Four discouraging episodes and the state of social and political freedoms under Rouhani

As IranPolitik has argued in the past, Hassan Rouhani’s victory in the 2013 Iranian presidential election was due to a multitude of reasons, mobilizing people from across Iran’s political spectrum. One major constituency which appears to have supported Rouhani during the election were reform-seeking voters. Mohammad-Reza Aref, Reformist candidate in the 2013 election, dropped out of the race in favor of Rouhani helping create the Violet electoral wave which helped bring him to power. Rouhani himself explicitly appealed to reform-seeking voters during his campaign, appealing to them by calling for greater socio-cultural and political freedoms. Only three months into his presidency, however, the Rouhani administration has been confronted with a number of episodes which raise questions about his ability to deliver on his promises of expanded socio-cultural and political freedoms.

The Closure of Bahar newspaper

On 28 October 2013, Bahar became the first Iranian newspaper to be closed under Rouhani’s watch. Bahar was a Reformist-leaning publication associated with 2013 presidential candidate Aref. The newspaper’s closure was triggered by the publication of an article on 23 October 2013 perceived by some as questioning the basis of the Islamic Republic’s political system. The article, entitled “Imam; Political leader or spiritual paragon?”, was written by Ali-Asghar Gharavi, a renowned and widely published religious scholar with expertise on this subject. The moderate and unprovocative tone of the article belied the sensitivity of its subject. The article subtly questioned the regime’s interpretation of Shi’a political jurisprudence, specifically the political ideal of “Guardianship of the Jurist”, which underpins the regime’s politico-religious ideology.

The article caused quite a stir, leading Bahar newspaper to not only apologize, but also cease publication for a number of days. Unfortunately for them, this did not ease the wrath of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The newspaper was subsequently closed with the explicit support of Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati.

The closure of newspapers has been a major issue under the Islamic Republic since at least the presidency of Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005). For example, the closure of the Reformist-leaning Salam newspaper in 1999 is believed to have sparked the 18th Tir demonstrations which ended in a number of arrests, injuries, and deaths. There are questions in regard to whether Rouhani will work to increase freedom of speech, as indicated by his campaign.

Narges and Zahra Mousavi scuffle with intelligence ministry agents

On Eid-e Ghadir (this 23 October 2013), the holy day on which the Shi’a believe the Prophet Mohammad designated Imam Ali as his successor, the regime decided allow to allow a family reunion between former prime minister and Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard, who are currently under house arrest for their role in leading the 2009-2011 post-election demonstrations, and their daughters Narges and Zahra. The reunion did not end happily. After saying goodbye to their parents, Narges claimed that female intelligence ministry agent demanded that the Mousavi daughters undress in order to ensure that they did not smuggle out anything (such as political messages) on behalf of their parents. According to Narges, when she and her sister refused to undress a scuffle broke out and the intelligence ministry agent hit and even bit them in the ensuing struggles.

The Ministry of Intelligence and Security’s statement on the incident appears to have shifted blame on the Mousavi daughters themselves. It reads in part: “Unfortunately, after the end of the meeting, one of his [Mousavi’s] girls took actions against the laws and regulations and reacted by insulting and scuffling with the agent with the aid of two other relatives…The intelligence ministry sees it as its responsibility to completely review the matter, and in the instance that there was fault on the part of the agents while on duty, to investigate.” The intelligence ministry statement, despite its assurances that it will review the matter, appears to already have drawn its conclusions about who the culprits are.

One of Rouhani’s campaign promises was the release of political prisoners. Indeed, prior to the last round of nuclear negotiations a number of political prisoners, including human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, were released. There is hope that the Green Movement leaders will also be released, but this incident reveals the hard daily conditions under which they continue to live.

Naeimeh Eshraghi’s Facebook comment sparks investigation

A recent alleged Facebook comment by Naeimeh Eshraghi, grand daughter of revolutionary leader and Islamic Republic founder the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has sparked such controversy that she may end up before a court. Esharghi is alleged to have said: “Another joke we used to tell the Imam, and he always jokingly recalled, is this: Imam Khomeini: ‘Hey Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards Corps members), marry the widows of the martyrs…I wish I were a Pasdar.'”

Eshraghi claims that her account was hacked. The alleged joke by Eshraghi is seen as not only denigrating the personage of Khomeini, but also as being very disrespectful to the families of Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) martyrs, who are held in very high regard in Iranian society. The highly offensive nature of the joke even led Mehdi Hemmat, a moderate figure and son of the war hero and martyr Mohammad Ebrahim Hemat, to write an emotionally charged and very strongly worded response to Eshraghi lambasting her for the supposed comment. Attorney General Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei has said that in public matters relating to the Imam and as a result of a number of complaints by war veterans and their families, a file on the matter is under review at the Tehran prosecutor’s office.

Eshraghi and her close family are closely associated with the Reformist political current and have been key supporters of Rouhani both during and after the campaign.

Pegah Ahangarani sentenced to 18 months in prison

Iranian actress Pegah Ahangarani has been sentenced to 18 months in prison for reasons which remain unclear but are likely linked to her social and political activism. Ahangari is a starlet of Iranian cinema who was active in the presidential campaign of Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009. She has also been known for her vociferous attacks on conservative film-makers. For example, when film-maker Farajollah Salahshoor called the Iranian film industry a brothel, with implications for Iranian actresses, Ahangarani was among the leading signatories of a letter condemning him. Ahangarani was also involved in the making of a documentary which critiqued another conservative film-maker, Masoud Dehnamaki.

Rouhani’s dilemma

These four episodes, in and of themselves, may not be especially significant or out of the norm for the Islamic Republic. What is significant is that they are taking place during the first three months of the Rouhani administration, and the signal they send appears to be that it is business as usual in the Islamic Republic. This poses a dilemma for Rouhani. He came to power on promises to expand Iranian’s socio-cultural and political freedoms. If he is to maintain the support of the reform-seeking voters who supported him in the election he must deliver on these pledges. If these voters become apathetic it could weaken both his presidency and chances for reelection, much as happened with the Reformists in the early-to-mid 2000s. Expanding such freedoms too far, too fast, however, risks radicalizing his social base and causing a reaction by some regime’s conservatives, who are already wary of Rouhani. The new president’s best path forward thus likely lays somewhere between the status-quo and reform, in which freedoms are expanded but gradually and in synch with successes in other policy areas such as nuclear negotiations.