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July 28, 2023

Standing with the People: Jailed Iranian Journalists Defend Their Role Amid Accusations and Suppression, Four Road Police Officers Killed in Terrorist Attack in Sistan Baluchistan, Former Iranian Official Advocates Comprehensive Talks with US, Blowback on Government’s Measures Against Voluntary Hijab, and more

Week of July 24, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Standing with the People: Jailed Iranian Journalists Defend Their Role Amid Accusations and Suppression

Elaheh Mohammadi, an Iranian journalist incarcerated for reporting on the funeral of Mahsa Amini in Saqqez, denied all accusations in her case before the Revolutionary Court on July 26. Another journalist behind bars who was also incarcerated for reporting on the brutal killing of Mahsa Amini, Niloufar Hamedi also recently stated in her trial that she is very proud of her role as a journalist. Mohammadi and Hamedi are among dozens of journalists incarcerated in recent months as a result of their coverage of Mahsa Amini’s death while under the custody of the Ershad patrol.

Mohammadi reportedly stated, defiantly, “I am proud to have stood with the people.” On social media platforms, Mohammadi’s husband, Saeed Parsaei, shared his wife’s defenses, maintaining the hope of her acquittal and release and emphasizing her rejection of all charges. 

Mohammadi and Hamedi were accused of collaboration with the hostile government of the United States, conspiring and colluding to commit crimes against national security, as well as propagandist activities against the system by both the Iranian Information Ministry and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Intelligence Organization in late 2022 following their reporting on Mahsa Amini. Iran’s judicial and security norms prohibit the accusation of critics of the government or journalists without substantial evidence, and the use of torture to extract false confessions. While Mohammadi and Hamedi have not falsely confessed to the charges for which they have been accused, they had been held in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.

According to Parsaei, Mohammadi, during her trial at the 15th branch of the Islamic Revolution Court under Judge Abulqasem Salavati, asserted that she was committed to amplifying the voices of the people and improving their lives for her 15-year career in journalism. “I have never allied with any foreign government, and I am proud that I have remained a voice for the people,” said Mohammadi.

“Iranian government authorities should listen to their citizens, rather than jailing and sidelining their journalists”, according to Mohammedi, who criticized the government’s suppression of journalists. Mohammadi expressed concern that, as the representative of the beleaguered Iranian press, media authority has shifted abroad as a result of the regime’s harsh treatment of journalists, resulting in further resentment among the population. Specifically, she urged government officials to listen to the concerns of the people, particularly women.

Despite Mohammadi’s request, her trial was conducted in private. In advance of the final trials of Niloufar Hamedi and Elaheh Mohammadi, many civil activists and social media users have expressed their solidarity and support.

Four Road Police Officers Killed in Terrorist Attack in Sistan Baluchistan

On July 23, a terrorist attack on the Khash-Taftan axis in Sistan Baluchistan province resulted in the death of four road police officers. The assailants targeted and ambushed a patrol unit traveling from Khash to Taftan, attempting to assassinate the traffic police officers who were performing their duties before swiftly fleeing the scene. The police officers were identified as Mohammad Reza Esmaili, Reza Sheikhi, Hassan Vahidi, and Mehdi Allahpour. 

A specialized police team has been dispatched to the area to conduct a thorough investigation. The Sistan and Baluchistan police announced that “this cowardly act will not go unanswered, and we will teach the terrorists a regrettable lesson.” A judicial order had been issued for the swift arrest of those responsible for this heinous act, which was echoed by Mehdi Shamsabadi, the General and Revolutionary Prosecutor of Sistan and Baluchistan province.

A Midnight Attack on a Tourist Camp at Opert

On July 21, near the border between the forest and the Semnan desert, what should have been a peaceful summer evening for a group of nature tourists transformed into an IRGC attack. Iranian reports indicate that a group of individuals wearing face coverings and clothing emblazoned with the Revolutionary Guards launched the attack on Friday, July 21 at midnight. They assaulted the tourist camp located atop the mountain armed with guns, batons, and shockers.

Eyewitnesses reported that they experienced terrible trauma during the harrowing incident. In addition to shouting, cursing, the assailants ordered everyone out of their tents. Chaos and fear gripped the camp, resulting in several injuries and one hospitalization. Especially for the children present, the event was described as traumatic.

The tourists’ efforts to contact the Semnan governorate to report the attack and seek redress were met with despair. Expressing a lack of hope for effective follow-up, they continue to remain deeply unsettled.

Opert summer resort, known for its breathtaking views and pleasant weather nestled between Semnan and Mazandaran, has always been a popular destination for nature tourism, particularly during the summer. But this recent incident falls in line with a broader pattern of conflicts between business owners and guilds, as well as a rise in conflicts over women’s clothing choices in tourism.

A witness to the incident provided an account of the attackers’ hostile actions. Although he vehemently denied that there was any alcohol consumption or rowdy behavior at the campsite, he recalled the assailants’ accusations that the tourists were reveling on the third day of Muharram.

As a witness alleged, the agents beat the tourists brutally, demanding to know if they had consumed alcohol. In addition to shockers and the butt of their guns, they even targeted a family with a young child in their tent to inflict pain and intimidation. The attackers forcibly removed them from their shelter and subjected the woman and child to violence. In the darkness, screams, pleas, and cries echoed throughout the campsite, resulting in a haunting scene of distress. Tourists were confused and grappling with questions about the legality and justification of such an assault after the attackers claimed they had a court order.

A nature enthusiast, deeply affected by the incident, questioned the absurdity of preventing visitors from visiting mountains during Muharram, as well as the excessive brutality perpetrated against innocent individuals. There are many questions about the motivations behind this horrendous assault, as well as the impact on the innocent people who sought nothing more than a peaceful summer night in nature’s embrace. The nation is watching closely for accountability and justice as the victims of this night of terror deal with the scars of an incident that should never have occurred.

Alleged “Terrorist-Zionist” Gang Planning Sabotage Arrested, per Authorities

The Ministry of Information of the Islamic Republic of Iran claims to have identified and apprehended a gang intending to carry out “sabotage attacks” across six provinces in the country. This group was referred to as “Terrorist-Zionist” by the Ministry, and it was allegedly planning attacks against locations in Tehran, Kerman, Isfahan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, Kurdistan, and Mazandaran. Authorities alleged the group received “financial support and equipment” from Israel.

Among the alleged plots the group was involved in was a bombing of the late Gen. Qassem Soleimani’s tomb in Kerman, as well as public gathering places, fueling stations, electricity pylons, and gas stations. The Ministry also asserted that “43 bombs” had been confiscated from the arrested individuals. According to the Ministry of Intelligence, “(t)hey had even sent videos of these trial attacks to media outlets based in America and Europe prior to their planned operations.”

The group had allegedly already carried out  operations throughout the country including burning several banks, attacking Basij bases, detonating explosives in front of a religious authority’s office in Sari, and displaying Israeli flags and pro-monarchy symbols throughout the country. According to the Ministry of Intelligence, the gang operated as proxy groups under the guidance and support of Israel, with the masterminds residing in Denmark and the Netherlands.

Noor News, an Iranian security news source, reported that the arrested agents were trained in Africa for months to carry out the operations. Over a period of several months, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence claims to have closely monitored the group’s movements, identifying their internal and external members and associates. However, Noor News did not disclose the location of the “sensitive center” the group allegedly intended to target, but indicated that the center was located in Isfahan province, raising concerns about Iran’s nuclear and military facilities.

Typically, the Israeli government is reluctant to confirm or deny involvement in such incidents. Despite continued tension between Iran and Israel, the revelation of the detained “terrorist-Zionist gang” has rekindled national security concerns and potential threats to critical infrastructure in Iran.

Separately, the prosecutor’s office of Kohgiluyeh and Boyer Ahmad provinces reported the arrest of a four-member group, claiming that they had contact with the People’s Mojahedin Organization. 

Former Iranian Official Advocates Comprehensive Political Talks with the United States

According to Ali Akbar Salehi, former Foreign Minister and head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, comprehensive political talks are necessary to reevaluate Iran’s relationship with the United States. The time has come for Iran to engage in broader political dialogues with Europe and the United States, citing advice from China and Russia.

In his opinion, past interactions between Iran and the United States have primarily revolved around specific issues, including Afghanistan, Iraq, prisoner releases, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and nuclear weapons. However, he stressed the need for a more comprehensive approach, encompassing various aspects of the relationship.

Salehi argued that regional and international conditions present a good and appropriate opportunity for an all-round political dialogue with the West, including Europe and the United States. He indicated that both China and Russia had advised Iran to reevaluate its relationship with the United States, suggesting that such a recalibration could help resolve certain issues.

Although Salehi acknowledged the complexities of the Iran-U.S. relationship, he criticized the Iranian side for not taking advantage of opportunities in the past. He expressed the view that next steps should be rational and well-planned rather than chaotic and impulsive. He argued that alternative diplomatic measures could have been pursued instead of resorting to such extreme measures in historical events like the hostage-taking incident at the American embassy in Tehran.

While acknowledging that some of America’s actions have not been favorable towards Iran, Salehi noted that the United States’ historical role has not always been negative. He emphasized President Truman’s actions as a consequence of the Soviet Union’s presence in parts of Iran after World War II, which prevented further territorial losses for Iran.

In addressing Iran’s current economic situation, Salehi attributed part of the challenges to sanctions and part to the inefficiency of the Islamic Republic’s management. As a potential connector between Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, and the Indian subcontinent, Salehi underscored Iran’s strategic position. However, he expressed concern that the limited imports and exports of Iran, along with ongoing business developments bypassing the country, could limit its potential.

In light of global diplomatic developments and realignments, Salehi asserted that Iran’s position as a regional power presents an opportunity for greater dialogue and negotiation with the West, particularly the United States. In order to support such endeavors, he referred to this strategy as “political negotiation” and stressed the importance of strengthening national unity in Iran. In addition to urging engagement with the United States, Salehi also stressed the importance of maintaining stability and unity within the parliament, particularly in light of the upcoming elections. A veteran official and relative centrist and moderate, Salehi’s call for comprehensive political discussions represents a noteworthy vision for Iran’s diplomatic approach to its relationship with the United States, possibly opening space for more extensive dialogue and cooperation.

Escalating Tensions in Strait of Hormuz: U.S. Deploys Fighter Jets, Iran Bolsters Missile Arsenal

Sabrina Singh, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Defense, stated on Monday that the Secretary of Defense has taken decisive action in response to recent Iranian threats in the Strait of Hormuz. F-16 and F-35 fighter jets, alongside the destroyer Thomas Hunter, have been dispatched with approval from the United States Central Command to protect American interests and guarantee freedom of navigation in the region.

In a report issued by the US Navy’s 5th Fleet earlier this month, a merchant vessel requested assistance while transiting the Strait of Hormuz due to harassment from Iranian speedboats. As a result of these events, the Richmond oil tanker was fired upon by Iranian forces on July 5th, spurring the intervention of the US Navy.

Tensions in the region have intensified over the past four years over Iran’s seizure of several oil tankers and commercial vessels, along with the capture of numerous Iranian oil tankers. Most attacks on oil tankers in the Oman Sea and Persian Gulf are typically attributed to Iran or its Houthi militias. 

However, the recent flare of tensions appears to stem from an American seizure of an Iranian oil tanker – the Suez Rajan – in April. That tanker was escorted to the Gulf of Mexico, where U.S. authorities are seeking to auction the seized oil to fund compensation for victims of terrorism.

During a ceremony attended by senior naval officers, the Iranian Minister of Defense and Support of the Armed Forces, Mohammadreza Ashtiani, announced the provision of long-range strategic cruise missiles “Abu Mahdi” for the Iranian Armed Forces and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Ashtiani stated that the 1,000-kilometer range will significantly enhance Iran’s naval defense capabilities compared to previous capabilities.

These missiles, first revealed in 2019, are capable of low altitude flight, evading enemy radars, and can be launched from both mobile and stationary carriers. It is named after Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander of Hashd al-Shaabi, who was killed alongside Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the IRGC, in a US drone attack.

“This missile is one of the sanctioned missiles,” said Alireza Tangsiri, commander of the IRGC Navy, referring to the threat it poses to adversaries. “You will be compelled to retreat another 1,000 kilometers if your vessel ventures within a depth of 1,000 kilometers…Consequently, aircraft carrier-based planes will be unable to operate.”

Several Western countries, including the United States, France, and Germany, have expressed concern and criticism over Iran’s expanding missile program, which is recognized as largest missile arsenal in the Middle East. 

Oman to Manage Portion of Iran’s Unfrozen Financial Resources from Iraq

U.S. Department of State spokesperson Matthew Miller confirmed recent reports indicating that Oman has agreed to oversee a portion of the financial resources released from Iraq. Despite U.S. consent to free Iran’s frozen assets in Iraq, these resources are expected to be used for the procurement of essential items, such as medicines and food, under U.S. oversight.

According to Miller, “The extraction of this money from Iraq was crucial since Iran was using it as a bargaining chip against its neighbor.” He also stated that, “These funds will be utilized exclusively for non-sanctioned transactions, such as meeting humanitarian needs, and all transactions must be pre-approved by the U.S. Department of the Treasury.”

However, the withdrawal of these funds from Iraq and their transfer to an Omani bank account does not constitute the lifting of the restrictions on Iran’s access to these funds. There was no mention of the amount of money to be entrusted to Oman by the spokesperson. Previous reports indicated the United States had approved the release of approximately three billion dollars from Iran’s blocked financial resources in Iraq. 

The news comes following speculation about deescalation between the U.S. and Iran. In contrast, the Treasury Department also announced sanctions against several Iraqi banks for alleged involvement in dollar smuggling into Iran, which the banks intend to challenge.

Iranian Official Dismissed in Unprecedented Sex Scandal

A video allegedly depicting Reza Saghafi, director general of the Gilan province’s Culture and Islamic Guidance Department, engaged in same-sex sexual activity was released on social media and Telegram channels. After the release of the video, Abdul Reza Ali Panah was appointed to replace Saghafi, who was later confirmed to have been dismissed.

This incident carries significant implications. If the video is officially verified, it would be the first time an official of the Islamic Republic has been dismissed for having same-sex relations, which are considered crimes and can result in severe punishments.

Rahmatullah Begdali, a reformist Iranian activist, noted Saghafi was associated with various revolutionary and fundamentalist figures, including Saeed Jalili. The Stability Front of the Islamic Revolution of Gilan, which supported Jalili in the 11th Iranian presidential election, issued a statement denying any affiliation with Saghafi. 

As a result of the scandal, Saghafi has been subjected to intense backlash and criticism on social media, with many users viewing the video as a symbol of the “hypocrisy” and “dualism of speech and behavior” of Iranian government officials. The director of the “Radio Gilan” Telegram channel, Peyman Behbodhi, has claimed that his mother and sister’s home was raided by intelligence agents following the publication of the video, and his two nieces were arrested. They were later released. Behbodhi has threatened to release additional images if necessary.

In addition to the Iranian Parliament, where Speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf stated that the issue had been discussed at a meeting of the Supreme National Security Council, this controversy has also reached the Iranian Parliament. Qalibaf argued that publicizing such matters requires a judge’s verdict if proven. There was also a parliamentary demand for the resignation of the Minister of Guidance and calls for action to preserve the “reputation of believers.”

Bahram Parsaei, former Iranian parliament member, referred to a previous case involving a Quran teacher, Saeed Tousi, who was convicted of sexual abuse of children. Parsaei suggested that if Tousi had been appropriately punished, scandals such as those involving Saghafi may not have occurred.

Iranian Universities at the Epicenter of Renewed Opposition Protests Amid Ongoing Suppression

According to the leader of the organization representing Iran’s Supreme Leader in academic institutions, universities will be the first targets of opposition forces attempting to instigate fresh protests. Dissident students and faculty remain suspended and expelled, while apprehensions remain over the integration of Hashd Shaabi militias.

The university’s representative organization of legal guardians, Mustafa Rostami, cautioned officials affiliated with “Basij Asatid” on Friday. In addition to raising concerns about the impending anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death and the opposition’s plans to conduct protests, Rostami stated, “The university has been identified as the origin of renewed civil unrest.”

Hossein Taeb, the previous head of IRGC-Intelligence, had alleged two days earlier that the United States aims to “instigate challenges in universities and schools.” He urged the government to refrain from taking a defensive stance. Despite these warnings, Rostami reassured Basiji professors that their failure will be complete if they are unable to take any action on the anniversary of past disturbances. In spite of officials’ repeated declarations that “sedition” and “unrest” have ended, Iran has experienced multiple waves of nationwide unrest since the Green Movement’s large-scale protests began in 2009.

Many student organizations’ activities have been severely limited since universities have served as protest epicenters, resulting in numerous suspensions, expulsions, and dismissals. The Roish University of Science and Technology Students’ Association announced on Friday that its operations would be suspended for five months. Despite the university supervisory board’s decision, the association vowed to remain in solidarity with its classmates and remain the voice of students, unafraid of despair or apathy.

Meanwhile, student activists have noted the revocation of the Islamic Culture and Civilization Association’s license at Noshirvani University of Babol, which was communicated verbally to association members. The “Free Thought Association” of Allameh Tabatabai University has been verbally warned that its activities will be suspended in the near future.

Furthermore, the Telegram channel of the country’s student union councils reported that Mehdi Mati and Mohammad Soltani, two professors from the Faculty of Theology and Education at Isfahan University, had been suspended and their salaries cut for their “opposition to the system and Islam.” The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of Kerman University has also recently dismissed two professors. In a statement last week, 29 members of the Assembly of Scientific Associations of the Medical Department of Iran expressed concern about the dismissal and forced retirement of experienced professors, warning of adverse consequences for student education, healthcare services, and patient wellbeing.

In the past fortnight, many Iranian students faced penalties, including study suspensions, the denial of welfare services, and transfers to other universities as a result of their civic activities. Although summer is upon us, student activists report that disciplinary and security measures are escalating, resulting in continuous conflicts within universities. Teacher and trade union activists have also been persistently targeted. A teacher activist named Ateke Rajabi was recently charged with “presence of women in the streets and in public without hijab.”

Blowback on Government’s Measures Against Voluntary Hijab

Government advocates are increasingly calling for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to intervene physically in the highly contentious issue of enforcing mandatory hijab. A subsequent societal upheaval, resulting from women across cities removing their forced hijabs, has led to fears among government supporters that the mandatory hijab, deemed integral to the Islamic Republic, may be abandoned.

As a result of the perceived crisis, guidance patrols have been reinstated on the streets, and the daily influx of social media content depicting religious hardliners confronting women without hijabs adds to the tensions. According to Moinuddin Saeedi, who represents the people of Chabahar on the Islamic Council, the government’s approach is ineffective. As opposed to focusing solely on what is considered a ‘war with God,’ he urged the government to address significant issues such as child labor and gravesite homelessness. Rather than encouraging adherence to religion, Saeedi highlighted the counterproductive nature of current methods.

Recently, four leading mental health scientific associations sent a letter to the head of the Judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni Ajeei, protesting the misuse of psychological evaluations as a basis for rulings against women who go without hijabs. The authors compared such misuse to historical abuses of psychiatric diagnoses in the United States and Soviet Union.

According to Musa Ghazanfarabadi, Chairman of the Islamic Parliament Judiciary and Legal Commission, the emerging trend of women unveiling themselves voluntarily will be investigated. He stressed the importance of accepting and respecting judgments in response to the outcry over controversial rulings against actresses. Through irregular and inconsistent rulings, the judiciary has attempted to curb the trend of women appearing in public without hijabs.

To combat voluntary veiling, Ghazanfarabadi proposed a dual strategy: fostering cultural understanding and punishing those in violation of the law in order to suppress the voluntary hijab movement.

Controversy Over Film Festival Poster Leads to its Cancellation

The Khaneh Cinema short film association awards (ISFA), organized by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, have been canceled in an unexpected turn of events. The controversy was sparked by the festival’s poster, which featured an image of an unveiled woman, Iranian actor Sosan Taslimi. The poster and the attire of some attendees had previously drawn criticism from extremist groups.

Taslimi was announced by the ISFA as the recipient of this year’s special award. The festival’s poster, designed by Taha Zaker, featured Taslimi in a scene from the banned film “The Death of Yazdgerd” by Bahram Bayzaei.

A cancellation of the festival was ordered by the Minister of Guidance, Mohammad Mahdi Esmaili. According to Samoui, representing the Ministry, the photo was taken from a film shot before the mandatory hijab was enacted. He alleged its use was deemed contrary to societal interests due to current sensitivity surrounding the issue of the hijab.

In the 1980s, Taslimi immigrated to Sweden from Iran where she starred in numerous films and plays, including Cherikeh Tara, Basho Gharibeh Kooch, Maybe another time, and the TV series Sarbadaran. A number of attendees failed to adhere to the mandatory hijab at the unveiling event, attracting criticism from extremist groups. The newspaper Kayhan condemned the attendees for flouting national dress norms and laws, as well as calling the festival’s poster an “insult to Iranian culture and law.” Cinema Press deemed the poster “heinous” and criticized the cinema organization’s directors for being silent and passive.

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