Arrest of “Happy” Iranians Highlights Rouhani’s Domestic Battles

by Jasmin Ramsey*

It was a perfect headline for the satirical online news site, “The Onion.”

“Young Iranians Arrested for Being Too ‘Happy in Tehran’,” reads a May 20 New York Times blog title, with similar reports produced by news media from all over the world.

But the true story began a month ago when a group of young men and women in Iran produced a homemade music video to the hit song “Happy” by U.S. entertainer Pharrell Williams.

The fan video, featuring three men and three women happily dancing with one another in various Tehran settings, received more than 100,000 hits after being uploaded to YouTube before it was marked private, and the actors and the director arrested May 20.

The women were not wearing mandatory headscarves in the video and the opposite sexes were touching one another in public, all of which are forbidden in the Islamic Republic.

The video has since been reproduced, however, with one version receiving over 300,000 hits and counting since its May 19 posting.

YouTube is illegal in Iran and can only be accessed through private-browsing networks, but some of the fan video did make its way onto Iranian state news television.

After the six Iranians were arrested, a clip appeared on Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), featuring the participants claiming that they didn’t know the video would be made public, with blurred clips of their video appearing in the background.

A tagline at the end of the video read: “We have made this video as Pharell William’s fans in 8hrs with IPhone 5s. ‘Happy’ was an excuse to be happy. We enjoyed every second of making it. Hope it puts a smile on your face.”

While at least one of the six young Iranians, Reihane Taravati, confirmed her release on Instagram, with reports surfacing that all except the director have been freed on bail, the event has received worldwide attention.

“It is beyond sad that these kids were arrested for trying to spread happiness,” said Pharrell Williams in comments posted to his popular social media accounts yesterday.

CNN’s famous anchor Christiane Amanpour has since applauded the Iranians’ release, but had earlier tweeted an observation about the dynamics of the event.

“Tragic. Ordinary Iranians doing nothing wrong caught in a fight between hard-liners and moderates,” she said.

“If it was not for the international outcry at how ridiculous these arrests were, these youth probably would have faced the fate of other people who have been arrested for no justifiable reason and spent months or even years in prison,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights In Iran (ICHRI).

Ghaemi told IPS that he worries the director of the video will be used as a scapegoat after the other participants were pressured into putting the blame on him in their “forced confession” and could face serious jail time.

“This is a critical time for [Iranian President Hassan Rouhani] to act on the promises he made to the people who voted for him,” he said.

While no member of the Rouhani government has directly commented on the issue, Rouhani’s semi-official English Twitter account raised a few eyebrows by quoting a statement by the president from June 2013 today.

Ghaemi, an internationally recognised expert on Iranian rights issues, told IPS Rouhani hasn’t focused on remedying Iran’s heavily securitised domestic environment since his June 2013 election, despite campaigning with that promise.

“He has been very gently verbally advocating for greater freedom, but with actions he has been very timid,” he said.

Ghaemi said that the police commander featured in the state news clip proudly touting the arrest operates under Iran’s interior ministry, which is under Rouhani’s cabinet, so the president could use his executive powers to enforce some punitive action, but has not done so yet.

“Rouhani is walking a fine line,” said Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, an expert on Iranian politics.

“He needs popular support, that’s how he came to power, at the same time, he doesn’t want to upset the security apparatus in Iran,” said Tabaar, a faculty member at Texas A&M University.

“He needs to say things so that the people who voted for him don’t think he’s betraying them, but this is exactly what happened to former President Mohammad Khatami,” he added.

The early years of the former reformist president are remembered as a time of loosened restrictions on daily life in Iran.

But while Khatami came to power on a liberal campaign platform, he ultimately failed to reform Iranian society against a powerful conservative backlash.

“Under Rouhani we are still in a honeymoon phase, but this may be déjà vu,” said Tabaar.

Yet Tabaar admits that Rouhani still holds considerable sway in Iranian politics for now, and may have even pressured those controlling the arrest of the Iranians to release them.

“He probably does not approve of what has happened; he’s expressing discontent, and protesting against the arrest of those people,” said Tabaar, when asked about why Rouhani may have quoted his own words from Jun. 29, 2013, on Twitter today.

“It is possible he is doing a lot behind the scenes,” he added.

“On the other hand, he doesn’t want to say it directly because he doesn’t want to provoke the conservative establishment.”

Can Rouhani get a nuclear deal accepted by that same establishment, which continues to criticise the negotiating strategy of Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif?

Tabaar thinks it’s possible.

“Khamenei wants a limited success that he can portray as an utter failure,” he said.

“A limited success in the sense that Iran’s enrichment right will be recognised and a lot of sanctions will be removed so Iran’s economy can thrive again, but he will still portray this as a failure so Rouhani won’t become too popular.”

Back in Tehran an Iranian analyst speaking on the condition of anonymity told IPS this event foreshadows Rouhani’s coming domestic battles.

“A lot of what you are seeing now on the social scene is the result of a less securitised atmosphere after [the] June 2013 election,” said the analyst, adding, “Can you imagine a ‘Happy’ video if former conservative presidential contender Saeed Jalili had been elected?”

“Part of the battle will involve, as witnessed, efforts to torpedo Rouhani’s effort to reframe the image of Iran in international discourse,” said the analyst.

“This fight will not be totally quiet, and it won’t be clean.”

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*This article was first published by IPS News and was reprinted here with permission.

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Jasmin Ramsey

Jasmin Ramsey is a journalist based in Washington, DC.



  1. How’s the saying go: once out of the bottle, the genie goes, or something like that. I’m surprised that AIPAC hasn’t beat the drums on this, proving how decadent the Iranians are. Netanyahoo, are you watching?

  2. It is wonderful to see how young people are bravely trying to push the boundaries and are calling for greater freedoms. Those who made this video and those who took part in it knew very well what they were doing and the risks that they were taking. At the same time, it is regrettable that the degenerate and ossified mullahs have such closed minds and are so fanatically opposed to any form of joy and happiness, which has been the main message of Persian literature and a part of the national character.

    President Rouhani has called for greater openness. Referring to what Ayatollah Khamenei has called “a Western cultural onslaught”, Rouhani said this weekend in a speech: “Even if there is an onslaught, which there is, the way to face it is via modern means, not passive and cowardly methods.” He rightly asked: “Why are we so shaky? Why have we cowered in a corner, grabbing onto a shield and wooden sword, lest we take a bullet in this culture war?”

    These are fine words, but he has to match these words with bold action. It is true that the former reformist President Khatami failed in his attempt to reform the clerical establishment and drag it out of its medieval mind-set, but times have changed. People have seen the bankruptcy of the fundamentalist mullahs and hardline politicians even more starkly than ever before during the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency. President Rouhani received a decisive mandate from the electorate, while the share of the votes of the fundamentalist candidates was in single digits. He should call their bluff and he should know that he would get the support of the majority of the youthful and educated Iranian population. If he continues with his cautious approach he is in danger of alienating his social base.

  3. I think the essential point being missed by most people here is that there really is no difference in Iran’s government between “moderates” and “conservatives,” especially when the entire governmental structure — civil, judicial, economic, military, foreign policy — is answerable to the religious ruling council and the Supreme Leader in Khamenei. It’s also important to remember that Rouhani was for a long time in charge of many of the military and security institutions that have been responsible for some of the most brutal crackdowns in the ’90s and start of the 2000s. So when we consider arrests such as this, they are unfortunately the norm and not the exception under Rouhani’s leadership.

    Which is why folks on social media are rightly skeptical of his attempts to reach out to the West with nifty little tweets and pics, but he heads a government stubbornly refusing to change its brutal tactics. As an aside, it’s also noteworthy that under Rouhani’s leadership, Amnesty International now counts over 700 executions in Iran, most in horrific public hangings and many including women and children. How’s that for moderation?

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