Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence

Week of March 18, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence, Citing Unfair Judicial Process

Reza Khandan, the husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife won’t appeal her sentence. Sotoudeh was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. According to Khandan, who was also recently sentenced to six years in prison, Sotoudeh faced 33 years imprisonment for seven charges but only the charge with the longest sentence, which is 12 years, will be enforced.

Khandan said Sotoudeh will not appeal her sentence because of the “unfair judicial process” and in protest at the “useless sentence” against her. The charge for which Sotoudeh has been sentenced is related to her activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and defense of anti-compulsory hijab protesters last year. Iran’s judiciary branded the charge as “promoting corruption and prostitution.”

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Khamenei Dismisses EU Efforts to Salvage JCPOA, Blasts Saudi Arabia

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in his address marking the Iranian New Year in Mashhad, dismissed European efforts to salvage the JCPOA as lackluster and issued a scathing condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Khamenei stated: “Europeans have in practical terms exited the JCPOA. Because they are not abiding by their obligations under the JCPOA.”

Khamenei dismissed the efficacy of INSTEX, the not-yet-operational European financial mechanism aimed at facilitating trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. He stated: “This financial channel is more like a joke. A sour joke. Just like in the past, the Europeans stab [us] in the back.”

Khamenei further said that European states should have “stood strongly” after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and implemented their commitments under the deal. Instead, he said, Europe has imposed new sanctions against Iran while warning Iran not to leave the deal. He added: “After America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, European countries should have stood up against the U.S. and sanctions should have been removed entirely.”

However, Khamenei said that he was not suggesting that Iran sever ties with Europe. He asserted that his criticisms of European states should not be interpreted as a suggestion to “end relations” with Europe, stating: “Relations aren’t a problem, following them and trusting them [Europe] is a problem.”

Khamenei added that Rouhani administration officials had reached the conclusion that “maybe Iran’s approach had to change” with respect to the JCPOA.  He added that Western politicians, despite “wearing suits and using cologne and samsonite briefcases are savages on the inside.” He then said that he was against both “prejudice against the West and Westoxification (infatuation with the West).”

Khamenei also stated that he knows of no government worse than the Saudi government. He proclaimed: “I know of no country in this region or perhaps anywhere in the world as bad as the Saudi government.” He further said that the Saudi government was “corrupt, tyrannical, oppressive, and dictatorial.”

Khamenei further asserted that the U.S. was supporting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and missile projects. He stated: “They [the US] have announced they will build nuclear reactors and missile production facilities for this [Saudi] government. This isn’t a problem because it’s dependent on and owned by them [the U.S.].”

Khamenei then suggested that the country’s nuclear infrastructure would eventually fall in the hands of Islamic forces. He said he wasn’t “personally upset” by potential Saudi nuclear reactors because, he opined: “I know that in the not too distant future, these [nuclear projects] will fall in the hands of Islamic mujahedin (holy fighters).”

Khamenei also discussed U.S. sanctions and said that “we shouldn’t complain about sanctions.” He explained: “We shouldn’t have any other expectations from those countries imposing sanctions … From Westerners, we can expect conspiracies, betrayals, and stabs in the back, but we can’t expect help or sincerity from them.”

He added that only some of Iran’s economic problems were attributable to foreign sanctions. He stated: “The country’s chief problem is economic problems and the livelihoods of lower classes.” He went on: “Some of the problems are from sanctions by Western powers, meaning America and Europe, and some are from weaknesses and deficiencies in domestic management.”

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Four Kidnapped Iranian Border Guards Freed

On March 21st, the Pakistani military announced that it had freed four kidnapped Iranian border guards after a military operation near the Afghanistan border. Last October, 12 Iranian border guards were captured in Iran’s southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan province by Jaish al-Adl, a Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organization.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi thanked Pakistan for “a successful operation freeing these border guards.” Ghassemi expressed hope that the remaining guards will be freed as soon as possible. Five of the captured guards had already been freed last year.

Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a February 11th suicide bombing of a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards soldiers, killing 27 and wounding 12.  

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Top Iranian Military Commander Meets with Syrian and Iraq Counterparts, Discusses Opening Strategic Border Crossing

On March 18th, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces met in Damascus with his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During his meeting with the top-ranking Iraqi and Syrian military commanders, Bagheri called for the expulsion of all foreign forces in Syria “who have a presence in the country without the permission of the Syrian government.” Bagheri also said that the military actions of their three governments “would continue until the complete defeat of all terrorists.” Bagheri also visited the Deir ez-Zor region in southern Syria.

During the meeting, the Syrian and Iraqi commanders said that the Abu Kamal border crossing between their two countries would be opened. This would establish a ground connection between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which the Trump administration and Israeli officials have strongly opposed.

Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub also gave an ultimatum to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed predominately Kurdish militia. Ayyoub stated during the meeting: “The only card that the coalition led by America has left in Syria is the SDF. We give them [the SDF] two options. The first is national reconciliation and the second option is freeing the areas they control through military means.”

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EU Holds Regional Talks with Iran in Brussels

The European Union announced that it has held a new round of talks with Iran on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. According to the EU, this was the fifth meeting of its kind between EU and Iranian officials discussing regional issues. The meeting was chaired by Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of the European External Action Service, and was attended by representatives from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi-Ansari.

The talks focused on the implementation of a ceasefire agreement in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and on following up on the Astana Process Syria peace talks between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Recently, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Iran had to abide by its commitments on the withdrawal of Houthi forces in Hodeidah. Iran’s foreign ministry said in response that Iran had made no commitments regarding Yemen. However, the Iranian foreign ministry previously did confirm that Yemen was discussed during Hunt’s trip to Tehran last November.

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Three Former Bank Executives Sentenced in Anti-Corruption Probe

In an on-going anti-corruption probe into Bank Sarmayeh, three former managers at the bank were sentenced to 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a permanent ban from government jobs. One of the convicted managers, Parviz Kazemi, served as a cabinet minister in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Iran’s judiciary has described Bank Sarmayeh infractions as “massive corruption.” The bank is privately owned and has more than 160 branches in the country.   

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INSTEX’s Parallel Structure Registered in Tehran

On March 19th, Iran’s Central Bank announced that the parallel Iranian institution to INSTEX has been registered in Iran. INSTEX is a financial mechanism launched by Europe to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Its Iranian counterpart is called “Special Trade and Finance Instrument, or STFI. The launch of STFI follows a visit to Tehran last week of INSTEX’s president.

The official IRNA news agency said of STFI’s launch: “The instrument for trade and finance between Iran and Europe has been registered as the parallel Iranian organization to INSTEX and a group of Iranian private and public banks and companies will participate in it.”

Iran’s Central Bank Chief Abdolnaser Hemati said his expectation is that INSTEX and STFI will help alleviate limitations brought by U.S. sanctions. He stated: “With the registration of this company in the last days of the current [Iranian] year, the expectation is that this institution in collaboration with its European parallel institution will be able to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe and have a consequential impact on lifting restrictions brought on by U.S. sanctions.”

However, the Iranian foreign ministry recently said “don’t have hope that this financial channel [INSTEX and STFI] will create miracles.”

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His High Ambitions

Week of March 11, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced to 12-year Imprisonment, According to Husband

Reza Khandan, husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. Previous reports that Sotoudeh faced up to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes were the maximum sentence for her charges. Read more on Sotoudeh’s sentence in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Khandan, speaking to BBC Persian, said that a copy of Sotoudeh’s sentence was handed to her. He stated: “According to the law, the convictions are bundled together and the highest conviction is enforced. Of the 33 years of imprisonment for the seven charges against her, the longest one, which is 10 years, will be enforced. But based on the law, people who have more than three charges against them can have their sentenced increased by up to one and a half times. So the judge gave my wife a sentence of 12 years.”

Sotoudeh’s sentencing has sparked a worldwide backlash, and prompted the European parliament to pass a resolution calling for her release. Norway also summoned Iran’s ambassador in protest at Sotoudeh’s sentencing. Sotoudeh, who was awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2012, was arrested last summer by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His Ambitions, Spurs Backlash

President Rouhani made a three-day visit to Iraq for the first time of his presidency. Rouhani was accompanied by a large delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, and other senior officials and businesspeople.

In addition to receiving a state welcome from Iraqi officials, Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most prominent and influential Shia clerics. It was the first time Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric, had met with an Iranian president. Sistani played a major role in shaping the post-2003 Iraqi government and issued a fatwa after ISIS took control of parts of Iraq in 2014 that led to the creation of the influential Hash al-Shaabi militia.

According to Iranian outlets, Rouhani explained the results of his meetings with Iraqi officials to Ayatollah Sistani and stressed the need to improve Iranian-Iraqi ties. Sistani stated that he supports any actions that improve Iraq’s relations with its neighbors based on the interests of each country and on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Sistani also highlighted Iraq’s war against ISIS and stated that “Iraq’s friends” had a role in the victory against the terrorist organization.

After meeting with Sistani, the Rouhani administration’s official media arm released a controversial video on the “outcomes of Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani.” It was released in the context of Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent short-lived resignation, which he attributed largely to concerns that the role of the foreign ministry was being undermined. The video also came as IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, who exercises significant influence over Iran’s regional policies, was awarded Iran’s highest military honor (the Order of the Zulfiqar) from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Notably, the video was removed shortly after it was uploaded.

The video stated that Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani carried “three powerful messages to three principal recipients.” The first two messages stoked controversy. The first was for “Iraqi leaders” regarding the “notable power” of President Rouhani and how it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to negotiate with “military figures.” The second message was to “Iranian leaders” regarding Rouhani’s reception from “one of the highest and most influential Iraqi marjas (the highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy).”

The video specified that Rouhani had “notable power and that it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to talk with other [Iranian] institutions or military figures regarding tactical issues and that they could achieve this work with Rouhani as the head of Iran’s government.”

The video did not specify who it was referring to in mentioning Iranian “leaders” or “military figures,” but the latter was widely interpreted to be referring to Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani plays a major role in shaping and implementing Iranian policies in Iraq and is frequently in the country meeting with senior Iraqi officials and military commanders. Last week, the deputy commander of the Qods Force also stated that “we have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration.”

Conservative media in Iran reacted with outrage to the video, with many claiming it was part of a “psychological war” by Rouhani to influence the Supreme Leader’s succession and undermine the Qods Force. Sajjad Moqadam-Nia, a conservative analyst, wrote on Telegram that Rouhani’s trip to Iraq was guided by “self-interested aims” based on “enhancing his and his administration’s political position in Iran and the region” and “weakening the position of the Qods Force.”

Mehrdad Zabani, another conservative analyst, wrote that “the likes of Qassem Soleimani destroyed ISIS in Iraq and now Rouhani is trying to show off his trip to Iraq.” He added: “If these military figures like Soleimani didn’t exist, Rouhani would have had to go to Iraq in the darkness, just like his boss [Trump].”

The Iranian reformist website Entekhab translated a column by journalist Ali Hashem for BBC Arabic on Rouhani’s trip to Iraq, in which Hashem compared U.S. and Iranian influence in the country.  Hashem stated in the piece: “On the west bank of the Tigris river in Baghdad stretches the U.S. embassy, which is this country’s largest embassy in the Middle East. On the opposite east bank of the river, in different parts of the Baghdad, pictures of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the former leader of Iran’s revolution Ayatollah Khomeini strike the eye. And these are alongside pictures of Hashd al-Shaabi militia killed while fighting ISIS.”

Hashem went on to argue that people-to-people connections between Iran and Iraq have deepened over the years, which is something the U.S. lacks and that contributes to its lower influence in Iraq. Hashem stated: “In this context, Iraq is stuck between constant U.S.-Iran tensions … but Iraq today is taking a different position on the [U.S.-Iran] dispute than in the past and seeks to be neutral in this direct U.S.-Iran confrontation.”

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INSTEX President Travels to Tehran

On March 11th, Per Fischer, the president of INSTEX, the European trade mechanism set up to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, traveled to Tehran. Fischer is the former head of the German Commerzbank. On Tuesday, he held technical-level negotiations on operationalizing INSTEX with Iranian experts and representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The French embassy in Tehran tweeted regarding Fischer’s trip to Iran: “This is an important step in the direction of dialogue with our Iranian counterparts on operationalizing the trade mechanism between Iran and the European Union.”

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Ebrahim Raisi Elected Deputy Head of Powerful Assembly of Experts

On March 12th, one day after Ebrahim Raisi was appointed judiciary chief, Raisi was also elected as the deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is an elected constitutional body mandated with supervising and selecting the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s recent elevations have significantly boosted his position in Iran’s political system. Read more on his appointment as Iran’s judiciary chief in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Raisi was elected as deputy head of the Assembly of Experts with 43 out of a total 73 votes cast. Coming in second place was Sadegh Larijani, the outgoing judiciary chief and incumbent head of the Expediency Discernment Council, who received 27 votes. Third place was Fazel Golpayegani, who received five votes. The current head of the Assembly of Expert is conservative cleric Ahmad Jannati.

On March 11th, Raisi officially assumed his duties as judiciary chief. In a speech, he declared: “No one in any situation or any position will have the right to circumvent or violate the law.”

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Khamenei Warns Officials “Not to Quarrel with Each Other” in FATF Debate

In a meeting with the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei called on supporters and opponents of the contentious FATF legislation to “not to quarrel with each other.” The vociferous domestic fight over the FATF bills, aimed at bringing Iran into compliance with anti-money laundering and terrorism financing standards set out by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has led the to remaining legislation being deadlocked in the Expediency Discernment Council. (Read more on the domestic debate over the FATF bills in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

While Ayatollah Khamenei did not specifically mention the FATF bills, he did note: “When this or that convention or treaty is under debate and its supporters and opponents make their arguments, the two sides should not accuse each other of acting in line with the enemy or quarrel with each other.” The opponents of the FATF bills are mostly critics of President Rouhani and often frame their arguments against the legislation as abetting Iran’s enemies.

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Iranian Officials React to Israeli Naval Threats, Regional Nuclear Projects

Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami responded to recent threats by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Israeli navy could take action against “covert” Iranian oil shipments that were trying to “circumvent” U.S. sanctions.” Hatami stated: “If they [Israel] have such an intention, this will be an act of creating international insecurity and piracy.”

Hatami added that “the Islamic Republic has the capability to address this issue and if necessary, issue a strong response.” He further stated that that the “international community will not accept” such an Israeli action.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that some regional countries were using “oil dollars” to pursue “suspicious nuclear projects.” He added: “These actions can create a danger for the region and the world worse than the threat of ISIS and terrorism.”

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NIAC Condemns Horrific Attacks on Christchurch Mosques

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Friday, March 15, 2019
CONTACT: Mana Mostatabi | 202.386.6325 x103 | mmostatabi@niacouncil.org

 

WASHINGTON, DC — NIAC President Jamal Abdi issued the following statement after the Islamophobia-driven attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand:

“We are shocked and outraged by the unconscionable terrorist attacks on the al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch yesterday, which claimed the lives of 49 and injured dozens more. We relay our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of those taken in this tragedy, and mourn alongside the Muslim community and all those who are shocked by this inhumane act of evil.

“This attack is yet another reminder that fanning the flames of Islamophobia, white nationalism, and anti-Muslim sentiment is profoundly dangerous. Unfortunately, the U.S. now has a President that is a global leader in spreading such bigotry and who has failed on numerous occasions to halt his hateful rhetoric and the policies like his ongoing Muslim Ban that are inspired by it. We reiterate our call for Donald Trump to make a clean break from his white nationalist and Islamophobic roots and condemn in the strongest possible terms the vile acts of terror that spring from such hatred.”

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Betraying Democracy: How Trump Abandoned The JCPOA And The Iranian People

The resignation by Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and the public response that hastened Iran’s political elites to demand he stay in office, strengthened the hand of the architect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. But this incident also reinforces an important point: the nuclear agreement itself is a reflection of the popular will of the Iranian people.

Much has been said of the hypocrisy of the Trump administration’s claims to support democracy and sympathize with the plight of the Iranian people. Critics highlight the administration’s reimposition of sanctions that hurt ordinary Iranians, as well as its approach to Saudi Arabia and National Security Advisor John Bolton’s support for the MEK—a cultish group formerly listed as a terrorist organization by the United States and that is overwhelmingly despised inside of Iran. Less is said, however, about how the administration’s very act of withdrawing from the JCPOA subverts the prospect for peaceful democratic change inside Iran.

Make no mistake, Iran is no democracy. At its essence, democracy is a system of governance in which “the people” rule. Levels of democratization vary throughout the world and Iran is a case in which the concept of democracy is complex and sometimes misunderstood. Iran’s system of governance exists in a dual state: one marked by a government of elected officials, and the other marked by an unelected ruling class embodied by the Supreme Leader. While the supreme leadership in Iran undercuts the ability of the elected government to carry out its duties unhindered, a civic society persists in spite of such great obstacles. As a consequence of this dual nature, Iran’s government cannot be considered democratic. However, since some of the features of representation do exist, Iranian citizens have engaged the system and staked their claim in the political sphere.

Read more on The Iranian.

Khatami Says People May No Longer Turnout to Vote

Week of March 4, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Prominent Human Rights Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced

On March 5th, reports emerged that human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced. Since her arrest last June for representing three anti-forced hijab women activists, Sotoudeh has undergone two hunger strikes and refused to participate in her trial due to not being allowed to select her own lawyer. Sotoudeh has received the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize and was re-arrested by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.

Her husband, fellow imprisoned human rights activist Reza Khandan, says she is being prosecuted on seven charges, most of which are related to her opposition to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. Sotoudeh has for years defended victims of government abuse in Iran and was first arrested in 2010 after representing Green Movement protestors.

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Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi Appointed Judiciary Chief

On March 7th, Ayatollah Khamenei officially appointed Ebrahim Raisi—the conservative 2017 presidential candidate and custodian of the Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation—as head of Iran’s judiciary, replacing incumbent Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. Before running Astan Qods Razavi, Raisi had a long track record in Iran’s judiciary, including serving as Iran’s attorney general and as the deputy head of the judiciary. Larijani completed his term as judicial chief and has now been appointed head of the Expediency Discernment Council.

In his statement appointing Raisi, Ayatollah Khamenei called on him to be “populist, revolutionary, and anti-corruption” and to “root out corruption in the judiciary.” Raisi will reportedly assume his duties on March 8th.  

During the 2017 presidential election, which Raisi lost with his roughly 16 million votes to Rouhani’s 24 million, Raisi was vociferously criticized for his track record in Iran’s judiciary. Severe abuses took place under Raisi’s watch and he played a major role in the mass executions of 1988.

In the summer of 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, many opponents of the Islamic Republic were summarily executed after minutes-long “trials.” During the 1980s, Raisi was the attorney general of Karaj and Hamedan and also held a senior post in the attorney general of Tehran’s office.

At the time, Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri strongly opposed the executions—which ultimately led to him losing his position in the Islamic Republic. According to Montazeri, upwards of 4,000 were executed that summer.

During the 2017 election campaign, an audio tape of Montazeri from August 15, 1988 was leaked. In it, Montazeri addressed Raisi, then deputy attorney general of Tehran, and three other senior judicial officials. Montazeri stated in the tape: “The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic and that history will condemn us for was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.”

Raisi’s appointment as judiciary sparked condemnation and exaltation from Iranian politicians and outlets. To the surprise of many observers, several prominent reformists welcomed Raisi’s appointment. MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, a strong opponent of Raisi during the 2017 election, who had called him a “danger” and “merciless” in the past, said he was hopeful that Raisi could lead to changes in the judiciary because of his “background.”

Another prominent reformist, former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh, said that he couldn’t support Raisi because Iran requires a judiciary that is “independent, neutral, and accountable.”

BBC Persian noted that reformist opposition to Raisi’s appointment as judiciary head is less pronounced than it was during the 2017 presidential campaign: “Many are asking why has there been this change in opinion and duplicity with respect to Raisi? Are the reformists being prudent with respect to the future? Were they just using the human rights issue for election campaigning purposes previously?

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Khatami Says People May No Longer Turnout to Vote

On March 3rd, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami met with members of the reformist “Hope Coalition” of parliament and stressed that the Islamic Republic must be “reformable and flexible.” For the past several years, coverage of Khatami has been banned in official outlets, though he regularly makes public appearances and delivers speeches at different political forums.

Khatami’s support played a role in the electoral victories of President Rouhani and the reformist Hope Coalition, but he has now warned that people may no longer turn out to vote on his call. Khatami stated: “Today, people question me and say that you pulled us out to vote, show us a case where real reforms took place? Has the judiciary’s conduct or the way people are treated gotten better or has the private sector been able to establish a presence? Has our approach that has created impasses on foreign policy been reformed? Or [on the other hand] have sensible approaches been resisted so that people can’t feel the results of the achievements that have been reached?”

He further said to the reformist parliamentarians: “Now it will be very hard to tell the people to come and vote. Do you think that in the next elections the people will listen to you and me to go vote? I doubt it unless there is some development within the next year.”

Khatami added that “some domestic elements” seek to create despair in Iranian society but cautioned that “the weakening of reformists won’t benefit their rivals but will empower the ‘topplers’ (those who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic).” He stated: “An important part of current problems because of external factors [foreign pressure], but the decisions that are made can exacerbate the current situation.”

Khatami emphasized his view on the importance of reformism: “Reformism is viewed critically within the political system. However, we are standing against the overthrowers [those seeking to topple the entire system] and we stress that reform must occur within the country.”

He added: “If the country is managed in such a way that people lose hope and see no path to hope it will be very dangerous and we must endeavor not get to this stage.”

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Qods Force Has Major Differences with Rouhani Administration, Deputy Commander Says

Esmail Qa’ani, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, has said that last week’s trip to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was coordinated by the Qods Force and that President Rouhani was aware of the trip. Foreign Minister Zarif’s absence from the meeting with Assad spurred controversy and contributed to his short-lived resignation (more on Zarif’s resignation in last week’s Iran Unfiltered).

Qa’ani said that Zarif’s absence from the Assad meeting was due to a lack of coordination in the Rouhani administration and was not due to negligence by the Qods Force. He stated: “The President was aware of this trip and there was apparently some negligence and Mr. Zarif wasn’t told. This all goes back to the administration itself.”

The Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi has stated that the ministry was not aware at “any level” of Assad’s trip to Tehran. Ghassemi said that “such lack of coordination with the foreign ministry was one of the reasons for Mr. Zarif’s resignation.”

Qa’ani also stated that the Qods force has disagreements with the Rouhani administration on foreign policy.  He proclaimed: “We have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration. However, this administration is our administration and the reputation of the administration is our reputation. We have to work with all parts of the administration and we do … we are two friends and brothers with each other.”

On March 4th, Foreign Minister Zarif stated that the foreign ministry was “responsible for the country’s foreign policy” and that “institutions within or outside the Rouhani administration” cannot have their own foreign policy. He added: “In the world it has to be felt that the word of the foreign ministry is the word of the entire country and the government.”

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Deputy FM Hopeful that Europe’s INSTEX Will be Operational Soon

On March 6th, the JCPOA’s Joint Commission held its regular meeting that occurs every three months in Vienna. The Joint Commission is comprised of the remaining adherents to the nuclear deal, namely Iran, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China.

During the meeting, bilateral and multilateral meetings took place between Iran and the other parties on how to confront the impact of America’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. The sides also discussed efforts to operationalize the economic commitments of Iran’s negotiating partners under the deal.

Before the meeting, Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran was still unaware how INSTEX—the European financial mechanism being set up to facilitate trade with Iran—would operate: “This mechanism is in its early stages and we still don’t know how it will work  … we need to have technical discussions on this. The Europeans have introduced this mechanism very late and our request of them is that they more seriously pursue this matter.”

After the meeting, Araghchi stated that European representatives provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how non-European states can eventually utilize it. He stated: “The Europeans provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how transactions can be made and received and how it’s supposed to work with a parallel Iranian institution. And how in the next stage third-party countries can access this mechanism.”

Araghchi said that Iranian technical experts provided explanations of how INSTEX’s parallel mechanism in Iran would operate. He stated: “Our friends and colleagues from economic institutions provided explanations regarding INSTEX’s parallel Iranian institution. In my opinion, they had a good discussion.”

After the Joint Commission meeting, Araghchi also said he was “hopeful” that INSTEX would become operational within the “next few weeks.” Araghchi also expressed hope that Iran’s parallel mechanism for INSTEX would become operational by the Iranian New Year on March 21st.   

Araghchi also said that INSTEX would be used for all kinds of products, not just humanitarian goods. He stated: “It will likely start its work with humanitarian items before its template for trade with Iran is established. Once this template is clear, other goods that are sanctioned, including oil, will be added to this mechanism.”

Araghchi added that despite the Joint Commission meeting and the INSTEX talks, Iran was not depending on the JCPOA and was keeping all its options open. He stated: “I believe that through the JCPOA we can pursue a path to challenge America’s sanctions. However, the Iranian government is not attached to this approach and it’s reviewing all potential solutions. The more we can increase the capacities of our approach the better, but we aren’t dependent on Europe or the JCPOA.”

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Teachers Stage Sit-In Protests

School teachers in different Iranian cities staged sit-in protests after a call by the “Council for Coordination of Teacher Unions.” Teachers had previously engaged in sit-in protests last October and November after calls by the Council. After these earlier protests, according to Radio Farda, there were reports of “legal and security actions taken against some teachers in several cities.” Read more about the previous round of teacher sit-ins in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

In a statement, the Council said that sit-in protests in the provinces of Mazandaran, East and West Azerbaijan, and Ardabil were “better than the last protests,” but that participation was “not significant in Tehran and Gilan provinces.” The Council also said that the reaction of police and security forces to this round of sit-in protests was “different than before” and that there was a “positive and moderating change.”

The demands of the Council include “freeing the Council’s activists and removing all legal obstacles for teacher unions to freely conduct official activities.” In a February 25th statement, the Council also called for “allocating a specific portion of 1398’s [the upcoming Iranian year] budget to education, resolving the problems of schools, and fundamentally restoring the rights of teachers.

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NIAC Statement on Politically Motivated Sentencing of Prominent Human Rights Lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh

NIAC is deeply concerned by reports that prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh reportedly faces up to a 38-year prison sentence and 148 lashes on fabricated, politically motivated charges. NIAC unequivocally condemns the Iranian government for its arbitrary and politically motivated detentions in contravention of Iran’s human rights obligations, and reiterates its call for the immediate and unconditional release of Sotoudeh, along with all prisoners of conscience.

Sotoudeh has for years defended those who have suffered rights abuses at the hands of the Iranian government. From her defense of Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protestors to her support for the anti-compulsory hijab activists of last spring, Sotoudeh remains one of Iran’s staunchest human rights advocates. Sotoudeh was released in September 2013—in what was widely seen as a good will gesture ahead of President Hassan Rouhani’s first trip to the UN General Assembly—after more than two years of imprisonment on politically motivated charges following her work highlighting juvenile executions in Iran and her defense of human and civil rights protestors.

News of Sotoudeh’s sentencing comes only days ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8th—and serves as a stark reminder of the restrictions and costs Iranian women continue to pay in their fight against compulsory hijab and systemic gender inequality. Since her arrest last June for representing three activists protesting compulsory hijab, Sotoudeh has endured two hunger strikes and refused to participate in her trial after being prevented from selecting her own lawyer. Her husband, fellow imprisoned human rights activist Reza Khandan, noted that she is being prosecuted on seven charges, most of which relate to her opposition to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws.

While the fault for Sotoudeh’s incarceration lies squarely with Iranian authorities, U.S. policymakers must carefully weigh the impact of pressure policies on empowering Tehran’s most reactionary forces and reducing our ability to hold Iran accountable to its human rights obligations. The Trump administration’s abrogation of the nuclear deal, imposition of inhumane sanctions, and ratcheting up of tensions with Iran has further emboldened Iran’s hardline forces that are not accountable to elected institutions. As hardliners seek to match Trump’s bellicosity and undermine moderates and the will of the Iranian people, human rights proponents like Sotoudeh often become the first victims.

Memo on Subcommittee Hearing “The Status of American Hostages in Iran”

On Thursday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East will hear from family members of individuals unjustly detained in Iran. This is an important opportunity to highlight and condemn the Iranian government’s unconscionable imprisonment of Americans and other politically motivated detentions that violate Iran’s human rights obligations.

It is also important that Congress spur the Trump administration to reverse course and take concrete steps to secure the freedom of Robert Levinson, Siamak and Baquer Namazi, Nizar Zakka, Xiyue Wang and other dual nationals unjustly imprisoned in Iran. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the President has made the release of dual nationals in Iran a priority, while his move to withdraw from the JCPOA and reimpose nuclear-related sanctions has torched existing diplomatic channels that could be used to press for the release of Americans – not to mention other interests including human rights and security issues.

The motivation behind the detentions are clear and require a serious approach rather than broad brush or politicized grandstanding. Dual nationals who have been arrested in Iran have been targeted by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Intelligence and prosecuted by the Iranian Judiciary that is not legally accountable to Iran’s civil government but rather only to unelected institutions. These hardline elements of the regime oppose Iran’s economic integration with the rest of the world, thrive under sanctions and the Iranian people’s isolation, and engage in ruthless tactics aimed at sabotaging rivals who prefer moderation of Iran’s foreign policy and reform of its domestic policies. These elements have benefited extensively from the Trump administration’s abdication from the nuclear agreement, the return of a sanctions economy, and appointment of advisors to the Trump administration who have openly called for war. Hardliners inside Iran prefer to maintain a revolutionary ideology predicated on confrontation with the West and fear the engagement with the U.S. that led to the JCPOA, as well as the potential of sanctions relief that would lift up ordinary Iranians, empower Iran’s private sector and build space for Iranian civil society. Imprisoning Americans is just one more way that these hardline elements seek to enshrine confrontation with the U.S. and guarantee their grip on power will not be undermined through engagement.

While the Trump Administration’s efforts to collapse the deal have undercut the political capital of moderates, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other members of the Iranian administration must continue to hear from the international community that these detentions and human rights violations are unacceptable and that they are responsible for challenging and stopping the perpetrators of these actions within the regime, even if they are not under the administration’s direct control.

The Obama Administration developed a playbook for bringing imprisoned dual nationals home, via consistent diplomacy and back-channel negotiations aimed at securing their release. A combination of public accountability of Iran’s government and credible diplomacy is the formula to achieve results in changing Iran’s behavior. To increase the chances of winning the release of current U.S. persons held in Iran, members of Congress should pursue a multipronged approach based on:

Spotlighting These Cases

  • The cases of American citizens arrested inside Iran on arbitrary charges has been tragic. Businessman Siamak Namazi, long an advocate of improved U.S.-Iran relations, has been imprisoned alongside his father Baquer Namazi, an 81-year old former diplomat for UNICEF whose health is ailing. Xiyue Wang was arrested while conducting research for his PhD dissertation at Princeton University on the Qajar dynasty. 

  • Former FBI agent Bob Levinson’s whereabouts have been unknown since he first went missing in Iran over eleven years ago, which would make him the longest-held U.S. hostage. Meanwhile, U.S. resident Nizar Zakka was arrested after being invited to a conference in Tehran by Iranian officials.

  • Congress cannot allow the plight of U.S. persons to languish in the background. Members of Congress should continue to hold hearings and raise awareness regarding these cases to increase the reputational costs of Iran committing such gross acts of injustice.  

Condemn Iran’s Hardliners–But Don’t Play Into Their Hands

  • The January 2016 prisoner exchange that led to the release of five Americans, including Washington Postjournalist Jason Rezaian, was reflective of moderate and reformist elements of the regime, including President Rouhani, prevailing in internal arguments that cooperation with the U.S. rather than confrontation pays off for Iran.

  • Condemn the elements behind these detentions inside Iran. Hardline factions, which control the Iranian judiciary, have their own reasons for resisting any thaw in the U.S.-Iran relationship and have been largely responsible for incarceration of foreign nationals.

  • Call for President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif and other officials in Iran’s civil government to hold these elements accountable, while publicly recognizing the split within Iran between these camps. 

Push Administration for a New Approach

  • Well-conceived and tough-minded diplomacy is necessary to lead to progress in the case of imprisoned dual nationals inside Iran. The prisoner exchange under the Obama administration took place after 14-months of secret bilateral talks led by veteran U.S. diplomat Brett McGurk and included negotiations with Iranian intelligence officials.

  • Reaching a similar approach today requires more, not less engagement with Iran. Demand accountability of the Trump Administration on this issue – including what is the Administration’s strategy for securing the release of these prisoners and advancing American interests and what tangible measures the Administration is undertaking to secure the release of these prisoners.

  • Any diplomatic effort to secure the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran would have a far greater chance of succeeding if the U.S. upheld its JCPOA obligations and restored regular diplomatic dialogue. While this is unlikely under the current Administration – and must not be allowed to be construed by Iran as a precondition for the release of Americans unjustly detained – Congress should signal that the U.S. will return to the nuclear deal under a new administration in order to boost U.S. credibility.

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Former Officials Defend the JCPOA at Washington Forums

“Once we have the nuclear deal reestablished, the next topic is to try to understand how you could have a security architecture in which Saudi Arabia, the Gulf’s, Iran’s, other interests can be accommodated,” observed Rob Malley – President of the International Crisis Group and a former White House advisor on the Middle East under President Obama – at the Wilson Center last Tuesday. Malley is among several former U.S. officials who have warned that President Trump undermined U.S. diplomacy by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but that if the deal was salvaged, it could serve as a paradigm for a future administration to resolve other crises. While such a framework would take a long time, Malley indicated that Israeli-Iranian relations could be the next thorny challenge to tackle.

Similarly, testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright stated that President Trump had “put himself in a box” with his decision on the JCPOA because, she said, the JCPOA is a “good blueprint” for a nuclear agreement with North Korea. Albright warned that President Trump’s abrogation of the JCPOA has “undermined our relations with other members of the P5+1” in terms of their ability to trust the U.S. on future agreements. She added that the withdrawal has further hurt U.S. credibility with respect to the Venezuelan and North Korean crises, stating “It’s undermining our policy, so it’s important to call that out.”

Malley emphasized the narrow focus of the diplomatic process that produced the JCPOA, a rare diplomatic success story in America’s troubled 40-year long relationship with the Islamic Republic, and argued that the U.S. needed to return to compliance. “I think the better way forward is to rejoin the nuclear deal, that’s a subject for maybe the next administration, and to use that model – without any illusions, without any naivete about how quickly relations are going to change – but understanding that Iran does have a place in the region that people are going to have to take into account.”

“Both Republican and Democratic Presidents, the last seven … have operated in a mix of coercion and engagement and both have failed, a clear case of bipartisan failure,” said Malley. “The one agreement that could have sustainably changed Iranian behavior on one issue … is the JCPOA, the Iran-U.S. nuclear deal.”

The JCPOA’s importance was also echoed in hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday. Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns testified that, if the Trump administration were to get a JCPOA-like deal with North Korea, it would be a “significant tangible step forward.” Burns added, “something like” the Iran deal with North Korea would be a “first step in dealing with North Korea, setting aside the irony of this, given the admin’s view of the Iranian nuclear agreement.”

In the House, Albright rebuked the Trump administration’s “lack of diplomacy” on foreign policy and cited President Trump’s decisions on Iran’s nuclear program, the INF Treaty and climate change as “mistakes.” Albright expressed support for the JCPOA, stating that she “supported the deal” because it dealt with the “most serious aspect of Iran’s behavior” in terms of its “capability” to develop nuclear weapons.

Albright made a final rebuke to the administration’s reneging on the Iran deal towards the end of her remarks, declaring: “Negotiations are negotiations, people make compromises and if you walk away from them, why would they trust you on the next one.”

Soleimani’s support boosts Zarif, isolates Iran’s hard-liners

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (R) and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attend a meeting with Muslim leaders and scholars in Hyderabad, India, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui – RC13BC72B9E0

News of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s abrupt resignation late on Feb. 25 spurred celebration and joy among Iran’s powerful hard-liners.

“The disgraceful JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] has reached a dead end. Zarif is like a gambler who gambled his entire existence on trusting [former US Secretary of State] John Kerry and lost,” proclaimed hard-line former member of parliament Hamid Rasaee. Conservative politician Mahmoud Nabavian declared, “The man behind the damaging agreements of Sa’adabadParisGenevaLausanne, the JCPOA and FATF [Financial Action Task Force] has resigned. Thank God.” Lawmaker Javad Karimi Ghodoosi handed out sweets to fellow members of parliament, saying he was “certain” Zarif was finished.

As it turned out, confidence in the foreign minister’s departure was premature. He returns to his post with renewed legitimacy and decision-making power after receiving expressions of support from an array of Iran’s ruling elite. Above all, one public figure’s praise has dampened the spirits of Iranian hard-liners and boosted Zarif’s position the most: Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.

Read more on al-Monitor.

Zarif’s Resignation Saga

Week of February 25, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Zarif’s Resignation Saga

On February 25th, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, among other senior Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Zarif was notably absent from the meetings.

During their meeting, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Assad for his “steadfastness” and said he had “turned into a hero for the Arab world.” He also said the Syrian uprising was not a part of the Arab Spring, stating: “The enemy’s mistake was confusing Syria with some other Arab states. In those countries, the peoples’ movements were towards resistance, they were uprisings against America and its clients.”

In the evening of the same day (February 25th), Foreign Minister Zarif stated he was resigning in a post on Instagram. He said in the post: “I am thankful to the dear and brave people and respectful officials for being gracious over the past 67 months. I sincerely ask for forgiveness for my inability to continue to serve and for all my deficiencies and shortcomings.”

In the immediate aftermath of the resignation announcement, reports suggested that it was triggered by Zarif not being informed of Assad’s visit. Entekhab News said it received a text from Zarif in which he reportedly stated: “After the photos of the meeting today [of Assad in Teran], Javad Zarif has no credibility today as Iran’s foreign minister.”

The following morning (February 26th), President Rouhani gave a speech where he thanked Zarif, as well as Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh and Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemati, for their “steadfastness” in being the “frontline against America.” Rouhani further praised the three officials for “bearing and resisting pressures” and as “people who are holding resolute at the frontline of attacks.”

Rouhani was speaking at a Central Bank conference on the issue of sanctions and the necessity to approve the deadlocked anti-money laundering and terrorism financing legislation. Read more on the bills, which are designed to bring Iran into compliance with guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

During his address, Rouhani stressed the need to approve the FATF legislation and said none of Iran’s decision-making bodies opposed the bills, including Ayatollah Khamenei. He proclaimed: “Decision-making in the country is either with the presidential administration, the parliament, or the leader. The leader has on multiple occasions told me he doesn’t opposes the four [FATF] bills. The administration and parliament also don’t oppose them, so who does?”

He added on the necessity of passing the FATF legislation: “We can’t trade with suitcases. You can’t move millions of tons of cattle meat with suitcases. The banks have to be active. If our country’s relations with FATF are cut, our banking activities at the international level will be faced with difficulties.”

A previously conducted interview with Zarif by the Rouhani administration-affiliated Islamic Republic Newspaper was published on February 26th, which listed what many Iranian analysts believe were the reasons behind Zarif’s resignation. The newspaper did not give a reason for why the interview wasn’t published sooner. In the interview, Zarif made a range of complaints, including over the unapproved FATF legislation, slanted coverage of state radio and television regarding Iran’s current conditions, the situation in the Expediency Discernment Council, a lack of support given to the Rouhani administration in its negotiations with other countries, and a lack of coordination between different government institutions.

In the interview, Zarif said factional infighting was “poison” for Iranian foreign policy. He opined: “We must separate foreign policy from partisan and factional fights. We must trust our foreign policy officials at the national level. This requires domestic consensus.”

After Zarif announced he would resign, a host of Iranian diplomats and foreign ministry officials said they would leave their posts if his resignation becomes final, and over 160 members of parliament wrote to President Rouhani asking him to reject the resignation. Zarif said in response to the support from his foreign ministry colleagues: “For me serving alongside you all has been an honor. I hope my resignation brings the foreign ministry back to its rightful legal position on foreign policy.”

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ali Motahari said that the main reason for Zarif’s resignation was not his absence from the Assad meeting, but interference in foreign policy by other domestic entities. He added that President Rouhani should never have allowed “military forces” to interfere in foreign policy.

On February 27th, President Rouhani formally rejected Zarif’s resignation, keeping him at his post as Iran’s foreign minister. Rouhani said in a letter to Zarif that he agreed with Zarif on “preserving the status and credibility of the foreign ministry, and the position of the foreign minister as the highest official implementing the country’s foreign policy.”

Rouhani also stated that Ayatollah Khamenei believes Zarif is “honest, brave, and pious.” He added that “joy and celebration” of figures such as Israeli PM Netanyahu after Zarif’s resignation is a reason for Zarif’s “success.”

Qassem Soleimani also expressed support for Zarif as the “main official responsible for foreign policy” and said Zarif has always had support of senior officials, “especially” Ayatollah Khamenei. He added that Zarif’s absence in the meeting with Assad was “not deliberate” and was due to “some lack of coordination” in the executive branch.

After Rouhani rejected the resignation, Zarif wrote a new post on Instagram thanking the president for his support. He stated: “My concerns were nothing but promoting foreign policy and the credibility of the foreign ministry as responsible for advancing foreign policies and being the frontline for defending national interests and the noble Iranian peoples’ rights internationally.”

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Hardliners Rejoiced Over Zarif’s Short-Lived Resignation

Prominent hardline politicians, mostly associated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, rejoiced over Zarif’s resignation. Read more about Jebhe Paydari in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

Javad Karimi Ghodousi, a conservative MP from Masshad, offered sweets to other parliamentarians for Zarif’s resignation. He also stated that “Zarif’s resignation has been accepted and is certain. [Oil Minister] Zangeneh will also certainly leave.”

Ali Naderi, the editor in chief of the far-right Raja News, stated: “Zarif has wanted to leave for some time. Not just Zarif but [oil minister] Zangeneh also wanted to flee from under the rubble of the Rouhani administration, the columns of which they had built. They want to run away from their responsibilities … they were just waiting for an excuse, which was found … acceptance of their resignation means the end of heroic flexibility.”

Mahmoud Nabavian, a former MP and student of ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, declared: “The man of the damaging agreements of Saadabad, Paris, Geneva, Lausanne, the JCPOA, and FATF has resigned. Thank God.”

Hamid Rasaee, another former hardline MP, stated: “Rouhani no longer has popularity. The disgraceful JCPOA agreement has reached a dead-end. Zarif is like a gambler who gambled his entire existence on trusting John Kerry and lost.”

Conservative politician Ruhollah Hosseinian added that Americans were sad with Zarif’s resignation, stating: “Americans are more unhappy than anyone about this resignation because Zarif was the only person who realized their old wish of negotiations with Iran.”

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Iran’s Freedom Movement Condemns U.S. Sanctions

On February 25th, the Freedom Movement, one of Iran’s oldest pro-democracy groups, wrote a letter condemning U.S. sanctions and “unilateral” U.S. policies against Iran. The letter says regarding the destructive impact of US sanctions: “It is the Iranian people who suffer the most harm and economic hardship from sanctions. These sanctions have weakened the middle class & the downtrodden & disrupts Iran’s democracy-seeking trend.”

The letter says that the Freedom Movement has been among the most ardent critics of Iran’s ruling system and that its members have been imprisoned and tortured. Despite this, the letter calls for the US to abide by the nuclear deal, calling it a guarantor of global peace and security.

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Qassem Soleimani Rejects Idea of Further US Negotiations

On February 28th, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force, denounced the idea of reaching a “second JCPOA” with the United States. Soleimani said those seeking a “JCPOA 2” wished to “dry up Islamic movements.”

Soleimani suggested that former U.S. President Obama sought regime change with the JCPOA, and that President Trump simply seeks regime change on a shorter time scale. He stated: “For the enemy, the JCPOA was a triangle [with the JCPOA being one side of the triangle]. Obama believed that with time he would get to the two other sides [in subsequent “JCPOAs,” or U.S.-Iran agreements], but this impatient person who has come [Trump] insists on getting where they want in a hurry and he believes they can get there [meaning regime change].”

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Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant Shuts Down for Refueling and Repairs

On February 28th, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), stated that the Bushehr nuclear power plant would temporarily shut down for “refueling and necessary repairs.”  Kamalvandi stated: “Based on the existing plan, Bushehr will be disconnected from the electricity grid on Monday for two months.”

Earlier this week, AEOI had warned that because of financial issues and the depreciation of Iran’s currency, the Bushehr nuclear power plant’s operations were under “ambiguity” for the next year. However, immediately after this warning, parliament approved funding for Bushehr’s operation.

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Armenian Prime Minister Travels to Tehran

On February 27th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif. During their meetings, the two sides signed trade and energy agreements.

During his meeting with Pshinyan, Ayatollah Khamenei rebuked U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said last fall that the Armenian-Iranian border is “going to be a significant issue” as the U.S. enforces sanctions. Ayatollah Khamenei stated: “Iran and Armenia have never had problems with each other … but American officials like John Bolton have no understanding of these issues and humane relations.”

In his meeting with President Rouhani, Prime Minister Pshinyan emphasized Armenia’s support of the JCPOA and said it was worried about developments surrounding the agreement. He stated that regarding the JCPOA, Armenia will “work closely with Iran and other parties.”  

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Bahraini Shia Leader Travels to Qom

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s majority-Shia population, has met with senior officials in Qom. Qassim was under house arrest in Bahrain for some time and has been stripped of his Bahraini citizenship. According to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim, Qassim discussed the situation in Bahrain and the conditions for Bahraini Shias in his meetings in Qom.

In 2016, after Qassim’s Bahraini citizenship was revoked, Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani warned Bahraini officials that the safety of Shia religious leaders in Bahrain was a “red line.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif to Travel to Damascus

On February 27th, Foreign Minister Zarif spoke on the phone with Syrian Foreign minister Walid Muallem. According to Iranian media, the two reviewed the “conclusions” of the recent meeting in Tehran between Syrian President Assad and President Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei, and other Iranian officials.

After the phone call, Syria’s ambassador to Tehran forwarded Syrian President Assad’s invitation to Zarif to travel for an official visit to Syria.

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Rouhani to Take First Iraq Trip of His Presidency

According to Tasnim, President Rouhani will travel to Baghdad for a state visit on March 11th with a large delegation of Iranian officials and businesspeople. The trip follows Iraqi President Barham Salih’s December 19th trip to Iran. It will be Rouhani’s first trip to Iraq of his presidency.

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State Department Responds to Congressional Sanctions Concerns

Washington, D.C. – Last December, NIAC worked with Rep. Jared Huffman and a group of 13 lawmakers who sent a letter to the the State Department regarding the dire humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions on the Iranian people. On February 15, the State Department sent its response to the lawmakers. Rep. Huffman’s letter requested responses on the following questions:

  1. Is it a deliberate strategy of the Trump administration to starve the Iranian people or deprive them of basic medicines? If not, what substantive steps has the administration taken to ensure the Iranian people have continued access to life-saving medicines?
  2. Which foreign nations have expressed concern about the humanitarian impact of U.S. sanctions on Iran, and what have they asked the administration to do to ensure the free flow of humanitarian goods to Iran?
  3. According to a report in The Guardian, the United Kingdom, France and Germany have pushed both the State and Treasury Departments to produce a “white list” that would “give clear guidelines about what channels European banks and companies should follow to conduct legitimate transactions with Iran without fear of future penalties.” Has the State or Treasury Departments acted upon this proposal to establish a white channel to ensure the flow of humanitarian goods? If not, why not?
  4. What additional measures have been contemplated to ensure the free flow of humanitarian goods to the Iranian people? If these were rejected, why were they rejected?
  5. Are broader license authorizations or exemptions necessary to ensure the flow of humanitarian goods to Iran? If not, what is the evidence for this assessment?

Unfortunately, the State Department failed to directly address these questions or acknowledge accountability for the humanitarian impacts of sanctions on ordinary Iranians. The response sidestepped any responsibility to uphold U.S. legal obligations to ensure essential goods, like food and medicine, are not blocked by sanctions. Yet, this is not the position of key U.S. allies in Europe, as the Huffman letter articulated.

As French ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud stated in November 2018: “The fact is the banks are so terrified of sanctions that they don’t want to do anything with Iran. It means that in a few months, there is a strong risk that there will be shortage of medicine in Iran if we don’t do something positive.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Negative Effects of Unilateral Coercive Measures has also warned that the administration’s reimposed sanctions “are destroying the economy and currency of Iran, driving millions of people into poverty, and making imported goods unaffordable.” Such concerns have led the European Union and Switzerland to create separate independent financial channels to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran.

The administration’s failure to take these issues to heart is deeply concerning, as it appears to rule out steps that could alleviate the impact of sanctions on the same Iranian citizenry that the administration professes to support.

NIAC greatly appreciates Rep. Huffman and the lawmakers with whom he worked to spotlight this critical issue and for his efforts to hold the administration accountable to its humanitarian obligations. We will continue to work with its allies to shine a light on the impact of broad sanctions on the Iranian people and push the administration on its failure to properly facilitate humanitarian exemptions to U.S. sanctions.

The full text of the State Department’s response is below and Rep. Huffman’s original letter can be read here.

State Department Response to Congressional Sanctions Concerns

The Slender Path Back to the Iran Nuke Deal — and Away from War

The past 40 years in U.S.-Iran relations have been riddled with missed opportunities. While the Iranians and Clinton administration failed to initiate serious dialogue after Mohammad Khatami’s election, the George W. Bush administration pocketed Tehran’s assistance after the U.S.invasion of Afghanistan, put the country in its “axis of evil,” and ignored its offer for a grand bargain. Under the Trump administration, however, we are likely witnessing the greatest missed opportunity in four decades: a failure to capitalize on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the Iran nuclear deal. 

The drama over the resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif — though it was rejected and withdrawn — underscores how the Trump administration’s imposition of sanctions has undermined moderates and bolstered hardliners. With the Trump administration seeking to collapse the nuclear deal and apparently searching for a casus belli, Tehran has less need of a chief diplomat distinguished by his engagement with the United States. This hardening posture in Iran plays into the hands of hawks on all sides bent on slamming shut the window for negotiations and opening the door to direct confrontation.

Yet there remains a slender path back to the JCPOA and away from war. U.S. policymakers outside the administration — there is little hope about those within it — must speak up about the need to return to the nuclear deal upon Trump’s departure from the White House.

Fortunately, momentum is building to return the United States to compliance with the deal. Most notably, the Democratic National Committee has adopted a resolution calling on the United States to re-enter the JCPOA, effectively prioritizing U.S.-Iran diplomacy as the party shapes its platform ahead of the 2020 elections. Already, several presidential hopefuls have signaled interest in salvaging the deal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has indicated that she would support returning to the JCPOA if Iran continues to abide by its terms, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar has warned that the United States.can’t balk on the agreement.

Read the rest of this article on Defense One.