Flood Response Highlights Political Feuds

Week of April 1, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Flood Relief Efforts Highlight Differences between Rouhani and Revolutionary Guards

Ahmad Shojaee, the head of Iran’s Legal Medicine Organization, has said the death toll from two weeks of flooding across Iran has reached 62. The floods’ devastating impact comes as President Rouhani and other Iranian officials have said that U.S. sanctions have led to the closure of Iranian Red Crescent bank accounts and have “obstructed the provision of aid from Iranians abroad.”

Flood relief efforts in Iran have been marked by Rouhani administration officials and military officials trading accusations of failing to adequately provide relief. Many Iranians on social media also criticized the government response, underscoring a lack of preparedness for such a crisis and a failure to address underlying causes for the damage done by the floods.

A video went viral on Iranian social media of IRGC General Mohammad Pakpour lambasting the Rouhani administration for its response to the floods. A journalist recorded Pakpour talking on the phone to Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, as saying that Rouhani administration officials “don’t have the courage to get close to the affected regions and that the situation has become unruly.” He added that the situation of the flood victims was “wretched.”

The Rouhani administration’s Interior Ministry issued a statement in response: “Such comments in the media make the affected people and people across society disappointed and hopeless. Unintentionally, these comments make the revolution’s enemies happy and target the entire system.”

Earlier, President Rouhani had criticized an IRGC effort to divert floodwater in the northeastern Golestan province. Rouhani stated that the IRGC exploding roads and railways to divert floodwater had “no effect” and “moved the water from one direction to another.” In response, IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said he hoped that the Rouhani administration would stop “insults of moving water from one direction to another.”

On April 2nd, Ayatollah Khamenei met with Rouhani administration officials and military officials to discuss the flood crisis, with President Rouhani notably absent from the meeting. Khamenei stated that one “important outcome” from the flood crisis was “collaboration between different institutions and the presence of high-level officials and military commanders in the affected regions.” However, Khamenei also stated the “more important issue is preventing such damage, which should have been predicted before.”

Amid speculation that Rouhani sulked from the meeting, senior Rouhani advisor Hesamodin Ashna, said the meeting was originally planned to only be with Rouhani’s chief deputies and relief officials and military commanders. Rouhani’s first vice-president Eshaq Jahangiri, who was has helped lead relief efforts in flood-affected regions, was present in the meeting.

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Foreign Minister Zarif Says Iran Focusing Foreign Relations on Neighbors, not Europe

Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gave an interview wherein he stated that Iran was not relying on Europe in the face of America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and instead is seeking to deepen ties with neighboring countries. He stated: “For this reason in recent years, even in the immediate aftermath of the JCPOA, most of our trips—the trips of the president and I—were to neighboring countries. It was to countries which are our old partners, such as Russia, China, Turkey, Iraq. Our focus for our future foreign relations is in this direction.” Zarif’s comments come several weeks after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei issued a stern call to not trust Europe [as covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered].

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Prominent Political Scientist Zibakalam Discusses Domestic Politics & Upcoming Elections

Prominent Iranian political scientist and reformist thinker Sadegh Zibakalam gave an interview during which he discussed Iran’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections and electoral prospects for Iran’s reformist and conservative factions. Zibakalam told the reformist Fararu that the Iranian year 1397 (March 21, 2018 – March 21, 2019) was the “worst year for the reformist movement” since its creation over two decades ago.

Zibakalam said reformists should adopt an electoral strategy centered on distancing themselves from the increasingly unpopular President Rouhani and explicitly declaring a strategic aim of “wanting democracy.” He stated: “I believe that if reformists don’t make their position clear on Rouhani and don’t declare that freedom and democracy are their strategic aims, they will quickly decline.”

Zibakalam said that unlike the reformists, Iran’s conservative “principlist” factions are not facing major challenges. He stated: “I believe that Ebrahim Raisi’s 17 million votes in the May 2017 [presidential] elections, if it hasn’t increased it certainly hasn’t decreased due to Rouhani’s performance. As a result, the principlists have preserved their base in society.”

Zibakalam contended that the biggest threats to principlists were former President Ahmadinejad and principlist hardliners. He stated that if Ahmadinejad is allowed to run, he would take votes from the traditional principlists. He also said that hardline principlists have consistently diminished the number of votes for principlists.

Zibakalam stated that traditional principlists cannot collaborate with Ahmadinejad supporters or hardline principlists. He opined that the only way for principlists to unite is if reformists regain their popularity, which he said was unlikely.

Zibakalam further stated that Ahmadinejad and other prominent conservatives, such as former state TV and radio chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, were pursuing a “third way” electoral strategy. He stated: “Because everyone is aware of the unpopularity of principlists among more educated segments of society and also the diminishing popularity of reformists and hears slogans such as “reformists, principlists, it’s over,” they [Ahmadinejad, Zarghami] want to make themselves the representatives of the people who have lost hope in both factions.”

Zibakalam said that President Rouhani and his allies in the Development and Justice Party have no chance in the upcoming election on their own. He asserted that Rouhani’s electoral victories in 2013 and 2017 were due to his alliance with reformists. He said it was unlikely that reformists would form a coalition again with Rouhani and that the Development and Justice Party was now seeking an alliance with moderate principlists such as parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani.

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Iran Welcomes Luxembourg Court Ruling on $1.6 Billion in Iranian Assets

Iran welcomed the decision by a Luxembourg court opposing a U.S. ruling that families of the 9/11 terrorist attacks can claim $1.6 billion in frozen Iranian assets in Luxembourg. U.S. sanctions have prevented Iran from repatriating the assets, while a U.S. court ruled in 2012 that the money can be claimed by the families of the 9/11 victims. Mohsen Mohebi, a senior legal official in the Rouhani administration, said that the decision was a “success” but urged “patience” for the money to be returned to Iran.

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Iraqi PM to Make First Trip to Iran

Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi is making his first trip to Iran on April 6th. According to an Iraqi official, Abdul-Mahdi’s trip will last two days and will focus on “issues related to trade between the two countries outside the framework of sanctions” and “on the convergent and neighborly views of Arab countries with Tehran.” Abdul-Mahdi will also travel to Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, and the United States.

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Devastating Floods Sweep Large Swathes of Iran

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

Floods Devastate Parts of Iran

Beginning on March 17th, parts of northeastern Iran experienced massive rainfall and devastating flooding. The impacted regions included the Golestan, Mazandaran, and North Khorasan provinces, which border the Caspian Sea. (Please see NIAC’s statement on the floods for information on how to safely donate to relief efforts.)

Heavy rainfall subsequently hit southern Iran, especially the Fars province, resulting in widespread flooding, damage, and loss of life. Videos on social media from Shiraz showed entire streets submerged and people and cars swept away by flash floods.

Two dams overflowed in Golestan province, leading to overflowing rivers that flooded the city of Gonbad-e Kavus and its surrounding areas. According to the deputy governor of the Golestan Province, between 25-30 percent of Gonbad-e Kavus has been damaged by floodwater. Roughly 1,000 homes in the surrounding villages have also been damaged according to initial estimates. Aqqala, another town in Golestan Province, is reportedly 70 percent flooded. According to deputy interior minister Esmail Najar, 6,000 homes in Mazandaran province have been damaged. Roughly 6,000 hectares of agricultural land has also been destroyed in Mazandaran Province according to a local member of parliament.

On March 28th, Hamid Reza Khanekeh, the deputy head of Iran’s Emergency Organization, said that 44 people died across the country due to the floods. According to Khanehkeh, 21 of the fatalities were in Shiraz province, 7 in Golestan, 5 in Mazandaran, 3 in North Khorasan, 2 in Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, one in Kermanshah, one in Khuzestan, two in Lorestan, one in Hamedan, and one in Semnan.

The widespread flooding resulted in public criticism of inadequate government response and hardline attacks on the Rouhani administration. On Iranian social media, many initially criticized Golestan’s governor, who was on a trip abroad when the flooding occurred. The governor was subsequently fired by Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri.

President Rouhani also faced criticism for remaining on vacation in Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf in the days after the flooding first hit the Golestan province. However, on March 27th, Rouhani visited Mazandaran Province to oversee relief efforts. At a meeting of the Council for Coordinating the Management of Crises, Rouhani said the floods demonstrated the “unity of the nation.”

Rouhani said the U.S. sought to use the floods to create divisions in Iranian society. He stated: “The enemies, after they were discouraged by the oppressive sanctions imposed in November, are now using the floods and are trying to ride the flood issue to create division.”

Rouhani also acknowledged that that one factor behind the devastation caused by the floods was “decades of mistakes and misconduct made with respect to nature.” Rouhani said the people were also responsible for “misconduct with respect to nature.”

Rouhani stated: “The recent floods were nature’s warning of the consequences for the people’s misconduct towards nature. For this crisis, all the country’s officials and people should acknowledge their responsibility. Blaming others or seeking to exonerate oneself will solve nothing for the people.”  

The Iranian army and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) also participated in the flood relief efforts. Both IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Mohammad Bagheri, Iran’s Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, traveled to affected areas and presented themselves as the front and center of relief efforts.

Bagheri stated while in Golestan Province: “I have come to directly oversee the work of our friends. I want to see what is lacking and see reports of how much progress has been made in relief work.”

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Nuclear Chief Says New “Nuclear Achievements” to be Announced

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), has said that Iran will announce new “nuclear achievements” on April 9th.  In announcing the April 9th date, Salehi said that the previous Iranian year 1397 (March 2018-March 2019) was “full of challenges for the people, but the good thing about these challenges is that they make us more resilient, mature, and experienced so that we can better stand against the enemy’s trickery.”

Salehi also stated that Iran’s experience with the JCPOA has made clear for Iranians that America is an enemy.  He stated: “It took awhile for many to believe that America is our enemy. But now everyone believes that America is our enemy. From supporters to opponents, from revolutionaries to anti-revolutionaries, everyone agrees that the American government is oppressive. From the beginning the Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] stressed that this government and American officials could not be trusted. Now this can be seen clearly and this itself is a huge achievement.”

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Conservative Newspaper Says Democrats & Republicans the Same on Iran

On March 18th, conservative newspaper Kayhan published a piece stating that a future 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential administration would not return to the JCPOA and that Democrats and Republicans were the same on Iran policy.  The piece highlights recent quotes from two former Obama officials, Robert Einhorn and Richard Nephew, to make its case. It states that “even if a Democratic president comes to power in 2020, it is possible they won’t return to the JCPOA.” It also criticizes Rouhani for abiding by the deal “at any cost.”

The article asserts that the Obama administration had already violated the JCPOA. It criticizes former President Obama’s policies after the deal was reached and states that the Obama administration violated the deal with changes in America’s visa waiver law, the renewal of ISA sanctions, and a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on $2 billion in Iranian assets. It also states that the Obama administration made an “unprecedented decision” in refusing the appointment of Hamid Aboutalebi as Iran’s UN ambassador in 2014.

The piece goes on to criticize a “specific movement” in Iran for claiming there are differences between Republicans and Democrats on Iran. It then cites a May 2016 quote from former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry saying that negotiations had successfully “reined in” Iran’s nuclear program and that the next U.S. administration should impose pressure to “rein in Iran’s missile program.”

The article concludes by censuring Rouhani for continuing to adhere to the JCPOA, stating: “Democrats, Republicans, the U.S. administration, and the Europeans have through different tests concluded that regardless of whatever they do against the JCPOA and whatever acts of enmity against Iran they commit, they won’t get any practical reaction from Rouhani.”

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UN Extends Human Rights Rapporteur Mandate

On March 22nd, the UN Human Rights Council voted to extend by one year the mandate of Javaid Rehman, its special rapporteur for the human rights situation in Iran. During the session, the representatives of 22 countries voted for the extension of Rehman’s mandate, while seven countries voted against, and 18 abstained. The countries that voted against were Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, India, Iraq, and Pakistan.

On March 11th, Rehman released his report on the human rights situation in Iran. The report detailed abuses against minority groups, labor activists, protesting teachers, journalists, and others. It also highlighted the negative impact of economic sanctions on the welfare of Iranians.

Esmail Baghaei, Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, stated that the measure was “not constructive and political.” He added: “This resolution and mandate of the special rapporteur only reinforces fictitious clichés about Iran.”

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Iran and Iraq Make Visas Free

The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced that on April 1st, the cost of visas for travel between Iran and Iraq would become free. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi said that the agreement for free visas was reached during President Rouhani’s recent trip to Iraq. He stated: “Iran and Iraq agreed to waive all the cost for visas to facilitate relations between the two countries and connections between the people.

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Rouhani Blasts U.S. in Last Cabinet Meeting of the Iranian Year

During his last cabinet meeting of the Iranian year (which ended March 21st), President Rouhani strongly censured the U.S. and said the goal of U.S. sanctions was to take control of Iran. He stated: “Another issue in our country is that our enemies have sworn to use all their capabilities to try to obstruct the progress of the lives of Iranians and to take from the people the ability to have normal lives. Without any reason, the Americans left their commitments [under the nuclear deal] and imposed the most severe sanctions against the Iranian people.”

Rouhani added: “They [the U.S.] believe that if they increase these sanctions and pressures, they can return to Iran. The aim of the Americans is nothing less than to return to Tehran and gain dominance over the Iranian people.”

Rouhani further stated that Iranians should not forget who their enemies are and should curse and blame them for Iran’s current conditions. He stated:”We shouldn’t forget the main enemy and the main plotter. You should wish damnation on those who created these conditions for the country. The Americans, Zionists [Israel], and reactionary regional countries created this condition.”

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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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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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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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Iran Warns Saudi Arabia & Pakistan Over Suicide Bombing

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

 

Financial Watchdog Extends Deadline for Iran to Pass Banking Reform Laws

On February 22nd, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks—extended the deadline for Iran to come into compliance with its standards. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the FATF’s standards. According to FATF’s statement, if by June 2019, Iran “does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF Standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran.”

Of the four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet the FATF standards, two have been approved by the parliament and Guardian Council, while the other two remain in limbo. The bill on reforming Iran’s laws on anti-money laundering (AML) and confronting terrorism financing have been passed. However, while parliament accepted the other two bills on Iran acceding to the terrorist financing (TF) convention and Palermo conventions, both bills were rejected by the Guardian Council. (Read more on the contentious domestic debate over the FATF legislation in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered).

The TF and Palermo convention bills have been under debate in the Expediency Discernment Council—a body constitutionally mandated with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and parliament. Ahead of the FATF plenary this week, the Expediency Discernment Council held a meeting to decide on the Palermo convention, but its members failed to reach an agreement.

The Expediency Discernment Council meets every two weeks and will meet to discuss the Palermo convention bill on March 2nd. After it reaches a decision regarding the Palermo convention, the council will discuss whether or not Iran will accede to the terrorist financing convention.

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Foreign Minister Zarif and Other Senior Officials Travel to China

A delegation of senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Zarif, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, and Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, traveled to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials. In his meeting with Larijani, President Xi said China wished to increase cooperation with Iran in the fields of “security, confronting terrorism, and people-to-people exchanges.” He also called for China-Iran “coordination on international issues to promote a new type of international relations.”

President Xi praised what he said was Iran’s constructive role in the Middle East and expressed a willingness to cooperate with Iran on regional issues. He proclaimed that he “supports Tehran’s constructive role in preserving peace and stability” in the region and said that Beijing is ready to develop “close ties and cooperate with Tehran on regional issues.”

Larijani said that he discussed solutions to regional conflicts with President Xi. He stated: “We have discussed the political issues in our region, confronting terrorism, and the consultations that are necessary for peace in the region and for constructive dialogue.”

Larijani told President Xi that Iran wished to increase cooperation with China over energy and infrastructure projects. He stated: “The Islamic Republic is ready to offer China its unique capabilities in different areas including transportation, infrastructure, and energy.”

During their meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for “deeper strategic trust” with Iran and praised Foreign Minister Zarif’s address and interview last week at the Munich Security Conference. Yi stated: “I saw on television how you defended the rights of Iran loud and clear at the Munich Security Conference. I think an audience of hundreds of millions of Chinese also watched what you said and you are a famous person now.”

Yi added: “I would like to take this opportunity to have this in-depth strategic communication with my old friend to deepen the strategic trust between our two countries and to ensure fresh progress of the bilateral comprehensive and strategic partnership.”

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Hardline MP Introduces Impeachment Bill Against President Rouhani

Conservative MP Mojtaba Zonnour, affiliated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, has introduced an impeachment bill against President Rouhani. The bill lists 14 reasons for Rouhani’s removal, four of which have to do with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The bill claims that Rouhani gave false promises that Iran’s “economy and industry can spin simultaneously with [uranium] centrifuges spinning” and that the JCPOA removed the threat of war.

Zonnour has also emphasized that he wants Rouhani removed over deteriorating economic conditions, stating: “Today we have no answers from the administration over issues it can alleviate, such as the peoples’ empty dinner tables, corruption, societal problems, unemployment, and smuggling. The people want answers from us and we have no answers. The law allows us to either impeach or question [the president].”

Last year, hardline MPs calling for Rouhani’s impeachment were rebuked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Read more about earlier efforts by hardliners to remove Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif from office in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

According to Iran’s constitution, if at least one-third of the parliament’s 290 members sign onto an impeachment bill, the president will be summoned to parliament for questioning. If two-thirds of parliamentarians give a vote of no confidence in the president’s answers before parliament, formal impeachment proceedings are then sent to the Supreme Leader.

In response to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, influential Iranian reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh said the aim was to take advantage of the “golden period of Trump” to remove Rouhani and to establish a “military administration” before Iran’s next parliamentary elections. Zonnour denied Tajzadeh’s allegation, stating: “Anybody seeking a military government is damn wrong and those saying this are damn wrong … I was the architect of this impeachment bill … I decided to introduce this bill. I did not consult with anyone inside or outside of parliament.”

All the major factions in the Iranian parliament voiced their opposition to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, and ultimately he only secured 18 signatures in support of the bill. President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said of the impeachment effort: “Those pursuing this are the same people who completely supported the previous administration [the Ahmadinejad presidency] and now completely oppose the current administration.”

Vaezi added: “For them, it doesn’t make a difference that the country is facing an economic war. They don’t work in line with national interests. However, we respect the parliament and don’t want to take a stance that would be in opposition to parliament.”

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Iranian Military Commanders Warn Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Over Zahedan Bombing

On February 21st, Qods Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani denounced Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that Iran would not pursue JCPOA-like negotiations over regional issues. Soleimani stated that a “regional JCPOA”—meaning negotiations with the United states and other world powers on regional issues—would be aimed at “breaking the spirit and [forward] movement of Islamic Iran.” He added: “If we carry out a second JCPOA, they will pursue other ‘JCPOAs’ with the goal being to change the country’s identity from within.”

Soleimani blamed Saudi Arabia over last week’s suicide bombing of a bus carrying IRGC soldiers in southeastern Iran, which left 27 dead. He declared: “I say to the Pakistani people that Saudi money has infiltrated their country and with these actions they want to destroy Pakistan.”

Soleimani also issued a stern warning to Pakistan: “Iran should not be tested. Whoever has tested Iran has received a severe response. We talk as a friend to Pakistan and tell it not to allow its borders to be used to cause insecurity in a neighboring country … the Islamic Republic will definitely avenge the blood of its martyrs against the mercenaries who took this action.”

Other senior Iranian military figures, such as Supreme Leader advisor General Yahya Safavi and IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, issued unprecedented rebukes of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service in the wake of last week’s suicide attack. General Safavi accused Pakistan of sheltering the Jaish al-Adl terrorist organization, which claimed responsibility for the bombing: “We believe this silence is a kind of support for this group and the Pakistani intelligence organization should account for it.”

General Jafari said along the same lines: “Pakistan should also know that it should pay the cost for the Pakistani intelligence organization’s support for Jaish al-Zolm from now on and this price will no doubt be very heavy for them.”

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Families of Detained Labor Activists Report Harassment

According to Radio Farda, Iranian intelligence agents have threatened the families of detained labor protestors Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian in order to keep them silent about the cases. According to the Haft Tapeh factory workers’ Telegram channel, the families had earlier in the week protested outside of Shush’s courthouse. The Telegram channel also stated that Bakhshi and Gholian are being compelled to record another “confession” for state television. (Read more about their cases and the Haft Tapeh worker protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered)

On February 18th, President Rouhani’s new health minister Saeed Namaki said Iran would face difficult economic challenges in the upcoming Iranian year of 1397 (March 21, 2019-March 21, 2020). He stated: “We should know that next year will be a difficult year. Even though this country has persevered over many hardships, 1397 will be a very difficult year on the economic front.”

Namaki added: “We are managers who worked with $6-7 per barrel oil under the most difficult conditions [during the Iran-Iraq War]. God willing, by the blood of the martyrs, especially our Revolutionary Guards martyrs who died helplessly in Sistan and Baluchistan province [last week], we will overcome these problems. However, as men charged with running the country, we must tighten our belts and first look at our wallets and then spend money.”

The cases of political prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan has gone to an appeals court, according to their lawyer. Meysami and Khandan were recently sentenced to six years in prison. Meisami was arrested last July for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law. He undertook a 145-day hunger strike, which ended on December 23rd. On January 5th, 2019 he wrote a letter lambasting the Trump administration and Tehran’s Revolutionary Court 15, as detailed in a previous Iran Unfiltered.

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IRGC Says It Was Aware of US Sabotage Efforts

On February 20th, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, said that the IRGC was aware of efforts to sabotage Iranian military armaments. He stated: “We were able to discover this conspiracy and have turned this major threat into an opportunity.” His comments follow a recent New York Times report about a U.S. program aimed at sabotaging Iran’s missile and rocket programs.

Hajizadeh also claimed that Iran had gained access to American military systems after commandeering U.S. drones flying over Syria and Iraq. He stated: “By infiltrating into U.S. military systems, including command and control and espionage systems, we have stopped their plans [for war].”

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Iran Dismisses Warsaw Summit as a Failure

Week of February 12, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry Blasts Warsaw Summit as Failing to Isolate Iran

The Iranian foreign ministry blasted as a failure the Trump administration’s co-hosted summit in Warsaw on “peace and security” in the Middle East. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated: “Despite the far-reaching efforts of Washington to organize an inclusive summit and create a new coalition against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the summit was a failure before it ended. The small number of attendees and low-level representatives refused to cooperate with any anti-Iranian initiative.”

Ghassemi added: “The concluding statement was a useless document. Its text came only from the two countries that hosted the summit and lacked any credibility or semblance of a decision.”

He further stated: “How can a conference about peace and security in the Middle East be successful when the main regional players such as Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine are not present? And important countries such as China and Russia and many major European countries and other countries are not present or sent very low-level officials?”

A columnist for the conservative Alef analyzed the Warsaw summit: “The U.S. regime has pursued Iranophobia because of the Islamic Republic’s role in politically isolating the U.S. at the international level and America’s defeat and frustration in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.”

The writer said of the Iranian foreign ministry’s role in diminishing the effectiveness of the Warsaw summit: “The active diplomacy of the foreign ministry caused U.S. officials to become troubled and retreat from their original claims out of fear of organizing a useless gathering. They altered the original aim of the summit and declared that the summit wasn’t targeted against any one country (Iran).”

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Islamic Republic Celebrates 40 years as Ayatollah Khamenei Calls for “Second Great Leap”

On February 11th, the Islamic Republic celebrated its 40th anniversary with marches in Tehran and across the country. According to official outlets, millions marched in the annual state-backed rallies.

At a speech in Tehran’s Azadi Square, President Rouhani lauded what he said was Iran “freeing itself from despotism, colonialism, and dependency 40 years ago.” He also praised the country’s military strengths, stating: “We will continue this path, and I say this clearly to the people of Iran, that Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the recent five years, has amazed the entire world.”

A column in the conservative Alef discussed the February 11th rallies and the question of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. It asked: “In all these years one question has always existed about what the secret has been behind the presence and participation of a more or less consistent amount of people in 22 Bahman (February 11th) rallies?”

The writer went on: “It was especially expected this year that because of economic and societal crises that the level of people’s participation would decrease in a visible way … what explains the people’s presence and cooperation at a time when many officials across the three branches of government are facing a drop in public trust?”

The piece, reflecting a conservative point of view, noted: “It is clear that despite all shortcomings, deficiencies, and embezzlements, the political and social lives of Iranians has tangibly changed and the Islamic Republic is present in society’s fabric. It breathes, resists, and progresses. However, just like any living being at times in fails or even regresses.”

It added: “The transformation of government and the creation of a national government was one of the greatest achievements of the Islamic Republic and is the main foundation that is preserving it. National government here means the stake that [ordinary] Iranians have in institutions from the Leadership to local government and city councils and the opportunity for them to contribute in a real way.”

The author concluded: “The constitutional revolution started the process of transitioning Iran from a tribal government to a national government. But the total amount of efforts taken during the constitutional and Pahlavi period led to no more than five percent of people having a stake in the government. The Islamic Revolution in the least optimistic view raised the stake of people in government to 40 percent, and in recent years it has remained above 30 percent [of people participating in government affairs].”

Ayatollah Khamenei also released a statement on the 40th anniversary of the revolution, in which he called on Iranian youth to take a “second great leap” to advance the revolution. In the statement, Khamenei gave an overview of achievements and events that had taken place since the revolution and a set of recommendations to the Iranian people, especially the youth.

Khamenei acknowledged regarding the situation of “justice and confronting corruption” in the country: “I explicitly say that there is a wide gap between what has happened and what should happen.”

He said of Iran’s support for regional proxies: “If back then the West’s problem was stopping Iran from purchasing basic weaponry, today its problem is the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran to resistance forces.”

Khamenei also called the United States and some European states “cowardly and untrustworthy.” He dismissed the idea of negotiations with the United States, proclaiming: “No issues can be resolved and other than moral and material harms nothing will come out of negotiations [with the U.S.].”

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Suicide Bomber Targets Bus Carrying IRGC Soldiers

On February 13th, a suicide bomber killed 27 and wounded 13 in an attack on a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) soldiers in southwestern Iran. The bomber drove a car full of explosives into the bus, which was travelling to the city of Zahedan. The Wahhabi-Salafist “Jaish al-Adl”—a group with a history of engaging in such terrorist attacks—claimed responsibility.

In a statement, IRGC commander Mojtaba Fada said that those killed were all from Isfahan province. He said the funeral for the soldiers would be Saturday.

Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the bombing on Iran’s regional rivals. He stated: “The connection is certain between the perpetrators of this criminal act and the spy agencies of some regional countries.” He added that the “responsible [Iranian] agencies” have been instructed to “focus” on this connection and “seriously pursue it.”

President Rouhani also linked the attack to “the White House, Tel Aviv, and their regional cronies.”

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Workers Write to International Labor Group for Support

On February 13th, the Iran-based “Confederation of Free Workers” wrote a letter to the International Labour Organization calling on the head of the organization to press the Iranian government to “unconditionally release imprisoned labor activists.” The letter specifically pointed to the labor activists Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, members of the confederation who were arrested in January. (More on their case in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

The confederation underscored a “new trend in repressing laborers” inside Iran. The letter cited the case of imprisoned labor activists Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati and noted that 40 workers belonging to the Ahvaz Steel Company remain imprisoned.

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FATF Debate Coming to a Head

On February 16th, the Expediency Discernment Council is expected to reach its final decision regarding a bill introduced by the Rouhani administration to reform Iran’s anti-money laundering laws. The bill is part of a set of legislation designed to bring Iran into compliance with standards set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. The Expediency Discernment Council decision will come as the FATF deadline for Iran to reform its banking sector looms at the end of February. (For more background on the contentious domestic debate on the FATF bills, see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi recently sparked controversy after saying that the Expediency Discernment Council would be responsible for any consequences resulting from rejecting the FATF legislation. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the body’s standards. Vaezi had stated: “If the FATF legislation isn’t passed, pressure on us will increased. If the Expediency Discernment Council doesn’t approve these bills, it should accept the results of this action.”

On February 11th, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran as the main conservative presidential candidate in 2017 challenging Rouhani and heads the influence Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation, dismissed the importance of Iran passing the FATF bills. He stated: “Some state that if we don’t want to give an excuse to the enemy, we should sign these agreements and conventions. Who can guarantee that if we sign, the enemy will stop its excuses? Wasn’t the nuclear issue an excuse?”

He added: “The only solution with respect to the enemy has been steadfastness and resistance. This is an important signal and symbol to give the enemy.”

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Announcement on New Judiciary Chief Imminent

Iran’s judiciary spokesperson Gholam-Hossein Eje’i has stated that the new head of the judiciary—replacing incumbent Sadegh Larijani—will be appointed by the end of the current Iranian year (March 21st). Eje’I said: “God willing the new head of the judiciary branch will be introduced and begin work before the end of the year and before the start of the new year.”

According to some Iranian media reports, hardline 2017 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will replace Sadegh Larijani as Iran’s judiciary chief on March 15th, securing one of the Islamic Republic’s most senior posts.

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President Rouhani Attends Syria Peace Talks in Russia

On February 14th, President Rouhani joined Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan for the fourth round of “Astana-process” Syria peace talks in Sochi. According to Iranian media outlets, Rouhani called on the international community to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and to support reconstruction efforts in Syria. He also said that the presence of foreign troops, namely American forces, remain in Syria “without the invitation of the [Syrian] government” and that this must “end as soon as possible.”

Rouhani said of the Astana process: “Our cooperation has managed to greatly diminish the fires of war and merciless killing that had overtaken Syria for years. Dialogue between the various sides has seen [political] differences substitute guns and bullets. Today, after over seven years since the start of the crisis, in most of this country there is security and stability except for a small part of the country.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Travels to Lebanon

On February 11th, Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Lebanon for a two-day visit and met with figures ranging from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In his meeting with Hariri, the prime minister called on Iran to release Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and information technology expert arrested and accused of being a U.S. spy in 2015.

 

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Supreme Leader Calls for “Structural Reforms”

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

Rouhani and Foreign Ministry Respond to Trump’s State of the Union

On February 5th, President Rouhani responded to comments by President Trump that the U.S. would keep a base in Iraq to be “looking a little bit at Iran.” He said to Trump: “You say in a degrading and non-diplomatic way that we [the U.S.] will stay in Iraq. Before this, you said we were in Iraq to confront terrorism, but it’s good that you have said what’s in your heart now.”

Rouhani also asserted that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan was not aimed at confronting terrorism, stating: “Why do you need to occupy a country if you have an air force? Why do you lie? You are there [Afghanistan] to be vigilant of the power of Russia, China, and Iran.”

On February 6th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi responded to President Trump’s State of the Union comments that Iran was the “world’s leading state sponsor of terror” and “threatens genocide against the Jewish people.” He stated Trump’s remarks were “baseless, fantastical, and irrational.”

Ghassemi added regarding Iran’s Jewish population: “Religious minorities including Jewish people in the Islamic Republic of Iran live under full freedom and have an independent member of parliament.”

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Iran and Europe to Discuss INSTEX in Paris

According to ISNA, technical meetings are due to take place soon in Paris between Iran and the three European states launching INSTEX. The Iranian delegation will be led by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. INSTEX was launched last week as a mechanism to facilitate trade with Iran. Read more about it in a previous Iran Unfiltered.

INSTEX has been met with criticism from conservative quarters. Mohammad Dehghan, a member of the parliament’s conservative Vilayi faction, has said INSTEX is a “trap” Europe has designed in coordination with the United States.

Others, such as former foreign ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Asafi, have criticized its limited scope in dealing only with humanitarian goods. Asafi has stated: “Definitely the expectation is that this mechanism will include broader goods” and will not be “limited to these three European countries.”

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Ayatollah Khamenei Orders “Structural Reforms” Within Four Months

On February 6th, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani stated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei had given an “order to reform the country’s structure” within the next four months. Larijani stated: “He has ordered that within the next four months structures in the country be reformed. This may lead to reforming the national budget [for the upcoming Iranian year], which will be pursued after work on the budget in the parliament is completed.”

Larijani provided no further details of the instruction but stated: “In this regard domestic consensus and international unity are the key requirements of domestic politics.”

Amir Hossein Qazizadeh, a member of the parliament’s governing body, has said the order “doesn’t have to do with reforming the country.” Instead, he says, it has to do with “reforming the structure of the budget.”

Qazizadeh also recounted Ayatollah Khamenei’s response to questions from parliamentarians on the timeline for budget reforms. He said of Khamenei’s response: “I will give you four months to do everything you can to provide a budget bill for 1398 [the upcoming Iranian year]. On the matters that you don’t get to, you can add as amendments in Ordibehest (Iranian month between April 21-May 21).”

The Rouhani administration submitted its national budget bill to parliament for approval on January 5th. On February 4th, the parliament’s commission on consolidating the budget completed its technical review of the bill, which included adding amendments. The rest of the parliament now has ten days to give their suggestions on the budget bill.

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Rouhani Suggests Iran Would Deal with “Repentant” United States

On February 6th, President Rouhani suggested before an audience of foreign ambassadors and diplomats in Tehran that Iran would deal with a “repentant” United States. Rouhani stated that the U.S. was an “oathbreaker” and that Iran had “proven in these years that it’s precise when it comes to signing commitments” and that it “stands by its signature.”

Rouhani dangled the possibility of engaging the United States: “If America reverses course on its wrong path and apologizes for its past interventions and talks with respect with our people, we are ready to accept its repentance.”

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Ayatollah Khamenei’s Office Details Conditions for Clemency of Prisoners

On February 7th, Ayatollah Khamenei released details on the conditions for granting clemency to prisoners on occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Every year, on the occasion of religious holidays or government celebrations, some prisoners are granted clemency. However, judiciary chief Sadegh Larijani has said a higher amount—upwards of 50,000 prisoners—will be pardoned for the revolution’s upcoming anniversary. The conditions released by Khamenei’s office include stipulations for either commuting the sentences of prisoners or releasing them.

In response to speculation on whether political prisoners would be freed, Larijani has said that “we have no convicted detainees who are political prisoners.” He added: “If someone commits actions against national security, this is a separate criminal offense that must be addressed.” According to DW Farsi, there are currently hundreds of prisoners charged under offenses such as “actions against national security, propagandizing against the political system, and disturbing public sentiment.”  

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Nuclear Chief Says Iran Willing to Share Nuclear Knowledge, Clarifies Arak Reactor Remarks

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, stated that Iran is willing to share its knowledge of nuclear power and constructing research reactors with neighboring countries. Salehi said such cooperation can be grounds for rebuilding trust between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors.

Salehi also stated that Iran was conducting experiments on advanced IR-8 centrifuges, which he said would take five to six years. He added: “Our activities are within the framework of the nuclear agreement, in which there is no limitation on research on modern centrifuges.”

Salehi also expanded on his controversial recent comments that Iran had bought replacement parts for its Arak heavy water reactor during the nuclear negotiations. He stated that Iran had not bought the “tubes” secretly but had notified its negotiating partners, who were told Iran needed them as potential replacements in case the other side reneged on the JCPOA.

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Oil Minister Says Conditions Harsher than Iran-Iraq War

On February 5th, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Zangeneh said that current U.S. sanctions are “more difficult” than the Iran-Iraq War. He stated: “I grasped the Imposed War (Iran-Iraq War). But this war [U.S. sanctions] is more difficult. He added: “We will use all of our capabilities and utilize all paths possible” to overcome oil sanctions.

Zangeneh further stated that Iran is having trouble selling oil to Europe and receiving payments from Iraq:  “Europeans except for Turkey have not bought oil. Greece and Italy have waivers to buy Iranian oil but haven’t done so. I don’t know why, they don’t reply to us.” He added that Iraq owes Iran $2 billion for gas and electricity imports but that Iraq says “Iran is sanctioned and they won’t pay us.”

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Iran and Iraq Reach Agreement to Facilitate Payments

On February 6th, the head of Iran’s Central Bank announced that he had reached a “mechanism” with his Iraqi counterpart for Iraqi debts to be paid. Iranian Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemati had travelled to Baghdad for negotiations. He stated: “An agreement on a mechanism for Iraq to pay for electricity and gas and other goods was reached.”

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Syrian FM & UN Envoy in Tehran Ahead of Sochi Talks

On February 5th, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Geir Pedersen, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Syria, travelled to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials. Their visit comes before trilateral talks between Iran, Turkey, and Russia in Sochi on February 14th as part of the Astana Syria peace process.

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Security Council Head Warns Israel of Retaliation

On February 5th, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, said that if Israeli attacks in Syria continue, Israel would face a “resolute and appropriate response.” He stated: “If these actions continue, the measures that have been predicted for deterrence and responding resolutely and appropriately will be activated such that it would be a lesson for the lying and criminal leaders of Israel.”

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Concerns Mount Over Condition of Imprisoned Labor Activists

On February 4th, the Telegram channel of the Haft Tapeh factory workers said they haven’t had contact with detained activist Sepideh Gholian for some time. The channel also said that the condition of labor leader Esmail Bakhshi was “very terrible” and that he hadn’t been released despite posting bail. (More on the rearrests of Bakhshi and Gholian in a previous Iran Unfiltered.)

On February 3rd, Haft Tapeh factory worker and activist Mohammad Khanifar was arrested. The Haft Tapeh Telegram channel has announced that it will stage a demonstration calling for the release of Bakhshi and Gholian.

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Attack in Western City of Khorramabad Kills One

On February 6th, a conscripted Iranian soldier was killed and a police officer wounded in an attack by unknown assailants in Khorramabad in western Iran. The attackers also fired on a fuel tanker at a gas station, causing an explosion that shattered the windows of nearby buildings.

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India and Russia Sign MOU on North-South Corridor Including Iran

On February 5th, India and Russia signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to expedite the creation of the International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC) to facilitate trade via Iran. The project aims to connect St. Petersburg and northern Europe with the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. The MOU was signed between a Russian railways company and India’s largest rail container transport operator.

The North-South Corridor has strategic significance for Iran. Former diplomat and MP Nasrollah Tajik wrote on the project in Etemad newspaper, stating: “The implementation of this corridor, which has been delayed for years … will give a unique role to involved countries to develop Eurasia economically.”

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Parliament Approves New Health Minister

On February 4th, parliament confirmed President Rouhani’s choice for new health minister, Saeed Namaki. The previous minister of health had resigned in January over spending cuts to health insurance programs in next year’s national budget.

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Iran Tepidly Welcomes European Mechanism for Sanctions Relief

Week of January 28, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Note from the editor: There was no Iran Unfiltered last week because author Sina Toossi took part in an expert briefing on Capitol Hill. See a write-up of the event here.

This week, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, rebuked China for slowing down its efforts at redesigning Iran’s Arak Heavy Water reactor as required by the JCPOA. He also announced advances in increasing Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry was lukewarm on the EU’s launch of its long-awaited “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate trade with Iran, now dubbed “INSTEX” (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges). Conservative officials, including former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and powerful cleric Ahmad Jannati, have issued strong warnings against relying on the West.

Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council continued to debate bills designed to bring Iran into compliance with the guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. Some officials have noted that the matter may be resolved in a popular referendum. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the National Security Council, also said that Iran won’t increase the range of its missiles as per its “defense doctrine.”

President Rouhani, meanwhile, has called on the public to blame America, not his administration, for the impasse between the two countries. He also strongly rebuked the Iranian government’s longstanding policy of blocking Internet sites and applications. His communication minister further stated that Friday Prayer leaders wish to remove the ban on the popular messaging app Telegram and denied rumors that Instagram would be blocked.

On the foreign policy front, President Rouhani’s first Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, to discuss Syrian reconstruction efforts among other issues. Foreign Minister Zarif also censured the UAE for clamping down on Iranian traders amid reports that Iran’s trade with Oman and Qatar is increasing. A senior analyst at a Rouhani administration-linked think tank also gave a far-reaching interview on the importance of the JCPOA for Iran and America’s posture in the Middle East.

In human rights-related developments, two prominent political prisoners, including an activist who wrote a letter rebuking the Trump administration’s Iran policy, were sentenced to six-years imprisonment. Two activists that were arrested in recent labor protests, Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, have been rearrested after state television aired their “confessions.” An investigative journalist who uncovered an embezzlement scheme was also sentenced to five years in prison, while two members of a pro-labor group have been arrested. Meanwhile, a University of Melbourne demographer arrested in December has been released from prison, while the trial of eight environmentalist activists arrested last January has begun.

 

Nuclear Chief Rebukes China, Announces Nuclear Advances

On January 30th, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, stated that China has reduced the “speed” of its cooperation with Iran over renovating the Arak Heavy Water reactor in line with JCPOA requirements. Salehi said that Chinese cooperation over the Arak reactor slowed after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA last May because of China’s “fear” of U.S. sanctions.

Salehi said Iran had notified China that it was prepared to redesign the Arak reactor itself. He stated: “We announced to them [the Chinese], if they don’t continue construction on the Arak reactor, we ourselves will continue the work.” Salehi added that “we have prepared ourselves for the worst scenario … The responsibility for the reactor’s design is with Iran and roughly 900 specialists are working on the renovation project.”

Salehi also said Iran had created the infrastructure necessary to increase its uranium enrichment capacity, in line with an instruction from Ayatollah Khamenei last May. He proclaimed: “We have taken all the steps to have the capability of reaching 190,000 SWU (a unit measuring uranium enrichment capacity).”

Salehi discussed a new centrifuge production hall in the Natanz enrichment facility that has been built as part of efforts to attain a 190,000 SWU capability. He stated: “Right now, in this facility, we produce IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. This facility can nominally hold between 50-60 centrifuges.”

He added regarding Iran’s centrifuge models: “Right now, IR-4 and IR-2 centrifuges have reached the stage of mass production. Iran is now experimenting on IR-6 and IR-7 centrifuges.”

On January 30th, Iranian authorities also announced that 30 tons of mined uranium “yellowcake” have been transported to Iran’s uranium hexafluoride conversion facility in Isfahan. Salehi said of Iran’s yellowcake production facility in the city of Ardakan: “On an annual basis this factory converts 84 thousand tons of uranium ore to yellowcake. In the past two years, this factory has been upgraded, and in the past one and a half years, on an experiential basis, it has produced 40 tons of yellowcake.”

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Foreign Ministry Tepidly Welcomes EU Sanctions Relief Mechanism

On February 1st, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi discussed the EU’s launch of INSTEX to facilitate trade with Iran. He stated: “Iran’s requests that Europe implement all of its commitments in the shortest amount of time that is possible.”

Ghassemi said INSTEX’s launch was “just the first step by Europe to implement its commitments to Iran.” He stated that INSTEX’s launch was “very late” and stressed that the EU must ensure that the mechanism “compensates for some of America’s illegal sanctions.”

He added that Iran had not received sanctions relief from Europe since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA: “Despite the EU’s political position regarding preserving the JCPOA and the need for Iran to derive economic benefits from the deal and the limited steps taken by the EU such as updated its blocking regulation laws, unfortunately we have not witnessed yet tangible results and practical actions that benefit Iran.”

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Former Chief Nuclear Negotiator Cautions Iran Against Relying on Europe

On February 1st, Saeed Jalili, the conservative former chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the National Security Council, warned against Iran trusting Europe. He stated: “Those would want to stand up against Americans by relying on Europe are on the wrong path.”

He added regarding U.S.-Iran negotiations: “Some say we should take excuses away from the enemy. However, an enemy that is after excuses will move against us regardless.”

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Powerful Conservative Cleric Denounces Officials Who Look to the West

On February 1st, hardline cleric Ayatollah Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council and chair of the Assembly of Experts, censured officials seeking to improve ties with the West. He stated: “Unfortunately, some officials today, more than thinking about the people think about themselves or do not have the capability to fix problems. Today we see that many officials are materialistic. God damn this wrong thinking that some officials have which believes that the West and the Americans can solve our problems.”

He added: “The American government is declining and today even its allies don’t listen to its words and aren’t afraid of it. We shouldn’t show fear towards America.”

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Debate on FATF Bills Continues in Expediency Discernment Council

The domestic fight over Iran passing laws to align its banking sector with FATF standards continues in the Expediency Discernment Council. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the standards (see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered for more information on the contentious FATF debate).

Of the four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet the FATF standards, two have been approved by the parliament and Guardian Council, while the other two are still in limbo. The bill on reforming Iran’s laws on anti-money laundering (AML) and confronting terrorism financing have been passed. However, while parliament accepted the other two bills on Iran acceding to the terrorist financing (TF) convention and Palermo conventions, both bills were rejected by the Guardian Council.

The TF and Palermo convention bills have been under debate in the Expediency Discernment Council—a body constitutionally mandated with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and parliament. Recently, Ahmad Vahidi, the head of the Expediency Discernment Council’s political-defense committee, stated that “if the Palermo bill reaches a dead end in the expediency council, it will be put up for a vote by the public.”

Most of the opponents of the terrorist financing and Palermo bills are political opponents of the Rouhani administration. Vahidi himself has stated that the goal of getting Iran to accede to these conventions is to weaken Iran’s “defense and atomic strength.”

However, on January 28th, Expediency Council member Majid Ansari predicted that the Palermo bill would be approved by the council. He said that although a referendum is an option in the event of a deadlock, it wouldn’t be necessary because the bills would be “resolved” in the Expediency Council.

According to Ansari, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a prominent conservative figure, supports the FATF bills. Ansari says that Jalili called for the bills to be passed in a handwritten letter.

Ansari also asserted that the FATF debate was being manipulated. He opined: “A suspicious current is taking advantage of the pure and real emotions and concerns of the faithful, young people, and students, in order to take this issue out of its natural path.” He added that he has received death threats via text message, just as parliamentarians did during their debate on the FATF bills.

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National Secretary Council Secretary Says Iran Won’t Increase Range of Missiles

On January 29th, National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani declared that Iran had “no intention” of increasing the range of its missiles. Shamkhani stressed that the reason for this had to do with Iran’s “defense doctrine” and that otherwise, Iran has the capability to increase the range of its missiles.

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Rouhani Blames America for Economic Woes

On January 30th, President Rouhani gave a speech denouncing U.S. pressure policies. He stated: “In America’s recent confrontation with the Iranian people, which began last January (2018), it has been defeated politically, legally, and on the regional and international fronts. On the economic front, with self-sacrifice and steadfastness from the people, they will be certainly defeated as well.”

Rouhani stated that the U.S., not Iran, is isolated: “The whole world, except for a few countries, is supporting Iran and accusing the United States. America has not only been unreliable towards the Iranian people, we shouldn’t analyze things incorrectly.”

Rouhani stressed that the U.S. government is to blame for the current impasse, not his administration: “Today we shouldn’t lay accusations at the hardworking government of the Islamic system instead of America. The U.S. also broke its commitments regarding Europe, China, NAFTA, and against Muslims and Palestinians … the mistakes of America aren’t two or three. No one should say that Iran’s government didn’t have foresight. The criteria for making a commitment isn’t this, it’s not how long the other party stays. The core of our commitment [under the JCPOA] was in the interests of the country and still is today.”

Rouhani then stated that the level of economic pressure on Iran today is greater than at any point since the 1979 Revolution: “The government, people and the guidance of the Leader, can altogether help us overcome all problems. At this moment, the greatest economic pressure of the past 40 years since the revolution is being exerted on the Iranian people. But with unity we will overcome all these problems.”

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Rouhani Rebukes Policy of Blocking Websites as Futile

On January 21st, President Rouhani gave a speech during which he discussed freedom of speech and the futility of blocking websites. He stated to an audience of managers from the communications ministry that fighting “public demands” was neither “legal nor legitimate.”

Rouhani added: “In the country, we don’t have free media. There is only state media. To have freer access to information, the people seek access to social media. We are thus seeing an inflated use cell phones and social media.”

Rouhani said that groups of different persuasions in Iran need their own media. He stated: “If different groups in the country have their own radio and television stations, they would express themselves through these mediums. This would naturally reduce the inflated use of mobiles and social media.”

Rouhani further said that every faction in Iran needs a media outlet. He stated that if each expressed their positions “officially and openly,” it would be become clear “who says what and who supports which party or faction.”

Rouhani then stated that the Iranian government’s policy of blocking internet sites and applications was a “mistake.” He stated: “We have to admit that we made a mistake in thinking that if we say using such and such medium is prohibited, everyone would listen. We saw that every time after blocking different mediums, methods to work around these blocks were created … at the end, the damage done especially to our youth and children from using workarounds has been greater than if they would have been able to naturally use the software that we blocked.”

In May 2018, six Rouhani administration ministers and two parliamentarians who serve on the “Committee for Identifying Criminal Content,” wrote a letter to Iran’s attorney general asking for Twitter to be unblocked. The decision to block or restrict access to websites and applications is made by either this committee or the judiciary. The judiciary blocked the popular messaging application Telegram last year.

The “Committee for Identifying Criminal Content” is comprised of 12 members and headed by the attorney general. The members consist of six government ministers, two members of parliament, the chief of police, the head of the Islamic Propagation Organization, the head of the state media organization, and a representative from the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution—a Qom-based cultural body.

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Communications Minister Says Friday Prayer Leaders Want Telegram Unblocked, Denies Rumors of Looming Instagram Ban

On January 28th, Communications and Information Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi stated that Friday Prayer leaders across Iran have called for the popular-messaging application Telegram to be unblocked. Telegram was blocked last May with an order from the Iranian judiciary, despite opposition from the Rouhani administration. Jahromi said that despite opposition from Friday prayer leaders, the judiciary was unwilling to remove the ban.

Jahromi stated: “The judiciary as the main decision maker in this regard is still holding on to its position and we see no change in the judiciary’s beliefs on this issue. They believe that the reasons for ban still exist and haven’t been resolved for it to be lifted.”

Jahromi also denied rumors that Instagram would be blocked. Jahromi made his statement on Twitter after conservative MP Javad Karimi Ghodousi said that “blocking Instagram is the decision of the government and the minister of communications told me himself he would soon carry this out.”

Jahromi contradicted Ghodousi, stating: “The view of one institution is not the view of the government. No order has been given to the administration to block Instagram.”

Over the past month, there have been several contradicting accounts by officials that Instagram would be blocked. Weeks ago, Javad Javidinia, the social media deputy for Iran’s attorney general, claimed there was a judicial order to block Instagram.

However, Mohammad Ali Sajani, a member of a parliamentary oversight body, dismissed Javidnia’s remark. He said that according to the attorney general, Instagram would not be blocked.

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Vice-President Jahangiri Meets with Bashar al-Assad

On January 28th, President Rouhani’s first-vice president Eshaq Jahangiri travelled to Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Jahangiri was accompanied by a delegation of senior Iranian officials and businesspeople.

Jahangiri said of his trip: “Great agreements have been reached in the direction of advancing cooperation between our two countries. These agreements prove that the Islamic Republic will stand with the Syrian government and people in their reconstruction efforts just as it stood with them during the period of confronting terrorism.”

He added: “The prerequisite for economic cooperation is banking cooperation. For this reason, during this trip, agreements have been reached between central bank heads of our two countries.”

Syrian President Assad said that the agreements signed with Iran had “strategic significance” and “reinforce the two countries’ resistance and perseverance against the economic war being waged by some Western countries.” He added: “After the complete liberation of Syria, reconstruction will become the most important priority of the Syrian government. We desire broader cooperation with Iranian government and private companies in different areas.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Rebukes the UAE as Iranian Trade with Oman and Qatar Increases

On January 28th, Foreign Minister Zarif sharply rebuked Emirati policies towards Iran in response to criticism that the foreign ministry was not reacting to an Emirati clampdown on Iranian traders and currency dealers. He said that “because of political and strategic mistakes of Emirati officials, the Emiratis entered the level of behaving in an unacceptable way.”

Zarif stated that Iran was exploring countermeasures, stating that the “approach being taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran, in addition to diplomatic steps, is to create the necessary opening points for countries that can replace the Emirates [as a major Iranian trade partners] and finding alternative methods so that we maintain our economic relations without worry of Emirati actions.”

According to reports, many Iranian traders have left the UAE for Oman and Qatar. While the UAE used to be Iran’s largest training partner, it has been replaced in recent years by China. According to official Iranian statistics, the UAE’s exports to Iran in the past nine months has dropped by 29 percent to under $5 billion. In contrast, Iran’s imports from Oman in the past nine months have increased nearly threefold, reaching $400 million.

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Rouhani Administration-linked Analyst Discusses Importance of JCPOA

On January 13th, Diako Hosseini, the director of the World Studies Program at the Rouhani administration-linked Center for Strategic Studies think tank in Tehran, discussed the importance of the JCPOA and America’s posture in the Middle East. He stated: “I don’t think America is worried about Iran leaving the JCPOA, but it is in fact eagerly counting down for Iran to do this … I believe that the main aim of America’s economic and political pressures against Iran is to make Iran tired and incentivize [it] to leave the nuclear deal.”

Hosseini asserted that the U.S. wishes to reduce its presence in the Middle East but had to balance this aim with maintaining its credibility with allies. He stated: “The Trump administration knows well that America no longer has far-reaching interests in this region and must, as quickly as possible, readjust its military and economic focus to another vital area, the Asia Pacific.”

He added: “However, this action requires gaining confidence that a gradual reduction of America’s presence in the Persian Gulf and West Asia will not create a power vacuum and doesn’t lead to the creation of challenging and hostile powers [to the U.S.], which would threaten U.S. allies and ultimately destroy Washington’s credibility in supporting its allies.”

Hosseini also contended that U.S. efforts to create international consensus against Iran would not be successful. He stated: “Naturally, Pompeo’s trip to the region is a continuation of efforts to create international consensus against Iran. Successfully creating international consensus against Iran to a large degree hinges on first successfully creating regional consensus against Iran.”

He continued: “America must prove that Iran is really a regional danger and that international consensus to help U.S. regional allies against the Iranian threat is necessary. This is not an easy task because Iran in reality is not a threat to its neighbors and because it seems that Iran’s neighbors do not agree on an Iranian threat.”

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Labor Activists Rearrested

On January 20th, activist Sepideh Gholian was arrested again in Ahvaz. Gholian was first arrested in November in connection to the labor protests led by workers from the Hafte Tapeh sugarcane factory and from Ahvaz Steel company.

According to a Hafte Tapeh media channel, security forces entered Gholian’s family home to detain her without an arrest warrant. After a physical confrontation with her brother, both Gholian and her brother were arrested.

BBC Persian reported that an audio clip has been released of Gholian from the time of her first arrest, in which she tells an intelligence official that she would commit suicide if her “confession” was released publicly. On January 26th, Iranian state TV aired the “confessions” of Gholian and labor leader Esmail Bakhshi.

Bakhshi was also re-arrested on January 20th.  As detailed previous issues of Iran Unfiltered, Bakhshi’s torture allegation spurred outcry, investigations, and eventual denials from officials that he had been tortured.

In the aftermath Bakhshi’s rearrest, 21 Iranian judiciary lawyers wrote a letter emphasizing that Bakhshi could not receive a fair trial in Shush. The lawyers said that given Bakhshi claims of having been tortured while in the custody of authorities in Shush, the court would not be a neutral party.

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Political Prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan Handed Six-Year Sentences

On January 19th, Abolqasem Salavati, the head judge of Tehran’s infamous Revolutionary Court Branch 15, handed out six-year sentences against political prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan. Their lawyer says the ruling is not final and that they will appeal it. A previous issue of Iran Unfiltered detailed a letter by Meysami rebuking both the Trump administration’s Iran policy and Revolutionary Court Branch 15.

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Investigative Journalist Sentenced to Five-Years Imprisonment

On January 23rd, investigative journalist Yashar Soltani was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Two years ago, Soltani had released a report documenting corruption in the Tehran municipality related to giving away government property for political purposes.

According to his lawyer, the charges include “collecting and publishing classified information related to the Judiciary’s General Inspection Office and publishing false information with the aim of disturbing public sentiment.” Soltani has 20 days to appeal his sentence.

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University of Melbourne Professor Released from Prison

On January 27th, Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a demography professor at the University of Melbourne arrested in December, was released. As covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered, Hosseini-Chavoshi was arrested under charges of “infiltration,” i.e. being a foreign agent seeking to engineer “soft regime change” by changing the Islamic Republic from within.

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Two Members of a Pro-Labor Group Arrested

On January 29th, the “Confederation of Free Workers” announced in a statement that Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, respectively the secretary and member of the managing committee of the confederation, have been arrested. Azimzadeh was previously arrested in 2016 and was released after undertaking a two-month hunger strike. Mohammadi had in recent months written articles condemning the government’s reaction to protests by the Hafte Tapeh factory and Ahvaz Steel workers.

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Trial of Detained Environmentalists Begins

On January 30th, Iranian outlets reported that the trial of eight environmentalists arrested last January has begun in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 15, under judge Abolqasem Salavati. Read about the case of the detained environmentalists in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, the lawyer for one of the defendants, said that he wasn’t given permission to be in the court because the judiciary had chosen its own lawyers for the suspects. Aghassi said that the charges against four of the defendants was “sowing corruption on Earth,” a capital offense in Iran. Three others were charged with espionage, and one with “acting against national security.”

Aghassi added: “The actions that some of these suspects have committed was approaching military facilities as they were doing environmental activities and gathering military information from these areas.”

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Hardline Official Attacks JCPOA as Sanctions Relief Channel Looms

Week of January 14, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Ahmad Jannati, the powerful secretary of the Guardian Council and chairman of the Assembly of Experts, criticized the Rouhani administration this week for not withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Jannati referenced a 2016 declaration by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei stating that Iran would “burn” the JCPOA in response to a U.S. violation. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, also stated that Iran is ready and able to increase its level of uranium enrichment and stockpile of enriched uranium. Jannati and Salehi’s remarks come amid growing frustration in Iran over European efforts to launch a “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran. However, the official IRNA news agency this week cited a “senior European spokesperson” as saying that the SPV was on the “eve of its launch.”

In other news, Iran ignored U.S. warnings and conducted a satellite launch, though the satellite failed to reach Earth’s orbit. The commander of the Revolutionary Guards said in response to comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iranian military “advisors” would remain in Syria. Iran is reportedly also ending narcotics and refugee cooperation with Europe after new EU sanctions and news that Poland would host a U.S. summit on Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif also travelled to Iraq and lambasted what he said was U.S. intervention in the Iran-Iraq relationship. The foreign ministry also denied rumors regarding Iran withdrawing from the JCPOA and Foreign Minister Zarif resigning and blamed them on “domestic elements.”

On the societal front, several editors of an online pro-labor magazine have been arrested. Imprisoned British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi also ended a three-day hunger strike after prison officials met their demand of seeking medical treatment outside of prison. Officials also continue to deny that labor leader Esmail Bakhshi was tortured, despite contravening accounts by other inmates. In a far-reaching interview, senior Rouhani advisor Hesamodin Ashna discussed last year’s protests and the viability of the Iranian government.

 

Guardian Council Secretary Ahmad Jannati Calls for Leaving JCPOA

On January 17th, Ahmad Jannati, the influential secretary of the Guardian Council and chairman of the Assembly of Experts, criticized officials for not withdrawing from the JCPOA. The conservative cleric stated: “Unfortunately on the JCPOA issue, our country’s officials have not paid attention to the recommendation of the leader of the revolution and to date they have yet to reach any results.”

In June 2016, Ayatollah Khamenei had said that “if the Americans violate the nuclear deal, we will set it on fire.” Jannati stated in this regard: “We must complain to officials about why they haven’t carried out this action. Ultimately, this action has to be taken.”

Jannati also warned against Iran relying on Europe: “Without a doubt the Europeans, if not worse than America, are no better. As such, on the JCPOA issue they are just wasting time. Some of their countries even support the MEK. Trusting Europe is foolish.”

He rebuked Iranian officials who seek to improve U.S.-Iran ties, stating: “According to the leader of the Islamic revolution, America is declining, but still some in our country have their eyes on America [to improve ties]. Today, after many defeats in the region they [the U.S.] have reached a place that to enter Iraq, they have to use a plane with its lights off and cannot receive an official reception.”

Jannati also dismissed concerns of a U.S.-Iran war, stating: “Today, the enemy is not after a military war, but creates division through psychological war and with weaponized media.”

Jannati also warned of Iran’s economic troubles. He stated: “The economic situation of some of the people is not in a good state. We must all endeavor to improve this situation. The government [Rouhani administration] must stop excess spending and sell government properties to improve the people’s economic situation. The current economic situation must not create hopelessness in society. If people become hopeless, they will no longer be vigilant.”

Jannati also seemed to weigh against efforts to further clamp down on social media and block Instagram in Iran. He stated: “Social media is like a double-edged razor. We must use it cautiously. At the beginning of the revolution, there were some who opposed using radios and television. But we’ve been able to use such media to get the correct benefits.”

He added: “Experts on social media believe that such a medium can be used to the benefit of the revolution and Islam. So we should enter this arena with a revolutionary and jihadi mindset.”

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Nuclear Chief Says Iran Can Restart 20-percent Enrichment in Days

On January 15th, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, stated that Iran was ready to increase its uranium enrichment activities. He stated: “If we want, we can increase our level of uranium enrichment and stockpile of enriched uranium immediately.”

Salehi stressed that Iran currently has no practical need for 20-percent enriched fuel or large stockpiles of enriched uranium. He stated: “Right now, we have no need for 20-percent enriched uranium. We have saved enough to last several years, and if we produce more we will have to save it.”

He added in this regard: “If we want, we can remove the 300 kg amount [JCPOA limit on Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile]. Right now, our operations are such that we don’t reach 300 kg, but if we leave the JCPOA we can go beyond this amount and use it to convert into fuel for the Arak reactor.”

Earlier, on January 13th, Salehi had stated that Iran had created “designs for modern 20-percent enriched fuel to use in the Tehran Research Reactor” (TRR). He stated that the TRR has operated on old fuel but that the more modern fuel would increase the reactor’s efficiency.

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IRNA Cites European Spokesperson as Saying SPV Launch Imminent

On January 17th, the official IRNA news agency cited a “spokesperson for the European Union” as saying that Europe’s “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) is on the “eve of its launch.” IRNA stated that the official wished to remain anonymous.

The European spokesperson said the EU was committed to preserving financial ties, stating: “To preserve the JCPOA, the EU has pursued robust solutions. We updated our blocking regulations law. The European parties to the nuclear deal are also committed to preserving effective financial channels with Iran, especially regarding creating a special new financial channel. The SPV is now in its final stage before launch.”

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Satellite Launch Fails

On January 15th, Minister of Information and Communications Technology Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi announced that an attempted satellite launch had failed. Jahromi said in a tweet that the satellite, named “Payam” (message), successfully completed the first two stages of its launch, but did not attain sufficient speed to reach Earth’s orbit in its third stage. The satellite was launched by Iran’s carrier rocket Simorgh.

Amir Motamadi, the head of Amir Kabir University where the Payam satellite was created, stated regarding the lauch’s failure: “The launch vehicle that was supposed to give the satellite velocity had a problem and it might be related to the fuel.”

Motamedi stated that the satellite had no issues with respect to path of its launch and flight. He stated: “Based on instructions from the minister of communication, the process of designing and building the next version of this satellite, to be named ‘Payam 2,’ has begun based on the technical knowledge we have now gained and it will be completed in less than a year.”

Iran had proceeded with the launch despite warnings from the U.S. government. The Trump administration claims that Iran’s space rocket launches violate UN Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal but also “calls upon” Iran to not test ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Iranian officials reject the U.S. charge.

Jahromi further announced that he is hopeful the launch of Iran’s next satellite, named “Doosti” (friendship), would be successful.

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IRGC Commander Says Military “Advisors” to Remain in Syria

On January 16th, Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, declared that Iranian military advisors would remain in Syria. He stated: “We will preserve all of the military and revolutionary advisors and all the equipment and weapons that we have given to train and empower the fighters of the Islamic resistance and to support the oppressed Syrian people in this Islamic country (Syria).”

Jafari’s remarks were framed as response to recent comments by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Iranian military forces must leave Syria or would face increased Israeli attacks. Jafari said to Netanyahu: “Be certain that we don’t take your ridiculous threat seriously at all. Know that you are playing with the tail of a lion. Be afraid of the day that the roar of Iran’s precision-guided missiles land on your head and the spilt blood of all of the oppressed Muslims of the region is avenged.”

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Iran Scales Back Cooperation with Europe

Reports circulated in Iranian media that Iran plans to cease its cooperation with Europe in the areas of confronting drug trafficking and refugees. This was framed in Iranian media reports as a response to increasing hostility from Europe in recent months, including Denmark, Holland, and Albania expelling Iranian diplomats, Germany detaining an Iranian diplomat, and EU sanctions against an Iranian intelligence agency.

On January 17th, a Polish newspaper reported that Iran would stop issuing tourist visas to Polish people in response to the announcement that  Warsaw would host a U.S. summit on Iran in February. However, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi denied the report.

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Chief of Staff of Armed Forces Visits Azerbaijan

On January 15th, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, traveled to Azerbaijan. He went with a delegation of high-level military officials for meetings with the Azerbaijani prime minister, defense minister, and other senior officials.

After meeting the Azeri defense minister, Bagheri stated: “The current depth of ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Azerbaijan Republic does not match the capabilities of both states. As such, each side must strive to enhance ties.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Travels to Iraq

On January 17th, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif criticized what he said was U.S. interference in the Iran-Iraq relationship. During a trip to Iraq, Zarif stated that the U.S. had “no right” to interfere in the relationship between the two countries.

Zarif stated amid his visit to Iraq: “We can’t allow those who have no interest in improving our conditions prevent an Iran-Iraq relationship.”

He said of the Iran-Iraq relationship: “Our relations are not artificial, we are each other’s brothers. This is the longest trip that I’ve had to a country and this is emblematic of the unique relationship between our two peoples and countries.”

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Foreign Ministry Denies Zarif Resignation & JCPOA Withdrawal Rumors

On January 12th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi denied rumors that Iran is to withdraw from the JCPOA and Foreign Minister Zarif resign from his post. Ghassemi stated: “It seems to me that elements inside the country with the objective of weakening the position of the foreign ministry and the country’s diplomatic services, given their vital and major role in the country’s current condition … are putting out such fake and incorrect news.”

He added regarding the domestic “elements” spreading these rumors: “These people want to cause chaos and disorder in the market to advance their profit-making interests. By publishing biased and fake news, they want to create a negative atmosphere in the market, but thankfully due to the intelligence of the people, their actions won’t get anywhere.”

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Pro-Labor Magazine Editors Arrested

On January 17th, Amir Amir-Goli, a member of the editorial board of the leftist Gam magazine was reportedly arrested. Amir-Goli’s father confirmed his arrested in an interview with BBC Persian, though it has yet to be officially confirmed. The magazine supported and wrote reports on the recent labor protests by workers of the Hafte Tapeh factory and Ahvaz Steel companies.

Previously, on January 9th, the magazine’s editor-in-chief Amir Hossein Mohammadi-Far and Sanaz Allah-Yari, another member of its editorial board, were arrested. Assal Mohammadi, another member of the magazine’s editorial board, was arrested last month but released earlier this month.

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Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe & Narges Mohammadi End Three-Day Hunger Strike

On January 14th, Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a detained British citizen in Iran, said that his wife’s interrogators offered to release her in December in exchange for her spying for Iran. According to Richard Ratcliffe, “She was told it would be safer for her and safer for her family afterwards if she agreed to do this.”

On January 2nd, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe released a statement together with Narges Mohammadi, an imprisoned human rights activist and lawyer, stating that they would start a three-day hunger strike if their medical needs were not met. They started on the hunger strike on January 14th.

On January 16th, Richard Ratcliffe said his wife and Narges Mohammadi had ended their hunger strike after prison officials agreed to their receiving medical treatment outside of prison.  Richard Ratcliffe also stated that his wife has a tumor in her breast and was losing feeling in her hands and feet. Britain’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt had earlier summoned Iran’s UK Ambassador to protest Ratcliffe’s conditions in prison.

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Labor Leader Torture Controversy Continues

On January 14th, Assal Mohammadi, a civil rights activist recently freed from prison in Ahvaz, wrote on Instagram that she witnessed the “torture” of two detainees while in custody, including labor leader Esmail Bakhshi. (See background on the Bakhshi torture controversy in a previous Iran Unfiltered.)

Mohammadi wrote: “I witnessed the hours-long interrogations of Sepideh Galian. From 10:00am until midnight almost every day this process would repeat. I heard the shouting and insults of her interrogators from the room next door. We witnessed a day where they put so much pressure on her to make a fake confession that she scratched her face and wished for death.”

She said regarding Esmail Bakhshi: “I continuously heard Esmail Bakhshi coughing and having severe shortness of breath from the interrogator’s room and the officers mocking him and saying he was faking. One day, when I went to the prison yard to catch some air, I heard the interrogators shouting and insulting him. I am willing to bear witness to what I saw and heard.”

Upon her release, Sepideh Galian also wrote on her Twitter that she witnessed Bakhshi being “savagely” beaten and his interrogators “humiliating” him.

Mohammadi and Galian’s comment came after various government institutions launched investigations into Bakhshi’s allegation of torture. As covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered, Bakhshi also met with several members of parliament to discuss his treatment while in prison.

Many officials have since dismissed Bakhshi’s allegation of torture. Attorney General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri announced this week: “It has become clear that reports of a worker for the Haft Tapeh factory being tortured were a lie and that there was no beating or torture.”

On January 16th, MP Mohammad Reza Tabesh, the deputy head of the reformist “Hope” coalition in parliament, also said Bakhshi was not tortured. He said: “What we have realized is that Esmail Bakhshi was not tortured.” Tabesh stated that a fight erupted between security officers and Bakhshi as he was being driven to Ahvaz, which caused him injury.

Farzaneh Zilabi, Bakhshi’s lawyer, said in response to officials dismissing Bakhshi’s torture allegation: “These people either don’t know the definition of torture or are fooling themselves.”

She added: “Some seek to limit the period when torture occurred to when Bakhshi was transported to the detention center and restrict punishment to a few police officers. They want to dismantle my client’s case by presenting his confessions as obtained legally.”

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Senior Rouhani Advisor Discusses Protests & Islamic Republic’s Viability

Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, conducted a far-reaching interview with ISNA this week. In it, he discussed the state of the Islamic Republic and the protests that swept parts of the country in late December 2017 and January 2018.

Ashna said regarding how the government should deal with protests: “We have enough experience in this regard to know that using violent methods against the people is neither beneficial nor will it have an impact.”

He added in this regard: “Our impression is that violence begets violence … when the voice of the people can be heard in parliament, in the media, and close to the president, their demands are aggregated, this aggregation creates power, and this power can push forward their demands.”

Ashna said about opposition to the Islamic Republic: “I explicitly say that as long as we have an opposition that is supported by Trump, we feel comfortable that nothing will occur in the country.”

Ashna contended the Iranian people have an aversion to foreign intervention. He stated: “Our experience since the 1953 coup, which has been a national experience, says that our people hate any actions that has support from outside powers.”

He added: “There has always been a very small minority, which still exists, that even during the George W. Bush administration called for Iran to be bombed. These words and claims aren’t new for us and most of society is not moved by such calls.”

Ashna also touched on the question of reformism inside Iran and emphasized the need for consensus in decision-making. He stated: “If we have a president who is able engage the leader, parliament, the Guardian Council, and the Armed Forces, one thing will occur. On the other hand, if the president stands against them and squabbles with them, another thing will occur.”

He went on: “In a situation of conflict, the [president’s] authorities on paper do not matter, and in a situation of cooperation and agreement, without anything [authorities] written on paper, work progresses.”

Ashna also stated that last year’s protests was triggered by a number of factors, including actions by conservative opponents of President Rouhani. He opined: “Different analysis exists. There is analysis that some thought they could weaken Rouhani’s administration, but not weaken the system. But experience since then shows that weakening the Rouhani administration and the system is the same path. The grounds for last year’s protests are diverse and they had different sparks, which are all worthy of study.”

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Political Prisoner Decries Trump and Iranian Judiciary

Week of January 7, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

A political prisoner arrested for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and who recently ended a 145-day hunger strike wrote a letter censuring both Iran’s judiciary and the Trump administration. Another activist, a labor leader imprisoned for nearly one month, spurred widespread outrage and prompted government investigations after he wrote on Instagram that he was tortured while in custody.

In other civil rights-related developments, nine reported environmentalists have been arrested in Kurdistan province for what officials say is their role in a Kurdish separatist attack. Meanwhile, state television attacked imprisoned British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, while the interior minister assessed the country’s internal security situation a year after last winter’s protests. The grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder also warned officials about the need for maintaining legitimacy.

On the foreign policy front, officials confirmed that Iran has been negotiating with the Taliban but maintained that the talks were being carried out with the knowledge of the Afghan government and aimed at advancing a peace process in Afghanistan. Senior officials also raised doubt regarding Europe’s ability to operationalize its long-awaited “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif also made another overture for talks with the Arab Persian Gulf states, while the foreign ministry condemned the European Union for imposing sanctions on an Iranian intelligence agency and two Iranian citizens.

 

Political Prisoner Writes Letter Censuring Trump & Iranian Judiciary

On January 5th, political prisoner Farhad Meysami wrote a letter from Evin prison criticizing both the Iranian judiciary and the U.S. Department of State. Meysami was arrested on July 31st for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and began a hunger strike within 24 hours of his arrest.

Meysami’s hunger strike lasted for 145 days until December 23rd. He ended it after fellow political prisoner Reza Khandan—husband of human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh—was released from prison.

Meysami titled his letter “twin writings” and directed it towards “Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court” and “Trump’s Department of State.” In the letter, Meysami describes himself as a “transformationalist” who wants change through reform.

He censured the Iranian judiciary thusly: “The repeated, persistent, and systematic violation of the law from the judicial institution removes any qualifications to label it as a court.”

Meysami outlined the type of reformism he believes could lead to substantive change: “Changing the behavior of autocratic states, especially their ‘hard nucleus,’ might at first glance appear impossible. However, ‘reformism seeking transformation’ thinks and acts on the belief that the cumulative effects of sustained action and enlightened activities, together with resistance in suitable times and places, could lead to changes even in the ‘hard nucleus’ of the state.”

Meysami then said he was surprised the U.S. State Department commented on his case: “I was flipping through the newspaper when suddenly I saw an article that shocked me to my core! Apparently, the Trump administration’s Department of State has called for my freedom … I was astonished at how the ‘Trump’s State Department,’ ‘Freedom,’ and ‘myself’ could possibly be connected.”

He then rebuked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declaring: “Before his appointment, Mike Pompeo (Trump’s Secretary of State) had been a strong proponent of the “Bomb Iran!” campaign.”

Meysami went on to renounce any support from the U.S. and sharply criticized the Trump administration’s approach to Iran and abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal. He stated: “I would rather spend all my life imprisoned by a group of oppressors from my own wrong-doing countrymen and spend my life trying to reform their wrongdoing, but to not spend a second submitting to disgraceful support from those who broke their commitments and withdrew from the rational and peaceful JCPOA against all principles of morality and international law, and by reimposing inhumane sanctions, have plunged millions of my fellow countrymen into poverty.”

He added: “I am certain that if the leaders of my country made them [the U.S.] a partner in the plundering and milking of our resources, they would have simply closed their eyes not only to the imprisonment, but to the butchering and dismembering with a bonesaw of dozens of individuals like myself [in reference to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi].”

Meysami went on to express hope for the freedom of the American people from President Trump: “Perhaps it would be more appropriate for us, the children of Iran, to wish for the speedy ‘freedom’ of the great nation of the United States from this great catastrophe, and hope for their return to the previous period of rationality. Because the continuation of this situation is not only disastrous for our two nations but brings damage and destruction to humanity as a whole.”

He ended the letter by again disavowing support from the Trump administration: “I’d like to ask people like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to save their crocodile tears for themselves.”

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Labor Leader Torture Claim Spurs Outcry & Investigations

On January 4th, Esmail Bakhshi, a representative of the Haft Tapeh factory protesting workers who was arrested in November and held for nearly a month by the intelligence ministry, wrote on his Instagram page that he had been tortured while in custody. He stated: “Without reason or saying anything they tortured me to near death. They kicked and punched me so much that for 72 hours I couldn’t move in my cell. Now after two months I still have pain in my broken teeth, kidneys, left ear, and testicles.”

In his Instagram post, Bakhshi invited Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to engage in a “live television debate” with him. Bakhshi’s claim of being tortured spurred widespread outrage and calls for authorities to be held to account. (more on Bakhsi’s release and the Haft Tapeh factory protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered).

Ali Motahari, second deputy parliamentary speaker and principlist MP representing Tehran, wrote in Etemad newspaper regarding Bakhshi’s allegation: “Mr. Bakhshi’s letter to the intelligence minister must awaken all people of conscious and supporters of citizen’s rights to follow this issue until a clear conclusion is reached.”

Motahari stated that the accusation was damaging for the Islamic Republic as it approached its 40th anniversary: “Is it seemly for the Islamic Republic on its 40th anniversary to face such accusations when in chapter three of its constitution every form of physical or mental torture to elicit confessions is prohibited?”

Motahari stated that if torture was committed, the perpetrators must be brought to justice: “If Mr. Bakhshi’s remarks are true, the perpetrators must be brought to light as soon as possible and punished. And in any case, the intelligence minister must give answers.”

On January 7th, the head of Iran’s judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, addressed Bakhsi’s accusation, stating: “I have instructed the honorable attorney general to assemble a team today and travel to the region [Khuzestan], and review this issue and promptly deliver their results to me and our dear people.”

Larijani added: “The different dimensions of this issue have to be reviewed, and before this investigation we will not make denials regarding anyone. It is possible that a worker committed an offense, but under no circumstance is it acceptable for illegal acts to be committed against them. At the same time, possible misconduct by one interrogator should not be used to blame a whole institution.”

Also on January 7th, Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi told Rouydad 24 that “my client has come under pressure to retract his words [regarding being tortured].”

On January 8th, Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, wrote on his Telegram: “With an explicit order from the president, the claims of violence against an imprisoned individual will be investigated quickly and precisely.”

However, later on January 8th, the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee held a meeting to review Bakhshi’s accusation, which included Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi. Afterwards, Ali Najafi Khoshroudi, the committee’s spokesperson, stated: “Esmail Bakhsi, the worker for the Hafte Tapeh sugarcane factory, was in no way tortured.”

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the chairman for the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, stated after the committee’s meeting: “In today’s meeting, after the film of Esmail Bakhshi’s confession and the intelligence minister’s explanation, the conclusion was reached that Bakhshi confessed without torture to spying in cooperation with a communist labor party.”

President Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi also dismissed Bakhshi’s torture allegation after meeting with intelligence officials. He stated after a cabinet meeting that “today the intelligence ministry reported that there is no truth to this issue [of Bakhshi’s torture]” and that the “intelligence ministry and the political system are within their rights to issue a complaint against Bakhshi for his remarks.”

However, on January 9th, Laya Joneydi, President Rouhani’s vice president for legal affairs, stated after a cabinet meeting: “A group has been formed by the president to look into this [Bakhshi’s claims]. It will do its work and announce its conclusions. I believe the intelligence ministry will also announce the results of its investigation. The goal of the speaker of parliament is that Esmail Bakhshi’s words are heard. He has been invited to parliament to speak his words.”

“If Bakhshi’s claims are true, what took place would be a violation of the constitution and this should be severely confronted. If on the other hand nothing occurred or what happened was not as claimed, the biggest resource of any country which is trust would have been sabotaged.”

On January 10th, Fatemeh Saeedi, spokeswoman for the reformist “Hope” coalition in parliament, stated that members of parliament had met with Esmail Bakhshi. She stated: “Despite what some have said, on Tuesday, Bakhshi came with his lawyer to parliament and met with four members of the Hope coalition, one of which was me … the meeting lasted nearly two hours and afterwards we [the MPs] met with officials from the intelligence ministry.”

She said of the meeting with Bakhshi: “In this meeting, we heard his words. Our efforts to follow up on his allegation continue and the results of the investigation will be announced after the review by the judiciary and the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee are completed … It has also been decided that a group from the Hope coalition will travel to the city of Shush to investigate Bakhshi’s claims.”

Saeedi further stated that Bakhshi’s claim of being tortured was discussed in their meeting with intelligence officials. She stated: “In this meeting, the intelligence minister offered an explanation regarding Bakhshi’s claims and the Khuzestan intelligence official presented evidence.”

Jalal Mirzaei, the chair of the Hope coalition’s political committee, discussed the meeting with Bakhshi and the details of his torture allegation in an interview with Khabar Online. Mirzaei stated of the meeting: “According to Mr. Bakshi, he was detained by Shush’s intelligence department and after three hours of interrogation was transported by car, along with four other suspects and two security officers, to Ahvaz. During this trip, which took two hours, Mr. Bakhshi claims that he was beaten.”

Mirzaei added: “According to Bakhshi himself, throughout the 25-day detention itself he was treated with respect, but he says that his cell was next to ISIS prisoners, which he says caused him psychological duress.”

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Environmentalists Arrested in Kurdistan Province

On January 7th, reports emerged that upwards of nine environmentalist activists were detained in Kurdistan province over the course of the previous week. Hossein Khosheqbal, Kurdistan province’s deputy for political, security, and police affairs stated that the arrests were made in connection with an attack on an ambulance, stating: “Over the summer [Iranian month of Tir] the driver of a Red Crescent ambulance in the city Kamyaran was attacked in a cowardly action and hit by several bullets from several people connected with separatist groups and the PJAK foreign group.”

Khosheqbal added: “In this terrorist act, Kuhsar Fatehi, the driver of the ambulance and a native of the province was martyred … A number of anti-revolutionary terrorist groups connected with the martyrdom of the ambulance driver—who had taken the cover of being environmentalists and had the responsibility of supporting the perpetrators [of the murder]—have been identified and will be dealt with legally.”

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State TV Attacks Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

On January 8th, Iranian state television attacked Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, showing the moment she was refused entry on her flight departing Tehran in 2016. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British citizen arrested in April 2016 and sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of “plotting to topple the Iranian government” through “soft war” tactics.

On January 3rd, Zaghari-Ratcliffe co-wrote a letter with imprisoned human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, in which they said they would start a three-day hunger strike in protest at how “their heath situation was being handled.”

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Foreign Ministry Confirms Detention of U.S. Citizen & Rebukes EU Sanctions

On January 9th, during his weekly press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi confirmed that U.S. citizen Michael White has been detained inside Iran. He stated: “An American citizen named Michael White was arrested some time ago in Mashhad. The American interests section in Tehran was notified of the arrest in the immediate days after his arrest.”

Ghassemi denied reports that White was being held in “poor conditions and being harassed,” but did not clarify on what charges he was being held for.

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Interior Minister Assesses Iran’s Internal Security Situation

On December 27th, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli gave a speech where he spoke on Iran’s internal security situation on the anniversary of protests that swept parts of the country in late December 2017 and January 2018. He said about differences inside the country: “The differences that exist in the country are familial and we aren’t worried about such differences. After the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, our enemies seek to pressure Iran to reach their goals. Through reliance on countries like Saudi Arabia and led by America and the Zionist regime and some other countries they are pursuing their objective but have been unsuccessful. However, we should not be negligent with respect to their plots.”

Faszli then stated that none of the protests in the country since last year were “organized,” stating: “Not in last winter’s protests or the protests of the truckers and bazaaris or the problems of ethnic minorities were there signs of leadership by political organizations or their organized presence. This shows the awareness and intelligence of people and their attachment to the revolution and security of the country.”

He said of protests inside the country: “Foreign media intensely invest in the smallest issues inside Iran in order to portray a lack of unity in the country to the best of their ability. But none of these issues threaten Iran’s national security. However, it is better that before such issues start, which enables the enemies to try and coopt them, we should address them and prevent them.”

Fazli concluded regarding the country’s internal security situation: “In the area of security, I won’t say that we have no threats, but we are not worried of these threats because we rely on public legitimacy and the people’s security. We regularly monitor and control the situation. The most important issue for the country after unity is the satisfaction of the people in social and economic areas.”

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Grandson of Islamic Republic Founder Warns Officials

On December 29th, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stated in a speech before an audience of government officials: “We have to understand and observe the rules of human behavior and the causes of collapse and success otherwise there is no guarantee that we will stay and others will go. If you don’t observe these rules, you will be taken from the arena.”

Khomeini went on to warn officials of the need to maintain legitimacy among the people: “The foundation of any society is ethics and people’s level of content.  Continuously segmenting society, repeatedly showing grudges, portraying hypocrisy, making it such that people in society feel compelled to become double faced, or for each of us to become distant from honesty are all signs of failing governments. If we see that our principles are lost and that we are abusive, this is an alarm bell that this society has a problem.”

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Officials Confirm Talks with the Taliban

On December 26th, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, publicly acknowledged that Iran was engaging in negotiations with the Taliban during a trip to Kabul. Shamkhani had travelled to Afghanistan with a delegation of Iranian military and security officials for talks with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib as well as President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan officials.

Shamkhani stated that Iran was engaging in talks with the Taliban in order to resolve security issues inside Afghanistan, stating: “A series of communications and talks have taken place with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government and this trend will continue.”

Shamkhani also said the danger of ISIS “infiltration” into Afghanistan was “serious” and stressed the need to take “practical action.” He warned of what he deemed was an “ominous plan” in Afghanistan being supported by the U.S. and “reactionary” regional countries.

While in Afghanistan, Shamkhani referred to a recent summit in Tehran which brought together senior security officials from Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and India. He said the meeting resulted in constructive agreements, stating: “Establishing mechanisms based on continuous negotiations and the active participation of regional countries in security processes can guarantee stability and durable development for the people of the region.”

Shamkhani also said to his Afghan counterpart Mohib: “The Islamic Republic has always been one of the main pillars establishing security in the region and without a doubt cooperation between our two countries to resolve Afghanistan’s security problems will be very effective.”

On December 30th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated that a Taliban delegation had engaged in extensive negotiations with Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Tehran.  MP Morteza Safari Natani said that these negotiations are “not ideal for us” but that “we have to accept that the Taliban control part of Afghanistan” and that “in current circumstances this group cannot be ignored.”

On January 4th, Mahmoud Vaezi, chief of staff to President Rouhani, stated that Iran notified the Afghan government before starting talks with the Taliban: “I have not seen any reports that say that the Afghan government is upset about negotiations between Iran and the Taliban. Before starting negotiations with the Taliban, we discussed the issue with the Afghan government. Our goal with the negotiations is to establish peace and security in the region and create the grounds for ‘Afghan-Afghan’ negotiations. Under no circumstances will we interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”

Vaezi added: “Iran’s neighbors are faced with many problems such as civil war. Peace and stability in the region are matters of great importance for Iran, as insecurity inside Afghanistan can spread to Iran.”

On January 7th, Shamkhani stated at a conference in Tehran that the Taliban was seeking to compromise with the Afghan government, stating: “We are in pursuit of helping the Afghan government establish stability in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also seeking to compromise with the Afghan government. In this regard, the Islamic Republic, with the intention of seeking peace and preventing domination, wants to help the Afghan government reach a formula for peace and stability.”

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Senior Official Discusses U.S. Syria Troop Withdrawal, Says U.S. Reached Out for Talks

At the January 7th conference in Tehran, Shamkhani also stated that the U.S. reached out to him for negotiations while he was in Afghanistan. He stated: “In Afghanistan, the Americans again sent messages for negotiations with me. They lie when they say that we are sending them [Iran] messages for negotiations.”

Shamkhani also stated regarding President Trump’s announced troop withdrawal from Syria: “America had no role in toppling ISIS in Syria. America’s strategy in Syria was defeated and it was faced with a predicament in the region west of the Euphrates. This situation left America no choice but to exit Syria.”

He went on to say the U.S. would leave the Persian Gulf in the future as well: “Today, the presence of free regional peoples stretches from Syria to the Red Sea. This year, the Americans were compelled to leave the region, and in the future they will be compelled to start withdrawing from the Persian Gulf.”

Regarding Iran’s role in Syria, an analysis in the reformist Fararu discussed Iran’s reconstruction aims in the country. The piece stated: “Based on a report published by the United Nations in 2017, the cost for reconstruction in Syria is $388 billion. This is as Bashar Assad, this country’s president, said in meeting with representatives from Russia’s parliament that this figure is $410 billion.”

The piece said that Iran’s priority was rebuilding Syria’s communications and mobile phone network: “According to reports, Iran has allocated $8 billion in this area and Iran’s primary aim is rebuilding Syria’s communications and mobile phone network.”

He added that Iran was focused on Daraa province as well: “Iran is also endeavoring to have a decisive role in reconstruction efforts in southern Syria, particularly in Daraa province. The Syrian government’s extensive cooperation with Iran over its investment is one of the factors that gives Tehran a better position in Syria after the war in comparison to other countries.”

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Doubts Increase Regarding European SPV

At the January 7th conference in Tehran, Shamkhani said that time had run out on Europe to launch its SPV, stating: “The opportunity has ended for the Europeans to make their JCPOA commitments, particularly on the SPV.”

On January 8th, during a trip to New Delhi, Foreign Minister Zarif also lowered expectations regarding the SPV, stating: “We will continue our cooperation with Europe on the SPV but will not wait for them.”

Zarif went on to praise an agreement between an Indian and Iranian bank, stating: “In the area of banking, we are very happy that the Indian bank UCO and Iranian bank Pasargad have started cooperation in the area of trade. We are optimistic that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran and India will boost cooperation in line with the interests of their people.”

Zarif stated that rather than wait on Europe, Iran will go on to strike similar deals as reached with the Indian bank: “The Europeans have made efforts but they haven’t managed to make progress in line with our expectations. We will expand cooperation efforts such as the channel established with India.”

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Zarif Reiterates Call for Negotiations with Arab Persian Gulf States

While in New Delhi, Zarif reiterated that Iran was open to negotiations with its Persian Gulf neighbors. He stated: “Right now, the time has come for countries in our region to put aside two delusions. The first is that security can be bought or imported. The other is that security can be achieved through the insecurity of others.”

He added: “We again extend our hand out in friendship to our neighbors in the Persian Gulf.”

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Foreign Ministry Condemns EU Sanctions

During his weekly press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi condemned the European Union’s move to designate an Iranian intelligence agency and two Iranian citizens on a “terrorist list.” Ghassemi labeled the actions as “irrational and surprising” and said Iran will “within the framework of a reciprocal action, take the necessary and appropriate steps.”

He also stated: “Instead of putting terrorist and criminal groups like the MEK and al-Ahvaz on their sanctions list, they let them freely take their anti-human and terrorist actions and even support them.”

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