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March 15, 2024

U.S. and Iran Held Indirect Talks in Oman But Details in Dispute, Mandatory Hijab Dispute in Qom Clinic Sparks Public Outcry and Legal Tensions, Inflation Shadows Iran’s New Year Celebrations, and More

Week of March 11, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

U.S. and Iran Held Indirect Talks in Oman But Details in Dispute

In a development reflecting the ongoing complexity of U.S.-Iran relations and Middle Eastern security, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported that Iran and the United States have engaged in indirect communications and dialogue in Oman. This followed the Financial Times report that the U.S. had entered into “secret” indirect talks with Tehran in January, aiming to leverage Iran’s influence over Yemen’s Houthi rebels to cease missile attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Following that report, IRNA claimed the talks were focused on the lifting of sanctions.

Further details provided by the Financial Times, citing officials from both countries, highlighted that these indirect talks took place in January in Oman, marking the first such engagement in the last ten months. Contradicting these reports, an informed source speaking to IRNA dismissed them as a strategic maneuver by the U.S. to offset its diplomatic shortcomings. The dialogue was reportedly overseen by senior figures from both nations, including Brett McGurk, National Security Council Coordinator for the Middle East; Abram Paley, Special Envoy for Iran; and Ali Bagheri Kani, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiation lead.

Oman played a critical mediating role in facilitating these talks, ensuring that direct conversation between Iran and U.S. officials did not occur. An anonymous source informed the Financial Times that the U.S. views this indirect communication channel with Iran as an important way to address a broad spectrum of threats emanating from the country, aiming to avert a larger conflict, which Iran also purportedly seeks to avoid. According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, “We have numerous channels for sending messages to Iran.”

While U.S. officials remained tight-lipped on the specifics of the negotiations in their discussion with the Financial Times, they stressed the necessity for Iran to cease escalating regional tensions. Iran, which has supported the Houthis, has consistently denied U.S. accusations of weapon supplies and support for attacks on regional maritime assets.

Despite repeated U.S. military actions against Houthi positions since January, some in direct collaboration with the United Kingdom, these efforts appear to have had limited impact on deterring Houthi attacks in the Red Sea. The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) routinely reports out hostilities with the Houthis, including efforts to shoot down drones and missiles launched from Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen. Since November, the Houthis have initiated attacks against commercial shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in what the group says is a show of solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and Hamas.

Mandatory Hijab Dispute in Qom Clinic Sparks Public Outcry and Legal Tensions

A controversy erupted over mandatory hijab enforcement in Qom, Iran, following the release of a video showing a cleric photographing a woman and her child for not complying with hijab rules at the “Quran and Etrat” clinic. The incident, which rapidly spread on social media, saw the woman confronting the cleric to delete the photograph, a request he refused, leading to public intervention and heightened tensions within the clinic.

The situation drew significant attention, with social media users rallying in support of the woman, now referred to as the “Qom Mother.” In contrast, Meysam Nili, an advisor to the Minister of Culture in Ebrahim Raisi’s government, defended the cleric’s actions, suggesting that photographing individuals violating public norms serves a judicial purpose in identifying offenders.

Following the incident, the Qom prosecutor announced the initiation of a judicial case but confirmed that no arrests had been made regarding the dispute. However, in a subsequent development, four individuals were arrested for distributing the video, accused by authorities of intending to exploit the event for societal division.

The case has reignited debates over the mandatory hijab, with figures like Mohammad Ali Ayazi, a member of the Assembly of Researchers and Teachers of Qom’s Seminary, criticizing the invasive enforcement approach and its detrimental impact on public perception of hijab and Islam. He questioned the focus on hijab enforcement over addressing broader societal issues such as economic hardship and corruption.

The incident has also brought legislative responses into focus, with Amirhossein Banikipour Far, a parliament member, outlining a bill that would impose a 3 million tomans fine on individuals violating the hijab mandate, sparking further controversy and concerns over societal unrest. The “Hijab and Chastity” bill, set to impose fines directly from violators’ bank accounts, has been criticized by political figures like Mohammad Sadegh Javadi Hassar, who warned of the potential for widespread social conflict and criticized the government’s financial motives behind the enforcement strategy. This ongoing controversy underscores the continuing societal conflict over hijab enforcement in Iran, which continues to undermine government legitimacy and societal cohesion.

Inflation Shadows Iran’s New Year Celebrations: A Look at the Rising Costs

As Iranians prepare for the New Year, reports from within the country paint a grim picture of soaring prices and economic distress. The Islamic Republic newspaper recently highlighted that, contrary to expectations of inflation control, the country has witnessed a stark rise in the cost of living. Official data reveals that red meat prices have escalated to over 700,000 tomans ($10 US dollars for a kilogram), amid reports of dwindling supplies.

Ahmad Khani, the Deputy Minister of Commerce for the Ministry of Agriculture, attributes the crisis to a spike in consumption, coinciding with Ramadan and the Norooz holidays. He also points to drought, global increases in feed prices, and the removal of preferential currency rates as culprits behind the soaring meat prices. The situation has led to long queues at government meat distribution centers, with reports indicating shortages of both fresh and frozen meat supplies. Masoud Amerollahi, Director-General of the Inspection and Supervision Office for Essential Goods at the Ministry of Agriculture, has assured that efforts are underway to stabilize meat prices by boosting market supplies.

However, the price hike isn’t confined to meat. The cost of other staples, such as cooking oil and rice, have also seen significant increases. A report from Trade News, an economic news outlet in Iran, details an alarming year-over-year price surge across essential food items: rice by 21%, red meat by 52%, chicken by 37%, and sugar by 74%, among others. The website estimated that the cost of a traditional Norooz dinner for a family of four could exceed one million tomans, highlighting the financial strain on average Iranian families.

Moreover, the Health Ministry’s nutritional basket report, published by Etemad newspaper, indicates a reduction in the daily consumption of basic foods compared to two years ago, underscoring the impact of rising costs on dietary habits. Reports from the ILNA news agency, focusing on labor news, depict a somber shopping scene for the New Year in West Azerbaijan province, with customers primarily inquiring about prices rather than making purchases. This trend spans across sectors, from apparel to footwear, suggesting a broader economic downturn.

Mohsen Bagheri, head of the Wage Committee of the National Councils, in discussions with the Supreme Labor Council, revealed that the Health Ministry has proposed reducing the daily nutritional requirements in its latest guidelines. This proposal, amid ongoing deliberations on setting a minimum wage, reflects the challenges of adjusting worker wages in an inflationary environment.

The economic woes are compounded by the government’s past fiscal policies, including borrowing from the Central Bank and resorting to money printing, which have contributed to the inflationary pressures. With the currency rate experiencing multiple jumps this year, the purchasing power of Iranians continues to dwindle, casting a shadow over the New Year festivities and beyond.

Resignation Exposes Deep-Rooted Corruption Within Iran’s Judiciary

In a dramatic turn of events that has sent shockwaves through Iran’s legal and political landscape, Mohammad Mosaddeq, the First Deputy of the Judiciary, has stepped down from his position amid a corruption scandal involving his own children. This resignation, accepted by Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei, the head of Iran’s Judiciary, shines a harsh light on the systemic corruption plaguing the Iranian government and its judicial apparatus.

The case against Mosaddeq’s children, accused of corruption, has invited additional scrutiny of alleged influence peddling and misconduct within the judiciary, challenging the institution’s integrity. Mosaddeq, in a bid to distance himself from the scandal, cited his departure as an effort to “avoid any shadow of influence or corruption” affecting the investigation. However, this move has only intensified scrutiny of corruption within the judiciary and raised questions about the effectiveness of internal oversight mechanisms.

Iranian media, which had long speculated about the detention of Mosaddeq’s children, confirmed their arrest in October, revealing a deeper narrative of privilege and corruption. The scandal is reportedly linked to the corruption investigation of Rostami Safa Industrial Group. Mohammad Rostam Safa was sentenced in a high-profile banking fraud case to 15 years in jail and a large fine for failing to repay loans and transferring wealth abroad. The linkage is seen as further underscoring the judiciary’s complicity and failure to stem the tide of corruption. Reports from Farhikhtegan newspaper highlighted a call from Ejei for an “examination and inspection” into the matter, culminating in the detention of Mosaddeq’s offspring along with six others, already in custody for eight months prior.

In response to the unfolding scandal, judiciary spokesperson Masoud Setayeshi promised future disclosures, while Tasnim news agency, aligned with the Revolutionary Guards, reported the case’s referral to higher authorities for further investigation. Mohammadreza Yazdi – Head of the Coordination Headquarters for Combating Economic Corruption – accused those involved of “abusing their position for economic corruption.”

Mosaddeq’s career, closely tied to President Ibrahim Raisi, epitomizes the intertwining of political power and judicial authority, raising concerns about the impartiality and integrity of Iran’s legal system. His rise through the judiciary, marked by controversies over legal reforms and the push for “Islamization,” reflects a broader pattern of governance where power and corruption intersect.

Born in 1963 in Tabriz and with a background that blends religious and legal education, Mosaddeq’s resignation does not signify an end but rather a symptom of the systemic corruption eroding the foundations of Iran’s judiciary and government. As this scandal unfolds, it prompts a critical examination of the structures that allow such corruption to flourish, challenging the very essence of justice and accountability in Iran.

Flames and Festivities: The Dual Edge of Iran’s Chaharshanbe Suri Celebrations

As Iran embraced the vibrant hues of its age-old festival Chaharshanbeh Suri, marking the eve of the last Wednesday before Norooz, the country’s emergency services have disclosed alarming statistics. From the onset of Esfand to the climax of these pre-Norooz celebrations, 15 lives were tragically lost amid the revelry.

Chaharshanbeh Suri, a festival with deep roots in Iran’s cultural heritage, traditionally symbolizes the purging of misfortune and ill health, inviting happiness and prosperity for the coming year. People celebrate with bonfires, fireworks, and the exhilaration of jumping over flames. Yet, the inherent dangers of these practices have cast a shadow over the festivities.

Babak Yektafar, the spokesperson for Iran’s emergency services, noted a concerning rise in accidents related to the event. In the 22 days leading to the celebration, 152 individuals suffered severe injuries resulting in amputations, and around 700 sustained eye injuries due to the mishandling of fireworks and homemade explosives. On the night of Chaharshanbeh Suri alone, fifteen fatalities were recorded, an increase from the previous year’s eight.

The emergency services have highlighted that the majority of burn injuries occurred among individuals younger than 22, underlining the risks that youthful enthusiasm can pose when coupled with traditional celebrations. These incidents often stem from the crafting and ignition of explosives, a practice that has seen many participants become victims. 

Efforts by cultural organizations and campaigns like “Say No to Dangerous Chaharshanbe Suri” have aimed to curb these tragedies by promoting safer ways to celebrate. These initiatives seek to preserve the festival’s spirit while preventing harm, offering a bridge between tradition and safety.

Amid these safety concerns, Iranian authorities have expressed apprehension over the potential for the festivities to serve as a backdrop for renewed protests. In response, security and judicial officials have issued warnings against using Chaharshanbeh Suri as a platform for political expression, signaling a tense intersection between cultural celebration and social unrest.

Yet, despite the risks and warnings, many Iranians continue to embrace Chaharshanbeh Suri with dance and joy, celebrating a day steeped in history and tradition. This annual event, while impacted by incidents of injury and loss, remains a vibrant testament to Iran’s rich cultural tapestry and the enduring spirit of its people.

Mismanagement Shadows Iranian Football: Persepolis and Esteghlal’s Uncertain Future

In a move that underscores the deep-seated issues of mismanagement within Iran, the government this week declared the transfer of 80% of Persepolis Football Club’s shares to three financially embattled institutions: the National Retirement Fund, the Social Security Organization, and the Rural Insurance Fund. The decision, conveyed by the First Vice President of Iran, purportedly aims to “settle government debts and other obligations.”

However, this announcement has sparked outrage among retirees of the Social Security Organization, who have recently been protesting their deteriorating economic conditions. This controversial decision highlights the government’s ongoing struggle with substantial debts, which has left pension funds teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Instead of addressing these debts head-on, the government has opted to offload its loss-making state-owned entities to these funds at steep prices.

Persepolis, a club historically under state ownership, has been bleeding financially, with expenditures outstripping revenues in four of the past five seasons. The club reported a staggering loss of 237 billion tomans in the previous season alone, with accumulated losses reaching 690 billion tomans by the end of the current fiscal year. This precarious financial standing reflects a broader pattern of fiscal irresponsibility and mismanagement within Iranian state-run enterprises.

Compounding these financial woes, recent media reports have indicated that both Persepolis and Esteghlal face the risk of disqualification from the next year’s Asian Club Championships due to a FIFA law enforced by the Asian Football Confederation. This law imposes penalties on clubs whose expenditures exceed their revenues, ranging from warnings to outright bans from competition. This looming threat of disqualification echoes the challenges faced by Esteghlal last year, with Persepolis narrowly avoiding a similar fate amid significant uncertainty.

Efforts by the Iranian Football Federation to secure temporary participation rights for these clubs in the Asian club games through prior notifications have now hit a roadblock. Behnaz Mirmirani, a sports journalist, told BBC Persian that the Asian Football Confederation would no longer accept any form of documentation from Iran, a tactic previously used by officials to obfuscate the shared ownership of Persepolis and Esteghlal clubs.

Mirmirani further noted that Persepolis’s financial struggles are exacerbated by IRIB’s monopoly over football match broadcasts, depriving the club of significant television rights revenue. Additionally, the absence of copyright laws prevents the club from capitalizing on merchandise sales under the Persepolis brand.

The government’s directive also extends to the Esteghlal club, which, like Persepolis, has consistently reported financial losses, highlighting a systemic issue of non-sporting and non-football management that has plagued these institutions for years. Despite long-standing promises of privatization, the government’s reluctance to relinquish control over these clubs suggests a deeper reluctance to address the root causes of mismanagement and financial instability. 

The failure to find buyers for the initial public offering of these clubs last year further illustrates the lack of investor confidence in the management and future prospects of Iranian football’s crown jewels. This ongoing saga of mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility not only jeopardizes the future of Persepolis and Esteghlal but also reflects broader challenges within Iran’s public sector, where inefficiency and lack of transparency continue to hinder progress and reform.

Iranian Judiciary Slaps $2 Billion Fine on Opposition Figure and US Government

In a landmark ruling on March 11, the Iranian judiciary has ordered Jamshid Sharmahd, the Tondar opposition group, and the United States government to pay a staggering sum of over $2.478 billion. The verdict was issued by Judge Hosseinzadeh in Branch 55 of Tehran’s Court for International Legal Affairs, following a lawsuit by 116 families affected by the 2008 bombing at the Seyed al-Shohada Mosque in Shiraz, which left 14 dead and 215 injured.

The ruling, which has sparked considerable attention, allows for an appeal within a two-month period at the Tehran Provincial Court of Appeals. Sharmahd, an Iranian-German citizen who Iran has identified as a leader of the Tondar group, was apprehended in the summer of 2020 by Iran’s intelligence services and forcibly brought to Iran. Sharmahd had previously resided in the United States. 

State-run IRNA news reported that Sharmahd had accepted responsibility for orchestrating the Shiraz mosque bombing, though rights groups have raised significant doubts regarding these claims, alleging the use of torture to extract a forced confession. The website Sharmahd ran, Tondar, had previously published statements from the Kingdom Assembly of Iran claiming responsibility for the bombing. During trial, Sharmahd proclaimed his innocence of involvement in the bombings.

The Islamic Republic has levied charges of “corruption on earth” against Sharmahd, claiming he played a leading role in planning and executing terrorist acts, and has sentenced him to death. These accusations have been vehemently denied by Sharmahd’s family, who argue that his involvement with the Tondar group was limited to a spokesperson role and that his political endeavors bore no link to any form of violence within Iran. In August, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley met with Sharmahd’s family and urged his release, stating “I welcomed the opportunity to meet with Jamshid Sharmahd’s family today. He should have never been detained in Iran, and we hope to see the day he is reunited with his loved ones,”

In a move that highlights the case’s international ramifications, Ghazaleh Sharmahd, Jamshid Sharmahd’s daughter, has filed a complaint in Germany against the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, accusing it of committing “crimes against humanity.” This development brings to the forefront ongoing concerns about the Iranian judiciary’s practices, particularly its treatment of political opponents and its conduct within the broader context of human rights.

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