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Spotlight on Iran Update, May 16-26, 2011

Highlights of the week

  • “It’s all words”—Iranian reactions to President Obama’s speech

  • “Traditional conservatives” vs. “deviant faction”—campaign against Rahim Masha’i and associates is stepping up

  • Iran’s media escalate criticism of Azerbaijan

  • Iran intensifies fight against its Bahai minority

  • Pictures of the week: city of Khorramshahr, freed 29 years ago in Iran-Iraq War·

“It’s all words”—Iranian reactions to President Obama’s speech

President Obama’s speech was met with skepticism in Iran, and said to be an expression of America’s desperation and helplessness resulting from the defeat it suffered in the wake of the recent developments in the Arab world.

Sa’id Jalili, chairman of the Supreme National Security Council, claimed that the speech exhibited signs of desperation, contradiction, and deception on the part of the U.S. The Islamic awakening in the region, Jalili said, has brought the U.S. to a dead end. Being the major loser of the regional developments, the U.S. is in trouble after years of supporting Israel and the totalitarian regimes of the Arab world. Washington is now trying to deal with the real demands of the region’s nations through deception, as it has now become clear that the American strategy in the region for the past seventy years completely contradicted the interests and aspirations of these nations.

Jalili said that Obama’s support for the Jewish government was evidence of the racist nature of American policy. He further stated that the U.S. should know that the entire territory of Palestine belongs to the Palestinian people, and that this is what all the region’s nations demand (various news agencies, May 20).

The Iranian press also took a dismissive approach to the president’s speech. The daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami said that Obama’s proposals are an attempt to make up for the defeats suffered by the American foreign policy in recent months in the wake of the regional developments, and preserve the security of the “Zionist regime” and America’s other allies.

The daily categorically ruled out Obama’s proposals for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, claiming that while the president of the U.S. discusses a political settlement based on the 1967 borders, he completely ignores the six million Palestinian refugees and the issue of Arab Jerusalem. The American proposal is designed to maintain the current situation in Palestine while attempting to put an end to the security threats facing Israel. The only way to deal with the Israeli aggression, Jomhuri-ye Eslami said, is the way of resistance, and the Palestinian people know that it is through resistance, rather than negotiations and concessions, that they must restore their rights (Jomhuri-ye Eslami, May 21).

The daily Keyhan argued that Obama’s speech reflected no change in the American policy despite the important developments of the last several months. Based on Obama’s remark that the interests and values of the U.S. do not conflict with those of the region’s nations, it is clear that the U.S. administration has yet to realize the significance of the changes the region has undergone in recent months. Obama offered no support for the revolutions in the region; did not mention Islam—the most significant factor in regional developments—except when discussing Bin Laden’s killing; and instead of expressing support for the popular revolutions, he reiterated his support for the totalitarian regimes of the Arab world while making a meaningless reference to the reforms they need to launch. Obama would have done better to substitute his entire speech with just one phrase: “I apologize”, Keyhan concluded (Keyhan, May 21).

The daily Iran also claimed that there was nothing new in President Obama’s speech. The president’s remarks on the Palestinian issue, as well as other parts of his speech, reflected helplessness and lack of resolve on the part of the U.S.

By promising to help the nations of the Middle East, Obama attempted to make them forget how the U.S. had collaborated with the region’s totalitarian regimes. He discussed the important developments in the Arab world, but did not say a word about Saudi Arabia, which plays a major part in the suppression of the region’s freedom movements. He attacked Iran, Syria, and the resistance camp, while expressing support for the rulers of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Jordan, which suppress their peoples. Thus, Obama once again showed the double standards upon which the American foreign policy is based. In addition, he did not provide an explanation why the military attack on Libya weakened the revolutionists instead of weakening the tyrant Gaddafi.

Obama also did not present any new plan with regard to the Palestinian issue, instead reiterating the commitment of the U.S. to maintaining the security of Israel. Given how weak Obama is compared to the Congress and the “Zionist lobby”, Israel can count on its ability to enforce its views on the White House. Obama’s speech is meaningless, the daily claimed, its only aim being to help the president in his presidential campaign (Iran, May 21).

The conservative daily Siyasat-e Rouz said that the U.S. had always tried to take advantage of the Palestinian issue to promote its regional and global objectives. It manipulated regional moves in such a way that Arab countries, which took part in the peace process, become the ones that actually implemented the American plans, and thus the interests of the U.S. were preserved. The trend has now changed, and after toppling their governments, the region’s nations have set their sights on fighting the Zionist occupation and strengthening the resistance camp. Support for the Palestinians has also grown stronger on the international scene, and hundreds of countries and organizations have announced their intention to recognize Palestine’s independence this coming September. Faced with these processes, the Americans now seek to regain control of the Palestinian issue to continue exploiting it for their own interests and those of Israel (Siyasat-e Rouz, May 22).

A different and unusual view of Obama’s speech could be seen in an editorial published in the reformist daily Sharq. The newspaper argued that the president’s speech was a turning point in the political and security activity of the U.S. in the Middle East, and that President Obama’s new policy could have both positive and negative repercussions.

The daily commended the president’s mention of freedom and democracy as the basis for the regional policy of the U.S., also noting, however, that the U.S. was the major supporter of the region’s totalitarian regimes. Furthermore, as long as the U.S. supports Israel, there can be no independent Palestinian state due to Israel’s uncompromising positions. According to Sharq, the U.S. can develop trust in its Middle Eastern policy only by making a massive change in it, and by using its power to put pressure on Israel and to act in the best interests of Middle Eastern countries (Sharq, May 22).

Meanwhile, the Tabnak website reported this week that following President Obama’s speech, Expediency Discernment Council chairman Mohsen Reza’i sent President Ahmadinejad a letter in which he suggested increasing Iran’s support for the popular uprisings in the region.

In the letter, Reza’i argued that President Obama’s speech, which included recognition of the 1967 borders and a demand to release the political prisoners in Bahrain and Yemen, reflected America’s acknowledgement of the new reality formed in the wake of the “Islamic awakening” in the region. However, the speech provides no solution to the demands of the region’s nations. Obama did not call on the heads of state of the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, to comply with their peoples’ demands for freedom and democracy; he did not apologize for the long-standing support provided by the U.S. to the Egyptian regime and other totalitarian regimes in the region; and did not condemn Saudi Arabia’s military aggression against Bahrain. The nations of the region, therefore, will not be convinced by President Obama’s speech, and will likely continue their fight. Given this situation, Iran has to continue helping the nations without fear of being accused of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries. It was Reza’i’s suggestion that, together with Iraq and Turkey, Iran establish a “front for defending the region’s nations” to help further the demands of the nations (Tabnak, May 22).

“Traditional conservatives” vs. “deviant faction”—campaign 
against Rahim Masha’i and associates is stepping up

Last weekend Basij chief Mohammad-Reza Naqdi announced that, over the next several months, the public would be given new, detailed information on the activity of the “deviant faction”, a term used to refer to those affiliated with Esfandiar Rahim Masha’i, President Ahmadinejad’s controversial advisor.

Speaking at a press conference, Naqdi said that the “deviant faction” is following in the footsteps of such terrorist organizations as the oppositionist Mojahedin-e Khalq, which attempt to undermine the unity of the regime leaders, having understood that the terrorist attacks they have carried out throughout the years have had opposite results and strengthened Iran’s national unity (Fars, May 21).

Intelligence minister Heydar Moslehi, whom President Ahmadinejad was forced to reinstate under orders from the Supreme Leader after announcing his dismissal, said this week that one of the most important tasks facing the Intelligence Ministry is fighting the “deviant factions” that operate in the country (Mehr, May 21).

Meanwhile, clerics affiliated with the conservative bloc have also stepped up their remarks against the “deviant faction”. In his last sermon, Ayatollah Seyyed Mohammad Sa’idi, the Friday prayer leader in the city of Qom, warned the faction’s members that if they do not cease their plotting, they will end up like Iran’s former president Abolhassan Banisadr (impeached in June 1981), the Mojahedin-e Khalq organization, and the “leaders of incitement” (a term used to refer to the reformist opposition leaders).

Sa’idi noted that while many leaders of the “deviant faction” consider themselves as supporters of the clerics, their closed meetings and actions reveal that they have never supported the clerics. They should know, the senior cleric said, that the Iranian people have won numerous victories over the past 30 years thanks to their support of the rule of the religious jurisprudent (Mehr, May 20).

The ultra-conservative cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi also spoke about the activity of the “deviant faction”, warning about its attempt to take over the presidency in the coming 2013 elections. The faction’s objective is to spread the idea that all the accomplishments made in the past six years (under President Ahmadinejad) should be credited to Rahim Masha’i, that he is the world’s greatest strategist, and that he should therefore become the next president. At a meeting with Rahim Safavi, the Supreme Leader’s advisor and former chief of the Revolutionary Guards, Mesbah Yazdi warned about the continuing activity of the “deviant faction” in society, alleging it was aimed to undermine the status of the clerics and the “rule of the religious jurisprudent” (Fars, May 19).

This week the criticism against the “deviant faction” has also been taken up by Ahmadinejad’s family. In an interview to Fars News Agency, Mehdi Khorshidi, Ahmadinejad’s son-in-law and secretary of the President’s Council of Advisors, said that the “deviant faction” is trying to broaden its influence in society through the use of government resources and establishment of a social foundation. He said that the faction had started to emerge in the early days of President Ahmadinejad’s term, and that its views were exposed gradually. Those belonging to the faction ignore the clerics and speak freely on religious issues even though they lack any kind of religious training or knowledge. Khorshidi added that Masha’i had endeavored to remove people from President Ahmadinejad’s entourage to isolate him and provide himself with the opportunity to realize his own objectives while hiding behind a person who works hard to serve his people.

The president’s son-in-law warned that the existence of this faction—which is becoming more and more powerful, being involved with financial corruption and metaphysical activities—amongst the Iranian leadership poses a real threat to the regime. According to Khorshidi, the faction is trying to gain strength by taking control of the executive branch and infiltrating the sphere of economy to broaden and entrench its deviant thought in society (Fars, May 23).

Mahmoud_Ahmadinejad_and_Rahim_Mashai
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Rahim Masha’i

Recent weeks have seen greatly increased activity by the traditional-conservative bloc against the Masha’i-led “deviant faction”. Last week it was reported that 25 Iranian individuals affiliated with the faction, including some of Masha’i’s close associates, had been arrested on various charges, including involvement in the distribution of the messianic film “The Reappearance [of the 12th Imam] is Imminent”, which has recently provoked a strong political and public controversy (Alef, May 18).

It was reported this week that one of the detainees, Hojjat-ol-Eslam Abbas Amiri-Far, attempted to commit suicide in prison (Jaras, May 22). Amiri-Far, the former head of the Cultural Committee in the president’s office who is also considered one of Masha’i’s close associates, has recently strongly condemned Masha’i’s critics and expressed his confidence in Masha’i’s ability to become president.

In addition, more and more voices are demanding that Masha’i himself be arrested. Last week conservative Majles member Hamid Rasa’i called to arrest Masha’i and his supporters for their subversive political activity and involvement in financial corruption. In an interview to Fars News Agency, Rasa’i said that in addition to wanting to become president, Masha’i is on a mission to derail the Islamic regime. Masha’i believes, according to Rasa’i, that the Supreme Leader has to become a strictly ceremonial figure. He also seeks to exclude the clerics from politics and replace religious Islamic values with national values. Rasa’i accused Masha’i of using President Ahmadinejad to achieve his objectives. Masha’i and the reformist opposition share common goals, Rasa’i said, the most important of which are weakening the status of the religious jurisprudent and weakening the status of the clerics (Fars, May 20).

Ya Lesarat, a weekly affiliated with the radical left-wing organization Ansar Hezbollah, also called for Masha’i’s arrest last week. In an editorial by Qasem Ravanbakhsh, one of Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi’s students, the cleric warned that Masha’i is an extremely dangerous person who may precipitate the appearance of a new sect that rejects the rule of the religious jurisprudent and preaches a direct connection with the Vanished Imam—a connection that does not go through the religious jurisprudent (the Supreme Leader). He called on the security forces to gather information on the activity of the faction affiliated with Masha’i and take the necessary measures to deal with the threat (Saham News, May 19).

This week Hamid Baqa’i, the vice president for executive affairs, admitted that the civil service tribunal had recently banned him from public service for a period of four years for offenses he allegedly committed as head of the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization. Baqa’i, considered one of Masha’i’s confidants, added, however, that the decision is not final, and that he intends to file an appeal to court (Fars, May 21).

In addition, Masha’i’s supporters are increasingly accused of such issues as economic and financial corruption, as well as collaboration with elements in the West. Majles member Hossein Fada’i even accused Masha’i’s supporters of having contact with the U.S. and Western intelligence services. Speaking at a conference held in the city of Mashhad, Fada’i claimed that activists belonging to the “deviant faction” are seeking to gain the majority of Majles seats to take over key economic positions. He accused the faction’s activists of preferring the humanistic approach over the Islamic approach and advocating an Islam without clerics. After the enemies of Islam failed to achieve their objectives in the riots that broke out following the 2009 presidential elections, they are now looking for another way to do it, Fada’i claimed (Mehr, May 18).

Iran’s media escalate criticism of Azerbaijan

In recent weeks Iranian media have taken an increasingly critical stance towards Azerbaijan. Most of the criticism against Iran’s northern neighbor has to do with three major issues: the deepening Israeli involvement in Azerbaijan, the anti-religious policy of Azerbaijani authorities, and their hostility towards Iranian tourists.

In recent weeks there has been a growing number of reports in Iranian media about the spread of “Zionist influence” in Azerbaijan. For example, last week the Tabnak website reported a “secret project” by Israel to increase its influence in the republic with the approval of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. According to the report, the “Zionist lobby” is working to bolster Jewish presence in large parts of Baku where significant Islamic religious activity takes place. As part of this so-called policy, thousands of housing units have allegedly been given to Jews who will immigrate to Baku from Israel and other countries. In addition, Tabnak reported increased military, security, and media cooperation between Israel and Azerbaijan (Tabnak, May 19).

Last month Iranian media made special mention of recently-leaked Wikileaks reports saying that Israel uses Azerbaijan as a base for anti-Iranian espionage. According to the documents, Israel and Azerbaijan signed agreements to broaden their security-related cooperation, under which Israel will provide Azerbaijan with advanced weapons and use Azerbaijan as a base for gathering intelligence on Iran (Farda, April 13).

Fars News Agency accused Azerbaijan of being a major strategic base for the U.S. and Israel and a pawn for their regional policy. The agency even claimed that the Azerbaijani authorities had told the U.S. they were willing to receive activists belonging to the Iranian opposition organization Mojahedin-e Khalq after the latter were expelled from Iraq (Fars, May 11).

Pres_Ahmadinejad_and_Pres_Ilham_Aliyev
President Ahmadinejad and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev 

The policy of the Azerbaijani authorities towards the Islamic opposition in the republic and their efforts to restrict religious activity in the country also came under strong criticism from the Iranian media.

The Iranian media widely reported the measures taken by the authorities in Baku to stifle the Islamic opposition in the country and impose restrictions on religious Islamic activity. According to one report, the Azerbaijani authorities decided to prohibit female students from wearing veils to school and close down a mosque in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In early May it was reported in Iran that dozens of Azerbaijanis were arrested after demonstrating against the authorities’ plan to close down the Fatemeh Zahra mosque in Baku. The Farda website compared the policy of the Azerbaijani authorities to the anti-religious policy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, and Reza Shah, the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran (Farda, May 9).

The Iranian authorities also strongly criticized the hostile approach allegedly taken by the Azerbaijani authorities towards Iranian tourists. In late March it was reported in Iran that Iranian tourists were treated with contempt and derision by Azerbaijani customs inspectors at the border crossings between the two countries (Asr-e Iran, March 27).

For the past several years the Iran-Azerbaijan relations have been affected by severe tensions, even though Azerbaijan is the only former Soviet Muslim republic with a Shi’ite majority. Following Azerbaijan’s independence in 1991, the rise of Azeri national consciousness in light of the existence of a sizeable Azeri minority in Iran intensified the latter’s concerns over Azeri separatism and had a negative impact on the relations between the two countries. Iran’s attempts to increase its influence among the Shi’ite population of Azerbaijan further exacerbated the tensions between them. During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1988, Iran even served as a major supply route for Armenia, thus helping the Armenian war effort.

The differences of opinion between Iran, Azerbaijan, and other Caspian Sea countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan) over the division of the sea also had its part in the escalation of tensions between the two countries.

Recent years have seen a rapprochement between Iran and Azerbaijan, and the authorities in Baku even announced that they would not let the U.S. establish military bases there or help the Americans use Azerbaijani territory for an attack on Iran. Tehran and Baku also signed a number of cooperation agreements. However, their relations are still uneasy, and tensions boil to the surface every once in a while. On several occasions Iranian media even threatened that unless Azerbaijan ceased its efforts to stir Azeri separatism in Iran and changed its hostile attitude towards Tehran, Iran may demand the return of the Caucasus territories handed over to Russia under the agreements it had signed with Russia in the 19th century.

Iran intensifies fight against its Bahai minority

At least 14 citizens belonging to the Bahai faith who took part in a higher education program for Bahai youth were arrested last weekend. On Saturday, March 21, security forces raided 30 houses in the cities of Tehran, Karaj, Esfahan, and Shiraz to round up citizens taking part in a program operated by the Bahai Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). The institute was established in 1987 in response to the severe limitations imposed by Iran’s authorities on members of the Bahai faith, as a result of which many young Bahais are unable to attend higher education institutions in the country. The authorities have taken measures against the institute on several occasions since its establishment, going as far as to arrest 40 of its staff members in 1998.

In addition, the reformist student website Daneshjoo News reported this week that a Bahai student was recently expelled from the University of Mazandaran in northern Iran. The physics student was summoned to the university authorities and denied entry to classes, even though she was not involved in political activity. According to one of her classmates, she was recently interrogated by the university authorities about her religion. When she admitted she was Bahai, the university began taking measures against her and ultimately had her expelled (www.daneshjoonews.com, May 24).

In recent years, dozens of Bahai students have been expelled from higher education institutions across Iran. After the Islamic revolution Bahais were prohibited from applying to Iran’s universities. In 2004, apparently owing to pressure exerted by the international community, the government changed its policy and ruled that it was no longer necessary to fill in the religion field on the university admission examination forms. Nevertheless, many Bahai students are still denied the possibility to study in higher education institutions. Some students expelled in recent years were specifically told that, according to instructions issued by the government council in charge of university admission examinations, Bahais must not be accepted to universities even if they successfully pass the admission examinations.

The Bahais are the largest religious minority in Iran (approx. 300 thousand people). Unlike Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, however, they have no official minority status and have been systematically persecuted since the Islamic revolution. Since the revolution, over 200 Bahais have been killed, hundreds arrested, and thousands had their property confiscated or lost their jobs. In January 2008 three Bahais were sentenced in the city of Shiraz to four years in prison on charges of propaganda against the regime; in May 2008 six Bahai community leaders were arrested by the authorities on charges of collaboration with “foreign and Zionist” elements against state security. In recent years Iran’s conservative media have also intensified their vilification campaign against the Bahais and their religion, which, according to Islam, is a heresy punishable by death.

Pictures of the week: city of Khorramshahr, freed 29 years ago in Iran-Iraq War

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