March 8, 2024

Iran’s Khatami Opts Out of Elections, Iran Seizes $50 Million U.S. Oil Cargo Amid Legal Dispute; Unprecedented Floods Ravage Sistan and Baluchestan, and More

Week of March 4, 2024 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Khatami Opts Out of Elections, Citing Reformist Ideals

In a candid disclosure, former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami revealed the thinking behind his decision to abstain from participating in the recent elections for the Islamic Consultative Assembly and the Assembly of Experts. Khatami, a figure synonymous with the reformist movement within Iran, articulated his stance as a principled choice to align with the broader sentiment of discontent prevalent among the Iranian populace. “I consciously and honestly did not vote to ensure I did not lie to anyone,” Khatami remarked.

During a session with his advisors, Khatami reflected on the pervasive dissatisfaction with the current state of governance and societal management. “Based on official statistics and information, it’s evident that a significant portion of the nation is disillusioned with the existing conditions, thereby diminishing hope for the future,” he stated. This sentiment of disillusionment has been a recurrent theme, particularly among those who have opted to express their protest through abstention or invalid votes in recent electoral processes.

Khatami’s commentary extends beyond mere electoral non-participation. He posited not voting in the current unfavorable conditions as an alternative expression of civic engagement, hopeful that such a stance might contribute to the restoration of trust between the populace and political entities, including those advocating for reform. “The path to salvation lies in establishing a development-oriented democracy. Considering the historical and social realities of the country and the beliefs of a significant portion of the population, the ‘Islamic Republic,’ a major achievement of the revolution, could and can still fulfill many of the nation’s historical desires and long-standing aspirations, ensuring national unity, security, progress, and safeguarding national interests.” Khatami employed the phrase “development-oriented democracy,” transitioning from his earlier references to “religious democracy.”

This declaration marks a significant moment, juxtaposed against the backdrop of repeated warnings from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, against actions that could dissuade electoral participation. For the first time, Khatami has decided not to participate in the elections. His absence is perceived by the government as an opposition stance, which has irritated hardliner factions within the regime.

In recent days, media outlets aligned with these hardliners have launched severe criticisms against Khatami. The hardliner newspaper Kayhan, through an article by its editor-in-chief, Hossein Shariatmadari, accused Khatami of following directives from the United States and Israel, claiming, “His abstention from participating in the elections is a guideline officially declared and insisted upon by the United States and Israel.”  

The elections saw prominent candidates from well-known political factions, notably the reformists, facing widespread disqualification. Moreover, the elections witnessed the absence of not only longstanding critics of the Islamic Republic but also erstwhile government affiliates and figures with conservative inclinations, such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Larijani, who expressed disinterest in electoral activities.

Highlighting the state of electoral participation, Khatami referenced “official statistics and information” to underscore the significant swath of the population that has demonstrated its discontent through non-participation and protest votes. This pattern, he noted, not only persisted but intensified in the latest election cycle. Khatami’s forthright acknowledgment of his electoral abstention sheds light on the broader context of political and social unrest in Iran, reflecting a deep-seated call for reform and greater accountability within the political framework. As Iran grapples with these internal dynamics, the discourse around electoral participation, rights, and reformist aspirations continues to evolve, signaling a critical juncture in the nation’s political discourse.

Iran Seizes $50 Million US Oil Cargo Amid Legal Dispute

In a significant move on the geopolitical chessboard, Iran has announced the confiscation of a US oil shipment valued at over $50 million. This action stems from a longstanding legal battle. Reports from the Iranian news agency, ISNA, on Wednesday, detail the seizure of the oil that was carried on board the tanker ADVANTAGE SWEET following a directive from the Tehran International Legal Court. On April 27 2023, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized the oil tanker “ADVANTAGE SWEET,” which was flying the Marshall Islands flag, in the Oman sea. The vessel had recently departed from Kuwait, with its final destination reported to be Houston, Texas.

The court’s decision was influenced by a lawsuit filed on behalf of Iranian patients suffering from Epidermolysis Bullosa, a rare genetic condition. According to the report,these patients have been severely impacted by U.S. sanctions which have hindered the sale of essential medications by a Swedish company, inflicting both physical and psychological harm.

Despite U.S. assurances that sanctions do not cover medicines and medical supplies, Iran contends that banking restrictions effectively block these critical goods, exacerbating the plight of its citizens in need of medical aid. Notably, U.S. officials have indicated that Iran has purchased humanitarian goods using frozen assets in Oman. A separate source of potential funding is Iranian assets held abroad in Qatar under the supervision of the U.S. Treasury Department, which were released for humanitarian purchases under a diplomatic deal that secured freedom for five Iranian Americans. As of late last year, the U.S. had urged Qatar not to release the Qatari assets in the wake of the October 7 attack by Hamas against Israel. Moreover, U.S. officials indicated that Iran had not made a direct request to use the assets for purchases of humanitarian goods.

Reuters has reported that the ADVANTAGE SWEET, chartered by the American oil giant Chevron, was sailing under the Marshall Islands flag when it was intercepted. The official Iranian news agency, IRNA, described the confiscation as a legally sanctioned operation, emphasizing that subsequent steps for the offloading of the oil cargo are underway. According to the judiciary’s news outlet Mizan, the court’s ruling was prompted by the aforementioned medical lawsuit against the US.

Notably, several U.S. court decisions have held Iran liable for various actions and sought to pay the plaintiffs with confiscated Iranian assets. Separately, the U.S. Justice Department has moved to seize Iranian oil assets confiscated on the high seas, including last month. As a result, it is reasonable to see the Iranian moves as a tit-for-tat response. 

State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller responded to the reported seizure of the oil on Wednesday, stating “the Iranian Government should immediately release the Advantage Sweet, the old tanker to which you refer. Iran has unlawfully seized a number of commercial vehicles sailing in the Middle East in recent years. Iran’s continued harassment of vessels and interference with navigational rights and freedoms in the region’s vital waterways is a threat to maritime security, regional stability, and the global economy.”

In follow up, when pressed on the U.S. seizure of Iranian cargo and assets, Miller asserted that the U.S. maintains humanitarian carveouts to sanctions and that its seizures are done in accordance with the rule of law. “[O]ur sanctions have always had carveout for humanitarian purchases: food, medicine, medical devices, agricultural products. That has been our sanctions policy, not just in this administration but back across multiple administrations, and we have never prevented medicine from reaching the Iranian people,” asserted Miller. However, numerous sources both within and outside Iran – including Human Rights Watch – have documented how sanctions have negatively impacted the health of Iranians across multiple administrations despite the existence of humanitarian carve outs. He continued, “with respect to the seizures that we have done, we have done those consistent with the rule of law.”

Unprecedented Floods Ravage Sistan and Baluchestan: A Dire Call for Action

In a grim turn of events, Sistan and Baluchestan, a province in Iran, has been besieged by catastrophic floods following continuous heavy rains that began last week. The deluge has resulted in the overflow of four significant dams, engulfing 16 counties and swamping over 1,900 villages in its wake. The severity of the situation has rendered more than 110,000 people in desperate need of aid, with air relief emerging as the only feasible method of assistance.

Mohammad Amin Barani, the head of the regional water authority, highlighted the crisis’s magnitude, reporting the overflow of the Zirdan, Pishin, Shi Kalak, and Kheirabad dams. These incidents have escalated water levels across various reservoirs and feeder dams, posing an unprecedented challenge to the region’s infrastructure and its inhabitants.

The flooding severed access to around 178 villages, according to Reza Akbari, Deputy of Road Maintenance and Transportation. The persistent water flow hampers efforts to reopen roads, with a recovery plan aiming to restore affected pathways within ten days in areas where the waters have receded.

The economic toll is staggering, with transportation routes in the southern part of the province incurring damages estimated at nearly 1,700 billion Tomans. The Iran Red Crescent Society has been on the forefront, addressing the needs of over ten thousand affected individuals, distributing thousands of food packages, and coordinating additional relief supplies.

Agricultural devastation is profound, as outlined by Mohammad Reza Seyedhosseini, head of the Agricultural Organization in Sistan and Baluchestan. The floods have wreaked havoc on approximately 19,000 hectares of irrigated farmland and over 1,900 hectares of orchards, marking a severe blow to the region’s economy.

The flood crisis has also sparked widespread criticism of the government’s response, with calls for more robust action and prioritization of disaster relief over political agendas. Molavi Abdul Hamid, a Sunni Imam in Zahedan with a large following, voiced frustration over the lack of preventive measures and urged for nationwide support for the flood victims.

Community-driven relief efforts are underway, with donations flowing from across the province to support those hit hardest by the floods. In response to the escalating crisis, Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi visited the province to oversee damage assessment and coordinate a more effective relief response. As Sistan and Baluchestan confront this disaster, the urgent need for comprehensive relief and recovery efforts is clear. The floods have laid bare the challenges of disaster management and the critical importance of timely, coordinated action to aid those in dire straits.

Iran Mourns the Loss of Ney Maestro Jamshid Andalibi at 66

The world of Iranian traditional music faces a profound loss as Jamshid Andalibi, an eminent Ney player, passed away at the age of 66. The sad news emerged from Tehran this Tuesday, marking the end of an era for the Iranian music community.

Abbas Sajjadi, head of the music department at Tehran’s Cultural and Artistic Organization, confirmed Andalibi’s passing after a neighbor alerted emergency services. “The cause of death was identified as cardiac arrest by the emergency responders,” said Sajjadi, highlighting the suddenness of the tragedy.

Born in Sanandaj on March 3, 1958, Andalibi embarked on his musical journey at a tender age under Hassan Kamkar’s mentorship. His prodigious talent quickly propelled him into the ranks of the Iranian Music Orchestra of Kurdistan Province, laying the foundation for a storied career.

Andalibi’s quest for musical mastery led him to Tehran in 1975, where he deepened his study of Iranian traditional music at the Fine Arts College, under the guidance of luminaries such as Nour Ali Boroumand and Mohammad Reza Lotfi. His vocal radif training with Mahmoud Karimi, Nasrollah Nasehpour, and Mohammad Reza Shajarian further enriched his artistic palette.

A pivotal moment in Andalibi’s career came with his tutelage under Hossein Omoumi, refining his Ney technique, a skill he further honed with Hassan Kassai in Isfahan. His contributions to the revolutionary prelude ensemble Radio Iran and the formation of the Aref group alongside Hossein Alizadeh, Nasser Farhangfar, and Parviz Meshkatian, cemented his status in Iranian music history.

Andalibi’s legacy includes his participation in ensembles like Chavosh and collaborations that spanned continents, notably with Mohammad Reza Shajarian. His discography, featuring albums such as “Ney Nava,” remains a testament to his virtuosity and enduring influence on Persian music.

In addition to his performance career, Andalibi dedicated himself to education, shaping the next generation of musicians at universities and the College of Art and Architecture until the mid-2000s. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) extends its deepest condolences to Jamshid Andalibi’s family, friends, and the countless individuals who found joy and solace in his music. Andalibi’s passing is a significant loss to the cultural heritage of Iran and the global community of music lovers. His soulful melodies on the Ney will forever resonate as a reminder of his profound impact on Persian traditional music, reflecting the sentiment of all who admired his work.

IAEA Flags Rising Concern as Iran’s Uranium Stockpile Grows, Diplomatic Tensions Simmer

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) quarterly meeting unfolded on Monday, casting a spotlight on Iran’s burgeoning enriched uranium reserves. The IAEA’s Director General, Rafael Grossi, delivered an update to the Board of Governors, indicating not only a sustained increase in Iran’s stockpiles but also a nuanced dip in uranium enriched to the 60 percent threshold.

The convening scrutinized Iran’s continued defiance of the agency in ongoing disputes that have continued to fester after the collapse, and failure to revive, the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite anticipations for a reset with the Biden administration at the helm, a détente remains elusive, overshadowed by the looming U.S. presidential election cycle and a palpable absence of prospects for a near-term revival of serious negotiations.

The IAEA Board of Governors has consistently called on Iran to transparently cooperate with the IAEA’s probe into undisclosed uranium particle findings. However, Iran’s cooperation has been uneven at best, contributing to discord between Iran and the Agency. Amid the international tug-of-war, unnamed Western diplomats, as reported by Reuters, signaled a U.S. hesitation to further stoke diplomatic fires in the volatile Middle East by pushing for another IAEA censure resolution against Iran.

The U.S.’s stance remains unequivocal, calling on Iran to fully dilute its 60 percent enriched uranium stockpile, a fraction shy of the weapons-grade benchmark. The global narrative is fraught with concerns over Iran’s nuclear intentions, juxtaposed against Tehran’s insistence on peaceful, high-level uranium enrichment rights—which have been met with skepticism given the thin civilian pretext for such enrichment grades.

Statements from the U.S. and the European Union echo concerns that Iran’s nuclear maneuvers lack peaceful justifications. But a key player in these negotiations, Russia, attributed the exacerbated tensions to the fallout from the U.S. JCPOA withdrawal and consequent sanctions.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s senior voice at the IAEA, stated:. “We must acknowledge how we arrived at this juncture: For a year following the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, Iran endured the situation with patience. However, in May 2019, when the U.S. imposed oil sanctions against Iran, the country decided to retaliate, leading us to the challenging circumstances we face today. Yet, it’s crucial to understand that the blame should not fall on those who responded. In our view, the fault lies with those who provoked Iran into reacting. If the aim is to prevent Iran’s nuclear program from spiraling out of control, a return to the original JCPOA framework is necessary. This includes reinstating Iran’s commitment to the Additional Protocol, which Iran ceased following the U.S.’s maximum pressure campaign. Let me reiterate: It is vital to identify the genesis of these adverse developments, which certainly did not originate from Iran.”

Ulyanov’s comments reflect broader diplomatic cover for Iran in the UN Security Council, and come as Russia and Iran have aligned closer militarily following the former’s invasion of Ukraine more than two years ago. Whereas once Russia could be counted on to exert some pressure on Iran diplomatically under the Obama administration, now Iran appears to have explicit diplomatic cover via a divided Permanent 5 of the Security Council which relies on unanimity.

Chabahar Port Development: A New Chapter in Afghanistan-Iran Economic Relations

On March 2, Hassan Kazemi Qomi – Iran’s Special Envoy in Kabul – led a Taliban economic technical delegation on a tour of new facilities that are under construction at the Chabahar port in southern Iran. This initiative is part of a larger plan by the Taliban government to inject $35 million into Chabahar, a significant investment in the strategic port on the Gulf of Oman. The venture also included critical discussions with Hojjatollah Abdolmaleki, the advisor to the Iranian President and Secretary of the Supreme Council of Free Trade-Industrial and Special Economic Zones, aimed at carving out a space for Taliban representation within the Chabahar free trade zone.

The Ministry of Commerce of the Taliban brought attention to the comprehensive talks that covered the operational aspects and finalization of the Chabahar transit chain, including land allocation, pricing, lease terms, the prioritization of transit goods, and the enhancement of facilities for Afghan traders and investors. The ministry’s declared goal is to harness Chabahar’s potential to amplify transit and export operations.

Amid escalating customs tariffs and disputes with Pakistan, there is a noticeable pivot from the Taliban government toward Iran for trade, recognizing Chabahar’s crucial role in the North-South corridor as a vital trade hub. This shift is particularly poignant for Afghanistan, which – after enduring decades of conflict and sanctions-induced economic challenges – seeks to revitalize its trade avenues and break free from economic isolation.

Choosing Chabahar over Pakistan’s Karachi and Gwadar ports appears to indicate that the Taliban government views Iran as a safer bet. It also seems to reflect that historical tensions between the Iranian government and Taliban have notably softened. The focus on Chabahar, especially its railway expansions like the Chabahar-Zahedan-Mashhad line, marks a significant step towards fulfilling Afghanistan’s trade ambitions via a strategic maritime corridor.

While Afghanistan’s interest in Chabahar is longstanding, the dialogue has reached new heights under the Taliban’s governance, indicating a serious commitment to leveraging Iranian transit routes to bolster Afghanistan’s trade links. This commitment is evidenced by repeated Afghan delegations visiting Iran aimed at accelerating progress on economic, trade, and transport initiatives. The recent bilateral engagements and mutual interest on both sides signal a shared determination to tackle regional economic hurdles and encourage development.

However, the highest economic hurdle remains U.S. sanctions against Iran, which cast a shadow over these economic initiatives. These sanctions, acting as a formidable obstacle, not only impede Iran’s domestic economy but also impact its international collaborations, as exemplified by the hindered gas pipeline project from Iran to India through Pakistan which has been discussed for decades. Despite these impediments, Iran’s strategic position and Chabahar port’s economic promise have continued to attract interest, showcasing the resilience and adaptive capacity of regional trade efforts amid geopolitical strains. Chabahar port stands as a pivotal transit gateway for Central Asian countries through the North-South Economic Corridor, traversing Iranian territory.  This strategic position – if fully realized – could elevate Iran to a key transit crossroads in the region and globally, enhancing its role and appeal to neighboring and regional countries. The North-South Transit Corridor, recognized as a vital economic artery, holds undeniable importance and utility for Central Asian nations, Russia, and the Caucasus, and is unattainable without a key port like Chabahar. The uniqueness of Chabahar, defined by its geographic location, maritime characteristics, and strategic importance, positions it as a critical hub for bilateral trade across a significant portion of the Asian continent and the world. 

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