With the election of Donald Trump, one would think that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and his ever-smiling foreign minister Javad Zarif, have their hands full trying to ensure the nuclear deal stays intact. But in reality, they are facing a bigger problem closer home.
These days, the conservative forces in Iran are using social media to suggest that five ministers in Rouhani’s cabinet have had sexual liaisons with a female journalist. The same groups are spreading rumours that Zarif has married a second time.
This bizarre episode started some days ago when Hossein Allahkaram, head of the militant organization Ansar-e Hezbollah, the semi-official group of thugs responsible for extreme violence against university students and other demonstrators, accused journalist Afarin Chitsaz of being the “second wife of Zarif.”
The notorious Allahkaram is not someone you readily mess around with — the European Union has sanctioned him for multiple human rights violations.
Who is Chitsaz? Actually, apart from being a single female journalist, there is nothing special about her. She was a columnist for a state-owned newspaper in Iran but had not engaged in any serious political activity. Her columns were generally pro-government and in fact few had heard of her. This was until October 2015 when her home was raided by the Revolutionary Guards and she was arrested. She was later transferred to Ward 2A of the Evin Prison, where political prisoners are kept.
In April, she was accused of “assembly and collusion against national security and collaboration with foreigners” and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment.
If that wasn’t bad enough, media outlets allied with conservative factions to circulate photoshopped images of Chitsaz standing next to Zarif. The images identified her as the Foreign Minister’s second wife.
Allahkaram didn’t stop there. He accused Chitsaz of “engaging in an illicit affair” with five government ministers. In his speeches, he claims she has already confessed to having engaged in immoral and illicit sexual intercourse with these cabinet members.
For journalists and public figures in Iran, accusations of involvement in illicit affairs is not new. When I interviewed Chitsaz’s lawyer Mohammad Moghimi last week, he told me that the allegations were ‘pure fabrications’ removed from reality. There is a very human angle to these allegations though, Chitsaz parents are very distressed by the accusations. But they are just collateral damage in Iran’s cutthroat political scene.
Moghimi also told me that Allahkaram had no right to access Chitsaz’s case files legally. The conservative factions say there are national security implications involving Chitsaz. If that’s the case, Moghimi says, there is even less reason for Allahkaram to have access to these files, since he is neither part of the Intelligence Ministry nor was he present during hours of interrogation. The question then is – if the details have been leaked, who was responsible?
Moghimi, says he plans to file a complaint on behalf of his client because the allegations are unfounded and have tarnished the reputation of her family. He doesn’t expect much relief though — after all, the judiciary is controlled by the conservative factions.
The reality – as Moghimi and hundreds of Iranian lawyers already know – is that unfounded accusations of illicit sexual conduct against journalists is nothing new in the Islamic republic. Blaming women isn’t new either.
I can speak from my own experience. As a young parliamentary journalist in Iran, I was constantly accused of having several affairs with politicians and government ministers. To be honest, my so-called illicit affairs became so numerous that I lost count.
When I exposed corruption in 2004 among lawmakers in Iran’s Majlis (parliament), the conservatives accused me of being flirtatious and getting my information by offering sexual favours. Conservative newspapers wrote sordid tales of my sexual misconduct. Accusations of having stolen deputies’ payslips finally led to my expulsion. It didn’t matter that my sources – the moderate lawmakers – came forward to dispute these accusations. I was expelled from the Majlis, the only reporter to have earned that dubious distinction because the gossip was that I had traded sexual favours for the documents.
Since then, the conservative newspapers have published defamatory stories about me alleging my involvement in sexual relations with reformist lawmakers from time to time. In 2009 – 10, I was one among a number of women who was accused of being the real power behind the protests against the fraudulent presidential elections that led to the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Iran will have its own presidential elections in May and different political groups are already planning their moves. President Hassan Rouhani and his so-called moderates, have decided not to challenge the accusations made against Chitsaz by the conservatives. As she languishes in jail, there have been no comments from either Rouhani or his ministers.Clearly, it is easier for Rouhani and Zarif to criticise President-elect Donald Trump than deal with injustices at home.
The silence, as they say, is deafening.