May 25, 2023

From Dentistry to Defense: Ali Akbar Ahmadian’s Rise to Secretary of Supreme National Security Council, Iran and Russia Sign Railway Agreement, Reactions Following the Execution of Three Young Men, and more

Week of May 22nd, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

From Dentistry to Defense: Ali Akbar Ahmadian’s Rise to Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council

Ali Akbar Ahmadian, currently leading the Strategic Center of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), has been appointed as the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, succeeding Ali Shamkhani, according to official sources. Ahmadian also serves as a member of Iran’s Expediency Council, a high-ranking advisory body. Concurrently, the leader also named the outgoing secretary, Ali Shamkhani, as a member of the Expediency Council and his political advisor.

This reshuffling comes after Ali Shamkhani’s resignation from his decade-long service as the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. His resignation was announced by Noor News, a media outlet known for its proximity to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

Speculation about Shamkhani’s resignation had already been ignited when he posted a cryptic tweet featuring a poem titled “Leaving”. Noor News later confirmed the end of Shamkhani’s tenure, describing it as “definite”.

Born in 1961 in Babak city, Kerman province, Ahmadian initially pursued dentistry at the University of Tehran but put his studies on hold to join the Iran-Iraq war fronts in 1980. Despite this detour, Fars news agency reports that Ahmadian eventually earned a doctorate in dentistry from the University of Tehran, although the exact timeline remains unclear.

Ahmadian’s records also mention a PhD in Strategic Management from National Defense University. He has held several key positions in the IRGC, including the head of the IRGC Navy and the deputy commander of the IRGC Navy. Fars news agency credits Ahmadian as being instrumental in transforming the IRGC Navy during the final years of the Iran-Iraq war, as well as one of the main proponents of the idea of asymmetric defense.

Iran and Russia Sign Agreement to Complete North-South Railway Connecting Asia to Europe

In a significant advancement towards finalizing the North-South railway crossing, Iran and Russia committed to a landmark agreement on Wednesday, May 17th, for the construction of the Rasht-Astara railway. The project is a crucial component of a larger mission to bridge East and South Asia to Northern Europe.

Mehrdad Bazarpash, Iran’s Minister of Roads and Urban Development, and his Russian counterpart, Transport Minister Vitaly Savelev, put pen to paper, following dialogues from Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The North-South rail crossing, two decades in the making, is anticipated to be a game-changer for South Asian goods in transit to Eastern Europe.

Both the Iranian and Russian heads of state have underscored the railway’s significance in numerous telephonic exchanges and bilateral discussions recently. The central objective is to expedite the completion of this major transportation artery.

The North-South Corridor’s western route, threading through Russia, Iran, and Azerbaijan, had a glaring gap of 162 kilometers between Rasht and Astara. The Rasht-Astara railway, once completed, will plug this gap, effectively facilitating a railway link from St. Petersburg to the Persian Gulf, and thereby connecting the region to Eastern Europe.

Under the terms of the agreement, Russia will inject 1.6 billion euros into the strategic project, with a completion target set for the next four years. The regional competition for effective presence in transit corridors has heated up recently, attracting a surge of foreign investors to partake in the infrastructure build-out.

Iran, with its strategic east-west and north-south transportation networks, has become an attractive proposition for several countries. Acting as the shortest conduit for goods moving from India and Pakistan to Europe, Iran also fosters a robust trade exchange between Russia and East Asian nations.

The North-South Corridor, a nexus of highways, seaways, and railways spanning 7,200 kilometers, plays a vital role in connecting European countries, Scandinavia, and Russia with the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia. Touted as the most efficient route between Russia and India, taking approximately 35 to 37 days for transit, the corridor has the potential to transform Iran into a regional transit hub.

Russia’s first deputy prime minister, Andrey Belusov, recently emphasized the importance of the corridor for Russia, citing its ability to provide access to various shipping lines. The corridor also intersects the East-West Corridor, and according to Belusov, the establishment of these comprehensive transportation networks will significantly augment Russia’s access to sea lanes for goods movement.

Belousov projects that with the development of the North-South corridor, the global flow of goods will witness a notable shift. With a projected length of 5,000 kilometers and an estimated capacity of 14 million tons per year, he anticipates the capacity to more than double to 32 million tons annually within seven years.

While most countries participating in the North-South Corridor project have successfully established the requisite infrastructure within a defined timeframe, Iran has lagged in providing the necessary facilities over the last two decades. The unfinished Rasht-Astara railway in Iran has even led to speculation about the country’s diminishing presence in the region’s transit corridors. Thus, the completion of this railway is essential to preserving Iran’s role in the North-South Corridor. While the contract has been formally inked, Russia’s track record regarding investment in Iran is less than stellar. A case in point is the innumerable postponements in the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, leading to considerable financial setbacks for Iran.

The geopolitical implications of Russia’s assault on Ukraine have magnified the country’s reliance on Iran’s transit corridors. It remains to be seen whether these changing dynamics will prompt a heightened commitment from Russia towards timely project completion.

Escalating Tensions: Iran and Taliban in a Diplomatic Dance over Hirmand River Disputes

Taliban officials have urged Iranian leaders to avoid “provocative statements” following remarks made by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi over disputes concerning the Hirmand River. Abdul Latif Mansour, the Taliban’s Acting Minister of Water and Energy, discussed the regional drought crisis in an interview with the BBC. “We too are suffering from water issues,” he said, urging for a diplomatic approach to the problem.

Similarly, Taliban government spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid advised Iranian leaders to choose their words wisely when submitting any requests. His comments were a direct response to President Raisi’s assertive tone while addressing the issue during his visit to Sistan and Baluchistan.

Raisi didn’t mince words, warning Taliban officials to take his statements seriously. “I want to tell the rulers of Afghanistan not to consider my words as normal, to take them very seriously; I warn the authorities and rulers of Afghanistan to give the rights of the people and the region of Sistan and Baluchistan immediately,” Raisi declared. He insisted that if there was water in the Hirmand, it was the right of the people of Sistan and Baluchistan to have access to it.

Hossein Amirabdollahian, Iran’s Foreign Minister, also joined the discourse. In a tweet, he criticized the Taliban for not living up to their obligations under the Treaty of Hirmand. “In recent months, I have repeatedly asked the Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan, Mulla Mataghi, to fulfill his obligations according to the Treaty of Hirmand,” he wrote. The Treaty of Hirmand, signed in 1972, stipulates that if the Hirmand River’s water supply is sufficient, around 820 million cubic meters of water will be allocated to Iran annually. Afghanistan possesses 75 billion cubic meters of renewable freshwater resources per year, a significant portion of which is shared with neighboring countries.

The recent statements by Iranian authorities signify an escalating tension over water rights to the Hirmand River, which has now become a critical point of contention between Iran and the Taliban. Iran has established amicable relations with the Taliban’s current regime, and even handed over the Afghan embassy to Taliban representatives.

Zabihullah Mujahid, in a statement on Twitter, responded to Iranian officials, saying, “Iranian authorities should first get more information about Helmand water and then present their demand with appropriate words. Otherwise, it can damage the political atmosphere between the two Muslim nations.” Mansour stressed that water disputes should be handled diplomatically, without any provocative comments. In a response to the BBC, he noted, “These statements are not good for both countries and the nation.”

Despite the tensions, Mansour invited Iranian experts to visit Afghanistan to assess the water level. He also argued that if a debate over water usage were to arise, Iran’s usage over the past 40 years when no dams were constructed in Afghanistan should also be considered.

Water disputes between Iran and Afghanistan are not new. Afghanistan’s former president, Ashraf Ghani, once famously declared, “We don’t give water to anyone for free. We are ready to exchange water for oil.”

Five Iranian Border Guards Killed in Sistan and Baluchistan Clash

In a grave incident May 21, five border guards were killed in a violent clash in Saravan, a region situated in the province of Sistan and Baluchistan. The announcement was made by the Faraja Information and Communication Center, stating that these guards lost their lives in a conflict with suspected “adversarial terrorists.” These individuals were reportedly attempting to infiltrate the Iranian border via Pakistan.

This intense firefight also led to injuries for two other border guards who were involved in the confrontation. In response to this critical event, the country’s Deputy Police Commander and the Chief of the Faraja Border Guard have traveled to the conflict area to conduct a thorough investigation. As of now, no group has stepped forward to claim responsibility for this violent attack.

European Union Imposes Sanctions on Individuals and Institutions of the Islamic Republic Over Human Rights Violations

The Council of the European Union has approved the eighth package of sanctions against individuals and institutions of the Islamic Republic of Iran for their involvement in severe human rights violations. The decision, announced on Monday, May 22, aims to address the grave concerns surrounding the treatment of individuals within Iran.

Among the newly sanctioned individuals is Salman Adinevand, the current commander of the Tehran Police Relief Unit, who has been linked to the controversial “Maryam Arvin Case.” Maryam Arvin, a lawyer known for her defense of protesters, was reportedly subjected to brutal arrest and mistreatment, which is believed to have led to her tragic death after release. The sanctions also target Saeed Montazer al-Mahdi, the spokesperson for the General Police Command of the Islamic Republic, Nader Moradi, the deputy responsible for monitoring public places within the Capitol Security Police, and Mohammad Aghamiri, the Secretary of the Supreme Council of Cyberspace of Iran, who has been implicated in repressive actions in the digital realm. Additionally, the European Union has imposed sanctions on two institutions: the IRGC Cooperation Foundation, responsible for managing the investments of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and facilitating financial transfers to suppress dissent, and the “Student Mobilization Organization,” which has now been added to the list of sanctioned entities.

European Union foreign ministers, including German Foreign Minister Analena Berbuk, deliberated on these sanctions during a meeting in Brussels. Berbuk highlighted the need to respond to the violent suppression of peaceful protests in Iran and indicated that the sanctions would likely target additional parts of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, given the prevailing human rights concerns. Reports suggest that the focus of the new sanctions is on select judicial and security institutions closely associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. This move by the European Union aligns with its ongoing efforts to respond to and condemn human rights violations perpetrated by the Iranian government.

Prominent Political Activists Mohammad Habibi, Alireza Beheshti, and Keyvan Samimi Released on Bail

Mohammad Habibi, Alireza Beheshti, and Keyvan Samimi have been granted release on bail, according to statements made by their lawyers Sadra Beheshti and Mustafa Nili. All three are well-known political activists in the country.

Keyvan Samimi, who was most recently detained weeks ago, holds a prominent position among political activists due to his advocacy for non-violent struggle and dialogue among all political and social forces. During his recent three months of freedom, he actively engaged in political activities and joined the supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi’s referendum idea. Nili stated that the next court session for Keyvan Samimi is scheduled for May 29.

Samimi and Beheshti had participated in the “Discussion Conference to Save Iran” before their arrest in May. Speculations suggest that their participation in this conference might be the subject of their next court session.

In addition, Mohammad Habibi, the spokesperson of the Iranian Teachers Union (Tehran), has been released on bail after spending 47 days in detention at Ward 209 of Evin Prison. However, it is important to note that the unconditional release of all teachers and activists remains hindered.

Censorship Crescendo: Five Prominent Iranian Pop Artists Silenced Amid Nationwide Protests

A total of five leading Iranian pop artists have faced an unexpected ban on their artistic endeavors. This breaking news was first released on Monday, May 22, by Sharq newspaper, citing information from music journalist Bahman Babazadeh. The ban, said to be enforced by the government-backed entity “Committee to Follow Up the Status of Celebrities,” was implemented on five standout figures of the Iranian pop scene: Reza Sadeghi, Mohsen Yeganeh, Amir Maghareh, Babak Jahanbakhsh, and Omid Hajili.

Notably, one of the affected celebrities, pop idol Reza Sadeghi, has reportedly been subjected to an even stricter regulation: a prohibition on leaving his home, thus taking the ban from professional to personal life. This drastic move follows a surge of nationwide protests in Iran, during which a significant number of artists from various fields have stood in solidarity with the protesters. Further details on the unfolding situation remain limited, but the move by the Iranian authorities has unquestionably dealt a significant blow to the country’s vibrant pop music industry.

Reactions Pour In Following Execution of Three Young Men in Isfahan House Case

The news of the execution of Saleh Mirhashmi, Majid Kazemi Sheikh Shabani, and Saeed Yaqoubi from the Isfahan House case on Friday, May 19 led to widespread reactions both inside and outside of Iran. The Judiciary News Agency confirmed the execution, which has sparked protests and calls for the cancellation of death sentences from various renowned figures and human rights organizations.

In the days leading up to the execution, prominent individuals and human rights organizations had been advocating for a halt to the executions. These voices had even gathered next to the prison in an attempt to prevent the tragic outcome. The three defendants in the “Isfahan House” case, had been apprehended, put on trial, and given death sentences for their alleged involvement in the murder of two Basij fighters and a Special Forces colonel. The incident occurred on November 16, 2022, in the security square of the “Isfahan House” district.

Just two days before their execution, manuscripts attributed to the prisoners were circulated online, pleading for help and shedding light on the circumstances surrounding their case. The manuscripts, dated May 17, were signed with the phrase “Children of Iran” following the prisoners’ names.

Adding to the tension, Mohammad Hashemi, cousin of Majid Kazemi, took to Twitter to describe a brutal attack on Majid Kazemi by security agents, who also severely beat his father and brothers. According to a reliable source close to Majid Kazemi’s family, these acts of aggression occurred shortly before the execution, prolonging the already-existing anguish.

Prominent religious figure Molavi Abdul Hamid, the imam of Ahl al-Sunnah Zahedan, used his Friday prayer sermons on May 19 to address the government, imploring them to halt the executions. He emphasized that executions do not align with the principles of Islam and argued that they harm both the country and the religion itself. Abdul Hamid quoted an individual who had remarked, “Religion is killing us,” expressing his deep concern over the dire consequences of such actions. He urged the country’s rulers to refrain from executing individuals in the name of religion, and criticized the prevalent practice of torturing accused individuals to extract forced confessions.

Since the news of the three defendants’ execution in the Isfahan House case was announced on Friday, May 19, a significant wave of opposition has swept across the country, leading to widespread protests. According to the AFP news agency, Joseph Borrell, the head of foreign policy coordination for the European Union, issued a statement calling on the Iranian authorities to immediately halt the use of the death penalty and refrain from carrying out such sentences in the future.

Protests against the death penalty continued in various cities of Iran on the evening of May 19. Videos circulated on social media, revealing citizens taking to the streets to voice their opposition to the executions of Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirhashmi, and Saeed Yaqoubi in the Isfahan House case. In Tehran, protesters chanted slogans such as “Death to the execution republic.” 

Crumbling Classrooms and Scarce Water: The Deepening Education Crisis in Iran

In a troubling disclosure, Iran’s Deputy Minister of Education, Hamidreza Khanmohammadi, has announced that 13% of the nation’s schools, amounting to roughly 100,000 classrooms, are in a state of disrepair and urgently require retrofitting. Highlighting the scale of this crisis, Khanmohammadi stated that about 105,000 classrooms and learning spaces, primarily in city outskirts, are on the brink of refurbishment, a project demanding a staggering 238 thousand billion Tomans.

The concerning fact is that if the repair of these crumbling schools relies solely on public sector funds, it could take up to 50 years, Khanmohammadi cautioned. He suggested that the issue could be alleviated through contributions from generous donors.

However, physical decay is not the sole challenge these schools are grappling with. Khanmohammadi pointed to a litany of other serious concerns, including the lack of adequate water and teaching staff, rising student dropout rates, and escalating health issues such as obesity among pupils.

The dire situation is reflected in statistics from the Ministry of Education that raise serious questions about the welfare of students in public schools. Out of a total of 106,491 public schools across the nation, a startling 7017 schools (11.19%) lack access to clean piped drinking water, while 5268 schools (8.4%) are without toilet facilities. It is clear that the urgency of these challenges calls for immediate attention and swift action.

Price Surge Persists: Iran’s Inflation Soars to 55.5% Despite Government’s Promises to Curb Rising Costs

April’s inflation rate in Iran hit an alarming 55.5%, as announced by the country’s official statistics. This comes despite the Iranian government, under Ebrahim Raisi’s leadership, vowing to curb inflation. The relentless surge in prices is eroding citizens’ purchasing power day after day.

The report, “Household Consumer Price Index in Farvardin 1402,” recently published by the Statistics Center of Iran, paints a grim picture of unceasing price escalations. Compared to the same month last year, the inflation rate has soared to a staggering 55.5%. According to the data, the steepest price increase was recorded in the “hotel and restaurant” sector, witnessing an inflation rate of over 85% compared to Farvardin last year, taking the third spot with a nearly 64% increase from a year prior.

Further, the latest World Bank data ranks Iran as having the fourth worst inflation rate for food prices globally. Prior to this, Iranian media reported an intense 78% inflation rate for food in the country. This trend of escalating food prices has been prevalent across the majority of nations worldwide for some time now.

55% of Iranians Face Housing Poverty, Reveals Majlis Research Center Study

In a startling revelation, the Parliament Research Center has published a new study suggesting that 55% of the population in Iran is grappling with housing poverty, marking the highest level ever recorded. The research, released on Saturday, May 20, scrutinizes the performance of the Sixth Five-Year Development Plan’s provisions for ensuring housing for lower-income groups.

Titled “The Performance of the Provisions of the Law of the Sixth Five-Year Development Plan in the Area of Providing Housing for Low-Income Groups,” the study offers a detailed analysis of the alarming trends in housing poverty with the aid of compelling statistical data. In its analysis, the research uses two main criteria to characterize housing poverty: having an “ordinary residential unit” and households allocating more than 30% of their budget towards housing costs. The study’s findings underscore the urgent need for effective and targeted policy measures to address this escalating crisis.

Social Security Retirees Demand Higher Pensions in Nationwide Protests

Social security retirees across multiple Iranian cities made their voices heard on Sunday, in a series of protest rallies demanding better living conditions. These demonstrations coincided with other union protests in the cities of Ilam and Ahvaz.

The retirees have been rallying every Sunday for months, prompting the nickname of these events as “Protest Sundays.” These regular demonstrations have taken place in various cities including Shush, Haftpeh, Karkheh, Kermanshah, Rasht, Isfahan, Shushtar, Arak, and Ahvaz.

The retirees’ main demand, as reported by the Ilna news agency, is the enforcement of Article 96 of the Social Security Law. The retirees argue that this year’s pension increase has been insufficient and unjust, describing it as an “illegal increase.” They seek the nullification of this decision and propose an increase of between 21 and 27 percent.

Their demands also extend to the independence of Refah Bank, enhancement of welfare services, free healthcare, and an overall improvement in the income status of the Social Security Organization. The retirees maintain that the Social Security Organization has an obligation to fulfill its duties and satisfy the legal requirements of retired workers.

Parallel to these demonstrations, educated members of the Khuzestan Literacy Movement and employees of Ahvaz Municipal University congregated outside the governorate building.

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