TIME Iran

One Result of the Gaza Conflict: Iran and Hamas Are Back Together

Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014.
Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking to Iranian ambassadors abroad during a ceremony in Tehran, Aug. 13, 2014. EPA

Iran and Hamas were once tightly allied, but the Syrian war drove them apart. Now, after the Gaza conflict, the two sides are making up

Correction appended, 8/19/14

Long considered to be the biggest sponsor of Islamic militants battling Israel and designated as terrorist groups by the United States, Iran’s relationship with the Palestinian group Hamas was once touted as among its strongest. Not only had Iran brought Hamas on board the so-called Axis of Resistance, alongside its other regional allies Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah, but the Islamic Republic had always publicly boasted of its wide ranging support for the group, from providing financial backing to shipping weapons.

However, when the Arab Spring spread into Syria in 2011, the majority Shiite Iran’s long-standing alliance with Hamas deteriorated significantly when the militant group opted to break step with Tehran and support the mainly Sunni rebels against Syria’s Bashar Assad. The falling-out came to a head when the political leaders of Hamas moved their base from Syria to Qatar, a regional rival of Iran.

In retaliation Iran, Syria and Hezbollah reportedly ended their support for Hamas in all fields, effectively ousting it from their Axis of Resistance and cutting off one of Hamas’ most vital lifelines. “The Iranians are not happy with our position on Syria, and when they are not happy, they don’t deal with you in the same old way,” the deputy political leader of Hamas Moussa Abu Marzouk in February 2012, according to the Associated Press.

When the latest battle between Hamas and Israel, called the Zionist Regime in Tehran, flared up in early July, Iran initially remained relatively quiet, though it denounced Israel for the loss of life among civilians. But the number of Palestinian casualties grew, including many children and women, attracting significant international attention and sympathy. (As of Aug. 10 nearly 2,000 Palestinians had been killed according to the UN, along with 66 Israelis.) For Iran, the Gaza conflict was seen as an opportunity to improve its standing in the Islamic world, which had suffered—especially among Sunnis—thanks to its steadfast support of Assad.

Seeking to take advantage of this opportunity and to regain its position as the foremost supporter of the Palestinian militant groups battling Israel—and to reconcile with Sunni Muslims throughout the Middle East—a significant number of Iranian officials have now gone on the record to voice their support for Hamas, the main militant group in Gaza, over its latest battle with Israel. “We are prepared to support the Palestinian resistance in different ways,” said the commander of the revolutionary guards, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafaria, during a speech on Aug. 4, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency. “Just as until now any show of strength in Palestine which caused the defeat of Zionists has its roots in the support of the Islamic Revolution [of Iran].”

The first sign of this shift came on July 29, when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, praised the resistance against Israel in a speech, calling on the Islamic world to equip Palestinians according to his official website Khamenei.ir. Two days later Khamenei was echoed by one of Iran’s top military officers, Major General of the Guards Qasem Soleimani, who commands the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolution Guardians Corps. Soleimani published a rare public letter to the “Political leaders of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and all the resistance,” lauding their continued efforts against Israel. The letter promised that Iran “will continue to perform our religious duty to support and help the resistance till the moment of victory when the resistance will turn the earth, the air and the sea into hell for Zionists,” according to the official IRNA news agency.

That was followed by numerous officials, MPs and military figures, all issuing statements in support of Hamas, and echoing Khamenei’s call for unity among Muslims. “In our defence of Muslims we see no difference between Sunni and Shiite,” said General Jafari, the commander of the guards, in an Aug. 4 speech. Some even promised a supply of weapons to Hamas, which has been officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. “You will get the weapons and ammunition you need no matter how hard it might be to do so,” said Mohsen Rezaei, the former wartime commander of the revolutionary guards in a public letter to the commander of the military wing of Hamas Mohammed Deif, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

With Iran already deeply involving in shoring up the Iraqi and Syrian governments against militant Sunni groups, it is doubtful that these promises of support and weapons for Hamas could be fulfilled anytime soon, and while the Islamic Republic is also striving to break the impasse in its nuclear negotiations with the U.S. and other powers, arming militant groups against Israel, America’s main ally in the region, could be potentially disruptive for those talks. But in his letter to Deif, Rezaei tried to address that doubt, writing that “Israel is mistaken in its belief that the instabilities in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, and the pressure on Iran from the United States’ economic blockade has given them an opportunity.”

In the meantime Iran has continued its charm offensive on Sunni Muslims. The head of the influential State Expediency Council, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, met with Iran’s top Sunni clerics and activists recently, and called for unity among all Muslims. Promising them that Iran intended to support and defend all Abrahamic religions and sects—Rafsanjani condemned any act that could cause divisions among Muslims. Backing up that position, the Iranian Intelligence Ministry announced on Aug. 3 that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels that regularly incite intolerance and hatred against other Islamic sects, especially Sunnis.

Hamas—which has been politically isolated since its last remaining backer, former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power—has welcomed reconciliation with its old ally and benefactor. Hamas’ official representative to Iran, Khalid al-Qoddoumi, reportedly said on Aug. 9 that Iranians “have always been the first in line to help and support our people.” Reports from the semiofficial ISNA news agency also indicate that a long postponed visit to Iran by the head of Hamas, Khaled Mashal, is set to happen soon. For Israel, the ongoing conflict in Gaza has had one more unexpected and unwelcome outcome: Iran and Hamas are together again.

Correction: Because of an editing error, the date of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry’s announcement that it had shut down the offices and arrested the staff of four extremist Shiite satellite channels was misstated. It was Aug. 3.

TIME Iran

Despite a Crackdown, Iranian Fashion Keeps Pushing Boundaries

Iranian fashion
Tehran fashion houses are pushing boundaries in Tehran ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

In the latest case of Iranian authorities cracking down on fashion they deem “un-Islamic,” a famous clothing design institute called “Khaneh Mode” or Mode House was shut down last week in Tehran. The fashion designer had caused a controversy last month when it held a show with models wearing coats which appeared to be made of the Iranian flag—minus its religious symbols. Nor did it help that the show had allowed men among its audience, which violates conservative Islamic taboos.

This was followed by intense reaction from conservative politicians and religious groups, who cited the show as yet another violation of Islamic mores and traditions, which in turn forced the government to react. “This fashion show did not match the regulations of the Fashion and Clothes Management Workgroup and therefore we have taken legal action,” said Hamid Ghobadi, the workgroup’s secretary according to the official ISNA news agency. “The Khaneh Mode institute has been shut down until further notice.”

The workgroup, which was created by an enactment of parliament, is tasked with organizing Iran’s emerging fashion industry and making it compatible with Islamic standards. It is headed by a deputy minister of Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and its members are mostly government officials, with a handful of representatives from the fashion industry. Pictures of the show first emerged on Iranian websites in late June and showed men among the audience—until recently was unheard of in the Islamic Republic. The young female models, who wore white leggings, sported loose coats in the green, white and red tricolor of the Iranian national flag.

Iran’s fledgling fashion industry has begun to evolve in recent years, with shows on the rise. Most of these shows have permissions from the authorities but also underground shows are on the rise which depict more risqué dresses and even lingerie. However, until recently all shows for female clothes were held behind closed doors with no men allowed inside. The audience was also not permitted to take pictures or film.

Following the furor of religious and conservative groups the designers, Khaneh Mode immediately tried to do damage control with a statement on their website apologizing for having inadvertently offended anyone and reaffirming their commitment to “National and Islamic values.” Nonetheless, the authorities acted a few days later and shut them down.

Javid Shirazi, the director of the fashion house, told TIME in Tehran that that “we are completely committed to working within Iran’s native and Islamic framework and we tried to observe these in our show. Inviting men to view shows is permitted since last year so long as the clothes completely cover the body of models and models do not catwalk but walk in a normal and modest manner.”

The shutting down of the fashion house is just the latest instance of an endless tug of war between authorities and women in Iran, one that has been fought since an Islamic dress code was enforced in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. This clash comes to the forefront every summer, when the latest female attire trends pick up with a tendency towards shorter and skimpier coats and ever tighter legwear, which has been epitomized this year in leggings.

The authorities react every year by escalating their “Morality Patrols.” The outcome is a cat and mouse game between more fashionably dressed women and the authorities. The results can be bizarre—women sporting trendy attire will sometimes take taxis from one side to the other side of squares and junctions just to bypass the morality police.

But over time the will of Iranian women has slowly but surely prevailed, with acceptable dress these days now far beyond the harsh codes of the first years of the revolution, when practically no makeup was tolerated and anything less than a chador—a loose robe that covers the body from head to toe—was frowned upon. And with the election of the more moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last year, many hope that the authorities will relax their strict stance on what women can wear in public.

Officially there has been no relaxation, in fact the authorities have tried everything they could think of to counter it. But in practice it’s a losing battle.

“Since last year there’s been a transformation in the framework of the permits we can get and what we can do,” said Shirazi, who sounded upbeat in spite of the closing of his business. “With the great potential this country has and the great desire young Iranians have, there is a bright future for the fashion industry in Iran, and this [the shutting down of Khaneh Mode] is just necessary experience we need to gain to go ahead.”

TIME

Foreign Companies Strike Hopeful Note at Iranian Oil Fair

As Iran and the West attempt to hammer out a deal over the country's nuclear program, there was a spike in participation by foreign companies at an annual oil & gas expo in Tehran

As Iran’s 19th annual International Oil, Gas and Petrochemical Exhibition drew to an end in Tehran last week, it was hailed as a success by both organizers and participants alike. Though none of the European or American oil giants had taken part, there was a tripling of participation by foreign companies from countries such as Germany, Spain, Canada and Japan as well as the Chinese.

“This was the most successful annual exhibition since the Ahmadinejad government came to office 8 years ago,” said Akbar Nematollahi, the expo director and head of the public relations department of Iran’s Petroleum Ministry. Participation by foreign firms had fallen under the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government. “The number of foreign companies alone went up to around 600 from 195 last year.”

Some western firms that had not participated for years were thrilled with the reaction they saw during the 4-day long expo. “Our experience in this year’s fair was so good that we’ve already decided to come back next year with more staff and a bigger stall,” Joachim Bund, sales manager of the German company Lewa, which produces industrial pump systems, said.

“We’ve seen extreme interest in our products from Iranian companies, both private and state owned,” said Alexandre Chtcherbakov, president of the Canadian Techno and Power Tools Inc., which produces advanced lithium batteries that are used in oilfield drilling. “This is very promising for the future.”

With the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President and the subsequent breakthrough in the nuclear talks in Geneva last year, many think that Iran’s oil and gas sector could soon once again be open to business with Western firms. “The world is realizing that a new government with a reasonable outlook is in power. There is an old hand back at the helm of Iran’s petroleum industry, and the westerners have got the message. Right now not only are we in talks with numerous European firms, but also three major oil companies from the United States have been in touch,” Nematollahi said, declining to name the American companies due to their request to remain unidentified at the present.

“There [are] nearly $90 billion of oil and petrochemical projects available for anyone who wants to participate. Should the sanction problem be solved, Iran’s Petroleum Ministry would welcome major European and American Oil Companies because they have higher technology and better management than Chinese or Indian firms.” Nematollahi added.

At the moment, Western firms can at the most do only limited business with Iran due to sanctions, but those that took part in the Tehran expo say they are positioning themselves for the possibility that things might change. “Focusing on the Iranian market is very important for us because we think with the new government in Iran, the sanctions are near the end,” said Juan Vicente Ortiz, a head engineer of Prematecnica, a Spanish firm which produces gas flares.

Even though the Geneva Interim Nuclear Agreement in November gave hope to a possible negotiated conclusion of Iran’s nuclear case, the hurdle of the sanctions regime means that none of the western firms are willing to commit beyond its bounds. The uncertainty will continue until—and unless—there is a lasting international deal on the country’s nuclear program.

“Iran is a big opportunity for us. We stand to triple our total business, but we are not selling anything to them right now,” said Chtcherbakov. “We are a Canadian company and we will not do anything to jeopardize our position. We will keep on abiding a 100% by the sanctions regime.”

“We’ve been working here in Iran from 20 years ago. However since the sanctions started we’ve had to leave the oil and gas sector completely, and the work in other fields has become the most complicated work we do all over the world,” said Bund, whose company is still selling equipment for power plants to Iran in spite of all the difficulties caused by the sanctions regime. “For every request we get, we have to first check with the German authorities which can take 8 weeks. Maybe one out of a hundred of these requests are approved,” Bund added. “Getting back into Iran’s oil sector after the sanctions are lifted is a number one priority for us, and we feel that something, some big steps are coming, but until it does, its business as usual, and it has never been as hard as it is right now.”

In spite of the positive signs from the ongoing nuclear talks, the outcome is far from certain. Should the negotiations ultimately fail, the opening both sides are anticipating will not materialize. “I hope that the nuclear diplomacy will get results, because only then will our energy diplomacy have a chance,” Nematollahi concluded.

TIME Iran

‘I’m Safe': Last Status Update of Teenager on Missing Malaysia Airlines Flight

Pouria Nourmohammadi, a 19-year-old Iranian aboard Flight MH370 with a stolen passport who was planning to reach Germany, wrote "I'm Safe" on Facebook hours before the plane vanished over the weekend

The last status update Pouria Nourmohammadi posted on his Facebook page indicated he was “feeling excited.” The 19-year-old Iranian had good reason to be: he was embarking on the first leg of a flight that would ultimately take him to Germany where his mother was waiting to help him begin a new life.

But his journey was tragically interrupted. His flight, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing early Saturday morning with all 239 people on board. Nearly four days later, no trace has been found of the Boeing 777 in spite of a massive search operation conducted by at least nine countries.

Nourmohammadi had earlier hinted he would be going on a long, life-changing trip. “Because of some problems I will deactivate my account. Friends, seriously, if I’ve done any of you a bad turn, forgive me because maybe …” he posted on his Facebook page on Feb. 24.

It was only when he started posting pictures of himself in Malaysia at popular Kuala Lumpur landmarks like the Petronas Towers that some of his friends realized he had left Iran.

“So you’ve gone as well?” wrote one on March 4. “Will you ever return?”

“No,” replied Nourmohammadi.

The revelation that two Iranians had boarded the Malaysian jetliner with stolen passports raised suspicions of hijacking or terrorism. However this was played down by authorities on Tuesday. Ronald Noble, secretary general of Interpol, said at a press conference that Nourmohammadi and 29-year-old Seyed Hamid Reza Delavar were “probably not terrorists.”

The head of the Malaysian police force, Khalid Abu Bakar, also said on Tuesday that after having been in touch with Nourmohammadi’s mother in Frankfurt, he believed the teenager had been trying to reach Europe as an asylum seeker. Because of dire economic circumstances as well as restrictions on social freedoms at home, some Iranian youth opt to make such risky trips. Many of them must use illegal methods, usually involving human-trafficking rings. Nourmohammadi had left Iran with his official passport, but apparently used a stolen Austrian passport when he arrived in Kuala Lumpur.

Until a few weeks ago, Nourmohammadi’s Facebook page seemed much like that of any other 19-year-old. It has posts on cars, girls and video clips of youth poking fun at those in authority. But as he approaches his departure from Iran, his posts turn more cryptic, the youthful cheerfulness dims. Nourmohammadi knew he was taking a big risk: he asked friends to pray for him the night before he left. After he went through Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s passport control, he posted: “Thanks to all of those who prayed for me, I’m safe.”

When news broke that he was on Flight 370, the comments started pouring in on his Facebook page.

“If only he would post exactly the same message again,” said Tannaz Nasr yesterday, commenting on his “I’m safe” post.

“I’m waiting for a miracle,” commented Shaqayeq GT today.

“I don’t know you, but I wish from the bottom of my heart that you will return to your family,” said Vahid Ajami.

Some of those who commented made clear they saw Nourmohammadi as a victim. “If you are no longer in this world then you are at last free my son … damn those who forced you to flee your home,” wrote commenter Mojgan Shahnazi on Nourmohammadi’s picture in front of the Petronas Towers.

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