United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

Latest on the Race: Debate on Culture, Women

Garrett Nada           

            Iran’s eight presidential candidates clashed on issues of culture, personal freedoms and women’s rights at the June 5 debate. Hassan Rouhani and Mohammed Reza Aref repeatedly criticized government censorship of the internet, press and academia. They argued that censorship had prevented Iranian artists from creating quality productions and led people to watch foreign television shows and movies. Rouhani and Aref opposed the confiscation of satellites dishes and interference in people’s private lives. Even two conservative candidates ―Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf (below in black) and Ali Akbar Velayati― challenged government filtering.

      But Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Saeed Jalili defended state social controls. Jalili claimed that movies like “Argo” and “Lincoln” have furthered U.S. policy goals. He called for the production of movies to promote the Islamic revolution.
      Candidates also took opposing positions on the rights and role of women. Rouhani (left) promised to establish a ministry of women’s affairs if elected. “We must give women equal rights and equal pay,” he said. But Jalili argued that women should fulfill their family role at home. His campaign seemed to temper his statement with a tweet pointing out that his wife, a doctor, is a working woman. The following is a rundown of remarks and points made by each candidate during the debate.
Hassan Rouhani

      “The solution to the country's cultural problems is to minimize government interference and allow guild associations and experts to run their own affairs.” His other positions included:
• Give freedom to the press to eliminate corruption. In the event of violations, governments can close newspapers.
• Censorship kills creativity.

• The state should not interfere in private life. Police should not interfere with how people, especially youth, choose to dress.
• The state should not fire university professors for political reasons or impose harsh restrictions on students.
• Open up space rather than condemn anyone who thinks differently.
• Art can be a great tool for cultural diplomacy.
• Establish a ministry of women’s affairs and give women equal rights and pay.
• Women who head households should get financial support.
Mohammad Reza Aref
      “Government policing of cultural, artistic and social issues must be minimized.” His other positions included:
• Artistic activities are not a privilege that a government can revoke.
• The state’s closure of Iran’s House of Cinema Institute, internet filtering and confiscation of satellite dishes were wrong
• The state should not treat artists like government employees or complicate book publishing
• The government should not arbitrarily crack down on the press
• Government censorship of television has led many Iranians to watch foreign satellite channels
• The government’s role should be to protect culture, not to regulate it
• Iran did not use the winning of an Oscar by Asghar Farhadi’s film “A Separation”
Saeed Jalili

      “The main role for a woman is to be a mother. If we look at motherhood as a fulltime role to properly raise children, many social ills would be erased.” His other positions included:
• Culture is not just a right, it is an opportunity. But the state must ensure that it is kept pure.
• Iran should promote the Islamic revolution through cultural productions.
• A president must know the cultural arena’s capacities well, and he should use them as tools.
• “Argo” and “Lincoln” served the U.S. government agenda.

Mohsen Rezaei
      “Iran’s cultural issues are rooted in economic issues of poverty and unemployment.” His other positions included:
• Management of art and culture should be taken away from the state. Artists should be put in charge of culture.
• State television should not be afraid to hold real debates.

Mohammad-Baqer Qalibaf

      “We all know that government policing of cultural issues is an incorrect and mistaken act.” His other positions included:
• Political decentralization will not improve public culture.
• Culture cannot thrive under strict controls.
• Do not criticize cultural policies just to garner votes.

Ali Akbar Velayati

      “There is [Western] cultural invasion. But the solution is not censorship, rather immunity is created through strengthening family foundations.” His other positions included:
• Culture should not be politicized. And filtering of culture is not a solution to combat Western influence
• The government should set the agenda for cultural activities and create a “culture of resistance” based on Iranian and Islamic values.

Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel

      “Would you censor a cultural work such as a book or film that insults people's religious beliefs or attacks the moral pillars of society?” His other positions included:
• Foreign soap operas broadcast on satellite channels are harmful to Iranian families.
• If Iran is not independent in the field of culture, it will not be independent in politics, economy or other sectors.
• Iran’s Islamic culture has influenced the region.
• Women have a right to education. Homemakers are not “jobless.” They need to be insured.

Mohammad Gharazi

      “Thinking that culture can be altered or controlled by the government is false.” 
• Who has influenced who? Has Iran influenced the West, or has it influenced Iran?

Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.
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What the world will learn from Iran’s election

By Robin Wright

            The field of candidates may be limited, but the outside world can still learn a lot from Iran’s 2013 presidential poll. The election will provide three pivotal metrics about the Islamic republic now that the Ahmadinejad era is ending. 

      First, the (real) turnout at the polls will indicate how many Iranians still have an interest in the world’s only modern theocracy. The government is quite obsessed with the number of people who vote to prove it still has a public mandate. Voting has become almost an existential issue for the ruling clerics.
      “A vote for any of these eight candidates is a vote for the Islamic Republic and a vote of confidence in the system and our electoral process,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a public appeal on June 4. He charged that the outside world was plotting to ensure a low turnout. Leaders clearly hope at least 60 percent of the estimated 50 million voters will turn out.
            Second, reaction to the results will signal whether the public deems the election process itself legitimate. It’s no small issue. Many Iranians believed the 2009 presidential poll was fraught with fraud—and that Ahmadinejad was not really reelected. The reaction sparked the greatest challenge to the Iranian regime since the 1979 revolution. It gave birth to a new opposition movement.
            Over the next eight months, millions turned out in cities across Iran to challenge the results—and to demand “Where is my vote?” The regime used brutal force, arrested thousands, and held Stalinesque trials to quash the new Green Movement opposition.
            In 2013, the regime has already witnessed signs of discontent even before the vote. On June 4, thousands reportedly turned the funeral for Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri into an anti-government demonstration in Isfahan. Taheri had been the Friday Prayer Leader in Isfahan. He had earlier criticized the regime for corruption, eventually resigning from the post. He also called the 2009 election “invalid.”
            At his funeral, supporters chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to the supreme leader and a rallying cry from 2009. Others shouted “Free Mousavi and Karroubi,” the two reformist presidential candidates in 2009 and co-leaders of the Green Movement. They have been under house arrest for more than two years.
            Again, the regime has publicly conceded its concern about the day-after-the-vote. On June 4, the supreme leader charged that unnamed foreign powers were plotting to foment “sedition” after the poll.
            Third, the new president—if the election is credible—may indicate who is capturing the public imagination. Iranians surprised the outside world—and themselves—in electing dark horses in both 1997 and 2005. The regime favorites were trounced in both polls.
            In a stunning upset, the 1997 election brought to power Mohammad Khatami, a purged former culture minister who was director of the national library. The vote marked the beginning of the reform era.
            In 2005, the final runoff was defined as a battle between “the turban and the hat” – or a cleric against a layman. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, ran against little- known Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
            For the first time since the revolution’s early days, a cleric did not win. The vote was widely interpreted as public rejection of the clerical monopoly of power—more than as overwhelming support for Ahmadinejad, an engineer and specialist in traffic management.
            Because of past controversies and regime paranoia, the list of candidates in 2013 offers little variety—arguably less than in any election since the revolution. Even former President Rafsanjani was disqualified from running—along with more than 670 other candidates.
            But the eight candidates, all ardent supporters of the revolution and Islamic rule, don’t have cookie cutter views. The televised debates have even had flashes of disagreements over the economy, censorship, academic freedom, and women’s rights.
            The election will also be telling about the key to Iran’s future–its disproportionately large young population. Because the Islamic regime aggressively encouraged larger families in the 1980s, its population almost doubled from 34 million to 62 million in a decade. Today, about two-thirds of Iran’s 75 million people are under age 35. Even more striking, about half of voters are reportedly under 35.
            The young also face the widest array of challenges in Iranian society, from inadequate access to higher education and serious housing shortages to increasing unemployment or underemployment. All three are pivotal to independence and marriage. Frustrations among the young have been reflected in several growing social problems, from narcotics to prostitution.
            The big issue for the regime, however, is the level of political engagement. Half of Iran’s electorate was born after the revolution. They have no memory of the monarchy—or the factors that inflamed passions behind the revolution. Since youth played a huge part in the 2009 protests, their interest in voting, their choices at the polls, and their reaction to the results could also be disproportionately important—and potentially decisive.
            In the end, Iran’s president may not have real executive power. Khamenei—ironically himself a former president—still dominates the policy process. Iran’s supreme leader has a virtual veto over almost everything.
            Yet the president does matter in Iran. His administration strongly influences the tone of politics, the economy and the cultural atmospherics—as well as many appointments.
            Khatami allowed the flowering of an independent press, fewer restrictions on women, and wider cultural expression in the arts. He talked about bringing down the “wall of distrust” with the outside world and introduced the idea of a dialogue among civilizations at the United Nations. He also brought many other reformers with their own ideas about ways to open up Iran into top jobs.
            In contrast, Ahmadinejad brought into power many from his days in the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. His closest aide was an in-law through the marriage of his children. Both men framed policy considerations in terms of the return of the missing 12th imam, whom many Shiites believe went into “occultation” or hiding in 941 AD and whose reemergence would bring peace and justice to the world.
            So this vote will count. Despite the huge array of restrictions on the election, Iranians will be able to signal a lot about what they’re thinking at a particularly important juncture in Tehran’s relations with the outside world.
Robin Wright has traveled to Iran dozens of times since 1973. She has covered several elections, including the 2009 presidential vote. She is the author of several books on Iran, including “The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and transformation in Iran” and “The Iran Primer: Power, Politics and US Policy.” She is a joint scholar at USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center. See her chapter, “The Challenge of Iran” from "The Iran Primer."


This piece is published in collaboration with Foreign Policy.


Video: Largest protests since 2009 election

            On June 4, thousands reportedly turned the funeral of Ayatollah Jalaluddin Taheri into an anti-government protest in Isfahan. Taheri had been the city’s Friday Prayer leader. He had earlier criticized the regime for corruption, eventually resigning from the post. Taheri also called the disputed 2009 presidential election "invalid." Supporters chanted “death to the dictator,” a reference to the supreme leader and a rallying cry from 2009. Others shouted “Free Mousavi and Karroubi,” the two reformist presidential candidates in 2009 and co-leaders of the Green Movement. They have been under house arrest for more than two years. The following is a video clip of the funeral procession with English subtitles by the Telegraph.

Latest on the Race: Furor at First Debate

      At the first presidential debate on May 31, Iran’s eight candidates spent more time arguing over the quiz show format than debating each other. Tensions erupted when the moderator asked yes-or-no and multiple choice questions. “I’m not answering these questions,” said Mohammad Reza Aref (left). “I answered test questions 40 or 50 years ago.” Hassan Rouhani scolded the moderator, warning that the public also probably found the format “offensive.” The television station should have consulted with each candidate’s staff beforehand, said the cleric. Mohsen Rezai complained that the program did not allow candidates to engage directly with each another. Saeed Jalili and Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel refused to answer the questions. The moderator gave up after question eight, reportedly leaving 16 questions unasked.

      The debate— nearly four hours on the economy —had other unique aspects, including set-up. Candidates appeared caught off guard when asked to react to a series of pictures. One photo of a patient after surgery led to discussion about Iran’s health care system—and the need for various improvements. Shown a picture of cars stuck in traffic, candidates argued over how much carbon monoxide contributed to pollution. The moderator also showed pictures of a cargo ship, tractors in a field, an empty mine, a clock and a bazaar. 
      In another part of the debate, the moderator posed a random question to each candidate and gave him three minutes to answer from behind a podium. The other seven candidates then had two minutes to respond from their seats.
            This is only the second time the regime has allowed candidates to live debates on national television before a presidential election. The first debate in 2009 sparked fiery exchanges—resulting in a change of format for the 2013 vote. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s tense arguments with two reformist challengers also generated greater public interest.
            The second presidential debate, slated for June 5, will focus on cultural and other domestic issues. The final debate on June 7 will be on foreign policy.
            For a flavor of the debate, the following video clip, with subtitles in English, shows Rouhani’s argument with the moderator.


US Sanctions Iran Leadership

           On June 4, the United States sanctioned a major network of front companies for hiding assets on behalf of Iranian leaders. The Treasury targeted The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order and 37 ostensibly private businesses under it. Many are front companies involved in real estate, construction, banking, and other sectors of Iran’s economy. “While the Iranian government’s leadership works to hide billions of dollars in corporate profits earned at the expense of the Iranian people, Treasury will continue exposing and acting against the regime’s attempts to evade our sanctions and escape international isolation,” said Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David S. Cohen. The Obama administration has implemented four rounds of sanctions in the past week alone. The following are excerpts from the press release, including a link to the full text at the end.

           The Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (EIKO), through two main subsidiaries, oversees a labyrinth of 37 ostensibly private businesses, many of which are front companies.  The purpose of this network is to generate and control massive, off-the-books investments, shielded from the view of the Iranian people and international regulators.  EIKO and its subsidiaries – one that manages and controls EIKO’s international front companies, and another that manages billions of dollars in investments – work on behalf of the Iranian Government and operate in various sectors of the Iranian economy and around the world, generating billions of dollars in profits for the Iranian regime each year…
           EIKO has made tens of billions of dollars in profit for the Iranian regime each year through the exploitation of favorable loan rates from Iranian banks and the sale and management of real estate holdings, including selling property donated to EIKO.  EIKO has also confiscated properties in Iran that were owned by Iranians not living in Iran full-time.  In addition to generating revenue for the Iranian leadership, EIKO has been tasked with assisting the Iranian Government’s circumvention of U.S. and international sanctions.  Because of this unique mission, EIKO has received all of the funding it needs to facilitate transactions through its access to the Iranian leadership. The following companies are all part of this elaborate scheme: 
Tosee Eqtesad Ayandehsazan Company (TEACO)
           In June 2010, Tosee Eqtesad Ayandehsazan Company (TEACO) was created as part of the Iranian strategy to circumvent U.S. and international sanctions.  EIKO uses TEACO as the primary mechanism to transact, manage, and control all of the international companies under EIKO’s control.  To maintain the appearance of being a private company, TEACO is ostensibly owned by private Iranian businessmen and investors; however TEACO’s board members were all chosen by EIKO.  TEACO acts on behalf of EIKO.  As of September 2011, EIKO negotiated business deals using TEACO subsidiaries.  For example, EIKO used an Iranian subsidiary of TEACO to negotiate a deal with a European company to build a factory in Iran.  In these business deals, the TEACO subsidiary directly negotiated with the foreign company.  If the foreign company did not move forward with the deal due to sanctions issues, the TEACO subsidiary would have TEACO take over the negotiations, rather than EIKO, because TEACO was less visibly connected to the Government of Iran...
Tadbir Economic Development Company (Tadbir Group)
           Tadbir Group, an investment company subordinate to EIKO, manages billions of dollars in investments, including on behalf of Iranian leadership figures.  Tadbir Group is one of the main holding companies belonging to EIKO.  Its subsidiaries include Tadbir Investment Company, Modaber (Tadbir Industrial Holding Company), Tadbir Construction Development Company and Tadbir Energy Development Group.  The Tadbir Group has used its subsidiaries to make significant investments in the Iranian economy, including an investment of over $100 million in Amin Investment Bank, and controls the Pardis Investment Company and Mellat Insurance Company in Iran.
Rey Investment Company
           As of late December 2010, Rey Investment Company was worth approximately $40 billion. Rey Investment Company was formerly run by Ayatollah Mohammad Mohammadi Reyshahri, who previously served as the Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security.  Rey Investment Company collected and invested donations obtained from Iranian Shi’a shrines.  However, amidst allegations of mismanagement and embezzlement of shrine donations from the company, the Iranian Government cut off its funding to the point of nearly bankrupting the company.  In mid-to-late 2010, Reyshahri was removed and control of Rey Investment Company was transferred to EIKO and its director.  EIKO subsequently appointed a new Managing Director of Rey Investment Company.
Reyco GmbH
           Reyco was a German subsidiary of Rey Investment Company, although there were no public ties between Reyco and Rey Investment Company, TEACO, or the Iranian Government.  Reyco owned MCS Engineering and MCS International.  Reyco had the appearance of being a purely German company to circumvent sanctions restricting an Iranian Government-controlled entity’s ability to do business in Europe.  Reyco was eventually transferred to the control of TEACO from Rey Investment Company, and TEACO planned to use Reyco to purchase a bank for Iran in Germany.
MCS International GmbH (Mannesman Cylinder Systems)
           Reyco subsidiary MCS International is a German company ostensibly owned by German nationals or Iranian expatriates with dual Iranian-European citizenship to conceal its ties to the Iranian Government, EIKO, TEACO, and Rey Investment Company.  MCS International was audited by TEACO in October 2010 and determined to be in poor financial standing.  However, EIKO management rescued MCS International from bankruptcy and insisted on keeping the company open because it viewed MCS International as key to facilitating business in Europe.  EIKO management viewed MCS International as being too important to EIKO’s international plans to allow it to go bankrupt and believed that it would be easier to rescue MCS International from bankruptcy than to create or acquire new foreign companies on behalf of EIKO due to U.S. and international sanctions.  EIKO subsequently ordered that responsibility for MCS International be transferred from EIKO-controlled TEACO to Iranian businessmen, who were sent to oversee the company.  Following this transfer, the two individuals owned the shares for MCS International, but answered directly to EIKO...
           U.S. persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with the entities listed today, and any assets those entities may have subject to U.S. jurisdiction are frozen.

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