December 17, 2020

Khamenei Leaves Door Open for Negotiations with Biden

Week of December 14th, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council

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Khamenei Talks about Sanctions & Trusting the U.S.

Ayatollah Khamenei gave a speech before a committee charged with organizing events for the upcoming first anniversary of the U.S. assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. In his remarks, Khamenei talked about trusting the U.S., sanctions, retaliating for the killing of Soleimani, and domestic political divides.

Khamenei discussed Iran’s response to Soleimani’s assassination. He said the “first response” was the “millions” of people who turned out for funeral processions for Soleimani and Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Iran and Iraq. He said Iran’s second response was “demolishing the hollow hegemony” of the United States through “soft power.” He cited the missile attack on U.S. bases and said the U.S. would “exit the region” because of “resistance policies and regional nations.”

Khamenei said Iran will pursue “vengeance” against Soleimani’s “murderers.” He stated: “Vengeance must be taken against the murderers of commander Soleimani. This vengeance is definite, whenever it occurs. Even as Soleimani’s shoes are more honorable than the head of his murderer.”

Khamenei said his “suggestion” is to “not trust the enemy.” He stated: “To end the problems of the people and fix the country’s future do not trust in the promises of this or that person [U.S. officials]. These are not the promises of good people, but the promises of villains. And at the same time we can’t forget their enmity.”

Khamenei criticized both “Trump’s America” and “Obama’s America.” He proclaimed: “You saw what the America of Trump and Obama did to you. The enmity was not just from Trump’s America for it to end with him leaving. Obama’s America also committed wrongs against you and the Iranian people.”

Khamenei also criticized the UK, France, and Germany. He said these countries have shown “ultimate inaction, greed, two-facedness, and hypocrisy” in their approach to Iran.

Khamenei said he supports efforts to “lift sanctions” but that Iran’s main goal should be “neutralizing” the effect of sanctions. He declared: “Lifting sanctions is in the hands of the enemy but neutralizing them is in our hands. So we need to focus more on neutralizing sanctions than lifting them.”

However, Khamenei stressed Iran should not delay “for even one hour” on any potential for sanctions to be lifted. He stated: “I am not saying we should not pursue the lifting of sanctions. If sanctions can be lifted, this shouldn’t be delayed for even one hour. Even as this has been delayed now for four years and from 2016 sanctions were supposed to be lifted and not only have they not been lifted, but they have been increased.”

Khamenei said Iran should pursue the lifting of sanctions in an “honorable” way. He stated: “If sanctions can be removed in a correct way that is wise, Iranian-Islamic, and honorable, this should be done. But the main focus should be on neutralizing the sanctions.”

Khamenei also called for “preserving national unity.” He said he supports Iranian government officials “on the condition that they are committed to the goals of the nation.”

He told Iranian officials to resolve their disputes through negotiations. His comment in this regard seemed geared at the Rouhani administration. He stated: “Resolve your differences with negotiations with each other. Don’t you say that we should negotiate with the world? Is it not possible to negotiate with domestic elements and resolve issues?”

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Rouhani Discuses JCPOA Return, Domestic Feuds & More

President Rouhani held a press conference with domestic and foreign journalists. He discussed a broad range of issues, including a return to the JCPOA by the U.S. and Iran, the country’s economic problems, the recent execution of opposition figure Ruhollah Zam, and differences between his administration and the conservative parliament.

Rouhani rejected negotiating a “stronger nuclear deal” with the U.S. or having negotiations over Iran’s missile program and regional influence. Rouhani stated: “What is important for us today is that America returns completely to its commitments and announces it made a mistake and after it has returned to the JCPOA we can think about the path of compensation for the damages that have been imposed on us.”

However, Rouhani said Iran will not precondition returning to the JCPOA on receiving compensation from the United States. He stated: “If we want to ask America for compensation, America has caused massive damages on us from the years before the revolution until now. But for us to place preconditions on returning to the JCPOA, this is for when everyone has returned to the JCPOA and at the same time they air their demands. This is good and I will definitely do this. But about preconditioning [Iran receiving compensation], this means that the sanctions will continue.”

Rouhani added on the compensation issue: “During these years, the 4+1 also did not abide by their commitments, should we get compensation from them? This is not possible.”

Rouhani went on: “If we want to get compensation from America, they have imposed a lot of damage. From the beginning of the revolution and even the [1953] coup d’etat, we have incurred massive damages which are difficult to calculate.”

Rouhani also said Iran will not accept any preconditions from the U.S. for returning to the JCPOA. He said the deal cannot be renegotiated and said about other U.S. demands of Iran: “The missile and regional issues have nothing to do with the JCPOA and all this was discussed before and at the time of the JCPOA there was talk of this and we rejected it.”

Rouhani further said about his rejection of talks on Iran’s missile program and regional influence: “Trump was unaware of the negotiations [during the Obama era] but Biden knows. These issues are not negotiable. The only option on the negotiating table is all sides returning to their commitments.”

Rouhani also said the Trump administration and some “within Iran” have sought to destroy the JCPOA but have failed. Rouhani said the end of the Trump administration marked the “end of economic warfare and terrorism” against Iran.

Rouhani said if Trump were re-elected, the U.S. would still have had “no choice” but to change its approach to Iran. He said the period of U.S. sanctions on Iran has “passed.”

Rouhani also criticized the parliament’s bill that would mandate nuclear expansion but said his administration would implement it. As detailed in last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered, the bill would have Iran reduce access to international inspectors and enrich uranium at higher levels, among other nuclear expansions, if the U.S. does not return to the JCPOA within months. The bill is titled “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions.”

While talking about the bill, Rouhani stressed Iran would return to compliance with the JCPOA if the U.S. does. Rouhani said he did not view the parliament’s bill as “beneficial.”

Rouhani stated: “What the parliament passed was a ‘strategic action to lift sanctions’ and not continue sanctions. However, it is up for debate whether this law is compatible with its goal. We will return to our commitments if the 4+1, or 5+1, abides by its commitments. There will be no obstacles for this path.”

Rouhani said that while his administration “as a whole” does not view the bill as “beneficial,” it will “implement it.” Rouhani said his administration is writing the “bylaws” to implement the bills, but that “these bylaws will be such that they will help lifting the sanctions.” He stated: “The administration does not view the bill as beneficial. But I told the relevant ministries and deputies to prepare the bylaws for implementing this law.”

Rouhani added about implementing the law: “The bylaws will be based on our interpretation [of the bill]. It will be based on the framework of its title, meaning a law that will remove sanctions and not a law that delays the lifting of sanctions.”

In recent weeks, Rouhani officials have said their conservative rivals seek to delay a JCPOA return until after the Iranian election in June 2021. Notably, Foreign Minister Zarif said in a recent interview that some “[domestic] friends communicate to America that it can work better with us” and that the “Rouhani administration will not remain in power” and that “this administration shouldn’t be negotiated with.”

In his press conference, Rouhani also defended his administration against its domestic opponents. He criticized the positions of his political rivals and said they were “aligned” with the “global opponents of the [Islamic Republic] system.” Rouhani said his opponents are “encouraged” to attack his administration, but if the same attacks were lodged against the “judiciary or armed forces,” the next step would be a “[legal] summons.”

Rouhani said Iran’s current crises are due to several factors, including: “Structural problems, economic warfare, cooperation between the opponents of the administration and the opponents of the system, and managerial shortcomings.” Rouhani said that “no one talks about the share of other institutions and the opponents of the administration in [creating] the present situation.”

Rouhani also discussed the assassination of Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and said Iran would avenge his death. Rouhani said those who murdered Fakhrizadeh wanted to “take the region to war in the final days of the inauspicious Trump period.”

Rouhani blamed the assassination on Israel, stating: “The main goal of the Zionist regime [Israel] in assassinting the martyr Fakhrizadeh was to create instability and war in the final days of the Trump administration.”

Rouhani said about avenging Fakhrizadeh’s death: “The Islamic Republic has the right to vengeance, and it will do this at the appropriate place.” He added: “We will not allow others to decide the time and place of this.”

Rouhani also responded to a question about the execution of opposition figure Ruhollah Zam. As detailed in last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered, the judiciary’s spokesperson said the supreme court had upheld his death sentence. He was executed days later.

Rouhani said in response to condemnation from France, Germany, and other European countries on the execution: “It can be inferred from these concerns and sensitivities that he [Zam] worked for their interests.”

Rouhani said Zam was executed based on a sentence passed by the judiciary. He said the death sentence is applicable in Iranian law and the judiciary is “independent from the executive [his administration].” Rouhani said he “does not think the execution will disrupt relations with Europe.”

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Opposition Figure Ruhollah Zam Executed

Ruhollah Zam, an opposition figure who ran two prominent Telegram channels, has been executed. As detailed in the previous issue of Iran Unfiltered, the supreme court recently upheld his prison sentence.

Zam’s execution was strongly condemned by the EU, France, and international organizations like Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. NIAC’s Human Rights Tracker has a post condemning the execution here.

Zam was living in France but travelled to Iraq in October of 2019, where he was arrested and transferred to Iran. According to an Iraqi government source speaking to BBC Persian, “Iraq’s intelligence agency arrested Ruhollah Zam when his plane landed in Baghdad.” This source added: “He remained in the custody of Iraq’s intelligence agency for one day and afterwards was extradited to Iran in accordance with the extradition agreement.”

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.

Zam was charged with “espionage” and working with the intelligence agencies of Israel and France. He was also charged with “cooperating” with the “hostile U.S. government” and “collecting classified information.”

Zam denied most of the charges against him in court and said he was a journalist. Amnesty International says Zam was given a “grossly unfair trial.”

Zam first left Iran after the contested 2009 presidential election. According to BBC Persian, he was imprisoned for a while after the election. After he left Iran he wrote a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei saying he was treated poorly and tortured.

Zam’s father is Mohammad Ali Zam, a prominent cleric. The elder Zam used to be a government official and headed the Art Institute of the Islamic Propagation Organization.

Ruhollah Zam’s Telegram channels, Amad News and Sedaye Mardom, were controversial. BBC Persian says they reported a mixture of accurate and fake news, and leaked information that resulted in two major scandals in Iran: one that former judiciary chief Amoli Larijani had multiple bank accounts and another that a government-supported Quran reciter had sexually harassed children.

BBC Persian also notes that Amad News played a role in organizing protests in Iran in late 2017 and early 2018. Telegram banned the channel during that time after it provided instructions for making Molotov cocktails.

The New York Review of Books said about these protests: “Rising living costs along with budget proposals to raise gasoline prices and cut monthly assistance to the middle classes were the spark, though the demonstrations soon took on a more radical flavor than the earlier protests, with calls of ‘Death to Khamenei!’ and attacks on banks, shops, cars, paramilitary installations, and a mosque.”

Zam’s Telegram channel also attacked critics of the Trump administration’s policies toward Iran. This included posting the name and private pictures of Iranian American activists who protested against Trump’s policies in front of the White House and promoting the conspiracy theory that BBC is secretly supporting the Iranian government and seeking to keep it in power.

Zam’s execution was condemned by many dissidents and activists within Iran. Prominent reformist dissident and former political prisoner Mostafa Tajzadeh said the execution was part of an effort by anti-JCPOA hardliners inside Iran to “prevent the lifting of sanctions.” He highlighted how after the execution, a Europe-Iran business forum that Iranian foreign minister Zarif was scheduled to attend was postponed.

Meanwhile, the conservative Kayhan newspaper said Zam was executed to signal a shift in the Iranian government’s policy on “espionage.” Kayhan said the “cost for espionage” against Iran had become “very low” and that many “convicted of espionage were freed after a few years of imprisonment in swaps.” Kayhan said a “new period was beginning in dealing with those who have sold out their country and betrayed national security.”

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Dual National Kameel Ahmady Faces Imprisonment

Kameel Ahmady, a British-Iranian anthropologist, has been sentenced to 9 years in prison and a 600,000 euro fine. This is according to the Tasnim news outlet, which is affiliated with the IRGC. The judiciary has yet to confirm this sentence.

Ahmady lived in Iran for years and travelled there for work and research projects. He was first arrested in August 2019 but was released after paying bail that November.

According to Tasnim, the charges against him include allegedly cooperating with organizations that seek to topple the Iranian government. Tasim says the other charges are working with foreign organizations on “women and children issues,” working with “European embassies” and “two former members of the Iranian parliament” to pass a bill that “increases the marriage age,” “supporting and promoting homosexuality,” giving “erroneous” information to the UN about Iran, and travelling to Israel under the “cover of a being a BBC journalist.”

Ahmady’s wife says all his work activities in Iran were legal and that he had an official government permit for his work. Ahmady himself also wrote a Facebook post where he said the legal case against him was “full of flaws.”

Ahmady wrote that the charges against him stem from his research into “traditions that harm children in poorer parts of Iran.” He said authorities have attempted to link his research into “UN goals for Iran by 2030.”

Ahmady’s lawyer has requested an appeal of his sentence. He says he is “hopeful” it will be successful.

The British government has expressed “strong worry” over Ahmady’s arrest. It has requested an explanation from Iran.

In recent years, several more dual-national academics and researchers have been arrested in Iran. This has included Fariba Adelkhah, an Iranian-French academic who was sentenced to five years in prison, and Ahmadreza Jalali Pezeshk, an Iranian-Swedish doctor who has been sentenced to death. The Iranian government does not recognize dual citizenship.

Many Western governments accuse Iran of arresting and imprisoning dual nationals to use as a pressure tool in foreign relations and as bargaining chips. The Iranian government denies this and insists the charges against them are valid. However, the charges are often dubious at best and efforts to secure their freedom are often linked to prisoner swaps or other concessions.

Meanwhile, a prominent Iranian labor activist, Keyvan Samimi, was imprisoned. Samimi was arrested after a May Day demonstration in front of parliament in 2019. He was the editor of the “Iran Farda” magazine. He was sentenced to three years in prison for endangering national security.

Samimi was arrested after the contested 2009 presidential election as well. He was sentenced to six years imprisonment and was released in 2015 after serving his sentence.

Samimi has said about the charges against him: “The establishment of the illegal Freedom Party of the Iranian People’ (from over 22 years ago!), being the editor-in-chief of the Iran Farda publication (even though the Ministry of Intelligence, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the judiciary all issued a monthly license for Iran Farda!), uploading content online in support of the Great Satan [the United States], giving speeches and inciting audiences, defending political prisoners and activities in the illegal International Labor Day gatherings.”

Samimi’s imprisonment sparked widespread outrage on Iranian social media. Zia Nabavi, a prominent dissident who was himself a former political prisoner, tweeted that Samimi is being sent to prison despite his old age and health problems to “keep the bullies safe.”

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