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January 18, 2024

Escalation with a Nuclear-Armed Neighbor: Pakistan’s Counterattack Follows Iranian Strikes on Pakistani Soil, Abdullah Momeni Sent to Evin Prison, Death Penalty for Security Officer who Killed a Protester, and More

Week of January 15, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Escalation with a Nuclear-Armed Neighbor: Pakistan’s Counterattack Follows Iranian Strikes on Pakistani Soil

Pakistan initiated an offensive on Saravan, Iran, on the morning of January 18 which reportedly led to the deaths of multiple Pakistani inhabitants in Iran. The move follows a controversial and surprising Iranian decision to launch missile and drone strikes inside of Pakistan on January 16. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) targeted alleged Jaish al-Adl bases in Pakistani territory, ostensibly as a response to the group’s recent terror attacks in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan provinces. Coming without prior notice, the surprise strike was harshly condemned by Pakistan.

Iran also conducted ballistic missile strikes against a purported Israeli Mossad base in Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS in Syria. The January 16 strikes in Erbil, Iraq, targeted the residence of Pishro Dizayi, killing the local business leader, his young daughter and housekeeper, as well as another businessman. Iranian officials have maintained that this was a “spy headquarters,” for Israel’s Mossad, though little evidence of this has been put forward. 

The Kurdistan Regional and Iraqi Federal Governments condemned the attack, and Iraq’s Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein reported the issue to the UN Security Council. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting on the matter. Separately, missiles were launched from Khuzestan, Iran, towards Idlib, Syria, ostensibly targeting an ISIS base, and showcasing the range of Iran’s Khaibar Shekan missiles.

The trio of strikes follow a number of attacks on Iran and its interests, including the assassination of an Iranian general in Syria and terrorist attacks inside Iran claimed by both Jaish al-Adl and ISIS. Presumably, Iran’s leadership sought to push back on a number of fronts with its flurry of airstrikes, though it is unclear whether Iranian leadership considered the ramifications of its airstrikes on its nuclear-armed neighbor in Pakistan.

The tit-for-tat strikes with Pakistan greatly heightened diplomatic tensions, especially following discussions just one day prior between Iran’s Special Representative Hassan Qomi and Pakistani officials, where they agreed to form a “Regional Contact Group” focusing on Afghanistan’s peace and stability. While Iranian media reported the strikes in Pakistan, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was in Europe, meeting Pakistan’s Interim Prime Minister Anwar Kakar in Switzerland during the Davos Economic Forum.

The Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs later announced that it would temporarily prevent Iran’s ambassador from returning to Islamabad. Pakistan also suspended all high-level visits, holding Iran accountable for the consequences and reserving the right to respond.

Subsequently, the Pakistan Army launched airstrikes against alleged Baloch militants in Iran two days after the Iranian strikes on January 18, claiming to have killed several terrorists. Iranian media reported that the missile strikes hit a village in Sistan and Baluchestan province, with Alireza Morhamati, the Deputy Security Governor, claiming civilian casualties. Pakistan’s Armed Forces News Twitter account reported that the attack targeted terrorist camps in Saravan, Shamsar, and Hanq.

Both Iran and Pakistan categorize certain Baloch and Afghan armed opposition groups as terrorists. The Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned Pakistan’s use of drones against civilians in a border village, emphasizing Pakistan’s responsibility to prevent terrorist bases on its territory. Iran explained its operations in Pakistan as preemptive actions against terrorist groups planning to infiltrate Iran. The IRGC stated these were essential counter-terrorist measures. However, Jaish al-Adl claimed civilian casualties following the January 16 strikes, including children. Pakistan’s President Arif Alvi, responding to the airstrikes, emphasized the professional conduct of the Pakistani Armed Forces, advocating for a global effort against terrorism and respect for sovereignty and international laws.

China, Turkey and the European Union urge Iran and Pakistan to show restraint and avoid escalating tensions.

The recent strikes by Iran have faced criticism from certain international relations experts within Iran. Most of the criticisms revolve around perceptions of the current government’s inadequate understanding of foreign policy and the costly nature of its decisions. Diako Hosseini, an international relations expert, tweeted “We should never heed the proposal of bombing a nuclear-armed country that is delicately balanced with another nuclear power, especially if we don’t intend to go to war with that country. A nuclear power, to maintain deterrence and prevent misinterpretations of its intentions to any level of military aggression, is inevitably compelled to take reciprocal actions. It’s a simple lesson that we shouldn’t have to test.”

Additionally, Reza Nasri, another international relations expert, tweeted: “The experiences of Pakistan and Iraq have once again shown that Iran’s weakness lies in its ‘persuasive power,’ which has been heavily overshadowed in recent years by the military approach and militaristic discourse in foreign policy. This recent challenge cannot be resolved with military tools; it’s a problem that can be resolved through diplomatic and political means. Until our neighbors consider our goals, security, and interests as compatible with theirs – or even worse, see them in conflict – we will never be able to implement a “neighborhood policy.”

Likewise, many political activists have pointed out that, for the first time in contemporary history, Iran’s government has come under attack from an Eastern neighbor.

Government Efforts Seek to Encourage Voter Turnout, Including Unveiled Women

Islamic Republic authorities, after widespread disqualifications of candidates ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, are now trying to mobilize more people to the polling stations. Ayatollah Khamenei, in numerous speeches, has attempted to persuade the public to vote using various tools. Meanwhile, despite severe security and judicial crackdowns on women due to compulsory hijab laws, the spokesperson for the Guardian Council now states that even women without hijab can cast their votes.

Elections for the legislature and Assembly of Experts are set to be held on March 1, 2024. On Wednesday, January 16, during a meeting with Friday prayer leaders from across the country who are appointed by him, Khamenei said that Friday prayer sermons should encourage people to participate in various political and social arenas. He emphasized, “Encouragement to participate in political fields like elections is necessary.”

The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic said participation in elections should be considered as both a right and a duty of the people, adding that it should be done through “action, good conduct, persuasive speech, and presence in various gatherings.” In recent years, Iran’s public participation in elections has significantly decreased, posing a major crisis of legitimacy for the Islamic Republic.

Hadi Tahan Nazif, the spokesperson for the Guardian Council, criticized those who called for a electoral boycott during a press conference on Monday, January 14. He responded to a reporter’s question about whether someone without a hijab could vote, stating, “The right to vote has not been revoked by any law and cannot even be revoked by a court.” 

These remarks come as women and girls in Iran continue to face detention for defying the compulsory hijab and are prevented from accessing public services. Meanwhile, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s former president who is also seeking qualification to run for the Assembly of Experts, criticized extensive candidate disqualifications. It remains to be seen whether Rouhani’s candidacy for the Assembly will be approved by the Guardian Council.

According to Rouhani, “Some say if we do not participate in the elections and the number of participants decreases, officials will realize it, but in the 2020 parliamentary elections, 42 percent participated, and officials were not alerted.” During a meeting with members of the “Workers’ House” on Tuesday, January 15, Rouhani added, “The 2022 presidential election was held with a 48 percent turnout. Therefore, reducing participation did not have an impact on official calculations.

Death and Injury of 5 Workers in Semnan Factory Explosion

A factory explosion in Garmsar resulted in the death of two workers and the injury of at least three others. This incident represents yet another workplace tragedy, as Iran ranks 102nd in terms of workplace safety according to Seyyed Abolfazl Ashrafi Mansouri, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Organizations for Technical, Safety, and Health Protection in the Country.

The ILNA news agency reported that two people, a supervisor and a production line worker, died instantly in the explosion, which took place at a factory producing adhesives. One person was transported to a hospital, and two others received immediate medical attention.

The cause of the explosion and the details of the incident are currently being investigated. This explosion comes shortly after another major fire in a cosmetics and hygiene products factory in Alborz Province on January 9th, which resulted in at least 53 injuries.

Iran’s Drought Crisis: 13 National Dams Facing Severe Water Volume Reduction

Rainfall during the past autumn decreased by 47.4% compared to the long-term average, contrary to the predictions made by Iran’s meteorological organization. There was also a 31% reduction in rainfall in comparison to the previous year, and precipitation statistics in 28 provinces turned negative. Winter rainfall is expected to be within the normal range at best and not exceed it.

As a result of the decline in rainfall, 60% of the country’s dam reservoirs are currently empty. Iran appears to be entering its fourth consecutive year of severe drought, indicating that it will have a very challenging summer. The decrease in rainfall not only affects the country’s water supply for drinking, agriculture, and industry, but also causes wetlands and lakes to dry up. It appears that dust storms will begin to occur in the early spring of next year.

A new report published by Iran’s Water Resources Management Company indicates that a decrease in rainfall and an increase in water consumption have significantly reduced the volume of water in 13 major and large dams across the country. According to this report, precipitation has decreased by 40% since the beginning of the current water year (October 2023) until January 2024 in comparison to the 55-year long-term average. In parallel, the outflow of water from dams has increased by 21%. As a result, the water volume of these important dams has been reduced.

According to the report, precipitation has reached 47 millimeters since the beginning of the current water year, compared with 78.2 millimeters during the long-term assessment period. In addition, the Rud-e-Bal Dam in Fars Province has experienced an 87% reduction in its filling rate compared to the same period last year.

The semi-dry wells in Sistan and Baluchestan Province have accumulated only 37 million cubic meters of water during the current water year, which indicates a 73% decrease compared with the same period last year. The filling rate of semi-dry wells in Sistan and Baluchestan has decreased by 3% overall.

Water shortages have increasingly plagued Iran in recent years, as the country copes with poor resource management and the ongoing effects of climate change, which has triggered increasing drought and desertification. Water shortages have triggered major protests in recent years, including in Isfahan in 2021.

After Assault, Abdullah Momeni Sent to Evin Prison

Abdullah Momeni was sent to prison on Thursday, January 17th, after appearing at the Execution of Sentences Unit. He began serving a one-year sentence on charges of participating in the virtual conference “Save Iran,” which was held in April 2023. According to his lawyer, Hassan Asadi Zeydabadi, he was imprisoned after multiple summonses and calls stressing the need for his presence. 

There was some confusion regarding the circumstances of his imprisonment. Mizan News Agency, affiliated with the judicial branch of the Islamic Republic, asserted that due to “family circumstances,” the judge intended to delay sentence implementation for a period, but Momeni insisted on beginning the sentence on the same day. However, Zeydabadi rejected this, stating, “No judicial authority proposed a delay. I visited yesterday to ensure that if the sentence was not implemented, I would be informed, and they said no change had occurred.”

Zeydabadi stressed that the claim that Momeni insisted on going to prison was irrational and contrary to reality, stating, “It is true that Momeni did not request a delay, and there was no offer from the judicial authorities.” He further added that it’s possible that “after starting his imprisonment, following the legal process and considering his spouse’s illness, he may seek furlough.”

Simultaneously, Ardeshir Amir Arjomand, a political activist close to Mir Hossein Mousavi, announced on Instagram that Abdullah Momeni was severely beaten and mistreated by law enforcement officers during his transfer to prison when he refused to wear handcuffs. Amir Arjomand added that during Momeni’s transfer, law enforcement officers shouted, “No one can stop us, and nothing has been prepared.”

Abolfazl Ghadiani, another political activist, criticized the “beating and mistreatment” of Momeni at Evin Courthouse and mentioned that the “self-destructive” Iranian government and its associates are concerned that activists like Momeni will expose the reality of “fraudulent elections.” He emphasized that the security forces and the judicial apparatus should be held accountable, but the principal culprit is Ali Khamenei.

After the two-day virtual “Save Iran” conference, which saw the participation of 42 political and civil activists inside and outside Iran, government forces summoned and detained several participants. The conference had focused on strategies for transitioning from the Islamic Republic following the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement protests that played out over the final four months of 2022.

Momeni was also among the signatories of a statement supporting citizens’ right to protest against “wrong policies” and the performance of the ruling authorities in September of this year. During the protests in 2009, also known as the “Green Movement,” Momeni was imprisoned for five years. Reports of his torture and illegal treatment by the government were published at the time. The Iranian government’s attempts to silence critics through punitive measures such as imprisonment and threats have not yielded tangible results thus far, as activists both inside and outside of prison continue to voice their criticisms and protests through statements, letters, and messages.

Khamenei Backs the Houthis After the United States Contacts Iran on Yemen

A few days after Joe Biden announced sending a message to Iran regarding military operations against Yemen, Ayatollah Khamenei praised the Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea in his remarks on January 16. The Yemeni people and the Ansarullah government deserve praise and admiration for their support for Gazans, he said. During his remarks, he expressed the hope that the “jihad and activities” of the Houthis would continue until victory was achieved.

According to the Iranian leader, the Houthis targeted vital interests of Israel and added that “America threatened, but the Houthis were not intimidated by America.” In response to attacks on ships in the Red Sea, U.S. and British forces targeted Houthi positions with airstrikes several times over the last week. As a result, Houthi officials continue to stress that “attacks on Israeli ships and those associated with Israel or heading towards occupied Palestinian ports will continue.”

Despite supporting the Houthi rebels, Iran maintains that they make their own decisions and act independently in regard to attacks on ships in the Red Sea. As part of his telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov yesterday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hassan Amir-Abdollahian also stated that the continued Israeli attacks on Gaza and the U.S. intervention in the Red Sea would further destabilize the region.

The Houthis have pledged support to Gazans since November of last year and have pledged to target ships associated with Israel that pass through the Red Sea. Multiple missile attacks have been launched against ships and their intended targets, although many of the targeted ships have not seemingly had any connection to Israel, the United States or the Israel-Palestine war in general.

After the second night of operations against the Houthi rebels in Yemen, President Joe Biden announced that the United States had sent Iran a “private message.” Despite not providing details, the U.S. President stated, “We delivered it privately, and we are confident that we are fully prepared.” Additionally, Mr. Biden had stated one day earlier that Iran and the U.S. are not in a proxy war and that Iran does not want a war with the United States.

According to official Western positions, the recent operations against the Houthis are distinct from the Gaza conflict. They state that these operations are a “necessary and proportionate response to the Houthis’ unprovoked attacks” on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

The situation is, however, viewed differently in Yemen and throughout much of the Islamic world. According to many, these operations demonstrate that America and Britain are supporting Israel since the Houthis have declared that their attacks are in solidarity with Hamas. 

Death Penalty for a Security Officer who Killed a Protester

Several security personnel who were charged with murdering an Iranian citizen in his home during the Iran protests of 2022 received sentences, including one death penalty. In the course of the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests on September 25, 2022, security forces killed Mohammad Jamehbozorg, a resident of Malard Karaj, who was suspected by security forces of providing shelter to protesters. He was among hundreds of protesters killed in the crackdown.

The military court in Tehran sentenced one security officer to death for this murder, while two other security officers received prison sentences, and one security officer was fined. A total of seven other officers involved in the case were acquitted.

“The family is not happy about the issuance of a death sentence,” Payam Dorfeshan, the family’s attorney, told Ham-Mihan newspaper on January 14, about the verdict and the family’s reaction. “We want to prevent any harm from occurring. In cases such as this, when positive messages are conveyed, they have an impact, and individuals are less likely to violate fundamental rules the next time.”

In his explanation, Mr. Dorfeshan stated that the names of the accused and details of the prison sentences were not disclosed as “Article 633 of the Criminal Procedure Code expressly states that details cannot be disclosed regarding military court verdicts. The head of the Armed Forces Judiciary can make the case information public under certain conditions if the verdict is final.” As to the possibility of changing this verdict during the appeal process, the legal advocate stated: “The Branch 5 military court verdict is subject to finality in the Supreme Court. However, it should be noted that the Branch 5 military court is the highest military-criminal authority, and this verdict was based on an extensive investigation and consultations. Due to the fact that the case is based on expert testimony, weapon testing, and other evidence, we do not expect the Supreme Court to change the verdict for the first accused.”

The military organizations that the accused personnel belong to have not been officially revealed, but according to Mr. Jamehbozorg’s relatives the defendants in this case were “from the IRGC and Basij.” In Malard Karaj, Mohammad Jamehbozorg had a carpet-selling business. He was born in 1963 in Touiserkan, Hamedan. On the night of the third of Mehr month, amidst the ‘Women, Life, Freedom’ protests, he was killed by security forces at his private residence.

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