Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington, D.C. – March 17, 2008 . . . Major stories this week included parliamentary elections in Iran; an interview with reformist parliamentarian Nouradin Pirmoazen that triggered a maelstrom – and charges of treason – at home; the flurry of news coverage of the Pirmoazen interview; a poll conducted in Iran by Terror Free Tomorrow showing “Iranians are simply not inspired by any of the candidates” on the ballot; and interviews with a wide range of journalists, union leaders, student leaders, lawyers and politicians on the elections; the State Department’s annual human rights report and its findings that the situation only worsened in Iran in 2007; the 20th anniversary of the chemical bombardment of the Kurdish town of Halabcheh by Saddam Hussein’s regime; continuing unrest on Iranian campuses, particularly at Shiraz University; the International Women of Courage Awards; the Noor Film Festival in Los Angeles; and interviews with nuclear weapons expert Hans Blix on the IAEA’s recent report on Iran’s nuclear program and new ways to encourage Iranian cooperation; with State Department official Erica J. Barks-Ruggles on the human rights situation in Iran; with the Deputy Director of Programs at Freedom House, Daniel Calingaert, on the non-profit organization’s work to promote democracy and freedom; with former Iranian Budget and Planning Minister Abdol-Madjid Madjidi on Iran’s economy; with lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi on the status of the legal case of former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in Iran one year ago; with State Department Middle East spokesman David Foley on the appointment of Muslim-American Sada Cumber as the US representative to the OIC and on sanctions against an Iranian bank in Bahrain; and with the US representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, Mandana Zand Karimi.

VOA/PNN programming the past week focused on events leading up to March 14 parliamentary elections. Preliminary reports indicate conservative candidates will win about 70 percent of the seats in parliament. But results also show a split in Iran’s conservative camp between radical supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his conservative critics. One prominent conservative critic, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani, won a landslide victory in the city of Qom. Iranian reformists expect to win at least 40 seats in the 290-seat parliament, about the same number they hold now – a performance some reformists described as a success. The regime claims 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. Anecdotal information puts the total lower, with many Iranians boycotting the elections to protest the massive disqualification of candidates deemed inappropriate by the government.

Reformist parliamentarian Nouradin Pirmoazen gave Roundtable with You a behind-the-scenes look at Iran’s parliamentary elections on March 9, creating a big backlash at home. Mr. Pirmoazen – who is spokesman for the minority faction in the Iranian parliament, or majlis, a position equivalent to Senate Minority Leader in the US – was disqualified by Iran’s Guardian Council from running for re-election in the 8th majlis. VOA/PNN opened the Roundtable program with footage of some of Mr. Pirmoazen’s speeches from the floor of the majlis in Tehran, with one sound bite showing him criticizing the domestic policy of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government as resulting in “poverty, inflation and corruption.” He also is shown talking about the necessity of “building bridges with the West,” something the current government opposes. Mr. Pirmoazen also is shown criticizing Mr. Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy and harsh rhetoric, saying it isolated Iran from the rest of the world, adding that his comments about the Holocaust were against Iran’s national interest. In yet another sound bite, he said he believes the US is a better partner for Iran than Russia. On Roundtable, Mr. Pirmoazen amplified the criticisms he’d made at home, referring to the disqualification of reformists from the upcoming majlis elections as a “political massacre.” He said he thinks the majlis is becoming a tool for the Supreme Leader and government of Iran, and that the Iranian regime is moving toward a “military-ruled dictatorship.” However, Mr. Pirmoazen encouraged Iranians to participate in the elections, possibly because he wants reformists to keep their minority presence in the parliament.

Iranian hardliners immediately condemned Mr. Pirmoazen, accusing him of committing treason by granting the interview. IRNA, the state-run news agency, quoted Iranian Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie as saying, “This has definitely been treason and an appalling act. The law bans people in such positions from interviews with foreign radio and television. The Intelligence Ministry will certainly probe this and will not ignore it.” Numerous news agencies covered the interview and its aftermath, including AFP, BBC, Gulf Times, Times Online, Fars News Agency and Press TV. Some excerpts:

Agence France Press: “Iranian hardliners charged leading reformers with being too close to Iran’s Western enemies, days ahead of an election expected to see conservatives consolidate their hold on parliament…. a leading reformist MP in the outgoing parliament was sharply rebuked by conservative figures for giving an interview about Friday’s elections to the Persian service of the US-funded Voice of America television…. leading reformist MP Nouradin Pirmoazen [talked] to the VOA, a channel heartily disliked by Iran’s Islamic leaders. [He] criticised the disqualifications of reformists and raised doubts about the importance of the elections in the interview, which was roundly mocked on state television news late Monday. ‘Some go to the foreigners and criticise the parliament, the government and the system on American television,’ outgoing parliament speaker Gholam Ali Hadad Adel seethed at a major conservative rally in Tehran. ‘This is neither defending independence nor principals,’ he added. Another MP Elias Naderan commented according to the Fars news agency: ‘Parliament is not a place for spies and asylum seekers.’”

BBC: “The Iranian intelligence ministry has accused a leading reformist MP of committing treason by speaking to an American-funded television channel. The ministry is investigating the interview given by the MP, Nouradin Pirmoazen, for the Persian-language service of Voice of America. The MP criticised the disqualification of hundreds of reformists from Friday’s parliamentary elections in Iran. Mr. Pirmoazen is among those who have been barred from standing….In the interview, Noureddine Pirmoazen criticized the disqualification of reformist candidates by the Guardian Council, and cast doubt on the significance of the elections. Iran’s leaders regard Voice of America, and other foreign television stations that broadcast in Persian via satellite, as vehicles for propaganda against the Islamic republic. A ban on satellite dishes in Iran is widely flouted.”

Fars News Agency: “Certain media outlets are reporting the possibility of the spokesman of the reformist camp in the Majlis not returning to the country following a trip to the US. Others are saying that he is in the US to attend a medical conference….Although many reformists who are critical of the government are running for the elections and are strongly criticizing the government in the media, Pirmoazen claimed: Opposing the government and the president were the main reasons for the disqualification of the reformist candidates….He did not say however, how he – who holds strong and radical views – could enter the sixth and seventh Majlis through an election which is a show and based on cheating.”

Press TV: “Iran’s Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie has said that his ministry will not overlook an MP’s interview with VOA. Referring to the Voice of America’s interview with Iranian lawmaker Nouradin Pirmoazen, Mohseni-Ejeie noted that even someone who is not currently a lawmaker should avoid giving interviews to foreign media. He pointed out that the Intelligence Ministry intends to follow up the case.”

Britain’s Times Online: Iran’s hardline leadership today began a fresh crackdown against political opponents before elections to be held at the end of this week, announcing an investigation against a leading reformist for “treason.” As the last day of a muted campaign before Friday’s largely discredited parliamentary poll neared an end, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie, the Iranian Intelligence Minister, denounced Nouradin Pirmoazen, a reformist spokesman, as being guilty of an “appalling act” after he criticized the regime during an unauthorized interview with an American-backed television channel. During the interview, broadcast by the Persian-language service of the Voice of America this week, Mr. Pirmoazen became the second reformist leader in a matter of days to denounce the regime’s decision to disqualify 1,700 candidates — including himself — from standing in the elections.”

The Australian: “Iranian hardliners yesterday charged leading reformers with being too close to Iran’s Western enemies, days ahead of parliamentary elections expected to see conservatives consolidate their hold on parliament….a leading reformist MP in the outgoing parliament was sharply rebuked by conservative figures for giving an interview about tomorrow’s elections to the Persian service of the US-funded Voice of America television.”

News & Views foreign correspondent Nazzy Beglari traveled to Dubai to gauge the attitude of members of the Iranian Diaspora as well as Iranian tourists on the upcoming elections. All had decided in favor of a boycott because the selection process of candidates left them feeling that they had no real choices. For fear of retribution, none of those interviewed revealed their identity or real names. A businessman we interviewed said the mere fact that he could not openly express his opinion was insulting to this dignity. A video artist and Iran-Iraq war veteran said the current elections were meaningless and that he would not vote again in Iran until there was real freedom and the economy was better. The businessman we interviewed suggested that sanctions against Iran were hurting the economy and that he was having trouble getting credit for a loan as a result. Because religion and state are so intertwined and only candidates who supported the Islamic Revolution were allowed to run, important issues such as unemployment and the economy were not sufficiently addressed.

News & Views interviewed Mehdi Khanbaba-Tehrani, a well-known Iranian political analyst based in Germany, on the controversy generated by VOA/PNN’s interview with a leading reformist in the Iranian parliament, Nouradin Pirmoazen. Mr. Khanbaba-Tehrani said the dictators who are ruling Iran needed political chaos to be the hot topic before the upcoming election, and did so by characterizing Mr. Pirmoazen as a traitor. He said Iranian authorities’ harsh reaction to the Pirmoazen interview shows they do not even try to hide their hostility to Iran’s constitution and civil rights. Mr. Khanbaba-Tehrani said it is ironic that Iranian hardliners say anyone who talks to foreign media or foreigners is acting against Iran when they themselves talk to foreign media and foreign officials in Iran and abroad.

News and Views March 16 reported that mid-term elections for the Assembly of Experts took place in four towns – including Tehran – on March 14, the same day as parliamentary elections. Editor and columnist Amir Abbas Nakhaee of Sarmayeh, a well-known newspaper in Tehran, told PNN, “It was the ruling circle’s goal to enter Ayatollah [Mohammad Reza] Mahdavi Kani to the Assembly of Experts, and that goal was achieved.” Mr. Nakhaee said because he is a hardliner, Ayatollah Mahdavi Kani could balance Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s position as the reformist speaker of the Assembly. The Assembly is a deliberative body that is charged with electing and supervising the Supreme Leader of Iran.

News and Views March 13 interviewed former member of Parliament Ghassem Sholeh-Sadi, who said the Iranian election is designed to concentrate power in the hands of people he called “insiders” who use all the levers of power to outmaneuver and drive out their reformist critics. He said these conservative groups have usurped all important centers of power and according to the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini, a legislative body does not have any meaning because all laws come from divinity and cannot be in any way interpreted or amended. “Our legislative body is a farce and cannot be called a real Parliament where actual legislation happens like other countries,” Mr. Sholeh-Sadi said. “This regime cannot stand the idea of having a loyal opposition. We saw this when the reformists enjoyed a majority in Parliament, but watched all their efforts in pressing a reform agenda stymied by the Guardian Council, a non-elected body that was created to ensure that legislation passed by Parliament is in compliance with Islamic rulings and teachings.” Mr. Sholeh-Sadi said he has decided not to take part in these elections.

Late Edition March 10 reported on the results of a survey conducted in Iran by a US non-profit organization called Terror Free Tomorrow, which conducts public opinion polls to find out why people support or oppose extremism. The poll showed Iranians do not strongly support the ballot choices offered to them and that they also continue to overwhelmingly favor better relations with the United States, a full democracy for Iran, and concessions on the nuclear issue. Nine out of ten Iranians want to elect their Supreme Leader and other leaders. But the most popular choice is not on the ballot. A third of Iranians said they would vote for “Neither” the Conservatives nor the Reformists. “Iranians are simply not inspired by any of the candidates.” Meanwhile, former President Mohammad Khatami warned that the Islamic Revolution, and even Islam itself, “may not keep its current course forever.”

Roundtable with You March 13 focused on parliamentary elections being held in Iran. The elections have been the subject of debate and discussion amongst Iranians, both in and out of the country since the inception of the Islamic Republic nearly three decades ago. Some strongly believe any participation in the process of voting legitimizes the regime and prolongs rule by the clerics. Others believe that choice is limited between bad choices and worse choices. Veteran London-based journalist Masoud Benoud believes that participation is a must, although he feels the current election is the worst since the start of the Islamic Revolution. Mr. Behnoud said three out of four candidates were pre-selected by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But he said that leaves one out of four candidates that should prompt people to get involved. This opinion was not shared by other participants in the show. Various political organizations political parties, labor unions, and university students – through e-mails and calls – expressed an opposing view. Massoud Salamati, a member of Central Committee of the Democratic Front of Iran, spoke with PNN by phone from Iran. He said, “The election doesn’t solve our problems. The regime is not willing to cede power to elected representatives of the people.” Mr. Salamati also said the disqualification of candidates was in violation of the constitution and human rights. “Any participation in this election is a vote of approval for the regime,” he said. Another guest from Iran, who appeared on the show via telephone, was Ali Akbar Pirhadi, a member of Tehran’s bus drivers union. He said he believes the real issues for Iranians on the eve of Norooz are the bad economy, inflation and unemployment, and that “people couldn’t care less about this election.” Viewers who called in echoed these latter guests.

Roundtable with You March 14 was a continuation of the previous day’s program, again focusing on parliamentary elections, this time with London-based political analyst Alireza Nourizadeh. Hundreds of e-mails poured in during the past 24 hours, during the one-hour duration of today’s program a record 174 e-mails were received, and the e-mails continued to pile up after Roundtable concluded for the day. Mr. Nourizadeh gave an update on the elections, reporting a total lack of interest on the part of the Iranian people for the “government-staged election production” – this, despite the clergy’s utmost efforts to encourage people to vote. He said many clerics even resorted to advising people that voting is a religious duty. But people had no ear for such counsel on the eve of Norooz, Iranian New Year, which starts March 19. One caller from Tabriz questioned not only the legitimacy of the election, but the legitimacy of a constitution that permits “selection” in the name of election. Another caller from Azerbaijan talked about the deceptive tactics of the regime, with officials’ description of “today’s election as a great victory” an example of their smoke and mirrors. Roundtable with You March 15 talked with Tel Aviv-based Middle East analyst Meir Javdanfar about parliamentary elections. He said Iran’s elections were far from perfect and certainly not up to the standards we are familiar with in the West, but they are still more democratic than those held in the neighboring countries allied with the United States like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “Even Palestinians were able to hold a more democratic election that Iran two years ago when they held theirs and led to Hamas coming to office,” he said. “For Iran there are a lot of models to follow. But for the Supreme Leader of Iran, following these models would threaten his position of power.” Mr. Javdanfar said reformist candidates will have more clout and be more effective if they win more seats in this election. “They will be to challenge some of Ahmadinejad’s policies especially in the economic area where Ahmadinejad’s track record leaves a lot to be desired,” he said. One important feature of the new Parliament will be a greater presence of Revolutionary Guards leaders. “This means,” he said, “that the Supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has come to depend on leaders of the Revolutionary Guards to keep him in power….the new parliament will have more members from the Revolutionary Guards than it has ever had before.”

Today’s Woman March 16 focused on parliamentary elections. According to the Iranian government, out of 43 million eligible voters, 60% participated in the balloting. The United States and the European Union both said the electoral process in Iran was not democratic and was not carried out legitimately. Panelists discussed the reasons why fewer women voted than in the past, and whether women’s issues and concerns will be addressed by the incoming members of parliament. They highlighted the discriminatory nature of laws toward women in Iran, and noted that although the Iranian Constitution equates men and women, Islamic interpretation and implementation of Sharia law endorses women as second-class citizens. Panelists also discussed inheritance laws, noting the recent passing of a law that grants more leniencies toward religious minorities than to women. Prominent Iranian lawyer Mohammad Hossein Aghasi said it doesn’t matter what laws the parliament makes because the Guardian Council has the power to veto any legislation passed through the parliament. He said, “It is very important for women to challenge the laws that prohibit their liberation. However, because the majority of the members of Parliament are men, the concerns of women often go unheard and unimplemented.” Mr. Aghasi said there is a strong division between constitution and Sharia law, and Iran’s implementation of Sharia laws disallows Iran from fully abiding by international standards.

News and Views March 16 talked with human rights activist Morteza Anvari about elections in Iran. He said the Iranian President’s populism and his attacks on the West trumped criticism of his handling of the nation’s financial crisis as early results showed the hardline leader winning strong support in parliamentary elections. Reformist parties opposed to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stood little chance in Friday’s voting. Hundreds of reformists, including high-profile candidates, had been removed from the ballot by the Guardian Council, a body of clerics and jurists that scrutinizes candidates for loyalty to the country’s Islamic system. Mr. Anvari said this election was not conducted by world standards, and noted that the EU has said it cannot accept the results as the election was not free and fair. Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, was elected to parliament with 75% of the vote. As a conservative opposed to President Ahmadinejad, Mr. Anvari said it is unclear whether Mr. Larijani can pull together a conservative coalition to balance the President’s religious hardliners. Political allegiances in Parliament are often difficult to gauge, with some members modifying their ideologies when they take office.

News and Views March 14 interviewed dissident Iranian journalist Akbar Ganji, who is now living in exile, about parliamentary elections. He said that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei claims Washington is encouraging the Iranian public to vote and cast their ballots in favor of reformist candidates. “A lot of individuals and groups have argued for a boycott of the election and I include myself in that camp,” he said. “If there are political groups that encourage the public to participate in the vote, then they owe it to the electorate to propose a program of reform in the fields of economics, culture and politics.” Mr. Ganji argued that even the reformist camp admits only a third of the seats in the new parliament are competitive and if all reformist candidates are elected, they will not be able to pass any legislation because of their minority status. “They will not be able to hold other branches of government accountable as any parliament needs to do,” he said. Mr. Ganji said the reformist camp is telling its supporters to vote for reformists so that they can continue to be a minority, otherwise the conservatives will seize all the power in the new parliament. “But I think they have been an ineffective minority and unable to give voice to the aspirations of their constituents,” he said. “I have decided to sit out these elections because they are meaningless.”

Late Edition March 12 examined the shortcomings of Iran’s majlis elections and the regime’s efforts to spin the elections as free and popular. PNN used footage from Iranian TV, which included an interview with a so-called expert who claimed the United States is trying to prevent Iranians from going to the polls. PNN also showed how an Iranian website is promoting the public opinion survey conducted by Terror Free Tomorrow – but a censored version, not the poll itself. Late Edition also summarized the general mood in Iran in advance of Friday’s election, including the regime’s harsh reaction to PNN’s interview with Noureddin Pir Moazzen

Today’s Woman March 11 talked with human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh about the Iranian government preventing her from leaving Iran to attend a women’s conference. Via telephone from Iran, Ms. Sotudeh said the orders had to be complied with because they came from the Revolutionary Guard, thereby making them legitimate by definition. The rest of the show focused on the upcoming parliamentary elections. Political activist and former student organizer Parviz Safari said the organization he is involved with, the Iranian Democratic Front, has released an official statement stating it is boycotting the parliamentary election. He acknowledged, however, that the Front can do little more than boycott the elections because it faces great government pressure. Mr. Safari said Iranian media have been barred from mentioning which organizations are boycotting the election or publicizing their perspectives. Abdollah Momeni, another political activist and former student organizer, said some people are not officially boycotting the elections – they are just choosing not to participate. Mr. Momeni said the candidates are pre-selected so it’s not much use for people to participate in the elections, but noted people are still paying attention to the process and to the results. Journalist Babak Dad talked about the limited role of women in the election and in the parliament under this government. Journalist Hossein Bastani, co-founder of the online publication, said there is still an opportunity for change despite the parliament’s lack of accountability.

News and Views March 11 interviewed Mohammad Hashemi, secretary of Iran’s main reformist and independent student organization, the Office for the Consolidation of Unity, or Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat. Mr. Hashemi said student leaders debated whether or not to boycott the elections over two days of meetings at Tehran University last weekend. He said they decided to boycott the elections: “In Iran, political reform is going to come through non-governmental organizations and other civic movements – not through quote elections unquote.” News and Views March 10 interviewed Tehran-based freelance journalist Babak Dad. He said Friday’s parliamentary elections are a test for next year’s presidential election. “The elections are a test for potential candidates to learn more about their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses for the presidential election.” He said leading reformist and former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami may throw his hat in the ring and seek the presidential office once again.

Today’s Woman March 14 focused on Iran’s parliamentary elections. From Washington, student activist Ali Afshari said the results of the elections were obvious before the ballots were counted. He said Supreme Leader Khamenei supported – even if indirectly – candidates who supported the existing conservative regime. Mr. Afshari dismissed former President Rafsanjani’s claim that Iran’s elections are more democratic than neighboring Turkey or Pakistan. He said if minority party candidates do win seats in Iran, their influence is disproportionately weak. From Iran, Kourosh Zaim of the National Iranian Front said the government promised to avoid interfering with the candidacies of reformist and other opposition politicians, “but they have not.” He said the Guardian Council has violated the law by interfering with the electoral process, primarily by discriminating against reformist candidates while openly supporting conservative candidates. Mr. Zaim said the Iranian government has prohibited freedom of speech and assembly, and most opposition groups were barred from participating in the elections. He said Iran’s political future includes the synchronization of all branches of government: the parliament, the judicial system, and the Guardian Council.

VOA/PNN March 10 interviewed former Swedish diplomat Hans Blix in London. Dr. Blix, who was Director-General if the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981-1997, was called back from retirement 2000-2003 to head the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) in charge of monitoring Iraq. He now runs the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, an independent body funded by the Swedish government. He said the IAEA has a duty to clarify the questions raised in its report on Iran’s nuclear program. Dr. Blix welcomed the P5+1 promise of incentives to encourage Iranian cooperation and suggested two additional incentives: assurance against attack – which the North Koreans are getting – and diplomatic relations with the United States. Dr. Blix said there is no economic advantage to Iran to enrich uranium. He pointed out that South Korea has 20 nuclear power plants compared to Iran’s two, adding that it imports needed enriched uranium from abroad. “We have many rights in the world, and we are not obliged to exercise every right that we have. We can abstain from it if there are advantages in doing so.” Dr. Blix urged Iran to adopt the Additional Protocol. On another issue, he expressed regret that Iran banned activist Parvin Ardalan from traveling to Sweden to collect the Olof Palme Prize. “I think the fight for greater equality for women is one of the crucial fights of our time.”

News and Views March 13 talked with Michael Beer about non-violence working to bring about social change. Mr. Beer runs the North American office of Nonviolence International, a non-profit organization promoting nonviolent action and seeking to reduce the use of violence worldwide. “We try and help people around the world whose needs are not met by the court system or elections,” Mr. Beer said. Nonviolence International is actively involved in organizing non-violence movements in a number of countries, including Burma and Kosovo. But he said it is challenging to operate under military dictatorships. “Our activists are routinely killed, tortured or jailed in these countries. But we also see many success stories. We have witnessed 20 or so countries change their governments through nonviolence. And nonviolent movements across the world have spawned social movements like women’s movement and student movement. To the Iranian people, I’d say don’t feel trapped. Take reasonable risks to bring about change through nonviolent actions like not voting, holding protests and sit-ins. The Iranian regime is like a lot of dictatorial regimes – it uses violence to intimidate its people.”

News and Views March 11 interviewed a student from Shiraz University on the continuing unrest on campus. The student, who asked to not be identified, said students were en route to an on-campus meeting March 9 when Iranian police confronted the students and beat them. The s