These sorts of statements have revealed the true nature of Zibakalam and the so called “reformists and moderates” in Iran, and has been the subject of severe criticism by activists who see his positions as actually contravening the defense of free speech and thus making him a poor choice for the Deutsche Welle award. In a larger sense, the controversy may be seen as exposing the limits of reform in the Islamic Republic and the tendency of reform advocates to fall short of advocating for the establishment of a truly democratic system.
The lack of overlap between reformism and full-scale dissent is arguably even more evident within the political system than among the activist community. And the sort of criticism directed against Zibakalam is also routinely directed against President Hassan Rouhani, who is described in some international media as a “moderate” but is regarded by the Iranian people and many activists as a regime insider who lacks both the power and the will to stand up to hardline authorities like Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The CHRI called attention to this tendency on Sunday when it quoted legal experts as saying that the Rouhani administration has the ability to challenge the regime’s recent ban on the Telegram messaging app. The popular web service had been under fire for months or even years before a leading hardline lawmaker declared that the decision had been made at the highest levels to disallow access via Iranian ISPs. The decision was presumably motivated in large part by the role that Telegram played in organizing the January uprising, but it was publicly opposed by Rouhani and a handful of others.
But despite this opposition and despite the legal channels that exist for challenging the ban, the Rouhani faction has taken no steps to do so. Instead, CHRI points out, the administration has simply reiterated its public dissent with a statement arguing that the judiciary should not act unilaterally in matters like the Telegram ban, which affect tens of millions of Iranians.
This apparent disconnect between the administration’s public statements and actions is something that has been observed in a number of other areas as well. Rouhani has been widely criticized for having promised that Iranian expatriates would be able to return to Iran without fear of reprisal, and yet not only have arrests of such individuals continued, they have accelerated, with two British nationals having been detained last week alone.
The CHRI report suggested that Rouhani’s inaction on the Telegram ban is further eroding public trust. And in another report on Monday, the same outlet indicated that Iranian citizens may be reacting to that situation with rising levels of open defiance of strictures that are put into place by hardliners only to be tolerated by “reformists.” Of the Telegram ban, that report noted that the number of Iranians using the app has actually increased since it was announced, thanks in large part to virtual proxy networks that allow people to circumvent restrictions put into place by Iranian ISPs.
The report also notes that while this circumvention is well established among the Iranian public, it has not been adopted on so large a scale in response to earlier bans. One Iranian journalist pointed out that previous bans on WeChat and Viber had resulted in many users migrating to another alternative, but that this has not happened with Telegram. “The same strategy will not work every time,” the journalist explained.
If there is consistent commitment to Telegram, which has a reputation as a relatively secure mode of communication, it will certainly continue to function as a tool for spreading information about activist causes, including but not limited to those that the Rouhani administration has promoted without taking any meaningful action.
The issues of forced veiling and women’s rights are prominent among these. Last month, a video went viral on Iranian social media which showed a young woman being assaulted by members of the Guardian Patrol, or morality police, because her hijab was deemed to be covering too little of her hair. On Monday, Iran Human Rights Monitor reported that eye-witness testimony suggested that incident was worse than what was captured on video, as the victim of the attack was not only slapped and restrained but also dragged along the ground by her hair.
The same report noted that the witness to this behavior, identified as Ms. Hasan-Abadi, has been repeatedly harassed, interrogated, and beaten. Similar fates have befallen a number of other people who have spoken to the media or otherwise spurred public debate regarding various instances of abuse by Iranian authorities. Yet the latest reports indicate that these reprisals have not prevented others from coming forward on the same topics, which evidently receive only superficial criticism, at most, from within the regime.
Two other Iran Human Rights Monitor reports pointed out that the family and the lawyer of death row inmate Ramin Hossein Panahi have publicly challenged the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Kurdistan Justice Department over their dubious justifications for his death sentence. Panahi was reportedly denied access to legal representation and held in solitary confinement for 200 days, and was barred from showing signs that he had been tortured before being convicted of “taking up arms against the state.”
While the Rouhani administration consistently touts the independence of the Iranian judiciary to distance itself from controversial cases, the action of domestic activists and international rights groups sometimes exerts effective pressure on that judiciary. Panahi was scheduled to be executed on May 3, but this was postponed, presumably in response to the international outcry. The ultimate outcome of the case remains to be determined, but one thing seems fairly certain: the Rouhani administration will not step in affect that outcome, even if it has the power to do so.