Week of January 7, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here
- Political Prisoner Writes Letter Censuring Trump & Iranian Judiciary
- Labor Leader Torture Claim Spurs Outcry & Investigations
- Environmentalists Arrested in Kurdistan Province
- State TV Attacks Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe
- Foreign Ministry Confirms Detention of U.S. Citizen & Rebukes EU Sanctions
- Interior Minister Assesses Iran’s Internal Security Situation
- Grandson of Islamic Republic Founder Warns Officials
- Officials Confirm Talks with the Taliban
- Senior Official Discusses U.S. Syria Troop Withdrawal, Says U.S. Reached Out for Talks
- Doubts Increase Regarding European SPV
- Zarif Reiterates Call for Negotiations with Arab Persian Gulf States
- Foreign Ministry Condemns EU Sanctions
A political prisoner arrested for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and who recently ended a 145-day hunger strike wrote a letter censuring both Iran’s judiciary and the Trump administration. Another activist, a labor leader imprisoned for nearly one month, spurred widespread outrage and prompted government investigations after he wrote on Instagram that he was tortured while in custody.
In other civil rights-related developments, nine reported environmentalists have been arrested in Kurdistan province for what officials say is their role in a Kurdish separatist attack. Meanwhile, state television attacked imprisoned British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, while the interior minister assessed the country’s internal security situation a year after last winter’s protests. The grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder also warned officials about the need for maintaining legitimacy.
On the foreign policy front, officials confirmed that Iran has been negotiating with the Taliban but maintained that the talks were being carried out with the knowledge of the Afghan government and aimed at advancing a peace process in Afghanistan. Senior officials also raised doubt regarding Europe’s ability to operationalize its long-awaited “special purpose vehicle” (SPV) to facilitate trade with Iran. Foreign Minister Zarif also made another overture for talks with the Arab Persian Gulf states, while the foreign ministry condemned the European Union for imposing sanctions on an Iranian intelligence agency and two Iranian citizens.
On January 5th, political prisoner Farhad Meysami wrote a letter from Evin prison criticizing both the Iranian judiciary and the U.S. Department of State. Meysami was arrested on July 31st for his activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and began a hunger strike within 24 hours of his arrest.
Meysami’s hunger strike lasted for 145 days until December 23rd. He ended it after fellow political prisoner Reza Khandan—husband of human rights activist and lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh—was released from prison.
Meysami titled his letter “twin writings” and directed it towards “Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court” and “Trump’s Department of State.” In the letter, Meysami describes himself as a “transformationalist” who wants change through reform.
He censured the Iranian judiciary thusly: “The repeated, persistent, and systematic violation of the law from the judicial institution removes any qualifications to label it as a court.”
Meysami outlined the type of reformism he believes could lead to substantive change: “Changing the behavior of autocratic states, especially their ‘hard nucleus,’ might at first glance appear impossible. However, ‘reformism seeking transformation’ thinks and acts on the belief that the cumulative effects of sustained action and enlightened activities, together with resistance in suitable times and places, could lead to changes even in the ‘hard nucleus’ of the state.”
Meysami then said he was surprised the U.S. State Department commented on his case: “I was flipping through the newspaper when suddenly I saw an article that shocked me to my core! Apparently, the Trump administration’s Department of State has called for my freedom … I was astonished at how the ‘Trump’s State Department,’ ‘Freedom,’ and ‘myself’ could possibly be connected.”
He then rebuked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, declaring: “Before his appointment, Mike Pompeo (Trump’s Secretary of State) had been a strong proponent of the “Bomb Iran!” campaign.”
Meysami went on to renounce any support from the U.S. and sharply criticized the Trump administration’s approach to Iran and abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal. He stated: “I would rather spend all my life imprisoned by a group of oppressors from my own wrong-doing countrymen and spend my life trying to reform their wrongdoing, but to not spend a second submitting to disgraceful support from those who broke their commitments and withdrew from the rational and peaceful JCPOA against all principles of morality and international law, and by reimposing inhumane sanctions, have plunged millions of my fellow countrymen into poverty.”
He added: “I am certain that if the leaders of my country made them [the U.S.] a partner in the plundering and milking of our resources, they would have simply closed their eyes not only to the imprisonment, but to the butchering and dismembering with a bonesaw of dozens of individuals like myself [in reference to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi].”
Meysami went on to express hope for the freedom of the American people from President Trump: “Perhaps it would be more appropriate for us, the children of Iran, to wish for the speedy ‘freedom’ of the great nation of the United States from this great catastrophe, and hope for their return to the previous period of rationality. Because the continuation of this situation is not only disastrous for our two nations but brings damage and destruction to humanity as a whole.”
He ended the letter by again disavowing support from the Trump administration: “I’d like to ask people like Donald Trump, Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to save their crocodile tears for themselves.”
On January 4th, Esmail Bakhshi, a representative of the Haft Tapeh factory protesting workers who was arrested in November and held for nearly a month by the intelligence ministry, wrote on his Instagram page that he had been tortured while in custody. He stated: “Without reason or saying anything they tortured me to near death. They kicked and punched me so much that for 72 hours I couldn’t move in my cell. Now after two months I still have pain in my broken teeth, kidneys, left ear, and testicles.”
In his Instagram post, Bakhshi invited Iran’s Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi to engage in a “live television debate” with him. Bakhshi’s claim of being tortured spurred widespread outrage and calls for authorities to be held to account. (more on Bakhsi’s release and the Haft Tapeh factory protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered).
Ali Motahari, second deputy parliamentary speaker and principlist MP representing Tehran, wrote in Etemad newspaper regarding Bakhshi’s allegation: “Mr. Bakhshi’s letter to the intelligence minister must awaken all people of conscious and supporters of citizen’s rights to follow this issue until a clear conclusion is reached.”
Motahari stated that the accusation was damaging for the Islamic Republic as it approached its 40th anniversary: “Is it seemly for the Islamic Republic on its 40th anniversary to face such accusations when in chapter three of its constitution every form of physical or mental torture to elicit confessions is prohibited?”
Motahari stated that if torture was committed, the perpetrators must be brought to justice: “If Mr. Bakhshi’s remarks are true, the perpetrators must be brought to light as soon as possible and punished. And in any case, the intelligence minister must give answers.”
On January 7th, the head of Iran’s judiciary Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, addressed Bakhsi’s accusation, stating: “I have instructed the honorable attorney general to assemble a team today and travel to the region [Khuzestan], and review this issue and promptly deliver their results to me and our dear people.”
Larijani added: “The different dimensions of this issue have to be reviewed, and before this investigation we will not make denials regarding anyone. It is possible that a worker committed an offense, but under no circumstance is it acceptable for illegal acts to be committed against them. At the same time, possible misconduct by one interrogator should not be used to blame a whole institution.”
Also on January 7th, Bakhshi’s lawyer Farzaneh Zilabi told Rouydad 24 that “my client has come under pressure to retract his words [regarding being tortured].”
On January 8th, Hesamodin Ashna, a senior advisor to President Rouhani, wrote on his Telegram: “With an explicit order from the president, the claims of violence against an imprisoned individual will be investigated quickly and precisely.”
However, later on January 8th, the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee held a meeting to review Bakhshi’s accusation, which included Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi. Afterwards, Ali Najafi Khoshroudi, the committee’s spokesperson, stated: “Esmail Bakhsi, the worker for the Hafte Tapeh sugarcane factory, was in no way tortured.”
Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the chairman for the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee, stated after the committee’s meeting: “In today’s meeting, after the film of Esmail Bakhshi’s confession and the intelligence minister’s explanation, the conclusion was reached that Bakhshi confessed without torture to spying in cooperation with a communist labor party.”
President Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi also dismissed Bakhshi’s torture allegation after meeting with intelligence officials. He stated after a cabinet meeting that “today the intelligence ministry reported that there is no truth to this issue [of Bakhshi’s torture]” and that the “intelligence ministry and the political system are within their rights to issue a complaint against Bakhshi for his remarks.”
However, on January 9th, Laya Joneydi, President Rouhani’s vice president for legal affairs, stated after a cabinet meeting: “A group has been formed by the president to look into this [Bakhshi’s claims]. It will do its work and announce its conclusions. I believe the intelligence ministry will also announce the results of its investigation. The goal of the speaker of parliament is that Esmail Bakhshi’s words are heard. He has been invited to parliament to speak his words.”
“If Bakhshi’s claims are true, what took place would be a violation of the constitution and this should be severely confronted. If on the other hand nothing occurred or what happened was not as claimed, the biggest resource of any country which is trust would have been sabotaged.”
On January 10th, Fatemeh Saeedi, spokeswoman for the reformist “Hope” coalition in parliament, stated that members of parliament had met with Esmail Bakhshi. She stated: “Despite what some have said, on Tuesday, Bakhshi came with his lawyer to parliament and met with four members of the Hope coalition, one of which was me … the meeting lasted nearly two hours and afterwards we [the MPs] met with officials from the intelligence ministry.”
She said of the meeting with Bakhshi: “In this meeting, we heard his words. Our efforts to follow up on his allegation continue and the results of the investigation will be announced after the review by the judiciary and the parliament’s national security and foreign policy committee are completed … It has also been decided that a group from the Hope coalition will travel to the city of Shush to investigate Bakhshi’s claims.”
Saeedi further stated that Bakhshi’s claim of being tortured was discussed in their meeting with intelligence officials. She stated: “In this meeting, the intelligence minister offered an explanation regarding Bakhshi’s claims and the Khuzestan intelligence official presented evidence.”
Jalal Mirzaei, the chair of the Hope coalition’s political committee, discussed the meeting with Bakhshi and the details of his torture allegation in an interview with Khabar Online. Mirzaei stated of the meeting: “According to Mr. Bakshi, he was detained by Shush’s intelligence department and after three hours of interrogation was transported by car, along with four other suspects and two security officers, to Ahvaz. During this trip, which took two hours, Mr. Bakhshi claims that he was beaten.”
Mirzaei added: “According to Bakhshi himself, throughout the 25-day detention itself he was treated with respect, but he says that his cell was next to ISIS prisoners, which he says caused him psychological duress.”
On January 7th, reports emerged that upwards of nine environmentalist activists were detained in Kurdistan province over the course of the previous week. Hossein Khosheqbal, Kurdistan province’s deputy for political, security, and police affairs stated that the arrests were made in connection with an attack on an ambulance, stating: “Over the summer [Iranian month of Tir] the driver of a Red Crescent ambulance in the city Kamyaran was attacked in a cowardly action and hit by several bullets from several people connected with separatist groups and the PJAK foreign group.”
Khosheqbal added: “In this terrorist act, Kuhsar Fatehi, the driver of the ambulance and a native of the province was martyred … A number of anti-revolutionary terrorist groups connected with the martyrdom of the ambulance driver—who had taken the cover of being environmentalists and had the responsibility of supporting the perpetrators [of the murder]—have been identified and will be dealt with legally.”
On January 8th, Iranian state television attacked Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, showing the moment she was refused entry on her flight departing Tehran in 2016. Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British citizen arrested in April 2016 and sentenced to five years imprisonment on charges of “plotting to topple the Iranian government” through “soft war” tactics.
On January 3rd, Zaghari-Ratcliffe co-wrote a letter with imprisoned human rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, in which they said they would start a three-day hunger strike in protest at how “their heath situation was being handled.”
On January 9th, during his weekly press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi confirmed that U.S. citizen Michael White has been detained inside Iran. He stated: “An American citizen named Michael White was arrested some time ago in Mashhad. The American interests section in Tehran was notified of the arrest in the immediate days after his arrest.”
Ghassemi denied reports that White was being held in “poor conditions and being harassed,” but did not clarify on what charges he was being held for.
On December 27th, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli gave a speech where he spoke on Iran’s internal security situation on the anniversary of protests that swept parts of the country in late December 2017 and January 2018. He said about differences inside the country: “The differences that exist in the country are familial and we aren’t worried about such differences. After the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, our enemies seek to pressure Iran to reach their goals. Through reliance on countries like Saudi Arabia and led by America and the Zionist regime and some other countries they are pursuing their objective but have been unsuccessful. However, we should not be negligent with respect to their plots.”
Faszli then stated that none of the protests in the country since last year were “organized,” stating: “Not in last winter’s protests or the protests of the truckers and bazaaris or the problems of ethnic minorities were there signs of leadership by political organizations or their organized presence. This shows the awareness and intelligence of people and their attachment to the revolution and security of the country.”
He said of protests inside the country: “Foreign media intensely invest in the smallest issues inside Iran in order to portray a lack of unity in the country to the best of their ability. But none of these issues threaten Iran’s national security. However, it is better that before such issues start, which enables the enemies to try and coopt them, we should address them and prevent them.”
Fazli concluded regarding the country’s internal security situation: “In the area of security, I won’t say that we have no threats, but we are not worried of these threats because we rely on public legitimacy and the people’s security. We regularly monitor and control the situation. The most important issue for the country after unity is the satisfaction of the people in social and economic areas.”
On December 29th, Seyed Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, stated in a speech before an audience of government officials: “We have to understand and observe the rules of human behavior and the causes of collapse and success otherwise there is no guarantee that we will stay and others will go. If you don’t observe these rules, you will be taken from the arena.”
Khomeini went on to warn officials of the need to maintain legitimacy among the people: “The foundation of any society is ethics and people’s level of content. Continuously segmenting society, repeatedly showing grudges, portraying hypocrisy, making it such that people in society feel compelled to become double faced, or for each of us to become distant from honesty are all signs of failing governments. If we see that our principles are lost and that we are abusive, this is an alarm bell that this society has a problem.”
On December 26th, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, publicly acknowledged that Iran was engaging in negotiations with the Taliban during a trip to Kabul. Shamkhani had travelled to Afghanistan with a delegation of Iranian military and security officials for talks with his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib as well as President Ashraf Ghani and other Afghan officials.
Shamkhani stated that Iran was engaging in talks with the Taliban in order to resolve security issues inside Afghanistan, stating: “A series of communications and talks have taken place with the Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government and this trend will continue.”
Shamkhani also said the danger of ISIS “infiltration” into Afghanistan was “serious” and stressed the need to take “practical action.” He warned of what he deemed was an “ominous plan” in Afghanistan being supported by the U.S. and “reactionary” regional countries.
While in Afghanistan, Shamkhani referred to a recent summit in Tehran which brought together senior security officials from Iran, Afghanistan, Russia, China, and India. He said the meeting resulted in constructive agreements, stating: “Establishing mechanisms based on continuous negotiations and the active participation of regional countries in security processes can guarantee stability and durable development for the people of the region.”
Shamkhani also said to his Afghan counterpart Mohib: “The Islamic Republic has always been one of the main pillars establishing security in the region and without a doubt cooperation between our two countries to resolve Afghanistan’s security problems will be very effective.”
On December 30th, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated that a Taliban delegation had engaged in extensive negotiations with Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Tehran. MP Morteza Safari Natani said that these negotiations are “not ideal for us” but that “we have to accept that the Taliban control part of Afghanistan” and that “in current circumstances this group cannot be ignored.”
On January 4th, Mahmoud Vaezi, chief of staff to President Rouhani, stated that Iran notified the Afghan government before starting talks with the Taliban: “I have not seen any reports that say that the Afghan government is upset about negotiations between Iran and the Taliban. Before starting negotiations with the Taliban, we discussed the issue with the Afghan government. Our goal with the negotiations is to establish peace and security in the region and create the grounds for ‘Afghan-Afghan’ negotiations. Under no circumstances will we interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs.”
Vaezi added: “Iran’s neighbors are faced with many problems such as civil war. Peace and stability in the region are matters of great importance for Iran, as insecurity inside Afghanistan can spread to Iran.”
On January 7th, Shamkhani stated at a conference in Tehran that the Taliban was seeking to compromise with the Afghan government, stating: “We are in pursuit of helping the Afghan government establish stability in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also seeking to compromise with the Afghan government. In this regard, the Islamic Republic, with the intention of seeking peace and preventing domination, wants to help the Afghan government reach a formula for peace and stability.”
At the January 7th conference in Tehran, Shamkhani also stated that the U.S. reached out to him for negotiations while he was in Afghanistan. He stated: “In Afghanistan, the Americans again sent messages for negotiations with me. They lie when they say that we are sending them [Iran] messages for negotiations.”
Shamkhani also stated regarding President Trump’s announced troop withdrawal from Syria: “America had no role in toppling ISIS in Syria. America’s strategy in Syria was defeated and it was faced with a predicament in the region west of the Euphrates. This situation left America no choice but to exit Syria.”
He went on to say the U.S. would leave the Persian Gulf in the future as well: “Today, the presence of free regional peoples stretches from Syria to the Red Sea. This year, the Americans were compelled to leave the region, and in the future they will be compelled to start withdrawing from the Persian Gulf.”
Regarding Iran’s role in Syria, an analysis in the reformist Fararu discussed Iran’s reconstruction aims in the country. The piece stated: “Based on a report published by the United Nations in 2017, the cost for reconstruction in Syria is $388 billion. This is as Bashar Assad, this country’s president, said in meeting with representatives from Russia’s parliament that this figure is $410 billion.”
The piece said that Iran’s priority was rebuilding Syria’s communications and mobile phone network: “According to reports, Iran has allocated $8 billion in this area and Iran’s primary aim is rebuilding Syria’s communications and mobile phone network.”
He added that Iran was focused on Daraa province as well: “Iran is also endeavoring to have a decisive role in reconstruction efforts in southern Syria, particularly in Daraa province. The Syrian government’s extensive cooperation with Iran over its investment is one of the factors that gives Tehran a better position in Syria after the war in comparison to other countries.”
At the January 7th conference in Tehran, Shamkhani said that time had run out on Europe to launch its SPV, stating: “The opportunity has ended for the Europeans to make their JCPOA commitments, particularly on the SPV.”
On January 8th, during a trip to New Delhi, Foreign Minister Zarif also lowered expectations regarding the SPV, stating: “We will continue our cooperation with Europe on the SPV but will not wait for them.”
Zarif went on to praise an agreement between an Indian and Iranian bank, stating: “In the area of banking, we are very happy that the Indian bank UCO and Iranian bank Pasargad have started cooperation in the area of trade. We are optimistic that despite U.S. sanctions, Iran and India will boost cooperation in line with the interests of their people.”
Zarif stated that rather than wait on Europe, Iran will go on to strike similar deals as reached with the Indian bank: “The Europeans have made efforts but they haven’t managed to make progress in line with our expectations. We will expand cooperation efforts such as the channel established with India.”
While in New Delhi, Zarif reiterated that Iran was open to negotiations with its Persian Gulf neighbors. He stated: “Right now, the time has come for countries in our region to put aside two delusions. The first is that security can be bought or imported. The other is that security can be achieved through the insecurity of others.”
He added: “We again extend our hand out in friendship to our neighbors in the Persian Gulf.”
During his weekly press conference, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi condemned the European Union’s move to designate an Iranian intelligence agency and two Iranian citizens on a “terrorist list.” Ghassemi labeled the actions as “irrational and surprising” and said Iran will “within the framework of a reciprocal action, take the necessary and appropriate steps.”
He also stated: “Instead of putting terrorist and criminal groups like the MEK and al-Ahvaz on their sanctions list, they let them freely take their anti-human and terrorist actions and even support them.”