May 17, 2024

Sparse Voter Turnout in Tehran’s Second Round Parliamentary Election, Iran Intensifies Enforcement of ‘Noor Plan’ Amid Rising Tensions Over Mandatory Hijab, Hassan Rouhani Responds to Guardian Council with Open Letter Addressing Disqualification Concerns, and More

Week of May 13, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Sparse Voter Turnout in Tehran’s Parliamentary Election Second Round

The Iranian Ministry of Interior has released the results from the second round of the Islamic Consultative Assembly elections, indicating a notably low turnout in Tehran. With less than 10% of eligible voters casting their ballots, the capital’s participation rate reflects a broader disengagement in the electoral process.

The total count of valid votes in Tehran and its surrounding regions—including Rey, Shemiranat, Pardis, and Islamshahr—amounted to 552,000 out of an eligible 7.775 million voters, equating to a mere 7% turnout as reported by various Iranian media outlets. The exact number of invalidated votes remains undisclosed, potentially affecting the final participation statistics.

This electoral phase follows low engagement in the first round, where only 24% of Tehran’s eligible voters participated, marking the lowest turnout in the nation’s parliamentary election history. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had emphasized the importance of a vibrant electoral process, stating on his voting day, “The enemy desires a lackluster election… It is crucial for the system’s supporters and myself that the elections be enthusiastic and spirited.”

The current elections have been shadowed by extensive candidate disqualifications, including of at least 25 incumbents nearing the end of their terms. The restrictions targeted many reformist and moderate figures associated with the government, barring them from electoral participation. Ahmad Vahidi, Iran’s Interior Minister, initially celebrated the conclusion of the elections on the restricted platform X (formerly Twitter), declaring, “The people have created an epic. I am grateful to all the honorable people.” However, the tweet was subsequently deleted.

Despite Vahidi’s optimistic portrayal, the reality was reflected in the second round results where Bijan Nobaveh Vatan, despite receiving the highest number of votes in Tehran, only managed about 3.5% of the total eligible votes, demonstrating the overall apathy and disengagement from the electoral process. According to Iranian law, a candidate must secure at least one-fifth of the votes in their district to win outright in the first round. The low tally forced many of Tehran’s parliamentary seats into this second round of voting.

The subdued electoral competition prompted several local newspapers to overlook the elections in their headline coverage, focusing instead on the novelty of electronic voting, as highlighted by publications such as Vatan-e Emrooz and Farhikhtegan.

On the eve of the second round, an audio file from reformist leader Mohammad Khatami circulated on social media, advocating for non-participation, which further underscored the prevailing sentiment of voter disinterest and disenchantment with the electoral process.

Strategic Expansion: Iran and India Bolster Ties with Chabahar Port Agreement

In a significant move to enhance their bilateral ties and regional connectivity, Iran and India recently sealed a decade-long agreement focusing on the development and operation of Chabahar’s Shahid Beheshti Port. The pact, signed in Tehran by Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development Mehrdad Bazrpash and India’s Minister of Shipping Sarbananda Sonowal, marks a milestone in collaborative efforts aimed at strengthening both nations’ positions in the global maritime sector.

Minister Sonowal described the agreement as a “historic moment,” underscoring its potential to boost not only the bilateral relations between Iran and India but also to promote regional trade connectivity. This development aligns with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strategic vision to forge alternative trade routes encompassing Iran, Afghanistan, Eurasia, and Central Asia.

The agreement will see India invest $120 million in essential port equipment and an additional $250 million to enhance transportation infrastructure at Chabahar Port, established in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq War and strategically positioned outside the Persian Gulf. Bazrpash highlighted the agreement as a catalyst for commercial growth, further noting the expected completion of the Chabahar-Zahedan railway, which promises to augment the port’s operational capacity significantly.

Chabahar Port provides India with a crucial alternative route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan’s Karachi Port. India’s primary objective in investing in Chabahar is to strengthen regional connections, reduce reliance on existing trade routes and counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Iran’s collaboration with India in developing Chabahar Port as a transit hub under the International North-South Transport Corridor reflects Iran’s interest in leveraging foreign investment to enhance connectivity and trade, especially with Central Asia and Afghanistan.

If Chabahar further develops as a vital transit center for trade with Afghanistan and Central Asian countries, Iran stands to benefit through increasing investment opportunities and economic growth. Additionally, enhancing infrastructure and civil operations at Chabahar Port could help Iran facilitate more successful interactions in its complex relationships with China and India. Both countries are competing for influence in the region, and Iran’s ability to exploit the strategic position of the port can serve as a diplomatic tool, improving relationships with global powers and extracting more favorable terms for trade.

Achieving these goals depends on several key factors. Political, economic, and security stability is crucial because insecurity, political instability, and the continuation of confrontational foreign policies, alongside ongoing sanctions, can disrupt and hinder long-term development plans. Additionally, the security dynamics of the region, including strained relations with neighboring countries and ongoing conflicts, pose significant challenges to the stability and operational capabilities of Chabahar Port. In recent years, Iran has attracted a low level of foreign investment relative to its capabilities.

The initiative, however, has not escaped scrutiny. In response to the agreement, the U.S. issued a cautious reminder of its sanctions, which impact foreign nations considering most types of trade with Iran. Deputy Spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Vedant Patel, emphasized, “Any entity or individual contemplating commercial engagement with Iran must be aware of the potential risks and the possibility of facing sanctions.” Amid the Trump administration, the Chabahar port actually received a narrow sanctions waiver to facilitate trade and development in Afghanistan. However, there is a new geopolitical context following the Taliban government’s assumption of power amid the U.S. military withdrawal.

Contrasting the U.S. stance, India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar defended the strategic significance of the port. “Chabahar Port’s operations will benefit not just the participating countries but the entire region,” Jaishankar stated. He urged the U.S. to reconsider its position, adding, “I think we need to engage and persuade others that this is actually in everyone’s interest. I do not believe that others should have a closed perspective on this matter.”

Hassan Rouhani Responds to Guardian Council with Open Letter Addressing Disqualification Concerns

In a bold move, former Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued an open letter in response to what he describes as a “secret letter” from the Guardian Council, which had previously outlined the reasons for his disqualification from running for the Assembly of Experts in this latest election cycle. Rouhani, who has repeatedly called for the public disclosure of these reasons, stated that while the Council communicated their grounds to him privately, they cited the need for legal permission to make this information public.

In his response, Rouhani expressed concerns about the future of political freedoms for presidents if the current practices continue, suggesting that even the highest elected officials in Iran are not free from prosecutorial overreach by the Guardian Council. Rouhani was a sitting member of the Assembly of Experts, which is tasked with choosing the next Supreme Leader in the event of a vacancy. However, his qualifications were not approved in the recent sixth term elections. In reaction to his disqualification from the Assembly of Experts elections, Rouhani has made several public requests for the Council to disclose their reasons, which they have declined.

Rouhani’s website now states that his open letter to the “nation of Iran” follows his submission of  several letters to the Guardian Council calling on it “to state the reasons” and to “present the disqualification documents.” The spokesperson for the Guardian Council previously stated that Rouhani’s qualifications were not rejected but rather “not verified.” The Council informed Rouhani in writing that the reasons are not limited to the issues he raised.

Some attribute Rouhani’s disqualification last year to a file opened by the Islamic Consultative Assembly’s Article 90 Commission. In his letter, Rouhani criticizes those who disqualified him for political motivations, stating they “do not have the qualification to determine the country’s best interests.” Apart from his eight-year presidency, Rouhani served for 16 years as the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and as the representative of the Islamic Republic’s leader in this council, with a 20-year tenure in the Islamic Consultative Assembly.

In his latest remarks, Rouhani adopts a more direct tone in criticizing the Guardian Council. He writes, “During my eight years as president, I resisted as a ‘thorn in the eye’ and ‘a bone in the throat’ against assaults on the rights of the nation and the executive branch.”

He claims that the contents of Ahmad Jannati’s letter prove that “the highest directly elected official of the Iranian people is not even entitled to the freedom of speech as a citizen.” Rouhani argues that the Guardian Council’s document used for his disqualification is based on his comments about other institutions, including the Guardian Council itself, the judiciary, and the legislature, which are part of the president’s legal responsibilities to oversee the implementation of the constitution.

Rouhani’s letter concludes by emphasizing that it is not a personal defense but a defense of the republicanism (and Islamism) of the system, advocating for an institution of the presidency that should not be weakened any further. He reiterates his pride in his administration’s record and the nuclear agreement with world powers, lamenting that his stance has led to accusations of lack of integrity, commitment to the constitution, and lack of political knowledge and insight.

Iran Intensifies Enforcement of ‘Noor Plan’ Amid Rising Tensions Over Mandatory Hijab

In a move that has heightened tensions across Iran, the Attorney General announced the imminent release of new guidelines aimed at the “correct implementation” of the Noor Plan. This initiative continues to harshly enforce the mandatory hijab  law, drawing both domestic and international scrutiny.

The Noor Plan, supported by state prosecutor Mohammadi Azad, targets what the government perceives as “current social anomalies,” regarding codes on attire. Top government priorities now include combating what they term violations in the realms of modesty and hijab, with the state’s approach branded as “Noor.”

This governmental push coincides with emerging footage and reports of police employing violent tactics against women, sparking significant backlash. Despite widespread criticism and calls for a reevaluation of these measures, governmental bodies have expressed satisfaction with the initiative’s outcomes.

In a controversial statement, Amir Hossein Bankepour, a representative in the Islamic Consultative Assembly, referred to the hijab as a “strategic trench,” implying significant political stakes tied to its enforcement. The Modesty and Hijab Bill further mandates that municipalities allocate 20% of park areas to be enclosed for female-only use. Bankepour outlined severe enforcement strategies, including detention and heavy fines, aimed particularly at high-profile figures and those engaging with international anti-hijab movements. Additionally, new laws provide for the arrest of foreigners who fail to comply with the hijab mandate, underscoring the government’s rigid stance on cultural conformity.

Adding to the enforcement rhetoric, Police Commander-in-Chief Ahmadreza Radan defended the Noor Plan by citing alleged threats of cultural transformation akin to the historical “Andalusianization” of Muslim territories. Radan’s defense reflects a broader governmental narrative that frames the mandatory hijab as a bulwark against Western cultural encroachment.

However, the plan’s implementation has diminished safety in public for women, with recent incidents involving the morality police highlighted in viral videos. These incidents depict the aggressive detention of women, including one where officers forcibly undressed a detainee, ostensibly under the guise of adhering to legal standards.

The incident has led to an outcry over the tactics used by the morality police, prompting a rare police statement asserting that no unconventional tactics would be tolerated. However, ongoing reports and footage suggest a continued pattern of harsh enforcement.

Amid the unrest, Mehran Samadi, head of a religious command, announced the introduction of a new academic program focused on religious doctrines of morality, to be incorporated into university curricula. This move is seen as part of a broader strategy to embed religious conservatism more deeply within Iranian society.

The escalation of enforcement measures and the institutional push for conservative dress codes have triggered a wave of criticism from civil activists and citizens alike. Prominent political figure Zahra Rahnavard condemned the measures as draconian and accused the regime of masking its violent suppression of dissent with religious rhetoric. As tensions continue to mount, the Iranian government remains steadfast in its campaign, viewing the control over women’s dress as an integral part of its ideological and political battleground.

Iran Adopts Saturday as Official Weekend Day to Align with Global Standards

Iran’s Parliament has officially adopted Saturday as the second weekly holiday, complementing the existing Friday off-day, in a move aimed at aligning the country more closely with global weekend standards. This decision, made during a session on Wednesday, saw the rejection of an alternative proposal to make Thursday the second off-day. The bill now awaits confirmation from the Guardian Council.

Introduced by the Iranian government, the legislative change is part of an effort to enhance Iran’s economic interactions on the global stage. The majority of nations observe Saturday and Sunday as the weekend, with several Middle Eastern and North African countries opting for Friday and Saturday. According to Kamal Ismaili, head of the Parliamentary Social Commission, speaking to Tasnim news agency, the shift to include Saturday is to ensure Iran does not miss out on global economic opportunities. Implementation of the new weekend days could commence by the end of June, Ismaili noted.

The session, presided over by Abdulreza Mesri, included discussions on the government’s stance on weekend days, highlighted by a government representative restating that the original bill did not specify a choice between Thursday and Saturday. The parliament’s decision will also reduce the official workweek for government employees from 44 to 40 hours. This reform is seen as the culmination of years of efforts by both the government and the parliament, marking the seventh attempt since 2015 to establish a two-day weekend.

Some resistance to the change was noted, with critics citing political and religious concerns. For example, Rohullah Motafaker Azad expressed opposition by saying, “With the current situation where Israel is committing atrocities, taking Saturday off sends the wrong message,” pointing to the day’s significance in Judaism.

Despite such concern, significant clerical endorsements have been secured. Ayatollah Javadi Amoli stated that observing Saturday aligns with global market activities and aids in economic problem-solving without suggesting any imitation of non-Islamic practices. Further inquiries to religious authorities, including Ayatollahs Naser Makarem Shirazi and Nouri Hamedani, confirmed that the shift does not constitute an emulation of Jewish traditions. Mohsen Pirhadi, a member of the parliamentary presidency board, relayed these clerical positions, affirming broad religious support for the new weekend arrangement.

Shadows of Injustice: Khosro Besharat Executed After 15 Years in Prison

Iranian human rights organizations have confirmed the execution of Khosro Besharat  after 14 years of incarceration, on May 15, 2024, at Gohardasht Prison. That same day, additional executions of at least five other prisoners were reported in Karaj and Ilam, signaling a troubling surge in capital punishment.

Besharat was implicated in a high-profile case alongside six others, accused of belonging to a “Salafi group” and participating in the murder of the imam of the Khalifaye Rashidin Mosque in Mahabad. The Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced him and his co-defendants, including Anwar Khezri, Ayoub Karimi, Davoud Abdollahi, Farhad Salimi, Qasem Abesteh, and Kamran Sheikhe, to death. Their detention nearly 15 years ago was marred by reports of severe mistreatment and torture at the Urmia Intelligence Department in West Azerbaijan Province.

The case has drawn significant criticism from international human rights bodies, citing a “grossly unfair” trial filled with allegations of torture and denied legal representation, as noted by Amnesty International. Human rights organization Hengaw described Besharat’s trial process as “non-transparent, unfair, and unlawful,” with the defendants subjected to brutal interrogation tactics, including hanging from the ceiling, beatings, mock executions, sleep deprivation, and psychological torture.

Following the execution of Khezri on May 4, 2024, Besharat was placed in solitary confinement. Khezri was not only a co-defendant but also Besharat’s cousin. Earlier executions of Abdollahi, Karimi, Abesteh, and Salimi had already heightened concerns among human rights advocates regarding the imminent risk faced by the remaining defendants.

On the day of Besharat’s execution, three more prisoners were executed at Ghezel Hesar Prison in Karaj for drug-related offenses, while two were executed in Ilam Central Prison for “premeditated murder.” These executions underscore a pattern of capital punishment for a range of allegations, intensifying the scrutiny of Iran’s judicial practices.

The judiciary’s reissuance of death sentences, especially after initial reversals by higher courts, highlights a contentious legal environment under judges like Moqiseh and Salavati, whom human rights groups have flagged as routine violators of human rights standards. As concerns mount over the fate of Kamran Sheikhe, the last remaining defendant, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network has provided a critical update clarifying that, contrary to previous reports, Sheikhe has not been transferred to solitary confinement and remains in regular contact with his family.

Prominent Iranian Scholar Sadiq Zibakalam Sentenced to Prison on Multiple Charges

Sadiq Zibakalam, a well-known Iranian academic and political analyst, has been imprisoned following convictions in three separate legal cases, as confirmed by the Iranian judiciary. The 75-year-old retired professor from the University of Tehran faces charges including “propaganda against the regime” and “publishing false information.”

Zibakalam, who has often sparked controversy with his forthright views in political debates and media appearances, received an 18-month prison sentence in the first of the three cases for his alleged anti-regime activities. Additionally, he was sentenced to one year and six months in the second and third cases respectively, though the sentences will concurrently run, summing to an enforceable term of 18 months.

The charges stem from Zibakalam’s recent activities, including his remarks in a Deutsche Welle Farsi radio interview about the widespread 2017 protests in Iran, which authorities claimed constituted “propaganda against the regime.” On social media, Zibakalam has defended his statements, suggesting that such charges are frequently used to suppress dissent and punish those expressing views contrary to official positions.

During the Shah’s era, Zibakalam was also imprisoned for three years. He has been an outspoken critic of the Islamic Republic’s policies, particularly its foreign relations, advocating for normalized ties with Western countries. Zibakalam’s recent book, “Why Don’t They Arrest You and What Will Happen Eventually?” was released shortly before his arrest. He was scheduled to present it at the Tehran Book Fair, a plan thwarted by his latest legal challenges.

Educated in Britain after the Iranian Revolution, Zibakalam completed his doctoral thesis on the Islamic Revolution, which later formed the basis of one of his books. He has been a significant figure in Iran’s political discourse, especially through his teachings at the University of Tehran where he held a position in the Faculty of Political Science until his retirement. This case highlights ongoing tensions in Iran over freedom of expression and the state’s crackdown on dissent, particularly among intellectuals and political activists.

Defiant Iranian Filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof Flees to ‘Cultural Iran’

Mohammad Rasoulof, a prominent Iranian filmmaker recently sentenced to eight years in prison, has declared himself a “resident of cultural Iran” following his escape from the country. In a video released on Instagram capturing his departure via a land border, Rasoulof discussed the confiscation of his passport “for the umpteenth time” and a search of his home by security agents.

In his post, Rasoulof defiantly stated, “If you think the borders of Iran are in your hands, you are dreaming. While the geographical Iran suffers under the boots of religious tyranny, the cultural Iran lives in the collective mind of millions of Iranians who have been forced to leave due to your oppression and savagery, and no power can impose its will on it. From today, I reside in cultural Iran.”

Rasoulof’s latest film, “The Seed of the Sacred Fig,” a drama centered around a judge in the Iranian judiciary as protests escalate in Iran, is set to premiere soon in the competition section of the 77th Cannes Film Festival in France. On Instagram, he expressed gratitude to those who assisted his escape to safety. 

Mohammad Mehdi Esmaeili, Iran’s Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, commented on the film’s screening at Cannes, stating, “The production and distribution of such films are illegal. Wherever we are aware, we will stop it.” Esmaeili emphasized, “This is a clear violation, and we will definitely take legal action in the cinema organization to prevent such incidents in the future.”

Babak Paknia, Rasoulof’s lawyer, revealed on May 8 that his client was sentenced to eight years in prison, of which five are enforceable, in addition to lashes, a financial penalty, and asset seizure. Paknia noted on X (formerly Twitter) that the appellate court upheld the verdict, sending the case for execution, as Rasoulof was deemed to have conspired to commit a crime against national security through his films and documentaries.

Previously, Paknia reported that several of the film’s crew members were summoned, interrogated, and barred from leaving the country, and were told to persuade the director to withdraw the film from Cannes. Rasoulof was arrested in June 2022 following the Metropol building collapse in Abadan after heand signed a statement titled “Put Down Your Gun” in protest against the violent suppression by security forces. He was accused of propaganda against the regime and sentenced to one year in prison and a two-year travel ban.

Despite the pressures to retract “The Seed of the Sacred Fig” from Cannes by the Iranian authorities, Rasoulof is scheduled to attend its world premiere at the festival next week, as confirmed by his lawyer to the French news agency. Rasoulof’s daring escape has garnered significant attention, with the French news agency describing it as a “bold flight.”

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