December 1, 2020
In late November, a short video of an interview with Isa Kalantari, a vice president for President Rouhani and head of the Department of the Environment, was posted on social media, prompting strong reactions from Iran’s principlist conservative politicians and from hardliner media. In the last minutes of the video, he refers to Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, as a “rebellious child” who was used by the United Kingdom and the United States to overthrow the Pahlavi regime.
A day after the video was broadcast, Isa Kalantari apologized in writing for what he had said in the interview, but it did nothing to stem the anger. Kayhan newspaper, which is linked to the office of the Supreme Leader and whose editor is appointed by him, the Jamaran website affiliated with Hassan Khomeini, Ayatollah Khomeini’s grandson, as well as several well-known hardline figures, called for his dismissal for disrespecting Imam Khomeini, and even called for legal action to be taken against him.
It is not clear when the interview was conducted, or even who the interviewer was, but the attacks Kalantari endured are a clear reminder that the right to freedom of expression does not exist in Iran, even in the highest ranks of the country.
In the video, Isa Kalantari, wearing a suit, answers questions posed by an unseen and unidentified journalist. The reporter asks him what role the United States and Britain played in bringing about the Islamic Revolution, and whether, in the words of some, “the mullahs were brought up by the British?”
Isa Kalantari responds: “It is both an interesting question and a complex one. The Shah had a trip to the United States in 1976, and at that time had an interview with Barbara Walters on the ABC network, which is definitely in your archives. It was an interesting interview. The king was suspected of having become a great power. He was given the confidence to run the country. He had a weak personality. In that interview, I think he showed a grimace to his bosses in the United States. For example, he said he would not give his authority to the president of the United States. I myself saw those scenes on the television at that time; it was already clear that he was being arrogant toward his masters, especially after Gerald Ford, when Jimmy Carter came and raised the temperature of the human rights issue so much and said, there are no human rights in Iran, and there really were not. In fact, they gradually took their support for the king away to some extent. On the other hand, inflation was very high and oil prices began to rise in several stages, and there was unfair distribution of incomes … [this] put pressure on the general structure of society.”
He further said: ”The Iranian revolution is a collection of everything. It cannot be said that it is only one thing. In its last days, the general public did not want the king anymore; even the affluent social groups did not want him. Financial and moral corruption had increased. In my opinion, inequalities and corruption within and lack of support for the Shah abroad caused the fall of the Pahlavi regime.”
Then the reporter asked: “Do you think there were any negotiations between the Americans and the Imam?”
Kalantari says, ”I don’t know, I have no information. Perhaps it is easier to say that Imam Khomeini was a rebellious child for them. They took their support away from the Shah and took full advantage of the opportunity under the leadership of the Imam, which led to the elimination of the Pahlavi regime. This is the function of a leader. Leadership shows itself in such situations.”
Following the publication of the interview and rising criticism, Isa Kalantari’s apology, published by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency on November 28, referred to his comments as a “verbal slip” that caused “disappointment for the lovers of Imam Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution.” He added that he had not been aware of when the interview, which was edited, was going to be released. “It is not clear to me why they published 40 seconds of a two-hour interview from three years ago now, except to misrepresent the whole point of what I said.”
Although the revelations that Kalantari characterized Khomeini as “rebellious” have caused the vice president pain and embarrassment, it’s perhaps worse for media and government figures. In the interview, Kalantari first talks about people’s dissatisfaction in the last years of the Pahlavi regime, an all-too-familiar pain for the people of Iran. His mention of the absence of human rights, inflation being high, multiplying oil prices, severe economic inequalities and corruption all being factors in regime change in Iran chime with what Iranians feel today. They are the very reasons for the nationwide protests in Iran in recent years.
Offense and Criminality
Also on November 29, Hamid Ansari, the deputy head of the Imam Khomeini Publishing House, accused Isa Kalantari of being insulting. Giving a comment to the Jamaran and Iranian Students’ News Agency’s websites, he called for legal action to be taken against him. “Mr. Kalantari does not seem to have the slightest degree of political and social etiquette, and uses this ugly and insulting word about the leader of the country,” the article on Jamaran said.
“The law prohibits the publication of offensive material, and the right to freedom of expression and the right to information never justify such a criminal act,” he wrote. “In such matters, appropriate care and treatment by information channels and monitoring centers and competent judicial action is to be expected.”
Ansari also implicitly threatened journalists and the media during his interview: “This ill-considered statement is the result of him not paying attention — a this was not the first time — to the biased questions of some media outlets and channels, which give a platform for unprofessional and populist comments in order to increase their audience or for other motives.”
But he made no mention of why a citizen and a government official should be convicted because of comments in an interview, or whether he considered that to be a violation of freedom of expression.
According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
According to Article 25 of Iran’s Charter on Citizens’ Rights, Article 25 under the section on Freedom of Thought and Expression stipulates, “Citizens have freedom of thought. Inquisition is prohibited, and no one can be persecuted merely for his or her beliefs.” President Rouhani instated this charter during the first term of his presidency.
According to Article 28 of the charter, “Citizens have the right to criticize, express dissatisfaction, invite to do good, and advise the government and public entities regarding their performance. The government shall be required to promote and develop the culture of accepting criticism, tolerance and compromise.”
Links With “Spies”
The day before the publication of the vice president’s apology, an article published in Kayhan linked Kalantari to a “counter-revolutionary gang” and complained: “Despite the fact that a few days have passed since the release of the video of these insulting remarks, the government has not yet apologized for this insult and has not dismissed him. “At the same time, the judiciary has failed to take action. He should be held accountable and reprimanded.”
In the article, Kayhan’s editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari, who is known for insulting and bringing cases against many journalists, civil society activists, political activists and even government officials, said first Kalantari appointed a spy for the United States as deputy of the Environment Agency, and now he had insulted Imam Khomeini.
Shariatmadari was referring to Kaveh Madani, an Iranian environmental scientist who had been based at Imperial College in the United Kingdom and who the Rouhani administration had persuaded to return to Iran to take up the deputy post. He left Iran following the arrest and death in custody of Kavous Seyed-Emami, an environmental activist, and the arrest of several other activists. Madani was detained for 72 during authorities’ crackdown on environmentalists.
Ali Kamsari, the deputy director of culture, arts and communications at the Institute for Compilation and Publication of Imam Khomeini’s Works, also spoke out about the incident: “Why do senior officials, especially the heads of the three branches of power, the people’s representatives in the parliament and the national media remain silent in the face of these offensive statements and not take a revolutionary stance?”
He also stated that since Ayatollah Khomeini was a symbol of the struggle against arrogance and the United States, he could not be a rebellious child.