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March 22, 2024

Hope and Hardship: Iranians Welcome Norooz Amid Economic Struggles, Scandal Engulfs Tehran’s Friday Imam, and More

Week of March 18, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Hope and Hardship: Iranians Welcome for Norooz Amid Economic Struggles

As the blossoms of spring begin to unfold, Iranians across the nation are traditionally imbued with a sense of anticipation and hope as they gear up for Norooz, the Persian New Year. This ancient festival, marking the arrival of spring, is celebrated with a myriad of traditions, from deep-cleaning homes to purchasing new attire and sweet treats. However, the centerpiece of these preparations is the Haft-Seen, a table adorned with seven symbolic items starting with the Persian letter ‘S’, each heralding the hopes for a prosperous year ahead.

Despite the festive spirit, this year’s Norooz preparations are once again shadowed by deep economic challenges. The soaring costs of essential goods have dampened the usual exuberance with which families set up their Norooz tables. Market analysis reveals a significant surge in expenses associated with the Norooz festivities for the year 1403, casting a shadow of concern among consumers and market traders alike. Nevertheless, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture in Tehran and other provinces have sought to reassure the public, announcing measures aimed at regulating market prices and ensuring the availability of essential goods for Ramadan and the Norooz holidays.

Amid these assurances, the reality on the ground tells a different story. Ahmad Ghazrani, the head of the Hamedan Bag and Shoe Union, reports a noticeable downturn in consumer spending, particularly among the middle class, as the market for bags and shoes cooled in the final days of the year. This trend is indicative of a broader economic malaise, with many winter items remaining unsold due to weak demand, further exacerbated by an economic downturn that has eroded the purchasing power of the average Iranian compared to previous years.

In a poignant reflection of the times, Zahra Rahnavard, a prominent critic of the government currently under house arrest, has issued an open letter condemning the escalating poverty, unemployment, and gender disparities in Iran. Her message, disseminated through the opposition-aligned “Kaleme” Telegram channel, criticizes the government’s aggressive stance against women and the nation’s lag in achieving global development standards.

As Iranians navigate the complexities of celebrating Norooz in challenging times, the holiday still emerges as a symbol of hope and resilience, a testament to the enduring spirit of a people determined to welcome spring despite the hardships they face.

Land Misappropriation Scandal Implicates Tehran’s Friday Imam

Kazem Sedighi, recently officiating as Tehran’s Friday Imam and head of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, is mired in allegations of land misappropriation and signature forgery. Despite being adorned with pejoratives such as “The Weeping Sheikh ” and “The Lying Sheikh ” by critics, Sedighi’s recent controversies have prompted a significant outcry, challenging his integrity. He vehemently denies the accusations, claiming his signature was fraudulently replicated on a controversial document. This claim, however, has been met with skepticism and ridicule across various social media platforms.

The narrative of corruption among officials of the Islamic Republic and their descendants is not unfamiliar. However, the case against Sedighi, a self-proclaimed moral arbiter who has sought to align closely with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has attracted significant attention. At the outset of his leadership in 1989, Ali Khamenei appointed Sedighi as a judicial inspector through a formal decree. In the 2000s, the office of the Supreme Leader initiated invitations for Sedighi to speak at religious mourning ceremonies in Khamenei’s presence. Despite these endorsements, when Sedighi aimed to enter the Assembly of Experts, he was deemed unqualified by the Guardian Council, contradicting his years of engagement in religious studies and his claims of teaching within a seminary he manages.

Despite the swirling accusations, Sedighi’s close relationship with Khamenei appears unshaken. His recent appearance as the Friday Imam and his participation in a meeting with Iranian officials alongside Khamenei signal continued support from the highest echelons of the Iranian leadership. This unwavering support raises questions about the criteria for leadership proximity and the apparent tolerance for alleged corruption within the clerical establishment.

Contrary to expectations of defense from state-affiliated media, the Islamic Republic’s newspaper has notably criticized Sedighi, suggesting a rift or at least a public relations attempt to distance the establishment from burgeoning scandal. The critique, however, does little to obscure the evident ongoing support from Khamenei, as demonstrated by Sedighi’s visible roles in religious and political spheres.

Sedighi’s opposition to freedom of thought and his staunch stance against women’s freedoms further complicate his public image. He has previously decried “cultural promiscuity” within Iran, drawing ire for equating domestic cultural productions with severe diseases, highlighting his controversial viewpoints on cultural and social matters.

The scandal involving the acquisition of a lucrative estate in Ozgol, supposedly without Sedighi’s knowledge, has become a focal point for broader discussions on accountability and integrity within the clerical community. Imam Khomeini Seminary, under Sedighi’s management, reportedly gifted the valuable estate to a family company operated by both Sedighi and his sons. Sedighi attributes the fraudulent transaction to a betrayal of trust by an associate, a claim that has done little to quell public discontent or skepticism.

This ongoing saga, coupled with the Islamic Republic newspaper’s critique and Sedighi’s undiminished visibility alongside Khamenei, spotlights the complex interplay of power, loyalty, and corruption within the highest ranks of the Islamic Republic. The continuous support of Sedighi by Khamenei, despite the weight of allegations, underscores a tolerance for certain figures embroiled in controversy, casting a shadow over the leadership’s commitment to ethical governance and moral leadership.

Faramarz Aslani, Iconic Iranian Musician, Passes Away at 69

Faramarz Aslani, a celebrated figure in Iranian music known for his songwriting, singing, and composing, has died at the age of 69 in the United States, leaving behind a legacy of poetic and musical brilliance. Marjan Aslani, the wife of the distinguished artist, shared the news of his passing on his official Instagram page, marking the loss of a man who was not just a musician but a poet, journalist, and a beacon of kindness. “On the evening of the first day of spring, March 20, 2024, a cruel cancer took Faramarz Aslani away forever, alongside the Norooz breeze, surrounded by the love of his close ones,” Marjan Aslani’s message read.

Earlier in March, Aslani had openly discussed his diagnosis with cancer. In an Instagram post, he expressed his determination to devote the remaining part of the year to his treatment and spiritual well-being. “Like a traveler on this complex journey, I, too, have brushed against the shadow of cancer. Hence, I plan to spend the rest of this year focused on treatment and nurturing my spirit,” Aslani had written.

Aslani’s career was marked by his unique ability to merge traditional Iranian poetry with contemporary music, creating an unforgettable sound that resonated with generations of Iranians. His works, such as the album “In Memory of Hafez,” remain timeless contributions to Iranian music.

Having migrated from Iran after the 1979 revolution, Aslani lived in the United States for several decades. He remained actively involved in supporting the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement, reflecting his commitment not only to his art but also to social and political causes.

Tributes have poured in from fans and fellow artists alike, with prominent singer Dariush Eghbali honoring Aslani as a “noble human” and “kind friend,” emphasizing his eternal presence in the world of music. Nasrollah Moein, another acclaimed singer, remembered Aslani as an “irreplaceable star,” sharing a lyric from one of Aslani’s famous songs that speaks to his enduring spirit.

Born in 1954 in Tehran, Aslani was a part of a musically-inclined family. After completing his education in journalism in London, he returned to Iran before eventually making his home in the United States, where he continued to inspire with his music and advocacy. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) expresses deep condolences to Aslani’s family, friends, and admirers worldwide, recognizing his contributions to music and his unwavering support for Woman, Life, Freedom and progressive movements within the Iranian community.

Supreme Labor Council Faces Walkout Over 35% Minimum Wage Hike Decision

In a contentious meeting that extended into the early hours of the last day of the year, the Supreme Labor Council, led by Solat Mortazavi – Minister of Cooperatives, Labor, and Social Welfare – decided on a 35.5% increase in the minimum wage for the fiscal year 1403. The new minimum wage, set at 11,107,000 Iranian Tomans including benefits, has sparked significant dissent among labor representatives.

The decision, finalized after protracted negotiations, did not align with labor representatives’ expectations, who had advocated for a minimum wage aligning with a 42% inflation rate and a living cost basket valued at 25 million Tomans. The outcome prompted labor representatives to abstain from signing the decree and exit the meeting in protest.

Mortazavi’s announcement that future wage determinations would be the prerogative of the Islamic Consultative Assembly (Parliament) only added to the controversy. Labor members voiced their objections loudly, with Ayat Asadi, Labor member of the Supreme Labor Council, specifically criticizing the preemptive decision-making approach for the coming years.

Despite government and employer members of the council pushing for the 35.3% increase, raising the minimum wage to 7,182,106 Iranian Tomans, labor representatives labeled the hike as insufficient against the backdrop of soaring inflation rates reported by the Statistical Center of Iran. Ahmadreza Moeini, a council member, detailed the labor faction’s unanimous decision to leave the meeting, underscoring their dissatisfaction with the government’s last-minute proposal which they found unacceptable.

Ali Hossein Ra’eity-Fard, the Deputy Minister of Labor, maintained that the council’s decisions were valid given the majority approval by its members, amid reports that the labor representatives’ departure was due to their inputs being overlooked in finalizing the wage figures.

The Ministry of Labor of Iran contrasted the grim scenario by highlighting the substantial raise from the current minimum monthly income of 8,579,000 Tomans to 11,609,000 Tomans for workers with two children. However, this adjustment falls short according to labor representatives who argue for a wage increase that genuinely reflects the real inflation rate and the escalating cost of living, which is greater than 35%.

The discussions, which ended in a deadlock and led to a dramatic walkout by the labor faction, have underscored the growing tension between workers’ demands for fair compensation in light of Iran’s economic challenges, including rampant inflation and wage-payment delays. This episode marks another year of fraught negotiations over workers’ wages in Iran, leaving the labor community uncertain about the future of their livelihoods in a country grappling with economic instability.

UN Urged to Sustain Scrutiny of Iran’s Human Rights Record Amid Worsening Conditions

In a significant move coinciding with the 55th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, March 18, a coalition of 43 Iranian and international human rights organizations has called for the extension of the mandates for Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, and the United Nations International Fact-Finding Committee. High-profile signatories, including Amnesty International, PEN America, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), and the Center for Human Rights in Iran, have emphasized the critical importance of these independent missions in holding Iran accountable for its human rights obligations.

These organizations argue that to prevent the recurrence of Iran’s severe human rights violations, the continuation of the Fact-Finding Committee’s independent investigations, equipped with adequate resources and time, is essential. This session, attended by various national representatives, dozens of activists, and victims of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” uprising, showcased the international community’s concern over ongoing human rights violations within the country.

Special Rapporteur Javaid Rehman highlighted the Islamic Republic’s persistent lack of accountability and the culture of impunity regarding human rights abuses. Rehman’s tenure, now in its sixth year, has been marked by efforts to document and report grave violations perpetrated by Iranian authorities. His remarks at the Geneva meeting underscored the deteriorating human rights conditions in Iran and the government’s disregard for international scrutiny.

Additionally, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, currently imprisoned in Evin Prison, issued a stark reminder of the systematic and widespread nature of human rights violations in Iran. In a message disseminated on social media, Mohammadi asserted the necessity of the Special Rapporteur and the Fact-Finding Committee’s roles in exposing what she described as gender apartheid and crimes against humanity inflicted by the Iranian regime. She detailed how the Islamic Republic’s violent repression has expanded, affecting not only protestors and dissidents but also women, religious minorities, and ethnic groups across the country. In her request, she urged the United Nations to exert more pressure on Iran.

The National Iranian American Council supported the adoption of the mandate for both the Special Rapporteur and the Fact-Finding Mission, and reiterates its call on Islamic Republic authorities to fully implement their human rights obligations as required under international law.

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