The blogger Soheil Arabi was sentenced to death in 2014 for insulting the Imams and the Prophet.
A year later, after an outcry from human rights groups and media (including BBC Persian, Manoto TV and VOA), that sentence was overturned and replaced by a term of seven and a half years.
Now, having served almost half of that sentence, Arabi has been pardoned by the Supreme Leader.
You’d think that would have sent his jailers at Evin scurrying to unlock his cell. Well, think again.
No one in Evin or the Justice and Intelligence Ministries appears to be paying the slightest attention to the Leader’s order for clemency. It is a perfect example of the old Farsi saying “The King has forgiven, but his governor has not.”
I call this "Impotent despotism,” and it has deep roots in Iran.
Remember the Iranian Student Protests of July 1999 (Also known as 18 Tir, and the Kuye Daneshgah Disaster (فاجعه کوی دانشگاه)? At the height of the unrest, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei spoke to the Basij militias in charge of suppressing the protests. Weeping (which in turn made the sycophantic Basij weep), he said to them, “Even if they tear down posters of ME, it doesn’t matter.”
The Basij dragged many Tehran University students off to jail, where they stayed for months.
Later, several of them told me that interrogators in Evin, Tehran’s notorious prison, kicked and slapped them for “making our beloved Leader cry.”
“You sons of bitches,” they said. “For that, you’re going to stay locked up for years.”
The students tried to point out the Supreme Leader had asked the Basij to go easy. The interrogators simply discounted these words to pursue their own goals.
Everywhere you look in Iranian society there are examples of this impotent despotism.
Two years ago, Supreme Leader Khamenei issued a fatwa decreeing that all Afghan children, legally living in Iran or not, are entitled to education.
He’s been ignored. The Afghan sons and daughters of migrant workers in Iran have been widely excluded from local schools and have to be crammed into makeshift classrooms in derelict buildings.
The latest case erupted in Shahediye township near Yazd. There, local people forced the school for Afghans to shut completely, and wrote on the outside in red paint: “This school has been closed down.”
They argue that providing education for these kids will only attract more unwelcome Afghan families to the area.
In this case (as in many others), local officials and bureaucrats know they can simply ignore the word from on high with impunity. There will be no reckoning.
Sometimes, though, they need a charade to “prove” to our country’s leaders that all is in order, the rules are being followed and Iran’s Revolutionary goals being fulfilled.
It’s tradition here that on September 23, the first day of the school year, a high-ranking official rings the opening bell at a designated school.
This year, Iran’s president was invited to ring the bell at a girls’ vocational high school near the home of my friend in West Tehran. Two weeks beforehand, he said, the place was crawling with municipal employees making sure the school was squeaky clean. Gardeners appeared to plant fresh flowers. Workmen washed the walls and scrubbed the yard. Even local shops were told to keep the pavements sparkling.
Now, this is a normally grubby school, with a headmistress who shouts at the students through a megaphone. This year she went out of her way to speak to the girls nicely and asked them to dress up for the big day.
Of course, what the president saw when he came to ring the bell had nothing to do with reality. It was Iran’s answer to a Russian Potemkin village, something built solely to “deceive the rulers into thinking that the situation is better than it is.”
It happened under the shah too. In an alleged memoir of the last queen of Iran, Farah Pahlavi (alleged because there are several phony memoirs floating around), she wrote that during an official visit to one of Iran’s cities, she asked that her motorcade stop so she could admire some especially lovely flowers in the middle of a boulevard. To her Imperial Majesty’s astonishment, they were fake.
Before Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris he promised that once he returned to Iran, he would head straight for his seminary in Qom and avoid politics. As we all know, he did nothing of the kind.
At the time, a witty professor of mine (who’s still alive but must remain nameless) remarked, "We Iranians can’t help making despots. We turned the young democratically–minded king into a megalomaniacal tyrant. Now we are doing it to Khomeini. The only difference is that the turban has replaced the crown.”
Curiously though, our post-Revolutionary despots get regularly dissed. Why does Khamenei not simply order the police in Shahediyeh to re-open the Afghan school? Why does he not send word to Evin’s jailers to release Soheil Arabi immediately? Could it be he’s afraid to be openly disobeyed? That incompetence or local power-struggles will expose his weakness? That someone will notice the emperor has a few holes in his clothes?