Week of March 4, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here
- Prominent Human Rights Lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced
- Hardliner Ebrahim Raisi Appointed Judiciary Chief
- Khatami Says People May No Longer Turnout to Vote
- Qods Force Has Major Differences with Rouhani Administration, Deputy Commander Says
- Deputy FM Hopeful that Europe’s INSTEX Will be Operational Soon
- Teachers Stage Sit-In Protests
On March 5th, reports emerged that human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced. Since her arrest last June for representing three anti-forced hijab women activists, Sotoudeh has undergone two hunger strikes and refused to participate in her trial due to not being allowed to select her own lawyer. Sotoudeh has received the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize and was re-arrested by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.
Her husband, fellow imprisoned human rights activist Reza Khandan, says she is being prosecuted on seven charges, most of which are related to her opposition to Iran’s compulsory hijab laws. Sotoudeh has for years defended victims of government abuse in Iran and was first arrested in 2010 after representing Green Movement protestors.
On March 7th, Ayatollah Khamenei officially appointed Ebrahim Raisi—the conservative 2017 presidential candidate and custodian of the Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation—as head of Iran’s judiciary, replacing incumbent Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani. Before running Astan Qods Razavi, Raisi had a long track record in Iran’s judiciary, including serving as Iran’s attorney general and as the deputy head of the judiciary. Larijani completed his term as judicial chief and has now been appointed head of the Expediency Discernment Council.
In his statement appointing Raisi, Ayatollah Khamenei called on him to be “populist, revolutionary, and anti-corruption” and to “root out corruption in the judiciary.” Raisi will reportedly assume his duties on March 8th.
During the 2017 presidential election, which Raisi lost with his roughly 16 million votes to Rouhani’s 24 million, Raisi was vociferously criticized for his track record in Iran’s judiciary. Severe abuses took place under Raisi’s watch and he played a major role in the mass executions of 1988.
In the summer of 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq War, many opponents of the Islamic Republic were summarily executed after minutes-long “trials.” During the 1980s, Raisi was the attorney general of Karaj and Hamedan and also held a senior post in the attorney general of Tehran’s office.
At the time, Ayatollah Khomeini’s designated successor Ayatollah Montazeri strongly opposed the executions—which ultimately led to him losing his position in the Islamic Republic. According to Montazeri, upwards of 4,000 were executed that summer.
During the 2017 election campaign, an audio tape of Montazeri from August 15, 1988 was leaked. In it, Montazeri addressed Raisi, then deputy attorney general of Tehran, and three other senior judicial officials. Montazeri stated in the tape: “The biggest crime that has occurred under the Islamic Republic and that history will condemn us for was committed by your hands. In the future, you’ll be remembered as the criminals of history.”
Raisi’s appointment as judiciary sparked condemnation and exaltation from Iranian politicians and outlets. To the surprise of many observers, several prominent reformists welcomed Raisi’s appointment. MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, a strong opponent of Raisi during the 2017 election, who had called him a “danger” and “merciless” in the past, said he was hopeful that Raisi could lead to changes in the judiciary because of his “background.”
Another prominent reformist, former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh, said that he couldn’t support Raisi because Iran requires a judiciary that is “independent, neutral, and accountable.”
BBC Persian noted that reformist opposition to Raisi’s appointment as judiciary head is less pronounced than it was during the 2017 presidential campaign: “Many are asking why has there been this change in opinion and duplicity with respect to Raisi? Are the reformists being prudent with respect to the future? Were they just using the human rights issue for election campaigning purposes previously?
On March 3rd, former reformist president Mohammad Khatami met with members of the reformist “Hope Coalition” of parliament and stressed that the Islamic Republic must be “reformable and flexible.” For the past several years, coverage of Khatami has been banned in official outlets, though he regularly makes public appearances and delivers speeches at different political forums.
Khatami’s support played a role in the electoral victories of President Rouhani and the reformist Hope Coalition, but he has now warned that people may no longer turn out to vote on his call. Khatami stated: “Today, people question me and say that you pulled us out to vote, show us a case where real reforms took place? Has the judiciary’s conduct or the way people are treated gotten better or has the private sector been able to establish a presence? Has our approach that has created impasses on foreign policy been reformed? Or [on the other hand] have sensible approaches been resisted so that people can’t feel the results of the achievements that have been reached?”
He further said to the reformist parliamentarians: “Now it will be very hard to tell the people to come and vote. Do you think that in the next elections the people will listen to you and me to go vote? I doubt it unless there is some development within the next year.”
Khatami added that “some domestic elements” seek to create despair in Iranian society but cautioned that “the weakening of reformists won’t benefit their rivals but will empower the ‘topplers’ (those who want to overthrow the Islamic Republic).” He stated: “An important part of current problems because of external factors [foreign pressure], but the decisions that are made can exacerbate the current situation.”
Khatami emphasized his view on the importance of reformism: “Reformism is viewed critically within the political system. However, we are standing against the overthrowers [those seeking to topple the entire system] and we stress that reform must occur within the country.”
He added: “If the country is managed in such a way that people lose hope and see no path to hope it will be very dangerous and we must endeavor not get to this stage.”
Esmail Qa’ani, the deputy commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, has said that last week’s trip to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was coordinated by the Qods Force and that President Rouhani was aware of the trip. Foreign Minister Zarif’s absence from the meeting with Assad spurred controversy and contributed to his short-lived resignation (more on Zarif’s resignation in last week’s Iran Unfiltered).
Qa’ani said that Zarif’s absence from the Assad meeting was due to a lack of coordination in the Rouhani administration and was not due to negligence by the Qods Force. He stated: “The President was aware of this trip and there was apparently some negligence and Mr. Zarif wasn’t told. This all goes back to the administration itself.”
The Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi has stated that the ministry was not aware at “any level” of Assad’s trip to Tehran. Ghassemi said that “such lack of coordination with the foreign ministry was one of the reasons for Mr. Zarif’s resignation.”
Qa’ani also stated that the Qods force has disagreements with the Rouhani administration on foreign policy. He proclaimed: “We have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration. However, this administration is our administration and the reputation of the administration is our reputation. We have to work with all parts of the administration and we do … we are two friends and brothers with each other.”
On March 4th, Foreign Minister Zarif stated that the foreign ministry was “responsible for the country’s foreign policy” and that “institutions within or outside the Rouhani administration” cannot have their own foreign policy. He added: “In the world it has to be felt that the word of the foreign ministry is the word of the entire country and the government.”
On March 6th, the JCPOA’s Joint Commission held its regular meeting that occurs every three months in Vienna. The Joint Commission is comprised of the remaining adherents to the nuclear deal, namely Iran, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China.
During the meeting, bilateral and multilateral meetings took place between Iran and the other parties on how to confront the impact of America’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. The sides also discussed efforts to operationalize the economic commitments of Iran’s negotiating partners under the deal.
Before the meeting, Deputy Iranian Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said Iran was still unaware how INSTEX—the European financial mechanism being set up to facilitate trade with Iran—would operate: “This mechanism is in its early stages and we still don’t know how it will work … we need to have technical discussions on this. The Europeans have introduced this mechanism very late and our request of them is that they more seriously pursue this matter.”
After the meeting, Araghchi stated that European representatives provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how non-European states can eventually utilize it. He stated: “The Europeans provided an extensive explanation of INSTEX and how transactions can be made and received and how it’s supposed to work with a parallel Iranian institution. And how in the next stage third-party countries can access this mechanism.”
Araghchi said that Iranian technical experts provided explanations of how INSTEX’s parallel mechanism in Iran would operate. He stated: “Our friends and colleagues from economic institutions provided explanations regarding INSTEX’s parallel Iranian institution. In my opinion, they had a good discussion.”
After the Joint Commission meeting, Araghchi also said he was “hopeful” that INSTEX would become operational within the “next few weeks.” Araghchi also expressed hope that Iran’s parallel mechanism for INSTEX would become operational by the Iranian New Year on March 21st.
Araghchi also said that INSTEX would be used for all kinds of products, not just humanitarian goods. He stated: “It will likely start its work with humanitarian items before its template for trade with Iran is established. Once this template is clear, other goods that are sanctioned, including oil, will be added to this mechanism.”
Araghchi added that despite the Joint Commission meeting and the INSTEX talks, Iran was not depending on the JCPOA and was keeping all its options open. He stated: “I believe that through the JCPOA we can pursue a path to challenge America’s sanctions. However, the Iranian government is not attached to this approach and it’s reviewing all potential solutions. The more we can increase the capacities of our approach the better, but we aren’t dependent on Europe or the JCPOA.”
School teachers in different Iranian cities staged sit-in protests after a call by the “Council for Coordination of Teacher Unions.” Teachers had previously engaged in sit-in protests last October and November after calls by the Council. After these earlier protests, according to Radio Farda, there were reports of “legal and security actions taken against some teachers in several cities.” Read more about the previous round of teacher sit-ins in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.
In a statement, the Council said that sit-in protests in the provinces of Mazandaran, East and West Azerbaijan, and Ardabil were “better than the last protests,” but that participation was “not significant in Tehran and Gilan provinces.” The Council also said that the reaction of police and security forces to this round of sit-in protests was “different than before” and that there was a “positive and moderating change.”
The demands of the Council include “freeing the Council’s activists and removing all legal obstacles for teacher unions to freely conduct official activities.” In a February 25th statement, the Council also called for “allocating a specific portion of 1398’s [the upcoming Iranian year] budget to education, resolving the problems of schools, and fundamentally restoring the rights of teachers.