The political establishment of Iran is not known for its open-mindedness or tolerance on sexuality and gender. Nonetheless, its homophobic vitriol has been exceptionally high these past few weeks. This could be because the comments have less to do with homosexuality and everything to do with conservative political posturing.
On April 3, the European Parliament adopted a resolution setting forth a new European Union strategy toward Iran. The resolution followed the first-ever visit to Tehran in March of this year by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU, Catherine Ashton. During the trip, the European delegation met with both the Iranian political leadership and local human rights activists. The EU resolution encourages more social and political contact between Tehran and the European Union -- a process Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has voiced support for publicly, but one that some conservatives perceive as proof of a Western agenda to interfere in Iran's domestic affairs.
A day after the resolution passed, Ayatollah Movahedi Kermani, who led that day's Friday prayer in Tehran, used his sermon to condemn the EU resolution, specifically by diverting attention to perceived Western tolerance of homosexuality. The Ayatollah challenged his audience, "Those miserable people [i.e. European Parliament] want Iran to recognize faggots."
But Ayatollah Kermani was not the only public leader using the new resolution to encourage Iranian isolation. Over the next few days, conservative newspapers, websites, and politicians registered strong condemnation of, as they put it, the Europeans' gay agenda.
The Commander-in-Chief of the Basij morality militia, Brigadier General Nagdi, said, "The European Union is worse than grazing livestock. They demand that we recognize homosexuality, which is something even the beasts in the wilderness refuse to do to each other. "
Naghdi's comments were followed by those of Iran's Army Chief, Major General Firuzabadi, who accused the EU of promoting the "unnatural act of sodomy."
And the Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Ali Lariijani, used the opportunity to challenge democracy, human rights, homosexuality, gender equality, and Europe -- all in one go. "The European Parliament interferes in our domestic affairs by commenting on election, women's rights, human rights, and sexually perverted ideas ... Even if the European Parliament issues 100 resolutions to demand the recognition of gay marriage in Iran, they won't harvest anything but hatred from the Iranian people ... Do you want democracy in order to change people's way of life?"
Interestingly, the EU resolution does not reference marriage equality or lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) rights. Article 14 condemns discrimination, and therein lies a reference to "sexual orientation." In other words, the potency of that single phrase appearing two-thirds of the way through was the true purpose of the 2,459-word document.
In highlighting LGBT rights as though it were the EU's strategic objective for its bilateral relations with Iran, the resolution's critics seem to have a singular objective: putting President Hassan Rouhani on notice that his tentative plans to end Iran's international isolation and open a new chapter in Iranian relations with the global community, including states in the West, will not be readily accepted.
As it turned out, the religious conservatives in Tehran have strange bedfellows in the West, who don't think twice to play the "gay card" to block the new president's rapprochement with Europe and the US. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leading international force behind tightening Iran's international isolation and building a case for military strike against Iran, is a perfect example. In his famous interview with BBC Persian on October 5, 2013, Mr. Netanyahu insisted that Rouhani was a fake who represents a system that "mistreats women... and spread homophobia." But this Iranian anti-homosexuality propaganda is not entirely homegrown. For example, one of the state-run religious website for Iranian college students has a section on condemnation of homosexuality with a link to a US-based ex-gay movement's Persian site which complements the religious homophobia with a healthy dose of US-manufactured junk-science.
While both sides of this political tug-of-war have found the "gay issue" a convenient way to push for their hidden agenda of isolationism, unfortunately LGBT individuals inside Iran still have few outlets where their voices are heard. The issue of sexuality and sexual rights (or the lack of it) remains a form of propaganda warfare, without the Iranian population having a chance to fully debate and understand this seemingly controversial question.
Perhaps the views of the silent population can be summed up in this Facebook post by a young gay man from Tehran, who so eloquently wrote on his wall: "Everyone is against it ... They say it is disgusting ... Such a despicable act ... I keep thinking to myself, 'But I bought him a ring, and asked him if he would be mine, and he said "Yes!"'... So why did everyone else think it was so impossible?"
For more about human rights defenders, the Middle east and Iranian politics related to LGBT communities in iran go to www.IGLHRC.org
The author may be reached at Halizadeh@IGLHRC.org