June 21, 2024

Tight Contest Among Pezeshkian, Jalili, and Ghalibaf Despite Widespread Apathy, Swedish Diplomat Exchanged for Hamid Nouri, Nine People Dead After Fire at Qaem Hospital in Rasht, and More

Week of June 17, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Tight Contest Among Pezeshkian, Jalili, and Ghalibaf in an Election Where 50% of the Population Shows Little Interest in Voting

In less than a week, Iran will hold its early presidential elections, and the approved candidates are endeavoring to attract voters. The competition primarily appears to be between three candidates: Masoud Pezeshkian, associated with the reformists, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and Saeed Jalili, representing different conservative factions. According to recent polls, Mostafa Pourmohammadi, Alireza Zakani, and Amir Hossein Ghazizadeh Hashemi are less likely to succeed. If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the June 28 election, the top two candidates will participate in a run-off election in the days to follow.

Candidates are vigorously campaigning through state media and have participated in two debates, individual programs and discussions with experts and critics. They are also very active on social media, alongside conducting various travels and in-person meetings.

Among the main contenders, Masoud Pezeshkian is striving to present a distinct image of himself, emphasizing the need for expert opinions in his speeches and critiquing selective policies of the Islamic Republic. He is also seeking to address the concerns of the lower social classes and has strongly criticized social injustice, particularly stressing the importance of paying attention to ethnic and religious minorities.

Pezeshkian has highlighted the poor economic conditions in Iran’s border provinces, criticizing the current economic planning which, according to him, results in development concentrated around Tehran and neglects other regions. He argues that regions predominantly inhabited by Sunni populations are unfairly treated.

On economic issues, Pezeshkian has criticized the negative impact of sanctions as disastrous in undermining  populist policies. He indicated that without internal unity and improved foreign relations, resolving economic challenges is unfeasible.

He further emphasized the need to shift perspectives in foreign policy and improve relations with the West, aligning with former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s defense of the JCPOA during a television program. Zarif criticized opponents of the agreement, including the current government and conservative factions, stating that they are major obstacles to re-engaging with the deal under Joe Biden’s early presidency.

Another key focus for Pezeshkian is his opposition to policies such as the expulsion of students and professors from universities. He has strongly opposed these policies and invited Mr. Mohammad Fazeli, a dismissed university professor, to go on state television to participate with him in an election roundtable. After a heated debate with one of the more radical TV hosts in which he was falsely accused of being fired from the university for lying, Fazeli threw his microphone and walked off the set. This act was welcomed by some critics of the exclusionary policies that have been prevalent at universities in recent years.

Pezeshkian has consistently strived to avoid confrontation with Khamenei and emphasize the need for unity with the core power establishment. During both of the initial debates and other television appearances, he has repeatedly stated his intention to implement the policies endorsed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Pezeshkian has garnered support from many reformist power centers, including figures such as former President Seyed Mohammad Khatami and Mehdi Karroubi, the imprisoned leaders of the Green Movement. Many members of Hassan Rouhani’s government also support Pezeshkian, as do some disqualified candidates like Alireza Akhundi. Additionally, Jalal Djalalizadeh and Hamideh Zarabadi, two candidates who were unable to participate in the elections, have also endorsed Pezeshkian.

Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, who was one of the main commanders of the Revolutionary Guards during the Iran-Iraq War and later served as the head of the national police, positions himself as a strong manager capable of solving various national problems. While acknowledging the impact of sanctions on the current situation, he has also advocated looking eastward as a strategy to circumvent them, evident in his references to BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Additionally, as the Speaker of the Parliament, Ghalibaf played a role in passing a law mandating Iran to increase uranium enrichment after the assassination of nuclear scientist Mohsan Fakhrizadeh, which Zarif and others have alleged presented one of the obstacles to re-implementing the JCPOA during Biden’s presidency.

In this election, Ghalibaf aims to attract voters with enticing economic promises, such as increasing the public’s share of cash subsidies. However, corruption allegations, including alleged travel abroad for high-end shopping involving his family, have dogged his campaign.

One of the most notable commitments made by Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf during the second debate was his priority to build a wall along Iran’s eastern borders, which some saw as echoing the infamous Trump plan for a wall along the southern border of the United States. Drawing on his background as the head of the national police, he alleged that unauthorized migrants significantly contribute to social issues related to drugs, employment, and divorce.

During Ghalibaf’s tenure as the police chief in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a 30-kilometer wall was built along part of the Iran-Afghanistan border in the Sistan and Baluchistan province, intended to block drug smuggling caravans. However, a few months after the wall’s construction, the drawbacks of this costly project became evident. In many areas, shifting sands quickly transformed the border walls into small mounds that neither camel caravans nor Toyota pickup trucks used by smugglers found to be significant obstacles. Where sandstorms had not occurred, smugglers simply bought a new pickup and used two ladders to overcome the barrier—vehicles previously crossing at border points without a wall would now stop just short of the wall, transfer their cargo to a new vehicle waiting on the other side, and continue their journey to near Semnan with ease, facilitated by night-vision cameras, according to the then-executive director of the anti-drug headquarters. About 1,800 kilometers of Iran’s eastern borders are largely impassable and naturally walled off in many areas, while the harsh environmental and atmospheric conditions in other parts do not permit permanent and physical control.

Saeed Jalili, Iran’s steadfast nuclear negotiator during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, represents the radical anti-West faction in this election. Jalili’s central belief is that Iran can achieve economic growth without agreements with the West. He views economic growth as dependent on “seizing opportunities” and considers community involvement as the crucial factor for economic advancement.

He argued that economic growth should not be contingent on attracting foreign investment. Jalili criticized Hassan Rouhani’s government, stating that it had written to the Expediency Discernment Council claiming it could not pay next month’s salaries without an international agreement. Despite the lack of such an agreement, salaries continue to be paid.

Jalili also plans to attract capital and utilize young scientists. He called for everyone to contribute to a transformative effort, emphasizing that “historical opportunities” exist that should be leveraged to transform Iran’s economy into a productive one, thereby securing its place in the global economy. He also opposed international anti-money laundering regulations, stating during his time at the Supreme National Security Council that anti-money laundering measures should be implemented without waiting for FATF approval. He criticized previous officials for not addressing these issues adequately and accused some of trying to use this as an excuse for their inefficiencies, questioning the relevance of such regulatory measures to the distribution of subsidies.

Zakani, Qazi Zadeh Hashemi, and Pourmohammadi have lesser chances in this election. While Zakani and Qazi Zadeh Hashemi are closely aligned with the campaigns of Saeed Jalili and Bagher Ghalibaf and are critical of Pezeshkian, Mostafa Pourmohammadi discusses the impact of sanctions on Iran’s economy from a more moderate perspective, which garners appreciation from many of Pezeshkian’s supporters.

Recent polls indicate a close race among Pezeshkian, Jalili, and Ghalibaf. While most surveys show voter turnout around 50%, the rankings of the top three candidates vary. For instance, an ISPA poll conducted on June 18 and 19 by the Academic Jihad organization places Saeed Jalili first with 26%, Masoud Pezeshkian second with 20%, and Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf third with 19%. Meanwhile, a Meta poll from the same date shows Pezeshkian leading with 30%, followed by Ghalibaf at 29%, and Jalili trailing with 23%. The IRIB Research Center also predicts that the election is likely to go to a second round, with the top three candidates closely matched.

Prominent Sunni Cleric Criticizes Iran’s Election Restrictions

In a pointed critique of Iran’s presidential electoral process, Molavi Abdul Hamid, a well-known Sunni cleric and the Sunni Friday Prayer leader in Zahedan, has voiced strong opposition to the ongoing restrictions on candidacy based on gender and religious affiliation. His comments came ahead of the fourteenth presidential election scheduled for July 28.

Speaking in Zahedan, Abdul Hamid highlighted the systemic exclusion faced by women and Sunni citizens who wish to participate in the political process. “Despite their qualifications, women were registered for the presidency but ultimately sidelined. Likewise, Sunni elites such as Dr. Djalali Zadeh faced barriers merely due to their faith,” he explained during his sermon.

The cleric emphasized that leadership effectiveness should transcend religious, ethnic, or gender identities, advocating for a president endowed with comprehensive powers and the intellectual capacity to govern over 85 million Iranians. “The reality in Iran contrasts starkly with other nations; our presidents wrestle with insufficient authority, limiting their ability to address the nation’s myriad problems,” he added.

Reflecting on the stringent qualifications mandated by Iranian law, which requires that presidential candidates adhere to the nation’s official religion, Molavi Abdul Hamid condemned these stipulations as discriminatory and un-Islamic. “The constitution is not infallible—it contradicts both Islamic tenets and international norms by denying more than twenty million Sunnis their rights due to their religious identity,” he remarked.

He further criticized the political establishment’s reluctance to appoint Sunnis to high office, recounting personal appeals to past presidents which were unfruitful due to external pressures and parliamentary disapproval. “I was told candidly by one president that decisions are made elsewhere, underscoring the lack of autonomy even at the highest levels of our government,” he disclosed.

Abdul Hamid also challenged the prohibition against women holding the presidency, arguing that no Islamic or traditional texts explicitly justify such bans. He cited the historical example of the Queen of Sheba, who is revered in the Quran as a wise and just ruler, to illustrate the capability of women to lead effectively.

As Iran approaches another election, the cleric’s comments shed light on the entrenched barriers that continue to restrict political inclusivity in the country. His call for change resonates with many who find themselves marginalized in a system resistant to reform. Meanwhile, Jalal Djalalizadeh and Hamideh Zarabadi, former parliament members whom Abdul Hamid has defended against disqualification, have both declared their support for Pezeshkian’s presidential campaign.

Swedish Diplomat Exchanged for Hamid Nouri While Ahmadreza Djalali Remains in Evin Prison

Hamid Nouri, a former assistant prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison, who was incarcerated in Sweden, has been released and returned to Iran as part of a prisoner exchange. Mr. Nouri had been sentenced to life imprisonment by a Swedish court for his involvement in the mass execution of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. Kazem Gharibabadi, a senior official in Iran’s judiciary, announced Nouri’s release on the social network X.

The Swedish Prime Minister also stated that Johan Flodrus and Saeed Azizi were on their way back to Sweden as part of the prisoner swap with Iran. Both individuals have now arrived in Sweden. Ulf Kristersson, the Swedish Prime Minister, commented,Iran engaged in deceitful negotiations to secure Hamid Nouri’s release from Swedish imprisonment, using both individuals as bargaining chips. He was convicted due to serious crimes committed in the 1980s.”

Kristersson further added, “As Prime Minister, I have a special responsibility for the security of Swedish citizens. Therefore, the government, along with Swedish security services negotiating with Iran, actively worked on this matter.”

Majid Nouri, son of Hamid Nouri, also posted on the social network X about his father’s arrival in Tehran on Saturday evening (Iran time). The ISNA news agency reported that the Omani government stated it had mediated between Iran and Sweden at their request, which ultimately led to the prisoner exchange.

The exchange reportedly took place on Saturday, June 15, with prisoners from both sides being transferred from Tehran and Stockholm to Muscat. A recorded phone conversation of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian prisoner sentenced to death, speaking from Tehran’s Evin Prison to his wife Vida Mehrannia, has also been released. In it, Mr. Djalali addresses the Swedish Prime Minister, criticizing the Swedish government for abandoning him in the recent prisoner exchange.

Mr. Djalali expressed concerns for his family, stating, “I speak to you from Evin Prison. The terrible cell where I have spent nearly eight years, approximately three thousand days of my life…You left me at great risk of execution. You did not fight for my situation or for the annulment of my death sentence.” Mr. Djalali expressed happiness for the release of a Swedish national and a Swedish-Iranian citizen but noted his continued detainment in Iran as “clear discrimination.”

The sudden release of Hamid Nouri and his return to Tehran in the prisoner swap with Sweden met with significant reactions. Siamak Namazi, an Iranian American who was unjustly imprisoned for years in Iran until his release in a 2022 swap, commented on the swap and failure to release Djalali. He stated on X “Thrilled that (Sweden) got 2 hostages out of Iran but leaving behind #AhmadrezaDjalali on death row was unconscionable & overt show of invidious distinction among citizens. Nouri was extremely valuable to Tehran; (Sweden) could have gotten so much more for him.”

Human rights activists and opponents of the Islamic Republic of Iran described the release of Nouri as “shameful,” while some supporters of the Islamic Republic of Iran celebrated it as a victory for the regime. Vida Mehrannia, along with a group of Iranians, protested in Stockholm against the exchange of Nouri for Swedish citizens, criticizing the Swedish Prime Minister for agreeing to the exchange.

Amnesty International, on Tuesday, released a statement describing Hamid Nouri’s release as “a shocking blow to the survivors and relatives” of the victims of the 1988 executions, contributing to “the crisis of judicial impunity in Iran.” The human rights organization also stated that the Swedish government’s actions embolden Iranian officials to commit further crimes under international law, including hostage-taking. Amnesty International highlighted Dr. Djalali’s case: “Amidst Iran’s troubling and rampant executions, he remains at severe risk of being executed. Swedish authorities must urgently take all necessary measures to ensure his freedom and safe return to his family in Sweden. They must act immediately to protect Ahmadreza Djalali’s rights, including his right to life.

Nine People Dead After Fire at Qaem Hospital in Rasht

The death toll from a fire at Qaem Hospital in Rasht has risen to nine following the death of another injured victim, according to Mohammad Taghi Ashoobi, the president of Gilan University of Medical Sciences. An investigation into the incident has been ordered by the judiciary’s head, with the fire’s origin confirmed but its cause still undetermined.

Shahram Momeni, head of Rasht’s Fire Department, detailed that the blaze began at 1:30 AM on June 18 and was extinguished after three grueling hours. “Upon our arrival, the fire had engulfed the basement and intensive care rooms, starting in the hospital’s utility room,” Momeni said.

He stated that a total of 142 patients were evacuated; emergency services and the Red Crescent transferred 110 to other hospitals across Rasht, while 32 were discharged to their families. In response to the tragedy, the judiciary of Gilan has initiated a legal case on charges of involuntary manslaughter against the hospital.

Founded in 2013, Qaem Hospital is affiliated with Gilan University of Medical Sciences and maintains over 200 beds. It provides a range of specialized services including facilities for medical tourists, with departments for dialysis, chemotherapy, emergency services, angiography, and maternity and pediatric care.

The incident at Qaem Hospital marks yet another fire-related disaster in Iran’s healthcare facilities, following last year’s significant fire at Tehran’s private Gandhi Hospital and a deadly explosion and fire at the Sina Athar Medical Clinic in Tehran in July 2020, which claimed at least 19 lives and injured 14 others.

Canada Lists the IRGC as a Terrorist Organization

Canada has designated the entirety of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization for the first time, aligning with a designation that the United States first issued in 2019 under the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign. Such designations are traditionally reserved for non-governmental militant groups that engage in terrorist acts, rather than a state military that citizens are drafted into.

Nasser Kanaani, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, criticized Canada’s recent designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, calling it a “political, unconventional, and unwise action.” Kanaani condemned this move by the Canadian government, asserting that “Iran reserves the right to respond to Canada’s hostile action.”

Canada officially announced the classification of the IRGC as a terrorist organization, a decision influenced by years of pressure from opposition lawmakers and some Iranian activists in Canada. This pressure intensified following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane in 2020 by the IRGC, which tragically killed 176 individuals including 55 Canadian citizens and 30 permanent residents of Canada. Likewise, the call for a terrorism designation was echoed by some advocates amid the Woman, Life, Freedom protests in 2022.

Dominic LeBlanc, Canada’s Public Safety Minister, stated in a televised announcement that as a result of this decision, IRGC commanders and forces are prohibited from entering Canada, and if found within the country, they may be investigated and possibly deported.

In response to the designation, Kanaani further described it as “a hostile act contrary to established international legal norms, including the principles of sovereign equality and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and it constitutes an assault on Iran’s national sovereignty.”

In retaliation, Italy’s ambassador in Tehran, who acts as Canada’s protecting power, was summoned. The Iranian Foreign Ministry conveyed a “strong protest” to the ambassador, as reported by ISNA.

Melanie Joly, Canada’s Foreign Minister, warned Canadians in Iran about the potential risk of arbitrary detention following this announcement. Joly’s message was clear: “For those who are currently in Iran, it is time to return home, and for those planning to go, do not travel.”

Kazem Gharibabadi, Deputy for International Affairs at Iran’s Judiciary and Secretary of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, also condemned Canada’s action as “hostile and contrary to international law principles,” emphasizing that the IRGC is tasked with safeguarding national security and combating terrorism in the region.

Canada severed diplomatic relations with Iran years ago despite being home to one of the largest communities of Iranian migrants. Relations between Iran and Canada had been tense since the Islamic Revolution, which deteriorated sharply after the death of Iranian-Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi in 2003 while in custody at Evin prison. Nine years later Canada officially severed diplomatic ties in 2012, expelling Iranian diplomats and closing its embassy in Tehran.

The Canadian government has labeled Iran a significant threat to global peace, accusing it of supporting terrorism and violating human rights, and officially designating it as a state sponsor of terrorism. Like Canada, there has been a notable push from some quarters for the European Union to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization, though the European Council has not done so. Josep Borrell, foreign policy chief of the EU, notably argued recently that the IRGC is already heavily sanctioned and that a terrorist designation would “would have no practical effect.”

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