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July 2, 2020

“Incident” at Natanz Nuclear Facility


Week of June 29th, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council

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“Incident” at Natanz Nuclear Facility

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) spokesperson Behrooz Kamalvandi said an “incident” took place in one of the buildings “under construction” in the “open area” of the Natanz nuclear facility.  Natanz is Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility and houses thousands of centrifuges.

Kamalvandi said “specialists were on the scene investigating the cause of the incident.” An image released by the AEOI showed a building that appeared to be partially burnt and damaged.

Kamalvandi said the affected facility was “inactive” and there was no risk of “pollution” (i.e. radiation). He further said no one was hurt in the incident.

BBC Persian reports that hours before the incident occurred, some of its journalists received a statement from a group claiming responsibility for an “operation” that was going to occur at Natanz. The writers of the statement said they were an “underground group” and said they are people from “within Iran’s security services.”

The statement said the operation would target Iran’s nuclear facilities in “Kashan and “Natanz’s new assembly center.” They said they would target this facility at Natanz because it was “not underground” and its destruction “could not be denied.” Notably, Iran has no nuclear facilities in Kashan and Natanz is close to the city of Isfahan.

BBC Persian said it could not verify the validity of the statement.

Separately, Edy Cohen, an Israeli media analyst and advisor to Prime Minister Netanyahu, tweeted hours before the incident became public that Israel had bombed Natanz. Cohen cited “Western intelligence sources” as saying that Israel bombed Natanz with F-16 fighters and used the airspace of a “neighboring country” to carry out the operation.

Last week, a building near an Iranian missile production facility also exploded in what Iranian authorities attributed to a gas leak. At the time, Cohen also said these Iranian statements “should not be believed.”

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Fire at Medical Clinic Kills 19

An explosion and fire at a medical clinic in northern Tehran killed 19 people. The incident happened at the “Sina Athar” clinic near Shariati street. Footage of the explosion and fire were shared widely on Iranian social media.

According to officials, 15 women and 4 men died in the fire. More than half of the deaths were physicians and staff in the clinic’s operations room.

Tehran’s chief prosecutor has said five people have been summoned and one person arrested over the incident. The building had reportedly been given three safety warnings in recent years and the building owners failed to adequately address the issues raised in the warnings.

President Rouhani called for relevant agencies to discover the cause of the fire “as soon as possible.” Based on preliminary investigations, an “oxygen capsule depot” in the basement of the building exploded after a fire broke out.

How the fire started in the oxygen capsule room is unknown at this time and is being investigated. The spokesperson for Iran’s National Gas company has denied that the reason for the explosion was a gas leak.

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Official Says Ukrainian Passenger Aircraft Downing “Preventable”

Tehran’s military prosecutor Gholam-Abbas Torki gave new details about the downing of Ukrainian civilian airliner 752 in January. The aircraft was mistakenly shot down by an Iranian air defense unit after it took off from Tehran. It occurred shortly after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack at U.S. military positions in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

Torki was speaking at a conference with some of the families of the victims and their lawyers. Torki said two missiles were fired at the aircraft, the second of which ultimately brought down the aircraft.

Torki said the firing of the second missile was “preventable” and the operator of the unit did not request permission to fire the second time. According to Torki, the operator fired the first missile despite not getting a response from his superiors on his request to fire. After “26 seconds,” he fired a second missile and did not request permission.

Torki said the reason why the operator received no response to his first request was because for “just a few seconds” communications were cut with “central command.”

Torki also said there was a technical error with the radar system being used resulting in the plane’s trajectory being misidentified. There was an “error of 105 degrees” in the radar system, leaving the operator to see the plane as approaching Tehran from the northwest, not as a plane leaving Tehran.

Torki added that the aircraft’s downing was preventable, stating: “The belief of specialists is that if the operator took the necessary precautions and used his experience, this could have been prevented.”

When the accident happened, Iranian officials denied the aircraft was shot down for three days. They insisted it crashed due to a technical error with the aircraft. Eventually, the IRGC’s aerospace commander gave a press conference where he admitted it was accidentally shot down.

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Reformist Ayatollah Criticizes Khamenei

Mohammad Mousavi Khoeiniha has written a letter indirectly criticizing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Khoeiniha warned about the country’s economic and political conditions and widespread public discontent and distrust in the government.

Khoeiniha was a close aide of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He is the secretary general of the “Association of Combatant Clerics,” a reformist political grouping. Khoeiniha is also considered as the “spiritual father” of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage takers. During the 1980s, he served in senior positions including as attorney general and deputy parliamentary speaker.

In his letter, Khoeiniha said the Iranian people face “undeniable injustices” and are discontent with the country’s “cultural and political conditions.” He highlighted “rising inflation and falling incomes.”

Khoeiniha said he wrote the letter to stress the need to “review the country’s policies and management.” He stated: “In the minds of the people, the beliefs that undergirded the strength and the legitimacy of the Islamic system have been increasingly weakened.”

Khoeiniha indirectly criticized Khamenei. He stated: “Given all of the existing problems and challenges, the people believe that the country’s management, especially at the highest level, should have adopted policies so that we would not be witnessing all of these cultural, social and economic crises.”

He added: “The style of management at the highest level, with its enforceable power, plays the main role in all or most affairs in the country.”

Khoeiniha has written similar letters in the past and has been a staunch critic of the political situation in Iran for years. In the late 1990s, he was prosecuted in a clerical court after his newspaper published an intelligence ministry letter on the “chain murders,” which saw a number of dissident activists and intellectuals assassinated by what authorities later said were rogue elements of the intelligence ministry.

Khoeiniha was strongly attacked for the letter by conservatives as well as some reformists. This included a rebuke from the hardline Kayhan newspaper, where editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari wrote a front-page story censuring Khoeiniha and saying it was an “honor that such people like him are questioning his [Khamenei’s] management.”

However, Khoeiniha was also criticized by some reformists for the letter. Some said the letter was counterproductive. Others, like Tehran University Professor Sadegh Zibakalam, said a figure like Khoeiniha himself bears responsibility for the current status quo in Iran.

Zibakalam stated: “He destroyed some of the discourse of the revolution about free elections, not having political prisoners, allowing free demonstrations.”

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Opposition Figure Sentenced to Death

Ruhollah Zam, an opposition activist who ran a controversial Telegram channel, has been sentenced to death. Judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili said the sentence was not “definitive and can be appealed to the Supreme Court.”

Zam was sentenced on 13 counts which included “cooperating with the hostile U.S. government against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He was also accused of “spying to benefit Israel’s intelligence agency through the intelligence agency of a regional country.”

In his trial, Zam rejected most of the charges against him and said he was a “journalist.” The Telegram channels Zam managed were “Amad News” and later, “Sedaye Mardom.”

Zam was arrested by the IRGC’s Intelligence Agency in October 2019. He was based in France but was lured to Iraq where he was taken into custody by Iraqi security services and handed over to Iran.

According to the French Figaro newspaper, Iran’s intelligence apparatus sent a young woman to France to meet Zam. This woman convinced Zam to go to Iraq to meet with Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf under the guise that Sistani wished to support him. He was arrested upon arrival and taken to Iran.

Zam’s Telegram channels spread a mixture of fake and accurate information. It gained prominence after it exposed a government-supported Quran reciter as having sexually abused children, as well as for revealing that former Judiciary Chief Amoli Larijani had many bank accounts.

Many analysts believe Zam’s Telegram channel was at times used by Iran’s different factions to selectively leak information and undermine each other. At its peak, Amad News had 1.5 million subscribers on Telegram.

During the protests in Iran during the winter of 2017/2018, Zam’s Telegram channel tried to organize protests and provided bomb-making instructions. The protests were marked by violence between security forces and demonstrators and infrastructure such as banks and gas stations were damaged. Telegram later banned Zam’s channel, forcing him to start a new one.

Zam’s Telegram channel became a staunch advocate of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” policy against Iran. It regularly smeared U.S.-based antiwar activists, including by posting the names of and private photos of activists who protested against the administration’s policies.

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Death Penalty for Three Protestors

The Iranian Supreme Court has reportedly upheld death sentences for three people arrested in connection to last November’s gas-price hike protests. The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) cited one of the defendant’s lawyers as saying the death sentences have been upheld for 25-year-old Amir Hossein Moradi, 27-year-old Saeed Tamjidi, and 25-year-old Mohammad Rajabi.

The three were sentenced to execution on February 22nd by Tehran’s “Revolutionary Court Branch 15.” Their charges included “incitement and destruction with the aim of confronting the Islamic Republic system” and “armed robbery.”

Amnesty International described their trial as “grossly unfair.” It added: “They were denied access to lawyers during the investigation phase and say they were tortured. Amirhossein Moradi says he was coerced into giving a ‘confession’ that was broadcast on state television and used as evidence to convict them.”

After the HRANA report said the Supreme Court had upheld the sentence, Iranian outlets ran stories denying this had occurred. In response, HRANA said it confirmed the accuracy of its report with the lawyer who was their original source.

According to this source, the lawyers in the case have been told not to speak to the media. The source adds that the lawyers are “hopeful that by abiding by these sensitivities, the sentences can be changed in the appeal stage [at the Supreme Court].”

The HRANA report says that after the initial arrest of Amir Hossein Moradi, the two others in the case, Saeed Tamjidi and Mohammad Rajabi, went to Turkey. They went with a third person named Shima. They wanted to request political asylum in Turkey, but a taxi driver turned them in to the police according to HRANA.

On December 26th, they were taken to a city near the Iranian border by Turkish authorities. They were then transferred to Iran and arrested on arrival. Shima was released on bail, while the two others, Rajabi and Tamjidi, were imprisoned and subsequently sentenced to death alongside Moradi.

Iranian authorities claim 200-225 people were killed in last November’s protests. The Interior Minister has said government security forces were responsible for 80 percent of these deaths, while the rest were committed by weapons not used by security forces.

Amnesty International says that at least 302 people were killed in the protests, but that the real number is likely much higher. Kaleme, a website associated with opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, has put the death toll at 366.

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Wearing Masks Becomes Mandatory

Amid rising COVID-19 infections and deaths, President Rouhani says wearing masks will become mandatory. He said starting on July 5th, “wearing masks will be required where there are gatherings of people or [in gatherings] indoors.”

Rouhani said masks would be required for the next two weeks, but this would be extended “if necessary.”  

The COVID-19 situation in parts of the country has worsened significantly. Northeastern Khorasan province is the latest to be categorized as a “red zone,” the highest level in Iran’s designation system, indicating rapid spread of the disease.

As of June 28th, 220,180 have been infected with COVID-19 in Iran according to official statistics. The number of deaths has reached 10,364. The daily death rate has reached over 100 for the first time in months.

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Rouhani, Putin, Erdogan meeting Virtually Over Syria

The Presidents of Iran, Russia, and Turkey held a virtual meeting of the Astana-process Syria peace talks. This round of the Astana talks was originally scheduled to be held in Tehran but was delayed and ultimately held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.

During the virtual summit, Rouhani called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region and Syria. Rouhani said the U.S. military presence in Syria was “illegitimate” and said the U.S. had built “illegal military bases near Syrian oil facilities” and is “looting Syria’s resources.”

Rouhani also called on countries to “strongly condemn” Israel’s “aggressions” against Syria. In the past few years, Israel has bombed many locations in Syria, which it claims are Iranian or Hezbollah positions.

The Astana-process Syria peace talks have been going on for three years. They are organized by Turkey, a main backer of the Syrian opposition, and Russia and Iran, the main backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “Moderate” elements of the Syria opposition and Syrian government representatives are also involved in the talks, which are aimed at bringing a political settlement to the Syrian conflict.

The joint statement after the conference emphasized the need to safeguard Syria’s territorial integrity. Russian President Putin also strongly criticized new U.S. sanctions against Syria, which he said goes against the request of the United Nations to reduce sanctions pressure amid the coronavirus outbreak.

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