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Iran Feature: The Disappearing Interview with a US Official (Esfandiari)

The Controversial Alef ArticleSince Tuesday, we have paid close attention to the curious episode of a conservative Iranian newspaper/website, linked to leading MP Ahmad Tavakoli, announcing and then withdrawing the announcement of an interview with the State Department's Persian-language spokesperson Alan Eyre.

Golnaz Esfandiari, writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, summarises the developments, which came amidst confusion over Iran's forthcoming nuclear talks with the US and other powers:

The online publication of an interview with the U.S. State Department's Persian spokesman by a conservative Iranian website appears to have been pulled following official criticism and condemnation. 

Iran's Culture Ministry said in a statement on April 4 that there was no justification for the Alef website to allow what it called a U.S. "intelligence officer" the opportunity to respond to questions from Iranians.

The ministry said it "condemns the extraordinary move" and "invites the media to avoid any cooperation with figures and media that are opposed to the Islamic system."

The furor began on April 3, when Alef --- which is said to have ties to conservative lawmaker Ali Tavakoli --- called on its readers to send in questions for its upcoming interview with the State Department's Persian-language spokesman, Alan Eyre.

The website also posted a short bio of Eyre, who is a fluent Persian speaker and who in recent months has been reaching out to Iranians via appearances on Persian-language media and social-networking sites. 

Alef's invitation to Eyre raised eyebrows and was criticized by other conservative websites -- some of which described the decision as "odd" and accused Eyre of being an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

The website of Raja News, which is said to be close to the government, accused Alef of becoming a platform for the "evil U.S. government" at a time when Washington has imposed "the toughest pressure and sanctions" against Iran.

Rajanews said Alef failed to give its readers any background about "the enmity of the U.S. government toward the Iranian nation and the Islamic Revolution."

"An ordinary user might think that Eyre, the spokesman of the State Department of the evil U.S. government, is an American interested in Iran's history and civilization who intends to respond to questions...of Iranians with goodwill."

Another website, The Journalists Club, accused Eyre of being an agent for the CIA, who is using his spokesman position as cover to spy on Iranians. The site said Alef's decision to engage with Eyre had no political or national justification.

Several hours after it went up, Alef removed the webpage advertising the conversation with a "special guest" without explanation. Site editors did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

For his part, Eyre posted the story accusing him of being a CIA agent on his Facebook page and wrote that any U.S. official who speaks a bit of Persian and is fond of Iran is seen as a spy in the eyes of the Iranian government.

Eyre had earlier confirmed to RFE/RL by e-mail that he was set to be an online guest on Alef. A U.S. official told RFE/RL that government policy was to try and engage the Iranian people through Eyre and other avenues, and that the State Department hoped the interview with Alef would eventually be published in its entirety.

The very idea of direct talks with U.S. officials has been a sensitive matter in the Islamic republic since the 1979 revolution, when the United States severed ties with Tehran following the hostage taking of U.S. diplomats.

In recent months, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has been criticized by his opponents  for talking about the possible resumption of ties with the United States. They say any decision about the future of relations with Washington is up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who always has the last say in Iran. Ahmadinejad has been engaged in a power struggle with allies of Khamenei for some time.

Ironically, Alef's plan to have Eyre as an online guest appears to have provided an opportunity for Ahmadinejad's supporters to strike back at his critics.

Raja News asked, "How come the most insignificant statement by a government official [Ahmadinejad] about the resumption of ties with the U.S. is met with such harsh reaction...but Alef can hold an exclusive conversation with a senior White House official?"

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