Iran Pulse

Canceled speech causes political turmoil in Iran

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Article Summary
Confusion over who was behind the controversial decision to bar an outspoken Iranian parliamentarian from speaking in the city of Mashhad is raising heated debate between moderates and conservatives.

The cancellation of speeches by Reformist figures is nothing new in Iran. In past years, hard-line groups have disrupted numerous Reformist gatherings. But now, other organizations are blocking these events before they lead to potential disturbances.

The latest such incident is the cancellation of a speech by Deputy Parliament Speaker Ali Motahari. The outspoken speaker was due to deliver an address about the religious occasion of Arbaeen in Mashhad on Nov. 20, on the invitation by the Reformist Council of Khorasan Razavi province. He arrived in the northeastern city on the evening of Nov. 19, but his speech was called off the next morning, apparently by order of the provincial prosecutor-general.

Reformist lawmaker Mahmoud Sadeghi was one of the first to react to the cancellation. Sadeghi tweeted, “Motahari’s speech in Mashhad has been canceled. What is the Interior Ministry doing in Mashhad? The interior minister should be held accountable by parliament.”

Immediately, Iranians took to social media — especially Twitter — and used the hashtag #FreeMashhad to slam the city’s conservative Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, over what they described as his “self-directed move.” They also called for both the city of Mashhad and the province of Khorasan Razavi to be “set free.”

Later that day, Motahari published an open letter to President Hassan Rouhani, requesting the immediate end to what he described as despotism and arbitrary rule in the northeastern city. He wrote, “The Mashhad prosecutor-general says my speech was called off based on a letter he received. I hope that the letter was not sent by Mr. Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad. It is not clear to me how this issue is relevant to the prosecutor-general or the Friday prayer leader. Please clarify who rules Khorasan Razavi province: the governor, or the prosecutor-general and the Friday prayer leader? It is best to end all such despotism in the country immediately. If no effective measure is taken against these [Islamic State]-like moves, parliament has no choice but to use its legal powers.”

His letter set off a wave of reactions on Iran’s political stage. The office of Alamolhoda, which recently came under fire for having called for the cancellation of concerts in Mashhad and urged those who want to attend concerts to go and live elsewhere, issued a statement on the afternoon of Nov. 20 denying any involvement in the cancellation of Motahari’s speech. It read, “Ayatollah Alamolhoda does not care about such speeches and ceremonies, and preserves the right to take legal action against the individual who raised [such] accusations against him. If this individual does not retract his words and alleviate public opinion, he will be sued.” 

Then came the dismissal of Mashhad’s governor. The development was initially seen as an act of protest by the government. However, on the evening of Nov. 20, the deputy governor for political and security affairs of Khorasan Razavi province announced that the move had nothing to do with Motahari’s speech and the decision to dismiss Mashhad’s governor had been made 10 days earlier, and that the replacement process had become somewhat lengthy.

The next day, on Nov. 21, Motahari’s lawyer announced he had filed a lawsuit against the prosecutor-general of Khorasan Razavi province and said, “Unfortunately, a judiciary official in Khorasan [Razavi province] has blocked the execution of the constitution and individual freedoms, and this has disrupted the legal rights of my client.”

So why was Motahari’s speech canceled? Although no official explanations have been released, some media outlets opposed to Rouhani have described the cancellation as an attempt to prevent public outrage. Mashregh News is one such outlet. In an article on Nov. 21, it reported, “Given Motahari’s insulting words about Imam Reza [the eighth Shiite Imam buried in Mashhad], saying that if [Imam Reza] were in Mashhad today he would probably go to concerts, it was very likely that the religious people of Mashhad would have attended his speech with anger.”

Also on Nov. 21, Rouhani asked his interior and justice ministers to investigate the issue and identify those who have violated the law. Indirectly referring to Alamolhoda, Rouhani said, “By infiltrating sensitive posts, some people want to shut the mouths [of their critics] and cancel the speeches of others, and lay the ground for radicalism and discord within society.” He added, “The head of the judiciary has called for the immediate investigation of the situation, and when the results are announced it will create a sense of hope among the public that whoever violates basic rights will be dealt with in accordance with the law.”

News outlets opposed to the government did not remain silent. In its Nov. 22 issue, the hard-line Kayhan daily rhetorically asked whether the cancellation of Motahari’s speech was more important than such pressing issues as unemployment, the economic downturn and the scandal over the excessive salaries paid to some officials. It also criticized what it called Reformist attempts to use the cancellation of Motahari’s speech as propaganda. Kayhan's article went on, “Pressure from the government has led to the illegal cancellation of 62 opposition speeches since the eleventh government took office [in 2013]. Why is the administration quiet about those [speeches]?” The conservative Fars News Agency also tried to pin the blame for the controversy on Motahari, saying he had a record of making accusations against others.

Addressing parliament’s open session on Nov. 22, parliament Speaker Ali Larijani called the provincial prosecutor-general’s move to call off Motahari’s speech regrettable. He said, “Even if the prosecutor had received information that the event would face security-related issues, he should have raised the matter in the provincial security council and let a collective decision be made. Under the current sensitive circumstances, such behavior is not at all in the country’s interests. I became aware of developments yesterday and raised the issue with the head of the judiciary. He had also preferred to have the matter discussed at the provincial security council.”

In another twist, the governor of Khorasan Razavi province claimed on Nov. 22 that the provincial prosecutor-general had canceled Motahari’s speech based on a warning by the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that “violations” would likely occur at the event. However, the next day, IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif denied his claim and said the IRGC had no role in canceling Motahari’s speech. On the same day, judiciary chief Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani said, “Mashhad’s prosecutor made this decision on his own and based on information he received from some state organizations. I do not wish to comment on the correctness or incorrectness of such a measure and have ordered my deputy to look into the issue. My question to the president is: Why he did not feel an obligation [to speak out] when lawmakers in parliament accused me of financial corruption?” Ayatollah Larijani also criticized Speaker Larijani, his brother, saying, “He has expressed regret about the events in Mashhad while he has not even heard the explanations by Mashhad’s prosecutor. How can he be regretful? Why didn’t he express regret when they made accusations against me in parliament?”

Regardless of the real reason behind the cancelation of Motahari’s speech — let alone who — it's clear that Rouhani has a very difficult road ahead. It seems that in the one year left of his current term, the president intends to play a more active role in domestic politics as a result of criticism of passivity and silence on matters concerning freedom of speech. His opponents have no plans to back down and will use any opportunity to pressure the government and expose its ineptitude.

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Found in: reformists in iran, mashhad, iranian politics, irgc, hassan rouhani, ali motahhari, ali larijani

Saeid Jafari is an Iranian journalist and Middle East analyst. He has worked for such Iranian publications as Aseman, Khordad, Mosalas and Mehrnameh. He is the editor of the international and diplomatic section of the weekly Seda in addition to working for Khabar Online. Jafari has also published English-language articles in Iran Review. On Twitter: @jafariysaeid

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