Omid Memarian

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Confronting the Civil Society; Government’s Dominant Discourse!
Interview with Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi

In an interview with
Rooz, Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi talks of the Government’s confrontations with civil society, and limitations imposed on civil society organizations for reasons stated as countering a velvet revolution. Director of Volunteer Actors Non-Profit Institute, and former professor of political science in Allameh Tabatabaee University, who has been barred from teaching his classes with the advent of Ahmadinejad cabinet, counters the Government’s doubts about relations between local civil society entities and international NGO’s, and says: “I am all for attracting financial backing of civil society organizations from international sources, and under current circumstances, I see it as essential.”

Though the institute under his direction was closed down by authorities for unspecified reasons about six months ago, he believes “the current administration’s policies to weaken civil society will affect everyone negatively, because a weak and undeveloped civil society will even prevent a
strong and productive government from formation, and in the absence of a strong civil society, unharmonious, unbalanced, and caricature-like development will form.”

The Volunteer Actors Non-Profit Institute which concentrated on developing the capacity of civil society organizations had a profound presence in creating the literature and conducting training workshops in this area. These days Razzaghi continues his research around Iranian and international civil society. He has published many articles regarding the characteristics of
Iranian civil society. My interview with Dr. Sohrab Razzaghi follows:

During the 29 years since Islamic Revolution, Iranian civil society has seen no periods as fraught with challenges, limitations, and suppression as the two years since Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to power. Ahmadinejad and his security-led cabinet, clearly view the civil society not as a partner, or even a competitor, but with utmost pessimism as an enemy. Confronting the civil society seems to be a major agenda item for his government. Why do the populist conservatives try to control, weaken and neutralize the civil

Ahmadinejad’s cabinet views the civil society as a Trojan horse. They believe the civil society to be a western, and specifically American, project for a soft overthrow and a velvet revolution in the Iranian society, and therefore view all objectives and activities of
civil society organizations pessimistically. They believe that in the absence of a political society, social forces will determine the future of Iran.

They regard the civil society as the power center of reformist and opposition groups, a platform from which reformist thinking and uprising will result. This is mainly because Iranian civil society is the only arena from which people’s limited creativity in social affairs, people’s voices, and isolated groups can emanate, pursuing demands of social
groups. This is why they try to conquer all civil platforms, sources of reformist and opposition groups’ social empowerment, such as universities, newspapers, syndicates, volunteer organizations, etc. through whatever means or to push the real civil society aside and to form their intended civil society, a tame, obedient, and guided society!

After the 2005 elections and assumption of power by the new political layer, the thinking that fears and confronts the civil society and democracy gained power. They regard democracy and civil society as an undesired western phenomenon in direct
opposition with Islam—an arena for corruption and immorality.

The return of populism to political and economic realms is another reason for confronting the civil society. They view civil society as a nuisance in their access to the public, and would rather interact with the masses without intermediaries, so that they may do as they please in providing direction and mobilizing people to achieve their goals and objectives. The foreign aid project to promote democracy and civil society in Iran has become a tool in the hands of the government to suppress the civil society.

You referred to a return of populism after Mahmood Ahmadinejad came to power. What are the sources of conflict between populism and civil society?

Populism is a sign of political underdevelopment, a pre-modernity phenomenon. Its root lies in a mass society and a state of anomie or the society’s confusion and lack of organization. Anomie or confusion, describes a society which has detached and deteriorated cooperative networks, connections, traditional associations, and social structures, but which has not yet developed new structures, relationships, and social interdependencies. A lack of distinction among structures and roles, separation and chaos, lack of social form and appearance are the most important characteristics of such a state. In a state of anomie or confusion, a member of the mass society appears as a particle, detached, has no sense of identity, feels lonely and isolated, and is submerged in his private arena. A mass society is a conformed and monotonous society, which is fluid, floating, and particle-based. It is a state of social “nakedness” where the meaning of belonging to a group and cooperative living is lost; each individual feels defenseless and lacking of access to intermediary groups which could protect and shield it against direct and forceful pressures of political and economic powers. A civil society, on the other hand, is a symbol of political development, it is a modern phenomenon, and is a sign of passage from mass society, development of connections and new identities. Through developing social structures and distinction, citizens are developed. A civil society is a center for resistance and limitation of political power, and an arena for citizen empowerment. A civil society is a center for development of creativity, social innovation, a training and practice center for democracy, tolerance, courage and social moral standards. A civil society is a place where social assets are generated and stored, where freedom and equality are developed.

Over the past years and specifically during the two years since the election of Ahmadinejad, several scenarios have been implemented to limit the activities of civil society. Various conspiracy theories including a velvet revolution have been used as tools to fight the civil society. In the face of such confrontation, what types of limitations have been imposed on non-government organizations?

In order to neutralize a velvet revolution scenario in Iran, activities of civil society organizations have been limited through refusing to issue establishment and operation licenses; amendments to existing rules and regulations governing these organizations; elimination of subsidies; etc., creating a state of fear and terror; arrests of civil society activists and elimination of cooperative networks, all in an attempt to increase the costs of activities in the civil society arena; diverting civil society organizations’ activities towards service, assistance and charity; pursuing a policy to strengthen religious organizations and governmental civil society organizations vis a vis an independent civil society; attempting to severe relations between Iranian civil society organizations and their international counterparts; and finally destroying their communication infrastructure; interfering in operations and management of independent civil society organizations through sealing their offices and dissolving them; preventing creation of cooperative networks amongst activists and civil society organizations, etc.

Under such circumstances, how would you forecast the outcomes of the Government’s policies pertaining to a dominant security discourse over civil society activists? What threats and opportunities do you see for their continued activities?

The most important outcome and result of the Government’s policies and their dominant security discourse over the civil society is limitation of rights and civil, social, and political liberties of citizens and prevention of their empowerment in the society. Other outcomes are proliferation of social alienation and indifference in the society. Continuation of such actions could also result in uncivil and violent behavior, spread of Government’s dominance and violations of people’s rights, increase of underground civil activities, reduction of transparency and accountability amongst civil society organizations, erosion of civil society activists, driving the Iranian civil society into isolation, replacement of the real civil society with a fake civil society, etc.

One of the other outcomes of the government’s negative policies is the dominance of a security discourse in the society. However, alongside the negative aspects, such policies have had and continue to have positive outcomes for Iranian civil society. For example, the said policies have mobilized Iranian civil society activists to become united and harmonious. They have also provided an opportunity for a review and rethinking of strategies and past plans of civil activities. These reviews will help civil activists to devise new strategies and to attempt social innovations.

It is possible to see spurts of unity amongst pockets of civil society, generated in response to pressures, but it is easy to see that over the past two years not only the resources of civil society organizations, but also the resources of activists involved in those organizations have become depleted and eroded. How will this erosion affect the civil society movement?

Limiting measures and replacement policies in recent times have contributed to destabilization and contraction of the Iranian civil society. This is why everyday we witness further retrenchment and anemia in this area. As sensitivities and costs of civil activities mount and a convoluted air develops, some civil society organizations and activists have moved to non-civil arenas, have closed their offices or dissolved their organizations. Some others have adopted a “wait-and-see” attitude and currently have a pale presence in the civil society sphere. Yet, some others have coordinated themselves with the new policies and are attempting to operate based on the new Government’s policies. Some civil society organizations have been sealed by the security authorities, awaiting a court ruling on continuation of their activities. A few others continue their independent civil activism and volunteer work in spite of limitations.

One of the most important questions facing activists and civil society leaders in Iran is which direction the civil society is taking under the dangerous current conditions?

Three alternatives are conceivable at this time:

Alternative One, Strengthening and Establishment: This is a condition whereby civil society organizations as main players in the new power game, play their roles. In other words, their role and position within the power structure is recognized and established, serving as an important foundation of sustained development and democracy, in a way that other players of the power game cannot ignore or eliminate them. This alternative is very unlikely now.

Alternative Two, Premature Death of Civil Society: This is a condition where civil society organizations are eliminated as a player in the power games, and will not be allowed to participate in the social arena, burying all previous civil society achievements with them.

Alternative Three, Moving Towards A Limited and Guided Civil Society: This is a condition whereupon civil society as a social force is eliminated and continues its existence only as a technical tool for charity, assistance, and welfare in the Iranian society. Iranian civil society will continue a vegetative state, and will only exist on paper, devoid of any effective role in social arena. It will serve as a decorative element in social connections and interactions and on an international level.

Under transitional conditions, the role of those who can create change is pivotal. How can active civil society forces who desire a successful transition facilitate it, or at least maintain a clear outlook about it, so that they can reduce additional social-political costs?

Under the current circumstances, one of the most important elements which will determine the future and direction of Iranian civil society organizations is the ability of those involved, activists and leaders of civil society organizations to perform effective change management and management for change. This will only be possible when they have a good analysis of capabilities, conditions and circumstances of civil society organizations, outside environment, resistance centers, etc., and are able to develop a clear strategy for a successful transition, organize members and other cooperative networks around those strategies, and avoid all monopolies. The civil society organizations during will have to act as though they are faring through troubled seas on a perilous and unpredictable journey. This is why activists, leaders, and those involved in Iranian civil society organizations must learn and teach how to navigate this troubled and stormy sea, find their paths, and turn their weaknesses into strengths. They must identify threats facing them to the extent possible, and try to turn them into opportunities, inventing navigation tools for sailing these waters. The most important strategic goal of leaders and activists of civil society in the dangerous current circumstances must be to strengthen a dynamic, energetic, development-oriented, and democratic civil society, avoiding its premature death. This is not possible except with a strategy and implementation plan.

Is confronting the civil society a phenomenon specific to Iranian conservatives, or is it also present in other countries in the Region?

The traditions of fear of democracy, populism, and confronting the civil society are significant and shared characteristic of governments in the Middle East and West Asia. These governments fear the empowerment of their citizenship. This is why they attempt to pass laws and regulations which would make it difficult for civil society organizations to operate. They regard civil society organizations as West’s agents. They regard activities in different areas, specifically in the women’s rights realm, as efforts to bring western culture into power, assisting Christianity to overpower Islamic values. In Bangladesh in the 1990’s, street protests were organized against civil society organizations, forming organizations with names such as “Organization to Fight Kafirs (atheists) and Non-Government Organizations.”

Is there a continued trend to confront civil society in the Region, such as the one you mentioned in Bangladesh, or have civil society organizations been successful in spreading their message to authorities?

As I mentioned before, the tradition of fearing democracy and civil society is the dominant paradigm of the Middle East, Southern and Western Asia, and it continues. India was the first country in the Region to limit activities of civil society organizations in 1976. Two years later, Bangladesh attempted a similar action. Studies show that over the past several decades, governments have tried to restrict the activities of civil society organizations. Even so, civil activists have been able to achieve certain successes under the perilous current circumstances, forming powerful civil society organizations, and implementing important projects. Change management and managing for change has been the most important strategy of civil society activists in facing environmental and other challenges. Through propagation, support, and counseling, they have been able to take long steps towards establishing contact amongst people, deprived constituencies, government, and other social groups.

Over the past several months, in an attempt to limit the small amount of resources made available to civil society organizations in Iran by non-government organizations of other countries, the Government has attempted to create fear amongst them in accepting those funds, facing them with dangerous consequences. While similar neighboring countries are increasingly accepting resources made available to them by international civil society, what long-term effects do you foresee for Iranian civil society organizations in rejecting those funds?

In many countries of the Region, specifically in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, civil society is increasingly growing, extensively utilizing international resources and opportunities. Rejecting international resources and opportunities will result in incalculable effects and negative outcomes in short- and long-term abilities and effectiveness of Iranian civil society in local, national, regional and international levels. Under such circumstances where all players are competing for such international resources and opportunities, depriving the Iranian civil society of its “support industry” which takes place in the framework of “security and development,” is a strategic mistake. This is why many countries try to encourage international organizations to make social investments in their countries.

One of the negative side effects is that Iranian civil society will lose its ability to “say no” to power game players at different levels, due to its restricted resources. This will pale the independence factor of civil society, as one of the ways in which civil society’s independence is measured is “diversity” of its resources. Under-development and holding back of Iranian civil society is another outcome of it. Inability to use resources, opportunities, and international experiences will lead to isolation and dependence. We mustn’t forget that in today’s contiguous world, a weak, anemic, isolated, and under-developed civil society cannot represent the best interests of Iranian society in different levels, reflecting the voices of groups, social forces, and people of Iran.

Today, when justice is discussed, harmonic and balanced development is an important measurement criterion for justice. Holding back and intervening in the process of civil society development is injustice itself.

Do you believe, then, that non-government organizations should receive funds from international organizations? Under what conditions can such funds be accepted?

I am in favor of civil society organizations’ acceptance of funds from international organizations, and under the current circumstances, I see it as essential. Just as governments are allowed to utilize all legitimate international resources, civil society organizations should also be given this opportunity and possibility to create diversity in their local and international funding sources, increasing their ability to “say no.” But just as with the governments, they should be cognizant of a few guidelines: transparency in the funding sources and relationships, accountability to beneficiary groups (target groups, members and volunteers of the organization, financial supporters, and government), avoiding misuse and promoting equal relations with international organizations, etc.

With the dominance of civil society paradigm in international relations, what do you see as opportunities for dual-point and multi-point relationships between local and international civil society organizations? Would receiving international assistance help its development or is it something that might endanger its existence?

I believe that in order to construct a civil society, all local and international resources must be utilized in utmost transparency and accountability. The only way out of under-development and lack of democracy, two historical shortcomings of the Iranian society, a strong civil society must be built. Acceptance of international aid is just as legitimate as receiving assistance from the government, and vice versa. Receiving international assistance and aid from the Government is harmful when it is done in an unclear, secretive, un-monitored (by public) environment, where civil society organizations cannot “say no,” becoming dependent on them.

Over the past few decades, astounding developments have taken place on an international level, creating international and national movements. Civil societies, as players and agents of development and democracy have entered the realm of social struggles. They have important and effective roles in all social levels, daily gaining in role and importance, and this is why some refer to civil society as the largest projects of the new millennium.

Some believe that the suppressive approach, even in the long run, will harm those who have imposed a security approach on the civil society. Do you agree with this view? Why?

Yes. With the conditions brought forth, civil society organizations as the third sector could not be major players and agents of development and sustainable democracy, and won’t be able to play an effective role in the development process. In the development process, Iranian society has been pushed to the side, deprived of the ability to provide important capabilities and capacities of civil society such as closer and wider interaction with local societies, connections and pursuit of their demands and representing social groups, reflecting people’s voices and advocating isolated groups, provision of tools and necessary opportunities for presentation of citizens’ views, empowering citizens to fight and change public policies, and building a different world. In the new development paradigm, civil society tries to provide a new model for productivity and efficiency, accountability, transparency, instilling diversity and organizational discipline in the society. This way, all social groups will lose, because a weak and undeveloped civil society will even prevent a strong and productive government from formation, and in the absence of a strong civil society, unharmonious, unbalanced, and caricature-like development will form. We know that civil society is one the major bases and foundations of a sustainable democracy and in its absence, talking about democracy is a big lie.

In the international arena, what are the political ramifications of the government’s policy to confront civil society?

They will lose an important opportunity, silencing the voice of Iranian civil society on an international level, and this will in turn enable others to speak for Iranian civil society. This will also put Iran on a par with other countries violating international treaties and human rights; countries such as Cuba, Libya, China, Syria, etc.

Is it possible to convince the Government to stop actions to limit and suppress civil society through dialogue?

Under the current circumstances, social dialogue is a way out and to stop illegal actions. I view social dialogue as a strategic mechanism, necessary for strengthening democracy, civil society, and sustainable development in Iranian society. The ability to have dialogues amongst groups and social forces in any society (local, national, and international) is a sign of those societies’ development, and confrontation and violence are signs of its pre-maturity. By dialogue I mean the type of interaction and verbal discourse which is used to understand each other, and to promote understanding amongst all forces and social groups and governments, pursuing the goal of establishing rational interactions amongst individuals, groups, social forces and governments.

How long do you think the present condition can continue? What factors can facilitate an end to these circumstances?

In the middle of widespread pessimism, I am optimistic about the future. I believe Iranian civil society can implement the strategy of “change management and management for change” to successfully come out of the current difficult situation, replacing the paper civil society with a strong civil society. In addition to the above strategy, a few other elements can be named and here’s a summary of those actions:

· Implementation of a diversity strategy to increase civil society’s effectiveness and efficacy

· Development of capabilities and skills of propagation, support, and counseling of civil society organizations on different social levels

· Social marketing and development of social position through establishing cooperative networks and efforts to achieve strategic allies

· Development of cooperation and communication on a regional and international level for exchanging experiences and dialogue about shared subjects, attending conferences, and membership in international networks

· Creating transparency and accountability to constituent groups through implementing volunteer systems, and programs to issue qualitative performance certificates (self regulatory policies)

· Social dialogue with Government, private sector, and United Nations organizations around shared topics

· Trust building strategies.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Addicted to Confessions

Just a few days after Haleh Esfandiari, in solitary confinement for three months without any contact with her attorney or family, appeared gaunt and frail on television, analyzing “velvet revolutions,” in an interview published in Rooz, Shirin Ebadi told me that when Ms. Esfandiari called her mother on the telephone the next day, she told her she was tired and didn’t know what else to do. Esfandiari told her 93-year old mother: “Get me out of here.”

This is precisely what is left of three months of continual accusations by Kayhan Newspaper and websites close to the Government, security organizations’ propaganda, and the devastating silence of the Judiciary. A pattern which has been repeated numerous times and now even many conservatives don’t believe it either. But a limited will amongst the security organizations insists on this tired method in such a way that one would think more than their belief in its effectiveness, they are addicted to it.

This chronic addiction to receiving confessions concentrates more on putting pressure on prisoners as opposed to relying on facts and strengthening investigative methods for gathering information, thereby forcing citizens to pay the price through imprisonment, torture, or deprivation of a normal life through months of solitary confinement. All of this is to force the prisoners to say what intelligence organizations and their related media would like to hear.

Such a television broadcast was prepared for two types of audience. Contrary to some people’s belief that it was prepared for a public audience, this program was prepared to issue warnings to academics, university students, and civil and political society. To those who designed the confessions scenario, images of the demise of such prominent scholars will teach others to toe the line. The message is that when the government can do this to those who have stellar backgrounds, education, and international recognition, local activists will not have a prayer. (Though in reality, similar acts have thus far had reverse effects and have not been able to stop any original social movements.)

The other audience is foreign countries who support efforts to overthrow the Iranian Government, letting them know that the Government is alert. This is notwithstanding the degree to which those prisoners of security organizations have or have not been in touch with those countries or whether or not they have been after those objectives. For example, in the case of the current prisoners, there has never been any evidence leading to their involvement in such projects.

The important point is that if intelligence organizations had even one witness—and I stress just one witness—to corroborate these accusations of illegal activities by the prisoners, they would never engage in taking the prisoners out of their solitary cells into the well-decorated office of the Evin Prison Warden or another room specifically decorated for this purpose, to make statements against themselves. They would have quickly conducted the trials with the one witness, finding them guilty and sentencing them. Everyone knows that under normal conditions devoid of physical and psychological pressures, reasonable individuals would never provide statements against themselves, their colleagues, and their years of reputable activities.

Therefore, with Ms. Ebadi’s report of Haleh Esfandiari’s telephone conversation with her mother in which she has said “Get me out of here,” the truth is coming out a lot sooner than expected. Obviously, security organizations would use the confessions mechanism to cover their own weaknesses and mistakes in the arrests of these individuals, using the most inhumane way to prove that they were not mistaken, because the suspects are confessing the truth. But the truth has been known for years.

The point is that while security organizations and their related media (such as Kayhan and friends) are accusing anyone from university students to labor representatives to social activists and those who participate in peaceful gatherings of “activities against national security,” the continuation of such Stalinistic methods portrays the Iranian regime as a horrible and fearsome state. No enemy of the Iranian Government is capable of doing a better job in this portrayal, and this is the worst of all activities against the country’s national security.

Such uncalculated and costly actions distort the country’s image outside its borders, display the Islamic Republic as a totalitarian regime, invoke a flood of human rights violations resolutions against the country, and inflict political, economic, and cultural costs to our national interests.

Last, unfortunately, individuals such as Esfandiari, Tajbakhsh, and Jahanbegloo among others, who have served as positive messengers of changes within the Iranian society, are now facing these immense pressures. These individuals have continually strived to weaken the position of American proponents of war, and have insisted that Iranian society is strong enough to create change from within, as opposed to through foreign intervention.

These individuals have never acted as political opposition, and have never harbored anger against the Iranian Government, traveling to Iran with optimism, and now pay heavily for their optimism about Iran’s political equilibrium. It is not strange then, that these days voices which previously accused the Iranian Government of brutality and violations of human rights, prescribing military intervention as the only alternative for “changing the behavior of Tehran rulers,” have found new resolve.

Perhaps this is why over the past few days the wiser moderate conservatives inside the Islamic Republic have expressed their protest and dismay against such actions.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Desperate To Believe!

I received a surprise package in the mail a couple days ago: a great book and DVD entitled War Made Easy, the latest works by a friend, Norman Solomon. Aside from the fact that I highly recommend this book and documentary film, there was a 1991 quote in them by former New York Times reporter, Sydney Schanberg which got me thinking about the 2008 presidential elections: "We Americans are the ultimate innocents. We are forever desperate to believe that this time the government is telling us the truth."

The upcoming elections are exactly a reflection of this quote -- regardless of party lines (or lack thereof!) -- Americans are desperately seeking leaders who will tell the truth and act based on universal moral values rather then personal greed, misguided ideological
dominance, and an obsession with unilateralism. This is true for domestic issues as well as foreign policies.

However, things are in shambles not only domestically (like health care, minimum wage, national service, and education) but also in "foreign policy": being bogged down in Iraq, confusion over the 'War on Terror', and double standards on key concepts that America should stand for, i.e. human rights, democracy and liberty: live and let live -- without engaging in regime change policies.

Unfortunately, these form our foreign policy and ultimately how Americans view (and are viewed by) the rest of the world. And it is frustrating: when it comes to U.S. foreign policy all that seems to matter is 'how we can get maximize our benefits with minimum loss'; traveling on this path results in the 'end' justifying the 'means' and the importance of truth is dramatically diminished. This approach might work (short-term undoubtedly) in corporations and areas where economics rules, but it is rarely successful when it comes to areas where humanity and morality reside.

Don't get me wrong: profits are great and capitalism is among the pillars of this great nation -- but somewhere along the line we are being forced to let go of what's real, what's right, what matters. We do not seem to realize that at the end of the day, we -- as in the 'people of the world' -- are in this together and our destinies are intertwined: polluting the air on one end affects the other, and not caring for the sick or helpless across the miles will eventually affect us as well. So here we are now, scrutinizing the politicians who led us astray, and looking to new politicians who can reel us back on the proper path.

Which brings us to Iraq: 'to leave or not to leave' has become the dominant debate among candidates, and despite the heated discussion about the withdrawal of American troops, there is little consideration for the fate of Iraqi people, how to heal the wounds we have incurred on them, and what the prerequisites a departure policy should have to ensure their well being. It is sad that with all the death and destruction, many Iraqis wish Saddam Hussein were still in power rather than the current situation that appears to result in their gradual demise. With more than one million Iraqis killed and the pending danger of civil war, it is unlikely that current U.S. policies will remedy anything. Even with a gradual withdrawal the U.S. should take responsibility and strongly supporting policies which will guarantee a better life for Iraqis.

"Today, America speaks anew to the peoples of the world. All who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppressors..." said George W. Bush , President in 2005, President Sworn-In to Second Term. Meanwhile, the administration continued its support of totalitarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan without any regards to democracy or human rights in these countries. Add to this list Libya, Egypt and beyond. And let's not forget the failure of the peace process in the Middle East, support of terrorist groups against Iran, and poor management in Afghanistan resulting in the resurgence of the Taliban.
U.S. foreign policy is regarded with severe suspicion and uncertainty by many Americans and most foreigners alike. We are desperate for politicians who can lead us to what's good, honest and profitable, but not be driven by short-term greed without regards to its consequences.

Without a serious change in our course, it is unlikely that we will succeed in upholding any of our founding values and domestic plans, let alone achieve any form of success in foreign policies.
It will take a lot of conviction, fortitude and finesse for the next president to correct the course. But the people of this great nation deserve to have a leader who will gain their trust, reestablish their ideals, and preserve their integrity not only domestically, but also beyond the borders, from Mexico to the Middle East.

Waiting for an Iranian Chernobyl?

My friend, Deborah Campbell has interviewed Najmedin Meshkati for New Scientist. It is an interesting view about the Iran's nuclear plan. Meshkati is a leading expert in nuclear safety at the University of Southern California, the Iranian-born engineer worries that the Russian technology and human error that led to the Chernobyl disaster may cause a similar tragedy at Iran's nuclear facilities in Bushehr and elsewhere.

Iran: Talk trumps war

Have you heard this joke about the Iranian intelligence services?
"American, British and Iranian security forces decide to hold a contest to see which is fastest at locating and apprehending a suspect.
A bunny is set loose in a forest, and the Americans go first, with their infrared goggles and helicopters. They produce the rabbit in eight hours. The Brits go next, with hounds and carrots, emerging six hours later, rabbit in hand. Then in go the Iranians, who return an hour later with a badly beaten and bruised bear, walking on its hind paws, its front paws raised in surrender.
"Hold on," say the Brits, "That's not a rabbit."
"Yes, I am," sobs the bear. "They're right, I swear. I am a bunny!" (

How Supreme Is Iran's Supreme Leader?
This article indicates some of the characteristics of the Iranian ruling system
. Althought, there are many doubts about the points that the authors have made....(Continues...)

Sunday, July 22, 2007

My Interview with Shirin Ebadi, Haleh Esfandiari’s Attorney:
She told her mother “Get me out of here.”

A few days after the broadcast of a television show featuring two Iranian academics, Shirin Ebadi, the defense lawyer for Haleh Esfandiari and winner of 2003 Nobel Peace Prize, says her client has been deprived of all her rights as a citizen since the case began. In an interview with
Rooz, Ebadi said the day after the television program entitled “In the Name of Democracy” was broadcast, Haleh Esfandiari contacted her mother and said: “I don’t know what else to do. Get me out of here.” Following is the interview.

It appears that even though the investigations are complete, you still have no access to your client. Do you know about Dr. Esfandiari’s conditions in prison after “In the Name of Democracy” was aired? Will it finally be possible (for a judge) to set bail for her or will you be able to act on her defense?

I should have had access to my client from the very first day. She should have received legal counsel before talking. None of the articles of Citizen’s Rights Law have been observed in her case. This morning Ms. Esfandiari talked to her mother. Her mother told me her voice was tired and sad and she said on the phone: “I don’t know what else to do. I am very tired. Get me out of here.”

How would you evaluate the condition she currently has?

I have been trying to meet my client for the past two and a half months, but I have not been authorized to see her. Based on international regulations and Iranian laws, whatever an individual says under psychological pressure is not admissible. The way to prove that a prisoner’s statements have not been made under psychological pressure is to receive those statements in the presence of her chosen attorney in a fair and public trial. Therefore none of Haleh Esfandiari’s statements are legally acceptable and lack credibility.

Is broadcasting a prisoner’s statements in prison, following the well-known framework, in keeping with her Citizenship Rights [as defined in Citizen’s Rights Law]?

Broadcasting Ms. Esfandiari’s statements, and accusing her of “actions against national security,” and “participation in soft or velvet overthrow” campaigns, as has been done by the Judiciary Speaker and Ministry of Information, are all violations of her Citizenship Rights, because until someone is officially informed of her charges, is given a chance to defend herself, her attorney is given a chance to defend her, a verdict is issued, and an overall fair trial is held, no one can be accused. The verdict will have to become final before the charges are made public. I regret that systems responsible for upholding the law and those responsible for putting those laws into effect do not respect the law—these are laws they authored and passed themselves. I am critical of many of these laws because they fall short of human rights standards; but even these laws are not respected [by the Judiciary and Executive branches]. Ms. Esfandiari has been denied all her Citizenship Rights from the moment she was arrested.

Is there any legal recourse in this area? Can you, for example, prepare a list of all the instances her Citizen’s Rights have been violated, filing a suit against organizations responsible for this violation?

All that has taken place in the case of Haleh Esfandiari, much like what has happened in the cases of other political prisoners, is against our Criminal Justice Law and international human rights standards. I believe that in all cases, the authorities can be criticized about violation of human rights. This might be the reason the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly issued resolutions against Iran, accusing Iran of violations of human rights.

Over the past few months, some newspapers have used words such as “spy” or similar words. Since no such accusations have been proven, won’t you consider filing a suit against those media to defend your client?

All individuals and publications who have called Ms. Esfandiari, and whomever else whose charges have not been proven, a spy or disruptive to public order , or any other titles of a criminal nature, can be legally pursued. I regret that the judge appointed to the case has not even given me authorization to meet my client in person. I would have sought her approval for me to pursue those who have called my client guilty before she has been given a chance to prove her innocence.

Why were you forbidden to meet her?

They had no legal explanations for this decision. All they said was that I had to wait until the investigations are complete.

Since in Iranian laws, there is no criminal conduct defined as “soft overthrow” from a legal point of view, how would you evaluate the television show, In the Name of Democracy?

All that is called “soft overthrow,” or “velvet revolution” in our media, is really the victory of one group over another in an elections. For example, when one group wins the elections in a country, is it fair to say that they have performed a “soft overthrow?” If so, then what good are elections? What good are democratic and parliamentary competitions? Not only is this not a valid charge in our laws, such actions are not crimes on principle. This is how political parties came to be. Political parties vie for power, so if a political party works hard to gain power, is it right to call that party an overthrower or an agent of velvet revolution?

When they showed your client on television, considering you had not been authorized to see her over the past several months, how did you feel?

I chose not to see this broadcast. Watching this illegally prepared program would have been some type of approval for these actions. I expected all law-respecting citizens of Iran to turn off their television sets the minute this program started, displaying their objection to this illegal action. I turned off my TV set, as I won’t view something that would make a mockery of people’s reputations through illegal means.

National Iranian television has in effect been involved in disseminating information about an illegal act on a national level. Do you think Ms. Esfandiari will ever have a chance to have her defense speech from the same television, or will IRIB continue to be a tool only in the hands of one side?

IRIB aired a program entitled “Hoviat” (identity) several years ago. Now they air this program, proving once again that they are not an impartial medium. We expect a national medium to be impartial. Such an expectation continues to go unmet.

Monday, July 16, 2007

TV Confessions Raise Questions About Iranian Government’s Credibility
Human Rights Watch’s Middle East Director told me in an interview....

Warnings issued over the past several weeks regarding a planned scenario by Iranian security authorities to receive forced confessions from two suspects in the Iranian-American academics case were realized with the announcement in Iranian television, promising broadcast of confessions of Dr. Haleh Esfandiari and Dr. Kian Tajbakhsh.

Fars News Agency was the first news organization to publish this news. This agency had previously printed forced confession letters in other cases. “These confessions will be aired in a special television program on IRIB Channel 1 at 21:45 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday,” reported Fars.

In an interview with Rooz, Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch said that Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh have had no access to their lawyers and have not been allowed to meet their families. “Therefore we have good reason to be skeptical about statements made under pressure. Any confessions made under these circumstances are invalid.”

“Considering that authorities have held Esfandiari and Tajbakhsh for months without access to their lawyers or without visits with their families, we have good reason to suspect that their statements were provided under duress. ‘Confessions’ produced under these circumstances have no validity,” she added.

She urged the Iranian authorities to allow them immediate access to their lawyers. “If the two are going to be tried in court, the proceedings must be open and carried out in a way that grants them their rights to defend themselves against the charges that have been brought against them. So far, the two detainees have been denied these most basic rights.”

“The ‘confessions’ will further undermine whatever credibility the Iranian authorities have with regards to Human Rights and raise more questions about how detainees are treated inside Iran’s prisons,” said Whitson on an phone interview.”

Haleh Esfandiari who was in Tehran visiting her ailing 93-year old mother, had traveled to Iran on several occasions over the past years. Three months of solitary confinement for her and for Kian Tajbakhsh, whose wife is due with their child these days, will now continue with the broadcast of their confessions in prison. Tajbakhsh’s family had been threatened over the past weeks not to interview newspapers to avoid further problems for him.

Over the past few days, Iranian security authorities have reported finding new evidence in Haleh Esfandiari’s case, though prior to that Judiciary’s Spokesperson had said that investigations of the two were almost complete and the case would be resolved soon.

Confessions, A Propaganda Or A Security Apparatus?

Many analysts believe that more than a security or a justice concern, forced confession projects are usually aimed to create propaganda results. The last example of such approach was the case of Ramin Jahanbegloo, which after months of imprisonment for him, produced forced confessions. In that case first there was news of his confessions by authorities and before those confessions were broadcast, immense pressure from the media inside and outside Iran, human rights organizations worldwide, and other civil society channels in Iran and internationally demanding the Iranian justice system to observe the law in review of the case and condemning forced confessions, resulting in a cancellation of the broadcast of Jahanbegloo’s confessions. Instead, he was sent to a news agency’s offices to deliver statements he had been asked to make, even though some conservative sources had said they were aware of videotapes of his “confessions.”

This pattern was also present in the “bloggers” case in 2004, with some variations. Four suspects in the case who had been detained at Evin prison after another 17 suspects in the case had been released, under pressure from security authorities involved in the case received a similar fate; though later, Head of Judiciary personally expressed his regret about the treatment of the suspects and their forced confessions, ordering an end to the cases.

Kayhan: They Will Confess to What We Had Said

In the television teaser broadcast yesterday, advertising the upcoming confessions, Haleh Esfandiari talks of her involvement with Iranian women’s movement, international foundations, and Georgia’s Velvet Revolution. These topics comprise some of the charges made against Esfandiari.

In yesterday’s issue, announcing the imminent broadcast of Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh’s confessions, Kayhan Newspaper noted: “A while back, following the arrest of the above-mentioned individuals on charges of espionage, Kayhan revealed important and extensive information about these individuals’ activities of past years, including espionage for foreign states, establishment of an informal contact network, actions to undermine national security, and relations with foreign agents.”

On July 7th, Javan Newspaper, a publication close to Revolutionary Guards also foretold of Haleh Esfandiari’s confessions. This newspaper reported that Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian-American academic who has been arrested on charges of espionage, made statements regarding her relations with Iranian reformists in her confessions. “She admitted in her confessions that she had close relations to some so-called reformist women and….and conducted many meetings with them.” Javan also claimed that in another part of her confessions, Esfandiari referred to plans to disrupt and overthrow the regime, saying: “We announced this year as the year of friction in Iran.”

In a statement broadcast on the state television at the time of Haleh Esfandiari’s arrest, Iranian Ministry of Information announced: “Haleh Esfandiari and Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC and similar organizations such as Soros Foudnation have tried to create a network for activities against the regime and the country’s independence. The aim of this model, designed by Americans with an illusive appearance, is to implement a soft overthrow project.”

The statement further said: “Haleh Esfandiari has confirmed that Wilson Center invited Iranians to participate in conferences, granted them research projects and financial aid, and tried to attract influential individuals and to put them in contact with American decision-making centers.”

In reaction to these accusations, Woodrow Wilson Center, where Haleh Esfandiari works as Director of their Middle East Division, called them worrisome and unbelievable. Lee Hamilton, Director of Wilson Center said: “Haleh was never involved in any activities to weaken any government, including the Iranian government. Wilson Center has never been involved in such activities, either. There is no evidence to support these preposterous claims.”

Haleh Esfandiari’s husband has repeatedly voiced his concerns about conditions through which his wife may have been forced to confess, stating that charges made against her were completely false, requesting her immediate release to provide for her legal defense. In an interview with The Washington Post, Shaoul Bakhash said: “The security forces clearly wish to pressure my wife into forced confessions or to detain her in prison for as long as they can. It is outrageous that political leaders of Iran would allow these games to continue.”

Two Possible Scenarios for Broadcasting the Confessions?

Baztab website, managed by Mohsen Rezaee, Secretary to Expediency Council, referring to the news of the Esandiari/Tajbakhsh confessions noted yesterday: “According to Islamic Republic of Iran Laws, release of names, images, and details of charges against suspects is only possible after a definitive conviction has been made. While these individuals are still in the preliminary investigation stage, and formal charges have not yet been made, broadcasting the film of their confessions on IRIB is baffling.”

“Different views about the real reasons for the broadcast of the confessions have been expressed. Some sources speculate a potential agreement between Ministry of Information and the suspects, gaining their freedom after the broadcast. In that case, they will follow the case of Ramin Jahanbegloo who was released after the confessions film was made. After attending ISNA News Agency, [Jahanbegloo] made similar statements, and was later released without any punishment or bail, after he had been formally accused by Minister of Information of soft overthrow.”

Baztab adds: “On the other hand, there is other news that this case has been finalized with heavy sentences for the suspects. The confessions broadcast aims to prepare the psychological [and] propaganda basis for the eventual announcement of those sentences.”

Sunday, July 15, 2007

If we are coup d’etat agents, arrest us!

Omid Memarian- Interviewing Mashallah Shamsolvaezin is an easy, yet difficult task. It is easy because he is one of the most outspoken Iranian journalists. It is difficult because as a remnant of my experience working in Iranian newspapers, I continually find myself asking him: “Should I write that Mr. Shams?” And he replies: “Yes, Sir, don’t exclude anything!” In an interview with Rooz, Editor of Jameeh, Neshat, Toos, and Asre Azadegan Newspapers talks of newspaper bans, Ministry of Guidance’s calling journalists “coup d’etat agents,” hard days ahead of the country, Government’s failures, and a shifting of fear center from the Judiciary to the Executive Branch.
Confrontations with newspapers and journalists are not new developments, but the Government’s direct involvement in the recent harassments is a bit unexpected. Is it a true statement that the Government has prepared itself for a serious confrontation with critical newspapers?

Yes. Mr. Ahmadinejad’s advisors have announced that a committee has been formed to confront the newspapers. Mr. Saffar Harandi, Minister of Guidance has also said that there is a “creeping coup d’etat by newspapers,” which I believe includes him as a “coup d’etat agent” as well, since he himself was Editor of Kayhan Newspaper until recently. If there is a coup d’etat, then he is the head of coup d’etat agents. Minister of Guidance and Islamic Culture is responsible for newspapers and journalists. If they are coup d’etat agents, so is he. I don’t think Mr. Saffar Harandi is yet at a place where he knows what he is talking about. He just dishes out accusations this way and that.

Why, in spite of routine pressures, Mr. Harandi is now using literature from which Ministers usually refrain?

I believe the Ahmadinejad government has reached a complete impasse in the media domain. On one hand it is facing deep troughs in the political realm, facing serious criticism, and on the other hand it blames the reformists, its true competitors, for their approach to internal and international issues. Using an accusatory tone against the newspapers, they believe they are controlling the crisis. In fact when you review them carefully, you will see that they have no other choice. They must accuse the newspapers, and this is not a new precedence worthy of your surprise! During the contemporary Iranian history, whenever dictator governments have been unable to accomplish their missions, somehow they have blamed their failure on outside sources, either political parties—when political parties were active—or the newspapers. These threats are precursors to subsequent confrontations.

But over the past few months, there were some positive signs pointing to an improvement of the situation with newspapers, signs such as issuing Shargh and Ham Mihan newspapers with permission to resume publication, as well as removing the ban on some other periodicals…what is happening now?

Since a month ago, seeing the limited hope caused by re-publication permits of certain newspapers and resumption of their activities, we thought there might be some wise people in the Cabinet who actually believe that it is better to allow an increase in the variety of, albeit controlled, local newspapers vis a vis the foreign and international media. However, the hurried actions to ban Ham Mihan Newspaper, revocation of Mosharekat Newspaper’s permit, banning Nedaye Mardome Kordestan Weekly, and creating roadblocks for ILNA News Agency’s activities, all show us that the team which regards media with a security view has been reactivated and in the future we will be seeing similar actions.

What signs convince you that such a team exists and is active?

There are two signs. One is internal issues; specifically as we near the next elections we see preparations to prevent activities of prevalent social forces and factions. The other is international pressures pushing them that way. They believe that over the coming months, Iran will face pressures, threats, and offensives. Thus they are interested in controlling and manipulating information generation streams so that they may be able to deal with it at both internal and international levels. This is the only political interpretation I can make about these actions.

Who is managing this confrontation with the press? The Judiciary? The Cabinet? Unidentified organizations?

I don’t see much difference. The team previously residing in the Judiciary in very secretive ways is now running the Ministry of Guidance. We haven’t forgotten! Right now they are doing all that in the Executive branch and feel no need for the Judiciary anymore. That is why when you look at the reasons Ham Mihan Newspaper was banned, you will notice there is no legal basis for the ban. A court was convened, a sentence was issued, and the trial has adjourned. There is no base for the subsequent actions. This team sends a clear message to the public that it is capable of imposing its opinions above and beyond the law. This is a clear message. Saeed Mortazavi and those like him who announce these rulings, are the ones signing these verdicts. The regime is responsible for these actions. Mr. Karbaschi said it nicely, that “a will above the court caused Ham Mihan’s shut-down.”

Over the past several months, Mr. Shahroodi has repeatedly discussed implementation of laws and policies pertaining to Citizen’s Rights. Mr. Shahroodi’s statements, however, do not match the actions of other parts of the Judiciary. Which one should we believe?

The policies Ahmadinejad’s government is following with regards to media handling are the same ones Head of the Judiciary opposes; at least he opposes them in their current shape. When reformists were in charge, the regime had appointed the Judiciary to confront the newspapers, and as the Judiciary and its dedicated judges were not willing to cooperate in issuing such verdicts, Saeed Mortazavi was put in the Judiciary to facilitate those verdicts. The only difference now is that the same team has come to reside within the Executive Branch. Therefore the Executive Branch feels that they can also perform all that was previously expected of the Judiciary, and the Judiciary is slowly letting go of their control over the newspaper cases. The Executive Branch now independently takes action to shut down, limit, and warn the newspapers. The difference is that in the past journalists would seek refuge from the Judiciary to the Executive Branch, and now they seek refuge from the Executive to the Judiciary Branch! Note that in both instances neither the Judiciary nor the Executive Branch had direct and comprehensive control over the cases. There is another power above both of them and everyone knows what the source of that power is.

What is the source of this power?

As I mentioned, everyone knows.

Do you believe Mr. Saffar Harandi’s statements can be pursued in a court of law?

Yes, I believe he has to be tried for the big accusations and slanders he has made against the newspapers. Journalists have been labeled as “coup d’etat agents.” Why does Saffar Harandi say that? The reason is what we have always pointed out and that is the fact that a cultural agent can become a security agent or an intelligence source, but you cannot turn an intelligence agent into a cultural agent. What has happened in the case of Mr. Saffar Harandi is the second. When intelligence agents become heads of culture, you can see what happens and this is alarming.

Over the past years, in many cases several authorities or newspapers with strong security backing have made false accusations which were never proven. However, the same statements have endangered the lives of many journalists, some of whom have had very sad endings. Nobody asks what proof there is of such accusations. How can the activities of such sources be limited or controlled through the help of “wiser” authorities?

I believe that as security layers intertwine with cultural layers, it will not be possible to raise a legal claim against the unprecedented statements of the Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister. However, syndicates and support organizations can react—reactions which are not limited to issuing statements. Reactive measures can be increased and strengthened. One of these reactive measures can be sit-ins in the Journalists’ Home or the Headquarters of the Iranian Journalists Syndicate to protest the insults made by Minister of Islamic Culture and Guidance. This sit-in can take place in front of the Ministry of Guidance and journalists can ask this Minister what he is talking about. Well, if we are coup d’etat agents, arrest us! They arrest women for their poor hejab, yet they let coup d’etat agents to walk the streets? Either he is right and we must be arrested, or he isn’t and he is the one who needs to be arrested. We demand for this to take place at once.

The Government has mobilized all its resources to confront the media and to restrict information channels. Is something important about to happen? Has the Government reached a decision about which the people are unaware, and is all this in preparation for that important event? Or are we to accept these events as routine happenings in the current government?

Even if something is about to happen, people don’t know anything about it. Public opinion needs to be informed of the serious international pressures the Government faces. The government has detailed information of certain governments’ preparations for taking steps towards further sanctions against Iran. It is also possible that while those sanctions are being decided, air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations might take place, facing the Government with new pressures, forcing it to resist. This is why information channels need to be controlled in these areas. What the Government is after is that any warnings pertaining to impending crises and their related problems must not be announced to Iranian public in a way that would cause panic. Our question to the regime is whether these actions won’t create more concern among the public? When newspapers are closed and publications are banned, and you simultaneously confront women and families over poor Islamic hejab, arrest academics attending conferences and international conventions on espionage charges, avoid travel of journalists to attend international conferences, destroy your relationship with many countries in the Middle East and particularly the Persian Gulf Region, exacerbate existing crises, and replace existing relationships with revived relationships with a country such as Venezuela which is continents away from Iran, we see all the signs of crisis heading our way. In order to silence warnings pertaining to crisis caused by decisions made by the Government, they are implementing preventive measures the most important of which is to shut down information channels and all sources of knowledge and information.

Do you think other newspapers might be facing close downs over the coming days, especially in light of what certain authorities have stated regarding “crossing red lines” by some newspapers?

Regardless of these examples, you can observe that even non-print media such as certain radio stations which had started airing interesting programs have faced changes in their management team, and creative journalists active in other media have also been banned from activity. All these are signs pointing to the Government’s determination on this thinking, and we will have to prepare ourselves for even worse events.

What do you predict to be the end point in the confrontations with newspapers?

There is no “end” in confrontations with newspapers. As I have said before, whoever attempts to topple the “fourth pillar of democracy” which is the press, will be toppled with it. Look at the contemporary Iranian history-- those who have attempted to eliminate the press, have suffered. This is completely clear. Journalists might suffer temporarily, but they will emerge as victors.

Friday, July 13, 2007

RIGHTS-IRAN: "Blood Was Everywhere, the Smell of Death"

My piece about the shocking "Stoning" in Iran which is published today in IPS news:
BERKELEY, United States, Jul 13 (IPS) - Criticism of Iran's judiciary is
mounting following the brutal execution of a man who was convicted of adultery more than a decade ago and stoned to death on Jul. 5. Although the head of the judiciary branch, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, issued a written order stopping the execution almost a month ago, the judge in the case insisted on stoning Jafar Kiani to death.Stoning is the prescribed punishment for adultery under Islamic law in Iran. However, in recent years, some judiciary officials have been reluctant to enforce it due to intense domestic and international objections to its barbaric nature. In Sharia (Islamic law), a man is usually buried up to his waist, while a woman is buried up to her neck. Those carrying out the verdict throw stones at the condemned person until they die. Almost a month ago, "Stop Stoning Forever", a social campaign formed by outspoken women activists, warned the public that Kiani and Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, a 43-year-old mother of three, would be stoned to death in Takistan, a city in Ghazvin province. They launched an internet campaign and contacted judiciary officials to stop the execution. (

Monday, July 09, 2007

RIGHTS-IRAN: Dark Days for Women

Here my piece about the situation of women in Iran today in IPS news:

BERKELEY, United States, Jul 9 (IPS) - Judicial authorities in Iran have sentenced two women activists who participated in a peaceful protest against discriminatory laws in June 2006 to more than 30 months in jail and ten lashes.The harsh sentences come amid the recent arrests of more than a dozen student activists, the government closure of the popular Hammihan newspaper, and pressure on Iran's Labour News Agency to stop its activities, in another sweeping crackdown on the Islamic Republic's civil society. Delaram Ali, who is a member of the "One Million Signatures for Equality Campaign", was sentenced to 34 months in prison plus ten lashes on Jul. 1. A day later, Alieh Eghdamdoust, another women activist, received a sentence of 40 months and 20 lashes. (Continues...)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Hardliners Are Against the Civil Society!

Omid Memarian- Summons, arrests, intimidation, barred activities, and heavy sentences for peaceful activism are only a part of the pressure Iranian Women’s Movement faces. In continuation of a security approach to civil activism, over the past few days Delaram Ali, a member of the Million Signatures Campaign For Law Change, was sentenced to 34 months in prison plus ten lashes.

Immediately thereafter, Alieh Eghdamdoust, another suspect in the July 2nd, 2006 gathering case, was sentenced to three years and four months’ imprisonment and 20 lashes. In an interview with Rooz, Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, a Women’s Movement activist says the message for such sentences is that a part of the security system will not tolerate gatherings and public protests. Referring to the escalating security atmosphere of the past few months, she adds: “The gentlemen have a plan for extensive suppression, especially after Ham Mihan newspaper was suspended and ILNA News Agency was shut down. Therefore it is safe to say that the prison sentences for those women must be viewed within the larger picture of the Suppression Project’s gaining momentum over the Control Project within the governing forces.” Following is Rooz’s interview with Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, Editor of Farzaneh publication, a quarterly journal dedicated to women’s issues, and Head of Training Center of NGO’s in Tehran.

What is the reason for stiff sentences for Alieh Eghdamdoost, Delaram Ali, and other women’s rights activists following their participation in peaceful protests, and what message do such sentences carry?

Such sentences convey the clear message that gatherings and public protests are not tolerated. Prior to March 5th, women who had been sentenced, such as Jilla Baniyaghoub, were acquitted. This means that based on [the repeated] interrogations and summons at that time, it was felt that public protests would not take place anymore, and they were willing to issue softer sentences. But after the March 5th protests and arrival of fresh new groups on the protest scene, ones that had not been present in the July 2nd 2006 protests, they felt threatened by women’s public protests and since then, harder stances have been assumed in issuing sentences for people such as Sussan Tahmasebi, Fariba Davoodi Mohajer, Nooshin Ahmadi Khorassani, and Parvin Ardalan—who were previously expected to be acquitted. We see a continuation of this trend in the case of Delaram Ali, who is a symbol of the brutal confrontation of Police with women’s protests, and who has received a two-year definitive sentence.

Another factor which must not be forgotten is the escalating levels of security atmosphere and increased police brutality over the past few months. Multiple and successive projects claiming to crack down on those attempting “soft overthrow of the government,” those disregarding Islamic dress code, and “criminals and thugs,” without regard for the roots of the problem, show that the gentlemen have a plan for extensive suppression, especially after Ham Mihan newspaper was suspended and ILNA News Agency was shut down. Therefore it is safe to say that prison sentences for those women must be viewed in the larger picture of the Suppression Project’s gaining momentum over the Control Project within the governing forces.

But the women’s protests over the past several years were peaceful, apolitical and goal-oriented. What is the reason for such concerns? Is it in the nature of the message Women’s Movement has, or is there concern that such peaceful movements might join events such as what happened in Tehran University in 200…?

Compared to the treatment university students and labor protestors received, women have been spared. As we address the stiff prison sentences for women activists, several Amir Kabir University students who were accused of fabricated blasphemy charges in their student publications are detained in solitary confinement, tortured into producing confessions. Iranian media has not reacted properly with respect to these events.

Women’s demands are clear and their independence from other political forces is easily verifiable. Women’s Movement is at present time the only social movement which is peaceful in nature and has tangible demands for social changes, which is why they have faced widespread social support. Such a phenomenon confronts government forces with a dilemma. On one hand they cannot arrest a few members of this movement, keeping them in prison for a few years until their movement subsides, as has been done in the case of university students or labor protestors. On the other hand, our demands for law changes have been repeated by even the most conservative women’s groups. Not all our demands, but some of them might be receiving some attention; for example it appears that preparations are being made to raise women’s dieh (blood money) to equate that of men’s. The heavy sentences are a message to show that their tolerance is reaching its limits, and if we don’t tread carefully, serious suppression is awaiting us. You know that as we speak we all have open cases awaiting court dates. The gentlemen’s message is clear.

In understanding the confrontation of the government with the peaceful Women’s Movement in progress through NGO’s and civic society activism, there exists a serious ambiguity. These organizations and activists act within the framework of the Constitution, and because they are based on a social need, their success will relieve the government and related organizations of a burden. Such movements will also lead to social invigoration and when those demands are met, will result in a closer relationship between the people and Government. There are other benefits, as well. But what do you think is the source of such hostile, security-based approach of certain sections of the government towards Women’s Movement?

They view civil movements of women’s rights activists as tactics for a “soft overthrow” of the government. This security-based approach which takes the shape of a project to deal with “soft overthrow,” has created additional pressure on women’s movement. They won’t accept that women’s demands are coming out of the society, based on legitimate concerns of women. Compared to two years ago, all public resources have been removed from civil society activists, especially women, and have been handed to religious propaganda and charity organizations.

This has caused a radicalization of the Women’s Movement as compared to two years ago, driven by the radicalization of the atmosphere. Some women feel they no longer have access to a podium to voice their demands, and choose riskier alternatives to voice those demands.

Do you mean that if this “soft overthrow” was not raised as a goal by these authorities, women activists could continue their activities without any problems?

The “soft overthrow” project, which was started with the case best known as “webloggers’ case” in 2003, has been under scrutiny and a source of conflict inside the regime, and has been officially revived over the past few months. Announcement of budgets dedicated by the Deutsch and US governments has also exacerbated the issue. Add to this the radicalization of the civil protests arena, and you will have a setup conducive to suppression of women’s rights activists. Currently, all offices dedicated to women’s rights activism, such as ours, are either shut down or have been voluntarily closed down. Budgets dedicated to the deprived women of faraway provinces are now suspended in our organizations’ bank accounts. I would like to separate activities of NGO’s from the Women’s Movement. I believe that we must be able to receive internal and external legitimate funds for NGO’s whose concentration is on development. The Women’s Movement, however, which is working through campaigns staffed by activists, must remain totally independent from any financial resources, and must rely on its volunteers alone. Security forces fail to understand this separation in the very nature of the two activities and their related plans of action. They don’t appreciate the difference in the values and goals of volunteer-based activities and development-based activities for women (the same distinction I made earlier).

We pursue a change of approach by regime about women, and believe those who can create these changes are the people and women of Iran, and most importantly, that these changes must take place through our own internal resources.

My question is whether this “soft overthrow” thinking, which has plagued the government’s approach towards so many legitimate civil movements over the past two years, is the real concern vis a vis the Women’s Movement; or is this an excuse to cover certain government organizations’ lack of accountability and the ability to understand these movements? I mean is this “soft overthrow” concept being used as an excuse for suppressing certain groups, even where there is no evidence to support such intentions?

I see this as an excuse. Through the interrogations conducted over the past two years, they have discovered that such accusations are not true. If they were true, we wouldn’t all be free on bail. If, for example, I was involved in this “soft overthrow,” I would still be in Evin’s 209 Ward.

Look, soft overthrows have taken place in certain countries, and if foreign resources were not available to those movements, they couldn’t take place. Those funds, for example, provided soup for thousands of people who stayed out on the streets in a country for a whole week, long enough for the government to change. If there was no soup, after two days, the hungry protestors would have gone home. Such a “soft overthrow” is not valid in the case of Iran.

The Iranian government perceives two types of threats against itself: war and “soft overthrow.” I think the government is certain that Iranians do not pursue a revolution, but in the case of the threats it perceives, like Don Quixote, it fights the wooden horses for years. Of course military preparedness is a very good idea, but to pursue “soft overthrow agents like Don Quixote is not such a good idea. The Iranian civil society’s structure and social movements in Iran do not provide for a soft overthrow. If the Judiciary were to abolish stoning from Iranian laws, how do you think we would react? Will we congratulate the Judiciary or look for other excuses to start a campaign against it? In the case of Iranian Women’s Movement, the first option will prevail, not the second. This defines the difference between demanding changes and a “soft overthrow.”

Why do the country’s security and political authorities fall short of understanding this distinction? Their lack of comprehension forces them to react in the costliest and most tension-producing measures.

Perhaps they have not achieved democratic growth to develop tolerance, and have an “Us and Them” approach to issues. This way of thinking has to do with psychology of power in their non-democratic minds. They also think that when it comes to determining what is good or bad for the country, they are God. They can’t imagine that in this country, there are men and women who believe in independence and also have serious criticism.

Are you hopeful that authorities may allow increased activity for civil society organizations to attempt solving social problems on the sidelines of the defective and ineffective bureaucracy of the government?

In Ahmadinejad’s cabinet which views all social and political bases in a security-based approach, such a thing appears improbable and impossible. We must all believe that they do not want a civil society.

Have you and your friends thought about a dialogue with the Government as an item on civil society activists’ agenda?

We are not interested in unequal dialogue. So far, the only conversation that has taken place has been based on summons and interrogations or through participation in Government conferences with certain organizations which claim to be NGO’s [but are not], and no one has ever invited us to a dialogue. The issue is not even that we are not interested in unequal dialogue. The issue is that they are not capable of having a dialogue with us.


Due to its very nature, a hierarchical totalitarian system is incapable of a dialogue with people.

Maybe it’s time to change the ways exchange of information are taking place, from interactions of a prisoner and his/her interrogators under pressure, to a dialogue in the media among government organizations and NGO’s? Do you suppose Ahmadinejad’s government is capable of this?

No. I don’t believe Ahmadinejad’s Government to be capable of this.