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Case of Sakineh Ashtiani Reflects Iran's Internal Divisions

18 Nov 2010 09:449 Comments
AshtianiTVConfession.jpg[ primer ] Q&A with Haleh Esfandiari

What is Iran trying to do or prove in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery and later sentenced to hang for complicity in the murder of her husband?

The Astiani affair shows once again the internal divisions in Iran. There are those in the regime who wish this whole affair would disappear because they see it as an embarrassment for Iran, and there are those who argue that the government should not cave in to international pressure and are looking for ways to carry out the sentence and hang her. The regime's only concession to international critics was to change her verdict from death by stoning to death by hanging.

As of Nov. 16, Iranian state television had broadcast three separate confessions. Why is Iran giving this case so much attention? Are her confessions credible?

By broadcasting confessions by her, which are certainly coerced, Iran is reacting to the international publicity given to her case. The government wants to say to the world, "She has confessed; she is guilty." By now, the regime should have learned that no one, either in Iran or around the world, finds these television confessions credible. Ashtiani's "confessions" have only fueled international protests regarding her case by women's movements and by governments and human rights organizations. Former President Luiz Inàcio Lula da Silva of Brazil offered in October to take Ms. Ashtiani. He was trying to help the Iranian government to find a face-saving solution out of the quagmire it has created for itself, but the regime rejected his offer.

The government has also arrested her son and two Germans who went to interview him. A court said on Nov. 16 that the Germans had been charged with espionage. Why has this case escalated into an international incident?

The son, Sajjad, was arrested because he had been been talking to the press and was arguing that his mother is innocent. The last straw for the government came when the son met with the two Germans who had gone to interview him. After the meeting the Germans were arrested. They were accused of being journalists, posing as tourists and entering the country under false pretenses. As in several previous cases of detained foreigners and Iranians, the Germans were accused of endangering national security and spying. The same accusations have been made against the two American hikers who have been in an Iranian prison for over a year; a third hiker was released due to illness recently, but she remains accused as well.

On Nov. 2, the White House issued a statement strongly condemning Iran's plans to execute Ashtiani and its treatment of her lawyers and family. Does U.S. or international pressure have any influence on Iran in a case like this?

International pressure makes a big difference and often strengthens the hand of the more pragmatic elements in the regime. In the case of Ms. Ashtiani, as in any other cases involving the violation of human, political and religious rights, condemnation by officials and civil society organizations around the world helps.

Does this case reflect any broader trends in Iran?

Yes, it reflects the hardening of attitudes in the regime. Since the 2009 presidential elections, many of the the leaders and activists of the reform movement and the Green Movement have been arrested; several have been sentenced to prison terms. The government has also arrested the lawyers who represent the detainees in political and human rights cases. For example Sakineh Ashtiani's lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei fled Iran after he was threatened by the authorities. Her other lawyer, Houtan Kian, was arrested in October. Along with Ms. Ashtiaini and her son, he was forced to appear on one of those television "confession" spectacles.

Haleh Esfandiari is director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the author of "Reconstructed Lives: Women and Iran's Islamic Revolution" and "My Prison, My Home: One Woman's Story of Captivity in Iran." This article is presented by Tehran Bureau, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as part of the Iran project at iranprimer.usip.org.

Related reading by Haleh Esfandiari | Iran Primer: The Women's Movement

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First they say the woman is convicted of adultery but it turns out she is convicted of murder (there is a murder victim in the case).

Then they say the woman has been sentenced to stoning but it turned out no formal sentencing had been rendered.

Then they say the woman will be hanged on a certain day but that date passes and she is not hanged.

How many times are we going to listen to these folks cry "wolf" and take them seriously?

Pirouz / November 18, 2010 11:57 AM

Pirouz, you wacky propagandist, who is this "they" of whom you speak? For the fact is that Ashtiani was convicted of adultery, she was sentenced to death by stoning for it, and that verdict was upheld by an appeals court. The documents have been published. The facts are plain. But here you have dug up some "they" whom we shouldn't listen to because "they"...got it right.

Oh, except she wasn't hanged on the anticipated day--after an international outcry. We don't have to guess how you would have spun things if your confederates had slipped the noose around her neck: "See! No stoning!!"

Pirouz, you are a wonder.

Nard / November 18, 2010 1:27 PM


You moron, can you read Farsi? If you can read this:


to see what an official of IRI says.

Case closed.

Asghar Taragheh / November 18, 2010 7:32 PM


I get the feeling that you are a mullah or at least associated with a mullah. You speak exactly likea a mullah. You project your imagination as facts and expect other people to believe you. You try to down play certain facts that you do not like and randomly come up with new "facts" that you agree with. Again exactly like a mullah.

You should know that this forum is not a mosque. Most people here will not believe something you say just because you say it. So my advice to you is that if you want to defend this regimne; at least try not to distort the facts. At least have that much decency to admit the crimes of this regime.

Anonymous / November 18, 2010 9:34 PM


You cant possibly be THAT stupid! what are they paying you?

Ahvaz / November 19, 2010 8:39 PM

Pirouz is an Iranian wannabee who soothes his mid-life walter mitty fantasies by lip-syncing the strange mythos of IRI rhetoric. A narcissist like him gets his kicks engendering disgust for attention, to him negative atttenion is at least some form of notice.

Sort of like the regime!

He can't speak or read Farsi. Only regime lovers paid by Qom to contaminate sites like this agree with him. At best his opinions read like a primer showing how the IRI justifies criminal behavior with toxic nationalism and fundamentalist "religion". This is how the regime and its supporters self-excuse their outrageous crimes against humanity. Pirouz is American, it's doubtful he has ever seen the soil of Iran or ever will.

fereshtehjoon / November 19, 2010 10:51 PM

@ Pirouz
Irrespective of that lady did or did not, would you please tell me how your thoughts and feeling are about STONING.

I really like to see where your argument is coming from in that respect. You have the opportunity to defend yourself now.

Ball is in your ground now, Brother.

Agnostic / November 19, 2010 11:30 PM

For Iran to admit error is Iran admitting defeat. That, to them, equals weakness.
Being wrong = being weak and they can't have that. Think of the most pig-headed, prideful man.
To this kind of man, saying, "Sorry" or "I was wrong" is impossible because, deep down inside, he is an insecure man with a phony mask of impenetrable "RIGHTNESS" to uphold...Now, call him "Iran".
THAT's why.Iran making an 'example' of this woman and using her case to prove to the West that they will not be "bullied" and told what to do (or worse) told that they re wrong and/or made a mistake or...Allah forbid, admit that they told LIES.
It's all about maintaining the farcical stance of being RIGHT in the name of HONOR and PRIDE.
THAT, I believe is why they are doing this.

DeniseLaFrance / November 20, 2010 12:49 AM

Esfandiari has admitted in an Australian ABC interview that everything she said in her own "confession video" was true, so it is incorrect for her to say "no one, either in Iran or around the world, finds these television confessions credible".

Esfandiari has always tried to destabilise the Iranian regime by highlighting its human rights and womens rights record. She does this not because she cares about these rights, any more than Bush/Obama does, but because she wants regime change - this is the velvet revolution. The US Government thinks this tactic is useful enough to employ her (through the Wilson Centre front, which works out of the same building as USAID). This was the very thing the Iranian regime wanted to put an end to by arresting her, exposing her, and then letting her go.

Even PBS gets sucked into this propaganda campaign when it starts off "... Ashtiani, an Iranian woman sentenced to be stoned to death for alleged adultery ..." - calculated to make people say "how dreadful!" whenever they think of Iran. It is brainwashing people to hate the US's enemies.

palloy / November 21, 2010 4:26 AM