Week of July 6th, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council
- Calls for Zarif’s Prosecution at Parliament
- Aftermath of the Natanz Nuclear Facility Explosion
- Controversy Over Potential Iran-China Agreement
- Official Warns of Iran Being Referred to the UN Security Council
- Officials Deny Reports of Explosion in Western Tehran
Calls for Zarif’s Prosecution at Parliament
Foreign Minister Zarif went to parliament to deliver a report on international developments and Iran’s foreign policy to MPs. Zarif is the first cabinet member of the Rouhani administration to go before the new conservative-dominated parliament.
Hardline MPs vociferously attacked MPs and shouted that he was a “liar” during his address. In response, Zarif stated: “There are remarks and insults against me. They have called me humiliated while the Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei] has called me brave. They have called me a liar while the Leader has called me sincere. But I have a duty to listen to you as the representatives of the great people of Iran. I thank you for your criticisms and even thank you for your harshness.”
During his remarks, Zarif discussed what he said were the achievements of his foreign ministry during his tenure. He said focusing on the region and improving relations with Iran’s neighbors has been a priority. He said that in the past 7 years, relations have been at their “best” with Turkey, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Pakistan. He added that he has made over “20 trips” to Russia and Turkey.
Zarif also described the JCPOA as a “document of honor” in Iran’s history. He stated: “We stood in front of six global powers and negotiated. It became such that Trump said they were deceived. We were able to create a situation such that John Bolton was worried about Trump having a single meeting [with Zarif].”
Zarif also defended ongoing negotiations for a 25-year “strategic agreement” with China. Zarif said there is nothing secret about the potential agreement. He said that it has been discussed since 2016 after a meeting between Ayatollah Khamenei and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Tehran.
Zarif added: “One of the important benefits of this 25-year agreement between Iran and China is the return of Iran to the One Belt One Road Initiative.”
Zarif said about the economic aims of the foreign ministry: “First, trade with the East. Second, an export-oriented policy. If we want to increase domestic production, we need to increase exports.”
In the face of attacks from parliamentarians, Zarif called for unity and said the U.S. does not distinguish between Iranians of different political persuasions. He proclaimed: “We are all in one ship. We are all together. America does not distinguish between liberals, reformists, conservatives, revolutionaries, and non-revolutionaries. Israel does not distinguish between reformists and conservatives. It opposes all of Iran and Iran’s territorial integrity and Iran’s geography.”
Zarif also said that the global geopolitical landscape is shifting and is entering a “post-Western” era. Zarif said that the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Khomeini, was the first leader who understood this.
During Zarif’s address, hardline MP Javad Karimi Ghodoosi chanted “death to the liar.” Some MPs joined him in chanting this slogan. In response, Zarif said “thanks for your hospitality.”
MPs further attacked Zarif for prioritizing relations with the U.S. and for the deteriorating economic situation. One MP accused Zarif of expending the “foreign ministries capabilities on ties with America” and of “ignoring the region.”
Another hardline MP, Mojtaba Zonnour, criticized Zarif for not prioritizing relations with China. Zonnour rebuked Zarif for not reaching a “bilateral agreement” with China and stated: “If you didn’t abandon relations with China in the past, the people today would not be facing this level of economic pressure. You have to be accountable in this regard.”
Another hardline MP, Mohammad Taqi Naqdali, said Zarif and Rouhani should be prosecuted for “betraying this country.”
Aftermath of the Natanz Nuclear Facility Explosion
At 2am local time on July 2nd, there was an explosion at the Natanz uranium enrichment facility. As mentioned in the previous issue of Iran Unfiltered, Behrooz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), described it the following morning as an “incident” that took place in one of the buildings “under construction” at the Natanz facility.
One day after the explosion, the spokesperson for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said the “main cause of the incident has been identified.” However, the spokesperson added: “Given some security considerations, the cause of this incident and how it happened will be announced at the appropriate time.”
The main uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz are underground. However, on the surface, there are buildings for assembling centrifuges that are used to enrich uranium.
The explosion targeted one of these above-ground centrifuge assembly facilities. AEOI spokesperson Kamalvandi has said that this building was intended to be an assembly plant for more advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges. He said construction of it began in 2013 but was stopped after the JCPOA was struck in 2015.
Kamalvandi says this facility was under construction when the explosion occurred. He said the explosion did not injure or kill anyone but caused “considerable damage” to the facility. He said the facility housed “precise measuring instruments,” among other equipment, which have either been “damaged or destroyed.”
Kamalvandi says the incident may delay in the “mid-term” the development of advanced centrifuges. However, he said the AEOI will work in such a way as to make up for this delay and to create “more capabilities” than before.
Kamalvandi also said that there is a discussion now to rebuild the facility in another area that is more secure.
The New York Times has cited a “Middle Eastern intelligence official” as saying that Israel was responsible for the explosion. It said a “powerful bomb” was used to destroy the building.
Nour News, an Iranian outlet close to the Supreme National Security Council, also suggested the building was destroyed by an act of sabotage. Nour News compared the action to the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the U.S. in January. However, it said that it was “practically impossible” that the explosion was caused by an airstrike.
Tasnim News, close to the Revolutionary Guards, said Iran will decide how and when to respond if it was an Israeli act of sabotage. The outlet stated: “The Americans and Zionists will receive such a severe blow that the Natanz incident will be insignificant in comparison.”
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Controversy Over Potential Iran-China Agreement
Negotiations between Iran and China for long-term economic, political, and security cooperation have spurred controversy. Some Iranians have compared the potential agreement to the Turkmenchay Treaty, which saw Iran cede territory to Russia in the early 19th century.
The U.S. State Department has echoed this comparison to the Turkmenchay Treaty on its Persian Twitter account. Across Iranian social media, there are claims the Iranian government has agreed to give China a monopoly over its economy, allow it to station troops in the country, and give it Persian Gulf islands like Kish.
BBC Persian has explained that the origins of many of these claims go back to a “Petroleum Economist” article from September 2019. The article claimed that China would invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil industry and $120 billion in Iran’s transport and manufacturing infrastructure. It also claimed the agreement would see Iran sell China oil at a discount, give it priority over developmental contracts in Iran, and allow it to station 5,000 troops inside the country.
At the time, the claims of the Petroleum Economist article were denied by Iranian officials. Much of the Petroleum Economist article was also debunked in a report for the Bourse and Bazaar website.
In April of last year, conservative MP Hassan Noroozi also claimed the Rouhani administration was going to give China the Iranian island of Kish for 25 years. This claim was strongly denied by officials at the time.
The new round of controversy over the Iran-China negotiations began after recent remarks by former conservative president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. During a speech in the northern province of Gilan, Ahmadinejad spoke of a “secret” 25-year-agreement that was being reached “beyond the eyes of the people” with a “foreign country.”
Ahmadinejad further said in his speech: “Any agreement reached in secret and without taking into consideration the demands and will of the Iranian people with foreign parties and is against the country’s and people’s interests, is not valid and the Iranian people will not recognize it.”
Iranian officials have denied that a secret agreement has been reached with China or that Iran is giving abnormal concessions. After Ahmadinejad’s remarks, the foreign ministry stated that the issue of the agreement with China was “nothing new.” It said the agreement was announced in Chinese president Xi Jinping’s 2016 trip to Iran as part of a mutual aim to develop “strategic ties.”
On June 21st, the Rouhani administration approved an initial draft of the agreement with China. According to Iranian outlets the draft is not a finalized agreement but is the culmination of multiple rounds of negotiations. The draft agreement is titled “The Program for 25 years of Comprehensive Cooperation between Iran and China.”
According to Iranian outlets, negotiations for the agreement began after Chinese President Xi Jinpeng’s trip to Iran in January 2016. The trip happened just after the JCPOA was implemented and UN and some U.S. sanctions were lifted. During the trip, Xi and President Rouhani released a joint statement that said the two sides would negotiate toward a “25-year-comprehensive agreement.”
Notably, in the aftermath of the JCPOA, Iran inked agreements and memorandums of understanding with predominantly Western, and not Chinese, companies. This included prospective deals with firms such as Total, Siemens, Peugeot, Airbus, and Boeing. These agreements ultimately fell through after the U.S. reneged on the JCPOA.
In August 2019, Iranian Foreign Minister travelled to China and delivered a “25-year road map on the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership.” In March of this year, China gave its response to the proposal Zarif had delivered.
These previous exchanges reportedly led to the initial June 21st initial agreement announced by the Iranian government. However, Iranian officials are emphasizing it is a draft agreement and more negotiations are needed to finalize it. The head of the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce has said only “50 percent” of the path towards the agreement has been completed.
According to the Iranian outlet ISNA, the agreement will go to the Iranian parliament for review as well. The agreement envisions deeper political, security, defense, cultural, agricultural, economic and scientific cooperation as well as cooperation in the fields of “tourism, oil and energy, and telecommunications and communication technology.” In the security and defense areas, the agreement envisions cooperation on training, defense technologies, and on combatting terrorism.”
Foreign Minister Zarif and other officials have said the agreement will allow Iran to benefit from China’s over $1 trillion “Belt and Road Initiative” across Eurasia. Abdolreza Farjirad, a former Iranian ambassador to Norway and a geopolitical analyst, says that given Iran’s geographic location, it is well positioned to benefit from the Belt and Road Initiative.
Farjirad has stated: “The massive new Silk Road project will have its sea route pass through southern Iran and its land route pass through northern Iran and will connect central Asia and Europe. But Iran has been circumvented from this due to sanctions.”
Farjirad has added: “If the project reaches fruition and over $1 trillion is invested, many countries will experience economic growth because of it. With the 25-year agreement with China, Iran can join this project (Belt and Road Initiative).”
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Official Warns of Iran Being Referred to the UN Security Council
Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi warned against Iran taking actions that make Iran “look like a threat internationally.” Araghchi said that such actions would play into the hands of America.
Araghchi referenced a recent IAEA resolution against Iran and said it was possible Iran’s file would be “sent to the UN Security Council” due to U.S. pressure. Araghchi said a “dangerous game” was being played and that if Iran gets “caught up” in it, it could face “strategic” consequences.” (Read about the recent IAEA resolution in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.)
Araghchi said that Iran should not give “excuses” to the U.S. as the U.S. election nears.
Deutsche Welle Persian analyzed Araghchi’s remarks thusly: “Araghchi’s warning today was in fact aimed at hardline currents in Iran. He said the most important aim of America is to take Iran to the UN Security Council again, which it is pursuing from multiple paths. One path as Araghchi said is through the IAEA board of governors. Another is the issue of the arms embargo and reimposing UN sanctions.”
Earlier, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the new parliamentary speaker, said Iran should limit access to IAEA inspectors. Ghalibaf stated: “The Islamic Republic and the representatives of the people will not allow the IAEA to have open access and do whatever they want and create an intelligence and espionage operation for hostile countries.”
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Officials Deny Reports of Explosion in Western Tehran
Early in the morning on July 10th, there were unconfirmed reports of an explosion in Western Tehran province. The alleged incident took place in the towns of Shahr Qods and Garmdarreh.
However, local officials and media have denied reports of any explosions in the area. Leila Vaseghi, the mayor of Shahr Qods, stated: “No security institutions have confirmed the sound of an explosion in Shahr Qods or Garmdarreh and the reports that were published were rumors.”
Unlike with other recent explosions in Iran, no pictures or video of any explosion in Western Tehran have surfaced. Hamid Reza Goodarzi, the mayor of Tehran’s deputy for security and law enforcement, says the situation in Garmdarreh and Shahr Qods is “completely normal.”
However, according to officials, there was reportedly a power outage in the area that lasted for “several minutes.” According to Mehr News, this was because of a maintenance operation carried out by the local power station.
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