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Arrest of young Iranians in ‘Happy’ video reflects Iran’s complicated power structure

(Video: The Washington Post)

TEHRAN -- People around the world are expressing anger and disbelief over the arrests of six young Iranians who appeared in and took part in producing a video set to the Pharrell Williams song “Happy.” The video went viral online.

Many news reports and commenters on social media have simplified the arrests into some version of the headline that "no one is allowed to be ‘happy’ in Iran.” But that does not illuminate a bigger issue, which is the complicated nature of Iran’s power structure and what this case says about disagreements within it.

On Tuesday night, state television aired footage of several Iranians apparently admitting that they were involved in the production under the false pretense that the footage would not be posted online. They said they pretended that the video  was to be used in a feature-length film project that had received permission, a requirement for most creative endeavors in Iran. The names and faces of the people making the admissions were not shown.

The fate of the six people associated with the video is unclear. But when viewed as a response to remarks from President Hassan Rouhani last week that media and communication should be loosened, the arrests are telling about current debates happening in Iran's political system.

Speaking at an IT conference in Tehran on Saturday, Rouhani said:

“The right of citizens to have access to international networks of information is something we formally recognize. Why are we so nervous? Why don’t we trust our youth?”


“Every minute we witness 1.3 million ‘likes’ on Facebook, every minute 70 hours of film are uploaded onto YouTube -- that means a great change is taking place in today’s world. The impact of this virtual world on the society, country and even on people’s lifestyles is absolutely real.”

By making these arrests, other centers of power could be sending a reminder to Rouhani that controls on media are likely to stay in place and are not under the executive’s power.

According to his own words, if it were up to Rouhani, social media and other communication outlets that are currently blocked would be opened up. But it is not up to him.

While many think of Iran’s power structure as a monolith, it is anything but, with many checks and balances, some of them official and some blurrier.

While the video seems innocuous enough, several laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran were apparently broken. Among them: women appearing without hijab head coverings, dancing to Western pop music, and using an illegal Web site to disseminate an unlicensed video.

All of these offenses regularly go ignored in Iran.

But this time around, it could be the fact that the video is part of a global pop culture trend and it that it had taken off, with tens of thousands of views, that prompted Iranian authorities to take action.

After the news about the arrest of young Iranians came to the attention of Pharrell Williams, he expressed sadness via a message on Twitter.