Tehran’s Selfie-Gate

Published by IranWire

It is an awkward yet familiar occasion. An attractive blonde enters a room full of men and they crawl over one another to attract her attention. Because she is also a celebrity, they all have a smartphone to hand, competing to see who gets the best selfie with her.

This might be an account of, say, Scarlett Johansson visiting a village pub in England. But it is also a fitting description of Iran’s presidential inauguration ceremony, which took place on Saturday in Tehran. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was perhaps the most prestigious guest at the ceremony in parliament, during which President Hassan Rouhani swore to guard the constitution as he started his second term in office. Was it all but natural, then, for a throng of male MPs to follow her like groupies of a rock star and to turn the Islamic Legislative Assembly into something resembling the Italian village in Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malena?

“The members of parliament were surely interested in the political stature of Ms Mogherini, and that’s why they were taking photos,” Reza Rashidpoor, a popular TV anchor, remarked sarcastically before criticizing the MPs for their childish behavior.

Ten presidents, two prime ministers, six speakers of parliament and a myriad of other high-ranking foreign figures attended the inauguration, as well as many dignitaries from the Islamic Republic. Why weren’t the MPs seen taking selfies with the presidents of Iraq or Afghanistan? Why weren’t they looking for a private moment with Nabih Berri, the Lebanese speaker of parliament (and one of the most key Shia politicians there)? Or perhaps they could have tried for a chit-chat with the high ranking member of the North Korean regime, who had traveled a great distance to attend the ceremony in Tehran?

It was clear to all that it was Ms Mogherini’s gender that led to the embarrassing behavior of the MPs.

Most of the MPs in question belong to the Rouhani-backed Hope Faction, so conservative media outlets have been having a field day, mocking what they call the “Humiliation Selfie.” Many of these agencies published a letter written by a TV anchor whose father fought in the Iran-Iraq War. The caustic letter addresses Alireza Rahimi, a Hope Faction MP who had run on his war record: “I wrote you a long letter but I deleted most of it out of fear of cyber crimes prosecutors… You seem to value a selfie with a foreign blonde lady more than the ideals of our war years… To be fair, you do look more handsome and attractive in your suit than when you donned the war-time khakis of the Basij”.

Rahimi in particular is accused of hypocrisy, since he had previously boasted of telling off female journalists who weren’t wearing proper hijab.

The MPs came under a lot of fire from the other side of the political divide too. The cinema community — generally supporters of President Rouhani — was one example. Hasti Mahdavi, an actress who endorsed Rouhani, told MPs: “You have ruined your individual reputation but you don’t have the right to play with the collective reputation of Iran.” In a more indirect tweet, actress Mahnaz Afshar decried the loss of “authenticity and culture.” The more playful actress, Behnoosh Bakhtiari, often under fire for her unashamedly fashionable and sexy looks (within the confines of the strict dress rules of the Iranian screen) asked: “What would happen if Ivanka Trump had come to Iran?”

The more cerebral Hessamedin Ashena, Rouhani’s cultural advisor, said that the action of these MPs was a “cultural” problem and that all MPs who took part should go through a “deep interview.” (Ashena has certainly not forgotten the criticisms he faced when a photograph of him bowing to kiss the hand of the hardliner Ayatollah Jannati was leaked on social media.)

Nayime Eshraqi, a granddaughter of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic’s founder — who, like almost all of Khomeini’s relatives, backs President Rouhani — took to Instagram to say that if the hardliner-majority Guardian Council hadn’t disqualified so many proper reformist candidates, the Hope Faction wouldn’t be filled with such third-rate candidates.

The MPs themselves have had a range of different responses. Farajollah Rajabi, a Shiraz MP, published a note of apology on Telegram, a popular app in Iran. He said the MPs were taking the photos “for fun” but added: “I see it as my duty to deeply apologize for what has upset our dear people and doesn’t befit the stature of a people’s representative.”

The defensive Hoomayoon Yousefi, an Ahvaz MP from the Hope Faction, said no one had actually invited Mogherini for a selfie and they had all taken a “natural and conventional” photo, observing all “diplomatic norms.”

But a brief moment of embarrassment aside, the “selfie-gate” in parliament has raised deeper questions. What is actually left of the ideals of the Islamic Republic if its MPs can be so genuinely excited at the sight of a Western female politician, while showing no love to, say, a leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, who was standing only a few feet away? Wasn’t Mogherini a representative of the “decadent West” many of these MPs decry in speech after speech?

A more thoughtful observer might have looked beyond parliament, where the forces of the Iranian police and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) were busy socially cleansing the streets of Tehran to prepare the city for the visit of Mogherini and other dignitaries. Mohsen Hamedani, head of Tehran Province’s security department, proudly said: “Tehran has been cleansed of possible hazards like addicts, beggars and Afghan citizens.”

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 was supposed to be in the interest of the “oppressed.” Could its founding leaders have predicted that in its name, “beggars and Afghans” would be removed from the streets to give the desired impression while “revolutionary” MPs would be caught gawking at a blonde like pre-adolescence teenagers?

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