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February 16, 2024

A Crossroads for Iran’s Reformists: Boycotting the Election or Establishing a Strong Minority?, Droughts and the Cascade of Crises: From Mass Migration to the Emptying of Cities and Villages, China’s Investment in Iran Increased Tenfold in One Year, and More

Week of February 12, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

A Crossroads for Iran’s Reformists: Boycotting the Election or Establishing a Strong Minority?

In the lead-up to Iran’s twelfth parliamentary and sixth Assembly of Experts elections, set for March 1, political dynamics are becoming increasingly clear as the days count down. With just sixteen days to go, the political landscape is marked by unprecedented disqualifications, including that of former President Hassan Rouhani for the Assembly of Experts election. 

The Guardian Council’s spokesperson announced the approval of nearly 15,000 candidates for the parliamentary election nationwide, although reports indicate a significant bias toward hardline factions, with numerous reformist and moderate candidates – including sitting and former members of parliament – being disqualified. To date, 25 incumbent parliamentarians have been barred from seeking re-election.

Ali Mohammad Namazi, a central figure in the reformist Executives of Construction Party, disclosed his disqualification, noting that only one member from his party has been approved. The Reformist Front has already stated it will not present a list in Tehran for the parliamentary elections, and the National Trust Party’s spokesperson revealed that only 20 to 30 reformist or reformist-affiliated candidates nationwide have been validated.

For the Assembly of Experts election, Hadi Tahan Nazif reported an increase in approved candidates from 138 to 144, ensuring elections in all geographical constituencies despite widespread disqualifications. Until the approval of these six new candidates, several areas did not have any approved candidates for the election., In some cases, including for Ebrahim Raisi in South Khorasan, there is only a single approved candidate. This election does not require a minimum percentage of votes, allowing a candidate like Raisi to win with even a single vote. However, 36 candidates for the sixth term of the Assembly of Experts have been disqualified, making the total number of approved candidates less than in all previous terms except for the second term in 1990.

The disqualifications have prompted reactions from former Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Khatami, expressing concerns over public disinterest in voting and the challenging conditions for electoral participation, respectively. Seyyed Mostafa Tajzadeh, a prominent reformist figure, has criticized the electoral “coup” and the government’s failure to address economic issues, suggesting that the elections serve to distract from these failures.

Statements from various political groups reflect widespread disapproval of the election’s integrity. The Freedom Movement of Iran announced a boycott of the “sham” elections, citing the extensive disqualifications and undemocratic processes as reasons for their non-participation. The Iran Reform Front reiterated its inability to field candidates in Tehran due to the prevailing electoral strategy to bar reformist voices, despite expressing commitment to the Islamic Revolution’s ideals and constitutional rights.

Following the Reform Front’s statement, a group of reformists released a “Let’s Open a Window” statement, signed by notable figures, arguing for the formation of a strong minority in the upcoming parliament amid the disqualifications. The statement highlights the significant barriers to a free and fair election and the need for an effective opposition, despite the difficult circumstances.

The mixed reactions to these developments, including positive and negative feedback from various political spectrums and a note of satisfaction among conservatives, underscore the complex political environment surrounding these elections. The conservative camp, facing a surplus of candidates, anticipates presenting a unified list led by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, reflecting the diverse strategies within the principlist factions. As the elections draw near, the evolving political landscape continues to reveal the deep-seated challenges and divisions within Iran’s political system, highlighting the struggle between reformist aspirations and conservative dominance.

Droughts and the Cascade of Crises: From Mass Migration to the Emptying of Cities and Villages

An ongoing water crisis has once again become one of the major challenges in Iran as the nation grapples with pervasive drought. This crisis appears to be persistently misunderstood by the Islamic Republic’s officials. As half the water year has passed in Iran – a measurement period that runs from fall to the end of summer – the precipitation levels remain unsatisfactory, and the alarmingly low reserves in many of the country’s dams send a warning signal. Data from the national water information database indicate that only 42% of the country’s dam reservoirs are filled, while precipitation has decreased by 41% compared to the long-term average as of February 9.

Moreover, the Climate and Drought Crisis Management Center reports about a 48% reduction in rainfall compared to the long-term average, signaling a decrease in both surface and groundwater levels, increased extraction from underground resources, and ultimately leading to land subsidence – or the sinking of the ground caused by water extraction.

With the approach of the hot season, warnings of water shortages in Iran continue, with Tehran being one of the main provinces facing severe water scarcity. National water data shows that the combined capacity of Tehran’s five dams is only 13% full. According to the Meteorological Organization, precipitation has fallen by 47.5% compared to the long-term period since the start of the current water year until February 8, resulting in a total decrease of 55 millimeters in rainfall.

Ahad Vazifeh, head of the National Climate and Drought Crisis Management Center, had previously announced that Iran is experiencing its fourth consecutive year of drought, exacerbating the scarcity of rainfall. He emphasized that Tehran is facing a particularly challenging situation in water supply, to the extent that the Tehran Governor has advised against migrating to the capital due to the dire state of water resources.

An analysis of data from the Ministry of Energy and the Meteorological Organization of Iran reveals a declining trend in precipitation over the past 50 years, putting Iran’s future, including population distribution, at risk. A study published on January 4 about “Groundwater Levels Worldwide Over the Past Four Decades” lists Iran among the top three countries experiencing “accelerated and widespread freshwater depletion.”

Babak Negahdari, head of the Parliamentary Research Center, noted these trends and highlighted the need for environmental adaptation strategies to manage climate change. He also claimed that climate change could lead to a $23 trillion loss in the economy by 2050, emphasizing the significance of addressing climate change impacts in Iran, especially given the considerable changes observed in the country.

People’s lives have always depended on water, and the livelihood of farmers is severely impacted without it. In recent years, migrations from central plateau cities and villages to northern Iran have increased, with changing climate conditions, agricultural land conversion, and urban service concentration turning villages into consumer communities. Climate-induced migrations have risen in recent years due to factors like land subsidence, dust storms, and decreased living standards, pushing people from central and southern provinces towards the country’s north, the outskirts of Tehran, and Alborz province.

With more than 80% of the reservoir capacity empty in 18 significant dams, water scarcity and desertification-driven dust storms are the primary reasons for migrations from dried regions to the north. Gilan and Mazandaran provinces now bear the brunt of domestic migration over the last decade, with Gilan being the only province not affected by land subsidence.

This grim reality underscores Iran’s urgent need for comprehensive climate change mitigation strategies, even amid the limitations imposed by extensive sanctions. The expansion of water-driven migration and the abandonment of numerous border villages in Iran’s eastern frontier represent just a fraction of the severe consequences that the water crisis and drought will entail.

Iranian Oil Minister Describes Explosions in Fars Province as Terrorist Acts

Javad Owji, the Iranian Oil Minister, has stated that the explosions that occurred at 1:00 AM on February 14 in the national gas transmission network across three regions in Fars province were “terrorist” acts. Speaking on the sidelines of a government meeting, the Oil Minister of Iran stated, “We were fully prepared to swiftly address any sabotage affecting our country’s oil and gas transmission lines, hence we were in a state of complete readiness.”

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. News agencies in Iran reported a gas pipeline explosion near the city of Boroujen in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province at the Baldaji crossroads. According to Tasnim News Agency, “Two of the four main gas pipelines passing through the Boroujen district exploded and caught fire, causing panic and terror among the residents of Boroujen, Baldaji, and Gandman cities, to the extent that people left their homes and took to the streets.” As reported by IRIB News Agency, the intensity of the explosions terrified the local inhabitants.

Esmail Yazdani, the fire chief of Boroujen, stated that the incident did not result in any fatalities. Fattah Karami, the governor of Boroujen, told the news agency that the explosion occurred “in the high-pressure national gas pipeline at the Halvaii pass.” The governor of Boroujen also mentioned that the pipeline explosion had blocked the Boroujen to Lordegan and Khuzestan communication axis. However, the Iranian Oil Minister said, “Immediately following the explosion in the gas transmission lines, my colleagues at the National Gas Company quickly changed the transmission network configuration, and operational teams were dispatched to the accident sites, fortunately resulting in no casualties.” Owji also mentioned that “except for a few villages close to the explosion site, gas supply to other areas has been restored.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Confirms Messages Exchanged with Washington During Gaza Conflict

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced on Saturday, February 10, that Tehran and Washington have been exchanging messages during the four-month-long Gaza conflict. Speaking at a press conference in Beirut, Amir-Abdollahian responded to inquiries about the nature of these indirect communications and the U.S.’s position as articulated by President Joe Biden.

The messages primarily entailed American requests urging Iran to leverage its influence over Hezbollah to prevent the group’s full-scale involvement in the conflict against Israel. “These exchanges underscore America and Israel’s acknowledgment of Hezbollah’s significant resistance capabilities in Lebanon,” Amir-Abdollahian stated.

This development comes amid a backdrop where Iran and its allied militias in the region, collectively known as the “Axis of Resistance,” oppose U.S. and Israeli policies. The Islamic Republic’s support for groups like Hezbollah has been a longstanding point of contention.

In a related development, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, in communication with Voice of America’s Farsi section, addressed Amir-Abdollahian’s revelations. “Our consistent message to Iran, both in public and private, has been to cease support for terrorist organizations and militia proxies,” the spokesperson noted, referencing a statement by John Kirby, the National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications. Kirby had previously stated that the U.S. had not engaged in communications with Iran following an attack in Jordan that killed three American soldiers.

The attack in question, a drone attack on the “Tower 22” base in Jordan on January 29 that killed three U.S. soldiers, has been the high mark of U.S. tensions with Iran-linked groups. Additionally, President Biden remarked on January 13 about a “private message” sent to Iran concerning the Houthi militants’ assaults on commercial vessels in the Red Sea, emphasizing the U.S.’s readiness to respond.

Inspection of Kian Financial Group and Arrests of ‘Eghtesad-e Farda’ Journalists

Reports have emerged regarding the detention of several journalists from “Eghtesad-e Farda” (Tomorrow’s Economy) at their editorial office within the Kian Financial Group’s building. On Monday, February 5th, around 2:00 PM, Islamic Republic security forces entered the Kian Financial Group’s building and the office of “Eghtesad-e Farda” in Tehran, detaining a number of staff and journalists for at least 7 days. Concurrently, numerous journalists within Iran announced on social network X (formerly Twitter) that mobile phones and journalists’ equipment had been confiscated. 

Four journalists from “Eghtesad-e Farda” were transferred to the Shapur Detective Bureau’s detention center in Tehran, as reported by the human rights news agency HRANA on Tuesday, February 13th. Mehrdad Asgari, Nikan Khobazi, Ali Tasnimi, employees of the “Eghtesad-e Farda” studio, and Behzad Bahmannejad, the editor-in-chief, were formally arrested on Friday, February 9th, and taken from the editorial office. Security agents have since brought the four journalists from the detention center back to the editorial office for interrogation and then transferred them back to the detention center, with the office being searched again during the transfer.

“Eghtesad-e Farda” commenced operations in August 2022, with Ali Mirzakhani, formerly the editor-in-chief of “Donya-e Eghtesad” newspaper, writing its first editorial to announce its establishment. The incident has drawn attention to Kian Financial Group, a capital market financial holding in Iran, managed by Mona Haji Ali Asghar, encompassing several companies including brokerage firms, asset management companies, financial processing institutions, and various investment funds. Originally, Kian Group launched a news platform named “Boursan,” which later became “Eghtesad-e Farda” after recruiting a group of journalists from “Donya-e Eghtesad,” including Ali Mirzakhani.

The issue escalated when, on Tuesday, February 6th, rumors spread on social media about a regulatory body inspecting the company’s building on Alvand Street, confiscating employees’ phones and other communication devices. Reports indicate that both journalists and other employees of the Kian financial group being detained. Some editorial members and the families of the journalists and employees have been protesting outside the Kian building since Monday evening, demanding clarity on their loved ones’ situation. The collective detention of an entire editorial team and a longstanding company in the capital market for over 72 hours at their workplace is a novel concern for the public.

Majid Zamani, a name repeatedly mentioned during inquiries, is the founder of Kian Financial Group, an investor in successful startups like Digikala and Cafe Bazaar, and the financial owner of Eghtesad-e Farda. Amid the national protests following the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini in police custody, Zamani left Iran and relocated to the UK after staying in a regional country for some time.

Zamani, after moving to the UK, launched “Doba” (State for Iran), a civil and political organization aimed at facilitating a public dialogue and organizing civil participation for Iranians to achieve sovereignty over their destiny. The security forces’ entry into the Kian Financial Group’s building coincided with the 70% transfer of Tapsi’s shares to the Golrang Company, associated with government-affiliated individuals, fueling speculation about a government crackdown and takeover of various independent entities in the Iranian startup ecosystem.

Cyberattack on Iran’s Parliament by MEK-affiliated Group

On Tuesday, February 13th, Iranian media reported that the “Khane Mellat News Agency” website, affiliated with the Islamic Consultative Assembly, was down. Shortly after, the “Uprising until Overthrow” group, linked to the People’s Mujahedin Organization – or Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) – claimed responsibility for this cyber breach on their Telegram channel, alleging to have hacked “over 600 Parliament servers.” This group also published hundreds of pages of what they claimed to be “confidential documents.” Concurrently, Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, suggested in a report that this hack seemed credible as images of the leaders of the so-called “hypocrites” (a term the Islamic Republic uses for the People’s Mujahedin Organization) were posted, indicating the news agency might have been hacked.

Following the incident, the group further claimed to have hacked significant parts of the Parliament’s digital infrastructure, including the “main Parliament server, servers of parliamentary commissions, the main session hall server, the Parliament bar server, Parliament banks, offices of representatives, the General Directorate of International Affairs, and the Research Center.”

In response, the Public Relations of the Islamic Consultative Assembly acknowledged the cyber attacks and the inaccessibility of the Parliament and Khane Mellat News Agency websites. They emphasized that hackers might have manipulated real documents through limited access to some files. An official statement confirmed the hacking of servers related to the Parliament and indicated that an initial review suggested some documents had been altered and were unreliable. For example, a file titled “Representatives’ Salaries in June 2023” contained a column with fictitious totals not present in the Parliament’s payment documents. The statement concluded that technical teams were assessing the situation and would provide updates shortly.

UN Deputy Commissioner for Human Rights’ Quiet Visit to Iran Confirmed

In an interview with Michael Lipin of Voice of America, Ravina Shamdasani – the spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Office – confirmed the visit of Nada Al-Nashif, the UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, to Iran. The visit, conducted in near-total silence, involved meetings with officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Shamdasani stated that Al-Nashif has concluded her visit to Iran and is currently on another mission in Qatar. She explained that the visit was primarily focused on high-level direct engagements with government officials and institutions rather than public interaction. “We usually do not publicize visits of this nature,” Shamdasani mentioned to Radio Farda. It was previously announced that Al-Nashif would be visiting Iran from February 2 to February 5.

No media outlets in Iran reported on the visit, and it remains unclear which Iranian officials or entities Al-Nashif met with. The visit was said to focus on “executions” and “women’s rights” in Iran, two sensitive areas where Iran has regularly been accused of violating its international human rights obligations. Iran has the highest rate of executions per capita worldwide and has seen widespread protests over women’s rights violations by the Islamic Republic in recent years.

Some opponents of the Islamic Republic and Iranian human rights activists opposed the visit. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi urged Al-Nashif to cancel the trip in a message, warning that it could lead to propaganda misuse by the Islamic Republic. “Your visit at such a time will lead to the Islamic Republic’s propaganda exploitation. Therefore, as a long-standing human rights defender, I recommend that you also refrain from visiting Iran in protest against the increasing and extrajudicial executions,” Ebadi wrote in her letter to Al-Nashif. The UN Human Rights Office acknowledged concerns about Tehran officials potentially exploiting the visit for propaganda purposes, but assured that this would not undermine the UN’s work.

China’s Investment in Iran Increased Tenfold in One Year

In a significant boost to Tehran’s economic landscape, China has escalated its investment in Iran, marking a tenfold increase within just a year. The investment leap from $200 million to a staggering $2 billion underscores the deepening ties between the two nations, with funds predominantly channeled into logistics, infrastructure, and mining sectors, according to Tasnim News Agency, citing the head of the Organization for Foreign Investment.

China’s strategic investment comes as it remains one of the largest buyers of Iranian oil, further entrenching its position as a key economic partner to Tehran. The partnership was formalized in 2021 through a 25-year cooperation agreement, reflecting a long-term commitment between the two countries amid Iran’s expanded interactions with Russia. This relationship aims to mitigate the impact of international sanctions and reportedly supports Russia in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Apart from China, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey are identified as significant investors in Iran, highlighting the country’s diversified investment portfolio. Russia, too, is making considerable inroads, particularly in the Iranian oil sector, as per ILNA’s report. The CEO of Russia’s “ZN Westok” disclosed an investment exceeding $500 million in Iran’s oil industry, with $170 million dedicated to the Cheshmeh Khosh field development project alone. Azmat Ismailov revealed the project’s success in ramping up daily oil production from 58,000 barrels to over 62,000 barrels, signaling a positive trajectory in Iran’s oil output amid international collaborations.

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