August 11, 2023

Debate and Controversy Surround Proposed ‘Hijab and Chastity’ Bill, Iranian-American Prisoners Released on Furlough, and More

Week of August 7, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Several Iranian-American Prisoners Released in Iran on Furlough

On August 10th, it was announced that five Iranian Americans – Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, Morad Tahbaz, and two others who have not been publicly identified – were removed from Evin Prison on furlough and placed under house arrest. This appears to be the first step to ultimately bringing these Iranian-American dual nationals back home to their families in the U.S. as part of a full prisoner swap. 

Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council, confirmed the furlough release and described the negotiations for the release as “ongoing” and “delicate.” Additionally, in the weeks to come, it has been reported that $6 billion in sanctioned Iranian funds currently frozen in South Korea will be transferred to a Qatari bank where the funds will be monitored and disbursed for humanitarian purchases such as medicine and food. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed the furlough as “positive” and said that while work remains “[m]y belief is that this is the beginning of the end of their nightmare, and the nightmare that their families have experienced.” America’s top diplomat argued that the forthcoming dispersal of funds was not sanctions relief, saying “Iran’s own funds would be used and transferred to restricted accounts, such that monies can only be used for humanitarian purposes.”

Prior to the announcement in U.S. press, Khorasan newspaper had reported the earlier arrest of an Iranian-American woman, which may have stalled the announcement of the prisoner exchange between Iran and the United States. Although her identity has not been revealed, it has been noted that she has been affiliated with non-governmental organizations in Afghanistan in the past. She is believed to have been arrested on charges of espionage in the past few weeks, making her the fifth confirmed U.S. prisoner in Iran. 

The Iranian foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, had stated that the number of Iranian-American prisoners in Iran currently being negotiated for exchange with the United States is of no significance. Despite his refusal to deny or confirm the reports, he said that messages have been exchanged with the United States through Oman and Qatar for several months now.

“The exchange of prisoners is a humanitarian issue and we do not consider any preconditions for it,” the Iranian Foreign Minister stated. He indicated that Iran will exchange prisoners within the framework that has been agreed upon. Amir Abdollahian did not provide further information regarding the “agreed framework.” The Iranian government had previously announced that it would expect the blocked assets of the country, which are not accessible due to US sanctions, to be released.

Initial negotiations between Iran and the United States revolved around four dual citizens who were supposed to be released: Bagher Namazi, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz. Iranian officials released Bagher Namazi on October 1, 2022 amid serious concerns regarding his health, reducing the number of Iranian-Americans involved in the negotiations to three. A fourth individual, Shahab Dalili, who has been imprisoned since 2015, has also been brought into the exchange negotiations. However, the recent arrest of the Iranian-American woman complicated the negotiations for a period of time.

Morad Tahbaz, Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Shahab Dalili, all Iranian-American prisoners, have been officially acknowledged by the Islamic Republic authorities for their detention. According to the Shargh Chap newspaper in Tehran, Shahab Dalili is on the list of Iranian-American prisoners the U.S. wishes to exchange.

Recent weeks have seen Ali Bagheri Kani, the Iranian foreign ministry’s political deputy, engage in indirect discussions with Brett McGurk, the deputy Middle East affairs coordinator for the National Security Council. During an official visit to Iran last spring by Haitham bin Tariq, the Sultan of Oman, discussions were held about prisoner exchanges between Iran and the U.S. No official comments have been made regarding Mr. Dalili or the detained Iranian-American woman.

In the U.S., the agreement has been condemned by many Republican politicians, though other voices have expressed support. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT) noted among a series of tweets defending the negotiations, he shared “Among this group is Connecticut’s Morad Tahbaz. I will not celebrate until he is back in America, but I have worked for years on this case with his family. I am so grateful to the Biden Administration for the hard work they put into negotiating his release.”

U.S. Troops and Warships Arrive in Persian Gulf Amid Rising Tensions

As 3,000 U.S. Marines arrived in the Persian Gulf with a mission of deterring Iran at sea, the Pentagon revealed a consequential move by the head of CENTCOM, the United States military’s command structure for the greater Middle East. General Michael Kurilla, Commander of CENTCOM, boarded the warship USS Thomas Hadner immediately and sailed through the geopolitically critical Strait of Hormuz, stopping at a U.S. Navy base in the United Arab Emirates, before going on to meet with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. 

According to CENTCOM’s official release, the Pentagon commander reviewed the U.S. fleet’s capabilities within the Persian Gulf meticulously. In consultation with American military counterparts, discussions focused on the security dynamics of the region and the strategic passage of the Strait of Hormuz.

Over 3,000 military personnel and several warships have been deployed in response to Iran’s recent seizure of an oil tanker and harassment of several others, which followed the U.S. seizure of a tanker carrying Iranian oil in April. According to Tim Hawkins, a spokesperson for the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet, this deployment aims to “curtail destabilizing actions and ease regional tensions due to Iranian aggression and maritime interference.”

Separate reports indicate that U.S. Marines may be deployed on commercial tankers transiting the Persian Gulf to deter possible Iranian seizures. While the decision has not been fully made and it is unclear what the rules of engagement would be, the Pentagon has been preparing to authorize what would be an unprecedented deployment in peacetime. It is uncertain whether the U.S. anticipates additional attempts to seize or divert vessels carrying Iranian oil, or whether it believes Iran may lash out without an immediate provocation.

Iranian sources have heavily criticized the deployment and warned that it will increase instability in the region. According to Naser Kanani, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, the U.S. military presence has consistently failed to ensure security; rather, it has resulted in instability and insecurity. The Persian Gulf countries are sufficiently equipped to ensure their own safety, according to Kanani.

According to Brigadier General Ramadan Sharif of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran is prepared to respond to “any malicious U.S. action, including seizing vessels.” A month ago, U.S. forces successfully thwarted two Iranian attempts to hijack commercial oil tankers near Oman. According to the Iranian Maritime Services Organization, a Bahamian-flagged tanker, “Richmond Voyager,” collided with an Iranian ship causing five crew members to be injured. As reported by Al-Monitor, these clashes may have been triggered by a U.S. move “to confiscate a second tanker carrying Iranian petroleum” days before. Iran also seized two oil tankers in April following the initial U.S. seizure.

The Iranian government has accused “American terrorists” in the region for perceived breaches of norms and laws, and has taken significant actions. This includes conducting a naval exercise involving cruisers, and battleships as well as demonstrations of counter-strategies. The Army and Navy received enhanced equipment, including various range missiles and subsurface-capable unmanned aerial vehicles. Nasir and Qadeer missiles were redelivered to the The Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp.

Debate and Controversy Surround MPs’ Efforts to Secretly Pass Hijab Bill

Ebrahim Raisi, the president of Iran, declared that compliance with mandatory hijab will be restored in a speech. Raisi stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the guarantee of the Islamic system, and the tent that was erected in its name.” Addressing supporters of the government, he added “The unveil will be removed, don’t worry.”

The remarks come as fundamentalist Members of Parliament are considering adopting the “Hijab and Chastity” bill through Article 85, bypassing a public examination. Parliament could vote on amending Article 85 of the Chastity and Hijab Bill during its session next week. The constitution provides Parliament with the authority to delegate approval of laws to internal commissions when appropriate. Upon approval, a joint commission would be formed to review and finalize the bill.

Thus, the new hijab laws would become law without the need for public review or radio broadcasts of differing opinions. The bill under consideration, submitted by Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei’s judiciary and Ebrahim Raisi’s government, stipulates severe penalties and fines of millions of Tomans for non-compliance with mandatory hijab.

A recent discussion on the Government’s television channel underlined conservative debates on the hijab bill. The deputy attorney general, Abdul Samad Khorramabadi,  argued that the bill would result in a “normalization” of voluntary veiling and support for those who are “discovering hijab.” However, he criticized both the bill and limits on police powers that would prohibit hijab enforcers from being aggressive towards citizens. In recent years, footage of violent confrontations between security officers and women has caused public outrage in Iran. Likewise, Shia cleric Jalil Mohebi defended the bill, saying the government must find another way since the Guidance Patrol has been damaged, and that monetary penalties could be substituted for police intervention.

There are a number of restrictions in the new law, which impact both men and women, including denial of government services, denial of internet access, car confiscation, business closures, and heavy fines. These measures are designed to enforce a dress code in accordance with the government’s preferences. The new bill has been introduced in Parliament after several months of government propaganda amid increased defiance of the mandatory hijab laws in Iran following the killing of Mahsa (Zina) Amini in the custody of the Irshad patrol.

Head of the Judiciary Ejei has acknowledged the “costliness” of enforcing the hijab. As a result of the judicial system’s role rather than direct police action, the Deputy Attorney General has criticized the legislation. According to the Iranian Women Journalists Association, MPs have focused on enforcing the hijab at the expense of other responsibilities of parliament, such as addressing corruption, inflation, and poverty.

As part of a project called “Hijab Ban”, the Tehran Municipality plans to hire 400 “veilers” to serve on the subway at a salary of 12 million tomans per month with a job of enforcing mandatory hijab. While the Iranian government has attempted to reimpose hijab upon Iranian women, it has not been successful. A report in Faraz newspaper indicated that these forces would be trained and employed by Hamian Shahr Shahrdari Tehran company. They would provide verbal warnings and prevent “forced hijab violators” from entering the subway. According to the report, hiring these forces would cost the equivalent of purchasing ten taxis or an inner-city bus.

Insaf News Investigates the Irshad Patrol’s Impact on Tehran Streets

Asieh Tohidenjad of Insaf News examined the impact of the return of the Ershad Patrol to Tehran’s streets. In her comprehensive observations, Ms. Tohidenjad illustrates that despite the return of the guidance patrol, it has not successfully compelled women to fully wear the hijab once again.

As a result of the announcement on July 16 that the guidance patrol would return, including in Tehran’s ValiAsr Square, the number of women unveiled in Tehran’s ValiAsr Square increased on July 18. According to the report, it was evident that a greater number of women within the jurisdiction of the patrol were not wearing Hijab. Particularly, a woman accompanied by one or two officers apparently tasked with hijab enforcement stood near the Quds Cinema and purposefully avoided any interaction with passersby.

Two women were accompanied by agents on the opposite side of the street near the metro station. Those who spotted them from a distance adjusted their paths to avoid any confrontations. Two young female agents also approached the subway entrance, according to Ms. Tohidenjad, accompanied by a senior officer who appeared to have a higher military rank. These women shouted to a girl emerging from the subway, ‘Lady! Lady! I am speaking with you!’ The girl passed indifferently. A few steps away, an elderly man interjected with a shout: “They are scared to reveal their faces!” All the female agents were wearing masks.

Ms. Tohidenjad noted that during her return journey, at around 8 PM, there was no trace of the officers at the northwest square subway. She spoke with a nearby vendor, asking about their departure times, who shared, “They leave when things get busier, ma’am!” He added, “You needn’t worry, madam. They occasionally issue warnings; they may attempt to intervene physically, but nothing drastic is done.”

Ms. Tohidenjad went on to share an incident where a van was stationed with two female agents along with over ten police officers at the intersection of North Kargar and El-Ghebanal Square, opposite the Seyed al-Shohda Mosque, with two female agents accompanying them. Officers maintained their distance from the van, admonishing women who were not wearing the hijab and issuing threats. In particular, a woman was conversing with female agents while smiling. In the meantime, a soldier filmed or photographed the interaction.

Among the interviewees, a young woman humorously recounted an incident: “I approached them and removed my hijab. They are powerless. I no longer feel compelled to comply.” In contrast, a younger girl expressed resentment, claiming that the patrol’s resurgence was demonstrating a disregard for public sentiment.

As the focus shifted to July 19, teenagers and youths of all genders mingled casually in Tulip Park. Lovebirds displayed affection in various attires, either openly or cautiously behind concealing foliage. Nearby, children engaged in exercises overseen by a coach, and mothers were vigilant. Some mothers chose not to wear headscarves, while others adhered to a more lenient interpretation of the norm.

The report then focused on a conversation with a 60-year-old woman, nicknamed Dahlia, on a bus ride. Dressed in a weathered dark uniform, she lamented tired hands and legs, accompanied by persistent discomfort. In her reflection on the presence of the Irshad Patrol, Dahlia stated: “I do not approve of their presence on the streets ‘at the moment,’ however, I find their current approach of offering warnings to be more acceptable. Though adhering to religious duties is a known obligation, the intensity of youth anger discourages me from intervening.”

Although Dahlia’s acquaintance, Dukheb, was not opposed to the concept of the hijab, he expressed frustration with the gradual relaxation of fashion norms among young people. Despite having two daughters and one son, the eldest daughter chose a more moderate head covering, whereas the younger daughter adopted the traditional veil. According to Dukheb, his initial efforts to encourage his younger daughter to adhere to stricter dress codes were ineffective, leading him to respect her autonomy instead.

As the report shifted to July 20, the focus shifted to Palestine Square, El-Ghebanal Street, and the Shahr Theater Metro. In the citywide Muharram mourning period that began at Imam Sadiq Mosque, the metal barrier on the stairs, usually a communal seating area, was removed. There was also an image of Armita Abbasi’s image – a prominent figure in the protests – displayed in a peddler’s shop on Enghelab Street. 

Rethinking Iran’s Foreign Policy: Insights from Former Deputy Minister’s Critique of Afghanistan Approach

In an exclusive interview, Mohsen Aminzadeh, who served as deputy foreign minister under Khatami’s administration, criticized Iran’s recent decisions regarding Afghanistan foreign policy. Aminzadeh highlighted a pivotal shift in Iran’s stance towards Afghanistan which occurred after the reformist government concluded its term in 2005.

As Aminzadeh pointed out, Iran and Afghanistan’s newly-formed government enjoyed successful diplomatic relations until 2005, when the reformist period ended. He cited the construction of a cross-border bridge in Sistan and Baluchistan, the establishment of the Harat-Mashhad road, and the financial support for the Mashhad-Herat railway as prime examples of Iran’s contributions to Afghanistan’s development, strengthening territorial connections between the two nations.

Aminzadeh noted, however, that significant changes have occurred, largely unnoticed by those who have vacated their positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the government. According to him, the strategic shift occurred in 2005 and subsequently reoriented Iran’s regional priorities and its position towards the United States.

In light of the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program, Aminzadeh explained that the relationship with the US had changed, leading Iran to reconsider its involvement in Afghanistan. Consequently, Iran’s regional foreign policy was effectively wrested from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and decisions were often made without its involvement. This new strategy was intended to influence the United States’ departure from Afghanistan. Diplomatic efforts yielded to other forms of interaction as a result.

According to Aminzadeh, by 2013, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had little control over sensitive regional issues, including Afghan issues, with the Quds Force assuming greater control. Diplomacy, once a cornerstone of Iran’s regional engagement, has substantially declined, resulting in an overreliance on security and military forces to manage the situation that profoundly impacted Afghanistan’s transformation, he said.  Aminzadeh elaborated on the cooling of Iranian-Afghan relations, citing factors such as Iran’s alleged interference in Afghan elections and reported clandestine dealings with Taliban officials. These instances underscored the decline of traditional diplomacy in favor of unconventional, security-oriented approaches. Throughout the interview, Aminzadeh stressed that Iran’s alignment with the Taliban and its shift away from diplomacy affected Iran’s role in the region in greater depth. According to him, Iran’s position should be reconsidered, as the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam may not align with Iran’s cultural and religious identity.

The concluding remarks of Aminzadeh emphasized how complex Iran’s diplomatic transition has been. In his view, Iran’s policies must be reevaluated in light of a renewed understanding of democracy, human rights, and the compatibility of Islam and republicanism. Aminzadeh’s critique highlighted how Iran’s foreign policy decisions are complex and have far-reaching repercussions.

Iran Sees Fourfold Increase in Labor Protests Over Last Two Years

A Netherlands-based organization advocating for workers’ rights and unions has published a comprehensive report detailing the struggles faced by Iran’s labor movement, teachers, retirees, and workers in the first half of 2023. Among the protests, strikes, and demonstrations examined were those by workers, nurses, teachers, and wage earners, as well as instances of repression, targeting, arrests, and harassment.

In addition to highlighting retirees’ weekly street appearances, the report also emphasizes the accomplishments of Iran’s labor and trade unions following the tragic death of Mahsa Amini, which triggered anti government protests. The gains indicate a potential retreat of the government, signaling a weakening of control over workers, wage earners, and laborers.

According to the report, three of the four individuals executed for participating in protests in 1401 (2022-2023) were workers. The Volunteer Activists Organization – an organization dedicated to workers’ rights – examined the laborers’ contributions to nationwide demonstrations. Their report, “Workers’ Rights Watch,” provided an overview of developments following the trajectory of Iran’s labor movement and wage earners from January to June of 2023.

The report discusses how protests against violence against women intersected with demands for worker improvements, poverty reduction, and reduced inequalities. This report cites the poem “Baraye” by “Shervin Hajipour” to illustrate how economic challenges – such as a shrinking economy, inflation, and poverty – motivate citizens to protest.

Iranian pensioners are highlighted in the report as contributing to ongoing protests, citing weekly demonstrations for increased wages and healthcare. There is an increase of fourfold in labor protests between May and July 2023 compared to 2021, however repression against workers, activists, and wage earners persists. The report cites an increase in online cooperation among workers, which allows them to voice grievances and mobilize international support through collaboration campaigns between various organizations, including women’s groups. Although the government occasionally yields to demands, repressive measures continue against workers, teachers, and pensioners. The report also discusses the union movements of truck drivers, nurses, and educators.

An emphasis is placed on the importance of independent trade unions in the report, which advocates strengthening connections between labor groups and suggests organizational cohesion. It provides an insightful overview of Iran’s ongoing labor struggles, demonstrating the determination of individuals fighting for workers’ rights, justice, and societal advancement.

Parliament Election Pre-Registration Initiated with Significant Electoral Overhaul

As the pre-registration phase for the upcoming Parliament elections kicks off on August 7, a series of transformative changes are reshaping the electoral landscape. This preliminary stage mandates candidates to pre-register, acquire unique tracking codes, and adhere to precise document submission deadlines. Ensuring the resolution of any document-related disparities prior to the primary registration period’s onset on August 13 is imperative, as failure to pre-register results in irrevocable withdrawal.

In accordance with the stipulations of Article 45 of the Election Law, the ultimate registration window for candidates will commence on December 19, 2023, extending over a span of seven days. The recent ascendancy of Azar Mansouri as the leader of the Reform Front, coupled with the departure of Behzad Nabavi, has ignited a mosaic of interpretive perspectives. Within this evolving context, activists have voiced skepticism regarding the elections’ independence in light of the prevalent usage of discretionary surveillance techniques.

The spectrum of reformist strategies now unfurling encompasses two major strands: those advocating for radical reform and others advocating for increased opportunities for citizen engagement. A diverse array of voices, including figures such as Mohammad Ali Vakili, Mohammad Atrianfar, and Mostafa Kavakbian, assert that the competitive atmosphere of the elections will galvanize participation. Yet, the stance of the Etehad Mellat movement remains staunchly opposed. 

A joint statement issued by notable political activists, among them Mohammad Javad Dardakshan, Mohammad Hossein Rafiei, Issa Saharkhiz, Hossein Sarbandi, Fazlullah Salawati, Parveen Fahimi, Saeed Montazeri, Abdullah Naseri, Mehdi Nasiri, and Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, casts a critical light on the discretionary surveillance and security institutions that cast shadows over the Iranian elections. In their view, participation without addressing these concerns is tantamount to implicit acceptance of deception, ultimately jeopardizing the nation’s interests.

As stated within the joint declaration, “Amidst the current tumultuous backdrop where a considerable portion of Iranians and intellectual elites are in exile, the forthcoming elections risk being seen not as vehicles for governance enhancement but rather as veneers legitimizing the regime.” The pivotal call echoes a demand for the reinstatement of democratic principles and the imperative of a referendum to elucidate the Iranian president’s mandate, spanning critical realms such as potential constitutional amendments. “Listening to the populace’s and intellectuals’ voices remains paramount. In the absence of these foundational requisites, any participation, irrespective of its origin, would be a misguided act at odds with the nation’s welfare.”

Renowned Iranian singer Parvin Nourivand passes away

On August 10, at five o’clock in the morning, the illustrious Iranian singer, Parvin Nourivand, breathed her last at her home in Tehran. The sad news was brought to public attention by Fariba Hedayati, a well-known composer, musician, and close friend of Mrs. Parvin. Hedayati shared the news on her Instagram page.

Born in Tehran in 1938, Parvin’s career took an unexpected turn after completing her studies. Initially employed at the Bank of Commerce (Shahanshahi), her talent was discovered by Homayoun Khorram, a leading Iranian composer, who heard her voice and invited her to participate in the Golha program.

Parvin’s fame skyrocketed after she performed “Ghoghai Setargan,” a song composed by Homayun Khorram with lyrics penned by Karim Fekur. In 1974, Parvin retired from singing. But after nearly five decades of silence, she returned to the spotlight. During the national protests last fall, she performed “Ghoghai Setargan” again, without a hijab and sporting her usual makeup, in the company of her friends. This performance was widely shared and celebrated on social networks. Her passing marks the end of an era in Iranian music.

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