On March 31, when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif made an impromptu appearance on Clubhouse, many were impressed by how quickly the room filled with eight thousand listeners (the maximum allowed on the audio-only app). Less than two weeks late on April 13, a more impressive turnout occurred on the same platform. Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former member of parliament and daughter of one of the founders of the Islamic Republic, took to Clubhouse to voice her bitter critique of the clerical establishment. The room hit capacity within minutes. Other rooms opened on Clubhouse and other platforms—such as Twitter’s Spaces—to broadcast Faezeh’s question and answer session. In total, almost twenty thousand people tuned in.
Unlike Zarif, who, per his usual policy, didn’t accept questions from dissident activists or journalists from diaspora media outlets, Faezeh repeatedly asked the room’s moderators not to censor anybody. The session went past 3 am Tehran time with Faezeh answering questions for more than six hours.
Faezeh’s fiery criticisms
Faezeh’s criticisms of the Islamic Republic and its policies are as brave and far-reaching as those of any dissident abroad. Nobody else in Iran’s official politics has dared to critique the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as brazenly and directly. While most reformist politicians compete over showing loyalty to Khamenei, Faezeh asked him to resign in 2020. In March, when an interviewer asked Faezeh to invite someone to a debate, she requested Khamenei.
In Clubhouse, Faezeh was out in full force. She called for a boycott of the upcoming presidential election in June as a conscious political act that would signal popular dissatisfaction with the Islamic Republic. She affirmed that this wasn’t just because she thought authorities wouldn’t allow a serious reformist candidate to run but because the reformists had failed to convince her of their actual ability to carry out reforms. She also made it clear that she no longer believed in an “Islamic” republic or indeed any religious government. A devout Muslim who usually wears the Islamic head-to-toe veil known asthe chador (albeit with a colorful scarf underneath), Faezeh believes that the Islamic Republic’s failures have hurt the image of Islam among the Iranian people and more broadly.
Last month, when she asked for a debate with Khamenei, Faezeh said she was eager to discuss foreign policy. In Clubhouse, she did that with abandon. She defended her controversial remarks from months ago when she said that Donald Trump’s re-election would have been better for Iranians since it would have put more pressure on the government. She pointed to episodes such as the freeing of US hostages in 1981, ending the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, and the 2015 nuclear deal as evidence that the Islamic Republic changed its policies only under pressure. She reminded her audience that, throughout the nationwide protests of December 2017-January 2018 and November 2019, Iranians didn’t chant the regime’s favorite slogan of “Death to America,” but its polar opposite: “Our enemy is here at home; they lie when they say it’s the US.”
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“People don’t blame their problems on America,” Faezeh said. “It’s Iran’s wrong policies that have led to sanctions. We shouldn’t blame the US. Our money is spent on missiles and helping foreign groups, not for the medicine that our people need.”
Faezeh also took several other controversial positions: She said Iran had undercut its independence by relying too much on Russia and China. She defended rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, she said that Iranian athletes shouldn’t boycott Israel and that she, like her father, believed Iran’s ties should be restored with Israel, so long as it was in the national interest. Faezeh also said she had a positive view of New York-based activist Masih Alinejad and her advocacy against the mandatory hijab. She added that she preferred watching diaspora channels such as BBC Persian and Saudi-funded Iran International, which she praised for their professionalism. When faced with bigoted questions about Iran’s Baha’is, she affirmed her respect for the persecuted religious minority and spoke of her fond memories of Baha’is she had met during the six months she served in Evin prison in 2012-2013 for “anti-regime propaganda.’’
A longtime rebel with a cause
Faezeh has long had the makings of a political rebel. In the 1990s, when her father was Iran’s second most powerful man as president, Faezeh attracted the ire of conservatives by advocating women’s participation in sports—including riding bicycles in public—and holding Women’s Islamic Games in Iran. In the 1996 parliamentary elections, she shocked many by coming second in Tehran’s constituency, next only to the powerful speaker of parliament, Akbar Nateq Nouri (many believed she had been first and forcibly pushed to second). In 1997, she tried to run for president to succeed her father but was overruled by the Guardian Council, a vetting body, which has never let a woman run for that office. Nateq Nouri did run, but was defeated in a landslide by reformist Mohammad Khatami. In the late 1990s, as Iran experienced a mushrooming of reformist press under the Khatami presidency, Faezeh’s newspaper Zan (Woman) was shut down after only a year of publication because of a cartoon that criticized Iran’s unequal laws for women and because it republished greetings from Iran’s former queen, Farah Diba Pahlavi, on the occasion of the Iranian new year.
In her fiery activism, Faezeh owes perhaps less to her centrist father and more to her outspoken mother, Efat Marashi. What irks many of Faezeh’s supporters is her continued loyalty to her father. On Clubhouse, she asserted that he was not responsible for the many human rights violations and extrajudicial assassinations that happened under his presidency.
Nevertheless, what makes Faezeh uniquely popular is the energy she injects into the country’s stale official politics by speaking directly to people’s real concerns. As Iran’s politicians battle over the nuclear negotiations with the West, Faezeh represents many Iranians in asking a more fundamental question: why should Iranians suffer because of the pursuit of an adventurist foreign policy? Why should an unelected Supreme Leader be so unaccountable for his massive power?
A conservative on Clubhouse mockingly asked Faezeh why she was not in prison while many others would have been jailed for espousing similar positions. Faezeh reminded him of her stints in prison—she has been arrested three times since 2009—and that she had been fired from her job as a professor in Azad University’s campus in Tehran in 2018. Still, there is no denying that her prominent background gives her relative freedom not enjoyed by others, including hundreds of political prisoners, whose release Faezeh demanded during the session.
Still, few, if any, men in Iran’s official politics seem to have the courage of this woman who speaks directly to Khamenei without flinching. Such bravery is precisely what’s lacking in the Iranian Reformist Front formed in February, which has failed to make a mark.
Using a limited reading of the Iranian constitution, the Guardian Council has yet to allow any female candidates to run for presidency. With her no-nonsense approach, her frank and direct manner of speaking, her advocacy of people’s daily problems, and demand for separation of religion and politics, Faezeh could have made a terrific presidential candidate for the Iran of 2021. All the more reason why Ayatollah Khamenei and the authorities will not let her anywhere near power.
Arash Azizi is a writer and scholar based at New York University. He is the author of, “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US and Iran’s Global Ambitions” published by Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter: @arash_tehran.
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