April 26, 2023

The “Save Iran” virtual dialogue conference, Khamenei Rejects Referendum, Reactions to Continued Poisonings and more

Week of April 24, 2023 | Iran Unfiltered is a digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council 

The “Save Iran” virtual dialogue conference

The “Save Iran” virtual dialogue conference took place on April 21st and 22nd, attracting over 40 political, social, and human rights advocates from both inside and outside Iran. Among them were eight incarcerated participants, who contributed to the virtual gathering through transmitted messages. Given the long track record of activism within Iran of the participants, as well as the costs they have borne as a result of their activities and beliefs, it offered a significant glimpse into how Iran’s movement for democracy and human rights is evolving following the outbreak of nationwide protests in September. Critically, much of the discussion was on internal solutions to internal problems.

The conference focused on the rapid events that followed the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16 after her arrest by the Ershad patrol, which sparked extensive protests across Iran. Mir Hossein Mousavi’s recent call for a referendum on the Islamic Republic’s constitution and the need for a new political order in Iran was heavily debated.

Prominent Iranian reformist Hashem Aghajari emphasized the importance of a class coalition-based coordination and the establishment of a coordinating, unified, and all-encompassing center in Iran for a democratic transition. Ali Afshari, a Republican advocate and analyst, praised Mousavi’s call for a transition through the Constituent Assembly, highlighting its potential to mitigate risks and expenses during the transitional phase.

Various speakers addressed topics such as the right to pursue legal action, the need for change in Iran’s political landscape, the importance of unity among pro-democracy and pro-equality advocates, and the challenges facing Iran’s education system. Mehrangiz Kar, an attorney and human rights advocate, stressed Iranians’ readiness for change and progress with the support of an appropriate civil society.

A message from imprisoned human rights advocate Narges Mohammadi called for dismantling Iran’s oppressive, misogynistic religious regime and creating a peaceful, affordable transition for the people. Mohammadi emphasized the need for social, protest, and revolutionary movements to establish democracy, human rights, freedom, and equality in Iran, as well as the strengthening and expansion of institutions, organizations, and civil groups.

At this meeting, Iranian professor and islamic scholar Mohsen Kadivar criticized the Islamic Republic, calling for its removal as a national demand. He argued the system was fundamentally flawed, and serious reflection is needed to prevent repeating past mistakes. Kadivar maintained that the involvement of clergymen in politics often causes more harm than good and that theocracy is incompatible with democratic principles.

During the event, attendees discussed the need for structural reforms, a referendum to change the political structure, and a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution. Speakers emphasized the importance of establishing unity, defining success criteria, and addressing economic and social demands.

Various political activists and scholars expressed their views on the failure of the Islamic Republic, the struggle for women’s freedom, the necessity of peaceful resistance, and the importance of dialogue. The conference reached a consensus on several points, including Iran’s independence, territorial integrity, adherence to international human rights standards, and the mutual independence of religious institutions and government.

Political activist Abolfazl Ghadiani stressed that the Islamic Republic’s leader, Ali Khamenei, must be removed through a public uprising, and the path to saving Iran lives in a women-led revolution. Journalist and political activist Keyvan Samimi, who was arrested one day before this meeting, advocated for Iranians to collaborate in forming a democratic coalition and a unified front, emphasizing the acceptance of diverse opinions and the establishment of a “National Salvation Front.”

During a meeting, Gurban Ali Behzadian Nejad, who led the election campaign for Mir Hossein Mousavi in 2009, addressed a pressing concern shared by all sectors of society: how to prevent the country from collapsing, foreign interference, fragmentation, and descending into a vortex of violence without succumbing to blind vengeance. Behzadian Nejad explained that the current crises are immense and perilous, but they can only be resolved by a government that has not only lost and undermined ideological foundations and public trust but also generated and perpetuated these crises. Despite this, he asserted that Iran has overcome even more significant challenges in the past and has always emerged with pride. Drawing from Iran’s experience and capital, as well as the talents of its citizens, he said, the country has the capacity to effect change, as evidenced by Mir Hossein Mousavi’s three-pronged plan.

In conclusion, Behzadian Nejad emphasized the importance of focusing on the core essence of Iran and fostering interaction and dialogue among all ethnic groups, social classes, and strata through democratic processes in harmony with the nation’s diverse and vibrant nature. He called for respect and protection for various political, civil, and trade union organizations, as well as efforts to institutionalize their activities to ensure that every citizen, particularly the silent and marginalized and especially women, have representation in the movement and can influence their own fate and that of the country. Lastly, he highlighted the need to establish boundaries for interaction and coexistence with the world, distancing from dependence and allegiance to the past while avoiding repeating past mistakes.

Ardeshir Amirarjamand, a political activist closely associated with Mousavi, and the main organizer of this meeting, addressed the audience at both the start and finish of the event. In his closing remarks, he stated that the key consensus reached during the conference was the emphasis on Iran’s independence and territorial integrity. Other important topics of agreement included the right to self-determination, adherence to the rule of law, non-discrimination in all forms, upholding international human rights standards, equal citizenship rights, and customary laws. Furthermore, a critical point that was underscored in nearly every speech was the necessity for the mutual independence of religious institutions and the government, as well as the promotion of non-violence and pluralism.

Seyed Alireza Beheshti Shirazi, also attending the conference, was taken into custody on the evening of Tuesday, April 25. As part of Mousavi’s inner circle, he previously served as the editor for the Kalema Sabz newspaper and faced arrest following the 2009 presidential election, subsequently spending a significant amount of time in jail. In the past few years, Beheshti Shirazi has concentrated on translating and disseminating crucial political and economic texts.

Khatami Advocates for Affordable Reforms Over Subversion

On Tuesday, April 25, Seyyed Mohammad Khatami met with various political, cultural, social, and media representatives. During this gathering to mark the Iranian New Year, Khatami discussed Iran’s present situation and the distinction between subversion and reformism, emphasizing that the need for reform has been evident since the 1970s due to the ongoing issues faced by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Addressing the Islamic Republic’s trend of embracing its Islamic roots over its democratic elements, Khatami pointed out the inconsistencies in attitudes towards women’s headscarves and the need for flexibility in religious practice. He also commented on the slogan “Women, Life, Freedom” stressing that subversion would not improve people’s lives, and instead, low-cost changes and reforms should be pursued. The remarks are in line with his earlier commentary calling for “returning to the spirit and even the text” of the Constitution to resolve various crises plaguing society.

Khatami, a former Iranian president, spoke about the history and evolution of the Islamic Republic, noting that republics have existed in different forms since ancient Rome and Greece. He raised questions about the meaning and purpose of the Islamic Republic in Iran, expressing his belief that a version of Islam compatible with custom would not create any problems.

Regarding religious democracy, Khatami humorously noted that he first introduced the concept, intending to combine democratic principles with religious ethics. He expressed concern that the Islamic Republic was becoming more of an Islamic government, which was not the original intent of its founders.

Khatami shared a memory from the early days of the revolution, in which an army commander expressed concern about the term “Islamic Republic.” In response, the Imam clarified that the Islamic Republic was not meant to be a government of mullahs, as some feared that Islam was incompatible with a republic.

Persistent government pressure for obligatory hijab

It has been roughly seven months since nationwide protests erupted in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini. As women continue to fight against the compulsory hijab, the government is increasingly restricting social freedoms. Recently, measures targeting women who do not conform to the mandatory hijab, such as plans to address improper hijab-wearing or non-compliance, have intensified.

The Islamic Republic’s policy of enforcing the compulsory hijab on women and girls has escalated even as poverty, addiction, and the spread of contagious diseases in society reach new heights. Government officials and related bodies have repeatedly emphasized the importance of hijab as a priority and red line for the system. This has created problems for women, especially as the Islamic Republic of Iran has failed to meet basic needs. Since April 15th, the use of urban smart cameras in the hijab and chastity project has brought a new dimension to Iranian women’s civil struggle against the imposed hijab.

In response, judicial and security institutions, the police force, and uniformed forces, alongside supporters of the Islamic Republic, have increased pressure on women who oppose the mandatory hijab. Threats and intimidation toward Tehran University students involved in the “Women, Life, Freedom” movement have persisted.

The Headquarters of Prosperity and Forbiddenness called for “low-cost” methods for enforcing the mandatory hijab, acknowledging that current strategies are “rotten and failed.” The organization uses the term “discovering the hijab” for girls and women who resist the obligatory hijab. Despite protesters calling for the abolition of the mandatory hijab and the overthrow of the Islamic Republic during recent nationwide protests, the Headquarters for Good and Prohibition of Evil argued that the crackdown should not be fueled by opponents’ rejection of religion and the system.

In recent months, the government has also closed dozens of trade unions in response to the increasing pressure on Iranian women and girls regarding the compulsory hijab.The statement from the Amr Be Ma’rouf headquarters was published after Mojtaba Tawanger, a member of the Islamic Council, criticized the previous “rotten and failed methods” used to enforce the hijab.

The exchange highlights the lack of agreement and coordination among Islamic Republic authorities on how to address women’s choice in veiling. Meanwhile, reformist activist Mohsen Mirdamadi warned the Islamic Republic’s government that another incident like Mahsa Amini’s death could lead to renewed widespread protests.

The headquarters of the Ministry of Prosperity and Prohibition of Evil linked criticisms of repression to the Islamic Republic’s economic inefficiencies, arguing that parliamentarians aim to distract from the economic situation and their failure to improve living conditions. According to this statement: “Members of the ruling political party, some of whom serve on the economic commission, should be prepared to address several questions about their economic policies and resolutions implemented over the past three years. They need to explain why citizens continue to grapple with soaring inflation, increased liquidity, and the dominance of the US dollar in the economy. Additionally, they should outline the measures they have taken to combat economic corruption. Instead of resorting to the hijab issue as a distraction from their economic shortcomings, these members ought to present their achievements in enhancing the standard of living for the populace and tackling economic corruption, without resorting to political gamesmanship.”

Harassment of students under the pretext of hijab has escalated as of lately. In one recent case, a student at Yazd University was taken to the hospital following an encounter with university officials. In addition to Yazd University, reports of hostile interactions with students and assaults on them have emerged from Isfahan University of Art. Some individuals have attempted to disperse student groups and warned them not to smoke, observe hijab, and not gather in mixed-gender groups. It has been reported that these individuals attacked students with pepper spray and arrested one student, who was later released after making a pledge.

At a Sirvan Khosravi concert, a dispute arose over the hijab, leading to violence. Separately, a woman was killed in Kerman following a clash over the hijab after Basij forces attempted to enforce it at Prince Mahan’s garden. The judiciary has announced the commencement of an investigation into the incident.

Persistent Assaults on Educational Institutions and Female Pupils

Coordinating Council of Iranian Educators’ Statement on School Attacks

As poison attacks on schools across Iran, particularly girls’ schools, continue, the Coordinating Council of Iranian Educators called for the formation of community-based committees and human chains around schools to protect students. In their statement, the council urged the establishment of popular committees to defend students from “chemical attacks.”

The organization stated that “the police force command” is incapable of ensuring children’s safety while focusing on threatening freedom-loving women. The council suggested that “students, their families, and concerned teachers” form student protection committees in schools and neighborhoods. They emphasized that if the chemical attacks do not cease immediately, and the perpetrators are not brought to justice, the council will utilize all its resources to confront the issue.

According to the statement, if the responsible parties are not identified, tried, and punished, teachers will inevitably hold classes in the streets, asking parents’ popular protection committees to safeguard students’ privacy with a human chain. The institution vowed not to remain silent about the poisoning of students, warning that if the inhumane tragedy continues, they will join teachers across the country in demanding an appropriate response to this harmful and petrified mindset on the streets.

The ongoing poisoning of female students in Iran continues to trigger deep public concern. Recent reports indicate that on the last academic day of April this year, girls’ schools in at least 10 Iranian cities were targeted by poisoning, resulting in numerous students being hospitalized. The Coordinating Council of Educators’ Union Organizations’ Telegram channel revealed that four girls’ schools in Gilangreb, namely Andisheh Conservatory, 17 Shahrivar Middle School, Ismat High School, and Khadijah Kobri High School, experienced “chemical attacks.”

On Tuesday, April 18, these chemical assaults on Iranian schools persisted, with schoolgirls in Tehran and other cities like Karaj, Islamshahr, Kermanshah, Ahvaz, and Urmia being poisoned.

The council cautioned about the “new persecution of female students in schools” and highlighted the “Maharram plan for girls’ schools” announced by the Ministry of Education. Many view this plan as an attempt to further “camouflage” girls’ schools. Rabia Emami Razavi, the Ministry of Education’s advisor for women’s affairs, described the project’s goal as “the vitality of girls” and discussed various initiatives for the “implementation of the modesty and hijab plan in schools.” The purpose of these programs is to “foster chaste living among female students.”

On Monday, the poisonings extended to Bint Al-Hadi Sadr Girls’ High School in Khorram Abad. Eyewitnesses reported that students left the school coughing just minutes before the final bell, without phones to inform their families. Parents protested to the school authorities after learning about the attack. However, some administrators attempted to downplay the severity of the situation, attributing it to mischievous students. In response, the school officials sent messages to the parents’ group, urging them to respect students’ hijab. The council questioned the link between the poisoning of students and the hijab-related threats.

The Coordinating Council of Cultures reported the mistreatment of people and parents of students in Shahin Shahr, Isfahan. As hundreds of female students were hospitalized due to toxic gas poisoning, worried parents and community members took to the streets in protest. However, government forces disrespected, threatened, and arrested some of the parents.

Debate Over Khamenei’s Stance and the Referendum Uproar

On April 18, coinciding with his 84th birthday, Ayatollah Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic, attended a meeting with around a thousand representatives from various student organizations and activists, including Basij students. Khamenei’s remarks about the possibility of a referendum in Iran garnered significant attention in the media and on social networks. The leader’s comments to the students conveyed two messages: first, he expressed his opposition to any referendum in Iran, and second, he questioned the public’s ability to analyze issues, asking whether all those participating in a referendum would have the capacity to analyze the matter at hand.

Ali Khamenei, during his speech, overtly opposed the idea of a referendum on the country’s issues, arguing that not all matters can be resolved through a referendum.

Khamenei stated during the meeting, “A brother mentioned the idea of a referendum. They argued that if referendums had been held on every issue from the beginning, there wouldn’t be so much sensitivity surrounding them. However, where in the world does this happen? Is it feasible to subject every national issue to a referendum? Can all eligible participants in a referendum effectively analyze the matter at hand? This suggestion is impractical. How can we possibly hold referendums on issues that can be heavily publicized from various angles? Generally, a country becomes engulfed in debates, discussions, and polarization for six months to turn a matter into a referendum. Should we really hold referendums for all issues?”

About a month earlier, in Mashhad on the first day of the Farudin month, Ayatollah Khamenei criticized those who sought to amend the constitution, attributing such proposals to “enemies.” At the time, Khamenei did not specifically mention the referendum and equated altering the Islamic Republic with “changing its identity.” However, he has now openly expressed opinions that critics view as undermining the republican system and infringing upon the people’s constitutional rights.

Despite this, critics like former parliament member and reformist political activist Akbar Alami reference the third, sixth, and fifty-ninth articles of the constitution, arguing that Khamenei’s stance contradicts these provisions. Khamenei’s outright opposition to the referendum comes amidst discussions on the possibility of a nationwide vote on various issues, as outlined in Article 59 of the Iranian Constitution. 

Following widespread protests in Iran, Mirhossein Mousavi, an imprisoned Green Movement leader, issued a statement on February 4, advocating for a referendum to facilitate a democratic transition and save Iran. On April 4, former President Hassan Rouhani proposed a referendum on three key areas—foreign policy, domestic policy, and economy—as a primary solution to the nation’s challenges. In recent months, amid increasing government pressure on Iranian women to enforce mandatory hijab rules, some have suggested a referendum on the matter, which has been met with resistance from the Islamic Republic’s official authorities.

Association of University Teachers Responds to Khamenei’s Remarks on Referendums

The Islamic Association of University Teachers has issued a statement criticizing recent comments made by the leader of the Islamic Republic regarding “referendums” and calling for him to “amend” his remarks and “facilitate the organization of a national referendum.” In the statement released on Friday, April 21, the Islamic Association of University Teachers posed the question: “Can the diverse issues facing the nation be resolved through referendums?” and emphasized the importance of considering the desires of the people.

Further in the statement, the Islamic Association of University Teachers referenced another portion of the leader’s recent speech, describing his comments on the analytical abilities of citizens as “an inaccurate assessment of the Iranian population, which includes millions of university students.” The statement questioned: “If we lack the analytical skills to participate in a referendum, how can we possess the necessary analytical abilities to engage in non-competitive elections, attend rallies, and endorse resolutions we played no part in crafting?”

The leader of the Islamic Republic also touched upon the need for a referendum in Palestine to “decide their destiny” in his recent speech, which garnered reactions. Questions were raised as to why the people of Palestine possess the “analytical” capacity, while the Iranian people “lack” it.

The Islamic Association of University Teachers’ statement referred to the “official proposal of the Iranian government to conduct a referendum in Palestine” as “hypocritical.” In the statement, the Association insisted on the necessity to “rectify” Ali Khamenei’s recent statements and argued that “after 34 years, following the 2018 constitutional amendment which led to a further centralization of power, … a structural revision of the Constitution via the Assembly should take place, involving the nation’s choice and referring to public votes.”

Ayatollah Abbas Ali Suleimani Shot and Killed at Bank

Ayatollah Abbas Ali Suleimani was shot and killed while visiting a bank in the city of Babolsar. Suleimani was the representative of Sistan and Baluchistan in Iran’s Assembly of Experts, and had previously served as the Supreme Leader’s representative to the provinces before being dismissed.

A video that appears to show the killing shows Suleimani being shot from behind, before other individuals at the bank intervened and took the gun from the assailant. Officials have not announced a motive behind the killing.

EU Council of Foreign Ministers Sanctions Institution and Eight Iranian Individuals

On Monday, April 24, the European Union’s Council of Foreign Ministers endorsed the seventh round of sanctions against Iran, as part of their ongoing effort to respond to the crackdown in Iran. The EU website reveals that the sanctioned individuals include “Bijan Nobaveh” and “Syed Ali Yazdikhah” from the Islamic Council, “Mehdi Ali Babaei” representing Qom Province Corps’ social deputy, and “Ali Asghar Norouzi”, “Syed Aminullah Emami Tabatabaei”, “Yahya Alaa Al-Dini”, “Jamal Babamoradi”, and “Ahmad Karimi” from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cooperative Foundation. The Arintel Engineering Company has also been placed on the EU’s sanctions list, citing human rights concerns.

As a result, the assets of the sanctioned individuals and institutions have been frozen, and EU businesses and citizens are barred from engaging in financial transactions with them. Sanctioned individuals are also denied entry or transit through EU member states. The UK government imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a few hours earlier.

The EU Council’s website report indicates that the newly sanctioned individuals include Iranian parliament members, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Cooperation Foundation members. To date, EU sanctions against Iran have affected 211 individuals and 35 institutions, including asset freezes and travel bans.

Additionally, the EU Council has prohibited the export of equipment to Iran that could be used for internal repression or telecommunications monitoring. The EU and its member states have urged Iranian authorities to cease the violent suppression of peaceful protests and to stop using arbitrary arrests to silence critics. They have also called for the release of those unjustly detained. This marks the sixth consecutive round of EU sanctions against Iran, with the UK, US, Canada, and Australia also imposing sanctions since the resurgence of protests in Iran in late September 2022.

The UK government has sanctioned over 70 Iranian officials and institutions for human rights violations since October 2022, bringing the total number of sanctioned Iranian individuals and institutions to 300. The Revolutionary Guards, Attorney General’s Office, and Moral Security Police are also included in this list. On Monday, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stated that the UK and its international partners are making it clear that they will not tolerate the regime’s harsh repression and will continue to take extensive measures to hold the regime accountable for its actions. According to the UK government’s announcement, the UK, US, and EU have taken coordinated and consistent steps to hold the Iranian government responsible, announcing new sanctions each month in response to human rights abuses.

Nasser Kanani, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, previously denounced Western actions against Iran as rejected, unconstructive, and contrary to the UN Charter and international regulations and mechanisms during a press conference. He argued that countries have no right to interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. Referring to Iran’s right to retaliate and the imposed sanctions, Kanani added that Iran would not hesitate to use its resources, capabilities, and legal rights to deter these countries’ improper and unconstructive behavior, with any unproductive behavior resulting in timely action. He emphasized that Iran would not be swayed by political pressures intended to extract concessions from the Islamic Republic and that interference in Iran’s internal affairs would not go unanswered.

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