Irresponsibility, ignorance, and self-declared “experts” on Iran

This way, please: Rumor leading the chariot of War (Vincenzo Cartari, 1582)

Go ahead: Google “Stop Iran from Executing Four Homosexual Citizens.”  You’ll get well over a thousand hits. They link to petitions that accuse four Iranian men in the small town of Charam of being gay — a capital crime. The insane activist misbehavior over Iran goes on unstoppably. And those responsible for it take no responsibility at all.

When I last wrote about this, none of the petitions were yet directly addressed to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian authorities. That didn’t take long to change. This one, on CNN’s website, now has 5000 signatures; but beyond that, it comes with helpful e-mail addresses and links so that you can contact Iran’s authorities yourself.


The suggested missive not only affirms the men’s gayness, and hence guilt, but makes a weird link to Iran’s nuclear program. With the Flame virus spreading like, well, wildfire, it’s hard to imagine what could be more incendiary; the drafters might as well just brand the four men Israeli spies:

Your Excellency, This is a petition to bring to your attention to [sic] case of four gay men in Iran who are sentenced to be hanged for “sodomy…

If this execution goes forward, it will constitute a crime against humanity in the eyes of the international community, as well as a profound affront to the international standards of justice and norms of modern cilivization [sic] as codified in human rights treaties and conventions to which Iran is a signatory state.

Unavoidably, the question arises: if the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted to honor its human rights obligations under international treaties and covenants, how can it be trusted to honor its commitments in other areas of pressing urgency such as nonproliferation? [emphasis in the original]

In fact, the last paragraph is really the most revealing. Whoever dreamed up this language, it’s clear, isn’t thinking about whether the men live or die. He or she is thinking about Iran’s nuclear program; the men’s fates are a propaganda tool. None of this is doing any good for the men. Nearly all of it is poised to do them harm.

tweet them out

Now, it’s worth repeating: we still have zero information suggesting that the men are “gay.” But none of these petitionmongers cares much about facts. On one page, I see, comments from a Morocco resident who raised doubts about the story have simply been deleted.

What, in truth, do we know now?  One human rights activist in Iran reported to the Iranian Queer Organization (IRQO) that “The four individuals are related and come from the same tribe. They’re among the thugs in the area. About two and half years ago, they have ‘cornered’ a young man of 18-19 and raped him.” He added that HRANA (the Human Rights Activists News Agency), the Farsi-language source of the original story “received th[is] original version too, but intentionally altered it to create media uproar.”

There is recurrent mistrust of HRANA’s reliability among sexual-rights activists and some other human rights campaigners in Iran. Still, after this circulated, on May 17 (28 Ordibehesht 1391), HRANA published an elaboration, based on an alleged interview with a relative of one of the four. This article states that the actual charge was “lavat beh onf,” or rape. The interviewee told HRANA that  “the families of all four” believed that the victim actually had consensual sex with the men, but had turned this into a rape claim, enlisting two other sexual partners as witnesses against them.

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

What we have, then, is characteristic confusion caused by a dearth of information. An editor at JOOPEA, an Iranian sexual-rights platform, wrote me, “5 adults are involved [presumably including the alleged victim]. We don’t know this was a rape, normal sex, a game or something.” It’s an article of faith among the Peter Tatchells and Doug Irelands of the world that male-male rape never takes place in Iran, and that all alleged incidents are “really” consensual homosexual acts. In promoting this version of the famous 2005 case where two youths were hanged for the rape of a 13-year-old, Peter’s then organization OutRage! both belittled the violence and defamed the victim, accusing him of wanting the sex and then lying about it. Of course, while mounting these allegations, they knew nothing about the victim, not even his name — and very little about Iran; nonetheless, Gay City News, Doug’s employer, intoned back in 2006 that “rape of men by men is comparatively rare” worldwide, an astonishingly ignorant generalization. (Underreporting, mainly due to stigma, means that almost no country has statistics on male rape that can be considered reliable. One Australian psychologist estimates that only one out of eleven cases there is reported.) In fact, in several years of interviewing Iranian LGBT people, I talked to dozens of men who had been sexually assaulted or sexually abused by other men — in jails, in schools, or in families. Children were particularly at risk; and “effeminacy,” looking or acting somehow unmasculine, made them vulnerable.

It’s certainly possible that the four men in Charam are “gay” or hamjensgara, and have been framed. It’s certainly also possible that they raped an “effeminate” victim, and that he is the one who suffered for sexual dissidence. Quite possibly, in fact, that’s the pattern underlying these stories of rape. In other words, conceivably Tatchell, Ireland, and their cohorts have spent all these years speechifying and pontificating in support not of “gays,” but of their persecutors. The point is: We don’t know. All this is speculation. And the only responsible way to defend any of these people from the death penalty is not to make imperial, destructive, and unsupported claims about their sexualities, but to oppose the death penalty itself.

That, however, is not an issue to motivate Western queers.

Down, boy: Sir Calidore and the Blatant Beast

Meanwhile: No one who launched the story has bothered to follow up the facts. Dan Littauer and one of his editors are both on the listserve where the IRQO’s account, and the HRANA elaboration, appeared. You’d think that this might stimulate a further article. You know: New allegations on both sides have been forthcoming, and so on. Naturally, though, there’s been nothing of the sort. The MO of the rumorists is like that of Spenser’s untameable Blatant Beast: Never apologize, never explain.

True, the publicity hounds at Italy’s Everyone Group — who organized similar petitions incriminating Makwan Mouloudzadeh before his execution back in 2008 — did at least respond to me on their website. They title their answer “Gay Persecution under Sharia: the Silence of the West.” The phrase “Silence of the West” endlessly fascinates me. It’s used almost invariably in relation to subjects about which the West will not shut up. What it means is not that the West is neglecting something, but that one discordant voice unsettles the harmony and unanimity. It’s an odd sort of aural hallucination: while the whole Mormon Tabernacle Choir is bellowing out the “Hallelujah Chorus,” a single person whistling “Hava Nagila” softly to herself is enough to drown out lungs and pipe organ alike.

Since Everyone Group did me the favor of a reply, though, I’ll reply to them here in turn. They write:

We are very familiar with Islamic law (Sharia).

No, you aren’t.

An accused person can be sentenced exclusively on the EYE WITNESS accounts of at least FOUR PEOPLE OF ISLAMIC FAITH. The Islamic judges do not consider as evidence the statements given by “infidels”.

Nonsense. As is well known, in Ja’fari shari’a legal interpretation, there are two additional bases for convicting people of liwat/lavat:  a confession repeated four times, or the judge’s personal knowledge of the acts (in Arabic, ‘ilm al-hakim).  The former arguably gives considerable scope to torture to extract confessions; In Iran, the latter has turned into broad leeway for circumstantial evidence to decide cases.

Death kitsch: “Makwan, a Letter from Paradise” by Everyone Group

Anyhow, in this situation we are not discussing first-instance verdicts. The question is how to persuade Iranian authorities to show mercy and suspend an already-decided sentence of death. Everyone Group clings to the unaccountable delusion that telling Ahmadeinjad et. al. the convicts are gay is actually a means to this end.

Then we get into Everyone Group’s favorite bugaboo: the idea that they have an absolute right to use anyone’s name — an asylum-seeker, a refugee, an Iranian facing the death penalty — in any way they want to, without the person’s consent. God forbid you disagree:

Unfortunately, some governments and associations connected to public funding and not to human rights, often seek to prevent (as occured during the National Socialism period) the names of the condemned being published. The real purpose of these policies is to obtain silence on refugees and the persecuted …

It’s true; we’re all Nazis!  Everyone Group has been saying this for years. Back in 2009 they had the same refrain: blanking out the name of an asylum-seeker in a campaign “mean[s] denying, as in Apartheid and slavery, a fundamental right. In this way, a person becomes isolated, he becomes an anonymous figure, a common Mister X or a number and is cancelled out, as happened in the Nazi concentration camps and in the present day jails of fundamentalist Islamic countries.” (Their emphasis.) Of course, you might imagine a person has a “fundamental right” to decide how their identity is represented and their name is used: a right not to have their safety endangered for publicity’s sake. Look at yourself! You think that because you are a racist, an ayatollah, and Heinrich Himmler.

Finally, as far as the Makwan Mouloudzadeh case goes, Everyone Group indulges in a bold rewriting of reality:

As for Makwan, it is not true that the accusers retracted the allegations: the identities of the five accusers have never been revealed, but we do know that they were police officers. The charge of “lavat” against Makwan was never retracted!

I puzzled over this wildness for some while, since the facts of Makwan’s legal situation at least are no secret. In September 2006, three men in the town of Paveh told police that Mouloudzadeh had raped them seven years earlier. During the subsequent trial, they retracted their accusations. Mouloudzadeh was convicted nonetheless, based on a confession he claimed was coerced under torture.

no knowledge, but a lot of expertise

I can only assume that Everyone Group’s error here derives from an attempt to confuse “accusers” with “arresters.”  Yes, the police arrested Makwan, and were responsible, as in most systems, for charging him before the law. But the accusation of rape that came from the three alleged victims was certainly retracted — by the alleged victims themselves. A guilty conscience perhaps informs Everyone Group’s uncertainties about what happened in the Makwan case, but it’s no excuse for confusing matters further.

Finally, it’s inevitable where publicity and Iran are concerned that Peter Tatchell should rear his head. He gets cited in the petitions. And I notice (see to the right!) he is now giving himself a new title: “expert on Iran.” It’s astonishing you can become an expert on a country where you’ve never been, and don’t even speak the language. How do you manage? Perhaps some geek on the Mother Ship transfers the expertise direct from a jump drive into your brain, like in The Matrix. “Can you fly that helicopter?” “Not yet.” “Can you comment on that country?” “Wait, I’m downloading.”

How to become an expert on Iran: One theory

Of course, there are other means. The London Review of Books this week carries a very useful article by Owen Bennett-Jones on the Mujahedin e Khalq or People’s Mujahedin (MEK), a cultlike and exceptionally repressive Iranian resistance group that’s campaigned for years to get itself removed from the terrorist lists of the US and other countries. I recommend the piece to everybody.

The People’s Mujahedin used to be a pet cause of Peter Tatchell. He’s dismissed charges of terrorist violence as a “smear”; he said of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), MEK’s political wing, that “it has played a heroic role in resisting the clerical fascist regime in Iran and campaigning for democracy and human rights.” He compared it to “the African National Congress in South Africa or the anti-Nazi resistance in occupied Europe during World War Two.” He told The Nation it was “a key liberation movement inside Iran that deserves international support.”

The MEK’s generous funding has long been a mystery, though nobody was much surprised by Seymour Hersh’s revelation this year that, despite the “terrorist” designation, the US has been channeling not just money but arms to the group — as well as training them in Nevada. What they do with their CIA-and-other largesse is perhaps even more interesting. In addition to full-time lobbyists, they pay a stable of prominent personalities not just to defend their record, but to lend them mute luster by their mere proximity. Bennett-Jones notes,

Three dozen former high-ranking American officials regularly speak at MEK-friendly events. They include Rudy Giuliani, Howard Dean, Obama’s former national security adviser General James Jones and the former congressman Lee Hamilton. The rate for a speech is between $20,000 and $40,000 for ten minutes. Subject matter is not a concern: some speakers deliver speeches that barely mention the MEK. … The Treasury is investigating whether speakers have been receiving funds from a designated terrorist organisation. … Most of those who back the group do so because they will back anything that seeks to upset the regime in Tehran. They seem unaware that the organisation has been called a cult and have not heard the complaints of former members. A number of the most prominent MEK lobbyists say they agreed to speak because they were reassured by the respectability of those who were already doing so.

Tatchell’s own funding is, of course, also a mystery of long standing. For example, his latest venture, the “Peter Tatchell Foundation,” is not a UK registered charity, and offers no reports on where it gets its monies or how it spends them. Given the MEK’s avidity to recruit celebrities major and minor to flack for it, and Tatchell’s own diehard defenses of the group, one does rather wonder what exactly exchanged hands between them. Expertise, very possibly (perhaps on how to run a cult, perhaps even on Iran). But were there more material aspects to the Vulcan mind-meld?

How to become an expert on Iran: Another theory

Of course, this is pure and simple speculation. But it’s no more speculative than the stuff Tatchell and Ireland have disseminated on Iran in the past. And it has one advantage they don’t. It doesn’t endanger lives.

Young in Iran, old in Burma: IDAHO

Documentary made for the first-ever IDAHO event in Burma

Thursday was the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO, or perhaps, with the belatedly-added identities, IDAHOAT). I am generally a Scrooge when it comes to holidays, and if there were an IDAHO tree to deck, or IDAHO eggs to hide, I would bow out, bah-ing. This day, however, was made for people like me, those too jaundiced or depressive to appreciate the manic self-congratulation of Pride; it gives space to consider the obstacles LGBT rights movements still face, as well as those overcome. This probably accounts for the popularity it’s won in half a decade; there were events in 95 countries this year.

In Iran, activists staged discreet celebrations. Here’s one photo: more can be found here.

long may it wave

(As an Iranian friend of mine sniffed, “In north Teheran, you can do anything.”)  Even more significantly, Iranian Liberal Students and Graduates, an informal association founded early  in the Ahmadinejad years to discuss liberalism as politics and philosophy, issued a statement of support for IDAHO, defending “tolerance for homosexual, bisexual transsexual, and transvestite people”:

  • The consensus of experts is that homosexuality is not a physical or mental illness;
  • The consensus of experts is that sexual orientation is unchangeable;
  • There are numerous homosexual persons in all societies, and it is not a phenomenon unique to Western societies …
  • Homosexual attitudes and behavior have been observed in nearly 1500 species of other organisms, and are not unique to humans;
  • And the consensus of experts is that no evidence is available that of the psychological development of children in gay families is inferior to that of children in heterosexual families …
  • Criminalization of homosexual behavior and its punishment by brutal execution in Iranian law should be repealed;
  • And all legal discrimination based on the sexual orientation of individuals, at any level, should be removed from the laws in Iran.

It has taken years of patient work and persuasion by Iranian LGBT rights advocates to integrate their issues with dissident movements’ concerns, and achieve this kind of support. They should be congratulated on this.

Meanwhile, as a Southeast Asian Spring comes to Burma, the first-ever open LGBT event was held in Rangoon, partly organized by my colleage Aung Myo Min of the Human Rights Education Institute of Burma, which still largely operates in Thailand exile. A 106-year-old transgender woman spoke:

A local youth brought the centenarian transgender woman to the stage during a section called Paying Respect to Seniors.  ‘She was almost in tears,’ … Aung Myo Min  told Gay Star News. ‘She told the audience how pleased she is to see this event take place in Rangoon.’

In 1906, when she was born, Burma had been a British colony for 20 years. She was 14 when the first revolt against colonial rule — by university students  (Aung San Suu Kyi‘s father was one of them) — happened; 36 when the Japanese invaded; 42 at independence; 56 when the long nightmare of military rule started. I hope someone is recording her life story. I also hope that when I’m her age, no one expects me to have anything to say.

IDAHO event in Rangoon

Four “sodomy” sentences in Iran: On not learning from our mistakes

Makwan Mouloudzadeh

Iranian authorities killed Makwan Mouloudzadeh on December 5, 2007.  Six months earlier, a court had convicted Mouloudzadeh —  a youth of Kurdish descent from near Kermanshah — of raping three other boys when he was 13.  However, his accusers retracted their claims; no evidence against him remained. In November, Iran’s chief justice had overturned the death sentence. Yet a panel of judges illegally defied him; they ordered the execution to go forward. Makwan was 21 years old.

“Hier ist kein warum,” an SS officer in Auschwitz told Primo Levi: “Here there’s no ‘why.” Try finding the “why” in Iran’s criminal justice system, riddled with corruption, incompetence and contradictions that unravel the basic rationality and syntax intended to constitute the law! If the mullahs behaved inscrutably, though, you have to grasp the matching weirdness in the deranged behavior of Western gay activists, who had mounted a massive campaign on Makwan’s behalf. Their goal wasn’t to persuade Iran’s authorities of Makwan’s evident innocence; it was to convince them he was guilty of a different crime. They accused him of consensual homosexual sex — which is also a capital offense.

But Boris’s is bigger: Anti-Iran protest, London Pride, 2008

They all wanted a “gay” victim, even if it meant his death. Peter Tatchell, the British activist, had been obsessed for years with proving that “gay” executions were a regular event in Iran. He seized on Makwan’s case as evidence, broadcasting that he was the “latest victim in Iran’s on-going homophobic campaign.”  He referred to the 13-year old, who had recanted any claim of rape or other sexual relations, as Makwan’s “partner”: and he urged letters to Iran’s government, calling for Makwan’s release while further incriminating him.  Meanwhile, EveryOne Group, a rogue Italian circle of publicity hounds, organized a petition to Ahmadeinejad for the “young homosexual Makvan,” and argued explicitly that he was “‘guilty’ of having loved a peer when he was 13 and having sexual intercourse with him.”  Not a shred of evidence underpinned these fantasies of erotic culpability. But God knows how many messages Everyone Group showered on Teheran, all telling the authorities, completely falsely, that Makwan had committed a capital crime. It’s impossible to suppose these didn’t play their part in the judges’ sudden reversal, and the execution. Makwan’s self-appointed “friends” had blood on their hands.

You know the cliches. Those who don’t remember the past …. And, of course, History repeats itself … “The first time as tragedy, the second time as farce,” that was what Marx said, right? Except what if both times, it’s tragedy?  What if it’s just a grinding recurrence of the same mistakes? Not even laughing gas could let you find comedy in the senseless reiteration, the stupid waste.

Everything old is new again; and the same people are still looking for “gay” victims, and still indifferent to the consequences.

Here’s the story. On Saturday, May 12 (that’s 23 Ordibehesht, 1391, in the Persian calendar) the website of Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), an independent Farsi source for rights news, published the following note:

The sentence of death against four citizens in the province of Kohgiluyeh on charges of “sodomy”  has been confirmed.

HRANA, a news organization for human rights activists in Iran, reports that  the execution of four people named Saadat Arafi, Vahid Akbari, Javid Akbar and Houshmand Akbari has been approved.

These four persons residing in the city of Charam in Kohgiluyeh province, are facing charges of sodomy punishable by death. The charge of sodomy  is an accusation often referring to sex with [persons of the] same sex.

This is very little information, and the last sentence indicates that HRANA itself didn’t know the substance of the charges — whether they involved consensual sex or rape, both of which can be included under lavat (sodomy) in Iranian law.  HRANA is the only source we have; no independent account seems to turn up in any other Iranian news organ, at least not online. It’s not on the local Kogiluyeh websites, here or here or here; it’s not even on the helpful page of the province’s religious police.

My little town: Charam

That doesn’t mean it isn’t true — but it does mean HRANA’s information is probably pretty fragmentary. Charam is a small city (population 12,000 in the 2006 census) in the out-of-the-way and mountainous Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad province in Iran’s southeast. Even HRANA doesn’t seem to draw a whole lot of news from there, judging from their website.

So the first thing a human rights activist or a journalist would do is try to reach HRANA and get more information. The real human rights activists are trying this (and I too wrote to HRANA today). Unfortunately, there are also journalists who have learned in the Doug Ireland school that speculation is what makes a story.

The HRANA piece was posted to a listserve I’m on, that same Saturday. Dan Littauer, of the dubious website Gay Middle East, is on the same list. Within a few hours he’d written a lengthy article, which was up on three British gay news sites. (The alacrity with which these articles blossom on the Web suggests a certain sparsity of fact-checking.) The piece is an educational example; it reveals how to pad out the virtual absence of detail in the HRANA piece with other non-details, until it looks like you actually know something. Naturally, Littauer didn’t reach HRANA itself; but he quotes an unnamed gay activist in Iran, as well as Iranians in London and Austria, none of whom have any direct knowledge of the case. One says, “this is the most clear statement against same sex-acts in past months.” Another: “The rhetoric of announcement makes the link between same-sex sexual activity, or sodomy with corporal punishment very clear.” I don’t quite know what the last sentence means; but of course, we don’t have any official “announcement” or “statement” to judge from. We have only the blip from HRANA, in HRANA’s own words. It’s hard to read a new government stance into that.

Then, to fill space, Littauer indulges his own Orientalist speculation:

Iranian Human Rights activists constantly note the fact that the two genders are strictly segregated increases the tendency for same-sex acts among the youth, in a phenomena [sic] that is also similarly known in single gender prisons. Indeed this phenomenon happens throughout highly segregated societies in the Middle East and North Africa.

Now, I’ve never heard an Iranian human rights activist say anything of the sort. I have, however, heard plenty of white gay tourists, plumped up with their own fanciful sex scenarios about endlessly available Middle Eastern men, offer up just this account. What this has to do with the skeletal story from Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad is anybody’s guess. But rule one in the Doug Ireland school of journalism is, Remember, Westerners’ fantasies are your audience. And rule two is, Every added paragraph makes it seem more true.

the awful consequences of gender segregation

But the sad part is what happens then. Over the weekend, some other websites start carrying the tale. “Iran to Execute Four Gays by Hanging,” one right-wing page serves up, complete with ideological icing: “It is very rare that liberal media cover Islamic hatred towards gays, or killing of gays.” Well, actually, they do.  Monday the wildly popular US-based Huffington Post  picks up the story, headlining it “Iranian Gay Men To Be Hanged For Sodomy: Report.” But: what? What, even in Littauer’s article, suggested the men were “gay”? Does HuffPo have any proof they were even guilty of sodomy, or any other form of sex? Do its editors repose such doelike trust in the Islamic Republic’s justice, such faith in its forensic uncovering of truth, that they can’t imagine the poor men’s innocence? That’s the liberal media for you.

Pretty soon it’s all over the web. The Advocate blares “Breaking News”: “Four Gay Men to Be Hanged in Iran for Sodomy.” (It’s listed under Crime, because after all, they’re guilty.) Philadelphia’s gay magazine muses on “Life, Death, and Being Gay in Iran”:  “How do you save four men sentenced to hanging for sodomy?” Not by calling them “gay,” for starters.

None of this would matter much — the Iranian authorities probably aren’t fans of the Advocate, or even Arianna Huffington. But invisible capillaries carry information, words, fantasies across borders these days; and some of this language starts to bleed back into how the story is represented in Iran. By today, the story’s been picked up across the Farsi blogosphere. The HRANA article is, so far as I can see, the only source any of them have. But an inflection from the US articles starts creeping into the story: the headline changes. “Risk of imminent execution in Iran for four homosexuals [hamjensgara]” one Farsi account reads, and others echo it.

Worse, the repeat-offending Italians at EveryOne Group get back into the act. They advertise an “Urgent Appeal” to — what? — “save the lives of four gay men.”

EveryOne Group is asking the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, the European Union Commissioner for Human Rights, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and civil society to support our call for the defence of the lives of these four young homosexual men and all those who suffer persecution because of their natural orientation.

The accompanying petition already has 4000 signatures.  (The one mercy is that Ahmadinejad is not yet among the addressees, but one imagines they’ll add him soon.) “The blood of four innocent gay men will be an indelible stain upon the conscience of the world community if this atrocity is allowed to proceed!” But don’t you see?  Marking them “gay” means they are not “innocent,” not in the Iranian judiciary’s eyes. You know nothing about these four men, nothing at all. But you’re still content to call them names that convict them. What gave you that right?

Everyone Group on Mouloudzadeh, 2007: Makwan lives on, so why feel guilty?

And of course Peter Tatchell, who’s always happy to exploit the living or the dead, rejoins the parade. He fires off a press release — “Four Iranian men to hang for sodomy” — not designed to help them, but to advertise a panel for the International Day against Homophobia that he’s cosponsoring.

I don’t know anything about these four men; none of us are likely to, until we hear from HRANA. I think I can predict, though, what will happen. The EveryOne Group’s campaign will go forward, the petition will accumulate its fungal signatures, all with the greatest good will; demonstrations and banners may cap off the news articles. And the men will die. Whether all these voices chanting that they’re “gay” will contribute to their deaths depends on how loud they grow, and whether the Iranian authorities are paying attention. But the ease with which we attach identities to people we’ve never seen and know nothing of — only because they’re there, not here, only because they are malleably foreign and employable to us, only because they’re in Iran and we need to affix a certain narrative to both violence and victims there — is overwhelmingly distressing. And so is the ease with which we neglect the threatened consequences. We’ve learned nothing from the miserable follies around Makwan. Blood cries out from the ground; we haven’t begun to listen.

A who’s who of the Iranian firewall

A friend from Iran sent me this link tonight; it’s amusing, in a disturbed and disturbing sort of way.   The “Iran Firewall Test” allows you to “use the Internet in Iran in real time” to explore what people in the country can access or not through ordinary Web means. What’s blocked, and what’s not? Enter your favorite website, and see.

There are already mysteries I’ve stumbled on in five minutes of playing with it. Why is Salon blocked while Slate isn’t?  Why does the New Republic lie afoul of the firewall but not — get this — Commentary? Barack Obama’s reelection effort isn’t censored; the White House is. Mitt Romney’s campaign site is open to any Iranian to view; perhaps the ultimate step in his political evolution is to succeed Ahmadinejad. So, too, World Net Daily, the rabid right-wing Christian page (“American’s Independent News Network”) can be perused by the most militant of Teheranis. But you can’t get Wonkette.  Iranians will never learn the true meaning of Santorum.” Dan Savage’s column is blocked, and so is Dr. Ruth, and so is Rex Wockner’s blog. But neither COYOTE in LA nor SWEAT in South Africa — both of them sex workers’ advocacy organizations — is. You can get to the Ford Foundation but not the Soros Foundation. You can get the Colbert Report and the Daily Show, but not Saturday Night Live.

This little blog is unblocked, at the moment, a dubious honor; if you want anything read in Iran, just let me know and I’ll facilitate it.  One feels like reciting Brecht’s poem:

When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you:
Burn me!

Iran shuts down the Internet: The how and why

Anyone who possesses even mildly the geek’s temperament will remember what happened in Egypt just after midnight on January 28, 2011, The Night Mubarak Turned It All Off. The following graph captures it:

A great darkness poured out of Mordor ....

In a matter of minutes, Web access across a country of 80 million shrank to almost nothing, as every major Internet service provider (ISP) shut down like a po-mo version of the end of Atlas Shrugged. But that steep cliff has to be understood against this graph, too:

Up, up, and away

That’s the growth in Internet usage from its first introduction in Egypt in 1993.   From 2004 on — the same time political dissent was multiplying — it took off almost exponentially. By 2010 it had reached a quarter of the population. This year, Internet penetration is estimated to hit 30%.

The regime was very slow to waken to the potential threat that blogs, social networks, email and other kinds of cybercommunication could pose.  By the time they got around to considering the problem, the Net had burgeoned to a point where they could no longer monitor and conduct surveillance easily. It wasn’t just a question of physical capacity; Egyptian State Security and the regular police were late to develop the technical competence. In the great crackdown on gay men from 2001-2003, police entrapped people in chatrooms and through personals ads.  But they hadn’t the technology or knowhow to trace the guys through their ISPs. The only way of finding them was a relatively primitive one: luring them to give away their names and addresses. One man who was caught on the Web told me,

All of them—the judges, the lawyers, even the niyaba [prosecutor]—knew nothing about the Internet.  The deputy prosecutor even said, “I know nothing about the Internet and I don’t have time to learn about it. What is it? What do you do on it?  Do people just talk around with men?”  They knew nothing about how the things I was charged with actually worked, how these sites work, how you enter them or use them, or even how you log onto the internet or send an e-mail.  They knew nothing except that the police officer had said I was gay and stood in [Midan] Tahrir making feminine motions, and that the Internet was somehow part of this.

The reason they shut down the whole Internet in a failed attempt to stifle the Revolution, then, was that they didn’t know anything else to do. Other, more targeted means of keeping tabs on dissident networks were beyond their ability. As a similar mark of ineptitude, when I say that the Great Blackout in January happened “in a matter of minutes,” I mean it’s inaccurate to think that the Mubarak regime “pulled the plug” on the Internet. They didn’t know where the plug was. They weren’t technically able to shut down the whole thing themselves. Those minutes mean that they were individually calling the telecom companies and ordering them to close up shop.  The whole thing was massive but  appallingly primitive.

Now, what isn’t very well remembered is that the Egyptian blackout boys had a role model. Here it is:

The grand canyon

That deep fosse or fissure is a profile of panic. It was the day after the stolen election of June 12, 2009. As protests spread, on June 13 the state-run service providers shut down. The authorities had realized that the Internet and its accomplice technologies, Twitter and texting and the rest, were how information was metastasizing among the protesters, and spilling over to the outside world. Much like Mubarak’s sweating henchmen, they had no ready means to control it. So off went the lights. They flickered back only slowly in the following days, at a dim and sluggish level. The BBC spoke to a  Western expert who

believes the authorities were buying time to install the filtering tools they needed to have a functioning internet infrastructure, but one over which they had some measure of control. So he reckons they gradually turned the tap back on as they put the filters in.

We talked about two very different countries that have also attempted to control the web; Burma and China. “Burma in 2008 wasn’t very delicate,” he explained, referring to the regime’s reaction to large-scale unrest. “They simply turned it all off, so there was six weeks without a phone call or an e-mail.”

China, by contrast, has a very sophisticated filtering infrastructure, allowing for a completely open interchange of traffic with overseas trading partners, while maintaining strict control over access to forbidden sites and search terms.

And here’s the other graph that’s relevant. Iran’s internet usage as of 2010 was hovering just above 10% of the population:

Crawling toward the light

Iran’s regime struggled after the June 2009 shock to find ways of surveilling and controlling the Internet that would still keep its economy functioning. They were aided, though, by a rate of Web penetration that, while growing along a curve comparable to Egypt’s, had still reached a much smaller proportion of the population. They had a bit of breathing space to sample technology — mostly, in all probability, from China — test it here and there, and develop a comprehensive plan.

The plan appears to be unfolding bit by bit — no pun intended. With legislative elections impending in early March, the government has introduced new rules requiring all Internet cafes to set up security cameras, and trace all users’ online footprints. Customers must also present their personal information before log-on. The Guardian says these

are calculated not to stamp out anonymous use of the internet, but to dissuade the far larger body of average people from any thought of dissent…. In a society where you know that you are being watched, eventually you will watch yourself, and save the authorities the trouble. Monitoring the free internet is too big a task for any government. But by using the threat of monitoring, Iran‘s administration can free itself to focus on words or phrases, or people, it knows to distrust.

But this is just the harbinger. Since 2009, authorities have been warning periodically about a project for a “Halal Internet”: an intranet somewhat on the model of corporations’ internal messaging systems, allowing supervised communication within the country, but cut off from the external world.   This is the technologically competent version of the Cairo Solution. You shut the Internet, but you shift the parts you need to another network, one you can control.

It’s already coming. Early in 2011, a government techie told the Iranian press that

soon 60% of the nation’s homes and businesses would be on the new, internal network. Within two years it would extend to the entire country, he said.

Reza Taghipour, the Minister of Information and Communications Technology (an Orwellian title under the circumstances), has announced it will be ready in May. “Privacy, security, and cheapness are the goals of this project,” Taghipour added. (Privacy is publicity; security is vulnerability; cheap is China.)

Meanwhile, the chief of national police, Ahmadi Moghadam, warned that “Google search is not a search engine but a spy machine!”  He comforted concerned searchers: “We have all these services here in Iran, more secure and better performing, so we can cut the foreigners’ connections to our content.” The appeal to xenophobia, both in the fear of alien espionage and the prospect of an improved, indigenous Google, is blatant. It isn’t us watching you, the government assures you, it’s the Zionists behind your screen. And our super gadgets will defend you! It reminds one of the Ceausescu-era Romanian “protochronists,” a sect of pseudoscholars who believed that Romania had invented everything first, and better. The Renaissance started in Wallachia, the Orthodox created the Reformation, and Aurel Vlaicu built the first airplane. Not for nothing is the project being compared to North Korea’s self-imposed isolation. Dictators, at a certain level, think as similarly as they force their subjects to do.

Kim Jong Il looks at the Internet

This information came to me first from Iranian LGBT rights activists. Queers in Iran are, though, in much the same situation as other dissidents.  All had built a protective carapace, a niqab of anonymity, out of the Internet’s capacities; and they’re faced with that being ripped away.   It’s a contrast to (straight) dissidents’ strategies in Egypt in the last decade: comparatively few went undercover on the Web. A large number of activists and organizations preferred transparency, not only to challenge a regime that was palpably losing some of its repressive acuity and power, but, it seemed, to confuse and swamp it with a surfeit of information. This has never been much of an option in Iran, where the cloud of information is smaller and wispier, and security forces’ ability to retaliate has been unquestionable.

Of course, xenophobia in Iran has a certain rationality at the moment. One expert inside the country told the Guardian that “Iran has fears of an outside cyber-attack like that of the Stuxnet, and is trying to protect its sensitive data from being accessible on the World Wide Web.” The Stuxnet virus, an American-Israeli bit of malware, got into the Iranian system through infected USB sticks left for workers to pocket like poisoned chewing gum; it seriously damaged the national nuclear program. The killings of Iranian nuclear scientists, one of whom was bombed today, tend also to promote a vivid paranoia. “Despite what others think,” the expert said, the “intranet is not primarily aimed at curbing the global Internet but Iran is creating it to secure its own military, banking and sensitive data from the outside world.”

“At the same time,” he added, “Iran is working on software robots to analyse exchanging emails and chats, attempting to find more effective ways of controlling users’ online activities.”  Regardless of the halal Internet’s intent, surveillance will tighten.

What can you, or anyone do? Activists convey a twofold message to the West: first, to shout to governments that sanctions, viruses, and bombs redound in the repression of the dissidents they profess to support. Second, if the US and other states are developing Internet technologies that can circumvent censorship and firewalls, speed the damn things up.   The Obama administration has promised an “Internet in a suitcase” to dissenters in countries it dislikes. It will

rely on a version of “mesh network” technology, which can transform devices like cellphones or personal computers to create an invisible wireless web without a centralized hub. In other words, a voice, picture or e-mail message could hop directly between the modified wireless devices — each one acting as a mini cell “tower” and phone — and bypass the official network.

It sounds a bit more unwieldy than the compact tchotchkes Q gave James Bond at the outset of every film:

This pen, Bond, is mightier than any sword: it contains a three-megaton warhead.

[T]he suitcase would include small wireless antennas, which could increase the area of coverage; a laptop to administer the system; thumb drives and CDs to spread the software to more devices and encrypt the communications; and other components like Ethernet cables.

The New York Times adds with sang-froid:

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

Right, if you’re bristling with all those cords and antennae. And doing 2,300 words’ worth of interviews with the Times about the project doesn’t help either.

Tell your governments — what? Tell them dissidents need help, and they’re not helping. Something, somewhere, has to give.

Did we score, or are you just glad to see me?

Mohammad Nosrati (L) and Sheys Rezaei (R)

“Iranian soccer players could face lashing after victory groping,” reports the Washington Post:

TEHRAN — Two Iranian soccer players who engaged in “inappropriate” celebratory behavior during a game broadcast on national television might face public lashings on the pitch, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported Tuesday.

Members of parliament, sports officials and judges have called for the “swift punishment” of Mohammad Nosrati and Sheys Rezaei, two soccer stars who play for one of Iran’s most popular clubs, Tehran-based Persepolis.

After one of their teammates scored the winning goal of a 3-2 match on Saturday, ending a long losing streak, Nosrati pressed his hand into Rezaei’s behind as they and their teammates jumped on one another in celebration.

As millions watched on television, Nosrati appeared to be trying to push his hand between Rezaei’s buttocks. It remained unclear Wednesday whether Rezaei had engaged in a similar action earlier in the game.

Iran’s football federation immediately suspended both players for an unspecified period and fined them nearly $40,000 each, Fars reported. According to the federation’s Web site, the ban is indefinite because a final decision cannot be made until “other authorities” are consulted. …

According to the norms of ultra-conservative Iran, the players’ “action can be considered a violation of public chastity,” Judge Valiollah Hosseini told the news agency. “The punishment of this crime is prison up to two months and 74 lashes.”

“Victory groping” is a wonderful phrase.


Corporations don’t kill people. Ahmadinejad and corporations kill people, together.

For background on Iranian politics, the authors of this article went for ideology rather than knowledge; they turned to the right-wing Freedom House and the dreadful Foundation for Defense of Democracies — a bomb-them-and-take-their-oil outfit that has been hawking an attack on Teheran ever since 9/11. That slant, however, seems separate from an otherwise well-sourced story. For some years now, including the days of the worst repression in Iran, communications and security corporations have been selling surveillance technology to the oppressors.

Even as the pariah state pursued a brutal political crackdown, including arrests and executions surrounding its contested 2009 elections, European companies supplied Iran with location tracking and text-message monitoring equipment that can turn mobile phones into tools for surveillance.

Stockholm-based Ericsson AB, Creativity Software Ltd. of the U.K. and Dublin-based AdaptiveMobile Security Ltd. marketed or provided gear over the past two years that Iran’s law enforcement or state security agencies would have access to, according to more than 100 documents and interviews with more than two dozen technicians and managers who worked on the systems.

Read the whole piece. It’s not as though the firms didn’t know what they were doing. In fact, their staff had to clock overtime to help Ahmadinejad hunt down dissidents.

Ericsson, the world’s largest maker of wireless networks, confirmed that in the fourth quarter of 2009 it sold a mobile- positioning center for customer billing purposes to MTN Irancell Telecommunications Services Co., Iran’s second-largest mobile provider.

When Iranian security officers needed to locate a target one night in late 2009, one former Ericsson employee says he got an emergency call to come into the office to fix a glitch in an Ericsson positioning center.

Indeed, they actively marketed the surveillance systems as answers to the regime’s needs:

Ericsson, the telecommunications giant with $28 billion in sales last year, in 2008 supplied Irancell with its Mobile Positioning System 9.0 for locating subscribers — a test system that Ericsson says Irancell didn’t buy and could use only on a limited scale.

Ericsson later sold Irancell the positioning-data component of the test system, says Richard Carter, Ericsson’s Istanbul- based head of commercial, sourcing and partnering in the Middle East and the country manager for Iran. It was sold in late 2009, the company confirmed. Known as a Serving Mobile Positioning Centre, the box calculates a person’s position and logs the data.

A former Irancell manager said that all such systems supplied to the mobile operator, including technology from Ericsson, were accessible by law enforcement agencies.

The former Ericsson employee urgently called in to fix the system in late 2009 says he was told that Iranian intelligence officers were attempting to pinpoint the location of someone in the Zahedan area of southeast Iran.

Communications corporations in the post-industrial West market the feeling of freedom: breaking loose from tangible constraints and borders, streaming into pure ether and cyberliberty.  The erotic exultation attached to the tininess of the things — my mobile is thinner than yours; my mobile doubles as a contact lens — hints at a commercialized desire to drop the concrete side of technology altogether, to dematerialize, evaporate and disappear. By contrast, the Iranian state, to a degree unusual in the world, invests its legitimacy in its capacity to control citizens’ bodies, movements, personal behavior.  Its power is about positioning, about pinning you up or down and placing you and keeping tabs on who and where you are.  It’s mildly interesting if unsurprising, I suppose, how a Janus-faced firm like Ericsson manages to make both appeals.

Meanwhile, on the subject of personal control,  the Iranian football federation’s disciplinary committee has banned two players “indefinitely from all football activities for committing immoral acts.”

Footage posted online shows Persepolis defender Mohammed Nosrati squeezing teammate Sheis Rezaei’s bottom.

Another video seems to show Rezaei squeezing a teammate later in the 3-2 Persepolis victory over Damash Gilan.

The game was broadcast live to millions. Nosrati and Rezaei have said they did not intend to offend anyone.

At least they weren’t sexting.

The Iran-cartel scandal: Who dreamed this up?

Mistakes were madeBack in the antediluvian days of the Reagan administration, the Iran-Contra scandal brought together a bizarre accumulation of bedfellows, as if the invite list for a bar mitzvah got crossed with one for an orgy.  There were mullahs, neo-cons, Nicaraguan rebels, a National Security Adviser landing in Teheran with a cake, secretaries with secret files under their skirts, and many more.   Now we have a new scandal with a similar Keystone cops array of participants: mullahs (again) hiring Mexican drug cartels to kill the Saudi ambassador on U.S. soil.

Gary Sick, who knows Iran rather better than most Americans, questions the whole thing. He’s worth quoting in almost-full:

[T]his plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures.

To be sure, Iran has plenty of reasons to be angry at both the United States and Saudi Arabia. They attribute the recent wave of assassinations of physics professors and students, as well as the intrusion of the Stuxnet worm, to the US and Israel. And the king of Saudi Arabia is reliably reported to have called for the US to bomb Iran.
Iran has reportedly been involved in past assassinations in Europe and bombings in Argentina and elsewhere. But the assassinations were of Iranian counter-revolutionaries in the 1980s, and the bombings were always carried out by trusted proxies — normally a branch of Hezbollah. Iran’s fingerprints were always concealed beneath one or more layers of disguise.

Iran has never conducted — or apparently even attempted — an assassination or a bombing inside the US. And it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions. In this instance, they allegedly relied on at least one amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and US intelligence agents. …
Perhaps this operation is just as it appears. But at a minimum both the public and the Congress should demand more detailed evidence before taking any rash or irreversible action. If Iran is really as stupid and as incompetent as this case implies, then perhaps they are their own worst enemy and not the clever and determined adversary that they are made out to be.

Pepe Escobar also finds it seems less like a plot than a two-page treatment:

FBI Director Robert Mueller insisted the Iran-masterminded terror plot “reads like the pages of a Hollywood script”. It does. And quite a sloppy script at that.

The American public has plenty of credulity, way more than American intelligence has imagination.  One’s conspiratorial sensors swell: perhaps it’s a huge act of disinformation by the Iranian government — or even the drug lords — to leave the U.S. embarrassed at the end.  Juan Cole, meanwhile, suggests a Byzantine explanation: two drug cartels wrote the story. Iranian drug networks are powerful and have financial ties to the octopian business interest of the para-statal Revolutionary Guards.

If a rogue Iranian drug cartel… wanted to hit the Saudi ambassador, then  it would be natural for them to reach out to their counterparts, the Zetas in Mexico. Whereas if the Iranian state wanted to assassinate someone, it would be crazy for them to reveal themselves to a Mexican gangster.

So why hit the Saudis? If it was an Iranian cartel, they might be annoyed with the Saudi version of the war on drugs. After all, some of their colleagues may have gotten caught in the dragnet. Or they might be angered that Saudi-backed Sunni militant gangs in Iraq and Syria have grabbed smuggling routes, cutting out the Iranians.