United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Rouhani Tweets: On Chemical Weapons, Syria

            In a flurry of tweets, President Hassan Rouhani took a firm stand against use of chemical weapons in Syria. Damascus is Tehran’s closest ally in the region. But chemical weapons are a particularly sensitive issue in Iran because of repeated use by Iraq during the 1980-1988 war. During the war, Rouhani served as a Supreme Defense Council member and chief of Iran’s air defenses, which gave him first-hand exposure to the issue of chemical weapons. The following tweets are from August 27.

               Rouhani then cautioned against jumping to conclusions regarding Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons. He argued that military intervention without U.N. approval would be a "blatant violation" of international law. The following tweets are from August 28 and 29.

            Rouhani also tweeted on the broader Syrian crisis after the first reports of nerve gas usage surfaced on August 21. He encouraged outside powers to help facilitate dialogue between the regime and the opposition instead of arming the rebels



Sign of Changing Times?

            In unusual coverage of a diplomatic visit, the Iranian press issued several pictures of new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcoming U.N. Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, who is also a former senior U.S. official. As Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from August 2009 to June 2012, he was in charge of U.S. Iran policy. The Iranian press has traditionally issued standard photographs of officials formally sitting next to each other in chairs or across a table. But Mehr News Agency issued a series of candid shots of Zarif’s warm welcome, including the one below on August 26.

The following photograph is from Feltman’s August 2012 trip to Iran with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon.
Photo Credits: Mehr News Agency and official website of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei

Report: Iran-Turkey Rivalry

            Turkish and Iranian interests in the Middle East are increasingly at odds, especially in Syria and Iraq, according to a new report by the Rand Corporation. Turkish energy needs and massive Iranian oil and natural gas resources heightened levels of cooperation between the two countries during the last decade. But F. Stephen Larrabee and Alireza Nader argue that Tehran and Ankara are “rivals rather than close partners.” Ankara’s “main fear” is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a regional arms race, according to the report. Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition has especially strained relations with Iran, which has aided President Bashar Assad against the rebels. The following are excerpts from the report with a link to the full text at the end.

            The Arab Spring has given the political and ideological rivalry between Turkey and Iran greater impetus. The fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, in addition to uprisings in Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, has undermined the political order in the Middle East. Turkey and Iran both have sought to exploit the emerging “new order” in the region to achieve their respective interests in the Middle East.
            Relations have been strained by a number of issues. The most important factor contributing to the growing strains in relations has been Turkey’s support for the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is Iran’s only true state ally in the Middle East. Since 1979, the secular, Alawite-dominated, Baathist Syrian regime and Iran’s Shi’a theocracy have strongly supported each other. Assad’s downfall would be a serious strategic blow to Iran and could result in the growth of Turkey’s influence. It could also have a demonstration effect on Iran, strengthening internal opposition to the Iranian regime and deepening the current divisions within the Iranian leadership.
            Iraq has also become a field of growing competition between Turkey and Iran. The withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq has created a power vacuum that Iran has attempted to fill. The sectarian conflict between the Shi’a and Sunni has drawn Turkey and Iran into the Iraqi conflict on opposing sides. While the Turkish-Iranian competition in Iraq is not as significant as the tensions over Syria, it could gain new strength with Assad’s downfall, leading to wide-spread sectarian violence that could be highly destabilizing.
            The Kurdish issue has also emerged as a source of tension between Ankara and Tehran. The Turkish government suspects Syria and Iran of providing support to the main Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. As the unrest in Syria has spread, the Assad regime’s control over the Kurdish areas along the Turkish-Syrian border has eroded, deepening Turkish anxieties that this will strengthen calls for greater autonomy among Turkey’s own Kurdish population and that Syria and, to some extent, Iran may use Turkey’s vulnerabilities on the Kurdish issue in an attempt to reshape Turkey’s policy toward the Syrian regime.
            The Palestinian issue provides yet another area of rivalry between the two countries. Iran views its opposition to Israel as enhancing its popularity in the Arab world. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s assertive support for the Palestinians has stolen Iran’s thunder and has been an important factor contributing to the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Israel.
            Turkey and Iran are also potential rivals for influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. However, competition between Turkey and Iran in these regions has been muted. Iranian influence has been constrained in Central Asia and the Caucasus due to a number of factors, including Russia’s dominant role as a regional power broker.
            Iran’s nuclear program has been a source of strain and divergence in U.S.-Turkish relations, especially as Turkey has attempted to play the role of mediator between Iran and P5+1 (the United Nations Security Council plus Germany). However, the differences between the United States and Turkey regarding Iran’s nuclear program are largely over tactics, not strategic goals. Turkey’s main fear is that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear arms could lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. This, in turn, could increase pressure on the Turkish government to consider developing its own nuclear weapon capability.
            Turkey’s approach to the nuclear issue will heavily depend on U.S. policy and the credibility of the commitment of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to Article V of the Washington Treaty on collective defense. As long as Turkey feels that NATO takes seriously Turkish security concerns, Ankara is unlikely to rethink its nuclear policy. However, if Turkish confidence in the U.S. and NATO commitment to its security weakens, Ankara could begin to explore other options for ensuring its security, including the possible acquisition of its own nuclear deterrent. Thus, maintaining the credibility of the commitment of alliance members to Article V remains critical.
Alireza Nader is a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and the author of “Iran After the Bomb.”

Read Alireza Nader's chapter on the Revolutionary Guards in "The Iran Primer"

Youth in Iran Part 4: Crazy for Sports

Garrett Nada

            Faced with few social options or outlets to let off steam, Iran’s young have turned almost fanatically to sports. The first post-revolution generation now includes some world-class athletes—both male and femaleas well as millions of diehard sports fans. Iran’s youth claimed 12 medals at the 2012 London Olympics—more than any other Middle Eastern country.
            But sports are not limited to top achievers. Street sports are just as popular. The concrete jungle of Tehran now has dedicated skate parks where amateur bikers and skaters hold impromptu competitions. And the girls are into as many athletics as the boys.

       The Iranian passion for sport was reflected in the street celebrations after Iran qualified for the 2014 World Cup by defeating South Korea. The celebrations on June 18 were similar to the outpouring after Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election three days earlier. Soccer reigns supreme among youth. But skateboarding, taekwondo, snowboarding and other sports are also gaining ground.
      Youth and sport are so intertwined that the government created a Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sport in 2011, which has even allowed women to participate. Nine female athletes represented Iran in the 2012 London Olympics in archery, rowing, shooting, shot put, table tennis and taekwondo. At the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver, skier Marjan Kalhor became the first Iranian female to compete in the Winter Olympics. But finding uniforms that conform to both international standards and Iran’s strict dress code has often posed a challenge. Many now complete in sports wearing long pants and hijab (headscarf).
            Elham Asghari wore an extra 13 pounds of clothing when she set a new women’s breaststroke record for swimming 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) in the Caspian Sea. She wore a full diving suit, long cape and headscarf. But Iran’s sport ministry would not recognize the record set on June 11 because her “feminine features” were showing when she got out of the water. Asghari explained the controversy in a YouTube video subtitled in English. 
Skateboarding, BMX
            In athletics, young Iranians are no longer isolated. They keep up with the latest global trends through Facebook and YouTube. Skateboarding, rollerblading and BMXbicycle motocross are increasingly popular, especially in Tehran and other major cities. Security guards usually do not allow skaters to perform stunts in parks or public places, either for safety concerns or because they are a nuisance to some. So MJ Rahimi, a skateboard coach, built a skate park several years ago at Tehran’s Enghelab Sports Complex.
            Red Bull, an Austrian energy drink producer, then hosted Iran’s first major skateboard competition. Local newspapers, magazines and television stations covered the event. The government took interest and invested in additional skate parks. The T Sixty skate team shows off their tricks in the following video from the Tehran skate park.

            Bikers are as daring as their Western counterparts. Members of the ZanKo freestyle team offered training for young Iranians interested in BMX in the poster below.  

            Soccer is the most popular sport in Iran— outdoor for young males and mainly indoor futsal for young females. Iranians have taken their love of soccer off the field and into the streets. Freestyle football is a one-man sport that has more in common with breakdancing than soccer. Mohammad Akbari from the “PersianBall Crew” juggles, balances and spins a ball in the following video. 

            Women are banned from attending men’s matches, although some devoted fans have dressed as men to enter stadiums. But they have their own clubs and competitions. In July, the national Iranian women’s team won second place in futsal, a form of indoor soccer, at the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. The feat even won the attention of newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, who tweeted his congratulations.
            Uniforms have been an issue in regular world-class soccer for women. The women’s national soccer team had hoped to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games. But the team withdrew from a qualifying match in 2011 because the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) would not allow women to play with their necks covered. FIFA lifted the ban on headscarves in March 2012. 
            Snowboarders account for up to 30 percent of Iranians on the slopes, according to the World Snowboard Guide. More than a dozen resorts have helped popularize snow sports, especially among youth. In recent years, Hype, a Dubai-based energy drink company, has hosted snowboarding exhibitions in Iran such as the one in the following video. 


            Volleyball is increasingly popular as well. The men's national team competed in the Federation Internationale de Volleyball World League Finals for the first time in summer 2013. The team is now ranked 12 worldwide by the federation.

            But broadcasting matches is a problem for Iranian television because female fans at international matches are not wearing Islamic dress. Covering the volleyball games has been “more difficult than airing the [presidential] debates,” said Ezatollah Zarghami, head of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), according to news website Asr Iran. IRIB broadcast a June 30 match in Sardinia versus Italy with a seven-second delay to check for images of women not wearing Islamic dress like the picture below.
            Volleyball is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s favorite sport, according to his Twitter account. 
            The Korean martial art gained ground in the 1960s, but young Iranians are now among the world’s top Taekwondo competitors. Mohammad Bagheri Motamed won a gold medal at the 2009 World Taekwondo Championships in Copenhagen and the silver medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
            Women have also taken to the sport. In May 2013, four Iranian women won gold or silver medals at the Carthage International Open in Tunisia. Sara Khoshjamal Fekri faced off against a Tunisian opponent at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the photo below. 
            Iran’s caliber of basketball is constantly improving. The Super League, the equivalent of the National Basketball Association (NBA), has become more competitive with the hiring of foreign coaches and players, especially Americans and Europeans. Iranian-American Jonas Lalehzadeh (below) was the league’s top scorer for the 2012-2013 season. Click here for an interview with the six-foot-five-inch point guard.
            Iran’s national team competed in the 2008 Olympics, the first time since 1948. Now the Islamic Republic now has one of the top teams in Asia. Iran’s players are referred to as the “West Asian giants” on the continent. In August 2013, the men’s team won the International Basketball Federation Asia Championship—its third title in four years. Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian player in the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA), scored 29 of the team’s 85 points against the Philippines national team.  
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.

Photo credits: Zanko (Freestyle) team via
FacebookSarah Khoshjamal by Bridget Coila from Beijing, China (other0065  Uploaded by Traleni) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, Jonas Lalehzadeh via Facebook
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Youth in Iran Part 3: The Politics of Fashion

Maral Noori
            They have bare forearms! They have shapely legs! They even have daring waistlines! And most of all, they vote!
            To understand politics in Iran these days, outsiders also have to understand female fashion. A woman’s right-to-wear was an implicit theme in the election of Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani, who won huge chunks of the young and female vote in June by pledging to “minimize government interference” in the country's cultural affairs. He acknowledged demands for greater individual freedoms.

      Shortly after his election, Rouhani was more specific on his official English-language Twitter account. “If some1 doesn’t comply with rules for clothing, person’s virtue shuldn’t come under question. Our emphasis shud b on virtue,” @hassanrouhani tweeted July 3.
      The political reality is that Rouhani was responding to Iran’s expressive young women, for whom dress has become a symbolic way to speak their mind. A new generation of glam fashionistas, both designers and consumers, has discarded lackluster street clothes that were a classical stereotype of the Islamic Republic.
      Fiery reds, flashy yellows, bright blues and brassy greens are replacing the dark, drab and dreadful—and defying rigid dress restrictions that have inhibited Iranian women from showing their shapes or individuality since the 1979 revolution.
            The new hipster leggings, studs and leather now worn by Iran’s home-grown Material Girls sometimes tempt government dictates. But the regime now has trouble pushing back fashion trends when 70 percent of its females are under 35—and part of Iran’s largest voting bloc. Designers are utilizing social media, especially Facebook even though it is banned, to promote their fashions.

      Designer Naghmeh Kiumarsi (slideshow of designs to the left) has led the way, converting the classic hijab into chic headcover.  She also transformed the manteau—a long, loose coat—into sassy jackets that would pass as top-line fashion in any European capital. Kiumarsi’s work is unique for its use of traditional Iranian textiles and Persian poetry. Her scarves carry decorative calligraphy and images from some of the most popular Iranian poems.
            “The ideas in my designs come directly from the experiences of my life combined with the courage to express them through the textures and forms,” Kiumarsi said. “’Remember to Fly,’ my latest collection, conveys the positive message that the sky is the limit. If we want to kiss the sky, we should remember to fly and not be afraid.”

      Farnaz Abdoli is the chief designer of Poosh Fashion, one of Iran’s most popular lines (slideshow of designs to the left). Abdoli even created a refreshingly casual look for the chador, an enveloping black cloak that covers the most conservative women’s bodies from head to toe. She replaced it with a shorter poncho in a rich woven textile, matched with red-stripped leggings and a bright scarf that daringly exposes a bit of hair and a woman’s neck.  
            Iran’s current extreme makeover is not the first time fashion has been implicit in Iranian politics. The 1979 revolution was partly a reaction to rapid modernization by the short-lived Pahlavi dynasty. Reza Pahlavi, who was shah from 1925 until 1941 when he was forced out for Nazi sympathies, forced Western fashion on women. He banned Islamic dress, arguing that it impeded a woman’s ability to progress. The new law was enforced by soldiers who forcefully removed chadors and veils.
            The revolution was a rejection of Westernization, including its mini-skirts and make-up. Many women then still clung to tradition—at a time that literacy among women was just over 40 percent, according to the World Bank.

      Now, it’s just the reverse, a reflection of the growing dynamism – and education -- among Iran’s women. More than 95 percent of females between 15 and 24 are now literate, over double the number who could read and write in the mid-1970s.
      They accounted for more than 60 percent of all university students until 2012, when ultraconservatives under former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad restricted women from studying 77 subjects--including engineering, education, and counseling—at 36 universities. The subjects were reportedly too “manly.”

            Iran’s women are again pushing back, however. Normally, Kiumarsi explained, women revert to modest wear during religious holidays. But in a reflection of how much is changing, she noted, Tehran designers this summer dared to add in-your-face flash – including studs and leather -- to black chadors during Ramadan, the holiest month in the Muslim world.

Maral Noori is a Program Assistant in the Center for Conflict Management at the United States Institute of Peace.
Photo Credits: Coralin Design, Naghmeh Kiumarsi, POOSHdesign (Farnaz Abdoli), Apameh Design by Shabnam Rezaei
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


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