the use of sanctions, supporting terrorism, the presidential elections etc…

The US congress’s vote to extend non-nuclear sanctions against Iran have triggered Khamenei’s latest attack on the US and on Rouhani as well: “The West side is not committed to this agreement, while some Iranian officials rushed to sign it“. Of course, Rouhani spearheads the list of “some Iranian officials” but in a way, this attack is definitely petty on Khamenei’s part since the nuclear deal would not have been signed without his express approval. Khamenei then goes on to criticize the sanctions themselves: “There is no difference between imposing a new ban or resuming one that has lapsed, the second is an explicit negation of what has been agreed upon previously by the Americans”. Here, it seems that Khamenei hasn’t read the JCPoA since the nuclear deal specifies the removal of nuclear-related sanctions but not any other sanctions that are related to different aspects of the regime such as human rights and supporting terror and therefore the renewed sanctions do not breach the nuclear agreement in any way. Khamenei only has himself to blame for this since during negotiations, the US tried to include issues such as human rights and terrorism within the deal only to be told that the JCPoA is to be focused on Iran’s nuclear program and nothing more.

But Khamenei is not alone in trying to attack Rouhani’s strategy of “constructive engagement” with the West.

Hossein Shariatmadari, Khamenei’s representative at the powerful Kayhan institute openly challenged Rouhani to “name one of the 100 sanctions (that) have been lifted” following Rouhani’s call to focus on the “100” sanctions that had been lifted instead of focusing on the sanctions that weren’t. He also pointed to the contradiction of sanctions being lifted while major international banks continue to stay at arm’s length form Iran despite the fact that they are doing so not out of fear from US sanctions but because of FATF rules which continued to place Iran within the category of a country which supports terrorism and because of the uncertainty of the Iranian economy. Shariatmadari opposition to Rouhani comes as no surprise since he has been adamantly opposed to the nuclear deal from day one. In fact, he openly endorsed Trump: “The wisest plan of the crazy Trump is tearing up the JCPOA…The JCPOA is a golden document for the US but is considered nothing except humiliation and a loss for Iran”. On both counts, Shariatmadari is way off target: the JCPoA is definitely not a “golden document” for the US since the US has not gained in any way from the nuclear deal and it is hard to see how Tehran is humiliated by the hundreds of diplomats and trade delegations which have landed in Tehran since the signing of the nuclear deal.

Shariatmadari’s criticism of Rouhani is echoed by the IRGC as well: Ali Shirazi, Khamenei’s representative at the IRGC attacked Rouhani with a more religious overtones: He accuses Rouhani of “making (too many) concessions to America but then adds that Rouhani is “Godless”, is “unfamiliar” with prayer and lacks an understanding of the Quran. Such attacks are very dangerous in Tehran since the religious overtones are bound to attract the hot-headed hardliners who act from a purely religious view. The fact that Shirazi is an IRGC man is also a key factor here since the IRGC was against the nuclear deal from day one.

Rouhani’s efforts at eradicating corruption and the promotion of the freedom of speech has earned him yet another powerful political enemy: The chief of the Judiciary, Sadeq Larijani. Before we get into the nature of this clash, it is noteworthy that Larijani has two brothers who are also a part of the regime: Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian Majlis (parliament) and Javad Larijani, the chief of human rights. Larijani, a hardliner who is one of the candidates to become a Supreme Leader after Khamenei passes away has always been critical of any efforts by Rouhani to bring about changes in the sphere of internal affairs and the two have had some minor clashes in the past. But now, Larijani has raised his criticism to a much higher level based on two separate issues: Rouhani has called for an investigation into 63 bank accounts under Larijani’s name which are suspected to have been used to funnel corrupted money to Larijani and others. Larijani denies any wrong doing, claiming that the bank accounts are “by no means personal and belonged to the Judiciary as a government branch” but the allegations have hit a raw nerve. In fact, the situation has been aggravated by the fact that Khamenei has refused to even talk to Larijani since these allegations were exposed.

The second issue in the latest war between Rouhani and Larijani concerns Ali Motahari, a relatively liberal MP who is also the deputy-speaker of the Majlis. Motahari was all set to deliver a speech in Mashhad in the province of Khorasan Razavi but his speech was cancelled the night before by the local prosecutor general without explanation. The cancelled speech sparked a massive social media campaign and Motahari quickly penned an open letter to Rouhani demanding to know how the prosecutor was empowered to cancel his speech: “Please clarify who rules Khorasan Razavi province: the governor, or the prosecutor-general and the Friday prayer leader?“. The governor of Mashhad was then dismissed and Motahari proceeded to file a lawsuit against the prosecutor general claiming that the judiciary had “blocked the execution of the constitution and individual freedoms”. Enter Rouhani who instructs his interior and justice ministers to investigate the issue and lamented that “some people want to shut the mouths (of their critics) and lay the ground for radicalism and discord within society”. Larijani took this as a personal attack on the judiciary and on himself and was quick to respond: “The President’s conduct who had responded to Mashhad event by calling the situation ‘source of shame,’ is violation of his duties as president…unfair remarks using the Parliament as the media would reserve strong decision to investigate why such unfounded allegations are voiced in the Parliament”.

Within one week, Rouhani has been attacked by the Supreme Leader and two of his representatives at the Kayhan institute and the IRGC as well as by the judiciary. And some believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg and such attacks on Rouhani will only increase as the elections approach. With so much pressure around him, Rouhani needs to make the Iranian people believe that his presidency, which brought on the nuclear deal, should be awarded four more years to continue to steer Tehran towards diplomatic and economic engagement with the world instead of the isolation that his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad created.

 

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The clash between nationalism and theocracy in Iran

Last month tens of thousands of young Iranians celebrated “International Cyrus the Great” day by visiting his tomb in Pasargade. What began as a celebration of Iran’s distant pre-Islamic glory days turned into a protest of the current regime and the usual police brutality and arrests. For a while, it seemed that old-style nationalism was being pitted against the ruling theocracy.

At first the crowds chanted slogans which sounded benign: “Iran is our homeland, Cyrus is our father”…but even such a chant was interpreted by hardliners as an affront to Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader , who is sometimes called the “father” out of respect. A senior Shia cleric in Qom, Hossein Nouri Hamadani stated that he was “flabbergasted that people could gather at the tomb of Cyrus and we just sit and watch them chant the words we reserve for the great leader of the Revolution (Khomeini and Khamenei).

But as the protests heated up, the chants took on much more political overtones: The participants protested Tehran’s continuing involvement in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria by chanting “neither Gazza, nor Lebanon; I give my life for Iran” and “forget about Syria think about us”. Other chants such as “freedom of thought, impossible with the mullahs” and “mullahs’ regime, only oppression, only war” protested the nature of the regime itself. Unfortunately for them, the regime in Tehran has little or no tolerance for protests of any kinds and as one Iranian official simply said “the initiators of the inappropriate slogans against the regime’s values have been arrested”. What the official forgets to mention is that before they were arrested, they were brutally beaten and at least one of the protesters, a prominent Iranian poet by the name of Mohammad Reza Aalia Payam and was sent to hospital. One protester’s voice explained it all: “We pay tribute to a king who respected people everywhere, no matter what their religious or ethnic background”…paying tribute to such a leader is definitely an affront to the regime itself which respects only its own.

Those arrested, are to be prosecuted in court for unnamed charges which might include bogus charges such as “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “spreading propaganda against the state. But until they reach their trial dates, they will have to survive interrogations and torture – In fact, Mostafa Nabi, one of the arrested protesters was killed by his torturers shortly after his arrest.

Videos of the protests began hitting social media and within hours, they had spread virally all over Iran and once the news of the arrests reached social media, the debate had been sparked.

Cyrus the Great vs. Supreme Leader Khamenei or old-style nationalism vs. Islamist theocracy, the tensions surrounding these protests are bound to spring up again and again as long as the regime tries to crush such nationalistic sentiments. The fact that the regime is so fearful of such outbursts of ancient nationalism exemplifies the inherent weakness of the regime which cannot allow itself to accommodate any form of criticism. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 may have occurred to depose the Shah but it now is bent on deposing long dead leaders such as Cyrus the Great.

Human rights in Iran: The thin line between Islamic laws and the regime’s zero-tolerance

thin-line

Following on the heels of the EU strategy report on Iran which included a harsh criticism of the state of human rights in Iran, the UN issued a new resolution which echoes the exact same sentiment: Iran is a serial abuser of human rights on many levels and in order to normalize relations, Tehran will have to change.

The UN resolution includes severe criticism on many levels in regards to the abuse of human rights in Iran: “enforced disappearances”, “arbitrary detention”, “severe limitations on freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief”, “alarmingly high frequency of the death penalty” and “human rights violations against women and girls”.

The EU’s report was similar including the fact that the EU “remains highly critical of Iran’s frequent use of the death penalty”, calls on Tehran to respect “the rights to freedom of expression…without discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status”, demands that Tehran “eliminate the existing legal and practical discrimination against women”, is worried that Tehran doesn’t “fully guarantee international due process safeguards (and) ensure the inclusion of fair trial guarantees”, “considers the lack of freedom of expression online, the systemic surveillance and monitoring of internet traffic and the lack of digital freedoms to be an obstacle to trade with Iran, as well as a violation of people’s rights and freedoms”, “calls for the release of all political prisoners” and  “calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure that the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are fully respected and protected in law”.

In order to get a better understanding of the nature of the criticism by both the UN and the EU, it is necessary to define two distinct categories:

  • Islamic laws: Abuses of human rights due to Islamic laws which include the oppression of women and religious minorities as well as the use of the death penalty.
  • The regime: Abuses of human rights due to the intolerance of the regime to accept criticism and calls for change by activists, political oppositionists.

These two categories of the West’s view on human rights in Iran is mirrored in Tehran’s categorical rejections of the EU/UN critique:

  • Islamic laws: There is a basic difference between Western ideals of human rights and “Islamic human rights” which must be acknowledged and accepted by the West.
  • The regime: All criticism by the West against Iran on the issue of human rights is politicized, hypocritical, arrogant and based on double standards and the regime is not susceptible to pressure from any source, least of all from the West…in fact, Tehran views such resolutions as an “abuse” of human rights in itself.

Of course, the regime doesn’t differentiate between both categories but from a Western perspective, the distinction between these two categories should be critical. It really is arrogant of the West to expect an Islamic country to give up its Islamic values in order to kowtow to the norms of the West and the issue of Shariah laws has put the West into a Catch 22 situation: if the West places such high import on religious beliefs and religious freedoms, it must accept that Shariah laws are legitimate in an Islamic country even if they seem outrageous from a Western perspective. Qisas, usually understood through the “eye for an eye” form of punishment, is brutal and barbaric from a Western perspective but it is deemed as “beautiful and important“. Tehran accepted to hold talks on human rights with the EU based on “mutual respect”, devoid of “double standards” and understanding that there is a fundamental difference between Western human rights and “Islamic human rights”, a difference which may not necessarily bridged. The West can try to “tone down” the harshness of some of these laws and to allow for more personal freedoms by pointing out that many Islamic countries have done just that but at the end of the day, as long as the Islamic regime exists, Islamic laws will prevail.

The issue of the death penalty in Iran is exemplary of this issue: according to the regime, 75%-80% of all executions are drug-related. Up until now, Tehran has vehemently defended these executions based on the fact that Shariah laws endorse the execution of drug-dealers and that it’s war on drugs benefits the West since most of the drugs are destined to Western users. Unfortunately, this defense is weakened by two simple facts: 1) the death penalty doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for drug dealers even according to Iranian leaders and 2) not all Westerners agree that limiting the inflow of drugs is worth the 700+ drug-related executions a year. Since Iran holds the dubious title for the largest number of executions per capita, and since the regime is intent on normalizing relations with Western countries (apart from the US, of course), the mullahs in the regime have understood that it might be worth it to be more lenient on most drug-related offenders, convicting only the largest repeat offenders to be executed. But then again, change cannot be immediate as the Iranian deputy foreign minister made it clear that negotiations over human rights with the EU could take 3-4 years and that Tehran will not give up capital punishment under any circumstances.

So what about the second category? The regime’s inability to allow for dissent, opposition and change? This is much firmer ground from a Western perspective because the issue isn’t related in any way to Islam, only to the ideals of democracy which allow for pluralistic views and for the respect of minorities of any kind. It’s important to remember that Iran has repeatedly and proudly claimed that it is the only true democracy in the Middle East even though is not a true democracy (more like a “democtatorship”) due to the huge powers of unelected bodies of the regime. In fact, the bases of power in Iran emanate from democratic vote (the election of the president, government, the Assembly of Experts etc…through popular vote) and from the regime’s dictatorial resolve to choose its own leaders (such as the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council, the IRGC etc…). Tehran’s pride at being democratic coupled with its inherent fear of accepting democracy 100% is an inherent weakness of the regime. Slamming the regime for “enforced disappearances”, “arbitrary detention”, “severe limitations on freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief”, the lack of “freedom of expression”, “the discrimination or persecution on grounds of sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, gender, sexual orientation or other status”, “political prisoners”, the lack of “fair trial”, the oppression of “religious and ethnic minorities” etc…” all emanate from the regime’s fears of losing its power.

These issues should spearhead the West’s efforts to help the cause of human rights in Iran. If these issues are dealt with, if Iranians have a say in the way they are being governed, the Islamic religious issues will take care of themselves. Let’s take the issue of compulsory hijabs for women. To be sure, not every Iranian woman and definitely not every Iranian man is in favor of women wearing hijabs. The problem is that with the current regime, no one really knows if the majority of Iranians want compulsory hijabs or not. But if the whole of the regime was elected by the people and if enough people would decide that women should not have to wear hijabs, laws will be changed to accommodate such a sentiment. If the majority of the Iranian people would vote for more freedom of the press, for the release of political prisoners, for a fairer judicial system etc…, these changes would come about as well.

That’s why the West should place more weight on abuses of human rights in Iran which aren’t directly related to Islamic laws. . The systematic oppression of women and even the use death penalty, as such, must be accepted since they both stem from religious beliefs. Such a strategy echoes the statement of the liberal Iranian MP, Ali Motahari who wants Western criticism to be split into “two dimensions”: “one is related to Islam’s laws that is unnegotiable and not understandable for them (the West), and the second is related to affairs common to all human beings that has nothing to do with a certain ideology”.

 

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“There’s no greater suffering than to be forgotten”

Imprisoned Iranian music distributors Mehdi Rajabian and Hossein Rajabian sent out an impassioned plea from their jail cells to all the musicians and lovers of music in the world to keep their cause alive: “We call on all musicians around the world to condemn these abuses with a worthy response…Do not forget us in these suffocating times… There’s no greater suffering than to be forgotten”.  The Rajabian brothers distributed music online to Iranian audiences. Unfortunately for them, they did so without a permit from the authorities and, to make matters worse, they distributed music by female singers and “anti-revolutionary” musicians from abroad. The IRGC arrested them in 2013 and in 2015, they were sentenced to 6 years in jail under the usual anti-regime charges: “insulting the sacred” and “propaganda against the state” – on appeal their sentence was reduced to 3 years.

At first, the brothers were placed in the same cell but after a while, they protested the fact that they were being denied medical attention. The reaction of the authorities was swift and harsh: the two brothers were separated. They went on a hunger strike which sent Hossein to the hospital since he suffers from multiple sclerosis, and were convinced to desist from the hunger strike following promises by the authorities to help them out. After two months, the Rajabian brothers understood that the promises would never reach fruition and they have decided to resume their hunger strike.

For all you lovers of music and all you musicians out there, please lend your voice or your instrument to help the Rajabians and make sure that they are never forgotten.

Tehran outraged at support for Narges

Narges Mohammadi is an Iranian human rights activist who has been in and out of jail for trying to ban the death penalty, for meeting with a UN official without permission and for speaking out against the regime’s brutal efforts to silence any criticism or opposition against it. She is now in jail and is to remain there for the next ten years.

Her trials were, as can be expected, anything but fair since she was repeatedly denied access to her lawyers and was not even shown the “evidence”. As in other political trials, she had to accept that according to the regime, she was guilty until proven innocent. On top of all this, her suffering from being kept apart from her family is compounded by her failing health. All of this would be enough to break anyone but Narges’ brave spirit is definitely not broken.

But now, Narges’ fate is taking on a much bigger dimension in Tehran: the regime is outraged at the support she has received to try to diminish her sentence. The regime is obviously angered by the global support she has received but it is the local support which is really creating pressure within the regime.

Two weeks ago, 15 Iranian MP’s added their voice to the call to free Narges or at least to diminish her sentence. The authorities immediately refused but the fact that such a call could emanate from within the regime made it hard to simply leave the matters as they stood.

Last week, the prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri made the issue clear: Narges is a convicted criminal and an “outcast” and any Iranian supporting her is working against the regime, together with the “enemy” (the US), in order to “weaken the identity and besmear the Islamic state”. This “plot” to overthrow the regime can be found in what Montazeri called a “triangle”, which included the JCPoA, human rights activists abroad  together with “their agents inside the country” and “officials who unknowingly do things based on ignorance”.

Let’s examine this “triangle”:

  • The JCPoA was approved by the government and Khamenei himself as a deal which would end the crippling sanctions. Many Iranian leaders continue to claim that Tehran was a clear winner in this deal so how did such a deal suddenly become part of the plot to undermine the regime?
  • As to human rights activists, in Iran or abroad, Tehran’s common answer is that a) there isn’t a problem of human rights in Iran, b) any criticism regarding human rights in Iran is based on political agendas and c) no one has the right to change human rights in Iran except for the regime (but since there isn’t a problem, so everything is OK). But who are these “agents” of the global activists? They are either hiding or in jail like Narges.
  • As to the “ignorance” of the “officials”, Montazeri adds: “Just because the Judiciary isn’t revealing the evidence against these individuals doesn’t mean they’re good people”. Well, it would help if the MP’s could view the evidence. In fact it would help if Narges could view the evidence. But, it seems, Narges’ crimes are so sensitive that they are kept secret.

In contrast to Montazeri’s echoes of the regime’s paranoia and effort to silence opposition, Narges’ response was honest and to the point: “Contrary to your imagination, I am not part of some “evil triangle”…I believe in the nobility of striving for human dignity. The Judiciary, whom you serve, has issued an unjust sentence against me. I will abide by the law and endure prison. I have no intention to resist or escape. But be assured that I am one of thousands of noble Iranians representing the proud and selfless struggle of a nation for freedom and justice. Reveal my indictment, my defense and my life and let the public decide which of us deserves to be an “outcast”. Please remember that I, as the accused, was the one who insisted on a public trial, and the Judiciary was the one that insisted on keeping it hidden. I am a human being. I am a free Iranian citizen. I will not allow an assault on my human dignity, and I will not stay silent until I have my rights and justice is served”.

The regime’s effort to silence any criticism against it is not new but the horror of it never wears out. The hundreds of thousands of Iranians who have been silenced over the years by prison or death are a testament to the regime’s most popular weapon: fear. The fear to be arrested, to go to jail,  to be executed, to be humiliated, to lose freedoms etc…But Narges’ response is anything but fearful. It is clear, brave and resolute because the ideals of justice are on her side – #FreeNarges.

 

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