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March 1, 2024

Iran Holds Elections Amid Calls for Boycott and Widespread Disqualifications, Khamenei Reportedly Rules Out Son’s Leadership Succession, Iran Counters Allegations of Missile Shipments to Russia, and More

Week of February 26, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Iran Holds Elections Amid Calls for Boycott and Widespread Disqualifications

Iranians voted today, March 1, in a highly contentious and potentially very consequential election. Like past elections in Iran, the vote to elect members of the next Parliament and Assembly of Experts will be analyzed closely and will be considered a key measure of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. 

Iranian authorities extended voting hours until midnight, local time, due to very low voter turnout across the country. Notably absent from the elections was Seyed Mohammad Khatami, the former reformist President of Iran who, as of 10 p.m. news reporting, had not appeared at any voting station. State media reported that voter participation in Tehran surpassed 20%. The participation rate for Tehranians over the past four years has been 26.2%. Additionally, reports suggest that by 9 p.m., national participation stood at 38.5%, with Tehran around 23.5%.

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in an attempt to galvanize voter turnout, met with first-time voters and the families of Iran-Iraq war casualties and gave remarks on February 28. He asserted, “Not voting serves no benefit.” His comments aimed to counteract calls from a diverse range of civil and political activists, both within Iran and abroad, who are urging a boycott of the elections, deeming them a facade.

Khamenei’s repeated calls for broad electoral participation come despite silence on issues of human rights abuses, including the arrest and violent suppression of protesters following the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody. “Those who express disinterest in the elections and encourage others to abstain should think more deeply. Not voting accomplishes nothing and does not solve any of the country’s problems,” Khamenei stated, sidestepping the broader reasons many Iranians are signaling they are likely to stay home.

As the elections drew near, the government ramped up its campaign to encourage voting, despite significant skepticism from reformist and progressive circles. These groups argued the elections lack genuine competition, likening them to indirect appointments by Khamenei, facilitated through the Guardian Council and the government of Ebrahim Raisi. Nonetheless, a faction within the reformist camp, including notable figures who have faced imprisonment previously, saw the election as an opportunity to create a formidable minority presence within the parliament.

The regime’s stance suggests that abstaining from voting challenges both the electoral institution and Islamic principles, hinting at dire consequences for the nation’s “honor,” “security,” and “stability.” Yet this rhetoric unfolded against a backdrop of unprecedented candidate disqualifications. Political theorist Saeed Hajjarian, a victim of a government hardliner’s assassination attempt in 2000, remarked, “The system has reached a point where it says, ‘I will arrange the chess pieces of the election myself and manage the game. If I see conditions are not in my favor, I will disrupt everything.'”

Only 20 to 30 reformist candidates received approval to run in the parliamentary elections, which features 290 seats. A similar pattern of predetermined outcomes due to a lack of opposition characterizes the Assembly of Experts elections. The Association of Researchers and Teachers of Qom, a significant clerical body critical of the government, cited a “purification” approach as the reason for its inability to present candidates, a term used by Khamenei’s supporters to describe the government’s efforts to consolidate power.

The Assembly of Experts, tasked with overseeing the Supreme Leader’s performance and selecting his successor, is primarily composed of Khamenei loyalists. Eligibility for candidates is determined by the Guardian Council, whose members are appointed by Khamenei, ensuring the disqualification of any dissenting voices. Among the notable disqualifications is Hassan Rouhani, the former President of Iran, despite his long history of service within the regime’s security apparatus.

Khamenei, overlooking these controversies, emphasized, “We must view the elections from the perspective of national interests, not through factional or group lenses. If the elections are weak, everyone loses.” His call for a “grand and participatory election” clashes with the reality of a populace largely disengaged from the electoral process. A survey by Iran’s state television revealed that 52% of eligible voters were unaware of the upcoming elections, with official surveys on voter willingness kept confidential.

Despite the Guardian Council’s claims of high public participation, Mahmoud Sadeghi, a reformist and former parliament member, highlighted the grim outlook for voter turnout, where anticipated estimates have been as low as 6 to 9% for Tehran. Sadeghi’s comments, alongside the explicit boycott calls from figures like jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi and various student organizations, underscore the deep divide between the regime’s narrative and the public’s sentiment towards the electoral process. As Iran approaches a pivotal moment, the elections serve as a litmus test for the regime’s credibility and the public’s appetite for change, with the outcome poised to shape the country’s future direction – either directly or indirectly.

Khamenei Rules Out Son’s Leadership Succession, According to Assembly of Experts Member

In an exclusive interview with ILNA news agency, Mahmoud Mohammadi Araghi, a distinguished member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts, shed light on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s firm stance against the notion of his progeny succeeding him. Araghi recounted a pivotal moment during Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi’s tenure on the commission responsible for vetting potential leadership candidates. A debate on the qualifications of Khamenei’s son, noted in some circles for his scholarly prowess, was swiftly quashed by the Supreme Leader himself, emphasizing his opposition to any semblance of dynastic rule.

Araghi further disclosed an instance where Khamenei directly instructed a committee to halt any evaluation of his son as a successor, reinforcing his policy that close relatives, especially his offspring, should steer clear of assuming any formal roles within the government. This revelation coincides with comments from Rahim Tavakol, another expert assembly representative, who spoke to Jamaran news site about a clandestine commission dedicated to identifying Khamenei’s successor. Operating under strict confidentiality, the commission’s deliberations remain closely guarded, with Khamenei being the sole consultee on such matters.

Mojtaba Khamenei, the Supreme Leader’s second son, despite having no official government role, has been a recurring figure in political discourse and appears to exercise significant influence within the government. This speculation has been further fueled by opposition figures, including Mehdi Karroubi, a prominent Green Movement leader under house arrest, who has previously petitioned Khamenei to limit his son’s political interventions, notably his alleged support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The debate over a potential hereditary succession has also been highlighted by Mir Hossein Mousavi, Iran’s former Prime Minister who has been held under tight house arrest for many years. Mousavi’s public warnings against the rumors of Mojtaba succeeding his father posthumously put the onus on top government figures to dispel such notions.

Despite ongoing health rumors concerning the 84-year-old leader, Khamenei’s active participation in public events continues to dispel most public concerns over his immediate capacity to lead. The Assembly of Experts, constitutionally mandated to elect the Supreme Leader’s successor, has often been criticized for its lack of oversight of Khamenei. The looming selection process gains additional gravity given Khamenei’s advanced age, with notable figures like Hassan Rouhani emphasizing the critical role of the next assembly. The extensive disqualifications by the Guardian Council, including of long-time Assembly of Experts member Rouhani, appears aimed at consolidating a cohesive conservative or hardline group for future leadership selection.

Iranian Singer Shervin Hajipour Faces Harsh Sentencing Amid Protest Anthem’s Global Acclaim

In a striking move by the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, singer-songwriter Shervin Hajipour, known for his protest anthem “Baraye,” has been subjected to a severe verdict that includes years of imprisonment, an unusual mandate to compose music condemning American actions, and a ban on international travel. Revealing the Revolutionary Court’s decision through his Instagram on Friday, Hajipour’s case has already attracted attention from Abram Paley, the U.S. Deputy Special Representative for Iran Affairs. Paley criticized the sentence as a perpetuation of the regime’s repressive tactics, while also acknowledging the worldwide impact of Hajipour’s protest anthem “Baraye,” a song that has resonated deeply within and beyond Iran’s borders.

On Monday, Hajipour disclosed the court’s decision to sentence him to three years and eight months in jail, alongside a two-year travel ban and the directive to engage with Islamic literature, specifically on women’s legal status within Islam. Despite his non-remorseful stance in court, he faced charges of “propaganda against the system” and “inciting riots to disrupt national security,” leading to significant prison time.

Further stipulations from the court include a two-year prohibition on leaving the country and a requirement to promote the Islamic Revolution’s cultural, scientific, and artistic achievements. Additionally, Hajipour is compelled to critique American human rights infractions through his music and participate in a behavioral and artistic skill enhancement course.

Hajipour’s refusal to express regret for aligning his music with oppositional and anti-revolutionary sentiments was specifically noted in the court’s judgment. “Baraye,” inspired by the tragic death of Mahsa Amini and the subsequent protests, not only became a viral hit, amassing over 40 million views in less than a day but also symbolized widespread dissent against the Iranian government.

Despite his initial arrest and subsequent release on bail, the removal of “Baraye” from Hajipour’s Instagram did little to quell his legal challenges, which have included multiple summons to court. The song, and Hajipour’s broader case, continue to be central to the protest movement within Iran and among the global diaspora. Hajipour’s international recognition for “Baraye” culminated in receiving the “Best Song for Social Change” award at the 2023 Grammy Awards, highlighting his significant role amid Iran’s tumultuous political landscape. Notably, First Lady Jill Biden was on hand at the award show to present the award to Hajipour in absentia. The Iranian government’s crackdown has seen many artists, including pop musician Mehdi Yarrahi, face severe repercussions for their solidarity with the movement, underscoring the government’s rigorous suppression of dissenting artistic expression.

Iran Counters Western Media Allegations on Missile Shipments to Russia

The Islamic Republic of Iran, through its United Nations Mission, has vehemently denied allegations in Western media regarding its reported sale of ballistic missiles to Russia amid the ongoing Ukraine conflict. The mission claimed Iran is dedicated to prevent an escalation of the Russia-Ukraine war.

According to a report by IRNA on Friday, Iran, despite facing no formal multilateral legal barriers to ballistic missile sales, chooses to ethically abstain from arms dealings amid the Russia-Ukraine skirmish. “Iran’s commitment to international laws and the UN Charter underpins this ethical stance,” stated the Iranian UN Mission. This declaration comes in the wake of a Reuters report earlier this week, which suggested that Iran had supplied Russia with a significant cache of ground-to-ground ballistic missiles, thereby deepening the military cooperation between the two nations under the shadow of U.S. sanctions. The United States, however, has yet to confirm the actual transfer of ballistic missiles from Iran to Russia.

John Kirby, the US National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications, highlighted on Thursday the potential for intensified sanctions against Iran in light of its sustained support for what he termed Russia’s “brutal war” in Ukraine. “The US is poised to escalate its response should Iran proceed with the sale of ballistic missiles to Russia,” Kirby warned. “Iran’s support for Russia is not without its quid pro quo; Russia, in turn, has provided Tehran with unprecedented defense cooperation, leaving Iran in pursuit of billions of dollars in military equipment from Russia,” Kirby further elaborated.

Reports in September 2023 highlighted the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ display of short-range ballistic missiles, including the Ababil, to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, marking the first public exhibition of Iranian ballistic missiles to a senior Russian figure since 2022. Kirby also underscored Russia’s purported intentions to acquire missiles from Iran, pointing out the dire ammunition shortage facing Ukrainian forces and the stalling of additional funding for Kyiv in the US Congress. He reiterated the US and its Western allies’ accusations of Moscow seeking arms from Iran and North Korea to sustain its military operations in Ukraine, despite a significant ramp-up in Russia’s domestic arms production—a claim consistently refuted by Iranian authorities.

On the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Joe Biden announced over 500 new sanctions against Moscow, echoing the allegations of Russian dependence on military support from Iran and North Korea. “Two years into this war, the brave people of Ukraine continue to fight with extraordinary courage, but their ammunition is running low. Ukraine needs more military aid from the U.S. to withstand the relentless Russian assaults, made possible by arms and ammunition from Iran and North Korea,” Biden emphasized, urging the House of Representatives to pass the National Security Supplemental bill without delay.

Reuters, citing unnamed sources, reported on Wednesday that Iran has dispatched hundreds of ground-to-ground ballistic missiles to Russia, including approximately 400 “Fateh-110” and “Zolfaghar” missiles. The shipments, which reportedly began in early January following agreements finalized last year between Iranian and Russian military officials in Tehran and Moscow, have included at least four missile consignments with more planned. Some of these missiles were transported via the Caspian Sea and others by air to Russia.

In response to the Reuters report, the US has warned of a “swift and severe” international reaction if the allegations are confirmed. Kirby highlighted the U.S.’s intention to bring up the issue at the United Nations Security Council and to consider further sanctions and additional measures in coordination with allies and partners. As military cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine in February 2022, Tehran has acknowledged sending drones to Russia but maintains they were not intended for use in the Ukraine war.

This summer, Iran exhibited its military hardware in Moscow, showcasing weapons not previously sold to foreign countries and specifically designed for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, including the Zahir and Ababil ballistic missiles and Shahed-129 and Shahed-133 drones, along with long-range Arash suicide drones. Details on the full scope of military exchanges between Iran and Russia remain undisclosed.

Russia Launches Iranian Satellite Amid Deepening Tehran-Moscow Ties

In the face of increasing scrutiny from Washington over the strengthening security relationship between Tehran and Moscow, TASS, the Russian state news agency, reported a significant development in space collaboration between the two nations. A Soyuz rocket successfully launched into space, carrying the “MetOp-M” meteorological satellite along with 17 smaller satellites, among them Iran’s Pars-1, from the Vostochny Cosmodrome.

The Iranian Ministry of Communications confirmed the launch, with Minister Isa Zarepour announcing on the eve of the launch that “a Russian launcher is scheduled to send an Iranian satellite into space on Thursday.” He highlighted the Pars-1 satellite, described as a wholly Iranian-made imaging satellite, marking the twelfth launch under the country’s current administration, emphasizing the move towards “expanding international interactions.” Equipped with a high-resolution camera capable of 15-meter resolution imagery, Pars-1 is reportedly aimed at providing comprehensive photographic coverage of Iran, aligning with the nation’s scientific and surveillance ambitions. This launch follows the Iranian Space Agency’s 2019 announcement of the satellite’s intended deployment, marking a significant milestone in Iran’s space endeavors amid previous launch failures.

A spokesperson from the Russian private company Sputnik also confirmed to TASS that 17 of its manufactured satellites were part of the payload, indicating a broad scope of international and commercial interests in this launch. Historically, Iran’s satellite launches have faced challenges, with a notable failure rate that has sparked speculation, including suggestions from Iranian officials that the U.S. and other external actors engaged in deliberate interference. This launch isn’t the first instance of Russian assistance in deploying Iranian satellites, underscoring Russia’s leading role in aerospace technologies and its willingness to support Iran’s space program despite Western sanctions aimed at curbing Iran’s missile and rocket capabilities.

Bilateral relations between Iran and Russia, particularly in space technology, have raised concerns in the U.S. and among its allies, fearing enhanced surveillance capabilities that could shift regional power dynamics. However, Iran maintains that its space missions, including Pars-1, are purely for scientific research, dismissing suggestions of military applications. The successful launch of Pars-1 not only represents a significant achievement for Iran’s space ambitions but also another notable point of cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, further deepening their strategic partnership amid a landscape of international sanctions and diplomatic challenges.

Families Rally for Specialized Medicine Amid Healthcare Shortfalls in Tehran

On February 27th, families and patients suffering from Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) took to the streets in a poignant protest outside Tehran’s Ministry of Health, voicing their frustration over the dire shortage of crucial medications for the debilitating genetic condition. Characterized by gradual muscle degeneration and paralysis, SMA is a result of damage to the spinal cord’s motor neurons, dramatically affecting muscle control and leading to severe disability.

Armed with placards bearing urgent appeals such as “Mr. President, the lives of SMA patients are at risk without medication” and “Mr. Minister, do not gamble with human lives,” demonstrators sought to pressure the government into ensuring the provision of these life-preserving drugs. The protest highlights ongoing struggles within Iran’s healthcare system, particularly the discontinuation of SMA medication distribution due to funding deficiencies as reported by Tehran’s “Shargh” newspaper on December 12th. This has significantly worsened the conditions for those afflicted by the disease, for whom medication is not just treatment but a lifeline.

Protesters lambasted the perceived mismanagement of allocated healthcare funds, accusing government officials of negligence. The Ministry of Health’s prior statements citing budget shortfalls have done little to quell the rising discontent among SMA patients and their families, who have repeatedly called for the government to fulfill its responsibilities.

In the face of mounting protests, President Ebrahim Raisi has acknowledged the issue, inviting several families for discussions, a gesture that suggests a potential shift towards addressing their grievances. Additionally, parliamentary figures have advocated for a meeting between the Speaker and affected families to fast-track the acquisition of SMA medications. Deputy Speaker Abdolreza Mesri proposed forming a dedicated task force with the Health Minister and the Food and Drug Organization to tackle this healthcare crisis head-on.

The plight of SMA patients is exacerbated by respiratory muscle complications, leading to severe breathing problems and, in some cases, death. Haydar Mohammadi, the Director-General of Medicines at the Food and Drug Organization, emphasized that the importation of SMA drugs hinges on approval by the country’s Drug List Committee, which has yet to endorse the cost-effectiveness of these treatments.

Notably, the negotiations that led to the release of five Iranian-American dual nationals in September included an arrangement that was supposed to ensure Iran had access to $6 billion of its own restricted assets for purchases of medical and other humanitarian goods. These assets were transferred from South Korea through Switzerland to Qatar, where the Treasury Department was to have a direct oversight role on the use of the funds. However, after the October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas, many Republican Senators demanded the assets be frozen. Bending at least partially to this campaign, the administration has announced that these assets will not be released anytime soon and that there is a “quiet understanding” with Qatar not to release the assets. Separately, U.S. officials have indicated that Iran has purchased humanitarian goods using its assets held abroad in Oman.

Despite the government’s insistence on financial hurdles affecting drug imports, the persistent protests shed light on a healthcare system in distress, leaving families in a perpetual state of hope for a resolution that would bring their loved ones the treatment they desperately need.

Dr. Mohammad Tavakol, Pillar of Iranian Wrestling, Dies at 89

Renowned for his pivotal role in wrestling both domestically and internationally, Dr. Mohammad Tavakol, the esteemed former president of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, passed away at the age of 89 on Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024. Born in Qazvin in 1935, Dr. Tavakol’s illustrious journey spanned the realms of medicine and sports and left an indelible mark on the world of wrestling.

After earning his medical degree from the University of Tehran, Dr. Tavakol pursued further specialization in gynecological oncology in England in 1964. His dual career in medicine and wrestling showcased a remarkable synergy, notably when he recounted his personal connections with wrestling champions, including Alireza Dabir, whose birth he attended as a physician.

Dr. Tavakol’s wrestling career was nurtured under the tutelage of Habibollah Bolor, flourishing during his university years where he not only joined the national university wrestling team but also led the University of Tehran’s team as captain. Transitioning from the mats to administrative roles, Dr. Tavakol initially helmed the Deaf Sports Federation, eventually ascending to the presidency of the Iranian Wrestling Federation. His contributions were recognized on a global scale when he joined the International Wrestling Federation (FILA)’s Executive Committee in 1976, further solidifying his influence as a member of the Asian Wrestling Federation and FILA’s Medical Commission.

Throughout his tenure, Dr. Tavakol was instrumental in steering FILA’s decisions, leveraging his leadership to advocate for the sport’s integrity and fairness. His departure from FILA in 2010, after 24 years of dedicated service, marked the end of an era and underscored the challenges of maintaining such a pivotal position without adequate support from national federations.

Dr. Tavakol’s legacy extends beyond his administrative acumen, as he is remembered for his commitment to advancing wrestling on the international stage. His contributions were celebrated in a ceremony at Behesht Zahra cemetery, attended by luminaries from the wrestling world and federation officials who paid tribute to his enduring impact on the sport.

In light of Dr. Tavakol’s passing, the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) extends its deepest condolences to his family, friends, and the countless individuals who admired and were inspired by his life and work. His legacy will undoubtedly continue to inspire future generations within the wrestling community and beyond.

Iran’s Wage Crisis: Poverty Line Soars as Workers Struggle with Inadequate Pay

In a stark revelation, Hamidreza Imam-Qoli-Tabar, the inspector for the Supreme Assembly of Workers’ Representatives, has brought to light the escalating poverty crisis gripping Iranian families. With the poverty threshold now exceeding a staggering 25 million Tomans (500$) for a household of four, the disconnect between the cost of living and workers’ wages in Iran has never been more pronounced. Imam-Qoli-Tabar underscored the harsh reality faced by many, as current wages fall drastically short of covering even half of the necessary living expenses, placing workers in an increasingly untenable situation.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the monthly minimum wage in Iran is below 6 million Tomans ($100), a figure woefully inadequate in meeting the basic needs of the average Iranian worker. This glaring wage gap not only undermines the ability of families to maintain a decent standard of living but also raises the specter of mass migration, as workers are compelled to seek better-paying opportunities abroad. The disparity becomes even more evident when compared to the minimum wages in neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iraq, where workers earn significantly more.

Imam-Qoli-Tabar also challenged the notion that raising wages would fuel inflation. Citing data from the previous year, he pointed out that a 27 percent increase in wages coincided with a 45 percent inflation rate, effectively debunking the myth of a causal relationship between the two. He further argued that in countries where inflation rates hover near zero, worker salaries are often ten times higher than those in Iran, highlighting a global wage disparity that leaves Iranian workers at a distinct disadvantage.

The financial strain on Iranian workers is exacerbated by the necessity of taking out loans to cover living expenses, including  wedding costs and household repairs. Paying down these financial obligations can be extremely burdensome, consuming up to thirty-five percent of a worker’s monthly income as they grapple with the spiraling cost of living.

Criticizing the government’s stance on wage policy, Imam-Qoli-Tabar noted an increased effort to suppress wage growth, a strategy that ignores the clear lack of correlation between wage increases and inflation. This approach has placed workers in a precarious position, navigating a challenging economic landscape with diminishing support.

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