Case of alleged adulteress reflects Iran’s internal divisions

November 17, 2010

Haleh Esfandiari

  • What is Iran trying to do or prove in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery and later sentenced to hang for complicity in the murder of her husband?
The Ashtiani affair shows once again the internal divisions in Iran. There are those in the regime who wish this whole affair would disappear because they see it as an embarrassment for Iran, and there are those  who argue that the government should not cave in to international pressure and are looking for ways to carry out the sentence and hang her.  The regime's only concession to international critics was to change her verdict from death by stoning to death by hanging.
  • As of Nov. 16, Iranian state television had broadcast three separate confessions. Why is Iran giving this case so much attention? Are her confessions credible?
By broadcasting confessions by her, which are certainly coerced, Iran is reacting to the international publicity given to her case. The government wants to say to the world, "She has confessed; she is guilty." By now, the regime should have learned that no one, either in Iran or around the world, finds these television confessions credible. Ashtiani's  'confessions' have only fueled international protests regarding her case by women's movements and by governments and human rights organizations. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil offered in October to take Ms. Ashtiani. He was trying to help the Iranian government to find a face-saving solution out of the quagmire it has created for itself, but the regime rejected his offer.
  • The government has also arrested her son and two Germans who went to interview him. A court said on Nov. 16 that the Germans had been charged with espionage. Why has this case escalated into an international incident?
The son, Sajjad, was arrested because he had been been talking to the press and was arguing that his mother is innocent. The last straw for the government came when the son met with the two Germans  who had gone to interview him. After the meeting the Germans were arrested. They were accused of being journalists, posing as tourists and entering the country under false pretenses. As in several previous cases of detained foreigners and Iranians, the Germans were accused of endangering national security and  spying.  The same accusations have been made against the two American hikers who have been in an  Iranian prison for over a year; a third hiker was released due to illness recently, but she remains accused as well. 
  • On Nov. 2, the White House issued a statement strongly condemning Iran's plans to execute Ashtiani and its treatment of her lawyers and family. Does U.S. or international pressure have any influence on Iran in a case like this?
International pressure makes a big difference and often strengthens the hand of the more pragmatic elements in the regime. In the case of Ms. Ashtiani, as in any other cases involving the violation of human, political and religious rights, condemnation by officials and civil society organizations around the world, helps.
  • Does this case reflect any broader trends in Iran?
Yes, it reflects the hardening of attitudes in the regime.  Since the 2009 presidential elections, many of the the leaders and activists of the reform movement and the Green Movement have been arrested; several have been sentenced to prison terms. The government has also arrested the lawyers who represent the detainees in political and human rights cases. For example Sakineh Ashtiani's lawyer,  Mohammad Mostafaei fled Iran after he was threatened by the authorities.  Her other lawyer, Houtan Kian, was arrested in October. Along with Ms. Ashtiaini and her son, he was forced to appear on one of those television 'confession' spectacles. 

Read Haleh Esfandiari's chapter on Iran's women's movement in “The Iran Primer” 

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of “Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran’s Islamic Revolution” and My Prison, My Home: One Woman’s Story of Captivity in Iran.”