Iranian Media Clash Over Ahmadinejad’s Embrace of Chavez’s Mother

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A picture of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad embracing the mother of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who died last week from cancer, has been a major source of controversy among the Iranian media.

In the picture taken last week at Chavez’s funeral Ahamdinejad can be seen touching the hands of the grieving Elena Frias de Chavez, Chavez’s mother, under the watchful eye of his Deputy Hojat al Islam Mohammad Reza Mirtaj Aldini.

The picture immediately went viral on Facebook and Twitter. Most users either joked about his sincerity or wondered how religious circles would react back in Iran. Islamic law forbids the touching of unrelated men and women. The reaction from religious circles was swift.

Hojat al-Islam Hossein Ibrahimi, member of Society of Militant Clergy of Tehran, said that “in relation to what is allowed (halal) and what is forbidden (haram) we know that no unrelated women can be touched unless she is drowning at sea or needs (medical) treatment.” He warned the Guardian Council, which vets potential candidates in Iran’s elections, to investigate a candidate’s religious understanding “because someone who doesn’t know religion will make what is allowed forbidden and what is forbidden allowed.” Some still question the Guardian Council’s decision to approve the then unknown Ahmadinejad’s candidacy for the president in 2005.

Conservative member of parliament Seyyed Mohammad Pourfatemi encouraged clerics and sources of emulation (marajeh) to “confront seriously and condemn the president’s latest actions and not allow him to do what as he pleases when it comes to infringing Islamic laws.” And Esfahan Friday prayer leader and Ahmadinejad critic, Hojat al-Islam Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, said that the actions of the president “are far from the status of a Muslim.”

Iranian media coverage of Ahmadinejad’s embrace not only received extensive coverage but was filled with controversy and accusations of competing media outlets.

As reported by Asre Khabar, when supporters of the president noticed the publication of the photo between Ahmadinejad and Chavez’s mother they “first contacted inside (Iranian) media […] to prevent the publication of the picture.” Unsuccessful, Shabakeye Iran, the online version of Iran Newspaper, which is under the management of the administration, quickly came to the president’s defense.

Shabakeye Iran claimed that the president had attempted to “put his hands together and raise them in the manner of people from East Asia.” The site published a series of photos of Ahmadinejad greeting different women in a similar gesture as below. This time however, according to Shabakeye Iran, Chavez’s “grieving mother, with tears coming down from her eyes, suddenly put her hands on top of his.”

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A picture soon began circulating of Ahmadinejad embracing an older man, in a similar gesture as he embraced Chavez’s mother. Conservative website Entekhab pointed out that according to an investigation by “experts” that the picture of Ahamdinejad with an older male was photoshopped from a picture of Egypt’s Mohamad El Baradei greeting with parliament chairman Ali Larijani. Entekhab accused “supporters of the government” of spreading the doctored photo of the embrace and Shabakeye Iran of giving it coverage.

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Another doctored photo of the president also began circulating across social media showing the president embracing Hugo Chavez’s daughter. Shabakeye Iran took screenshots of Hardline Iranian media reporting the story and titled the piece, “Damaging The President With Hastily Done Embellishment.” The female in the picture does not appear to be either of Chavez’s daughters and looks similar to another picture of the president holding a young man on a trip to the provinces.

Mirtaj Aldini who can be seen attempting to pull away Ahamdinejad’s hands away from Chavez’s mother in the picture below called the picture of the embrace between Ahmadinejad and Chavez’s mother a “forgery.” He said that the president only wanted to “respond the feelings of Chavez’s mother, who was crying and said that Ahmadinejad is like my own son.”

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Not all media reaction was partisan, however. Several hard-line websites ran an op-ed by Hojat al-Islam Hossein Souzanchi in which he warned against the “probable wave of useless” coverage this situation would create. Souzanchi wrote that although he “didn’t want to defend Ahmadinejad,” he wanted to note that the “problems with Khatami and Ahmadinejad are different.” In 2007 former president Mohammad Khatami was filmed shaking hands with a female in Italy. In a speech Hojat al-Islam Mohammad Reza Zaeri drew a comparison between the two situations.

Souzanchi wrote “that the problem with Khatami was that with the excuse of freedom he wanted to get away from religion having a role in interactions and decisions in the social arena and this isn’t the problem with Ahmadinejad.” He stressed that “from a religious perspective, adding fuel to this situation is not justified,” adding that it would be “playing the enemy’s game.”

Top Photo: Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offers his condolences to Elena Frias, mother of Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez, during the funeral service at the Military Academy in Caracas, March 8, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Miraflores Palace)