Iran newspaper closed down amid row over Mahmoud Ahmadinejad satire

Shahrvand-e-Emrooz shut down after mocking president’s relationship with ‘wise man’ Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei

Iran newspaper Shahrvand e-Emrooz published a digitally created image showing Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, second right, lecturing President Ahmadinejad, centre. Photgraph: Shahrvand-e-Emrooz

The picture looks like a 16th-century Persian miniature. The wise man on the right is lecturing his companions who kneel dutifully in front of him, listening to his sermon.

But something is not quite right. On second look, it becomes clear that all the characters are in fact recognisable to modern-day Iranians. Indeed, the wise man is none other than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confidant, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei. And in an obvious satire of the country’s political leaders, it is Mashaei who counts the president among his obedient followers – not the other way round.

The image appeared on the front page of an Iranian magazine, Shahrvand-e-Emrooz, a month ago. But now it seems the Iranian regime has taken offence, and it is widely believed the picture was the reason behind the enforced closure of the magazine on Monday.

Shahrvand-e-Emrooz was previously shut down, along with several other titles, after the unrest that followed the 2009 elections, but resumed publication recently. Another publication, Roozegar, was also closed on Monday.

The picture highlights the concerns among Iranian conservatives over Mashaei’s growing political influence. Supporters of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, believe that Mashaei, whose daughter is married to the president’s son, is attempting to undermine clerical power in Iran.

Opponents of Mashaei, who favours cultural openness, say he has the president under his “spell” and have accused his team of anything from corruption to sorcery. Several of Mashaei’s close allies and some senior aides to the president have been arrested in recent months.

Ahmadinejad’s unwavering support for Mashaei has infuriated conservatives and has even cost him the support of Khamenei. In the past six months, a power struggle has developed between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, which is widely believed to have stemmed from Mashaei’s influence.

Analysts believe Ahmadinejad had been grooming Mashaei to succeed him in the next presidential elections, due in two years, but that has now become unlikely. Khamanei is also believed to have chosen to get along with Ahmadinejad rather than orchestrate a feud over Mashaei in an effort to avoid unrest during the elections.

Iran’s opposition believes that by focusing on Mashaei and his relatively liberal views, Ahmadinejad is trying to find a way to attract votes and preserve his dwindling power. Analysts say Ahmadinejad and his team are casting their eyes on the period after Khamenei’s death.

Tehran’s regime has given more space to opposition newspapers in recent weeks in a move to appease them in the runup to parliamentary elections. But it would appear that Shahrvand-e-Emrooz and Roozegar have gone too far in pushing the limits in criticising the government.

In the picture, Mashaei who appears to be in a Safavid dynasty-era costume, is sitting close to Hamid Baghaei, Ahmadinejad’s executive deputy, who is shown as a handsome male companion. Iranian bloggers have also joked about Ahmadinejad’s relationship with Mashaei, which is often described as affectionate.

Roozegar is believed to have been closed for publishing an interview with an Iranian politician analyst, Morad Saghafi, who referred to the 2009 post-election unrest.

Reporters Without Borders on Tuesday condemned the closure of the publications and the ongoing imprisonment of Iranian journalists and bloggers. “Despite some conciliatory gestures, the Iranian authorities continue to crack down on the media and journalists, closing the weekly Shahrvand e-Emrooz and the daily Roozegar yesterday,” it said.

Iran remains one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which campaigns for press freedom.


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