September 8, 2023

Activists Warn Against Religious Authoritarianism, 500-day detention of EU Diplomat Johan Flodros in Iran, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard’s Declining Health, and More

Week of September 4, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

300 Iranian Activists Unite to Warn Against Religious Authoritarianism on the Anniversary of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ Protests

A statement by more than 300 Iranian political and cultural activists on the eve of the anniversary of the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ protests cautioned against the ongoing threat of religious authoritarianism to the foundations of the Iranian nation and stressed the need for structural changes and referendums. Notable figures such as Abolfazl Ghadiani, Mehdi Nassiri, Parvaneh Salashouri, Keyvan Samimi, and Sediqeh Vasmaghi signed the letter, which stated: “The structure of religious oppression not only shakes the foundations of our nation but also paves the way for future transformations, leading from mobilization and movement toward a potential uprising.”

According to the signatories of the statement, many of whom reside in Iran, the country’s administration is in disarray. They stated that “a series of social, political, and economic crises have resulted from decades of mismanagement by the ruling authorities, which have resulted in bitter consequences for Iran.” As they explain further, “We will continue to advocate for structural changes and a referendum to establish a government arising from the people’s votes to ensure Iran does not suffer any more harm than it has already sustained.”

It follows similar statements from recent months, which were rejected by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to hold a referendum to prevent further damage to the country. The signatories of this statement emphasize, however, that multiple waves of protests have already caused “turbulence and ruptures” in the existing power structure. These have resulted in substantial costs for the government and significant internal turmoil. 

Further, the statement asserts that the government continues to stand firm in its confrontation with the people and treats even the slightest criticism as an act of hostility, resulting in the removal of citizens’ rights and imprisonment of all professionals and civil protesters in response to legitimate demands. Due to these circumstances, the signatories emphasize the importance of unity among all elements of civil society and the organized use of generational resources and national assets. In order to realize the citizenship rights of the entire Iranian population, they recognize their obligation to collaborate with them and support them.

On the verge of the first anniversary of the widespread protests last year, the regime has increased its repression of political, social, artistic, journalistic, and academic activists. Additional signatories include Abdullah Momeni, Ali Babachahi, Eisa Saharkheir, Alireza Rajaei, Hashem Aghajari, Fakhralsadat Mohtashampour, and Zahra Rabani Amleshi.

Iran Reduces Enriched Uranium Stockpile, Signaling Eased Tensions

Iran’s monthly accumulation of 60% enriched uranium has decreased from roughly nine kilograms per month to less than three kilograms per month, according to a report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday, September 4th. The report also revealed that Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium still remains many times above the limit set by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was violated by the Trump administration in 2018. By August 28, 2023, Iran’s stockpile of 3.67% enriched uranium was 3795.5 kilograms, which is 949 kilograms less than the stockpile reported in June. According to Agence France-Presse, its stockpile of uranium enriched to 60% increased from 114.1 kilograms in June to 121.4 kilograms at present.

Iran’s slowdown in its highest level of uranium enrichment is believed to be a sign that it is attempting to reduce tensions after years of disputes since the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. The IAEA’s inspectors are expected to confirm this reduction in their next quarterly report before the board meeting on September 11th in Vienna.

According to Ali Vaez, Senior Analyst with the International Crisis Group, this is the first indication of a decrease in the rate of enriched uranium production after years of increases. Analysts suggest that unofficial contacts on the sidelines of the IAEA conference in Vienna may have contributed to this development. In addition, Ellie Geranmayeh, a Senior Analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Bloomberg that “Western countries are pursuing a partial approach to reducing tensions rather than working toward a comprehensive agreement to resolve nuclear or regional security concerns.”

“Because Iran’s nuclear program is now in its most advanced stages, any effort to limit its capabilities will be well received by the West as a means to control the situation,” said Geranmayeh. Still, Iran’s current and past nuclear activities remain a source of serious concern despite the reduced pace of its enrichment. 

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, stated in an interview with Al Jazeera that “the lifting of all sanctions is essential to reviewing our commitment to the nuclear agreement.” Eslami continued that the possibility of restoring surveillance cameras in nuclear facilities – an ongoing goal of the IAEA – will depend on the commitment of the other parties. “Targeting our nuclear facilities is futile and will be met with a powerful and destructive response. Israel knows that its threat of attacking our nuclear facilities is hollow and beyond its capability,” Eslami concluded.

In 2021, Israel attacked Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, leading Iran to decide to instead enrich to the 60% threshold for the first time. In the months since, Iran’s stockpile of this material has continued to grow. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has emphasized that Iran would continue to develop its nuclear industry.

The Iranian government claims that this material is essential for the production of molybdenum, an important medical isotope. However, it is not far off from being considered “weapons grade” material that could be weaponized. Iran indicated earlier this month that unofficial contacts could eventually lead to the resumption of nuclear negotiations. 

500 Day Detention of EU diplomat Johan Flodros in Iran

The New York Times reported that Johan Flodros, a Swedish employee of the European Union in Iran, had been arrested and ”detained in Iran for over 500 days.” It became a topic of discussion in a press conference by Naser Kanaani, a spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, following the New York Times report. Flodros’ imprisonment dates back to April 2022 when the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence announced the detention of a Swedish citizen on charges of espionage.

According to reports, he was on a personal trip to Iran with friends in spring of the previous year. On April 16, 2022, he was arrested as he attempted to return to his country. Moreover, there are some written notes on his “Couchsurfing” profile, which is an online platform that connects travelers with hospitable hosts, which might be considered indiscreet for a diplomat.

He traveled to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Russia, and China, according to his profile on “Couchsurfing,” which is no longer accessible. His profile indicates that he enjoyed “partying all night in Iran.” Over the past year, European media have indirectly referred to the arrest of this individual without mentioning his name. The Swedish outlet Aftonbladet, for instance, reported the arrest of a 30-year-old individual and related his arrest to the trial of Hamid Nouri.

The Nouri trial began in Sweden the same week as Ibrahim Raisi’s presidential inauguration, following his earlier arrest on charges related to the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988. The case brought global attention to the issue and represented the first international prosecution of an Iranian government official for crimes committed within Iran’s boundaries.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that Flodros is currently imprisoned in Iran. “He is a Swedish citizen who worked for the European Union and has been illegally detained in Iran for the last 500 days,” Borrell stated. It had not been confirmed whether he was a current or former employee of the EU. Mr. Borrell stated that the EU has been pressuring Iran “persistently” for the release of Flodros during his arrival at the “Development” conference in Cadiz, Spain, stating, “Whenever we have a meeting, we discuss this issue.”

In response to The New York Times report, Peter Stano, a spokesperson for the European Commission, confirmed that the imprisoned individual in Iran is a “Swedish citizen,” but declined to confirm whether he was a current or former employee of the EU. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, had overseen Mr. Flodros’ work in the EU’s External Action Service.

Mr. Flodros held various positions within European institutions, including positions in government employee training programs and programs to attract young Swedes to work in the EU. As a member of Europe’s diplomatic delegation to Afghanistan, he lived and worked in Brussels.

Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard’s Declining Health

Kalameh, the website closely associated with Mir Hossein Mousavi, warned that both Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard have been experiencing a “noticeable decline in health” and “recurring manifestations of physical symptoms of illness.” According to Kalameh, their health has worsened considerably since they supported the Women’s Freedom Movement over the past year.

The report by the website even alleges foul play and the possible poisoning of Mousavi and Rahnavard, emphasizing “unlawful and dangerous actions” and citing intense interference from disruptive mobile phone jammers as well as concerns about contaminated living environments, pharmaceuticals, food, and the surrounding ecosystem.

Earlier, Mr. Mousavi and Ms. Rahnavard expressed their support for Iran’s protests that began in September 2022. Mousavi called for constitutional reforms and the establishment of a founding council as a precursor to changes in government. Throughout her long residence under house arrest, Ms. Rahnavard has supported Iran’s protests and criticized the imposition of mandatory veiling by the Islamic Republic of Iran on numerous occasions.

No individual or institution within the Islamic Republic of Iran has taken responsibility for the house arrests of Ms. Rahnavard and Mr. Mousavi. The former commander of the Law Enforcement Force, Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, who currently serves as the head of the National Defense University, stated that Ayatollah Khamenei himself assumed responsibility for their confinement some time after their house arrest. A recent report on the website also indicates that “all keys are held by guards, and security forces lock the doors of their house.” 

Entekhab News Suspended Following Critical Report on Iran’s Foreign Policy

Upon publishing a report criticizing the Islamic Republic’s foreign policy and its “purely East-oriented and Russia-centric policy,” the news website Entekhab has been suspended. According to reports released by the Press Supervisory Board, the website’s case has been referred to a “judicial authority.”

The censorship appears to relate to an article published by Entekhab on August 22, titled “Iran’s Brand Auction: Why Has Iran’s Foreign Policy Weakened So Much?” The article strongly criticized the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi for adopting misguided international policies. The report criticizes the strategy of looking towards the East, promoted by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic, stating that “the value of Iran’s diplomatic interaction at both regional and international levels has substantially declined…As a result of President Raisi’s solely East-oriented and Russian-centric foreign policy, Iran’s foreign policy tradition of the past century has been severely destroyed.”

According to Entekhab, Iran’s support for Russia in the Ukraine conflict was a “shot in the foot” for its diplomatic standing. The report also discussed the release of Iran’s blocked funds from South Korea, noting that these funds can only be used for “humanitarian purchases.” In its statement, it highlighted the fact that this move is a step backwards and that “the release of these funds is inextricably linked to the release of Iranian citizens…this undoubtedly has detrimental international repercussions for the country, and removing its effects from Iran’s image will require a noticeable change in approach and years of effort.” Entekhab has supported political views of figures such as Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and the previous administration of Hassan Rouhani.

A message posted by the news website on Twitter stated, “Following the decision of the Press Supervisory Board under the 13th government to suspend the Entekhab website, access to it has been blocked.” In addition, the website announced that all authorized virtual platforms will cease operations until a resolution has been reached.

Molavi Abdolhamid: Raisi failed to fulfill his promises to Sunnis

Molavi Abdolhamid Esmaeilzehi, the Sunni Friday Imam of Zahedan, called this week for “equality and justice between the various sects and ethnic groups of Iran.” Abdolhamid stated in his sermon that justice and equality are what various sects and ethnic groups across society seek today. Following a meeting the previous day held by Ebrahim Raisi and several other Sunni scholars, Abdolhamid said that the Sunni community has been demanding the implementation of basic law principles and Islamic law for forty-four years. Unfortunately, in his view, equality has not been observed.

In reference to the promises Mr. Raisi had made to the Sunni community during the elections, Mr. Abdolhamid asserted, “None of the promises regarding the election of a governor, deputy minister, and ambassador from the Sunni community have been fulfilled.” It is noteworthy that Abdolhamid’s criticism comes two days after Ebrahim Raisi’s administration was praised by the leader of the Islamic Republic for its performance over the past two years.

In comparison with the Pahlavi dynasty era, Mr. Abdolhamid criticized the fact that Sunnis do not hold high-ranking military positions, governorships, ministries, and other important jobs. Local forces and Sunnis have either been sidelined, retired, or not replaced.

The Sunni Friday Imam also discussed restrictions on the construction of Sunni mosques in major cities, including Tehran. In cities where Sunnis are a minority, Sunni mosques are not permitted to be built. The Sunni community has become disillusioned as a result of this, he said, which is contrary to the principle of religious freedom. 

Abdolhamid condemned the government’s efforts to manage the affairs of Sunnis and secure their affairs. Similarly, he said that Sunni affairs must not be governed by Shias, just as Shia affairs must not be governed by Sunnis, and that Sunni mosques and religious schools have declined wherever the government has interfered. It has been reported that, as on previous Fridays, internet access in Zahedan and several cities in Sistan and Baluchistan has been severely disrupted.

Iranian Authorities Discuss Trade Routes in Meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan

During his visit to Tehran, the Turkish Foreign Minister met with the President, the Foreign Minister, and the Secretary of Iran’s National Security Council. Media reports indicate that the agenda included discussions about enhancing security cooperation, aiming for a trade volume of 30 billion dollars, and dealing with Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

As a result of these reports, Hakan Fidan welcomed and expressed his government’s support for the establishment of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fidan noted, “We are very pleased with the understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey are all important and responsible countries in the region, and they must maintain peaceful relations.” Additionally, he announced that President Raisi would be visiting Turkey in the near future. In his meeting with Fidan, Raisi emphasized the importance of “respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity” as well as “combating terrorism”. 

At a joint press conference with Fidan, Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian declared, “We will never accept restrictions on the historic transit routes in the region”. It is likely that this refers to the construction of the “Zangezur” land corridor, which some fear would effectively eliminate the border between Iran and Armenia to connect Azerbaijan directly with the province of Nakhchivan. As a result of the opening of this route – supported by Turkey, the United States, and European countries – land connections between Asia and Europe could be facilitated without the need for transit through Iran.

As part of his visit to Tehran, the Turkish Foreign Minister requested “greater cooperation with the Syrian government” on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has often clashed with the government of Turkey. “These are our needs, and I am confident that they are also Syria’s needs,” Fidan declared. A few months ago, Turkey, expressing concerns over Kurdish activities, launched attacks on territories held by Kurdish forces and their allies within Syria under the pretext of creating a “security zone”. Fidan also expressed the hope that Syrian citizens in Turkey would be able to return to their homeland in a safe and secure manner.

Remembering Manouchehr Bibiyan: Pioneer of Iranian Music Industry and Founder of Apolloon

A music producer and founder of Apolloon company, Manouchehr Bibiyan, passed away after a period of illness. Bibiyan was a prominent figure in the Iranian music scene in the 1950s. He introduced the first legal framework for artists’ activities in Iran and transformed the tape cassette and gramophone distribution industry into a professionally managed and lucrative enterprise.

During that period, he played an important role in promoting Iranian music through innovation. Bibiyan went on to found the Pars Video Music Distribution Company and Jame Jam TV in Los Angeles after the revolution, which played an important role in the preservation and protection of Persian language, culture, and art during the era of emigration.

There has been deep sadness over the passing of Bibiyan, who had a profound impact on pop and folk music in Iran. Many remember the time when he and his two brothers opened a music sheet production company on the old Tehran road, which they named Apollon.

As Mr. Bibiyan stated in his memoirs, they selected this Greek name in honor of the god of dance and music. Their hope was that this deity would assist them in creating songs that would be pleasant and profitable for them. Two years before, these three Jewish brothers founded another music company on Manouchehri Street in Tehran, but their venture failed. Nevertheless, Apolloon and the massive sale of album sheets and single songs across Iran and the world enabled them to realize their dreams.

Apolloon provided benefits not only to its founders, but also to composers, singers, and musicians who shared in its profits. According to Mr. Bibiyan, he would sign contracts with artists before discussing copyright regulations. According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, Apolloon and its products were one of the most important music advertising and distribution infrastructures before the Islamic Revolution, controlled by the Bibiyan brothers.

By inviting foreign music groups and contracting with domestic composers, Apolloon managed valuable services in recording and distributing music. Also, the company released its musical products under various brand names, including Fine Music, Behnavaaz, Harmony, Armon, Avaye Shahar, Arghaman, Jahan Music, and others.

A couple of years after Apolloon’s establishment, Mr. Bibiyan visited Café Shimran, where Vigen was performing. Vigen was an unknown singer at the time. Following this meeting, they recorded the famous Persian pop song “Khoda Negahdar” (God Bless). This song was released by Royal Records and is considered by many to be the first Persian pop song.

In addition to releasing their music alongside other pop songs, Apolloon contributed to the growth of Iranian folk music. It was Mr. Bibiyan who realized that a distinctive style of music had evolved along Lalehzar Street near their office, known as “Kocheh Bazaar.” This music genre belonged primarily to folk music that was often overlooked. Some of the most prominent artists in this genre include Ghasem Jebeli, Maryam Rooheparvar, Sussan, and Nematollah Aghasi. 

Apolloon is reported to have sold an average of 25,000 music sheets daily, distributed through about two hundred stores both inside and outside of Iran. Prior to the Islamic Revolution, Apolloon was the largest music production company in Iran. In parallel with the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Manouchehr Bibiyan left Iran and settled in Los Angeles.

During the initial years of Iranian expatriation, he established “Pars Video” and a year later, Jame Jam TV, in order to preserve Iranian music abroad. Furthermore, he attempted to reclaim some properties that had been seized by the courts of the Islamic Republic, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He passed away on Aug 28, at 90, wishing to be able to return to Iran. 

Iran Claims Disruption of Major Sabotage Operation Targeting Defense and Aerospace Sectors Orchestrated by Israeli Intelligence

The Iranian Defense Ministry Information Protection Department proclaimed that the largest sabotage operation against the defense, aerospace, and missile industries – guided by the Israeli intelligence service – was uncovered and neutralized. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) network, on August 31st, included the following text in their news subtitles: “The Intelligence Organization of the Defense Ministry and Armed Forces Support has successfully prevented a complex plot of sabotage in the defense industry of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

According to Tasnim News Agency, citing a source within Iran’s Defense Ministry Information Protection Department, “A highly skilled network recently attempted to introduce flawed and equipped components into the production cycle of advanced missiles in Iran’s defense industries with the help of certain infiltrating agents. “The Intelligence Organization within the Defense Ministry’s Information Protection Department identified and dismantled this network.” According to Iran, this network was directed by the Israeli Intelligence Service, Mossad, with the aim of turning manufactured missiles with equipped components into explosive tools used to attack industrial facilities and personnel. Additionally, the report stated that “foreign officers and internal elements of this network have been identified.”

Noor News reported one day before that the Defense Ministry would release important details of a successful and impactful national security project within the next few hours. The site, affiliated with the Supreme National Security Council, declared “it is certain that the revelation of the project’s dimensions and complexity will come as a great surprise to many.“

Iran’s nuclear sites and scientists as well as members of the IRGC Quds Force and officials employed in the Iranian aerospace and missile industries have been murdered or killed under suspicious circumstances. In Azar 1399 (November 2020), Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of the Research and Innovation Organization of the Iranian Defense Ministry, was assassinated near Damavand in an Israeli operation. During Khordad 1401 (May 2022), Iran reported that an engineer was killed and another employee injured in an incident at the Parchin military center. A few days prior to this incident, IRGC Colonel Hassan Sayyadkhodaei was assassinated, an act widely attributed to Israel. 

Russian Yak-130 Aircraft Delivered to Iran, Increasing Speculation about Sukhoi Su-35 Deal

Iran’s media outlets reported that the Iranian Air Force has received a series of advanced Russian combat training jets, the Yak-130, designed to enhance its training and combat capabilities. This has heightened speculation that Iran will receive the long-awaited Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.

According to Tasnim, a news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, several Yak-130 training aircraft entered the country and were relocated to the Shahid Babaei Air Base in Isfahan. The purpose of this acquisition is to enhance the Air Force’s training and combat capabilities. This development has been attributed to statements made by the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Army’s public relations division. It describes the Yak-130 acquisition as part of a broader “arms contract” between the Islamic Republic and the Russian Federation. The Iranian authorities previously revealed their intention to purchase Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Russia, and these aircraft are expected to be delivered in the near future.

According to Forbes, Iran may receive at least 24 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets originally manufactured by Russia for Egypt. The acquisition has, however, been delayed. Currently, the Sukhoi Su-35 is the most advanced fighter jet in production in Russia. An upgraded version of the Su-27, the Su-35 (Flanker E) is a single-seat multirole fighter aircraft.

Forbes speculates that the delay may be related to the conflict in Ukraine. In recent weeks, there have been indications that Moscow may have withdrawn from its previous agreement with Iran to supply 24 to 50 Su-35 fighter jets.

Senior officials from both Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran rejected reports from the American media regarding the cancellation of military agreements between the two nations a few days ago. It should be noted that the Iranian Army has officially announced that its Air Force has been equipped with the new advanced training-combat aircraft, the Yak-130, stating that “equipping our forces with the new aircraft is a positive step towards utilizing new-generation aircraft.”

According to John Kirby, a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, Iran has delivered over 400 unmanned aircraft to Russia since August of the previous year. Iran currently possesses more Russian MiG and Su-25 fighter jets dating back to the Soviet era. According to Forbes, Russia transferred three two-seat Su-25 UBK Forefoot attack aircraft to Iran in the 2000s. Kirby also noted some Chinese J-7 fighter jets that Iran possesses as well as American F-4 and F-5 fighter jets that date back to before the 1979 revolution, which still form part of the Iranian fleet today. 

Ukraine has repeatedly accused Iran of providing Russia with military equipment, including drones. These accusations have been denied by the Iranian government, who reported that a number of drones were sold to Russia prior to their attack on Ukraine. Ukrainian authorities, however, say that the sale of these drones to Russia continued after the conflict began. And Russia is now reportedly building a factory on its soil to manufacture Iranian-designed drones, according to U.S. officials.

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