By Jubin Katiraie
Delphine O, MP from Paris, chairs the France-Iran friendship group in the National Assembly (the French parliament). Her activities are divided into three areas: “supporting Franco-Iranian political relations; strengthening academic and scientific exchanges between France and Iran; and promoting Iran in France. As it is difficult to show sympathy for a regime, as problematic as that of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Delphine O spares no effort to “whitewash” its detestable image due to its Islamist theocratic nature and its serious violations of human rights, as very often pointed out by the UN and important international NGOs.
Delphine O is also co-founder of a lobby much like an “enlightened” media body, “Lettres Persanes”, whose activity is essentially aimed at subtly enhancing the regime’s image, and ultimately to help it “leave behind the status of pariah to reintegrate the international scene” and promote foreign investment to fuel an economy ruined by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC/Pasdaran) that squandered the immense potential of the country. A forged image that scrupulously avoids raising the issue of human rights in Iran proved largely to be in contradiction with the events during the recent popular revolt (December 2017-January 2018) that shook the foundations of the religious dictatorship. All this while NGOs report that “in Iran, reforms have stalled”.( les ONG rapportent)
Human rights: “diplomatic nonsense”?
Delphine O first went to Iran in 2013, where she lived for a year to write her master’s thesis on Iranian foreign policy. In 2016, she co-founded Lettres Persanes (Persian Letters), an online medium, which aims to “improve Iran’s image”, “establish partnerships with research institutions working on Iran” and lobby to attract investors to Iran. The co-founder of Lettres Persanes is Roohollah Shahsavar, an Iranian who admits to have been a member of the Bassidj (a militia affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards) and defends the positions of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. In this capacity he maintains close relations with the Iranian Embassy in Paris and offers forums to its ambassador in the pages of Lettres Persanes.
From Delphine O and her friends’ viewpoint, things are going well in Iran. Her tweets are simply meant to inform, yet with such a candor that would make one smile if it did not make one cry first: “Did you know that 178 newspapers and 83 magazines are published in # Iran?” She forgets to recall that according to the latest report (5 March 2018) of the UN Human Rights Council, “seven million websites have been banned” in Iran and dozens of journalists and bloggers have been arrested? It is not of course her business “to make Iran known” as the “largest prison for journalists in the Middle East”, as described by “Reporters sans Frontières” (Reporters without Borders).
Another tweet is enthusiastic about the opening of “a Burger restaurant at Imam Khomeiny airport. Times are changing…and changing fast in #Iran”. No mention ever of the many families who do not eat meat but once a month and the millions of Iranians who live below the poverty line in Iran. According to a report published in 2017 by the Ministry of Urban Development, quoted by the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, “33% of the Iranian population (26.4 million) live below the poverty line“, (Tasnim Official News Agency, 12 July 2017).
Delphine O is offended, however, by a critical post published in the media (“The Iranian minister Javad Zarif is not welcome in France”, Le Huffington Post, by François Colcombet, President of the Middle East Studies Foundation in Paris), calling on France to condition its relations with Tehran on the improvement of the human rights situation of its citizens. In her tweet, she recommends an “Excellent @NicFiPa post on the importance of #Iran as a partner. It has nothing to do with the nonsense spread by pseudo experts”.
The article recommended by Delphine O, entitled “Welcome to France, Mr Zarif!” (Soyez, Monsieur Zarif, le bienvenu en France! ») is written by her colleague “in charge of the Center for Strategic Studies of Lettres Persanes“, who shamelessly affirms about a regime marked by “the alarming frequency of the imposition and execution of the death penalty by the Islamic Republic of Iran, in violation of its international obligations“(according to the resolution of the UN General Assembly adopted on 19.12.2017): “To condition the strengthening or continuation of our relations with Iran to the single issue of human rights is diplomatic nonsense. Iran is changing and deserves our encouragement!”
Changing indeed, but for worse: the same resolution (A/C.3/72/L.41 ) urges the Iranian government to “end the serious and widespread restrictions imposed in law and in practice on freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly, both online and offline, including by ending harassment, intimidation and persecution of political opponents, human rights defenders, women and minority rights activists, trade union leaders, student rights activists, academics, filmmakers, journalists, bloggers, social media users, social media group administrators, information workers, religious leaders, artists, lawyers, persons belonging to recognized or non-recognized religious minorities and members of their families…to release those arbitrarily detained for having legitimately exercised these rights and to reconsider the excessively severe penalties, including capital punishment and prolonged forced residences, which have been imposed on persons who have exercised these fundamental freedoms, and to end reprisals against individuals, in particular when motivated by their cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms“.
Should this situation be kept hidden from the eyes of French public opinion?
A partner for France?
Indefensible on the issue of human rights, as witnessed by incessant reports from the United Nations and NGOs denouncing the serious and flagrant violations of these rights and the systematic torture of political prisoners, it is in the field of foreign policy that the lobby of which Delphine O has become one of the most fervent ambassadors, sought for a time to promote the regime and sell the merits of a “strategic collaboration”. While the Iranian regime is the main cause of the multiple crises ravaging the Middle East, this lobby has constantly praised “the importance of Iran’s role in regional issues” and to whom “we must acknowledge some influence owing to the extension of its Islamist ideology”. For Delphine O, it is necessary “to permanently anchor Iran in the international game. Such a reintegration of the country would strengthen the reforming wing of the regime and could contribute to bringing the Islamic Republic to play a more responsible part in the major regional issues” (Le Cercle des Echos, 13/10/2017).
On 5th March, the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, Jean Yves Le Drian, tried by his trip to Tehran to “anchor Iran in the international game“. Shortly after his return, the Quai d’Orsay (French Foreign Ministry) declared, with regard to the missiles supplied by Iran to the Houthi rebels in Yemen: “The transfer of missile capabilities to non-State actors likely to use them against States constitutes an irresponsible and contrary to law behavior. France will continue to make the fight against this type of behavior a priority of its external action.” (France Diplomacy: Ballistic missile launches – Q&A – Extract from the press briefing, 26 March 2018)
There is converging evidence that since the nuclear agreement of July 2015, the regime and its Pasdaran (IRGC) have continued to move in the opposite direction to moderation and accountability. Delphine O and her friends conceal the implacable truth that a theocratic regime, based, through its constitution, on the principle of the absolute power of a religious Supreme Leader, is, by its very essence, impossible to reform. It has been years since the policy of appeasement towards the fundamentalist regime proved its vanity. On the contrary, however, it must be acknowledged that it has served to prolong its life to the detriment of the establishment of democracy in Iran.
President Emmanuel Macron has understood that the Iranian regime cannot be a “partner” of France: “Iran is not a partner; we have a relationship that is structured around a nuclear agreement. It must be supplemented by a discussion and an agreement structured around [its] ballistic activity and a strategic discussion on Iran’s place in the region to objectively combat today the acts of destabilization carried out [by Tehran] in several countries,” the French president told RFI in an interview on 29 November 2017 (une interview à RFI). His Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned of the regime’s threat to its neighbors as the regime’s missiles proliferate at the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Yemeni militias: “There are ballistic programs of missiles with a range of several thousand kilometers that do not comply with Security Council resolutions and exceed Iran’s mere border security needs”.
Faced with these realities, can we tolerate the propaganda of a lobby that is careful not to mention the harmful role of the Revolutionary Guards (pasdaran) who dominate most of the economy and use the country’s immense natural and human resources to keep their militarist machine running for the purpose of internal repression and regional domination? These goals end up into extremely costly nuclear and ballistic programs, support for Islamist movements in the region and a murderous campaign alongside Bashar El-Assad. The regime has spent over $100 billion in Syria to keep the dictator in power, not to mention exorbitant funding for its mercenary militias in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan.
The January uprising in Iran: the regime’s apologists are overwhelmed
Ms. Delphine O’s positive and candid narrative was cruelly upset by the popular uprising of December 2017 and January 2018 in Iran. While she had constantly praised the merits of a “stable” and “popular” regime, the explosion of popular anger towards the regime as a whole and its leaders – both Rohani and Khamenei -, both “moderate” and conservative wings – shattered the thesis of a moderate, increasingly open regime. The people have dismissed all factions of the regime, held responsible for the political and economic misery of the country.
“Reformers, conservatives, your game is over,”; “Leave Syria alone, take care of us,” “Down with Rohani, down with Khamenei,” chanted protesters in more than 140 cities. This movement is unprecedented both in its scope and in the radical nature of its demands, with calls for the overthrow of the dictatorship. Although it was brutally repressed, with about fifty demonstrators killed, including twelve in detention following abuses, an irrepressible social discontent has continued for several months in Iran.
Delphine O, who a few weeks earlier boasted the success of a meeting she had organized at the French National Assembly for Abolghassem Delfi, Iranian ambassador in Paris, expressed her relief to see this revolt contained: “We know that the demonstrations died down quite quickly. The protest is not organized enough to succeed, as the Americans, the Israelis, the Saudis or neoconservatives, including in France, would have liked. This is not yet the case and I think Rohani is still quite popular.” (Le monde avec Pascal Boniface, le 21 février 2018.)
Such a level of blindness being impossible, it must be seen as cynicism and a dangerous bias: that of denying reality. Delfi, the Iranian regime’s ambassador, should thank Delphine O for facilitating his thankless task in France.
Experts do not share this optimism towards the Iranian regime at all. Read the article by sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar in the daily Le Monde or the interview with Stéphane Dudoignon, a researcher at the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) , who believes that the “Iranian power structure is overtaken by the scale of the demonstrations. This year, the popular districts of Tehran took to the streets. That is the social basis of the regime. So we can speak of the ideological and sociological erosion of the Islamic Republic (…) I insist: the current rejection goes beyond the person of the President and concerns the whole Islamic Republic. Some statements by regime officials seem to indicate that fear may be changing sides. (Le Monde, 3 January 2018)
Christophe Ayad, head of the International Service at the daily “Le Monde”, shares the same opinion: “These were riots against high cost of living and unemployment, led by poor youth in some 80 provincial cities, i.e. the social base of the regime! This is a terrible admission of failure for state managers, including the team of moderate President Hassan Rohani (…). Something has changed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Is it because of Vida Movahed (an opponent of the compulsory veil) or others? It doesn’t matter, but the fact is that fear has changed sides, or rather, the Iranians are no longer afraid of their regime. (Le Monde, 01.03.2018)
The lobby defended by Delphine O seeks to save the seriously damaged image of the regime, which emerged weakened from the January revolt, the deep roots of which remain alive, raising fears for the survival of the regime. The Lettres Persanes has tried to question the scope of the movement, speaking of a “controversial revolt” and reducing its political scope.
What about the Iranian women?
In a post entitled “Iran’s strategic partner in Europe”, Delphine O explained the services rendered by an “intense lobby” for the promotion of relations with the regime: “The intense lobbying among private sector actors in France has had a great influence on changing the way French politicians see Iran. It has also played an important part in convincing the latter of the need to consider Iran as a serious economic partner.” (Circle of Economists [speech in Farsi], February 1, 2017)
While Iran was going through a period of great upheaval and brutal repression against women, at least 30 of whom, according to the authorities, were arrested for peacefully demonstrating for equality and fundamental freedoms, Delphine O invited, on February 1st, “a delegation of 25 women all business leaders and leaders of the Iranian civil society. On this occasion, I organized a round table on the theme “The place of women in business in Iran and France“.
This initiative by the Paris MP would have been welcome if it had gone beyond a purely marketing framework and if it did not distort the reality of women’s living conditions in the Islamic Republic. A sincere step for the cause of Iranian women would not be possible without support for their struggle against the discrimination – described by some as “sexual apartheid” – from which they suffer.
Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, deplored in her March 2018 report to the Human Rights Council: “Women do not have the same rights as men in marriage, divorce, child custody or inheritance. Husbands have an unquestionable right to divorce. Married women cannot obtain a passport without their husband’s permission. In Iran, women remain unable to transmit their citizenship to their children (…) during her missions; the Special Rapporteur received additional information regarding the current prevalence of child marriage in the country. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that approximately 40,000 children under the age of 15 are married each year. The Special Rapporteur reiterates that child marriage constitutes a threat to the physical and mental integrity of the child (…)”.
Given such conditions, it is not surprising that the World Economic Forum ranks Iran 140th out of 144 countries in terms of women’s political and economic empowerment. This inequality is not of cultural and social origin, it is reinforced by misogynist legislation with the aim of perpetuating a patriarchal and misogynist system that is at the opposite end of the emancipation aspirations of a cultured and modern people. Dozens of women’s rights activists are languishing in jail for demanding equality: Nargess Mohamadi, Maryam Monfared, Atena Daemi, Golrokh Iraii… and so many others who have no voice in Delphine O’s world.
A group for friendship with the Iranian people or the Iranian regime?
Iranian society is going through one of the most crucial periods in its history. The January 2018 uprising was a major turning point that highlighted the profound rupture between the population and the government, foreshadowing major upheavals. While the causes of the crisis remain, the Iranian people expect the international community to use its influence to force the regime to release political prisoners, recognize its democratic right to demonstrate and allow free elections under the aegis of the United Nations…. In this context, a genuine France-Iran friendship group should above all be a friendship group with the Iranian people and not with the regime that oppresses them, a group set out to accompany them and give voice to the actors of democratic change.