November 17, 2023

Iran and U.S. Try to Manage Escalation in the Middle East, Raisi Meets with Saudi and Egyptian Leaders, Disqualifications Ahead of Parliamentary Elections, and More

Week of November 13, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Iran and U.S. Try to Manage Escalation in the Middle East

Confrontations between the U.S. and forces backed by Iran in Iraq and Syria have intensified as war rages between Israel and Hamas. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. troops based in the two countries have been attacked at least 55 times since October 17th. To date, 27 attacks have been reported against U.S. forces in Iraq, according to a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, while there have been 28 attacks against U.S. troops in Syria. 

Militia forces have fired rockets and drones at U.S. bases, with dozens of soldiers suffering brain injuries given the concussive force of the attacks. According to the information released, all 59 injured soldiers have returned to duty.

In response, the U.S. has conducted three strikes against militia targets in Syria. As a result of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, a tentative pause in confrontations between Iran-backed militias and the United States has been upended. 

According to three senior officials cited by Reuters on Wednesday, November 24, the Supreme Leader of Iran reproached Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh in a Tehran meeting two weeks ago: “You did not warn us about the October 7th attack on Israel, and we will not enter the war on your behalf.” According to the report, Ayatollah Khamenei told Haniyeh Iran would continue to provide political and spiritual support to Hamas, but would not intervene directly.

Hamas officials added that the Iranian leader asked Haniyeh to silence public calls for Iran or Hezbollah’s involvement in the war against Israel. In an interview with Reuters, three sources close to Hezbollah, the powerful group supported by Iran, said they were shocked by Hamas’ unprecedented and destructive attack on southern Israel, and their militants near the Israeli border were not on alert.

According to a Hezbollah commander in Lebanon, “We woke up and saw the war had begun.” The Islamic Republic will only enter a war if it is directly attacked by Israel or the United States, according to Reuters, citing six informed sources on the positions of Iranian leaders who wished to remain anonymous.

Iran’s current strategy is reportedly to demonstrate solidarity with Hamas through continued drone and missile attacks against Israeli and U.S. military targets in the region by proxy groups, including Hezbollah. Sources indicate that this is a calculated strategy to demonstrate support and divert Israel’s attention away from Gaza without directly entering into a war with Israel, which could draw the United States into a wider conflict.

Significant Meetings of Raisi with Bin Salman and El-Sisi

The visit of Seyed Ebrahim Raisi to Saudi Arabia marks the first visit by an Iranian president to the country in 11 years, and it also marks the first meeting between Raisi and Mohammad bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister. The visit to Riyadh was not intended as a bilateral meeting, but rather was held on the sidelines of an emergency summit November 11 hosted by the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Over 11,000 people have been killed as a result of Israeli attacks on Gaza, including more than 4,000 children. 

It was the first meeting between the relatively-young Crown Prince bin Salman and an Iranian president. According to the Iranian Presidency’s website: “During the meeting, bilateral relations and regional cooperation were discussed and emphasized, and the parties agreed to examine bilateral issues and regional matters in more detail in the future. On the sidelines of the Riyadh summit, Raisi also met with several country leaders, including Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.”

This was also the first meeting between an Iranian President and the President of Egypt under the Islamic Republic. There is no diplomatic relationship between Iran and Egypt, and the two countries are only in contact on a personal level. Recently, however, there has been renewed discussion about resuming relations between Tehran and Cairo. 

The Iranian Presidency’s website extensively covered Raisi’s remarks about Palestine, but only briefly addressed the Egyptian President’s remarks regarding Gaza and Palestine. It stated, “It is evident to everyone that the U.S. and the Zionist regime are preventing the opening of the Rafah Crossing in order for aid to reach the oppressed and defenseless people of Gaza, but ultimately we must overcome these obstacles.’” It also indicated that Iran has no issues with expanding relations with Egypt as a friendly neighbor. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt, also expressed in the meeting a determination to establish real relations with Iran, saying, “We have tasked the relevant ministers to pursue deep relations between the two countries.”

Iran’s Worsening Air Pollution Crisis: Inaction, Mismanagement, and the Human Cost

There has been an increase in air pollution and environmental degradation in several Iranian cities, including Isfahan, Tehran, Ahvaz, and a number of provincial capitals. In spite of various government initiatives, there has been little improvement in the situation.

According to environmental expert Mohammad Darvish, mid-autumn to December is a critical period for exacerbated air pollution. He identified the burning of sugarcane field residues as a major source of air pollution in Ahvaz. In cities like Tehran, Tabriz, and Mashhad, automobile pollution sources dominate, while Isfahan’s pollution is primarily caused by stationary sources, such as mining on the Segzi Plain and factory activities. As pollution causes vary across the country, this environmental problem has become a normalized crisis for the general public.

Darvish criticized the government’s inaction regarding pollution, particularly in Khuzestan, where protests against burning sugarcane residues were met with inaction. Government reluctance to invest in alternative waste disposal methods exacerbates the situation in Isfahan, where water transfer projects for factory expansion could lead to the worsening of air quality. Under the new municipal administration, the transition from car-centered to eco-centered urban planning has been stalled, signaling the onset of a serious crisis.

In Isfahan, schools and universities were closed as a result of the crisis, and 2,500 people were treated in Khuzestan’s medical centers. On November 12, the Crisis Management Directorate of the Isfahan Province announced the closure of a number of educational institutions due to persistent air pollution, requiring universities and higher education centers to operate remotely. The Director General of the Crisis Management of the Isfahan Province, Mansour Shishehforoush, stressed the importance of redoubling efforts to address the worsening air quality.

As these challenges persist, President Ebrahim Raisi’s deadline for selecting a new landfill site for Amol city looms, with no progress reported. Located near the Haraz reservoir, the current landfill has been deemed inadequate, raising concerns regarding waste management efficiency and environmental effects. With increasing global scrutiny, Iran faces a daunting task in terms of waste management. 

According to a 2022 from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) report, Aradkouh landfill in Tehran’s Kahrizak district is now one of the Middle East’s largest methane gas producers. Local officials, including Tehran’s mayor, Alireza Zakani, have responded with skepticism and denial. Iran’s waste management system, exemplified by the Aradkouh site, demonstrates inefficiency and lack of transparency, processing only a small fraction of Tehran’s daily waste production. 

There have also been tragedies associated with Iran’s waste management crisis. Accidents at Aradkouh and Barmshour sites highlight the human cost of this ongoing problem. The current approach to waste management has been condemned by a number of environmental activists and experts as among the most costly and inefficient in the world. 

Iran’s Political Purge: Disqualifications Ahead of Parliamentary Elections

Several members of the Iranian Parliament have been disqualified as Iran continues to mark anniversaries of nationwide protests in both 2019 and 2022. The regulatory bodies have sidelined these MPs, known for challenging the regime and criticizing controversial policies such as “Hijab and Chastity.” With half of its six representatives disqualified, Tabriz emerges as a focal point with the highest number of disqualified representatives. Shahreza, Natanz, and Falavarjan constituencies have also been affected by similar actions in Isfahan Province.

Among the disqualified are prominent figures such as Masoud Pezeshkian, Ahmad Alirezabeigi, Alireza Monadi Sefidan from Tabriz, Gholamreza Nouri-Qazlje from Bostan-Abad, and Jalil Rahimi Jahanabadi from Torbat-e Jam, among others. Following the conclusion of Iran’s Election Headquarters review of candidates’ qualifications for the twelfth parliamentary elections, this wave of disqualifications has sparked a significant media reaction.

In an article titled “Elections in the Land of Hezbollahis,” Jahan-e Sanat laments the disqualification of many well-known candidates for parliamentary seats, noting a pattern in the removal of those who opposed Ebrahim Raisi’s government. Since reformists have been absent from the scene, moderate outsiders have faced similar fates in their attempts to enter the parliament.

The disqualifications have also become a focal point for Etemad newspaper, which, in its coverage, emphasizes the increasing trend of disqualifications, delving into the “puzzle of disqualifications.” The reformist outlet emphasizes the negative aspects of the qualification review process, citing the expulsion of a number of conservatives and reformists.

The Guardian Council may act as a ‘good cop’ role, allowing some prominent names to return to the electoral fray in an effort to foster some semblance of openness. It is important to emphasize that while this analysis is optimistic, it is gaining traction, in contrast to the prevailing belief that reformist and moderate activists will continue to be excluded entirely from the electoral process.

According to IRNA, the Iranian government’s news agency, the executive committees’ decisions are justified, as the reformists’ criticisms are an attempt to regain power. Rather than directly address disqualifications, IRNA‘s narrative depicts reformists using the qualification process to both advance their political agenda and accuse the government of diluting the republic’s principles.

Earlier this week, conservative Ahmad Khatami, in a Friday sermon, appealed to the disqualified not to challenge the integrity of the system, emphasizing respect for its sanctity. Moreover, the temporary Friday prayer leader of Tehran urged disqualified individuals not to lose hope or dismay the public, particularly in light of the upcoming election for the Assembly of Experts and the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

The government’s exclusionary policies, which extend beyond the political arena to universities and other social spheres, are often viewed as part of a broader pattern of ‘purification’ by the ruling regime. During the past two years, Ettela’at newspaper has harshly criticized this trend, questioning the benefits of such uniformity and purification.

Gholamreza Nouri-Qazlje said that the authorities’ move to disqualify him was a measure of ‘government revenge,’ and evidence of premeditated ‘election engineering.’ In his view, the composition of the executive committees is predetermined and aligned with the government’s objectives. A number of other disqualified individuals, such as moderates close to prominent political figures and reformists, have cited reasons for their disqualification, such as their lack of practical commitment to the Islamic Republic.

The continuation of exclusionary policies is detrimental to societal optimism and hope, according to Sajjad Salek, a disqualified candidate from the Iranian Call Party. By stifling transformative forces and closing political spaces, he warns that political actions could be pushed underground.

A reformist activist, Muhammad Ali Abtahi, believes that widespread disqualifications validate the hardliners’ claim that the country “belongs” to them. He considers these disqualifications to be the realization of a narrower political space, particularly for prominent figures such as Dr. Pezeshkian. Pezeshkian, a representative of Tabriz and former Minister of Health, publicly shared his disqualification letter, citing a lack of practical commitment to the system. His avowed lifelong commitment to the revolution led him to express his dismay and disbelief at the justification for his disqualification in an interview.

The spokesperson for Iran’s Election Headquarters announced that the executive committees have completed their review of the qualifications of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. According to the Election Law, candidates who are dissatisfied with the committee’s decisions may file a written appeal with the governorates of their constituencies. Individuals may appeal their disqualifications to the provincial supervisory committees under the Guardian Council before a final decision is made.

Iran’s Anniversary Crackdown: Families Mourn Under Pressure as Authorities Intensify Clampdown

Families seeking justice for their lost loved ones face increasing pressure from authorities as the one-year anniversary of Iran’s anti-government protests continue. As a result of a recent development, the family of Yalda Aghafazli, a teenage protester from Tehran who died under mysterious circumstances after being released from prison, has been forced to cancel her memorial service. Yalda’s father, Mehrdad Aghafazli, announced on social media that the planned and public ceremonies at Behesht Zahra and other private venues scheduled for Friday, November 19 have been canceled.

Another bereaved parent, Meysam Pirfalak, conducted an early memorial service for his son Kian, who was killed by government forces. Kian Pirfalak, age nine, was tragically killed during the Izeh protests when government forces opened fire on demonstrators. In Iran and throughout the world, his death ignited a wave of public indignation.

The commemoration for Kian took place a week earlier in Parchestan village, Izeh city, according to Pirfalak’s Instagram post. According to Fatemeh Heidari, sister of Javad Heidari, another casualty of the 2021 protests, the memorial services were subject to severe security crackdowns. 

During the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests, Zahra Saeidian-Joo, a member of a family advocating for justice, was arrested just days before the anniversary of her brother Milad’s death. On November 13, Fatemeh Heidari reported via the social network X that Islamic Republic forces had raided their home in Izeh, leading to Zahra’s arrest. Furthermore, news emerged in late October that Saeidian-Joo’s employment had been terminated and she received death threats. A post she made on Instagram on October 30 asserted her well-being, denying any physical or mental health issues or intentions to harm herself.

Iran’s New ‘Smart Governance Model’: Rising Concerns Over Privacy and Citizen Rights

In a recent development, the Iranian Parliament, as part of its Seventh Development Plan, approved legislation for establishing a ‘Lifestyle Monitoring System,’ an important component of the nation’s broader ‘Smart Governance Model’. This initiative raises significant concerns, particularly in a country in which there are minimal legal frameworks for the protection of personal data and citizens’ rights. 

In accordance with the Seventh Development Plan, various government and non-governmental organizations are mandated to collect and aggregate a wide range of citizen data, including data related to online activities, judicial services, housing, and healthcare. It includes the development of smart systems for registering family data, integrating electronic health records, tracking health-related goods digitally, and monitoring lawyers’ activities and vehicle movements.

While ‘private companies’ have been removed from the draft, the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, with its expansive legislative authority, may be able to extend these obligations to private sectors such as internet taxis and online platforms. The move follows the Council’s controversial decision in September 2021 to grant itself broad legislative powers, thereby implementing the contentious Protection Plan.

A central concern of this initiative is its potential use for profiling and suppression, potentially supported by automated decision-making. Using AI algorithms, these practices can purport to predict a person’s behavior, interests, and orientation, which is of deep concern in an authoritarian country like Iran. 

Iran’s approach to digital and artificial intelligence, without a robust legal framework to protect individual rights, opens significant potential for misuse of personal data and violations of privacy and other rights. A lack of laws that protect citizens from the unrestrained use of artificial intelligence by state institutions suggests an increasing trend of government intrusion into personal lives under the guise of smart governance. European personal data protection law allows citizens to object to crucial decisions made entirely through automated processes, illustrating the necessity for transparency in such decision-making processes.

In spite of the fact that artificial intelligence can facilitate quick and effective decision-making, particularly when processing large volumes of data, it can also lead to violations of privacy and other fundamental rights if it is not regulated appropriately. Among the most significant concerns is the potential use of artificial intelligence for a ‘social credit system,’ whereby individuals are ranked and granted or denied access to services in accordance with certain criteria. In countries such as China, this practice is already in use, which can severely restrict personal freedom and access to public services. Given the continued societal conflict over the enforcement of mandatory hijab laws, such changes could have a huge impact on Iranian society.

Iran Enhances Regional Diplomacy with Tajikistan and Afghanistan

The recent seven-day visit of Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Ghani Baradar to Tehran marked a significant moment for Iran-Afghanistan relations. Five important agreements were signed during the visit, emphasizing economic cooperation and shared interests, including the Palestinian issue, in line with Iranian policy. Baradar’s trip focused on creating efficient trade pathways for Afghan goods to international markets, a move expected to benefit stakeholders in both countries. Both nations’ state media covered the visit widely, indicating the beginning of a new era in their bilateral relationship.

Baradar met with senior Iranian officials in Tehran, including the Deputy President Mohammad Mokhber and the Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. A key role in these discussions was played by Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran’s special representative in Kabul.

Iran does not formally recognize the Taliban government, but engagement with Baradar indicates Tehran’s readiness to work with them in navigating current challenges, including sanctions. In addition to enhancing its trade relations with Afghanistan, Iran’s current leadership appears to have an interest in strengthening its political and security ties with the country.

Additionally, President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, on November 8, underscored by a cordial welcome by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, marked a significant step in the strengthening of bilateral relations between the two countries. Over the course of several closed-door meetings, the leaders signed several agreements in a variety of sectors, including economics, trade, transport, culture, science, education, and sports.

Visa free travel was a key outcome of these discussions, aimed at facilitating travel and fostering economic exchange. Despite the fact that details regarding its implementation remain unclear, it is anticipated that this move will boost mutual economic growth and trade. Iran and Tajikistan have both committed to enhancing their economic and trade cooperation, with their trade volume increasing over the past year. As a result of Raisi’s visit, his second since being elected president, and Rahmon’s visit to Iran in May 2023 after nearly a decade, there is a thawing of relations between the two countries as well as a mutual desire to deepen their cooperation.

These diplomatic initiatives demonstrate Iran’s strategic intent to expand its influence and cooperation in the region. Raisi’s visit to Tajikistan and Baradar’s visit to Tehran are significant milestones in shaping the future dynamics of the region. Iran is actively pursuing stronger relations with its neighbors despite economic sanctions, focusing on economic growth and political influence.

New Wave of Suppression Against Baha’is Raises International Concern

Earlier this year, the international Baha’i community issued a statement highlighting an intensified crackdown on Baha’is in Iran, which has only continued to worsen. In the previous week, at least 19 Baha’i citizens were arrested in their homes in the cities of Hamadan and Karaj, according to the statement. There were ten other Baha’is arrested in Isfahan last month, all of whom were women. A total of 32 Baha’is have been detained across Iran in the past month.

Among those whose homes were raided in Hamadan were five women aged 70 to 90, one of whom has Alzheimer’s disease. Two of the arrested women had already suffered through the execution of their husbands in the early months following the Islamic Revolution.

According to the Baha’i community, “These recent arrests and home searches confirm growing concerns about the intensified suppression of the persecuted Baha’i community by the Iranian government.” Those recently detained remain in prison, except for two women in Isfahan who were released on bail. It is noted in the statement that detainees are not permitted to meet with their families, and many have been sent to hospitals, although the reasons for their hospitalization remain unclear.

Human Rights Organization of Iran reported on November 8 that 16 other Baha’is in Hamadan and Shiraz had their homes raided and their personal belongings confiscated. On November 15, six Baha’is living in Mehrshahr, Karaj, were detained. Human Rights Organization of Iran reported that security agents raided the homes of these Baha’i citizens, confiscating religious books, mobile phones, laptops, and computer cases before detaining them. The Ministry of Intelligence conducted raids on November 7, which led to the arrest and confiscation of eight Baha’is in Hamadan Province.

Renowned Iranian Scholar and Diplomat Dr. Davoud Hermidas-Bavand Passes Away

On November 12, Dr. Davoud Hermidas-Bavand, a renowned Iranian international relations expert and respected foreign policy analyst, passed away. As a professor of international law and senior member of the Iranian National Front, Dr. Bavand was born in 1931 in Tehran.

His career trajectory began at the Iranian Foreign Ministry in 1964 and continued at the United Nations from 1968 to 1982, including a year as chair of the General Assembly’s legal committee. He graduated with a Ph.D. in international relations from American University in Washington, D.C., and taught at a number of universities, including Rhode Island, Tehran, Imam Sadiq, and Azad University. During the 1976 UN General Assembly’s legal commission session, he played a significant role in the adoption of the “Enclosed and Semi-Enclosed Seas” convention.

Dr. Bavand was a founding member of the Iranian Political Science Association, the Iranian International Relations Association, and the Iranian United Nations Studies Association. His grandfather, Amir Moayyed Savadkoohi, was a member of Iran’s third National Consultative Assembly and a vocal opponent of the 1919 Anglo-Persian Agreement.

A number of hardships were experienced by the family under Reza Shah’s rule, particularly with the assassination of two of his sons, Seh Malmalk and Hejbar Sultan. Bavand’s scholarly contributions include works on the sovereignty of the Persian Gulf islands and the concept of international responsibility.

It is a significant loss for the Iranian intellectual community that he has passed away, leaving a legacy of commitment to justice, human rights, and the rule of law. Throughout Iran and beyond, his teachings and writings continue to serve as a source of inspiration and guidance for scholars, activists, and students.

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