Iranian human rights activist given six years in prison for hand-written unpublished story

IranWire reports: On Tuesday, October 4, writer and human rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi received a strange phone call ordering her to present herself at Evin Prison by noon on Wednesday evening to start serving her prison sentence. By law, authorities much convey such an order by way of a written summons. But that was not the only unusual thing about the call.

“The arresting officer used the phone of Navid Kamran, a codefendant of mine,” Ebrahimi told IranWire hours before presenting herself at Evin. “They had gone to his shop to arrest him and used his phone. When I answered the call, the man who introduced himself as an agent of the Centre for the Implementation of Sentences said that I must present myself to serve the sentence. I said that I had received no official summons or a call from Evin Court. ‘You are using my friend’s phone to call me and it might be a joke,’ I said. ‘I don’t know you and I have no idea who is talking to me.’ He answered back that ‘you might think this is a joke but we are here to arrest your friend and you must present yourself at Evin’s court right away.’ I said that I could not get there by the end of business hours but perhaps I could do it the next day. He said that I would be arrested if I did not present myself by the next day.”

Ebrahimi’s ordeal began when the Revolutionary Guards arrested her along with her husband, Arash Sadeghi, at his workplace in Tehran on September 6, 2014. The Guards had no arrest warrant, but took the couple to their home, ransacked the place, and confiscated their computers, CDs, and notes. Among the confiscated items was a story about the punishment, under Islamic law, of death by stoning. According to a report from Amnesty International, “The story describes the emotional reaction of a young woman who watches the film, The Stoning of Soraya M, which tells the true story of a young woman stoned to death for adultery — and becomes so enraged that she burns a copy of the Quran.” [Continue reading…]


The obliteration of Aleppo and the fate of Syria

A conversation between Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel on the Syrian catastrophe and what should be done about it. Hashemi is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Postel is the Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. Together they are the co-editors of The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011), The Syria Dilemma (2013), and Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East (forthcoming in early 2017).



Ground down by savagery — the agony of Aleppo

Martin Chulov reports: In the distance, Aleppo briefly emerged from the smoke and dust of war, a low grey skyline on a brown summer plain. A heat haze shimmered over the road ahead, shrouding first an abandoned army barracks, then ransacked, smouldering factories, an empty crossroads, and finally, the city itself.

Even then, days after the eastern half of the city had been seized by armed Syrians opposed to the rule of Bashar al-Assad, many of Aleppo’s people had fled. Shops were shuttered. Twisted tanks and toppled buses blocked intersections and the few residents on its empty streets scurried past with their heads down.

These were the first days of August 2012, a momentous time in a civil war that had just seen half of Syria’s second city – and industrial heart – fall to an insurrection hatched by the working-class men of its hinterland. It was my first visit to the city, after several earlier trips to nearby towns where the rebel push for northern Syria had been gathering steam. It paved the way for the Guardian’s subsequent reporting on a conflict with no apparent end.

In more than 10 journeys to Aleppo, from that first visit in 2012 until my last in December 2014, I have chronicled the decline of one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities as it has been ground down by savagery. Modern warfare has done what uprising and invasion have failed to do throughout the ages, transforming half the city into a shell of its prewar self, and imperilling an ancient core that has weathered centuries of conflict and even a devastating earthquake.

Along the way, those who remained and fought for its destiny offered windows into a war that has ramifications far beyond the borders of Syria. Long a crossroads of trade and transport, and a hub of empire, Aleppo is again central to the fate of the region, even under the assault of Russian bombers, which have made much of the east uninhabitable over the past year.

The rebel-held east was the focus of all my visits; west Aleppo has remained off-limits, functioning with little disruption and firmly under the control of the Syrian regime, which refuses visa requests. [Continue reading…]


Iraq’s post-ISIS outlook darkens as factions turn on themselves

Financial Times reports: The turmoil began with a Shia-led parliamentary sit-in against Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. Next, a top Sunni minister was dismissed with the help of Sunni rivals. A few weeks later, the leading Kurdish minister was sacked — thanks partly to lawmakers in his own political bloc.

Sign up By signing up you confirm that you have read and agree to the terms and conditions, cookie policy and privacy policy.
Since the 2003 US invasion fostered splits along Iraq’s three main ethno-sectarian faultlines, Iraqis have grown accustomed to the country’s raucous factionalism. But now, those blocs are not only fighting each other, they are fighting among themselves, creating new schisms that risk fragmenting the political, social and tribal forces that keep Iraq patched together.

It is happening as Baghdad battles to recapture territory from Isis, with the military preparing an offensive on the northern city of Mosul, and to overcome an economic crisis triggered by falling oil revenues.

“One of the greatest challenges this country is going to face after Isis is the Shia-Shia, Sunni-Sunni and Kurdish-Kurdish conflicts that are going to happen,” says Hanan al-Fatlawi, a Shia lawmaker and opponent of Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister. “This next struggle is coming soon.” [Continue reading…]


Amid Syrian chaos, Iran’s game plan emerges: A path to the Mediterranean

Martin Chulov reports: Not far from Mosul, a large military force is finalising plans for an advance that has been more than three decades in the making. The troops are Shia militiamen who have fought against the Islamic State, but they have not been given a direct role in the coming attack to free Iraq’s second city from its clutches.

Instead, while the Iraqi army attacks Mosul from the south, the militias will take up a blocking position to the west, stopping Isis forces from fleeing towards their last redoubt of Raqqa in Syria. Their absence is aimed at reassuring the Sunni Muslims of Mosul that the imminent recapture of the city is not a sectarian push against them. However, among Iraq’s Shia-dominated army the militia’s decision to remain aloof from the battle of Mosul is being seen as a rebuff.

Yet among the militias’ backers in Iran there is little concern. Since their inception, the Shia irregulars have made their name on the battlefields of Iraq, but they have always been central to Tehran’s ambitions elsewhere. By not helping to retake Mosul, the militias are free to drive one of its most coveted projects – securing an arc of influence across Iraq and Syria that would end at the Mediterranean Sea.

The strip of land to the west of Mosul in which the militias will operate is essential to that goal. After 12 years of conflict in Iraq and an even more savage conflict in Syria, Iran is now closer than ever to securing a land corridor that will anchor it in the region – and potentially transform the Islamic Republic’s presence on Arab lands. “They have been working extremely hard on this,” said a European official who has monitored Iran’s role in both wars for the past five years. “This is a matter of pride for them on one hand and pragmatism on the other. They will be able to move people and supplies between the Mediterranean and Tehran whenever they want, and they will do so along safe routes that are secured by their people, or their proxies.”

Interviews during the past four months with regional officials, influential Iraqis and residents of northern Syria have established that the land corridor has slowly taken shape since 2014. It is a complex route that weaves across Arab Iraq, through the Kurdish north, into Kurdish north-eastern Syria and through the battlefields north of Aleppo, where Iran and its allies are prevailing on the ground. It has been assembled under the noses of friend and foe, the latter of which has begun to sound the alarm in recent weeks. Turkey has been especially opposed, fearful of what such a development means for Iran’s relationship with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ party), the restive Kurds in its midst, on whom much of the plan hinges. [Continue reading…]


In fight for Aleppo, Assad’s side is just as fragmented as his opponents

The New York Times reports: The Syrian civil war, and the intense new ground battle in the divided city of Aleppo, is often seen as a contest between a chaotic array of rebel groups and the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the reality is that Mr. Assad’s side is increasingly just as fragmented as its opponents, a panoply of forces aligned partly along sectarian lines but with often-competing approaches and interests.

There are Iraqi Shiite militiamen cheering for clerics who liken the enemy to foes from seventh-century battles. There are Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighting on behalf of a Shiite theocracy. There are Afghan refugees hoping to gain citizenship in Iran, and Hezbollah militants whose leaders have long vowed to fight “wherever needed.”

The Syrians themselves are in a few elite units from an army steeped in a nominally socialist, Arab nationalist ideology, exhausted after five years of war, as well as pro-government militias that pay better salaries. And, yes, overhead there are the Russian pilots who have relentlessly bombed the rebel-held eastern side of Aleppo — trained to see the battle as supporting a secular government against Islamist extremist terrorists.

“The government’s fighting force today consists of a dizzying array of hyper-local militias aligned with various factions, domestic and foreign sponsors, and local warlords,” said one analyst, Tobias Schneider, in recently summing up the situation.

The battle for eastern Aleppo, where the United Nations says some 275,000 people are besieged, has raised tensions between the United States and Russia to their highest levels in years, but the Cold War rivals do not wield clear control over their nominal proxies. The competing interests on both sides and lack of clear leadership on either one is part of why the fighting has proved so hard to stop: Mr. Assad is desperate to retain power, Moscow is seeking to increase its clout at the global geopolitical table, and Iran is exercising its regional muscle.

While Washington and Moscow say preservation of Syrian state institutions is a priority, a look at the fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, shows that those structures are already atrophying.

At least one elite Syrian Army unit has been filmed seizing positions in Aleppo, but the bulk of the pro-government force is made up militiamen trained and financed by Iran, the Shiite theocracy that is the Syrian government’s closest ally, according to experts, diplomats, regional officials and fighters battling for and against the government.

“Aleppo is Shiite, and she wants her people,” goes a song overlaid onto a video posted online of an Iraqi cleric visiting Iraqi Shiite militia fighters on the front lines south of Aleppo. The message ignores the fact that the mainstream Shiite sect that accounts for the bulk of the Iraqi militias makes up less than 1 percent of Syria’s population. [Continue reading…]


Iraqi militias complicate Aleppo battle

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iraqi militia fighters are pouring into Syria to reinforce the Assad regime’s siege of rebels in Aleppo, further complicating the tangled web of alliances the U.S. relies on to fight Islamic State, which can turn an ally on one side of the border into an enemy on the other.

The Shiite militias, who have fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces against Islamic State in Iraq, are now fighting Syrian Sunni rebels, some of them armed and trained by the U.S.

More than 1,000 Iraqi Shiite militants have traveled from Iraq since early September, joining the ranks of as many as 4,000 others already on the ground near Aleppo, the militia leaders and Syrian rebels said. They make up about half of the regime’s estimated ground force of 10,000.

The siege they are helping to enforce has tilted the battle there in favor of President Bashar al-Assad, whose ruling Alawite sect has drawn on fellow Shiite powers to shore up government forces depleted by deaths, defections and attrition over five years of war: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Afghan Shiite fighters. [Continue reading…]


Sectarian fighters mass for battle to capture east Aleppo

The Guardian reports: As the most intensive air bombardment of the war has rained down on opposition-held east Aleppo this week, an army of some 6,000 pro-government fighters has gathered on its outskirts for what they plan will be an imminent, decisive advance.

Among those poised to attack are hundreds of Syrian troops who have eyed the city from distant fixed positions since it was seized by Syrian rebels in mid-2012.

But in far greater numbers are an estimated 5,000 foreign fighters who will play a defining role in the battle – and take a lead stake in what emerges from the ruins.

The coming showdown for Aleppo is a culmination of plans made far from the warrooms of Damascus. Shia Islamic fighters have converged on the area from Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Afghanistan to prepare for a clash that they see as a pre-ordained holy war that will determine the future of the region. [Continue reading…]


Abandoning discretion, Iranians proclaim their role in Syrian war

Reuters reports: Abandoning a long-standing reticence, Iranians are increasingly candid about their involvement in Syria’s war, and informal recruiters are now openly calling for volunteers to defend the Islamic Republic and fellow Shi’ites against Sunni militants.

With public opinion swinging behind the cause, numbers of would-be fighters have soared far beyond what Tehran is prepared to deploy in Syria, according to former fighters who spoke to Reuters, and commanders quoted by Iranian media.

Iran has been sending fighters to Syria since the early stages of the five-year war to support its ally, President Bashar al-Assad, in the struggle against Sunni rebels backed by Gulf Arab states and Western powers.

Once Tehran described these forces as military “advisers” but with around 400 killed on the battlefield, this discretion has slipped and several thousand are now believed to be fighting Islamic State and other groups trying to topple Assad.

Many Iranians initially opposed involvement in the war, harboring little sympathy for Assad. But now they are warming to the mission, believing that Islamic State is a threat to the existence of their country best fought outside Iran’s borders. [Continue reading…]


UN chief blasts leaders in General Assembly for ‘feeding the war machine’ in Syria

The Associated Press reports: Taking the world stage for the last time as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon unleashed years of pent-up anger at leaders who keep “feeding the war machine” in Syria, violate human rights and prevent aid deliveries to starving people.

The U.N. chief told presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and ministers at the opening of General Assembly’s annual ministerial meeting on Tuesday that “powerful patrons” on both sides in the more than five-year Syrian conflict “have blood on their hands.”

“Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians,” he said.

“Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees,” he added. [Continue reading…]


Powell acknowledges Israel’s nuclear arsenal

Eli Clifton reports: According to hacked emails reviewed by LobeLog, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an open secret that U.S. and Israeli politicians typically refuse to acknowledge as part of Israel’s strategy of “nuclear ambiguity.” Powell also rejected assessments that Iran, at the time, was “a year away” from a nuclear weapon.

The emails, released by the hacking group DCLeaks, show Powell discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before a joint meeting of Congress with his business partner, Jeffrey Leeds.

Leeds summarizes Netanyahu as having “said all the right things about the president and all the things he has done to help Israel. But basically [he] said this deal sucks, and the implication is that you have to be an idiot not to see it.”

Powell responded that U.S. negotiators can’t get everything they want from a deal. But echoing a point that many Iran hawks have questioned, Powell said that Israel’s nuclear arsenal and rational self-interest make the construction and testing of an Iranian nuclear weapon a highly unlikely policy choice for Iran’s leaders. [Continue reading…]


Saudi Arabia and Iran accuse each other of not really being Muslim

Ishaan Tharoor writes: The Middle East’s two great geopolitical adversaries entered into a war of words ahead of the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, which starts this weekend. Their rivalry, shaped by sectarian Sunni-Shia divisions, can be seen in numerous bloody proxy conflicts across the region. But it also flares up in heated rhetorical broadsides.

The latest round began with comments from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who in full bluster condemned the Saudis for prohibiting Iranian pilgrims from joining the hajj after talks about security and logistics collapsed. Last year’s pilgrimage was marred by the deaths of hundreds of pilgrims caught in a stampede with more than 2,000 killed, according to one unofficial tally, although the Saudis say the death toll is lower.

Khamenei ventured that the slain devotees, including many Iranian nationals, lost their lives either because of Saudi complicity or incompetence. (He errs toward the former.) [Continue reading…]