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June 30, 2023

Secretary Blinken Says No Agreement “In the Offing,” But U.S. Open to Deescalation, Iran’s Pharmaceutical Industry Grapples with Crisis and Escalating Drug Shortages, Iranian Reformist Saeed Hajjarian Calls for President Raisi’s Resignation, Lethal Outbreak: Alcohol Poisoning Ravages Iranian Provinces and More

Week of June 26, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Secretary Blinken Says No Agreement “In the Offing,” But U.S. Open to Deescalation

At remarks before the Council on Foreign Relations, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that “There is no agreement in the offing, even as we continue to be willing to explore diplomatic paths.” The remarks come as there has been heightened discussion of the U.S. and Iran engaging in mutual de-escalatory steps, including a prisoner exchange, an end to high levels of uranium enrichment in Iran and limited sanctions relief for humanitarian purposes. 

According to Blinken, “I think whether Iran chooses itself to take actions, or maybe better put, not to take actions, that further escalate the tensions, not only between us, but with other countries, we’ll see by their actions.” A separate official told veteran journalist Laura Rozen earlier this month that “The question is whether they are willing to take steps that will show that they are open to trying to change the current trajectory…That could open up different possibilities and create a different context for a potential diplomatic process.”

Meanwhile, Axios reporter Barak Ravid wrote that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan called his Israeli counterpart to express concerns about Israel “leaking information to the press about indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran.” Israeli officials have been vocal about their understanding of the negotiations this month, and the report indicates that the White House felt a lot of the information leaked was inaccurate and was intended to spur Congressional opposition to the administration’s efforts. Similar tensions emerged in the lead-up to the striking of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.

In Congress, a letter supported by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was signed by a majority of United States House lawmakers urging President Biden to coordinate a snap-back of United Nations Security Council sanctions if Iran moves to enrich uranium to weapons grade. The letter was signed by 249 congressional representatives, including 110 Democrats and 139 Republicans. A similar Senate letter was signed by 26 Senators.

The letters appear to have preceded reports of indirect negotiations exploring deescalation and do not explicitly reference any such understandings. However, Michael McCaul — Republican Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee – sent another letter to President Biden where he warned against any understanding or agreement with Iran, including a limited one. McCaul says that he was “disturbed” by reports of negotiations and called for any agreement – even an informal one – to be submitted to Congress for a formal review under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA). The JCPOA, which was formal and publicly available, was subject to an INARA review in 2015 and Congress did not pass a resolution blocking the agreement from going into effect.

Iran’s Pharmaceutical Industry Grapples with Crisis and Escalating Drug Shortages

Iran is currently facing a severe shortage of essential medications and medical supplies, with the crisis reaching alarming levels. Hossein Ali Shahriari, the head of the Parliament’s Health and Treatment Commission, expressed deep concerns in a recent interview with Donyaye Eghtesad. He emphasized the critical shortage of vital medicines for conditions like Thalassemia and factor IV deficiency. Shahriari alleged that while the commission’s report announced a scarcity of 131 drugs, the reality is far beyond that, with approximately 170 to 180 types of drugs becoming increasingly scarce in the country and fears that this number will continue to grow.

This distressing shortage of medications and medical supplies in Iran can be attributed to several factors, including broad sanctions against the country, the disconnection of Iran’s banking system from the rest of the world due to sanctions, and mismanagement and corruption.

The pharmaceutical industry, responsible for fulfilling over 97% of domestic needs, continues to struggle with liquidity issues that directly impact the supply chain. Last year, an abrupt shortage of common and essential drugs, including cold syrup and antibiotics, compelled the Ministry of Health to import shipments from India. Given that the country’s pharmaceutical industry had previously met demand, the shortages raised severe concern regarding the ability to keep up with future needs. Mohammad Abdozadeh, the head of the Syndicate of the Owners of the Human Pharmaceutical Industries of Iran, has reported shortages of more than 200 items. Outpatient medications like Bromhexine syrup and eye drops, as well as critical drugs required in operating rooms and inpatient departments, are increasingly scarce.

Pharmaceutical companies continue to struggle following the removal of currency subsidies, and price adjustments have not improved their liquidity. Delays in insurance companies paying drug claims and mounting debts within the healthcare system further disrupt the drug supply chain. Efforts have been made to address the situation, including negotiations with the Social Security Organization to settle outstanding debts owed to pharmaceutical companies. However, promises made by the Central Bank to provide favorable loans or grants for pharmaceutical companies remain unfulfilled, adding to the financial strain.

The Food and Drug Organization head has acknowledged the pharmaceutical industry’s issues, including currency transfers and liquidity concerns. Collaborative efforts involving various organizations, such as the Central Bank, the Planning and Budget Organization, Customs, and the Ministry of Security are crucial to resolving the challenges, given that disruptions in liquidity, currency issuance, and insurance payments directly impact medicine availability.

Urgent measures are necessary to make medicine more available. These measures include addressing liquidity challenges, allocating sufficient money for medicine, streamlining currency remittances, and ensuring timely payments within the healthcare system. Cooperation among all stakeholders is essential to ensuring the pharmaceutical market is stable and sustainable to address the crisis and meet patients’ needs.


Iranian Parliament Report Raises Alarms Over Health Hazards of Fuel Oil Burning in Power Plants

A report by the Iranian Parliament raises concerns about the health risks associated with the burning of fuel oil in Iranian power plants. While the United Nations has warned that diesel fuel burning is toxic and deadly and constitutes a human rights violation, Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization indicates that 14 of Iran’s 16 power plants use fuel oil. These conditions have resulted in an increase in air pollution in cities across the country. 

During a public session in the Iranian Parliament, spokesperson for the Article 90 Commission Ali Khezrian argued that diesel fuel consumption has increased as a result of specific sanctions imposed on the country. He expressed concerns regarding the Ministry of Energy’s failure to adopt renewable energy sources for electricity generation.  According to the report, the lack of implementation of clean air legislation in Tehran has resulted in a substantial decrease in the number of clean air days from 15 in the first 9 months of 2020 to just 2 in 2021 and 2022. Under a separate measure, the number of days with unhealthy air conditions increased from 8 days in 2020 to 24 days in 2022. The Tehran Air Quality Control Company also reported only three clean air days between March 2022 and February 2023, indicating the growing severity of the air pollution crisis. 

Several key factors have been identified as contributing to this situation in the report, including a failure on the part of the Ministry of Petroleum to apply necessary standards for fuel usage in power plants, leading to the use of gasoline, gas oil, heating oil, and kerosene that do not meet approved national standards. Iran’s Ministry of Energy has also neglected renewable energy, resulting in increased fuel consumption under sanctions. The report cites insufficient efforts by the Ministry of Agriculture Jihad to establish green spaces along highways and in cities and villages affected by dust storms. The situation is further aggravated by the lack of implementation of modern irrigation methods, with a focus on utilizing urban and rural sewage. The Standard Organization is also required by Article 18 of the Clean Air Law to prevent the importation of substandard fuel. However, no instructions have been issued by the standards organization, and there has been no report on the implementation of this legal obligation.

The economic costs associated with deaths from airborne pollutant particles exceeded $3 billion during 2021 in Iran, according to the latest report by the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, in collaboration with the Air Quality and Climate Change Research Center at Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences. The report also highlighted that the average number of deaths among adults over 30 years of age from suspended pollutants in the air reached 6,398 in 2020 in Tehran alone.

As such, the Article 90 Commission has urged the Iranian Ministry of Petroleum to take immediate action in reducing sulfur pollution caused by diesel fuel, gasoline, and other similar fuels, given the country’s specific sanctions conditions and the need for fuels such as diesel. The Ministry of Industry, Agriculture, and Trade has also been requested to prioritize the scrapping of used cars and motorcycles.

As a result of successive Iranian governments, severe air pollution remains a significant challenge, particularly in major cities such as Tehran, Mashhad, and Isfahan. Iranian authorities claim that they are unable to fulfill their international obligations regarding air pollution because of sanctions. However, as stated in the Article 90 Commission’s report, they have also failed to adhere to domestic legislation, including the Clean Air Law.

Iranian Reformist Saeed Hajjarian Calls for President Raisi’s Resignation, Highlights Challenges for Reformists

In an interview published on June 24, Iranian reformist thinker Saeed Hajjarian called for the resignation of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. He argued that public opposition to compulsory hijab has been a triumph for women and that the concept of a voluntary hijab policy has been driven by persistent demands for more than four decades.

As Hajjarian stated during the discussion, Iran has historically been recognized as a quasi-democracy, but has now become a pseudo-democracy. He lamented Iran’s fall into a mere imitation of democracy and criticized the existing government, asserting that its officials are united in their loyalty and violence propensity, but are lacking in theoretical development or a clear stance in resolving problems.

Hajjarian also criticized Iranian exiled opposition forces, arguing that they are disconnected from the Iranian people’s struggles due to their remoteness from the country. Rather than presenting themselves as a viable political alternative, these groups appear preoccupied with internal issues, often proposing theoretical solutions without considering practical requirements or implications.

Hajjarian also expressed dismay at the current reformist movement status. He illustrated a scene where pseudo-reformists were on one side, pioneers on the other, and the rest sat in a state of paralysis trying to escape. Having faced constant challenges, they have found no space for theorization and novel discourse. They are hampered by a multitude of obstacles and a perceived inability to meet their goals. However, he expressed his belief that time will eventually assist these reformists, allowing them to make clear decisions and clarify their objectives.

Hajjarian was scathing about Raisi’s government, characterizing it as populist, slogan-driven, and weak, like Ahmadinejad’s. But in contrast to Ahmadinejad’s government, Raisi’s government is cash-strapped, which hinders its public support, according to Hajjarian. 

If Raisi resigns or is dismissed due to incompetence, reformists might consider participating in the upcoming parliamentary elections, Hajjarian suggested. Although reformists are not opposed to elections, they must proceed wisely, remembering the crucial interplay between the law and the power to execute it.

Lethal Outbreak: Alcohol Poisoning Ravages Iranian Provinces, Prompting Urgent Action

An alcohol poisoning outbreak has claimed the lives of individuals in multiple Iranian provinces. In Alborz province alone, approximately 14 people died and 100 people were hospitalized due to poisoned alcoholic beverages. Given the ban on alcohol consumption, there is no oversight on the production and distribution of alcohol and there are increasing poisonings of individuals consuming toxic substances – like methanol – passed off as alcohol.

Eshtehard city’s factory in Alborz province was allegedly responsible for supplying the illegal alcohol. In this factory, methanol was mixed with water and essential oils used in cosmetics and health products. In addition to apprehending the six individuals allegedly involved in the production process, law enforcement also seized 6,500 liters of industrial alcohol.

Apart from the victims who have died, others are facing blindness and require intensive care. Chief Justice Hossein Fazli Harikandi announced the death toll and stressed that legal action would be taken against those involved in the sale of alcohol. Previously in 2014, the Iranian Forensic Medicine Organization reported 644 fatal alcohol-related deaths, a 30% increase over the previous year.

West Azerbaijan and Hormozgan provinces were also affected by alcohol poisoning waves. There were 11 cases of ethanol poisoning in Hormozgan with two patients in critical condition, experiencing blurred vision and dizziness. After consuming homemade alcohol, 7 individuals sought medical attention in Sardasht, and 2 were admitted to a specialized ward.

Omid Ahmadi, the governor of Rabat Karim in the Tehran province, also reported an increase in alcohol poisoning cases. According to an investigation, 7 deaths and 22 poisonings were reported in Rabat Karim and Parand. The victims were found to have consumed counterfeit liquor, and the rapid onset of symptoms within six hours led to their deaths. Individuals feared arrest and punishment given the country’s alcohol prohibition, which delayed hospital visits for the victims despite the medical attention they required.

Iran’s stringent ban on the consumption of alcoholic beverages has reduced the per capita consumption of alcohol significantly compared to other countries. However, this does not mean that regular alcohol consumers consume less alcohol. World Health Organization statistics indicate that Iran ranks among the countries with the highest average alcohol consumption, exceeding many nations where the purchase and sale of alcoholic beverages are permitted without restriction. Religious jurisprudence continues to contribute significantly to the occurrence and recurrence of these incidents by criminalizing the production, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. 

Ayatollah Khamenei Calls for Enhanced Internet Regulations, Raising Concerns for Press Freedom

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on judges and employees of the judicial system to address activities that disrupt psychological and mental well-being, both online and offline. By emphasizing the importance of combating behavior that disturbs people, instills fear, and undermines mental security, Khamenei emphasized the obligation of the judiciary to protect public rights through planning, discipline, and adherence to rules. Of course, the remarks come after a crackdown on nationwide protests – including activists engaging in forms of online protests – and increasing moves to push Iran to a national intranet that is increasingly vulnerable to shutdowns.

In recognition of the need for the judiciary to improve its media image, he suggested that media and advertising channels be effectively utilized in order to enhance public perception of the branch. Additionally, Khamenei stressed the importance of safeguarding legitimate freedoms and ensuring that people’s liberties are protected under Sharia law as one of the core duties of the judiciary. In acknowledging the potential conflicts between power apparatuses, he asked who was responsible for bridging the gap and reaching out to the people.

This is not the first time that Khamenei has expressed concern about cyberspace activities. In previous speeches, he advocated for increased government supervision of the “virtual space” and even described Iran’s cyberspace as “abandoned.” The Iranian government has implemented increasing restrictions on access to the internet and social media platforms over the years.

Regarding the role of cyberspace and the media, Ayatollah Khamenei stated in January that “propaganda” played an important role in nationwide protests resulting from the death of Mahsa (Jina) Amini. According to human rights monitoring organizations, the leader’s various positions and warnings may result in severe restrictions on freedom of expression and communication.

Furthermore, a hacker group called “Rise to Overthrow,” affiliated with the People’s Mojahedin Organization, claims to have obtained a letter from the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami. President Ebrahim Raisi reportedly received the letter regarding cyberspace restrictions during the nationwide protests last year. The group asserts that Hossein Salami’s letter dated December 11, 2022, attributes the protests to “foreign cyberspace networks” and urges blocking the entry of this detrimental influence into the nation. According to Salami, virtual space has been neglected over the years. It urges authoritative measures to restrict external networks for a period of several years in order to strengthen domestic alternatives. According to Hossein Salami’s letter, officials advocating for the reopening of foreign networks must not expect the province’s loyal youth to bear the consequences of erroneous decisions made in cyberspace.

Arrests and Tensions Surrounding Makki Zahedan Mosque in Iran

Security forces have detained 3 individuals following an alleged plot from a Sepah member that was targeted against Molavi Abdulhamid, the Friday Imam of the Ahl al-Sunnah Zahedan Mosque. The arrested include individuals from Abdulhamid’s circle, including Abdul Nasir Shahbakhsh, the grandson of Molavi Abdulhamid and an employee of Darul Uloom Mosque, and two photographers from Makki Mosque, Osama Shahbakhsh and Hamed Mohammadinik.

It was previously reported that Zahedan’s Makki Mosque authorities “identified and arrested a person who, on behalf of the IRGC intelligence, had a mission to assassinate Molavi Abdulhamid with poison while pretending to be a religious student.” Following a statement issued by Imam Juma’ah’s office at Ahl al-Sunnah Zahedan, Abdul Nasir Shahbakhsh was arrested. This intense pressure appears to be in retaliation for the mosque’s detainment of the individual allegedly connected to Iran’s security services, as the mosque alleged. A third key member of the mosque, Abdul Wahid Shahlibar, was summoned to the prosecutor’s office on June 24rd and subsequently arrested. His whereabouts are unknown at this time.

According to Ali Mostafavinia, the Chief Justice of Sistan and Baluchistan, Makki Mosque must substantiate the claim that the individual intended to poison students and Molavi Abdul Hamid in response to the arrest. Despite mounting tensions, Molavi Abdulhamid, the Friday imam of Ahl al-Sunnah Zahedan, said during a recent Friday sermon that he is prepared to face any threat to his life for the Iranian nation. He has been a frequent critic of the government’s crackdown on protesters and vocally backed local demonstrations despite the harsh security environment.

Demonstrators expressed grievances and chanted slogans against the government despite heightened security following Friday prayers. Although nationwide protests in Iran have subsided, protest rallies continue in certain cities of Sistan and Baluchistan, including Zahedan. On September 30, 2022, worshippers gathered to protest the alleged rape of a teenage girl by a police chief, following Molavi Abdulhamid’s sermon at the mosque. The ensuing clashes resulted in numerous deaths during security agents’ response, resulting in Bloody Friday in Zahedan.

Tehran University of Arts Students Rally Against Expulsion while Advocating for a Free Iran

Students from Tehran University of Arts protested against the expulsion of Alireza Baradaran Sherka from Amirkabir University on Saturday, June 24. Through a published statement, the students expressed their determination to demonstrate that “nothing will come back” on mandatory hijab enforcement or deter them from promoting the cause of a free Iran.

This marks the second statement issued by Tehran University of Arts students, each beginning with the resolute word “No.” They began the statement by remembering Sane Jaleh, a performing arts student who was tragically killed during protests on February 14, 2011. The students highlighted in their statement, “Neither coercion, repression, nor Doshkas will diminish our will,” referring to the law enforcing mandatory maghnae veil within the Art University, the suppression of students opposing this rule, and the recent threat by the president to confront the protesting students with machine guns.

Amirkabir University students have nonetheless continued in their efforts, highlighting the expulsion of Alireza Baradaran Sherka from the university in their ongoing dissent. In their words, “We see they have not learned! They do not understand that we should never be left alone. The era of harboring hatred has passed; today, we are a thorn in the oppressors’ side. We stand beside the families seeking justice, alongside the wounded from these dark years…We refuse to remain silent on this soil. Despite the fact that a significant victory does not occur overnight, it is through unified actions, both large and small, that we are able to rebuild this foundation.”

In June of this year, Alireza Baradaran Sherka, a master’s student at Amirkabir University of Technology, was expelled by the university’s disciplinary committee for his involvement in student-led political activities. After the repression of students protesting the mandatory veil policy for female students, the students of Tehran University of Arts released a concise statement with the theme “all exams” and firmly stated, “We have nothing to say to you except one word: No!”.

Another statement made by the Students’ Union Council stated, “A sea of blood separates us from you. We, who have been united for nearly a year, have only one word to convey: no.” Using the hashtag “No,” social media users outside Iran have also expressed their support for Tehran University of Arts students.

Iranian Parliament Representative Reports Arrests for Poisoning of Students

In a statement, a representative of the Islamic Council of Iran revealed that “hundreds of criminals” have been arrested in connection with the chain poisoning of students that occurred in the latter half of last year. The representative of Khorramabad in Iran’s Parliament, Morteza Mahmudovand, informed the Ilna news agency that “many of them were apprehended by direct order from their leadership” and are currently being observed and interrogated.

Khamenei acknowledged in March that student poisonings continued to occur, predominantly targeting girls’ schools, and described it as a “major crime” after months of concern. It was stressed by Mahmudovand that leniency would not be given to criminals, liars, and opportunists. The parliament member did not provide further information regarding the identities of the detainees, whom he referred to as “deviants.”

Several weeks have passed since the Iranian Parliament’s fact-finding committee issued a report on suspected poisonings. According to the report, the poisonings were caused by mischievous intent by certain individuals and covert assistance. Since the release of the report and the ongoing pattern of poisoning cases in several Iranian cities, hundreds of people have been arrested according to the representative of Khorramabad in parliament. In the past, Majid Mirahmadi, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Interior, has mentioned the arrest and counseling of individuals without disclosing their identities or motivations.

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