First Equal Punishment…. Then Equal Opportunity?

In a rare acknowledgement of the ongoing rights violations in Iran, President Hassan Rouhani admitted this week that Iranian women still face discrimination in the country.

On Women’s Day, Rouhani said that while women were not universally treated as second-class citizens, more had to be done to protect their rights – although the West offered no “model” of gender equality that Iran could follow to combat “deficiencies” in “equal opportunities, security and social rights.”

According to AFP, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also pardoned some female prisoners in honor of the occasion – none of them, presumably, political prisoners.

It’s nice to see Iran acknowledge its human rights violations. In this case, Rouhani could blame the state of women in Iran on cultural limitations which have yet to be resolved. In other cases, such as the treatment of prisoners, the perpetuation of the situation cannot be so easily explained away.

Even as Rouhani and Khamenei spoke, a woman with dual British-Iranian citizenship faced execution for calling Iran’s government “too Islamic” on Facebook.

Meanwhile, dozens of relatives of prisoners jailed in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison protested outside Iran’s parliament following an earlier attack on political prisoners which was described as “unprecedented” by al-Monitor.

According to the report, four political prisoners from Ward 350 were hospitalized after over 100 prison guards beat them systematically with sticks until “the corridor was covered in blood.” Other prisoners, some with health problems, were sent to solitary confinement.

So all this happened in the last week – but what really caught the Western media’s eye was a bereaved mother who stopped the execution of her son’s killer. The story was everywhere in the English-language press, along with alarming statistics on Iran’s high rate of public executions, putting the Iranian human rights issue back on the agenda.

The 2014 ‘Moderates’ And 1979…. Progressives?

With over half of Iran’s population under 30, and a high rate of unemployment amid economic woes, Iranian lawmakers have devised a method to make birth rates in the country rise – after decades of decline prompted by progressive family planning programs.

Since the 1980s, Iran’s birth rate has been declining, a result of programs meant to contain the population explosion that followed the 1979 revolution. However, in recent years, Iran has been scaling them back to increase the birthrate. Additionally, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken out against these programs, saying the use of contraceptive services was a “wrong” imitation of the Western lifestyle.

Now, Iranian lawmakers are considering new methods to encourage higher birth rates. In a story published last week, The Guardian reported that the parliament in Tehran was seeking to ban vasectomies, tighten abortion rules and inflict punishments on those encouraging contraception.

The report, which originally appeared in The Guardian (citing a report by the Fars news agency), was picked up by Western media outlets such as The Associated Press, the International Business Times, Slate, and Time magazine.

According to The Guardian, under Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian government offered an incentive in the form of gold coins to couples who had more children.

However, the measures currently being debated by the Iranian parliament will include not incentives for those who do have more children, but punishments for those who exercise freedom of choice when it comes to childbirth (contraception or abortion). Could it be that when it comes to population control, Iran’s current administration, under Khamenei’s spiritual guidance and Rouhani’s earthly leadership, is less progressive than that of post-revolution, 1980s Iran?

Human Rights Resolution- Ignorance or Zionism?

We reported recently that Iran had rejected a European Parliament resolution condemning the human rights situation in the country and urging it to eschew the death penalty. Not unexpectedly, the resolution was met with staunch criticism in Tehran, which scolded Europe for its “unrealistic” take on things and summoned the Greek ambassador for good measure.

But the outrage didn’t stop there. Without a shred of cynicism, Iran’s Fars news agency recently quoted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as saying Tehran “attaches no importance” to the resolution, as the European Parliament is “too small to insult the great Iranian nation.”

His foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, banned European Parliament delegations in retaliation for the text, which he said Europe lacked the “moral authority” to issue.

Their bristling remarks on the resolution were no more “moderate” than those of their hardline political opponents. In an interview with IRNA, Ali Akbar Velayati, political adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the “anti-Iran resolution” was “not more than worthless propaganda” by “the US and its allies.” (We’ll just take a moment to remind you all that Iran is currently negotiating with said parties.)

Iran’s military chief, Maj.-Gen. Hassan Firouzabadion, said the resolution, which was “completely contradictory to the human rights principles” (by that, he meant LGBT rights, or “the dreadful practice which is against the natural rights of the people”) was a product of “Zionist tricks,” according to IRNA. The general also reportedly attacked Europe for “miscalculating” the situations in both Iran and the Ukraine.

Iran’s foreign ministry also blamed the resolution on “Zionism,” saying the move to “use human rights as a political lever” against Iran had been “taken under the pressure of Iran’s enemies.” IRNA quoted the ministry as saying that the European Parliament, while not wholly to blame for the document, should “do its best to understand Iranian culture and religious beliefs.” Way to use religion as a political lever…

Radio Free Europe took a more critical tone when it quoted both Tehran’s temporary prayer leader, Ayatollah Movahedi-Kermani, and Basij militia head Brig.-Gen. Mohammad Reza Naqvi as speaking out against Europe’s interference and permissiveness towards “animalistic” homosexuality and drug use (respectively).

And that’s just a little taste of the truly vitriolic Iranian reactions to a document criticizing its (troubling) internal affairs. Makes us wonder to what extent Iran would accept “interference” on its internal nuclear issues as well..

Not good enough to be buried in Iran

The last request of renowned American orientalist Stephen Frye stirred controversy this week after Iranian hardliners got wind of the fact that the esteemed scholar had asked to be buried in the historic city of Isfahan, alongside other world-famous Iran experts.

Frye, who passed away at 94 at the end of March, said in a CNN interview in 2008 that he had dedicated his life to Iranian culture and loved the Iranian people. Therefore, he said, there was “no reason” why he shouldn’t be buried in Isfahan, a city brimming with World Heritage Sites and architectural marvels.

Frye was well-respected by many in Iran – including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif himself, who sain on Twitter that he was “deeply saddened” by the passing of “a true friend and scholar of Iran,” and a prominent Iranian scholar, who last week called on President Hassan Rouhani to honor Frye’s request, arguing that even Ahmadinejad had approved it. However, the award-winning Harvard professor’s request was met with some suspicion from the country’s more conservative quarters.

The Kayhan newspaper, seen as a mouthpiece for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Frye a “CIA agent” and “Western garbage,” citing a leading Isfahan cleric. Fars News posted photos of hardline protesters calling the academic a “dirty American spy” and urging the Iranian government to carry out Khamenei’s bidding, not that of a Western “cultural bandit” – as the academic was called by an Isfahan lawmaker.

Wait a minute. We thought Iran was sending delegations to Europe to encourage academic and cultural cooperation – both, undoubtedly, promising economic benefits as well. But is the West being approached as a respected equal – or as a source of “cultural bandits” whose thieving activities consist of researching Iran, shedding light on its past and deeply empathizing with its present?

Practice What You Preach?

There’s been some good news from Iran (for a change): Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pardoned or reduced the sentences of 920 prisoners last month in honor of the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. IRNA broke the news of the grand gesture in late March, and Western media outlets immediately picked it up, noting that it was unknown whether any of the pardoned convicts were political prisoners.

To some outlets, Rouhani’s show of magnanimity was viewed as sharply contrasting with his human rights record: a staggering 537 executions since the “moderate” politician took office in June. Reuters, for example, probed the puzzling contradiction in a recent analysis and concluded Rouhani might be under pressure by hardliner political opponents who want to show the West they can still exercise influence in the country by eliminating “threats.”

Whatever the reason, things aren’t getting better. This week, just as Iran and the P5+1 were holding expert-level nuclear talks in Vienna, the Islamic republic lashed out at the European Parliament for a recent non-binding resolution condemning the “grave human rights violations in Iran,” including the sharp increase in hangings and arbitrary use of the death penalty, and urging diplomats to shine a spotlight on Iran’s rights violations as they negotiate with Tehran.

In Iran, meanwhile, the “anti-Iran” resolution was derided as an “ugly, inappropriate move” and “historic mistake” which could have an adverse effect on the nuclear talks, PressTV reported. Iran even summoned the Greek ambassador over the document and the allegations it raised concerning “alleged” human rights violations, as PressTV described them.

Soft-spoken, articulate Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif panned the EU, to which both he and Rouhani have shown a mild, friendly face, for lacking the “moral authority” to preach to the Islamic republic. Because Iran’s “moderate” leaders always practice what they preach….

As Nowruz Dawns, Obama Greetings and Khamenei Critiques

Iran (and other countries) this week celebrated the festival of Nowruz, which marks the start of the Persian new year. The occasion warranted speeches from Iran’s leaders, as well as the annual greeting from US President Barack Obama.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was one of those addressing citizens Friday. As noted by The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, Khamenei urged Iranians to become stronger and more self-reliant in the face of Western sanctions. Unlike last year, however, no mention was made in the speech of the ongoing negotiations with the West.

Last year, Khamenei had said that while he wasn’t optimistic about talks with the US, he wasn’t “opposed to them, either.”

Rezaian suggested that far from being a sign of the leader’s disapproval, this year’s silence on the talks might actually indicate that he approves of the way Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has handled the talks.

Rezaian did not mention, however, that the crowd listening to Khamenei at the holy Shi’ite city of Mashad was chanting “Death to America,” nor that Khamenei also used his address to blast Obama’s festive greeting.

Obama had dedicated his annual Nowruz message to Iranians last week, offering hope for a new start in US-Iranian relations governed by “mutual interest and mutual respect.” CS Monitor’s Scott Peterson noted that Obama even used Iran’s full title, “The Islamic Republic of Iran,” implicitly recognizing the 1979 Islamic revolution.

But it wasn’t enough to appease Khamenei: Calling the US a “dictatorial and arrogant power,” he said Obama’s language was “aggressive” and “insulting to the people.”

Another round in the ongoing relations between Washington and Tehran, marked by American quest for conciliation and Iran’s traditional response. Does the decades-old chant of “Death to America” really represent the cities, streets and mosques of Iran or the government? Does Iran have the ability to beat its old habits and bring some reformation?  Perhaps the year 1393 holds an answer.

Ashton In Iran: Clouded with Iranian (!) Criticism

European foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton’s visit to Iran, the first by an European official in her position to do so since 2008, sparked a poster campaign against her and a  flurry of media responses both within Iran and outside it, with some Iranian press criticizing her harshly.

From posters comparing Ashton to Saddam Hussein to declarations announcing a “new episode in Iran-EU economic ties,” the Iranian press and street presented a complex picture reflecting, on the one hand, the regime’s push for closer diplomatic and economic ties with Europe, and on the other hand, the conservatives’ push to keep domestic Iranian matters, particularly those of concern to human rights activists, away from Western eyes.

The Revolutionary Guard-affiliated Javan newspaper, in reporting on Ashton’s meeting with “seditionists,” doctored a photo of the European diplomat meeting two women activists to remove one of them, the mother of a blogger who died in police custody.

Photo doctoring in Iran

According to the paper, the doctoring was done to prevent readers from misidentifying the “respectable mother,” Gohar Eshghi, as a “seditionist,” Al-Monitor reported. The caption blasted Ashton for “interfering in domestic affairs.” Sure enough, the next day, the paper quoted the head of Iran’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, as saying, “Where in the world do they allow a foreigner to come in and let that person go wherever they want and meet whoever they want?”

Iran’s Kayhan newspaper also suggested Ashton’s visit was more intervention than negotiation, saying its focus was less on furthering the ongoing talks over a final-status nuclear deal and more on human rights issues. The semi-official Fars news agency, meanwhile, said that the meeting had not been coordinated with the Foreign Ministry, blasting President Hassan Rouhani’s brand of diplomacy for weakening trust between Iran and Europe rather than building it.

Meanwhile in Europe, most news outlets focused on Ashton’s hours-long meeting with Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and optimistic predictions of a nuclear deal “in months.” However, many outlets picked up on the controversy generated by Ashton’s trip, with the BBC aptly summing it up as “a visit to explore the potential for a new relationship between Iran and Europe” that “also ended up highlighting the enduring sensitivity of the old.”

The Tehran Power Struggle And The Clerics’ Watchful Eye

A Western journalist’s perspective on the ongoing standoff between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the head of Iran’s state broadcaster shed light this week on Iran’s internal divisions and instability, particularly the power struggle playing out in Tehran, under the clerics’ watchful eye.

In an article titled “The President v. The State Broadcaster — The Full Story,” EA’s Iran-based Scott Lucas said the conflict between Rouhani and his political rivals, such as IRIB chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, pointed to “a future battle” between the president and his hardline opponents in what has so far been a months-long war.

Lucas noted the ties between Zarghami and ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for whom the broadcasting company served as a “propaganda agency” of sorts. He added that Zarghami has just one year left as head of IRIB – a short period of time to further his political ambitions, mostly by casting aspersions on Rouhani in areas where he isn’t supported by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

So who will win the power struggle? Lucas suggests that while Rouhani has the upper hand “for now,” it is up to Khamenei to decide who will win the war – and if he begins to “waver” over engagement with the West, Rouhani will fall out of favor as opponents denouncing his “openness” gain the upper hand.

Already, Lucas said in another report, Khamenei is expressing his reservations and voicing criticism about Rouhani’s cultural policies and talk of easing censorship, making the president tread carefully when it comes to domestic issues and limiting any reforms to rhetoric rather than action.

Khamenei, according to Lucas’s insider account, is the one deciding if and when the wind blows west: if he is displeased with Rouhani’s behavior, he will back his political opponents instead, leaving the president powerless in the face of criticism from hardliners – as has already happened to some extent on the domestic front. If the same happens on the diplomatic and nuclear fronts, what will become of Iran’s agreements with world powers?

It is Khamenei, and not Rouhani, who calls the shots, Lucas’s “Full Story” tells us.

An Iranian Cargo Too Big To Sweep Under The (Persian) Rug?

A cargo of long-range rockets and mortars intercepted by Israeli forces in the Red Sea was put under international scrutiny this week as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind the shipment.

An address given by Netanyahu Monday on the contents of the shipment, accusing Western powers of clinging to the illusion of a “changed Iran,” was reported mostly verbatim in many Western news outlets – such as The Telegraph, whose Robert Tait termed it “stage-managed.”

Al-Monitor, however, took a more analytical (not to mention critical) tone, saying the fuss over the Klos-C ship had the “collateral benefit, and perhaps actually the main benefit,” of “the disappearance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict …. from the top of the news.”

Meanwhile in Tehran, the semi-official PressTV reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif had held “constructive” talks with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, discussing ways to enhance Iranian-European ties, but sweeping under the (Persian) rug the pesky long-range missile cargo in the room (as well as hangings… and the aid to Assad…).

As a matter of fact, Iran just went on and on about nuclear rights and dignity this weekend, reserving its cynicism for Israel’s naval interception. “An Iranian ship carrying arms for Gaza. Captured just in time for annual AIPAC anti Iran campaign. Amazing Coincidence! Or same failed lies,” Zarif tweeted.

But over at Forbes, Claudia Rosett commented, “If Zarif is troubled by the timing, his real quarrel ought to be with his Iranian cohorts who dispatched the weapons. Instead, he’s trying to cover for them — turning the arms seizure into a game of they-said we-said.”

His reaction, she said, was a “dark portent” for the nuclear talks: if Zarif knew the shipment was en route to the Red Sea even as he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Western leaders in Vienna last month, “that’s damning. If he was clueless, that’s alarming. Which is it?”

special International Women’s Day feature- Saluting “Women Behind Bars”

International Women’s Day was marked with great fanfare on Saturday, March 8. Optimistic and inspirational speeches along with quotes were coupled with worrying reports statistics to showcase the need to end gender discrimination where it still exists. Human Rights Watch decided to mark the occasion by publishing a lengthy review of gender discrimination in Iran, “saluting women behind bars”, and calling on its government to “immediately and unconditionally” free three female rights activists “unlawfully detained for their support of women, students and political dissidents.”

The rights organization singled Iran out for its treatment of and legal discrimination against women, noting that just last week one of the three activists, Maryam Shafipour, was sentenced to a seven-year prison term. She joins at least 14 others in the women’s political prisoners ward at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison. In the words of HRW Middle East and North Africa director Sarah Leah Whitson:

The detention of these women activists is a stark reminder that Iran’s government deprives its people of their most basic and fundamental rights.

Activism on behalf of women is a national security threat, according to the court that sentenced Shafipour.

With the sobering from the celebrations of the so called renewed engagement in the nuclear issue, and awakening to the neglect of Iranian human rights violations, we see increased reports concerning the status of prisoners in the country.

Very telling are the words of Gissou Nia, Executive Director of the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC, in an interview recently. She notes that “the reality is that while President Rouhani was elected, in part, on a human rights mandate from the Iranian people, the conservative elements of Iran’s government and the unaccountable bodies in the political structure, can all stymie reform.  The international community has a role to play here by holding a united line on the demand for human rights reform in Iran, and holding Tehran’s leaders accountable for those changes”.

While western media calls for taming the wild, Iranian Judiciary Human Rights Council Head Mohammad Javad Larijani in his interview boasts the country’s execution rate stating Friday that it should be seen as a “positive marker of Iranian achievement.”.

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