June 22, 2023

Omani Foreign Minister Reveals U.S. and Iran Close to American Detainee Release, U.S. and Iran in Indirect Talks on Nuclear Activities and Detained Americans, Rising Dissent Over Mandatory Hijab Met with Increased Restrictions and Legal Action and More

Week of June 19, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

Omani Foreign Minister Reveals US and Iran Close to Resolving American Detainee Issue

Badr al-Busaidi, the Oman Foreign Minister, has revealed that the United States and Iran are negotiating the release of American detainees held in Tehran. Despite strained relations between the two nations, this news is a positive sign. During an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, the Omani diplomat confirmed that the agreement is on its way to implementation. He stated that both sides were determined to reach an agreement.

The detained Iranian-American nationals – Siamak Namazi, Emad Sharqi, and Morad Tahbaz – have been imprisoned by the Islamic Republic on charges of espionage, a claim the U.S. government vehemently denies. Providing hope for a potential resolution, al-Busaidi stated, “I can say that they are close to this,” suggesting that a prisoner exchange is imminent. An informed European diplomat also confirmed to Al-Monitor that a prisoner exchange deal is indeed in the works.

According to the Iranian representative at the United Nations, “Prisoner exchange has been on the agenda for more than two years, and now we are closer than ever to reaching an agreement.” A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, Matthew Miller, echoed similar sentiments. Although Miller did not disclose specific details, he reiterated the U.S. commitment to securing the release of all Americans imprisoned in Iran, stating that “the release of the detainees remains one of our main priorities.”

U.S. and Iran in Indirect Talks to Limit Nuclear Activities in Exchange for Releasing Frozen Assets and Detained Americans

The U.S. has also been exploring measures to limit Iran’s nuclear activities. In coordinating the agreement, the Iranian government has reported that it will not increase uranium enrichment beyond 60% and that its proxy forces will not launch any attacks on American interests in Syria and Iraq.

The discussion has focused on reaching an “understanding” as opposed to a formal agreement, at least partially because a formal agreement with Iran would require Congressional review and approval. Given Russia and Iran’s ongoing support for one another amid the war in Ukraine, Iran’s ongoing suppression of its own citizens, and Iran’s continued support for proxy attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East, many members of Congress strongly oppose any relief of sanctions on Iran. 

Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Michael McCaull, shared a committee letter addressed to President Biden. In the letter, Chairman McCaul and other committee members argued that Iran should not be encouraged to enter into any understanding or agreement, even a limited one. They further asserted that instead, the U.S. government should use pressure and military deterrence to dissuade Iran instead of rewarding its malfeasance with false promises of tension reduction.

Despite its unsuccessful attempt to revive the JCPOA, the U.S. government hopes to enforce some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program. As part of the ongoing U.S.-Iran talks, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) has recently been cooperating with the International Atomic Energy Agency; one-third of the IAEA’s deactivated cameras at Iran’s nuclear sites have been reactivated, according to AEOI spokesperson Behrouz Kamalondi.

In response to the reports of a potential informal agreement between the U.S. and Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly reiterated his strong opposition to an agreement. However, separate reports indicated that Netanyahu and Israel – while likely to publicly oppose any deal – believes that there are understandings that Israel can “live with.”  Separately, Iran has confirmed indirect negotiations with the U.S., mediated by the Sultan of Oman.

On June 20, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited Oman and Qatar. IRNA, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency, stated that the Iranian foreign minister’s dialogues would revolve around “negotiations regarding the lifting of sanctions and other related issues.” Additionally, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Keni, announced on Wednesday June 21, that he had met with Enrique Mora, the European Union representative, in Qatar. Mora had been coordinating Tehran’s talks with six global powers to revive the nuclear deal through late last year. In commemoration of the progress being made, Kani posted a photo of himself with Mora on Twitter, describing the talks as constructive. The two officials discussed “the JCPOA and other international issues” throughout the previous night and during in Doha, Qatar, according to journalist Abbas Aslani.

Turning the Tide: Saudi Foreign Minister’s Historic Visit to Tehran Heralds New Era of Normalization

Faisal Bin Farhan, the Saudi Foreign Minister, visited Tehran on June 17, marking the first senior Saudi official’s visit to Iran since the two nations severed ties seven years ago and re-established them in early March of 2023. During his visit, Farhan met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian.

During a joint press conference held on June 17, Farhan stated that his trip was intended to finalize the normalization agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The agreement focuses on mutual respect, non-interference in internal affairs, and adherence to the United Nations Charter, according to Farhan.

As a regional leader, Farhan stressed the importance of normalizing relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. According to him, renewed cooperation will enhance regional security and enhance economic and cultural collaboration across a wide range of sectors. He also emphasized their joint efforts in maritime security and the prevention of the proliferation of weapons.

An interesting event unfolded just prior to the Iran-Saudi Arabia foreign ministers’ press conference as the venue was suddenly changed. The venue switch, according to an Iran Radio and Television reporter, had been requested by the Saudi delegation as a result of a photo of Qassem Soleimani, the late Iranian military leader, located above the Saudi flag. Ali Kanani, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, stated  that the change was the result of “a technical problem,” dismissing speculation as to the reason for the change.

The agreement to normalize relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, facilitated by China, was signed March 10th by the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, the National Security Advisor of Saudi Arabia, Mosaed Bin Mohammad Ibaban, and the Chief of the Central Commission of Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Yi. Since the signing of this agreement, Iran has reopened its embassy in Riyadh and its representative office in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, which is located in Jeddah. It is expected that the Saudi embassy in Tehran will soon be reopened shortly as well.

Iranian relations with other Arab nations, including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, were further upgraded as a result of this breakthrough. Since the 2016 attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran and the Saudi consulate in Mashhad, which followed Saudi Arabia’s execution of government critic and Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr, relations between Iran and Persian Gulf Arab states have been tense. 

Concurrently, several countries in recent years, including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco, have normalized political relations with Israel. As a result of the previous  U.S. administration’s “Abraham Accords,” the Islamic Republic has criticized these countries for their shift toward Israel. Saudi Arabia, however, continues to refuse to normalize relations with Israel and is holding out for massive concessions, citing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

MKO Under Siege: Annual Rally Banned and Camp Ashraf Assaulted

Albanian police officers engaged in an intense clash with the Mojahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MKO) early June 20 in Camp Ashraf, Albania, which may have resulted in one death and multiple injuries. AP reported that 150 computers were seized in the operation that were allegedly linked to “prohibited political activities.” These activities were allegedly in violation of the MKO’s 2013 agreement with the Albanian government, in which the latter agreed to shelter MKO members in exchange for them abstaining from political activities and abiding by the nation’s laws. However, the thousands of exiles housed in Albania occupy a cult-like compound largely cut off from society as a whole.

According to Albanian police, the operation was executed pursuant to orders from the special court against corruption and organized crime. The police operation involving roughly 1,000 Albanian officers encountered resistance from MKO members, who reportedly sought to block police from seizing the computers. Fifteen police officers were injured and 21 MKO members were admitted to the hospital after being pepper sprayed. Albanian Interior Minister Bledi Cuci was “indignant and offended” by the MKO’s resistance to the police action.

According to police, deadly weapons were not used during the operation, which commenced at 3 a.m. local time. As of now, the police are investigating a reported death of an MKO member and deny responsibility. Interior Minister Cuci declared, “I guarantee that death was not caused from any action of the police forces.”

A statement issued by the MKO, a political wing of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), claimed that the attack was perpetrated at the Iranian government’s behest. The MKO mourned the loss of its member Ali Menshesari in the “sudden attack” and reported that multiple camp members have been admitted to the Mother Teresa Hospital in Tirana, Albania’s capital. According to the NCRI’s Secretariat, the Albanian police violated international conventions on refugee protection, as well as the European Convention on Human Rights. The NCRI has since urged the European Union to investigate the Albanian government’s actions.

The majority of residents of the MKO compound, known as “Ashraf 3”, are political refugees who have relocated from Iraq to Albania. The MKO likens their treatment to events that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall, when the camp clashed with Iraqi forces. The vulnerability of camp residents after the fall of Saddam’s government prompted the U.S. to remove the group’s Foreign Terrorist Organization designation as part of efforts to relocate the group, ultimately leading to the establishment of the compound in Albania.

Commenting on the clash in Albania, the U.S. State Department expressed support for the Albanian government’s right to investigate potential illegal activity on its territory. Moreover, the State Department reiterated that it does not see the MKO as a “viable democratic opposition movement that is representative of the Iranian people” with whom it  “does not maintain substantive contact beyond issues related to the MEK’s resettlement, which was completed in 2016.” The U.S. also reiterated its concern regarding the group’s treatment of its own members. 

Concurrently, a mere hour before the clashes in Albania, the French police had prohibited the annual MKO rally, which is held in Paris each year. The MKO contends that these events are a result of the “religious fascism ruling Iran.” According to the French police, the MKO has been forbidden from holding their annual Paris meeting due to a potential threat of attack. However, the NCRI suggests this is part of a “shameful transaction.” The annual meeting, which has been occurring since 2008, was scheduled for July 1. MKO intends to challenge the prohibition both legally and politically.

The French police ban on MKO coincides with recently escalating tensions, with alleged “terrorist attack” threats, geopolitical factors, and opposition rivalries cited as reasons for cancellation. It is noteworthy that the MKO’s 2018 rally was reportedly the target of a bomb threat linked to Iranian officials and its building reportedly targeted three times in France since May, including one shooting and one instance of arson.

In recent weeks, Iran and France have negotiated the release of several prisoners. Other security concerns have been raised by French officials, including the protection of political figures attending these events from other countries.

Hayman Mustafaei executed on the charge of killing a Revolutionary Guards member

According to human rights organizations monitoring Kurdistan affairs, Hayman Mustafaei was executed on Wednesday, June 21, in Sanandaj Central Prison for killing a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps–Ebrahim Mohammadi–over a decade ago. Hengav, a human rights organization, and Kurdistan Human Rights Network both reported that the death penalty had officially been carried out against Mustafaei.

The Telegram channel of the Free Workers’ Union reported, “Last night, locals from Sanandaj and a large crowd from Marivan gathered outside the central prison to prevent Hayman Mustafaei’s execution.” Hayman Mustafaei had previously been accused and apprehended for killing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Member in Marivan on March 1, 2013 with a group of other defendants. Human rights activists have repeatedly claimed that the accused were coerced into confessing under duress and torture, a process for which the Iranian government has been widely criticized internationally. Despite being sentenced to execution in June 2017, Mustafaei’s execution was postponed following protests that took place outside the prison.

As reported by Ha-Ngao in October of the previous year, during the protests sparked by the death of Mahsa (jina) Amini, the Prosecutor General of Kurdistan province threatened to execute Mustafaei. During last year’s nationwide protests, the Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that sentencing had been restarted under pressure from the prosecutor’s office. Previously a member of the Komole, a socialist Kurdish party that has been designated as a terrorist group by the Iranian government, Hayman Mustafaei resigned before he was arrested and spent a decade in prison.

Unveiling Tensions: Rising Dissent Over Mandatory Hijab Met with Increased Restrictions and Legal Action

Speaker of the Parliament, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, voiced the need to listen to “opponents of mandatory hijab” while conducting the process of passing the hijab law, aiming to prevent “societal apathy.” This comes in the face of a widespread popular  backlash against the mandatory hijab, as the government strives to legislate countermeasures against noncompliance. In light of a widening rift between the government and the populace following the series of protests in 2022, numerous state officials have attempted to project an image of governmental and national unity.

Habib Ilbigi, Deputy Director of Evaluation and Supervision of the Cinema Organization, has penned a letter to the head of the Union of Cinema Producers demanding interventions against ‘norm-breaking’ actors in film production. The directive, dated June 20, mandates that producers to exclude actors who have ‘broken the norm’ by ‘ignoring the laws of the country (for example, revealing the hijab).’

Following the widespread Women, Life, Freedom protests that began last September, many artists and actresses discarded the compulsory hijab. They demonstrated their support for the Woman, Life, Freedom movement through public appearances and social media. Consequently, many of these artists have faced summonses, arrests, and prosecution. Noncompliance with Ilbigi’s directive threatens producers with legal ramifications during film licensing processes.

A woman has been sentenced to 270 hours of public service as a ‘cleaner’ for failing to observe the mandatory hijab. The woman, convicted of non-observance of the Islamic hijab, was initially sentenced to two months in prison. This sentence was later commuted to 270 hours of community service. The court verdict against the woman equated the crime of non-observance of the hijab to a ‘political taboo’, aiding the ‘enemy’s invasion of the Iranian nation’, dragging society towards ‘sexual immorality’, and contributing to the disintegration of the Iranian family structure.

The Judiciary Media Center announced the filing of a legal case against ‘unconventional and nonconforming actions’ that occurred during a concert at Tehran’s Vahdat Hall on Monday, June 29. No further details were provided, with the Tehran Prosecutor’s Office investigating.

Recently, Tehran concerts have stoked controversy. Alireza Ghorbani’s concert at SaadAbad Palace was overshadowed by attendees chanting anti-government slogans, followed by an incident at a Lian music group’s concert at Vahdat Hall on June 26, where dancing and revelry by the audience sparked an attack from unofficial forces. This prompted reactions from the government media and official representatives.

Police Chief’s Contentious Remarks: Call for Harsh Treatment of Norm-Breakers Sparks Outrage in Mazandaran Province

As the newly appointed police chief of Mazandaran province, Hassan Mofakhmi issued a command to his subordinates to harshly punish those violating “norms” when visiting the Babolsar beaches. “Administrate harsh punishments to those who violate norms according to the law, and I will shoulder the responsibility,” he stated. This aggressive order from a law enforcement official comes amidst heightened efforts to restrict women’s access to Iran’s northern coasts by blocking these beaches.

Several social media platforms are sharing a video featuring Hassan Mofakhmi where he instructs another officer to deal with violations in a harsh manner. “If someone breaks the law in this province, in our cities, deal with them accordingly,” he says. This video has sparked widespread outrage on social media platforms, with many users disgusted by the police chief’s remarks. Mazandaran province had been a hotbed for protests during the nationwide protests in 2022. Police and repressive forces responded with force, resulting in numerous casualties, arrests, and injuries among the protesters. In addition, several videos on social media support the allegations that the provincial police destroyed large quantities of public property during nationwide protests.

In response to widespread criticism of the Mazandaran police chief’s call for harsh treatment of ‘norm-breakers,’ Mofakhmi’s deputy clarified in an interview with ‘Royidad 24’ media that the police chief was referring to criminals, not women without hijabs. A deputy of the Mazandaran police force for cultural and social affairs, Colonel Sadati, stated that Mofakhmi was discussing activities that could pose a threat to the mental health of citizens. In addition to thuggery, robbery, and drug dealing, he said, these activities are not related to the hijab. However, Mofakhmi has appealed to proponents of the mandatory hijab to act in such a manner that discourages women from neglecting or minimally observing the hijab during a meeting held on the sidelines of Friday prayers on June 9.

In his op-ed in the ‘Information’ newspaper, Mohammad Darvishzadeh, former Supreme Court judge and director of the Law and Law Research Institute, described the police chief’s remarks as a blatant crime, referencing Article 55 of the Law on Punishment of Crimes and Punishment of the Armed Forces. According to this law, “Any military personnel whose actions cast doubt on the armed forces will face imprisonment ranging from two months to one year.”

University of Arts Security Threatens Students with Suspension over Dress Code Violations, Igniting Widespread Protest

Art University students in Iran are facing the threat of “conditional suspension” if they continue attending school improperly dressed, according to a warning from the university’s security. The measure, which students and activists have deemed as an illegal attempt to impose restrictive dress codes, comes on the heels of nearly 40 students being denied entry for allegedly inappropriate clothing. According to an announcement from the university, only those abiding by the prescribed etiquette rules, including wearing a hijab for female students, will be allowed on campus.

The Independent Media of the University of Arts, a Telegram channel, in a missive against the threats stated, “In over a decade, no student here has worn a veil. Are they trying to frighten us into wearing a mask to attend the university? Please reassure fellow students not to be fearful and bothered.” There is a general consensus that the widespread suspension and entry ban was carried out in a completely unlawful manner.

Despite pressure from security, sit-ins continue at the University of Arts. During a protest against mandatory “maghnae” wearing on June 14, around 50 students from Honar University occupied the National Garden campus of the university. The head of university security, Hamzeh Barzoui Kotnai, reportedly resorted to violence to break the protest, restricting access to basic amenities like toilets and water.

In a more aggressive move, special forces and uniformed security personnel violently dispersed a student protest at the Art University on June 17, arresting more than ten students and moving them to an undisclosed location in an unmarked van. Despite initial reports of most of the arrested students being released, the universities of Tarbiat Modares, Beheshti, Tehran, Soura, Allameh, Ferdowsi of Mashhad and Mazandaran issued statements condemning the violent arrests and multiple threats from university authorities.

Since May of this year, the disciplinary committees at the Azerbaijan Civil University have issued suspension orders for about 20 students. They also summoned around 35 students for hearings and rendered verdicts on an additional 25. Additionally, security interruptions in exam sessions at Tehran Azad University have further compounded the growing situation among Iran’s universities, with officers insisting on proper hijab observance.

Following the university’s directive for female students to wear a veil from June 17 or face suspension, students initiated a sit-in at the National Garden Campus on June 14. They were met with threats of arrest, police involvement, and menacingly, the presence of a large number of plainclothes individuals outside the university. Student activists from numerous universities around the country have since come forward, expressing their solidarity and support for the protesting students. The veil directive has been vehemently opposed, with incidents of beatings and arrests causing nationwide concern.

Controversy over the Leasing of Vast Charity Land to a Relative of the Endowment Chief

A significant scandal has emerged involving the Iranian Endowment Organization. A media activist affiliated with the governmental fundamentalist faction released a series of tweets which revealed significant economic malfeasance within the organization. According to Vahis Ashtari, who is a member of Edalat Khahan [Justice Seekers], vast 150-hectare endowment land and a livestock farm with 1,000 heads located in Ghazvin have been allegedly leased to Mona Chaichian, who is the daughter-in-law of Mehdi Khamoshi, who currently leads the Endowment Organization of Iran.

The lease agreement purportedly includes a stipulation for a monthly rent payment of just one million tomans (20 USD Dollars), adding fuel to the controversy. This has sparked discussions regarding the oversight and management of endowment lands and assets, given the personal relationship between Chaichian and the organization’s head.

High-Level Talks between Palestinian Militant Groups and Iran Amid Rising West Bank Tensions

On Monday, June 19, Palestinian militant groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas met with high-ranking Iranian officials in Tehran amid heightened tensions in the West Bank. The leader of Hamas’ political office, Ismail Haniyeh, arrived in Tehran on June 19, leading a delegation to meet with Ali Akbar Ahmadian, secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, and with Ziad Nakhale, leader of Islamic Jihad.

Haniyeh is scheduled to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ebrahim Raisi, and other significant Iranian officials. Ziyad Nakhale, who has been in Iran since the previous week, has already met with top Iranian officials, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ebrahim Raisi.

The Palestinian resistance was praised by Ebrahim Raisi, who asserted that Israel intends to demoralize Palestinian youth by establishing normalized relations with Islamic countries. Under the Abraham Accords, an initiative initiated by the previous U.S. administration, countries such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Morocco have regular political relations with Israel. These countries were condemned by the Islamic Republic’s authorities for their actions.

On Monday, June 19, Israeli forces launched an assault on Jenin in the West Bank simultaneously with the discussions between representatives of the Iranian government and Palestinian groups. In this attack, five Palestinians were killed, including one member of the Islamic Jihad, and five Israeli border police officers and two soldiers were injured. A military source stated that the assault was intended to apprehend two “high-priority suspects”, one associated with Hamas and the other with Islamic Jihad.

According to Nasser Kanani, spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Jenin attack was “inhumane and unlawful”. In contrast to Iran’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Israel and the United States consider these groups to be terrorist organizations.

Amsterdam Honors Imprisoned Iranian Lawyer with Prestigious Human Rights Award

An earnest ceremony was held at the Dutch Bar Association on June 16 to honor Amirsalar Davoudi, a renowned but incarcerated Iranian lawyer. In 1984, the Ludovic Terraro Award was established in France to recognize lawyers who have demonstrated remarkable commitment to the defense of human rights, even at significant personal risk. Former laureates include prominent human rights advocates such as Nelson Mandela, who received the award during his imprisonment in 1985. Iranian female lawyers Mehrangiz Kar and Nasrin Sotoudeh have also been honored

Despite Davoudi’s absence, the award recognized his commendable dedication to human rights advocacy, where he represented politically sensitive cases and underwent recurrent harassment, including arrests and imprisonments. Bertrand Favreau, president of the Ludovic Terraro Association, was one of the notable speakers at the event. Federico Capelli, from the European Union Bar Association, and Anton Lana, from the Italian National Institute of Forensic Human Rights, were also present at the event. In addition to Shirin Ebadi and Tanaz Kolachian, Davoudi’s wife, video messages were also presented at the ceremony. She expressed her gratitude to the Ludovic Terraro Association for recognizing the struggles of her imprisoned colleagues.

A prominent critic of Iran’s judiciary, Davoudi has been frequently summoned and imprisoned for his unabashed defense of political cases and human rights activists. Security forces arrested Davoudi in November 2018 at his workplace and searched his residence without authorization. After his arrest, he was held in solitary confinement for more than six months without any access to his family.

His telegram channel, Budoun Retoosh, disseminated criticism of the Iranian judiciary and government, leading to charges of “propaganda against the regime.” Davoudi was sentenced to 30 years of imprisonment and 111 lashes by the Revolutionary Court in 2019 following additional accusations of “collaborating with hostile governments” and “group training for subversion.”

Based on the Islamic Penal Code, the appeal resulted in a conviction on four charges and an altered sentence of 15 years. The ruling stated that only 10 years of this sentence would apply, following his protest in November 2021 when he was further sentenced to 14 years for various charges, including “insulting the leadership” and “disturbing public opinion.” Davoudi received the Human Rights Award from the European Council of Legal Associations and Lawyers in 2019.

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