May 31, 2024

Iranian Presidential Race Heats Up with Key Figures Declaring Candidacy, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf Re-elected as Speaker of Parliament, Saudi Crown Prince to Visit Iran, Amnesty International Reports Surge in Executions, and More

Week of May 27, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Iranian Presidential Race Heats Up with Key Figures Declaring Candidacy

On Thursday, May 30, the registration for presidential candidates in Iran commenced, with notable figures like Saeed Jalili and Ali Larijani, Abdolnaser Hemmati, Mahmoud Ahmadi Bighash, Mohammad Khoshchehre and Masoud Pezeshkian indicating their intentions to run. Saeed Jalili, 58, a member of the Expediency Discernment Council and former nuclear negotiator, officially declared his candidacy at the Ministry of Interior. This marks the third presidential bid for the hardline candidate, having previously withdrawn in 2021 to support Ebrahim Raisi.

Ali Larijani, former speaker of the parliament, declared his candidacy at the Ministry of Interior. The day before, he hinted at his candidacy with a strategic post on Twitter mapping his route to the Ministry of Interior, where presidential nominations are registered. Larijani, an adviser to the Supreme Leader and member of key governing councils, served as the fifth parliamentary speaker from 2008 to 2020. Known for his conservative affiliations, Larijani has not committed to any political party. He was barred by the Guardian Council from running for the presidency in 2021, though he may be permitted this time.

Hemmati, also 67, once again registered to run for the presidency. Hemmati was a candidate in the 2021 presidential election, where he finished third among the remaining four candidates. He was previously the governor of the Central Bank of Iran. Furthermore, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s former Khorasan-e Shomali governor and the representative for Shazand in the eighth and eleventh terms of the Iranian Parliament, Mahmoud Ahmadi Bigash, also registered his candidacy for the presidency at the Ministry of Interior. Mohammad Khoshchehreh, a former university professor and representative of the seventh session of the Iranian Parliament, joined the list of candidates who registered.

Simultaneously, Masoud Pezeshkian, a veteran reformist politician and physician, announced his candidacy on Sunday, May 26. Currently representing Tabriz in parliament, Pezeshkian emphasized his campaign would focus on boosting public engagement with the electoral process amid domestic and international perceptions of voter disillusionment.

Initial reports from Iranian media also indicated that lesser-known figures such as Mohammad Reza Sabaghian Bafghi and Mostafa Kavakebian have registered. Sabaghian Bafghi is focusing on administrative and political reforms, while Kavakebian, the Secretary-General of the Democracy Party, has emphasized a governance model based on transparency and public trust.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi confirmed that the registration process, which began this week, will continue for five days. This year’s presidential election was only planned after the unexpected death of incumbent President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash on May 19, 2024, along with other key figures. The constitution mandates that the election be held within 50 days of the president’s death, and the election date has been set for June 28.

The Guardian Council will finalize the list of approved candidates by June 11, allowing for a 15-day campaigning period. The upcoming election follows a highly fraught 2021 election where widespread disqualifications by the Guardian Council led to historically low voter turnouts and a significant number of invalid votes. Ezzatollah Zarghami, Minister of Cultural Heritage and Tourism, expressed optimism that the council would permit a more inclusive election this cycle to ensure a dynamic electoral environment.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf Re-elected as Speaker of Parliament

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the incumbent Speaker of Parliament, secured 198 votes to stay in his position, once again assuming the role of the Speaker for the twelfth parliamentary session. He will hold this position until the next internal parliamentary elections for the speakership, scheduled for a year from now.

The Speaker race featured Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, Manouchehr Mottaki and Mojtaba Zolnouri as candidates, with Zolnouri receiving 60 votes and Mottaki obtaining 5 votes. The twelfth session commenced amid Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s criticism of the parliamentary media skirmishes as “fruitless.” With Ghalibaf’s election, he remains a key figure in a council tasked with organizing the upcoming presidential elections, necessitated by the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash. The fourteenth presidential elections in Iran, set to elect the ninth president, are scheduled for June 28.

Over the years, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf has made three unsuccessful presidential bids. According to the parliament’s internal regulations, the elections for the Speaker were conducted first, followed by the selection of the first and second vice-speakers and secretaries.

In the May 28 voting, Hamidreza Haji Babaei with 175 votes and Ali Nikzad with 169 votes were elected as the first and second vice-presidents, respectively. Previously, Hossein Ali Haji Deligani, Abdulreza Mesri, Ali Nikzad Samarin, Hamid Rasaee, Mousa Ghazanfarabadi, and Hamidreza Haji Babaei had registered as candidates for vice-presidency.

Hamidreza Haji Babaei, a minister of education under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, is a veteran conservative who has served five parliamentary terms, including as the head of the powerful Planning and Budget Committee in the previous parliament. Ali Nikzad, Ahmadinejad’s former minister of housing, is also popular among a faction of conservatives. He held positions as both first and second vice-president in the eleventh parliament and led Ebrahim Raisi’s campaign headquarters in both of his presidential runs.

Voter turnout in the twelfth parliamentary elections was announced as 41% nationwide, the lowest in various election cycles, and there were a record number of invalid votes. The official inauguration of the twelfth parliamentary session occurred on Monday, May 27th, attended by military and governmental dignitaries, including the commanders of the Revolutionary Guards and the army, and representatives of Khamenei. Mohammad Mokhber, acting as the interim head of government following Raisi’s death, participated in the event where Alaaeddin Boroujerdi and others were selected as part of the senior chair committee.

Mohammadi Golpayegani, head of Khamenei’s office, conveyed a message from the Supreme Leader to the parliament, urging members to adhere to an “Islamic lifestyle” and “ethical mandates.” Despite the elections being perceived as a move towards centralizing power, Khamenei expressed concern about the intense disputes and conflicts among conservative factions. He called on representatives to foster “unity and brotherhood in the national environment” and cautioned them against engaging in “pointless media competitions and harmful political disputes.” Khamenei also advised the delegates to pursue constituency issues within a broader national perspective and to avoid endorsing excessively ambitious projects that could exceed the budget’s capacity.

This session, however, was not without tension and controversy, especially during the first working week, which saw physical confrontations among members over the accreditation of several deputies. In particular, the accreditation of Gholamreza Tajgardoon from Gachsaran became heated, with claims of threats being made among the members, highlighting the underlying tensions within the assembly. Despite the controversies, Tajgardoon’s accreditation was eventually confirmed, although the Guardian Council had previously rejected his candidacy following several controversies. Several parliamentary members moved to block him, reviving allegations of cronyism, economic profiteering, and exerting undue influence across various government agencies, companies, and the private sector. Despite these issues, his eligibility to stand in the twelfth parliamentary elections was affirmed.

Saudi Crown Prince to Visit Iran Amid Diplomatic Thaw

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is scheduled to visit Iran following an invitation from Mohammad Mokhber, the acting President of Iran, according to a report by Iran’s state-run news agency. In a reciprocal gesture, the Crown Prince has extended an invitation to Mokhber to visit Saudi Arabia.

This exchange marks a significant step in the thawing of relations between the two regional powers, which have seen numerous fluctuations over the years. Mohammad Mokhber expressed his gratitude for the Crown Prince’s efforts to facilitate Iranian pilgrims, reaffirming that the invitation from former President Ebrahim Raisi to Bin Salman remains in effect.

The warming ties were highlighted during a memorial ceremony in Tehran for the late President Raisi, attended by key Saudi officials including King Salman’s special assistant and the Saudi Foreign Minister, drawing considerable media attention.

Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were formally severed in January 2016 following the execution of Sheikh Nimr and subsequent attacks on Saudi diplomatic facilities in Tehran and Mashhad. However, in March 2023, the nations agreed to restore diplomatic ties with China’s mediation, leading to resumed diplomatic activities in each other’s capitals and visits by both countries’ foreign ministers to Tehran and Jeddah.

Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan’s previous visits to Iran had included meetings with Iran’s recently deceased president, Ebrahim Raisi, and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. Amir-Abdollahian also held discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his own visit to Saudi Arabia.

Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the relationship between the Shiite cleric-led Iranian government and the Saudi monarchy has often been strained and occasionally hostile. In recent years, tensions were exacerbated by their opposing stances on issues in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and particularly the Yemeni civil war, which  was considered by many to be a proxy war between the two nations. The conflict has seen multiple instances where Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, have launched attacks inside Saudi Arabia.

Despite the thaw, tensions do continue under the surface. On Wednesday, May 29, six journalists from Iran’s state broadcaster were detained and expelled from Saudi Arabia ahead of this year’s Hajj ceremony. Peyman Jebeli, head of Iran’s state broadcaster, reported that the journalists were detained for a week without clear reasons, Jebeli personally welcomed them back to Iran after their expulsion. 

The incident may be linked to tensions over Iran’s intent to conduct the “Distancing Ourselves from Mushrikin” ceremony during Hajj, a practice Saudi Arabia has repeatedly warned against due to its political nature. This ceremony was added to the traditional Hajj rituals based on an order by Ruhollah Khomeini, the first leader of the Islamic Republic. During the ceremony, pilgrims are required to chant “death” slogans towards certain countries, notably the United States and Israel. Saudi Arabia opposes the holding of this event. On July 31, 1987, the ceremony led to an intense clash between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces. In this event, 275 Iranian pilgrims, 85 Saudi police officers, and 45 pilgrims from other countries were killed, with many others injured. This year’s Hajj has been notably tense, reflecting broader regional conflicts, including Israel’s unprecedented military offensive in Gaza.

IAEA Reports Suspension of Nuclear Talks and Escalation of Uranium Enrichment in Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has reported a suspension of planned nuclear negotiations with Iran following the death of President Ebrahim Raisi. The agency also highlighted that Iran has increased its enriched uranium stockpiles by over ten percent in the past three months and noted a lack of progress in implementing the most recent joint nuclear agreement over the past year.

Amid these developments, a rift has emerged among key global players on how to handle Iran’s nuclear program. European diplomats have indicated a division between the United States and its primary European allies—The United Kingdom, France, and Germany—over whether to pursue a formal censure of Iran over its stonewalling of the IAEA and ongoing nuclear advancements. While the three European nations favor proposing a censure resolution against Iran at the upcoming IAEA Board of Governors meeting, which convenes next week, the U.S. has been reported as opposing such a move, citing the lack of strategic benefits, upcoming presidential elections and a desire to avoid escalating tensions that might provoke Iran to accelerate its nuclear activities. However, recent reporting indicates that the United States is moving in line with the European powers in supporting a censure, despite their prior apparent reservations.

In a broader geopolitical context, Abbas Araqchi, Secretary of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations and a seasoned nuclear negotiator, voiced concerns at a conference in Qatar about the potential regional destabilization due to Israel’s nuclear capabilities. He highlighted last month’s incident where Israel attacked near an Isfahan nuclear site, which he claimed was repelled but illustrated the acute risks of Israel’s apparent aggression.

The discourse within Iran is also evolving. Officials like Ahmad Haq-Doost, who oversees nuclear security for the Revolutionary Guards, suggest that Iran could reconsider its nuclear doctrine in response to direct threats to its nuclear sites. This stance is echoed by prominent figures such as Kamal Kharrazi and Mohammad Eslami, who have affirmed Iran’s capability to produce nuclear weapons while denying an  intention to do so.

Further complicating matters, Javad Karimi-Ghodousi, a former member of the Iranian parliament, also claimed that Iran has the capability to quickly increase uranium enrichment to weapons-grade levels, a situation acknowledged by the IAEA. Following recent discussions in Iran, IAEA Director General Grossi expressed hope for resolving outstanding issues, noting increased Iranian cooperation with the agency.

These discussions occur in the shadow of stalled indirect talks between Iran and the U.S. to revive the JCPOA, initiated in April 2021 through September 2022. While there have been some indirect diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and Iran since then, including culminating in a prisoner swap and indirect deescalation, formal talks to revive the pact do not appear to be occurring.

Amnesty International Reports Surge in Executions in Iran, Highlighting Global Concerns

Amnesty International’s latest global report on the death penalty has revealed a substantial increase in executions in Iran, with Iran accounting for nearly 75% of all documented executions globally in 2023, a staggering statistic and loss of life. While Iran’s figures are largely known, Amnesty International does not provide a figure on the number of executions in other states who are believed to execute on a similarly large scale – including China and North Korea. Globally, 1,153 known executions were recorded by Amnesty International in 2023 – the highest since 2015 – despite the number of countries implementing the death penalty reaching an overall low within the decade.  

The report notes a concerning trend: Iran recorded 853 executions last year, a 48% increase from the previous year.The spike is primarily attributed to a dramatic rise in executions in Iran for drug-related crimes, which surged by about 90% year-on-year. 

In the second term of the Rouhani administration, executions for drug-related offenses had fallen dramatically. However, the Iranian government since criticized the 2017 drug law reforms and oversaw a dramatic surge in death penalties related to drug trafficking under the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi and Judiciary Chief Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei, who took office in 2021. 

Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International, emphasized that the significant increase in known global executions is largely due to Iran’s policies. “Iranian authorities have shown a blatant disregard for human life, increasing executions for drug-related offenses, which disproportionately affect marginalized communities,” Callamard stated.

Moreover, the report noted that at least seven individuals were executed in connection with the nationwide protests in Iran in 2023, underscoring the government’s use of the death penalty to quell political dissent. The report also condemned several countries, including Iran and Afghanistan, for carrying out executions after trials that failed to meet international fair trial standards. Public executions were notably recorded in both countries.

Saudi Arabia and the United States were among other notable states criticized for their death penalty policies. While application of the death penalty varies widely within the United States, the report criticized the move to authorize execution by nitrogen gas in the state of Alabama.

Amnesty International’s findings serve as a stark reminder of the ongoing human rights challenges posed by the use of the death penalty, particularly in Iran, where the government’s policies continue to surge state executions despite widespread human rights and due process concerns.

Iranian Director Mohammad Rasoulof Wins at Cannes, Defies Government Pressure

Mohammad Rasoulof, an acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, received the Special Jury Prize at the 77th Cannes Film Festival for his film “The Seed of the Sacred Fig.” The film, which debuted to positive reception, tackles significant human rights issues in Iran and has ignited conversations about artistic freedom and repression.

In an emotive acceptance speech, Rasoulof stated, “The people of Iran are being held hostage.” He elaborated on the daily struggles faced by Iranians, aligning his heart with those who “wake up to a tragedy every day and hour.” He specifically highlighted the plight of Toomaj Salehi, a musician facing the death penalty in Iran as a result of charges reacting to the sharp political themes of his music and other commentaries, calling for international awareness and action to prevent further abuses by the Iranian government.

Rasoulof himself has been a target of the Iranian regime’s crackdown on dissenting voices. Recently sentenced to eight years in prison and banned from traveling, Rasoulof made headlines with his daring escape from Iran, which he described in a video released after his departure. He asserted, “If you think the borders of Iran are under your control, you are dreaming. If geographical Iran suffers under your theocratic despotism, cultural Iran lives in the collective mind of millions of Iranians forced to flee your oppression. From today, I reside in cultural Iran.”

Despite intense pressure from Iranian authorities, including a demand to withdraw his film from the Cannes Festival, Rasoulof stood firm. Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, had publicly declared that the production and distribution of such films are illegal and vowed to block them wherever possible.

Rasoulof’s win at Cannes not only marks a significant achievement in his filmmaking career but also stands as a symbol of resistance against authoritarian suppression in Iran. 

Iran Secures Over 300 Million Cubic Meters of Water Rights from Afghanistan

Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s special envoy to Afghanistan, reported that Iran has secured over 300 million cubic meters of its rightful water share from Afghanistan this year. Speaking to the Iranian news outlet Irarf, Qomi credited the “interactive approach” of Iran and the “commitments of the Afghan side” for this achievement, expressing hope that by the end of the current water year, the full entitlement of 820 million cubic meters from the Helmand River will be fulfilled.

The 1973 treaty on water rights from the Helmand River stipulates that Afghanistan should deliver a flow averaging 22 cubic meters per second to Iran in a normal or above-normal water year.

Last month, Iranian media showcased videos from the Jarekeh Dam in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, reporting the release of approximately 40 million cubic meters of water from the Helmand River into Iran. According to Firooz Qasemzadeh, a spokesperson for the water industry, this release slightly improved the situation at the Chah Nimeh reservoirs.

Qomi highlighted three “corrective actions” taken by the Taliban government last year that facilitated the flow of this water towards Iran. These included adjustments to the gates of the Kamal Khan Dam and dredging the water transfer routes towards Sistan, which secured the substantial water volume.

However, Qomi noted one of the Taliban’s actions as “ineffective,” which redirected water towards the saline land of “Godzareh,” hindering the provision of a portion of Iran’s water rights.

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi also mentioned last month that recent rains after several years of drought have allowed the Helmand River to flow downstream.

Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, during a visit to the Kajaki Dam, reported increased water levels due to consistent rainfall, indicating that many of Afghanistan’s dams, like Kajaki, are now “full of water.”

Located in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, the Kajaki Dam sits on one of the main branches of the Helmand River, which flows through several provinces before reaching Iran.

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