Iran enters the multiverse of madness

People in authoritarian countries often feel as though they are living in a multiverse, with different versions of reality. Iran is a case in point.

On Thursday 26 May, up to 100,000 people including families with children flocked to the Azadi Stadium in Tehran to celebrate the release of a new pop song. This may seem little different from, say, crowds of screaming teenagers going to Wembley Stadium to worship Harry Styles.

Calling Salam Farmandeh “pop” is a bit of a stretch. The song, which translates as Hello Commander in English, is state-backed and tells the story of a young child who is speaking to Imam Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islam who rids the world of evil and injustice. The song also references the country’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei.

The pro-government Tehran Times said the song’s performer Abouzar Rouhi had risen “to national, if not international, prominence for his tuneful song” while recognising that Rouhi “isn’t a singer in the true sense of the word”.

Government spokesman Ali Bahadori Jahromi said the song and concert was “a manifestation of [the children of] the 1390s [the 2010s] pledging allegiance to the Revolution”.

In an alternate reality at the same time, demonstrators also took to the streets of Iran following a collapse of a building on Monday 23 May in Abadan in south-western Iran in which at least 31 people are known to have died and scores more injured. The collapse of the Metropol building has been blamed on developer greed and corruption but the protests have become sharper following indifference to the plight of the families of the dead and injured.

Thousands of security forces have now descended on Abadan and other regional cities and protesters have been met with teargas and even bullets, with the response bordering on martial law in some cases.

There have also been protests in the Tehran suburb of Shahr-e Ray, where protesters chanted “Death to the dictator” in reference to Ali Khamenei.

“Public expressions of dissent are not tolerated in Iran,” said Hannah Somerville, editor of IranWire English, “and even less so in the border areas, which the mullahs regard as posing a heightened ‘security’ risk due to the diverse demographic makeup and higher rates of deprivation.”

She said: “The Supreme Leader’s first statement acknowledging the incident came three days too late. When it did arrive, it was desultory at best. That was ultimately what sparked the protests late last week, together with state media outlets deliberately minimising the disaster – for instance, by making reference only to ‘superficial injuries’ and not the number of dead. The head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting openly told a group of students at Sharif University of Technology on Monday that he had been asked to limit coverage to an hour or two at most.”

By contrast the coverage of the alternate reality – the Hello Commander concert – was extensive.

“The timing of this propaganda-fest could not have been worse, and will doubtless have further incensed any devastated families in Abadan who saw it on their TV screens,” said Somerville.

Following the protests, the internet has been disrupted in several major cities in the Khuzestan region including Abadan: a tactic to restrict the free flow of information that the Iranian state always deploys during times of popular unrest.

Mahsa Alimardani, senior researcher for MENA at Article 19, says the internet has been disconnected from 5pm to early morning on most days since protests started.

The authorities are always quick to cover up the reasons for the internet shutdowns.

“The Telecommunications Infrastructure Company announced on 26 May there would be nationwide disruptions related to infrastructure changes and updates,” said Alimardani.

The shutdowns have affected coverage of the protests in the country where WhatsApp and Instagram are both hugely popular.

The government has previously restricted coverage of protests on Instagram, said Alimardani.

“We had issues with protest content removals in July 2021, when we documented over 200 cases of protest footage being removed from Instagram,” she said. “Discussions with Instagram back then led to a temporary exception during the protests to allow for the chant that was being labelled as ‘violent incitement’ by their policies to stay on. The chant is a tradition of all Iran’s protests – “death to the dictator; death to Khamenei; death to the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]”.

IranWire’s Somerville says the cover-up of the situation in Abadan is a symptom of the government’s obsession with the ‘problem’ of the country’s youth.

“The situation is even more charged because we already know several of the tens of victims of the Metropol collapse were young people, “the youth” being a fixation for both Ali Khamenei and in Islamic Republic revolutionary doctrine, hence the Hello Commander event. This is not a story the regime wants told. The protest suppression and media muzzling are part and parcel of the same effort to make sure the story stays buried along with those young people from Abadan,” she said.

The Iranian government’s efforts to hide the news from Abadan and show their own version of the world were further stymied when Iranian actor Zahra Amir Ebrahimi referenced the situation when accepting the award for best actress at the recent Cannes Film Festival.

Ebrahimi won the award for her portrayal of an investigative journalist in the Persian-language crime thriller Holy Spider, which is based on the true story of Saeed Hanaei, a serial killer who targeted sex workers in the city of Mashad in 2000 and 2001. At the time, Hanaei became a folk hero for the ultra-religious conservatives for “cleansing” the city of prostitution.

Ebrahimi said in her speech, “Although I am very happy at moment, part of my being is sad for the Iranian people who are facing many problems every day. My heart is with the people of Abadan.”

Her comments won’t go down well the Iranian government and its attempts to create an alternate reality where all is well with the world.

Iraqi newspaper bombed after Ayatollah caricature

The Zad caricature of Ayatollah Khamenei (Image RFE/RL)

Al-sabah al jadeed’s caricature of Ayatollah Khamenei (Image RFE/RL)

Independent Iraqi daily newspaper Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed has survived numerous attempts to destroy it over its 10 year existence. But on 10 February, the newspaper’s Baghdad office was bombed and now its future is in doubt. The daily may need to find a new office, employees are fleeing, and its website is facing one DoS attack after another.

Windows, furniture and equipment were damaged when a bomb went in front of the building at 4.30 am. Later that morning another bomb exploded not far from the newspaper, while an unexploded heavy C4 plastic explosive device was found inside the premises and dismantled by police. No one was injured or killed, as the office was empty – but some neighbours are suggesting that the newspaper should move.

A few hours later that same day a militia-like group entered the building. “They came threatening us in broad daylight, so to speak,” says Ismael Zayer, editor in chief. The group escaped after employees managed to warn the police.

The bomb attacks followed a social media campaign to demand the closure of the newspaper after it published its weekly supplement Zad on 6 February. The supplement was devoted to the 35th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and on the cover featured a caricature of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The cover caricature is a tradition for Zad, a supplement that came into existence in the first months of the Arab Spring. Ahmed al-Rubaie, the newspaper’s cartoonist, has drawn hundreds of caricatures of political and religious figures, from Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, Najaf’s grand ayatollah Al-Sistani and prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to Nelson Mandela and other internationally known figures. These cartoons are never intended to be offensive or convey a negative message, they are just an alternative to uninteresting photos of VIPs.

Zayer believes the caricature of Khamenei is just a pretext to attack the newspaper and have it closed before the parliamentary elections planned for this spring. But there may be yet more reasons for the attacks and threats against the newspaper. Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed recently covered a damning report by Human Rights Watch on the abuse of female detainees in Iraqi prisons. HRW accused the government of illegally detaining wives and daughters of (Sunni) suspects who are on the run, claiming detainees were sexually abused. Zayer wrote an open letter to the government, demanding that the Minister of Justice, Hassan al-Shimmari, be sacked. “I am ashamed of my country,” he commented, “What are we? A whorehouse?”

After some efforts to convince the Ministry of Interior to protect the newspaper and its staff, the office of the newspaper is now under permanent surveillance by the police, but it is unclear for how long. Zayer has left the country temporarily after receiving death threats. This is not the first time the editor has been forced to flee Baghdad.

In the beginning of 2006 when Iraq’s sectarian conflict led to thousands of assassinations a month, Zayer managed the newspaper from a small office in Amman, Jordan. He planned to create an international edition for the millions of Iraqi refugees outside their home country – a project that was almost ready to be launched when on 30 December, Saddam Hussein was hanged in a way that scandalised his Jordanian supporters and made the company that was going to produce the international edition wary of printing a newspaper critical of Ba’athists.

Zayer decided to open a second bureau in Erbil, the relatively safe capital of the autonomous Kurdish Region, and to bring back around a dozen journalists that had escaped to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The bureau was maintained until the very end of 2009, when Zayer and most of his staff went back to Baghdad.

The newspaper has faced many other challenges. In May 2004, Zayer’s driver and bodyguard were killed during an attempt by fake police to kidnap the editor in chief. Later, one of Zayer’s brothers was kidnapped for a hefty ransom. More than once ministers ordered an advertising boycott – a large part of the advertising in the newspaper concerns government tenders, next to a steady stream of ads by mobile phone companies and real estate firms. Nowadays, a strange rule is in force that says tender ads can only be paid once the tender has been decided – as a result, the newspaper is sitting on hundreds of unpaid bills.

From 2006 until 2008, when Nouri al-Maliki, after having been under siege in Basra himself, finally decided to defeat the Shi’ite militias in the south and the capital, distribution of the newspaper was often prohibited in many cities and Baghdadi neighbourhoods. Distribution north of the capital was completely disrupted during the American siege of Fallujah at the end of 2004 – and for a long time thereafter. The Borsa in Baghdad, a building from where for years, several independent and party newspapers were sold to traders every morning, was occupied for months by Ba’athists. Sometimes printing houses ran out of paper after trucks were stolen on the road from Amman to Baghdad and their drivers killed.

By attempting to create a modern, democratic trade union for journalists, Zayer, who was elected its first president, ran into serious trouble with the old union, one of the many Ba’athist institutions the US occupation’s administration had left intact.

The newspaper has survived several libel cases brought on by various politicians demanding potentially ruinous compensation sums, owing its victories to courageous independent judges. It has survived vicious campaigns on the internet claiming it is in “American-Zionist” hands. Recently it survived the flooding of large parts of Baghdad, as a result of bad maintenance of the sewage system and torrential rain.

Iraqi readers have shown their support for the newspaper after the bomb attack. This February is not the first time there is no Al-Sabah Al-Jadeed in the streets – but this time, as those responsible for the bomb attack didn’t leave a business card, with whom should the newspaper negotiate? Removing the supplement from the website hasn’t helped to assuage the anger about the innocent caricature of Khamenei. In the past the newspaper could hang on thanks to financial help from donors, as well as political support from Iraqi ministers and top officials who think independent media are at least a necessary evil. It certainly needs solidarity now.

This article was published on 13 February 2014 at

Iran tightens the screw on free expression ahead of presidential election

With the 14 June presidential election approaching, Iran’s leaders are moving to prevent the outburst of protest that followed the disputed 2009 poll by tightening access to the web and silencing “negative” news. Raha Zahedpour reports

Saeed Jalili, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, Ali Akbar Velayati, Mohammad Gharazi, Mohammad Reza Aref, Hasan Rowhani, Mohsen Rezaei Iran’s state television this week held the second of three presidential debates. Unlike the 2009 debates, no one-on-one debating was allowed. In these debates, resembling game shows, candidates have less than five minutes to talk about their policies on different issues, and other candidates were chosen at random to question the speaker. Candidates were then left with very limited time to conclude after the end of questions.

The eight qualified candidates could not escape Iran’s strict censorship during their campaigns. Iranian state TV censored reformist candidate Mohammad Reza Aref’s speech in a programme broadcast for the Iranian diaspora on 26 May. The recording was halted and not resumed.

In another programme on the domestic Channel One, conservative candidate Mohsen Rezaei was censored for talking about how unemployment devastated a family who lost their children in the war, and were led to suicidal thoughts as a result of pressures from the economic crisis and inflation.

State television censored documentaries made by the campaigns of each candidate — including Saeed Jalili, Ayatollah Khamenei’s favoured candidate — showing that even a favourite could not escape the sharp blades of censorship.

Iran carefully vetted the candidates in this year’s race: Hashemi Rafsanjani and Rahim Mashaei were disqualified from the upcoming presidential election by Iran’s Guardian Council. Hashemi Rafsanjani, 78, was dropped from the race for being too old. Mashaei was disqualified because he promotes nationalism and nationalist Islam — despite being a part of hard-liners faction.

Even before the election’s candidates were announced, Iran’s ruling elite moved to slow internet connections, blocked access to Gmail accounts, and clamped down on circumvention tools. All over the country, Iranians are struggling to access social media, or even check their email.

Authorities have also tightened up web censorship — censoring even influential political figures close to the government. A blog belonging to one of Rafsanji’s advisors was blocked recently. The move raised eyebrows, because Hashemi Rafsanji is key revolutionary figure, a former president, a former head of Parliament and the current chairman of the Expediency Discernment Council of Iran.

Iran also shut down sites aligned to presidential hopeful Efandiar Rahim Mashaei.

Meanwhile, Ahmadi Moghadam, the chief commander of Police, said that the authorities would not allow any distractions around the election. Following the announcement, jailed journalists and bloggers who were released after being imprisoned and sentenced after the 2009 uprising were arrested once more. Former presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi are still under house arrest.

Iran’s press has also faced enormous challenges in reporting on the election. The ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance invited journalists to a seminar about what could be reported. Officials emphasised that “negative news” should not be published. Subsequently, some papers received official notices for their content. The websites of reformist newspapers Mardom Saalaary and Bahar were blocked, even though print editions of the newspapers continued to be distributed

In light of restrictions, rights organisations have cast doubt on the election’s freedom. In a 24 May statement Human Rights Watch asked, “How can Iran hold free elections when opposition leaders are behind bars and people can’t speak freely?”

Raha Zahedpour is a journalist and researcher living in London. She writes under a pseudonym

Iran: Leader orders creation of internet oversight agency in bid to control web

Iran’s Supreme leader has ordered the creation of an “internet oversight agency” to control the web. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered the creation of the “Supreme Council of Cyberspace” which aims to prevent harm to Iranians who go online. Dangers expected to be tackled by the Council include computer viruses created by Iran’s rivals aimed at sabotaging its industry, and a “culture invasion” which would undermine the Islamic Republic. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will head the cyberspace council, along with powerful security figures.