Why Iranian Sufis Do Not Believe in Tehran's 'New Diplomacy'
by Stephen Schwartz
Sufis, let us first observe, are not the only victims of state reprisal in Rouhani's Iran. Rouhani's term began on August 3. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer who had been jailed in 2011, was let out of prison in September. She had been sentenced to 11 years' incarceration – reduced on appeal to six years – plus a 20-year ban on practicing law, and a 20-year prohibition on foreign travel. Her release was advertised intensively and came just before Rouhani's extravagantly-promoted visit to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Sotoudeh, whose clients included 2003 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, was accused of "acting against national security, collusion and propaganda against the state, and membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center."
On December 13, 2013, a delegation from the European Parliament met with Sotoudeh in Tehran to present her belatedly with the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. The visit by the Europeans was condemned by hard-line Iranian clerics. Two weeks later, on December 27, Sotoudeh and her family returned from a funeral to their household and found it ransacked, with everything of value stolen.
Sotoudeh's husband, Reza Khandan, intimated that Islamic Republic official personnel were involved in the violation of the family's privacy, commenting, "Everybody knows that … all kinds of different security and judicial organizations in this country have the power and the authority to be able to find the perpetrators in 48 hours. We will wait for them to announce the results of their actions," Khandan said.
The International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, which was financed originally by human rights activists in the Netherlands and is now headquartered in the U.S., compared the raid on Sotoudeh's premises pointedly with earlier such episodes. They mentioned a 2009 descent on Shirin Ebadi's house and office by 150 "demonstrators," and a similar siege of the residence of former opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi in 2010. In the aftermath of the Green protest movement against ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Karroubi's property was swarmed "by dozens of armed plainclothes [police]. The attacks took place over three days and resulted in graffiti, vandalism, broken windows, and shootings inside Karroubi's home." In both the Ebadi and Karroubi incidents, Iranian uniformed police failed to prevent the invasions.
While Nasrin Sotoudeh is not a Sufi, her imprisonment was publicized widely by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights in Iran (IOPHRI), based in the Iranian émigré community in the West. While IOPHRI has taken the initiative in reporting on all atrocities committed by the dictatorship against dissidents, it is concerned particularly with persecution of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi Sufis, a Shia Muslim body.
Iran and its culture are known worldwide as centers of Sufi mysticism. Yet because the Gonabadi disciples, who represent a leading element of Iranian Sufism, oppose the abuses of human rights and law committed by the Tehran establishment, they have been attacked savagely.
On December 23, the Paris office of Seyed Mostafa Azmayesh, the exiled leader of the Gonabadi Sufis and head of IOPHRI, was turned upside down, with the loss of personal research data storage media, in a fashion anticipating the incursion against Sotoudeh and her family.
Iranian officials may polish their manners when meeting with foreigners like Secretary of State John Kerry. Within their borders and abroad, however, when dealing with Iranian opponents, they are aggressively lawless.
In early December, Majzooban Noor (The Alluring Light), the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi internet platform managed by IOPHRI, issued a report in English detailing violations of the rights of Sufis during the first 100 days of Rouhani's administration. That period has been described by Rouhani supporters as one of "hope and prudence," especially because it seemed to promise an opening to America.
As Majzooban Noor noted, "Rouhani repeatedly said during his campaign that 'all the political prisoners should be released.' He also said on several occasions that he wanted a change 'in favor of free speech and media freedom.'"
After Rouhani was sworn in, the Iranian state arrested "10 more journalists and bloggers… 10 others have been sentenced to a combined total of 72 years in prison, and three newspapers have been closed or forced to suspend publishing under pressure from the authorities," according to Majzooban Noor.
The Majzooban Noor Sufi News Agency was subjected to repetitive cyber-attacks – a specialty of the Iranian rulers – through September and October.
On October 19, 2013, after Rouhani had served as president for three months, 31 political prisoners held in section 350 of Tehran's infamous Evin Prison issued a statement denouncing the authorities for illegal actions against lawyers kept in the "Gonabadi Sufi" section of the lockup. The signatories expressed their worry about the physical condition of Hamid Reza Moradi, the director of the Majzooban Noor website, and Mostafa Daneshjou. They and other leading Gonabadis have been found guilty of creating their website to subvert national security, assail the regime, insult Ayatollah Khamenei, and disturb public order.
On December 10, 2013, Majzooban Noor warned that Hamid Moradi and Daneshjou were "in urgent need of specialized medical care" and faced a "life threatening" situation. On December 1, Tehran public security officers had surrounded the Shohada-e Tajrish hospital and attempted to have the two men discharged from the facility, placing them in handcuffs and shackles. An effort to move them to the Tehran Heart Center had been blocked by a Tehran "hanging judge" who specializes in anti-Sufi verdicts, Abulghasem Salavati.
Hamid Moradi, in addition to serving a 10-and-a-half year penal term, has suffered a serious infection of the foot, which may require amputation, after torture by Iranian officials. He is also afflicted by illnesses including arteriosclerosis and cardiovascular diseases, as well as lumbar disc damage. Mostafa Daneshjou, a lawyer and member of the website's board, was handed a seven year prison sentence, and is a pulmonary patient.
Under Rouhani, three Gonabadi adherents, residents of Kavar county in Iran's southern Fars province, have been ordered into permanent internal deportation by judges in Shiraz, the capital of Fars. Branch 2 of the Shiraz Revolutionary Court announced the punishment of the three Sufis, Hamid-Reza Arayesh, Kazem Dehghan and Mohammad-Ali Shamshirzan, convicting all of them of participation in seditious protests, "waging war against God," and shipping illegal weapons. The Kavar case emerged from a violent confrontation in 2011 that led to the death of one Sufi and injury to three more, attacked by the Basij militia and their plainclothes police accomplices.
In August 2013, with Rouhani as president, a suit against two preachers, Mohammad Reza Shahbazi and Alireza Ghaemi, blaming them for agitation that led to the Kavar clash, was delayed when Shahbazi failed to appear in court. Shahbazi and Ghaemi had travelled from the theological center of Qom to carry out their homicidal campaign. The action against the two clerics was filed by Gonabadi lawyers Saleh Moradi and Kasra Nouri; the latter is also a website editor.
Kasra Nouri was arrested in January 2013 and rearrested in March. In April, Nouri was sentenced to four years and four months behind bars for his involvement with the Gonabadi website. An appeals court reaffirmed the judgment at the end of August.
With 2013 coming to a close, on December 30, IOPHRI announced that the families of four more Sufis held in Adel Abad prison in Shiraz, in connection with the Kavar events, had refused to post bail for them. The defendants are Seyed Ebrahim Bahrami, Mohammad-Ali Sadeghi, Mohammad-Ali Dehghan, and Mohsen Esmaili. Their trial, which began in November 2013, was suspended until January 7. Early in December, Majzooban Noor stated that Bahrami's health was deteriorating, with internal bleeding, and that his medical problems were being ignored by prison officials.
Forty Gonabadi Sufis issued a public letter on December 30 protesting the failure of the "Special Clerical Court" in Shiraz to act against Shahbazi and Ghaemi. The Gonabadis claim that more than 100 Sufis from Kavar have been arrested, assaulted, and tried in violation of legal procedures.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, Shiraz, Khorramshahr, and other cities, Gonabadi Sufis and their families remain the targets of threats, interrogation by intelligence agents, and other persecution. Their plight is eloquent evidence that regardless of its global peace rhetoric, the Iranian clerical tyranny has not fulfilled Rouhani's pledge of change.