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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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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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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15 reasons why Tehran hates the EU strategy report

The EU parliament finally voted and released its report on its strategy towards Iran following the implementation of the JCPoA. Most of the report is filled with good diplomatic and economic intentions and the overall strategy is based on developing a much better relationship with Tehran. The motives are clearly economical which will appeal to Hassan Rouhani’s government which is intent on increasing foreign investment into Iran but there are quite a few points in the report which the hardliners in Tehran are bound to object to.

The first to voice his objection was Javad Zarif, the chief of human rights in Iran who just happens to be the brother of Sadeq Larijani, the chief of the judiciary, and Ali Larijani, the head of parliament.

Human rights:

  1. The death penalty: “Reiterates the European Union’s strong, principled and long-standing opposition to the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances, and emphasises once again that the abolition of the death penalty is a key objective of EU human rights and foreign policy; remains highly critical of Iran’s frequent use of the death penalty” and “notes with concern that Iran has the highest level of death-penalty executions per capita in the world” – The death penalty is an integral part of the Shariah law which is the basis for Iranian law and is, in the words of Iran’s human rights chief, Sadeq Larijani, the head of the judiciary, “opposing the death penalty, is in fact in opposition to Islam, because Qisas (retribution) is clearly stipulated in the Quran” while his brother, Javad Larijani added that “Qisas is very beautiful and important“. Since 70%-80% of the executions are drug-related, Javad is now pushing for a bill to curtail the death penalty on all drug traffickers but the death penalty will definitely survive as long as the regime is in power.
  2. Executions of juvenile offenders: “Calls on Iran to ensure that this prohibition (of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child) is fully implemented and that all relevant offenders are made aware of this right; calls on Iran to declare a moratorium on the death penalty” – Apart from the general support of the entire regime for the death penalty, Tehran has executed numerous juvenile offenders, waiting until they reached the age of 18 to carry out their sentences. Zainab Sokian, a child-bride who was married at the age of 15, was convicted of murdering her husband at the age of 17, who she claims beat her repeatedly and would not allow her to divorce him, is awaiting execution after she delivered a still-born baby in jail (pregnant women cannot be executed under Iranian law.
  3. Human rights: “Respecting the rights to freedom of expression both online and offline, of opinion, of association and peaceful assembly, of thought, conscience, religion or belief and by guaranteeing in law and in practice the enjoyment by its citizens of individual, social and political rights 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, as provided for in these instruments; points out that this includes a basic right to equality before the law, as well as the right of equal access to education, health care and professional opportunities” – Where to start? Anyone that is not in tune with the Revolutionary and Islamic ideals of Iran is persecuted and oppressed. Anyone and everyone. That includes critics of the regime (activists, politicians, reporters, bloggers etc…), religious and ethnic minorities, women, gays etc…There is no “freedom of expression” and anyone who criticizes the regime in any manner is swiftly arrested, interrogated, imprisoned and/or executed. No pressure from the EU or the entire world can change this situation or as Javad Larijani aptly put it, the EU “lacks the competence” to tell Tehran what to do about human rights and that the EU “should know that the (Iranian) Judiciary will definitely not allow the establishment of such a den of corruption in Iran”.
  4. Gender equality: “Calls for full gender equality through measures to eliminate the existing legal and practical discrimination against women and to ensure women’s equal participation in the labour market and in all aspects of economic, cultural, social and political life” – Gender equality doesn’t exist in Iran. Workplaces are segregated, as are sports stadiums, concert halls, cafes. Women are not even allowed to ride bikes or even sing in public. The day that women will gain full equality will be the day that the regime falls apart.
  5. Fair trials: “Expresses serious concerns that the Code does not fully guarantee international due process safeguards; calls on Iran to undertake a review of the 2014 Code of Criminal Procedure to ensure the inclusion of fair trial guarantees; calls on Iran to review and amend the law in order to ensure that statements elicited as a result of torture, ill‑treatment or other forms of coercion are excluded as evidence in criminal proceedings, and that all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment brought to the authorities’ attention are automatically investigated” and “calls on the judiciary to respect fair trial and due process and to grant suspects access to a lawyer” – Despite the fact that the Iranian constitution has strict guidelines to conduct fair trials, in reality, the judicial system is inherently flawed because of the relationship that it has with the Iranian authorities and most importantly, the IRGC. There are too many cases in which suspects were imprisoned for months without going to trial, were denied access to lawyers, family members and even doctors, were not even given access to the evidence presented against them. How? All these travesties of justice can usually be found when the charges against the suspects includes charges such as “working against national security”, “spreading propaganda against the state”, “spying for a hostile government”, “enemies of the state”, “terrorists”, “corrupting the earth”, “insulting the Supreme Leader/the regime/the Prophet etc…”. All of these charges allow the judicial system to bypass any efforts at offering the accused a fair trial, working on the assumption that they are guilty until proven innocent.
  6. Freedom of speech and access to information: “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” – The EU is a bit late on this track. Iran just launched its own “national internet” which will allow it to do what it has done in the past but more efficiently: monitor and block content that isn’t in tune with the regime’s Islamic or Revolutionary ideals and arrest the Iranians who are sharing such content. Sharing such content has landed many in jail including bloggers and models.
  7. Arrests of dual nationals: “Expresses grave concern over the arrest of EU-Iranian dual-nationals upon their entering Iran, and stresses that these arrests hinder the possibilities for people-to-people contacts; calls on the Iranian authorities to allow the Iranian diaspora in Europe to safely travel to their country of birth” – It is ironic that while this report was being written three American-Iranians (Siamak Namazi, Baquer Namazi and Reza Shahini) were sent to extended periods in jail (10, 10 and 18 respectively) and Nazanin Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian was sent to jail for 5 years. On what charges? The Americans were charged with “collaborating with a hostile government (the US) and the charges against Nazanin are “secret”. Over the past year, there have been more and more cases of dual nationals returning to Iran to visit family or to do business who were imprisoned. Some believe that they are pawns used by hardliners to bash Rouhani while others believe that they are pawns to be freed for exorbitant ransoms.
  8. Political prisoners: “Calls for the release of all political prisoners; calls on Iran to free imprisoned EU citizens who have been detained or convicted under a judicial process that did not meet international standards, including: 58-year-old Nazak Afshar, held since March 2016, 76-year-old Kamal Foroughi, held since May 2011, 65-year-old Homa Hoodfar, held since June 2016, and 37-year-old Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, held since April 2016” – According to Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, there are no political prisoners in Iran, since “Iran does not jail citizens for their opinions“. They are simply prisoners who didn’t respect the law. These include foreign nationals as well as reporters and political opponents including the leaders of the failed Green Movement of 2009 who are under house arrest since 2011. Tehran even feels uncomfortable to call the 30,000 prisoners in 1988 as political prisoners, preferring to claim that they were “terrorists”.
  9. Religious minorities: “Concerned that the number of individuals imprisoned from religious minority communities or because of their beliefs has increased; calls on the Iranian authorities to ensure that the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are fully respected and protected in law and that religious freedom is extended” – “Fully respected”? Ask the persecuted Sunnis and Christians who have watched their places of worship destroyed and are often raided and imprisoned. Ask the Baha’is who are denied further education, have had their business closed and lands robbed and have been imprisoned for simply being Baha’is. The only religion that is protected in Iran is Shiite Islam. All of the other religions are legally, socially and morally persecuted.
  10. Afghan refugees: “(EU) stresses the need to take concrete measures that safeguard the human rights of Afghan migrants and Afghan refugees in Iran, including their right to due process and equality before the law” – The case of the Afghan refugees is a delicate one. Iran has accepted to date approximately 3 million Afghan refugees. On the whole, their status is not on par to Iranians and many Iranian hardliners often denigrate them publicly. But, and this is a big “but”, Afghan refugees are often recruited to fight for Iran in Syria and in Iraq. The recruitment is sometimes voluntary although Afghans have complained that many of the recruits were forced to join or face prison or extradition.

Economy:

  1. Economic transparency: “(EU) stresses that for Iran to realise its economic potential, it will have to take steps to create a transparent economic environment conducive to international investment and take anti-corruption measures at all levels, particularly regarding compliance with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) addressing questions such as the cessation of financial flows to terrorist organisations” and “calls, in this regard, on Iran to ensure transparency of its financial sector and to fight corruption and money laundering, in line with the recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)” – In a country in which approximately 70% of the economy is run directly or indirectly by the state (specially through the IRGC) and is a proud state sponsor of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, such a call for transparency is simply ludicrous. The IRGC itself, including many of its generals are on Interpol lists as terrorists and since the IRGC is one of the strongest bases of the regime, there is no comprehensible way to adhere to FATF rules.

War and terror:

  1. Regional conflict and promotion of terrorism: “Calls on all the states of the region, in particular Saudi Arabia and Iran, to refrain from hostile rhetoric fuelling conflicts, action and support for hostile armed groups in the region, including the military wing of Hezbollah and Al-Nusra; expresses concern about growing militarisation in the wider region and supports efforts towards greater arms control, non-proliferation and countering terrorism” and “expresses concern at the development of Iran’s ballistic missile tests, which, despite not constituting a breach of the JCPOA, are inconsistent with the spirit of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (2015)” – This will be one of the main problems of Tehran in regards to the EU report since a) Tehran doesn’t consider the Hezbollah to be a terrorist organization (although it is designated as one by the West and most of the Arab world), b) the leaders in Tehran all the way up to Khamenei have consistently threatened Saudi Arabia (the Saudis are just as guilty) and c) Tehran believes that testing long-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload is a natural right. Tehran likes to call itself a champion against terrorism and an “island of stability” in the region but at the same time, it promotes terrorism, subversion and military conflicts in in the region. Just as in the story of the scorpion and the frog who drowned because of the scorpion’s nature while crossing the river, Tehran is duty-bound constitutionally to “Export the Revolution” and Hezbollah plays an important part in this ambition: it has successfully done this in Lebanon, is currently doing so in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and is trying to do so in Bahrain, Nigeria and other countries.
  2. Iran’s influence in Syria: “Regrets the fact, however, that Iranian input has to date not led to a marked improvement in the situation, and calls for it to contribute at least to further facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid to increase protection of the civilian population from attacks and to continuously seeking a long‑term solution to the conflict; notes in this context that the Assad regime in Syria has become increasingly dependent on Iran for its own survival and therefore calls on the Iranian authorities to use their leverage to bring the Syrian conflict to a peaceful conclusion” – The Assad regime, which has never held truly open elections since he inherited the post from his father in 2000, is totally dependent on Tehran. Without Tehran, Assad would have fallen years ago and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Syrians would still be alive today. Tehran has adamantly stuck with Assad and has blocked any efforts to force Assad to step down or even to call for a general election which might clear up the question of his legitimacy as the President of the Syrian people. Last week, for the first time, Zarif proposed to hold a general referendum on the issue and hopefully Assad and the Syrian rebels will agree to this.
  3. Ensuring safety in the region: “Calls for a model of EU diplomacy based on political priorities rather than religious identities and on the principle of ensuring respect, safety and security for peoples in all countries in the Middle East, including Israel and the Palestinian people” – Tehran doesn’t recognize Israel as a state and will never do so for fear of losing its ground as the Islamic Revolutionary state which has continuously stood up for the Palestinians.
  4. Israel and the Holocaust: “Strongly condemns the Iranian regime’s repeated calls for the destruction of Israel and the regime’s policy of denying the Holocaust” – Tehran has continuously called for the destruction of Israel and has denied the Holocaust. This rhetoric has inflamed and justified the leaders of Israel over the years and has increased the threat of a regional or even a global war.

 

And there you have it…The EP might have thought that it has created a strategy that will help it to carve a bigger slice of the Iranian economy but it doesn’t realize three simple facts:

  • The regime is focused on maintaining the status quo and is averse to change that would negate its revolutionary ideals.
  • The regime is much more powerful than Rouhani who has claimed to be a moderate who wants to initiate change.
  • The regime would rather deal with the East (Russia, China, India etc…) than with the West (EU/US).

It’s a lose-lose situation that can only be rectified if the EU accepts the regime in Tehran “as is”, without trying to change it one iota.

Ten Rouhani quotes that will test your gag reflex

Let’s be honest – Hassan Rouhani is to date Iran’s best bet to lead the changes that he promised when he was elected. While there are serious doubts to whether he is really a “moderate” or not, it’s quite clear that relative to the regime’s leaders, he is definitely “more” moderate. To his credit, Rouhani, unlike the leader of a “normal” democratic country, has to lead his country under the “guidance” and the “red lines” of Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader and de facto dictator of Iran who is a definite hardliner intent on maintaining the status quo from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

But just because he is the West’s Best Bet for now, doesn’t mean that we should accept whatever he says for granted. The world is quick to pick up on any discrepancies and lies by donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and that’s the way it should be. Politicians who lie should be forced to be scrutinized and trashed. And much like other Iranian leaders, Rouhani is prone to statements which are can be categorized as wishful thinking, naïve, misleading, hypocritical, outright lies…or simply, puke-worthy.

Here are 10 statements which might sound OK until you understand the contexts in which they were said:

  1. Asked if he prefers Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Rouhani mockingly quipped “Should I prefer bad over worse or worse over bad?“. Now, although there are any who might agree with Rouhani, he, as the president of Iran, is the last to laugh at the situation in the US elections since Iranian elections are notorious for being dictated by Khamenei and by the vetting process of the Guardian Council which can disqualify candidates based on their affinity to the revolutionary ideals of the regime. Once the Iranian people have a chance to choose their Supreme Leader (he is chosen by the Assembly of Experts), then he can mock the US elections.
  2. Rouhani, who understands that his re-election depends on whether the nuclear deal will translate into billions of dollars in foreign investments, called on Iranians (and the regime) to be hospitable to foreign investors: “The businessman and investor who wants to come, we must be hospitable. They must come and leave Iran easily“. OK, sounds like good advice. Except that Rouhani’s statement came only two days after and American-Iranian businessman, Siamak Namazi, and his 80 year old father, Baquer Namazi, were both convicted 10 years in jail for “collaborating with a hostile government”. The “hostile government” is obviously the US although according to Iranian law, only one country is considered “hostile” and that’s Israel. Three days later, aother American Iranian, Reza Shahini, was convicted to 18 years in jail on similar charges. “Hospitable”? “Come and leave Iran easily”? Who’s he kidding?
  3. Today, we are glad that Iran is a great defensive wall in the region against Daesh and al-Qaeda and is fighting off terrorism“. Rouhani’s rebranding of Iran as a champion against terrorism will be learned about in history and communication classes around the world in the future. Rouhani, nearly single handedly (with the aid of ISIS/Daesh), managed to turn Iran, a proven state-sponsor of terrorism and terroristic organizations such as Hezbollah into a “great defensive wall” against terrorism. Sure, one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter but Hezbollah has been designated as terrorist organization by most of the West and most of the Arab world…is that not enough to warrant a puke over Rouhani’s statement? And what about Iran’s cooperation with al-Qaeda and the Taliban? And what about Tehran’s support for Islamic Jihad, Hamas, Houthis etc…? No…Tehran is not a defense against terrorism…in fact, it has taken to the offensive by pitting its own terrorist organization against ISIS in the hope that everyone who hates ISIS will support Iran.

In a speech in Markazi, Ruhollah Khomeini’s birthplace, Rouhani eulogized Khomeini up to a point where Khomeini became hardly recognizable. Here a few choice quotes which will probably make you gag:

  1. Under the Islamic Sharia, he (Khomeini) revived the dignity of women”: Sharia law” and women’s “dignity“? Really? Iranian women are oppressed legally and socially. Women are legally worth half of what men are, are forced to wear clothes that will not arouse men’s desire for them, are easily divorced and discarded by their husbands under Iranian law, are not allowed to leave the country without their husband’s permission, can be forbidden to work if their husbands object, are not allowed to run for the presidency nor for the Assembly of Experts, are banned from learning certain subjects in universities, are forced to observe gender segregation in all public places, are not allowed to ride bicycles in public etc… “Dignity”? Ask the thousands of women who have been imprisoned, tortured and oppressed or ask the loved one of those who were killed or executed.
  2. (Khomeini) clearly shown us the true Islam and democracy“. Well, Khomeini might have shown the Iranian people the “true Islam” but “democracy”? Iran is governed by a “democtatorship” in which the government and the parliament is chosen by the people through public elections but other aspects of the regime are chosen by the regime members. The most important unelected position is obviously the “Supreme Leader” which Khomeini justified under his ideal of “velayat-e faqih”, the Guardianship of the Islamist Jurist in the place of the Prophet Mohammad…Khomeini himself and then Khamenei. Both Khomeini and Khamenei are not “passive” Supreme Leaders and are actively involved in all aspects of government, dictating “red lines”, ousting leaders, “guiding” voters etc…”Democracy”? Not yet…
  3. Khomeini promoted Islamic brand of the arts including music and singing“. Yes he did. And Khamenei is a poet. But you have to give Rouhani credit for controlling his gagging reflex since he knows more than anyone that arts that aren’t “Islamic” enough are oppressed. Classical, pop, rock and metal concerts are repeatedly cancelled, women cannot appear on stage to a mixed audience and are not allowed to sing in public etc…and any art that criticizes the regime is a “go to jail” card for the artist. Sometimes, the situation is so strange that it borders on being humorous just as in the case of a metal concert in which the audience was forced to sit down and were banned from headbanging or displaying a “horn” sign. It’s too convenient that Rouhani actually forgot about all of the oppressed artists when he said this.
  4. Thanks to the ideas and thoughts of Imam Khomeini (RA) the Islamic Republic is known as a role model around the world“. Yep. A role model. But for what? For standing up to the West? For exporting the Islamic Revolution? For what? And to whom? The list of states who do view Iran as a role model is definitely much shorter than the “around the world” phrase suggests: Mostly anti-Western/American states such as Cuba and Venezuela, some Latin American and African countries who look to Iran for trade and, of course, countries with strong Shiite bases such Iraq and Syria.

And here are a few of his older and most gag-worthy quotes:

  1. All the people in our country, no matter which ethnicity or tribe they’re from, should feel they’re the citizens of one country and enjoy equal rights“. Wow. Does this include women who legally have less rights then men and are heavily oppressed? Does this include Sunnis, Kurds, Baha’is and Christians who are systematically oppressed as well? Does this include people who are critical of the regime and are usually found either in jail or in graves? Does this include gays who are executed in Iran? Face it, there are no “equal rights” in Iran because the Shariah law simply cannot allow for “equality”.
  2. “Iran is a modern Islamic society, with a modern polity and advanced institutions of civil society, leaving no room for extremism and radicalism to survive for any length of time“. Well, Iran has been “extremist” since 1979 so 37 years is actually quite a “length of time”. The whole regime is extremist and it is so heavily entrenched in all aspects of Iranians’ lives that there is a lot of “room” to maintain hardline extremism for a while longer. Who is Rouhani kidding? And what makes Iran’s Islamic society “modern” as long as ancient Shariah laws and beliefs prevail at every corner. And what about Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah or is Hezbollah not “extremist” enough for Rouhani?
  3. The viewpoint of the government is that the people must have full access to all information worldwide“. While this may have been the “viewpoint” of his government, “access” to information has actually dwindled under his presidency. Iran just launched its “Iran-Wide-Web”, a closed internet which will allow authorities to block and monitor content which they might feel is critical of the regime and worthy enough to send the sharers of this content to jail. This is just one more promise which Rouhani failed to deliver on.

Sure, Rouhani is not the only politican to “bend the truth” or to even lie, and he certainly won’t be the last. But sometimes, whether you support a leader or not, you should face the truth head on and accept the leader for who he is and what he stands for. Rouhani might might sound right but remember Rouhani’s own words: Ahmadinijad was stupid enbough to be a wolf in wolf’s clothing, to expose his teeth and nails and alert the west. I can be a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I have all the diplomatic and rhetoric skills to do so. Exactly.

EU blinded by Iranian “gold rush”

On October 3ed, the European Parliament issued a resolution which outlines the strategy that the EU wants to implement in regards with Iran one year following the nuclear deal. On the whole, the resolution is a an up-beat “middle of the road” approach which intends to increase “political dialogue” with Iran, increase “trade and economic matters”, increase “sectorial cooperation”, increase “Iran’s role in the region” and increase cooperation with Iran on “socio-economic issues, rule of law, democracy and human rights”.

There are many good intentions and a lot of wishful thinking in this resolution:

  1. Terror: Iran is, according to the resolution, a key player in “counter-terrorism”.
  2. Capital punishment: Iran may have the largest rate of execution per capita in the world, but there is hope since “eliminating the death penalty for drug-related offences would drastically reduce the number of executions (up to 80 % according to Iranian estimates)”.
  3. Economy: Iran is the largest economy outside of the WTO and is aiming for a yearly 8% growth rate for which “European investments are key for Iran to achieve this goal”.
  4. Regional influence: Iran is a “major player in the Middle East and Gulf region” and the EU calls on Iran to “play a constructive role in solving the political crises in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan”.
  5. Human rights: Iran can work with the EU to “find common ground on matters related to democracy or human rights”.

Of course, there are some basic problems in these guide lines since…

  1. Terror: Iran has portrayed itself as a champion against terrorism (ISIS) but is also designated as a supporter of terrorism (Hezbollah is a designated terrorist organization by the EU as well). How can Tehran help in counter-terrorism when it does not even acknowledge that it supports terrorism? Judging from Iran’s political and military presence in Lebanon which is ruled by Hezbollah with Tehran pulling the strings, does anyone really believe that Hezbollah won’t remain in Syria once the civil war dies out? Does it not seem strange to the MEP’s that Tehran has taken the liberty to decide who is supporting terrorism and who is fighting against it?
  2. Capital punishment: Iran seems to finally have succumbed to global pressure to curtail the death penalty for drug-related criminals but the issue is critical since it will mean that the regime abandoned its revolutionary ideals for those of the “imperialistic/colonialistic” West. Can anyone realistically believe that Khamenei and his hardline mullahs and his paranoia of “Western influence” would simply give up on Qu’ranic laws which were re-established in 1979 to be exchanged with the laws of the countries the revolution was meant to destroy? And what about the fact that Hezbollah is actively involved in drug smuggling in Lebanon, Latin America and even Europe?
  3. Economy: The EU might want to cash in on the Iranian economic potential but it will have to wait in line to do business with Iran (after Russia, China, India, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Vietnam, Malaysia etc…). Why would Tehran prefer to do business with European organizations and companies as long as there remain outstanding issues on human rights? Did the MEP’s not notice how Germany’s economic minister, Sigmar Gabriel, was rebuked by Tehran after he voiced a call for Tehran to take responsibility for the carnage and destruction in Syria and reminded Tehran that it would have to recognize Israel in order to have good relations with Germany? Such issues do not even exist in dealing with Eastern or Asian countries so why would Tehran bother?
  4. Regional influence: Iran has a very destructive role in fueling the crises in many of its neighboring countries. Did the MEP’s forget that Tehran is actively involved in fueling the Syrian civil war by blindly backing Assad? That it fueled the civil war in Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels to oust the government? That it has control of Shiite militias in Iraq? And what about Tehran’s meddling tendencies in the Gulf States and its increasing rivalry with Saudi Arabia? Did the MEP’s really buy into Tehran’s propaganda that it is simply helping its neighbors?
  5. Human rights: The Islamic Revolutionary ideals of the regime can in no way accommodate many basic Western ideas of human rights. How can anyone expect the regime in Tehran to suddenly accept that minorities such as Kurds, Baha’is and Sunnis should be treated equally when the oppression of minorities occurs in contravention with the Iranian constitution? How can anyone expect gender equality and an end to gender segregation when such a thought is totally alien to Islamic law? How can anyone expect Tehran to accept gays when being gay is against Islamic law? How can anyone expect the regime to allow Iranians to criticize it when for decades, the critics were all oppressed, sent to jail or executed?

The resolution also missed some very basic points in regards to how things are done in Iran. The MEP’s might find common grounds with members of Rouhani’s government, MP’s in the Iranian parliament, activists who want to change the regime etc…but there can be no common ground between the MEP’s and the unelected members of the regime, beginning (and ending) with Khamenei. Someone should tell them that Khamenei has a glowing vision of a “Global Islamic Awakening” which will lead to a “Century of Islam” meant to destroy the current “hegemony” of the West. The MEP’s should understand that Khamenei’s worst nightmare is to be in any way influenced by or indebted to the West and that the IRGC, directly under Khamenei’s orders, controls roughly 40% of the Iranian economy. It is Khamenei, backed by the Guardian Council and the IRGC who rule Iran – not the government nor the parliament.

The resolution was not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination and was approved by a 37-15 vote. Many of votes against the resolution originated from Liberal MEP’s who found it hard to accept the optimistic tone, especially in regards with human rights: Marietje Schaake, an MEP who was a part of the EU delegations to Iran, voted against the resolution claiming that it did not reflect the key issues of human rights violations and Tehran’s support for Assad and terrorist groups. Schaake didn’t mince words and called on her fellow MEP’s to be more realistic: “It seems a gold rush is blinding MEPs, even though high levels of corruption, and state interference in the economy also impact their ability to do business in a predictable and transparent way”. Schaake, unlike many of the MEP’s has been to Iran and has met Iranians outside of Iran, including Masih Alinejad, who is at the head of an anti-regime campaign called MyStealthyFreedom. She even ran into trouble in Iran after attending a meeting with a large handbag which bothered some Iranian leaders. She understands the rift between Brussels and Tehran cannot be bridged based on the business deals the EU might offer. Tehran will gladly do business with anyone who accepts the regime “as is”.

Yes, at the end of the day, the resolution is meant to make Europeans happier and that means doing business with Iran. It’s all about money. But the Europeans, in the eyes of the regime, are still “suffering” from being related to the US and to the West and it is much more comfortable to strike a deal with Russia or Azerbaijan than with the EU.

The feedback from Tehran on the EU resolution reflects these wide cultural rifts between the good intentions of the MEP’s and the hardline attitude on the regime: Tehran welcomed the resolution but called on the EU to be more “realistic” in its attitudes regarding human rights: “While human rights negotiations are set to be held between Iran and the EU in the near future, the adoption of such positions is questionable and unconstructive and does not in any way help elevate the human rights discourse and (only) reinforces speculations of intervention in our country’s domestic affairs”. Translation: “You want to do business with us? Fine. Just don’t try to change us”.

 

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Narges Mohammadi to stay in Jail until 2026

The renewed trial of Nargess Mohammadi, an Iranian activist, once more exemplifies that people who are identified by the regime as “political criminals” for criticizing the regime have no chance to a fair trial: Mohammadi is to remain in jail until 2026.

Why? Let’s start from the end: On September 28th, the Tehran court of Appeals upheld a sentence against Mohammadi which would keep her in jail for another 10 years for a number of political charges – “assembly and collusion to commit crimes against national security” (5 years), “spreading propaganda against the State” (1 year) and “establishing and running the illegal splinter group LEGAM” (10 years). But what exactly were her “crimes”? She was a member of an organization whose goal was to abolish capital punishment in Iran. She met with the former EU representative Catherine Ashton in Tehran without permission. She made a speech at the gravesite of Sattar Beheshti who died after being tortured by the regime. All of these “crimes” can be lumped into one bigger “crime”: criticizing the regime.

Unfortunately for Mohammadi, the regime in Tehran has zero tolerance for criticism of any kind: the regime’s goal is to sustain itself and the only way it can do this is to maintain the status quo from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, effectively barring any change that could endanger the regime. Furthermore, the regime is all encompassing in that it has it maintains its power bases in the non-elected bodies such as the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council, in the Assembly of Experts, in the Majlis (parliament), in the government, in the judiciary, in the IRGC (includes both military and economy), the military/police/intelligence, the Basij (volunteer paramilitary), the nuclear program etc… These interacting tentacles of power in all the aspects of the lives of Iranians ensure that any one criticizing the regime, its ideals, its laws or its governing bodies can be punished without any effort to maintain the civil rights of the “criminal”. In this vicious circle, all the people and organizations under the influence of the regime work together to stifle or oust any danger to the regime itself. In such a manner, an activist for human rights or for social change, such as Mohammadi,  can easily be arrested, charged and convicted with trying to overthrow the regime, a “crime” which carries heavy prison convictions or even execution.

It’s irrelevant to the regime that Mohammadi, and activists like her, do not receive the benefits of a fair trial. Mohammadi wasn’t even present at the verdict of her trial in which she was convicted to 11 years in jail. She can’t even enjoy the benefits of Iranian law which stipulates that “criminals” do not have to serve accumulating prison sentences on different charges but should serve only the largest sentence (10 years in her case).

The fact that Mohammadi is a mother of two who will not see her children grow up is irrelevant and the fact that her health has deteriorated rapidly while in jail is irrelevant as well because Mohammadi’s fate is not her own: her fate is meant to be a deterrent to all would-be activists in Iran with one clear message: criticizing the regime will lead to a loss of freedom and dignity.

Mohammadi’s plight has generated massive support from the UN, Amnesty, Front Line Defenders, Nobel Women, Reporters Without Borders and a host of other governments and NGO’s which have all decried Mohammadi’s cause and the reaction from Tehran has been, to date, “butt out!”. If there’s one thing that bothers the regime more than criticism from Iranians, it is criticism from non-Iranians. Yes, some believe that an increase in global pressure might hurt Mohammadi’s cause into leading the regime to dig its heels in harder but most activists believe that with enough pressure, Hassan Rouhani’s government might have to rethink its ways if it wants to maintain its new-found ties with Western countries.

So, please add your own weight to helping Mohammadi by either sharing this article or join the converstion at any of these sites.

https://twitter.com/UnitedForNarges, https://www.facebook.com/International-Campaign-for-Human-Rights-in-Iran-49929580840/?fref=nf, https://www.facebook.com/humanrightsiran/?fref=nf, https://www.facebook.com/StealthyFreedom/, https://www.facebook.com/nobelwomen/, https://www.facebook.com/Free-Narges-612133508960995/?fref=nf, https://www.facebook.com/lddhi.fidh/?fref=nf, http://www.pen-international.org/newsitems/iran-take-action-for-narges-mohammadi/

Thank you.

 

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Brave Iranian women biking against the ban

On the 10th of September, Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a “fatwa” (a religious decree which is law) forbidding women to ride bikes in public places for fear that they would attract “the attention of men and exposes the society to corruption”. Bicycles, he continued, “contravenes women’s chastity, and it must be abandoned”. His fatwa followed a declaration one week earlier in which he defined the “role and mission” of Iranian women as “motherhood and housekeeping”. In the process, once again, the regime in Tehran is finding new ways of turning its citizens into criminals.

The need to issue such a fatwa rose since women riding bike in public was considered a “sin” but there isn’t a law in the Iranian penal code regarding women on bikes. The issue of women on bicycles has been buzzing in Iran since around May when authorities began placing signs in parks which stated that “bicycle riding for women is prohibited in this place, women are set to ride at the women’s park”. Nobody really took notice until, July 26th, when security agents detained a group of women who had organized a cycling event, the Lake Bike Riders, to increase awareness to the ravages on the environment and to encourage citizens to forego the use of cars at least one day a week (Carless Tuesday). The women cyclists were taken to the police station to sign a “pledge” to never ride bicycles in public before they were released.

The absurdity of the fatwa and its oppressing effect on women, their health and the environment began attracting a lot of attention in Iran and the world but some (very) brave Iranian women have decided to take their protest to the next level. In cooperation with My Stealthy Freedom, a community on Facebook for women who try to enjoy their “stealthy freedom” by sharing pictures of themselves defying the oppressive regime by not wearing hijabs, Iranian women began uploading pictures and videos of themselves biking despite the ban – #IranianWomenLoveCycling. Masih Alinejad, the Iranian journalist and administrator of My Stealthy Freedom is sure that women who are willing to share their moments of stealthy freedom are the key for change in Iran: “Women in Iran want to be active in society but for the clerics that’s the big threat because in their (the regime’s) eyes, women should not be seen nor heard, stuck in the kitchen…women are the main agents of change”.

It’s hard for some people to understand just how brave these women who are sharing their pictures and videos on bikes really are. Men and women are sent to jail and even executed for “insulting the Supreme Leader” and protesting Khamenei’s fatwa is a huge risk. But that’s exactly the point: these women are willing to risk their freedom and their lives to be a part of the change even if it means doing something which might seem insignificant to some such as not wearing a hijab or riding a bike. Listening to these women is inspiring: “We immediately rented 2 bicycles to say we’re not giving up cycling…It’s our absolute right and we’re not going to give up”, “am I a criminal because I love life and I love cycling?”, “on that day (when the ban will be lifted), I will be proud that I did resist the oppression”, “we will do what we think and feel is right”. Listen to this woman expressing her feelings while riding with her mother.

It’s obvious that Khamenei will never overturn his fatwa since he cares less for the freedoms of women than for the support of the hardline men who make up his regime. Hassan Rouhani hasn’t voiced his opinion on this issue but judging from the past, he is powerless to fight the regime on social issues. In the past, he has called on the authorities to relax the implementation of hijab laws, to allow women to support the Iranian teams in sports stadiums etc…but he knows what everyone knows in Tehran: going against the Supreme Leader on any issue is the quickest way to disappear physically or politically. It makes no difference that he encouraged Iranian women to enjoy health lifestyles nor that he has expressed support for solutions to save the environment because as Barbara Slavin put it so simply “probably he is the right man at the right time, and the best we can hope for…But he’s a cautious bureaucrat. He knows exactly how far he can go without riling up the supreme leader and other hardline elements of the country”. Or as one Iranian politician who preferred to remain unnamed said “the leader (Khamenei) is mainly interested in remaining in power…anyone who endangers that is either thrown in jail or gets shot”.

But Rouhani will have to step out of his comfort zone if he intends to drum up votes in the upcoming presidential elections: it was the votes of women, liberals and secular Iranians which brought him to power – without their support, he is bound to lose. His loss will be the hardliners’ gain and the oppression of the civil rights and the personal and social freedoms of the Iranian people is bound to grow which will leave his disillusioned voters with a simple choice: bow down to the regime or rise up against it. The only hope is that if enough Iranian women decide to take the issue of their oppression to the streets, the regime will find itself in a no-win situation: accept the gradual liberation of women’s rights or crack down on the protesting women and face a huge backlash by Iranian women and their male supporters who would rather live a “normal” life than a “revolutionary” one.

 

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Nazanin convicted to 5 years in jail in Iran!

After 150 days in jail, Nazanin Ratcliffe, the English-Iranian mother who was arrested in Iran while visiting her family finally got her day in court only to be convicted to five years in jail for “secret charges” in a closed door session headed by the notorious “hanging judge” Salavati. For the past five months, Nazanin was interrogated, was allowed only three phone calls home and had little contact with her lawyer only when her trial began about a month ago. Her two year old daughter, Gabriella, remains in the custody of her grandparents in Iran since she is not allowed to leave the country while Nazanin’s husband, Richard, remains in London out of fear that he too may be arrested if he visits Iran.

The timing of Nazanin’s conviction borders the absurd as, only yesterday, diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran resumed as the UK appointed Nicholas Hompton as its ambassador in Iran following the resuming of British Airways flights to Tehran. But not everyone in Tehran is happy about the renewed diplomatic relations: a hardline Iranian MP, Allaedin Boroujerdi, warned that “the British diplomat needs to be constantly monitored, since the UK has had a negative record both before and after the Islamic Revolution” .

Nazanin’s case exemplifies the absurdity of Tehran’s paranoia of “foreign infiltration”: she was originally charged with trying to overthrow the regime although the details of how she is supposed to have done this were not procured by the Iranian authorities. In fact, it seems as if Nazanin herself was not made aware of what the “secret charges” against her really were. She was stripped of her UK nationality since the regime in Tehran does not recognize dual nationalities. She, like many other Iranian political prisoners, did not have the privilege of a fair trial, meeting her lawyer only a few days before her trial began and the judge chosen to rule over her case, Abolqassem Salavati, known as the “hanging judge” in Iran, is notorious for his harsh sentences.

But Nazanin is not alone in her predicament: at least five more foreign nationals are in prison in Iran awaiting trial for similar charges. These include: Homa Hoodfar , a Canadian-Iranian retired professor visiting family in Iran,  Siamak Namazi , an American-Iranian businessman and Baquer Namazi , his 80 year old father who was imprisoned when he tried to free his son,  Robin Shahini , an American-Iranian while visiting his family in Iran and Nizar Zakka, an American resident from Lebanon who visited Iran. In some cases, such as in the case of Robin Shahini, there is some information regarding the case against him – he criticized the regime in Iran for its horrid human rights record on his Facebook page. But in all cases, the charges are the usual “spying”, “colluding to overthrow the regime”, “propaganda against the regime” etc…, charges which cannot really be defended against since they can include any criticism of any kind, verbal, visual, written or video.

Petitions to free Nazanin were signed (over 800,000 to date), UK politicians, global NGO’s and activists all called for her immediate release but Tehran isn’t listening to anyone but its hardline regime and most of all, its Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei whose paranoia of Western “infiltration” and “influence” has become a guiding light for the regime. Even Hassan Rouhani, who people claimed to be the wished-for moderate who could change Iran, is helpless when it comes to dealing with hardliners and with Khamenei.

Five years in jail…five years for a crime she might not even be aware of. Imagine being unable to plan for anything until 2020…five years from now. And since there is no date for her appeal, no one knows how much of this time Nazanin will rot in jail. Since her health has deteriorated and she has lost a lot of weight, her best hope is that the UK will broker a prisoner exchange, with or without a ransom, just as the US did for the American prisoners who were languishing in jails in Iran when the nuclear deal was signed.

 

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The 1988 massacre that continues to haunt Tehran

Last week, an audio-file was added to the website of the late Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, the man who was set to succeed Khomeini as Supreme Leader but instead was forced to resign as a result of his voiced objections to the systematic and institutionalized massacre of thousands of political prisoners between July and October 1988.

The 1988 massacre was ordained by Khomeini himself through a fatwa (religious edict) whose victims were imprisoned for being members of “dissident” organizations who criticized the regime – mostly members of the Mujahedin Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK) also known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI) and mostly Sunnis (as opposed to the Shiite regime). The men and women were imprisoned for crimes as small as distributing pamphlets and some were meant to be freed within the next few months.

During those five fateful months, a total shut-down of communications between the prisons and the outside world was implemented: TV’s and radios were confiscated, family visits and phone privileges were abruptly stopped people within 100 meters from the prison could be shot. During this time, tens of thousands of political prisoners underwent short, on-sight, interrogations following which they were either executed, tortured, flogged or exempt from the fatwa. The executions were held within hours of the interrogation, hanging six prisoners at a time in order to carry out the fatwa more efficiently. The bodies were then transported by trucks to mass graves. Firing squads were used on some occasions, but the noise of the shots only resulted in increasing the tension in the prisons. By November, the authorities began informing the victims’ families while warning them not to carry out funerals or wakes and in most cases, the authorities did not divulge the burial sites of the victims.

What made the massacre so horrifying was the planned madness of it all and the fact that the victims of this massacre died for simply being affiliated to a “dissident” political organization or for not being Muslim enough. The issue of the audio file and Montazeri’s ardent objection to the massacre have brought to light another shameful episode in the history of the regime’s brutal, secretive, systematic and deadly behavior to anyone who it deems as an “enemy of the state” or an “enemy of Islam”.

Within days of the issuing of the fatwa, Montazeri wrote three public letters in which he vehemently protested the massacres. He beseeched Khomeini to recall the fatwa because it of the great injustice it would cause, calling it “the biggest crime in the history of the Islamic Republic, which will be condemned by history, happened by your hands”. In the audio files, he also claims that he could not have kept silent because if he had, he would “not have an answer on Judgment Day and I saw it as my duty to warn Imam (Khomeini)”. He also worried about the effect of the executions on the families of the victims and the criticism of the world since the act would be interpreted as an act of revenge or of unchecked exasperation. According to Montazeri, somewhere between 2,800 and 3,800 people were executed although eye-witness testimonies point to a much higher number (5,000 – 6,000) and the MEK claims the real number was closer to 30,000. He “resigned” (more like forced to resign) in March 1989.

Three days after the sharing of the audio file, the son of Montazeri received a phone call from the Ministry of Intelligence requesting that the audio-file be deleted from the site. He agreed to do so.

To date, the regime in Tehran has refused to talk about the massacre, to take responsibility for it and/or to recompense the families of the victims. To date, the regime continues to execute political prisoners simply because they believe in ideals which diverge from those of the regime. To date, there are still family members and survivors who are afraid to share their tales of suffering and oppression, knowing full well how the regime treats people who do.

 

The fatwa that led to the massacre

The summer of 1988 was tense in Iran: the eight war with Iraq had taken its toll and on July 18th, Khomeini had finally accepted to “swallow the poison” and to a cease-fire which was to come into effect in August. On July 22nd, Iranian dissidents fighting from within Iraq, members of the MEK, launched another attack onto Iranian soil but were forced to retreat by July 29th. At some time during this week, some believe on the July 28th, Khomeini issued a fatwa which would lead to one of the worst cases of systematic executions of political prisoners in the history of the world:

(In the Name of God, The Compassionate, the Merciful,)
As the treacherous Monafeqin (a derogatory name by the regime for Mojahedin meaning “hypocrites”) do not believe in Islam and what they say is out of deception and hypocrisy, and
As their leaders have confessed that they have become renegades, and
As they are waging war on God, and
As they are engaging in classical warfare in the western, the northern and the southern fronts, and
As they are collaborating with the Baathist Party of Iraq and spying for Saddam against our Muslim nation, and
As they are tied to the World Arrogance (Western countries, specifically the US/UK), and in light of their cowardly blows to the Islamic Republic since its inception,
It is decreed that those who are in prison throughout the country and remain steadfast in their support for the Monafeqin (Mojahedin) are waging war on God and are condemned to execution.

This fatwa, issued in the name of a God who seemed to be anything but “Compassionate” or “Merciful”, sealed the fate for thousands of Iranians, men and women who were imprisoned for being members of the MEK or other “leftist” (read “secular” and “communist”) organizations.

The MEK was designated, until today, as a terrorist organization but one should note that the MEK was instrumental in helping Khomeini rise to power until a fall-out between the regime and the MEK occurred in 1980 when it refused to take part in a plebescite on the new constitution, being disillusioned by the growing power of hardliners in the regime who advocated harsher Islamic rule and more power for the unelected regime. During 1981, the MEK did carry out terroristic activities but within the year, the MEK was outlawed and the string of terrorist attacks was brought to an end with the executions of about 2,000 MEK members.

Montazeri claims that Khomeini was not only sick at the time (he would die within one year of issuing the fatwa) but that he was emotionally dejected from having to accept the cease-fire with Iraq but whatever the case may be, the fact remains that in Iran, a Supreme Leader can seal the fate of his citizens without the need for the political or popular support of his government or his people. The situation remains the same today under Khamenei.

 

The systematic organization of the massacre

The systematic nature of this massacre cannot be ignored and points to preparations long before the actual fatwa was issued. For months preceding the fatwa, interrogations took place within prisons to isolate the members of the MEK, member of “leftist” organizations, secularists and atheists etc…Nothing was done except to herd the prisoners together according to their “crimes”, ie, their beliefs.

But once the fatwa was issued, the machinations of the massacre went into high gear: field trials headed by a three-man “death committee”, an Islamic judge, a revolutionary prosecutor and an intelligence ministry official, “interrogated” the prisoners and decided on the spot (some interrogations lasted less than two minutes) who would be executed, who would be tortured and who would be exempt from the fatwa.

At first, the “death committee” focused only on Mojahedins. The interrogation was based on a number of questions, the first being the political affiliations of the prisoner. If the prisoner answered that he or she was a “Mojahedin”, the interrogation was abruptly ended and the prisoner would unknowingly be escorted out to his or her death. If the prisoner answered “Monafiqin”, a derogatory word meaning “hypocrite” used by the regime to call the Mojahedins, the prisoner, would then have to answer an onslaught of questions not knowing that one “wrong answer” would mean a death sentence. The first set of questions were meant to weed out the hard-core dissidents from those who were willing to cooperate: “Are you willing to denounce former colleagues? Are you willing to denounce them in front of the cameras? Are you willing to help us hunt them down? Will you name secret sympathizers? Will you identify phony repenters? Will you go to the war front and walk through enemy minefields?”.

By August, the “death committee” widened their focus to include all dissidents: leftists, Marxists, secularists, atheists etc…Here, the interrogation was more religious in nature and prisoners were asked if they grew up in religious Muslim families or not and then they believed in the Koran, if they prayed, if they believed in Heaven and Hell etc…What they didn’t know was that the first question, the level of religion in their family split them up into two distinct groups: those prisoners who grew up in religious Muslim families but moved away from Islam, “murtad-i fitri” and those who grew up in non-religious families “murtad-i milli”. The prisoners who grew up in religious families and who answered that they were secular or atheists were, once again unknowingly, singled out for execution on the same day. Those who had grown up in secular families were then given a choice: become a practicing Muslim or get flogged five times a day (in coordination with the five times of prayer for devout Muslims).

In most cases, the prisoners were herded to their interrogation blindfolded and remained so until they were herded back to the groups of prisoners outside, not knowing that their fates had been sealed. There were numerous mix-ups as prisoners joined the wrong groups or when wardens would try to punish or protect a prisoner by sending him/her to another group. Most of the surviving prisoners speak about being beaten and tortured during their interrogations. Those that weren’t were usually the ones who were sentenced to death from the first question.

In all cases, there were no defense lawyers, no application of international and Iranian laws, no fair trial – only an interrogation followed by an execution, floggings or a miraculous exemption.

 

The cover-up of the massacre

The details of the massacre remain hazy to this date. The massacre was carried out under a heavy cloak of secrecy with on-site executions and disposal of the bodies under the cover of darkness. Some of the survivors, as did the families of the victims, shared their ordeals but most preferred to remain silent for fear of retribution by the regime. Political opposition leaders remained silent as well after seeing what happened to Montazeri who was the second most powerful Iranian leader at the time. Human rights organizations were in any case not allowed into prisons and those that did condemn the massacre were ignored by Tehran. The men who carried out the massacre on an administrative or physical level went on with their lives and some rose to prominent posts, such as Khamenei who was president at the time.

For all intents and purposes, the massacre was presented by the regime as a minimal punishment to enemies of the state, as Khamenei so eloquently explained: “In the Islamic Republic, we have capital punishment for those who deserve to be executed … Do you think we should hand out sweets to an individual who, from inside prison, is in contact with the munafiqin who launched an armed attack within the borders of the Islamic Republic? If his contacts with such an organization have been established, what should we do about him? He will be sentenced to death, and we will execute him. We do not take such matters lightly deemed as punishment”. The fact that these prisoners had little contact with the MEK in Iraq was meaningless since they were guilty by association.

Tehran continues to oppress, imprison, torture and execute any person or group which voices criticism against the regime or simply belongs to a minority viewed as harmful to the regime. Fair trials are the exceptions and not the norm and hardliners continue to press for harsher punishments and for a stronger adherence to Islamic and Revolutionary ideals.

At the same time, this same regime continues to claim that critics of its human rights are politically motivated and complain about atrocities carried out by other countries, specifically the US and Israel. What’s clear is that this particular atrocity is more horrifying not only because it was carried out by the regime in the name of the regime but because, for all intents and purposes, it is still being carried out today, alebit on a smaller scale.

 

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