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December 15, 2023

Deadly Terrorist Attack Strikes Police Headquarters in Rask, Iranian Parliament Approves Controversial Cybersecurity Agreement with Russia, Iranian Parliamentary Research Center Warns of Budget Shortfalls for Next Year, and More

Week of December 11, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Deadly Terrorist Attack Strikes Police Headquarters in Rask, Iran: “Jaish al-Adl” Claims Responsibility

At least twelve people were killed and several others were injured in a terrorist attack on the police headquarters in Rask, a city in the Sistan and Baluchestan province, this morning, December 15. As reported by the Deputy Governor of Sistan and Baluchestan, some attackers were killed or wounded in the ensuing clash, which lasted several hours. “Jaish al-Adl” claimed responsibility for the attack, according to Havalesh News and the “Baloch Activists Campaign.”

The Sunni Imam of Zahedan, Molavi Abdul Hamid, addressed the incident in his sermon at today’s Friday prayers. During his remarks, he offered condolences to the families of the deceased officers and urged all groups to maintain security by observing silence after prayers and refraining from marches after prayers.

Social media has been flooded with images and sounds of gunfire from this clash. The authorities initially reported eleven police fatalities; however, the Sistan and Baluchestan Prosecutor’s Office has confirmed an increase in the number of police deaths. Additionally, eight injuries have been reported by the agency, some of which are critical. 

The group attacked Rask police station from multiple directions around 2 AM and set up ambushes to block reinforcements, as Majid Mirahmadi, Deputy for Security and Disciplinary Affairs at the Ministry of Interior, described the attack to IRNA. The reinforcements eventually reached the station and, together with the staff, repelled the attackers. Additionally, he stated that there are attackers that are surrounded and have not left Iran’s borders, with some of the deceased in the custody of the police and others taken by the attackers themselves.

The spokesperson for the Iranian police, Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, announced the deployment of a delegation led by the Deputy Commander of the National Police to Rask to investigate the incident. Following the attack, military helicopters continuously patrolled the skies over Rask, Iranshahr, Sarbaz, and surrounding areas in order to locate “Jaish al-Adl” members. Near the Pakistani border, Rask is located in the southeast of Sistan and Baluchestan province.

In July 2019, the United States added this group to its list of international terrorist organizations. In the past, “Jaish al-Adl” has taken hostages or killed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and border guards in Sistan and Baluchestan. 

Iranian Parliament Approves Controversial Cybersecurity Agreement with Russia Amid International Concerns

In spite of what some in parliament described as “fundamental and significant objections,” the Iranian Parliament approved a cybersecurity cooperation agreement with Russia. As a result of this move, Tehran and Moscow are intensifying their collaboration, which has caused some international concern. Iran’s media reports indicate that the agreement, initially presented as a bill by President Ebrahim Raisi’s government, was passed in a public session on Sunday, December 10, with 180 votes in favor, 27 against, and 10 abstentions.

The approval of this agreement, the details of which were not fully disclosed, raised concerns among some lawmakers about a lack of clarity regarding Russia’s access to “various areas.” As reported by the Iranian state news agency IRNA, the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Parliament also discussed the bill, which includes an introduction, nine articles and an annex.

The agreement was finalized three days after President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin, where the two Presidents emphasized the importance of increased cooperation between the two countries. Abu al-Fazl Amouei, spokesperson for the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, defended the bill prior to the vote, stating it addresses “cybersecurity threats” and “countermeasures to these threats.” He also noted that the agreement represents a diversification of Tehran and Moscow’s collaborations in information security.

During the session, a representative of President Raisi’s government defended the agreement, pointing out that negotiations for the agreement began in 2018. He suggested Iran’s collaboration with Russia in the field of cyber intelligence could strengthen practical and security relations, national security, and ultimately, the deterrent power of the two nations. Additionally, he emphasized that “global conditions” have made it necessary to develop cyber-related relations between the two countries. 

During the past few years, Iran and Russia have expanded their cooperation, particularly in the military sphere. Ukraine and Western countries have expressed concern over this development, accusing Iran of supplying drones to Russia in support of its aggression against Ukraine. Moreover, the cybersecurity cooperation comes amid reports of cyberattacks against Western infrastructure by Iran, Russia, and China.

The White House National Security Council’s Coordinator for Strategic Communications, John Kirby, expressed continued concerns regarding the military relations between Moscow and Tehran on December 6. Russia and Iran are both ranked among the most repressive nations, including in online spaces. Freedom House, using a scale of 0-100 with lower scores representing less online freedom, gave Iran a “Freedom of the Net” score of 11 and Russia a score of 21. Russia has also reportedly been moving to enact greater restrictions of its online spaces, disconnecting its internet infrastructure in ways that Iran has engaged in in recent years. While details regarding the cybersecurity agreement are not known, it is likely to raise significant concerns among internet freedom advocates in each country.

Iranian Parliamentary Research Center Warns of Budget Shortfalls for Next Year

According to the Iranian Parliamentary Research Center, the upcoming budget will suffer from major shortfalls and unrealistic revenue projections. There is a looming deficit of 271 trillion in the subsidy budget, according to the 70-page report. Overestimated revenue and a disconnect between the government’s financial planning and economic realities are attributed to this shortfall.

Among the key concerns is the preferential currency allocation for importing essential goods, which, according to the report, exceeds Iran’s oil revenues. In contrast to the Central Bank of Iran’s denials of currency manipulation, the report illustrates the financial strain caused by selling currency at prices below market value to importers.

Additionally, the Center criticizes the budget for its opaque calculations, neglect of the Social Security Organization, pension funds, and energy subsidies. The report suggests that the government might resort to ‘shock therapy’ to adjust the prices of essential items as a result of shortages in essential services such as electricity, gas, and gasoline.

The Research Center notes that subsidies remain separate from the general budget despite a decade of the ‘Targeted Subsidies Plan’. As a result of this separation, revenue generation and distribution have been unclear. Approximately 758,800 billion tomans are expected to be spent by the government on subsidies next year, a figure that the Center claims understates the true cost by 111 trillion tomans.

The shortfall in oil revenues is another area of concern. The Iranian government expects to export 150,000 barrels per day less than anticipated, at a lower price. The Center proposes to sell each dollar of oil revenue for 35,000 tomans rather than 28,500, which would potentially generate an additional 25 trillion tomans. However, this proposal has been criticized for the possibility of repeating previous currency crises.

Moreover, the report questions the government’s projected revenue from the sale of state properties and companies, citing past performance where only 10% of expected revenue was realized. Given the current state of state-owned companies, the Center also questions the government’s optimistic forecast of earning 60 trillion tomans from their profits.

In the report, the tax and customs duty projections are deemed overly optimistic, suggesting that the actual figures may be much lower than those projected. Despite recent growth in the oil sector and large industries, the Research Center warns of stagnation if current trends continue.

The government’s approach to tackling economic issues, such as salary and pension increases below inflation rates, will likely push more people into poverty. In the past four years, the poverty rate has remained at about 30%, and further austerity may exacerbate this situation.

The report also emphasizes critical shortages in Iran’s energy sector, which includes gas, gasoline, and electricity, and criticizes the government’s flawed approach to energy subsidies. Additionally, the report notes that the government has not allocated budgetary funds to cover its substantial debts to the Social Security Organization and the National Development Fund.

At the time the budget was submitted to Parliament, President Ebrahim Raisi stated that the budget aims to address imbalances in pension funds, banks, and the energy sector. However, the Research Center’s findings suggest that these efforts may not be sufficient to address Iran’s deep-rooted economic challenges.

The European Parliament Awards the Sakharov Prize to Mahsa Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom Movement

Mahsa Amini and the Woman, Life, Freedom movement received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament. Mahsa Amini and the movement sparked by her tragic death received widespread support from the representatives and was endorsed by all three main political groups in the European Parliament.

Mojgan Eftekhari, the mother of Jina Mahsa Amini, welcomed the awarding of the Sakharov Prize to her daughter and to the Woman, Life, Freedom movement. “Dear Jina, my sweet daughter, wake up and see how your name resonates around the world today… You now have a family as big as all the people of the world…” She wrote on Instagram on Thursday, October 19. 

The Sakharov Prize recognizes individuals and organizations for defending human rights and freedom, often at great personal cost, since 1988. Mahsa Amini’s family was prevented from leaving Iran to accept the prize. While preparing to travel to France to receive the Sakharov Prize, Mojgan Eftekhari, Amjad Amini, and Ashkan Amini were stopped at the airport exit. According to reports, the family’s passports were confiscated and they were interrogated. 

However, the family’s lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, was permitted to leave the country and was able to accept the award on behalf of the family on December 12. Soheila Ghaderi was also able to attend the ceremony on their behalf, as announced by Eftekhari. In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Narges Mohammadi, the Sakharov Prize is the second prestigious international award given to Iranians in recent days. 

Birjand Refinery Engulfed in Flames: Emergency Teams Battle Massive Fire

According to IRNA news agency, a major fire engulfed the Mini Hydrocarbon Refinery in the Birjand Special Economic Zone. In spite of initial firefighting efforts, the blaze spread to adjacent tanks after it began in a 250-ton tank at around 8:45 AM on Sunday, December 10.

The thick smoke, visible from kilometers away, prompted the dispatch of firefighting teams immediately. Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, who attended a crisis management meeting on Monday, December 11, called for a thorough investigation into the cause of the incident. According to Vahidi, the refinery plays a crucial role in converting and exporting hydrocarbons.

This incident is the latest in a series of explosions plaguing Iran’s petrochemical and oil industries, which have been attributed to oil sanctions and network problems. On the third day, the fire was controlled by integrating aerial and ground firefighting tactics, although cooling operations to secure the site remain in progress.

There were over 22 tanks at the refinery, including 18 containing gas condensates, which contributed to the rapid spread of the fire. In managing the crisis, Alireza Abbaszadeh, Deputy Coordinator for Civil Affairs of South Khorasan Province, highlighted the prevention of human casualties and the spread of fire to other units. To ensure the safety of rescue teams and locals, the governor of South Khorasan Province instructed the tanks to burn out under controlled conditions. Despite the gravity of the incident, there were no fatalities and only minor injuries.

Javad Ghena’at stated that comprehensive firefighting operations began early today with a focus on complete extinguishment and cooling of tanks to prevent re-ignition. In support of the operations, heavy foam and sodium iodide powder shipments have been delivered.

Vahidi visited the site on Monday afternoon, emphasizing the need for additional firefighting resources. As confirmed by the Governor’s latest update, while the immediate threat has been mitigated, ongoing cooling measures were being implemented to prevent the fire from resurging. In addition, he assured that all necessary precautions are being taken to prevent any further incidents at the refinery.

The Sadegh Bougi Phenomenon

Social media users have posted a number of videos dancing in solidarity with an Iranian man who had his Instagram account suspended, pushing back on Iranian authorities and their attempts to enforce rigid cultural norms. Sadegh Bagheri, also known as Sadegh Bougi, is an Iranian Gilaki man from Rasht in the Gilan province. A video of him dancing to a Gilaki folk song was posted on Instagram by him, leading to his arrest. A number of artists, political figures, and cultural personalities responded to the authorities’ harsh response. Tasnim News Agency denied his arrest, stating that individuals who had produced and distributed “non-normative content” on social media in mixed gender were warned.

The Cyber Police (FATA) blocked his Instagram account following the release of the video, and posted a message about monitoring citizens’ “criminal activities.” Twelve people were arrested in connection with this incident, according to the Gilan Provincial Police. Eventually, his Instagram account was restored, but not before it sparked a nationwide uproar and a wave of dance and joy videos, in which people claimed that if Sadegh Bougi was a criminal, then they were as well.

There continued to be a flood of dubsmashes and songs based on Sadegh Bougi’s theme, which was seen as a mockery of the authorities by the public. Some government supporters even criticized the authorities’ approach, noting that the way in which Sadegh Bagheri’s case was handled led to such a campaign.

Sadegh Bougi has been described as more than just a phenomenon, but as a “dynamic and growing movement that actively resists and seeks to limit government control over various aspects of people’s lives.” A wave of criticisms and comparisons between the arrests for joy and dancing and other cases led to a reopening of the public discussion of the case of Reza Saqafi. A strong opponent of compulsory hijab, Reza Saqafi considered himself a “promoter of virtue.”

On Sunday, December 10, the judiciary-affiliated Mizan News Agency reported the arrest of “a responsible official and another individual in a non-ethical video” in the Gilan case. Although Mizan did not identify the “responsible official,” a video of a sexual relationship between two men was released on Radio Gilan’s Telegram channel in July, claiming one of the men was Reza Saqafi, Director General of Gilan Province’s Cultural and Islamic Guidance Administration. Following the release of the video, Saqafi was dismissed from his position. In the video, the judiciary’s news agency did not mention the name of the other individual. On December 10, the Tehran Criminal Court ordered the arrest of both individuals in the picture following comprehensive investigations by the officer and judicial authority.

EU Sanctions Target Six Individuals and Five Iranian Entities

Several new sanctions have been imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran by the European Union. According to the EU’s statement, the sanctioned entities include Chekad Sanat Asmari – a manufacturer of composite tanks – and its CEO, deputy CEO, and a senior researcher. Also targeted are other companies involved in drone component manufacturing, including the Baharestan Kish company and its CEO, Samard Electronic Sepahan, an aerospace engineering service provider, and Kia Part Sivan, which reportedly supports the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in developing drone programs.

According to the EU statement, the sanctions involve freezing the assets of the named individuals and prohibiting their travel to the EU. Before, the European Union strongly condemned and deemed unacceptable any military assistance provided by the Islamic Republic to Russia, including the delivery of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones).

Mohammad Sadeghi Sentenced to Five Years in Prison

A dissenting actor, Muhammad Sadeghi, who made headlines with his Instagram live video during his arrest in late July, has announced his imprisonment. Sadeghi disclosed in a video that he had been sentenced to five years in prison by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court for “inciting war and violence and disrupting national security.” Branch 36 has affirmed this sentence.

On the day before his arrest in July, he had posted a video on his Instagram account criticizing the enforced hijab and the renewed restrictions on women’s voluntary dress codes in cities. Furthermore, Tehran Police Command’s Information Center stated that the actor had been arrested “after coordinating with the judiciary” after promoting violence and offensive language against the guardians of order and security. Sadeghi’s family reported on August 23 that since his arrest, he had been denied access to a lawyer and that the authorities had not agreed to release him on bail.

EU’s Foreign Policy Chief Calls for Immediate Release of Swedish Citizen Detained in Iran

The European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, has called for the immediate release of Johan Flodros, a Swedish citizen and diplomat detained in Iran. In his words, “There is certainly no reason for Johan Flodros’ arrest.” In a similar statement, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom emphasized the baselessness of the charges against him.

Flodros has been charged with “extensive actions against the security of the country, in collaboration with the Zionist regime,” and “corruption on earth,” according to the Iranian judiciary. Johan Flodros is a 33-year-old Swedish citizen and employee of the European Union. Iran has arrested several foreign or dual nationals in recent years and negotiated their release with their respective countries. 

A report in the New York Times indicated that Johan Flodros, an EU employee and Swedish citizen, had been detained in Tehran’s Evin prison for 500 days.While the EU and the Swedish government initially refused to confirm his identity, and Iran expressed “unawareness” of his arrest, Borrell confirmed shortly thereafter during a meeting in Cadiz, Spain, that the EU had been pressuring Iran to release Flodros. Borrell stated, “Every time we have a meeting, we bring this issue up.” Borrell characterized the detention as “illegal.”

In the spring of 2022, Johan Flodros traveled to Iran. On April 17, 2022, while attempting to leave Iran, he was arrested at the airport. According to The New York Times, Johan Flodros, 33, is a Swedish citizen who works for the European Union. He has served in a variety of positions within EU institutions, including training programs for government apprentices and a program designed to attract Swedish youth to work abroad.

Flodros lived and worked in Brussels. Both the Swedish government and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence had announced that a Swedish citizen had been detained in Iran at the time of his arrest. In an email, the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicated at the time that the Swedish embassy in Tehran is focused heavily on this case.

Mr. Flodros has served as an assistant to European Commissioner Ilva Johansson since 2019. He joined the European External Action Service in 2021. As part of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, the European External Action Service operates under the supervision of Josep Borrell, the EU’s Head of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. 

In early spring 2022, tensions between the two countries peaked following the start of Iranian judge Hamid Nouri’s trial in Sweden. A life sentence for Hamid Nouri, an Iranian citizen, was requested by Swedish judicial authorities shortly before Johan Flodros was arrested. Nouri had been detained in Sweden for two and a half years under universal jurisdiction on charges of “war crimes” and “deliberate murder” related to the execution of political prisoners in the summer of 1988.

Iran Opens Doors to 32 Countries: Visa Requirements Abolished in Bid to Boost Global Tourism and Engagement

Iranian Minister of Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts, and Tourism – Ezzatollah Zarghami – announced today that the government has unilaterally abolished visa requirements for citizens of 32 countries. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and Croatia are included in this list.

The government’s decision to waive visas unilaterally was described by Zarghami as a brave and wise move, which emphasized it is Iran’s desire to engage with people worldwide in this way. Iran has historically attracted tourists from its neighboring countries, particularly Iraq. Many Western countries have cautioned their citizens against traveling to Iran in recent years, with some even advising citizens to leave the country as a result of anti-government protests in Iran.

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