An Instagram post by an outspoken, internationally acclaimed filmmaker and activist triggered a new debate among Iranians on whether Tehran should continue its strong presence in Syria.
Comments by Tahmineh Milani, 57, were construed as a mockery to the "Shrine Defenders," a term Tehran uses for its fighters stationed in Syria.
"The presence in Syria is a matter of discord and dispute by many Iranians," wrote Milani, who in 2001 was arrested, jailed and charged with misusing the arts in support of counterrevolutionary and blasphemy. Following support from fellow filmmakers and international pressure, she was released after two weeks.
Conservative news outlets and websites close to the government started a smear campaign against Milani, calling her "the fifth column of the enemy in the cloak of an artist."
The Iranian conservative newspaper Kayhan called her "an aide to the terrorists within borders." Online website Mashregh News — which has close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the key military force defending Assad regime in Syria — called Milani a" bombastic psycho."
The Iranian government is very sensitive about people's reaction to the presence of its forces in Syria.
"After recent protests against Tehran's involvement in Syria, authorities are very sensitive about this issue," Ali Najafi, an exiled Iranian movie critic based in Stockholm, told VOA. "This is the main reason they are taking this serious on a single social media posting."
He added, "Most artists do not want to put themselves in trouble, due to the sensitivity of the topic, and do not want to be seen opposing national security."
Nationwide protests in Iran in early January, which started over the price surge on some essential goods, ended up in an unforeseen opposition to Tehran's increasing involvement in Syria. Irritated protesters chanted "Leave Syria alone. Think about us," a reference to Tehran's support for Assad's regime.
History of controversial postings
Milani's social media postings and comments primarily focus on touchy topics — from women's struggles in a male-run society to sexual harassment and feminism, and have received wide support from fellow filmmakers. However, her comments about the war in Syria are being used against her by critics.
A short video clip showing many famous actors, directors and filmmakers supporting the "Shrine Defenders" went viral in the Persian blogosphere.
"Our soldiers are performing their duty by serving in Syria," Mohammad Reza Golzar, an Iranian male superstar and one of Iran's most revered stars, stated in the clip.