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February 23, 2024

Iran’s Parliamentary Elections: Apathy, Division, and the Uncertain Voice of Reform, Hacker Group Exposes Millions of Files in Cyber-Attack Against Judiciary, Iran’s Shift Towards Secularism, and More

Week of February 19, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Iran’s Parliamentary Elections: Apathy, Division, and the Uncertain Voice of Reform

In a subdued atmosphere marked by controversy, Iran’s parliamentary elections are drawing closer with minimal public enthusiasm. Amid this lackluster environment, the “Voice of the People” list – linked to reformist factions – was unveiled just a week before the election day, coinciding with the kickoff of electoral campaigns. 

This year’s election is noted for its unprecedented rate of candidate disqualifications and is being described as one of the most tepid in recent memory, with deep divisions persisting between conservative factions and hardliners. The conservative bloc has notably formed a broad electoral coalition, sparking intrigue not just for their readiness to contest despite widespread electoral disinterest, but also for their internal disputes primarily centered around securing executive positions for allies, revealing little ideological divergence within their ranks.

On the fringe, the radical hardline Stability Front has entered the fray with the belief they are the principal force this election cycle. However, they face unexpected resilience from within the conservative and hardliner camps, indicating a more competitive landscape than initially anticipated.

A striking feature of the current electoral cycle is the palpable disinterest among the Iranian populace, with roughly two-thirds reportedly unaware of the election date. Polling data from ISPA indicated only 36% awareness of the election timing, while state broadcaster IRIB’s survey shows 52% unawareness. These findings underscore widespread apathy toward the electoral outcomes for both the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts.

Former President Mohammad Khatami lamented the visible widespread dissatisfaction and the prevailing boycott mood within society, which highlights a deep-seated disillusionment with the political system. Despite the prevailing apathy, the “Voice of the People” list, spearheaded by Ali Motahari in Tehran, introduced candidates including former reformist parliamentarians and relatively unknown figures, aiming to make an impact in the electoral arena. In a surprising twist, state media attributed Motahari’s list to the reformists, despite clear announcements from the Front for Reforms in Iran about not fielding candidates due to a lack of viable options. Motahari clarified that his list was independent, aiming to feature prudent choices without partisan affiliations, challenging the narrative pushed by state-affiliated outlets.

Political analyst Sadegh Zibakalam critiqued the reformists’ participation strategy, questioning the efficacy and reputation of engaging in a political process that has repeatedly marginalized their influence and underscoring a broader existential question within the movement.

The controversy surrounding Hassan Rouhani’s disqualification has not dissipated either, as this past week saw the dispatch of his third letter to the Guardian Council, seeking clarification on the reasons for his disqualification in the sixth round of the Assembly of Experts election. The two previous letters from Rouhani have gone unanswered, yet it appears his insistence on receiving an explanation from the Guardian Council remains unchanged. In response to inquiries about the council’s silence on Rouhani’s letters, Hadi Tahan-Nazif, the spokesperson for the Guardian Council, stated, “Our priority is to review the qualifications of those who have lodged complaints. We have yet to commence reviews on those who haven’t filed complaints, but we will get to them. It is certainly within their legal right to receive a review.” 

The call for an active boycott, led by figures like Abolfazl Qadiani, reflects a critical stance against the Islamic Republic’s electoral process, denouncing it as fundamentally at odds with the principles of freedom and democracy. This stance is part of a broader movement advocating for a decisive rejection of the elections, highlighting the regime’s history of manipulation and fraud. With participation predictions alarmingly low, there’s growing skepticism about the potential impact of the elections. Preliminary polls suggest a nationwide turnout of around 35%, with Tehran’s participation potentially even lower. This anticipated apathy signals a critical juncture for Iran’s political landscape, questioning the legitimacy and efficacy of the electoral process.

As the elections approach, the effectiveness of initiatives like Motahari’s list and reformist attempts to invigorate the electorate remain uncertain, against a backdrop of coordination councils across various provinces expressing their inability to endorse or present candidates. This reflects the continuation of a broader crisis of political engagement and representation in Iran.

Hacker Group Exposes Millions of Judicial Files in Cyber-Attack Against Islamic Republic’s Judiciary

The hacker group “Ali’s Justice” successfully breached the servers of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, according to an announcement on their Telegram channel. They claimed to have executed a sophisticated cyber-attack, gaining access to over three million judicial case files by infiltrating several judiciary servers. The group labeled the Islamic Republic’s judicial system as a symbol of injustice, oppression, darkness, executions, suppression, discrimination, and both political and mental suffocation. 

In advance of the Islamic Republic’s parliamentary elections, “Ali’s Justice” decided to expose these documents, claiming to unveil the true face of the regime. Among the documents obtained were those sent from various regime institutions – including the Ministry of Intelligence, the Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Organization, the Supreme National Security Council and others – to the judiciary in Tehran.

The group, first mentioned in August 2021 when they released footage from Evin Prison’s CCTV showing violent treatment of prisoners, has continued its activities by hacking government websites. Their actions have included exposing internet filtering documents, revealing the consequences of removing subsidized currency, and hacking websites related to moral policing, the online TV platform “Telewebion,” state broadcasting, and CCTV systems in Ghezel Hesar prison.

One document from this latest breach was marked highly confidential and urgent, dated September 18, 2022, and signed by Majid Miraahmadi – the Deputy for Security and Law Enforcement and the Secretary of the Country’s Security Council. This message to the judiciary discussed the main points and decisions of an intelligence committee meeting regarding the security aspects of the case of Mahsa Amini’s death. The document detailed strategies for information dissemination, psychological operations, and confronting the issue, emphasizing the need to use all capacities to challenge those entering the protest scene.

Additionally, the document highlighted the emergence of anti-government protests in Iran, noting the opportunity it presented for problematic streams and the “anti-revolutionary” movement. It mentioned efforts to bring people onto the streets and the formation of a coalition with different goals, including pushing the regime to back down on the hijab issue. The document also referenced discussions in Clubhouse, mentions of political figures participating in potential protests, and strategies for managing Mahsa Amini’s family and the public narrative.

The hack also released a forensic report on the death of Nika Shakarami, a 16-year-old protester who was killed in one of the earliest protests of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. The document indicates her death was due to a fall from height but also includes evidence of assault and sexual violence. This letter had been previously published, yet doubts about its authenticity persisted. The Iranian Judiciary has cited the “letter related to the case of Nika Shakarami,” as an example of the falsification of official documents.

Nika Shakarami disappeared after attending the initial demonstrations in Tehran’s Keshavarz Boulevard in September 2022. Her family was called to the morgue to identify her after ten days of uncertainty. Although the Judiciary has declared Nika Shakarami’s death a suicide, her family insists she was killed by security forces. 

The Judiciary’s media center labeled the claim of a hacker group leaking its correspondence and files as “fake and fabricated.” Mizan News Agency, quoting the Judiciary’s media center, stated, “Many of these documents, including counterfeit and fabricated administrative letters—even old ones—had been previously published online and have been republished.”

Criticism has arisen regarding the method of releasing such a large amount of information, which includes citizens’ personal details and their judicial records. Critics argue that the privacy of many citizens is violated by the aimless publication of their information, which could potentially be used against them in the future, as this data is released without any protection and made publicly accessible. In response to these criticisms, the hacker group “Justice” added a statement at the top of the “Iran Justice” website, indicating that “as much as possible, documents that damage the privacy of fellow citizens will not be published.”

Iran’s Shift Towards Secularism: Survey Reveals Declining Religious Adherence and Growing Support for Separation of Religion and Politics

According to BBC Persian, a state-wide survey conducted in the autumn of 2023 reveals a growing detachment of the Iranian populace from the government’s ideology, showing a marked preference for a non-religious system. The “Values and Attitudes of Iranians” survey, which remains classified and unpublished by the Iranian state, demonstrates that the vast majority of participants favor the separation of religion from politics and express disinterest in enforcing the hijab on women.

Participants also perceive society as less religious than before, anticipating an even less religious future for Iran. This trend is noted despite respondents themselves being less religiously active than those surveyed in a similar study eight years prior.

The survey involved face-to-face interviews with 15,878 randomly selected individuals, aged 18 and above, residing across all 31 provinces of Iran, including urban and rural areas. This recent survey marks the fourth installment of the “Values and Attitudes of Iranians,” conducted by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s Office of National Projects in collaboration with the Ministry of Interior’s Social Monitoring Center. Previous surveys were conducted in 2000, 2003, and 2015.

Data collection for the latest survey was completed in November and December of the previous year, with the final results confidentially presented to select audiences within Iran on January 20. Recent weeks have seen a surge in media criticisms regarding the concealment of the “Values and Attitudes of Iranians” report from public view, as the results had been released to the public after prior surveys. Given the stark contrast between the survey’s findings and the government’s official stance, the government appears to have intervened to shield the results from the public.

Considering many citizens’ understandable reluctance to trust government interviewers on sensitive subjects, it’s conceivable that the responses to the recent survey are more conservative than the actual societal views. In such surveys, individuals often exercise caution in expressing their true opinions, especially on government or conventional views. Some might even abstain from participating in the survey altogether to avoid unnecessary risks, particularly as the interviews were conducted in the aftermath of the violently-suppressed nationwide protests known as the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. Amid these considerations, a significant ambiguity remains regarding the impartiality of government-conducted surveys and whether any efforts were made to bias the results in favor of government-preferred responses.

The survey’s chapter on “Religious Attitudes and Behaviors” reveals significant shifts in perspectives compared to the 2015 survey. One of the survey’s most notable findings is the overwhelming support for separating religion from politics, with 72.9% of respondents agreeing or strongly agreeing, a significant increase from 30.7% in 2015. In contrast, opposition to this separation has decreased to 22.5% from 36.3% in the previous survey. The survey also assessed opinions on not considering religious beliefs in employment selection, with 61.9% of respondents in favor, up from 42.6% in 2015.

Regarding women’s hijab, 38% stated no issue with women not wearing a hijab, with 46% opposing the unveiling but not interfering with others’ choices. 12.5% reported they would admonish someone for not wearing a hijab. It is noteworthy that in the 2015 survey, people’s opinions about “improper hijab” (incomplete hijab) were inquired, but in 2023, in the aftermath of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, individuals’ views on “not wearing hijab” were questioned. Despite this, the percentage of those who have boldly stated in the recent survey that they have no issue with “not wearing hijab” has seen a remarkable increase.

In 2015, 67.7% indicated that they were opposed to improper hijab but did not concern themselves with others’ choices. Additionally, 6.17% indicated they were willing to admonish others for wearing improper hijab.

These findings, especially when compared to the 2015 survey, indicate significant shifts in societal attitudes toward religious practices and the separation of religion from politics, suggesting an increasing trend towards secularism in Iran. This survey may serve as evidence to support the analysis that, barring the occurrence of war or crippling sanctions disrupting the natural progression of Iranian society, Iran has the potential to evolve into a more open society.

U.S. Cyber Attack Targets Iranian Vessel Behshad in Response to Regional Tensions

NBC News cited three U.S. officials in reporting that the United States carried out a cyberattack against the Iranian naval vessel Behshad. These officials stated that the cyber operation occurred over a week ago as part of the Biden administration’s response to an attack by Iraqi resistance forces on a U.S. base in Jordan, which resulted in the death of three U.S. Army personnel.

U.S. officials claim the operation aimed to limit the Behshad’s ability to share information with the Houthi (Ansarullah) forces in Yemen. The U.S. alleged that Iran has used the Behshad to collect intelligence from cargo ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, providing targeting information to the Houthis to enhance the effectiveness of their attacks on ships.

In the summer of 2021, reports indicated that Tehran had quietly replaced the spy ship Saviz, which had been operating in the Red Sea, with Behshad after it had been damaged by an Israeli naval mine. A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council declined to comment on the matter, referring questions to the Department of Defense, which also refrained from further commentary.

U.S. officials do not necessarily disclose covert operations, including cyberattacks, and have not released additional information regarding the Iranian spy ship Behshad. Despite these events, attacks by Yemeni forces on U.S. ships have continued in recent days, leaving it unclear whether the operation was unsuccessful or if the Yemenis are receiving their information from other sources than the Iranian vessel.

Iran Accuses Israel of Sabotaging Gas Pipelines in Plot to Disrupt Domestic Supply

Javad Owji, Iran’s Oil Minister, declared on Wednesday that the gas pipeline explosions near Borujen were a “plot by Israel” aimed at “disrupting the domestic network in the provinces.” Speaking to reporters after a government cabinet meeting, Owji stated, “The enemy intended to challenge the gas supply to people’s homes, but thankfully, we were fully prepared, and the malicious act was neutralized without causing any incidents in cities and villages, and the gas lines were quickly repaired.”

On February 14th, two explosions occurred in the main gas pipeline network from the south to the north of Iran, near the city of Borujen in the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari province. At that time, Owji had confirmed that the explosion in the national gas transmission lines in Fars province was “terrorist” in nature but did not mention any potential perpetrators. The New York Times, citing two Western officials and a military expert affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards, reported on February 16th that Israel was behind the attacks on two major gas transmission lines in Iran. The explosions did not result in any casualties.

Tasnim News Agency reported that “at 1:50 AM on February 14th, two of the four main national gas pipelines passing through Borujen exploded and caught fire, causing panic among the residents of the cities of Borujen, Boldaji, and Gandman, to the extent that people left their homes and took to the streets.” Service teams appear to have largely restored the operation of the pipeline in short order. The incident follows another sabotage attack in December, when a hacker group which Iran accused of being connected to Israel carried out a cyberattack that disrupted around 70% of Iran’s gas stations.

Temporary Suspension of Imprisonment for Sepideh Rashno Amid Legal Proceedings

In a recent development, Saman Rashno, the brother of Sepideh Rashno, revealed that the implementation of his sister’s imprisonment sentence has been temporarily halted. On February 17th, via his X social media account, he shared that thanks to the legal efforts undertaken by his sister’s attorney, the Supreme Court has accepted a retrial for her second case. The suspension of the prison sentence is effective until March 10th, Mr. Rashno disclosed.

This news comes after Ms. Rashno announced on February 15th that her sentence of three years and 11 months had been activated, requiring her to report to prison shortly. On an optimistic note, Saman expressed hopes the appellate court will ultimately exonerate Sepideh Rashno, avoiding the enforcement of her suspended sentence. 

PEN America condemned the reported activation of the prison sentence for Rashno – a writer and staunch critic of mandatory hijab – in a statement released on February 16th. The organization emphasized the importance of freedom of expression for the vitality of a nation, devoid of fear of governmental retribution. PEN America lauded the perseverance of Iranian women in advocating for their freedom of speech and rights, amid severe governmental crackdowns. The organization highlighted that writers and artists like Rashno play a crucial role in highlighting injustices and inspiring a vision for a future grounded in human rights and freedom for women.

According to PEN America’s recent listing, Iran has become the world’s second-largest jailer of writers, trailing only China, with at least 57 writers arrested in 2022 due to their professional activities. The Islamic Republic holds the dubious distinction of being the largest jailer of female writers globally.

Human rights activist Parastoo Foroohar also voiced support for Rashno on X, stating, “The only thing more beautiful than freedom itself is standing up for freedom.” Rashno, a vocal opponent of the compulsory hijab, was arrested in July 2022 after her public defiance and subsequent forced confession became widely publicized. Despite prior arrests and convictions for her activism, she has continued to challenge mandatory hijab laws. Rashno’s resilience and influence have been recognized internationally, with her name featuring on BBC’s list of 100 inspiring and influential women of 2023.

Renowned Iranian Actress Pardis Afkari Passes Away Following Battle with Liver Cancer

Pardis Afkari, a celebrated figure in theater, cinema, and television, succumbed to liver cancer on Thursday, February 22rd, after being recently hospitalized for the condition. Her husband, Mohammad Najafi, confirmed her demise in a conversation with Mehr News Agency, stating, “Pardis Afkari passed away earlier today in Mofarreh Hospital due to advanced liver cancer.”

Afkari’s illustrious career spanned several decades, during which she collaborated with esteemed theater directors such as the late Reknooaldin Khosravi, Majid Jafari, Shokrollah Goodarzi, Mohammad Najafi, and Qotboddin Sadeghi. Her notable stage performances include roles in “Soosangard,” “Ibn Sina,” “Cherry Orchard,” “Under the Blue Dome,” “Joan of Arc,” “The Wedding,” “Lover’s Death,” “Golden Tooth,” and more. In cinema, Afkari worked with directors like Sirous Alvand, Mohammad Ali Sajjadi, Amrollah Ahmadjoo, Hassan Fathi, Karim Atyabi, Hamid Rakhshani, contributing to films such as “The Girl by the Marsh,” “Gazelle,” “Punishment,” “Collision,” “Remember the Flight,” “Fifty Days of Inflammation,” “The Final Blow” and “Bani Chav,” among others.

On television, she was known for her puppeteering role in “Hadi and Hoda” and acting in series like “On the Path of Zayandeh-rud” and “Five Kilometers to Heaven.” Her husband, Najafi, shared the rapid progression of her illness, which had remained undetected until recently, stating, “It has been less than a week since her diagnosis. Unfortunately, the disease was hidden, and we did not notice it, nor did her condition suggest any illness. From the onset of symptoms, it quickly reached a critical stage, affecting the entire liver and part of the lungs.”

Pardis Afkari, born in 1963, was a graduate of theater studies from Azad University and had completed acting courses at the Anahita Theater Group. She began her cinematic journey with “The Bid Branches” directed by Amrollah Ahmadjoo in 1989. Throughout her career, Afkari’s contributions to theater, cinema, and television have left an indelible mark on the Iranian arts scene, showcasing her versatility and dedication to her craft. Her passing is a significant loss to the Iranian artistic community and to her fans.

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