Iran Reacts to IRGC Terrorist Designation

Week of April 15, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Officials Decry IRGC Terrorist Designation as Reflecting Failure of U.S. Policies

The Trump administration’s designation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a part of Iran’s state-run military, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) was mostly framed in Tehran as reflecting the failure of U.S. policies towards Iran. The highest military body in Iran, the General Staff of the Armed Forces, said in a statement that the designation had “no practical value and was condemned to fail.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, similarly dismissed the designation as reflecting America’s “weakness, incapability, and resort to every desperate act.”

Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani said the IRGC designation came after President Trump was “unsuccessful” in “hurting” Iran after withdrawing from the JCPOA and attempting to reduce “Iranian oil sales to zero.” He also reiterated Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA, stating: “There is no reason for Iran not to continue to adhere to an agreement that all the world accepts except for one country [the U.S.].”

President Rouhani strongly defended the IRGC and underscored that Iranian restraint should not be interpreted as a sign of weakness. He stated that Iranians are now “more united than ever” and proclaimed: “I tell the group of five [the remaining parties to the nuclear deal] that we are patient but our patience has an end and its possible that in this patience, Iran takes a different step.”

Rouhani went on: “If we are patient, it’s not because we are scared. It’s because we are prudent. We are afraid of no one, our path is the correct path and we hope that the others [the Trump administration] know that the future will judge them.”

Iran’s response of designating U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), the arm of the military that oversees operations in the Middle East and Africa, was also presented as a necessary “tit-for-tat” measure. Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said in this regard that Iran’s response was a “defensive measure” and not a “declaration of war.”

However, in response to the IRGC designation, Hossein Shariatmadari, the editor of the conservative Kayhan newspaper, laid out a legal case for why Iran should close the Strait of Hormuz. He lambasted Rouhani for not “heeding the lessons of the JCPOA” and previously calling for “the Revolutionary Guards and army to return to their bases.”

Shariatmadari also criticized Rouhani’s efforts to pass anti-money laundering and terrorism financing bills in accordance to guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force, a global financial body. Shariatmadari said that Rouhani’s efforts to “impose” the bills sent a signal of “weakness” and “emboldened” the U.S. to designate the IRGC as a terrorist organization.

Many prominent reformist dissidents expressed support for the IRGC after the FTO designation. For instance, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former political prisoner, stated: “The intervention of the Guards in the economy and domestic and foreign politics is against the law and hurts the country. However, I strongly condemn labelling them as terrorists by Trump. His aim is not confronting terrorism or defending democracy or peace. Instead, Trump seeks to increase pressure on the Iranian people to destabilize Iran and increase tensions in the region.”  

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Hardline MPs Call for Stronger Reaction to IRGC Designation

On April 16, the Iranian parliament passed a bill, dubbed “reciprocal action against America’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization,” requiring that all U.S. military forces in West Asia be considered terrorists. The bill passed with 204 votes in favor, 2 in opposition, and 0 abstentions out of the 206 parliamentarians that were present.

Hardline MP Hossein-Ali Haji-Deligani, a member of the Perseverance Front (Jebhe Paydari) fundamentalist faction, voted against the bill on the grounds that it wasn’t strong enough and should have given the IRGC permission to develop missiles with a range of over 2,000 km. Haji Delijani stated: “In this bill, we should have given the Guards permission to develop missiles with a range of over 2,000 km. We can have this ability. We must give the Guards greater authority so they can target the White House so that America doesn’t think it can take some damned action [i.e. military strikes] with its IRGC designation.”

Another hardline MP who voted against the bill, Mousavi Largani, said the bill was too weak and criticized President Rouhani. Largani stated: “If the president after America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA gave a definite order to restart 20 percent enrichment, then America would not have become so insolent.”

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Zarif Warns his Global Counterparts and UN Secretary General on IRGC Designation

On April 10th, Foreign Minister Zarif wrote a letter to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warning that the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC as a terrorist organization was a “dangerous and illegal” act. Zarif said in the letter that the designation was a serious threat to regional and global security and raised tensions to a level that is “uncontrollable and provoking confrontation.”

Zarif also wrote a letter to his foreign minister counterparts across the world warning of the consequences of the IRGC terrorist designation. He stated that “all governments should work to get in the way of this unilateral and harmful action.” He further said that the Islamic Republic “warns of the long-term consequences and immediate implication of this action and asks governments to take a principled and precise position on this issue based legal precedent.” Zarif added that the IRGC designation and the “fake accusation of ties between Iran and al-Qaeda” are part of “an aim to ready the public opinion in America for a new adventurist action in West Asia and create grounds for America’s legal system to claim they have the authority to use military force against another country.”

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Anti-Compulsory Hijab Activist Sentenced to One-Year Imprisonment

Vida Movahed, an Iranian activist who triggered anti-compulsory hijab protests last year by removing her headscarf and brandishing it on a stick, was recently sentenced to one year in prison. According to her lawyer Payam Derefshan, Movahed’s was sentenced on charges of “encouraging corruption and prostitution to the public” in early March.

However, Derefshan says that she has since been paroled by the judge in her case and pardoned by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Despite this, she has yet to be released from prison.

Movahed, who is the mother of a 2-year-old child, was first arrested on January 21, 2018, after standing on an electricity box in Tehran’s Revolution Street and removing her headscarf. Although she was released soon after on January 27th, she started a wave of similar actions by other anti-compulsory hijab activists—who became known as the “Girls of Revolution St.”

Movahed was re-arrested on October 29, 2018, after standing on another platform in Tehran’s Revolution Square and holding balloons. Her sentence stems from this second arrest, according to her lawyer.

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International Aid not Reaching Flood Victims, Red Crescent Official

On April 15th, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) issued a statement on the dire situation in Iran’s flood-affected regions. It stated that over 2 million people require humanitarian aid and that roughly 10 million Iranians in over 2,000 cities and villages in 31 provinces were impacted by the floods and heavy rains. IFRC further stated that based on the latest information, 78 people were killed, 1,136 injured, and over half a million displaced as a result of the floods.

Zahra Falahati, the Iranian Red Crescent’s international deputy, said that the conditions in some flooded regions was “catastrophic.” She said of the relief efforts: “This is one of the biggest rescue and relief efforts undertaken by the Red Crescent in our country’s history. We are using all the capabilities we have to save and help the people, but it’s not enough.”

Seyed Hashem, the IFRC’s Middle East and North Africa official, said the situation in Iran was an “emergency” and required international aid. He added: “We ask all members of the federation across the world to response to our plea for assistance.”

However, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent, Ali Asghar Peyvandi, stated that “foreign sanctions” have prevented foreign financial aid and donations from reaching Iran’s flood victims. He stated: “After the closure of the Red Crescent’s SWIFT and financial accounts due to sanctions, despite the announcement of aid amounts and figures [by foreign sources], nothing has been deposited in the Iranian Red Crescent’s accounts.”

Peyvandi also said that “not one dollar” in foreign aid, including from Iranians abroad, has reached Iran because of U.S. sanctions. He proclaimed: “Because of U.S. sanctions and the closure of financial accounts, aid from Iranians abroad, the European Union, and the International Red Cross has not been sent to Iran.” He added: “To date, not one dollar or euro has been donated to Iran.”

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Lake Urmia Recovers After Heavy Rains

Lake Urmia in northwestern Iran, which has significantly dried up and shrunk in recent years, has greatly recovered in the wake of massive rainfalls. Compared to this time last year, the lake’s size has expanded by 580 square kilometers. The depth of the lake at its shallowest point has also increased by 1.26 meters.

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Conservative Analyst Says Trump’s Iran Policy Failing, Supports Iran Remaining in the JCPOA

Hassan Beheshtipour, a conservative foreign policy analyst, discussed in an interview his view on why the Trump administration’s Iran policy is failing and why Iran should remain in the JCPOA. Beheshtipour contended that U.S. sanctions aren’t working, stating: “America has never been successful with its sanctions and can’t create divisions inside Iran in this way. As we saw, all the different political factions and the people condemned America’s designation of the Revolutionary Guards as terrorists and expressed support for the Guards. This issue turned into a defeat for America and shows that sanctions policies against Iran don’t work.”

He also said that the U.S. would renew oil sanctions waivers on Iran in May. He contended that the U.S. and Iran were locked in a game-theory like “two-player game,” where the two sides are “moving head-on towards each other and the first to move loses.”

Beheshtipour also stated that Iran should stay in the JCPOA to prevent outside powers from uniting against it. He opined: “I believe that leaving the JCPOA will have more costs for us and result in more enemies … Because everyone knows that China and Russia voted for UN Security Council resolutions against Iran and considered us a danger. But right now China and Russia agree with Iran. As such, we should not give an excuse to the enemy by leaving the JCPOA and making the situation worse.”

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Official Says IRGC Designation Won’t Affect FATF Financial Reform Bills

Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh—the chairman of the Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission—said that efforts to pass contentious banking reforms should not be linked to Iran’s relations with America. A set of bills introduced by President Rouhani to reform Iran’s financial sector in line with guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)— an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks—have been deadlocked in Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council for months. (Read more about the domestic debate over the FATF bills in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

Many Iranian commentators and some officials said that the FATF bills—which require increased transparency of Iranian banks—would be rejected in the wake of the Trump administration’s designation of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organization. However, Falahatpisheh stated that “activities related to the FATF should not been seen through the framework of relations with America.” He added that the debate over passing the FATF bills was separate from the issue of the U.S. designation of the IRGC and that Iran should “should refrain from take actions that would result in its international isolation.”

Falahatpisheh also said that Iran’s designation U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization was a “reciprocal action” and not aimed at “exacerbating the crisis.”  He also rebuked aggressive rhetoric from some Iranian figures after the IRGC designation, stating: “I don’t accept these comments that the Americans must await their coffins. As long as it’s not mandated by our defensive needs, we will not be happy with Americans getting killed.”

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Zarif Travels to Syria and Turkey Ahead of Astana Talks

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif traveled Syria and Turkey. In Damascus, he met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and senior Syrian officials. His discussions in both countries centered on “coordinating positions on the most important regional and international issues with the aim of establishing peace and stability in the region.” In Ankara, Zarif also spoke with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu about issues pertaining to North Africa.

Zarif’s trips take place on the eve of the next round of Astana-process Syria peace talks between Iran, Russia, and Turkey, due to take place in Kazakhstan on April 25-26.

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Outspoken Hardliner Spurs Controversy Over Remarks on Red Crescent and al-Qaeda

Saeed Ghasemi, an outspoken hardliner and staunch opponent of improved U.S.-Iran relations, spurred controversy after he said in an interview that the IRGC has used Iranian Red Crescent identities as cover in the past. Ghasemi said that during the Bosnian War during the 1990s, IRGC forces used the cover of being Iranian Red Crescent employees to “train jihadi forces” in Bosnia.

Ghasemi also said that al-Qaeda entered the Bosnian War after Iran and learned their “style” from Iranian forces. He stated: “Al Qaeda took our style, from headbands to flags to the shape of battalions. They implemented our style there [in Bosnia].

Ghasemi’s comments come at a time when large parts of Iran have been hit by floods and the Red Crescent is helping lead relief efforts. Given U.S. sanctions, the Iranian Red Crescent is one of the few organizations operating in Iran that coordinates international relief assistance.

His remarks also coincide with the Trump administration’s claim that there are ties between Iran and al-Qaeda and that consequently the option is legally open for military strikes using the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF). Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently stated that there is “no doubt there’s a connection” between Iran and Al Qaeda. Much like his hardline counterparts in Washington, Ghasemi has tried long tried to foreclose opportunities for U.S.-Iran diplomacy. During the nuclear negotiations he even called for Foreign Minister Zarif to be put on trial.

Both the Iranian Red Crescent and the IRGC strongly rejected and condemned Ghasemi’s remarks. The IRGC’s spokesperson Ramazan Sharif stated that Ghasemi was “long retired” from the IRGC and that his comments “lacked credibility.” He added that Ghasemi and others like him should refrain from “irresponsible and false opinions and not create excuses for the enemies of the revolution and the people.”

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Statistical Center of Iran Releases Report Detailing Economic Recession

On April 14, the Statistical Center of Iran said that Iran’s economy shrunk by 3.8 percent in the last nine months of the Iranian year 1397 (which ended on March 21, 2019). According to the data, Iran’s oil industry has been hardest hit by reimposed U.S. sanctions and shrunk by 2.8 percent last summer and 7.9 percent last fall.

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Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence

Week of March 18, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

Nasrin Sotoudeh Won’t Appeal Sentence, Citing Unfair Judicial Process

Reza Khandan, the husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife won’t appeal her sentence. Sotoudeh was recently sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. According to Khandan, who was also recently sentenced to six years in prison, Sotoudeh faced 33 years imprisonment for seven charges but only the charge with the longest sentence, which is 12 years, will be enforced.

Khandan said Sotoudeh will not appeal her sentence because of the “unfair judicial process” and in protest at the “useless sentence” against her. The charge for which Sotoudeh has been sentenced is related to her activism against Iran’s compulsory hijab law and defense of anti-compulsory hijab protesters last year. Iran’s judiciary branded the charge as “promoting corruption and prostitution.”

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Khamenei Dismisses EU Efforts to Salvage JCPOA, Blasts Saudi Arabia

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in his address marking the Iranian New Year in Mashhad, dismissed European efforts to salvage the JCPOA as lackluster and issued a scathing condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Khamenei stated: “Europeans have in practical terms exited the JCPOA. Because they are not abiding by their obligations under the JCPOA.”

Khamenei dismissed the efficacy of INSTEX, the not-yet-operational European financial mechanism aimed at facilitating trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. He stated: “This financial channel is more like a joke. A sour joke. Just like in the past, the Europeans stab [us] in the back.”

Khamenei further said that European states should have “stood strongly” after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA and implemented their commitments under the deal. Instead, he said, Europe has imposed new sanctions against Iran while warning Iran not to leave the deal. He added: “After America’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, European countries should have stood up against the U.S. and sanctions should have been removed entirely.”

However, Khamenei said that he was not suggesting that Iran sever ties with Europe. He asserted that his criticisms of European states should not be interpreted as a suggestion to “end relations” with Europe, stating: “Relations aren’t a problem, following them and trusting them [Europe] is a problem.”

Khamenei added that Rouhani administration officials had reached the conclusion that “maybe Iran’s approach had to change” with respect to the JCPOA.  He added that Western politicians, despite “wearing suits and using cologne and samsonite briefcases are savages on the inside.” He then said that he was against both “prejudice against the West and Westoxification (infatuation with the West).”

Khamenei also stated that he knows of no government worse than the Saudi government. He proclaimed: “I know of no country in this region or perhaps anywhere in the world as bad as the Saudi government.” He further said that the Saudi government was “corrupt, tyrannical, oppressive, and dictatorial.”

Khamenei further asserted that the U.S. was supporting Saudi Arabia’s nuclear and missile projects. He stated: “They [the US] have announced they will build nuclear reactors and missile production facilities for this [Saudi] government. This isn’t a problem because it’s dependent on and owned by them [the U.S.].”

Khamenei then suggested that the country’s nuclear infrastructure would eventually fall in the hands of Islamic forces. He said he wasn’t “personally upset” by potential Saudi nuclear reactors because, he opined: “I know that in the not too distant future, these [nuclear projects] will fall in the hands of Islamic mujahedin (holy fighters).”

Khamenei also discussed U.S. sanctions and said that “we shouldn’t complain about sanctions.” He explained: “We shouldn’t have any other expectations from those countries imposing sanctions … From Westerners, we can expect conspiracies, betrayals, and stabs in the back, but we can’t expect help or sincerity from them.”

He added that only some of Iran’s economic problems were attributable to foreign sanctions. He stated: “The country’s chief problem is economic problems and the livelihoods of lower classes.” He went on: “Some of the problems are from sanctions by Western powers, meaning America and Europe, and some are from weaknesses and deficiencies in domestic management.”

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Four Kidnapped Iranian Border Guards Freed

On March 21st, the Pakistani military announced that it had freed four kidnapped Iranian border guards after a military operation near the Afghanistan border. Last October, 12 Iranian border guards were captured in Iran’s southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan province by Jaish al-Adl, a Wahhabi-Salafist terrorist organization.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi thanked Pakistan for “a successful operation freeing these border guards.” Ghassemi expressed hope that the remaining guards will be freed as soon as possible. Five of the captured guards had already been freed last year.

Jaish al-Adl claimed responsibility for a February 11th suicide bombing of a bus carrying Iranian Revolutionary Guards soldiers, killing 27 and wounding 12.  

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Top Iranian Military Commander Meets with Syrian and Iraq Counterparts, Discusses Opening Strategic Border Crossing

On March 18th, Mohammad Bagheri, the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces met in Damascus with his Iraqi and Syrian counterparts as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. During his meeting with the top-ranking Iraqi and Syrian military commanders, Bagheri called for the expulsion of all foreign forces in Syria “who have a presence in the country without the permission of the Syrian government.” Bagheri also said that the military actions of their three governments “would continue until the complete defeat of all terrorists.” Bagheri also visited the Deir ez-Zor region in southern Syria.

During the meeting, the Syrian and Iraqi commanders said that the Abu Kamal border crossing between their two countries would be opened. This would establish a ground connection between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which the Trump administration and Israeli officials have strongly opposed.

Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub also gave an ultimatum to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a U.S.-backed predominately Kurdish militia. Ayyoub stated during the meeting: “The only card that the coalition led by America has left in Syria is the SDF. We give them [the SDF] two options. The first is national reconciliation and the second option is freeing the areas they control through military means.”

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EU Holds Regional Talks with Iran in Brussels

The European Union announced that it has held a new round of talks with Iran on the conflicts in Syria and Yemen. According to the EU, this was the fifth meeting of its kind between EU and Iranian officials discussing regional issues. The meeting was chaired by Helga Schmid, the Secretary General of the European External Action Service, and was attended by representatives from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The Iranian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Jaberi-Ansari.

The talks focused on the implementation of a ceasefire agreement in the Yemeni port of Hodeidah and on following up on the Astana Process Syria peace talks between Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Recently, British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said to the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that Iran had to abide by its commitments on the withdrawal of Houthi forces in Hodeidah. Iran’s foreign ministry said in response that Iran had made no commitments regarding Yemen. However, the Iranian foreign ministry previously did confirm that Yemen was discussed during Hunt’s trip to Tehran last November.

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Three Former Bank Executives Sentenced in Anti-Corruption Probe

In an on-going anti-corruption probe into Bank Sarmayeh, three former managers at the bank were sentenced to 20 years in prison, 74 lashes, and a permanent ban from government jobs. One of the convicted managers, Parviz Kazemi, served as a cabinet minister in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration. Iran’s judiciary has described Bank Sarmayeh infractions as “massive corruption.” The bank is privately owned and has more than 160 branches in the country.   

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INSTEX’s Parallel Structure Registered in Tehran

On March 19th, Iran’s Central Bank announced that the parallel Iranian institution to INSTEX has been registered in Iran. INSTEX is a financial mechanism launched by Europe to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions. Its Iranian counterpart is called “Special Trade and Finance Instrument, or STFI. The launch of STFI follows a visit to Tehran last week of INSTEX’s president.

The official IRNA news agency said of STFI’s launch: “The instrument for trade and finance between Iran and Europe has been registered as the parallel Iranian organization to INSTEX and a group of Iranian private and public banks and companies will participate in it.”

Iran’s Central Bank Chief Abdolnaser Hemati said his expectation is that INSTEX and STFI will help alleviate limitations brought by U.S. sanctions. He stated: “With the registration of this company in the last days of the current [Iranian] year, the expectation is that this institution in collaboration with its European parallel institution will be able to facilitate trade between Iran and Europe and have a consequential impact on lifting restrictions brought on by U.S. sanctions.”

However, the Iranian foreign ministry recently said “don’t have hope that this financial channel [INSTEX and STFI] will create miracles.”

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His High Ambitions

Week of March 11, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Nasrin Sotoudeh Sentenced to 12-year Imprisonment, According to Husband

Reza Khandan, husband of imprisoned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, has said his wife has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. Previous reports that Sotoudeh faced up to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes were the maximum sentence for her charges. Read more on Sotoudeh’s sentence in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Khandan, speaking to BBC Persian, said that a copy of Sotoudeh’s sentence was handed to her. He stated: “According to the law, the convictions are bundled together and the highest conviction is enforced. Of the 33 years of imprisonment for the seven charges against her, the longest one, which is 10 years, will be enforced. But based on the law, people who have more than three charges against them can have their sentenced increased by up to one and a half times. So the judge gave my wife a sentence of 12 years.”

Sotoudeh’s sentencing has sparked a worldwide backlash, and prompted the European parliament to pass a resolution calling for her release. Norway also summoned Iran’s ambassador in protest at Sotoudeh’s sentencing. Sotoudeh, who was awarded the European parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2012, was arrested last summer by Iran’s judiciary in the midst of President Rouhani’s efforts to salvage the nuclear deal in ongoing talks with Europe.

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Rouhani’s Iraq Trip Highlights His Ambitions, Spurs Backlash

President Rouhani made a three-day visit to Iraq for the first time of his presidency. Rouhani was accompanied by a large delegation, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi, and other senior officials and businesspeople.

In addition to receiving a state welcome from Iraqi officials, Rouhani met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, one of the most prominent and influential Shia clerics. It was the first time Sistani, an Iranian-born cleric, had met with an Iranian president. Sistani played a major role in shaping the post-2003 Iraqi government and issued a fatwa after ISIS took control of parts of Iraq in 2014 that led to the creation of the influential Hash al-Shaabi militia.

According to Iranian outlets, Rouhani explained the results of his meetings with Iraqi officials to Ayatollah Sistani and stressed the need to improve Iranian-Iraqi ties. Sistani stated that he supports any actions that improve Iraq’s relations with its neighbors based on the interests of each country and on respect for sovereignty and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Sistani also highlighted Iraq’s war against ISIS and stated that “Iraq’s friends” had a role in the victory against the terrorist organization.

After meeting with Sistani, the Rouhani administration’s official media arm released a controversial video on the “outcomes of Hassan Rouhani’s meeting with Ayatollah Ali Sistani.” It was released in the context of Foreign Minister Zarif’s recent short-lived resignation, which he attributed largely to concerns that the role of the foreign ministry was being undermined. The video also came as IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani, who exercises significant influence over Iran’s regional policies, was awarded Iran’s highest military honor (the Order of the Zulfiqar) from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Notably, the video was removed shortly after it was uploaded.

The video stated that Rouhani’s meeting with Sistani carried “three powerful messages to three principal recipients.” The first two messages stoked controversy. The first was for “Iraqi leaders” regarding the “notable power” of President Rouhani and how it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to negotiate with “military figures.” The second message was to “Iranian leaders” regarding Rouhani’s reception from “one of the highest and most influential Iraqi marjas (the highest rank in the Shia clerical hierarchy).”

The video specified that Rouhani had “notable power and that it was unnecessary for Iraqi leaders to talk with other [Iranian] institutions or military figures regarding tactical issues and that they could achieve this work with Rouhani as the head of Iran’s government.”

The video did not specify who it was referring to in mentioning Iranian “leaders” or “military figures,” but the latter was widely interpreted to be referring to Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani. Soleimani plays a major role in shaping and implementing Iranian policies in Iraq and is frequently in the country meeting with senior Iraqi officials and military commanders. Last week, the deputy commander of the Qods Force also stated that “we have many differences in our views with the Rouhani administration.”

Conservative media in Iran reacted with outrage to the video, with many claiming it was part of a “psychological war” by Rouhani to influence the Supreme Leader’s succession and undermine the Qods Force. Sajjad Moqadam-Nia, a conservative analyst, wrote on Telegram that Rouhani’s trip to Iraq was guided by “self-interested aims” based on “enhancing his and his administration’s political position in Iran and the region” and “weakening the position of the Qods Force.”

Mehrdad Zabani, another conservative analyst, wrote that “the likes of Qassem Soleimani destroyed ISIS in Iraq and now Rouhani is trying to show off his trip to Iraq.” He added: “If these military figures like Soleimani didn’t exist, Rouhani would have had to go to Iraq in the darkness, just like his boss [Trump].”

The Iranian reformist website Entekhab translated a column by journalist Ali Hashem for BBC Arabic on Rouhani’s trip to Iraq, in which Hashem compared U.S. and Iranian influence in the country.  Hashem stated in the piece: “On the west bank of the Tigris river in Baghdad stretches the U.S. embassy, which is this country’s largest embassy in the Middle East. On the opposite east bank of the river, in different parts of the Baghdad, pictures of Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khamenei and the former leader of Iran’s revolution Ayatollah Khomeini strike the eye. And these are alongside pictures of Hashd al-Shaabi militia killed while fighting ISIS.”

Hashem went on to argue that people-to-people connections between Iran and Iraq have deepened over the years, which is something the U.S. lacks and that contributes to its lower influence in Iraq. Hashem stated: “In this context, Iraq is stuck between constant U.S.-Iran tensions … but Iraq today is taking a different position on the [U.S.-Iran] dispute than in the past and seeks to be neutral in this direct U.S.-Iran confrontation.”

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INSTEX President Travels to Tehran

On March 11th, Per Fischer, the president of INSTEX, the European trade mechanism set up to facilitate trade with Iran in the face of U.S. sanctions, traveled to Tehran. Fischer is the former head of the German Commerzbank. On Tuesday, he held technical-level negotiations on operationalizing INSTEX with Iranian experts and representatives of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The French embassy in Tehran tweeted regarding Fischer’s trip to Iran: “This is an important step in the direction of dialogue with our Iranian counterparts on operationalizing the trade mechanism between Iran and the European Union.”

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Ebrahim Raisi Elected Deputy Head of Powerful Assembly of Experts

On March 12th, one day after Ebrahim Raisi was appointed judiciary chief, Raisi was also elected as the deputy head of the Assembly of Experts. The Assembly of Experts is an elected constitutional body mandated with supervising and selecting the Supreme Leader. Raisi’s recent elevations have significantly boosted his position in Iran’s political system. Read more on his appointment as Iran’s judiciary chief in last week’s Iran Unfiltered.

Raisi was elected as deputy head of the Assembly of Experts with 43 out of a total 73 votes cast. Coming in second place was Sadegh Larijani, the outgoing judiciary chief and incumbent head of the Expediency Discernment Council, who received 27 votes. Third place was Fazel Golpayegani, who received five votes. The current head of the Assembly of Expert is conservative cleric Ahmad Jannati.

On March 11th, Raisi officially assumed his duties as judiciary chief. In a speech, he declared: “No one in any situation or any position will have the right to circumvent or violate the law.”

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Khamenei Warns Officials “Not to Quarrel with Each Other” in FATF Debate

In a meeting with the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Khamenei called on supporters and opponents of the contentious FATF legislation to “not to quarrel with each other.” The vociferous domestic fight over the FATF bills, aimed at bringing Iran into compliance with anti-money laundering and terrorism financing standards set out by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), has led the to remaining legislation being deadlocked in the Expediency Discernment Council. (Read more on the domestic debate over the FATF bills in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

While Ayatollah Khamenei did not specifically mention the FATF bills, he did note: “When this or that convention or treaty is under debate and its supporters and opponents make their arguments, the two sides should not accuse each other of acting in line with the enemy or quarrel with each other.” The opponents of the FATF bills are mostly critics of President Rouhani and often frame their arguments against the legislation as abetting Iran’s enemies.

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Iranian Officials React to Israeli Naval Threats, Regional Nuclear Projects

Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami responded to recent threats by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu that the Israeli navy could take action against “covert” Iranian oil shipments that were trying to “circumvent” U.S. sanctions.” Hatami stated: “If they [Israel] have such an intention, this will be an act of creating international insecurity and piracy.”

Hatami added that “the Islamic Republic has the capability to address this issue and if necessary, issue a strong response.” He further stated that that the “international community will not accept” such an Israeli action.

Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said that some regional countries were using “oil dollars” to pursue “suspicious nuclear projects.” He added: “These actions can create a danger for the region and the world worse than the threat of ISIS and terrorism.”

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Zarif’s Resignation Saga

Week of February 25, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Zarif’s Resignation Saga

On February 25th, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, among other senior Iranian officials. Foreign Minister Zarif was notably absent from the meetings.

During their meeting, Ayatollah Khamenei praised Assad for his “steadfastness” and said he had “turned into a hero for the Arab world.” He also said the Syrian uprising was not a part of the Arab Spring, stating: “The enemy’s mistake was confusing Syria with some other Arab states. In those countries, the peoples’ movements were towards resistance, they were uprisings against America and its clients.”

In the evening of the same day (February 25th), Foreign Minister Zarif stated he was resigning in a post on Instagram. He said in the post: “I am thankful to the dear and brave people and respectful officials for being gracious over the past 67 months. I sincerely ask for forgiveness for my inability to continue to serve and for all my deficiencies and shortcomings.”

In the immediate aftermath of the resignation announcement, reports suggested that it was triggered by Zarif not being informed of Assad’s visit. Entekhab News said it received a text from Zarif in which he reportedly stated: “After the photos of the meeting today [of Assad in Teran], Javad Zarif has no credibility today as Iran’s foreign minister.”

The following morning (February 26th), President Rouhani gave a speech where he thanked Zarif, as well as Oil Minister Bijan Zangeneh and Central Bank Governor Abdolnaser Hemati, for their “steadfastness” in being the “frontline against America.” Rouhani further praised the three officials for “bearing and resisting pressures” and as “people who are holding resolute at the frontline of attacks.”

Rouhani was speaking at a Central Bank conference on the issue of sanctions and the necessity to approve the deadlocked anti-money laundering and terrorism financing legislation. Read more on the bills, which are designed to bring Iran into compliance with guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

During his address, Rouhani stressed the need to approve the FATF legislation and said none of Iran’s decision-making bodies opposed the bills, including Ayatollah Khamenei. He proclaimed: “Decision-making in the country is either with the presidential administration, the parliament, or the leader. The leader has on multiple occasions told me he doesn’t opposes the four [FATF] bills. The administration and parliament also don’t oppose them, so who does?”

He added on the necessity of passing the FATF legislation: “We can’t trade with suitcases. You can’t move millions of tons of cattle meat with suitcases. The banks have to be active. If our country’s relations with FATF are cut, our banking activities at the international level will be faced with difficulties.”

A previously conducted interview with Zarif by the Rouhani administration-affiliated Islamic Republic Newspaper was published on February 26th, which listed what many Iranian analysts believe were the reasons behind Zarif’s resignation. The newspaper did not give a reason for why the interview wasn’t published sooner. In the interview, Zarif made a range of complaints, including over the unapproved FATF legislation, slanted coverage of state radio and television regarding Iran’s current conditions, the situation in the Expediency Discernment Council, a lack of support given to the Rouhani administration in its negotiations with other countries, and a lack of coordination between different government institutions.

In the interview, Zarif said factional infighting was “poison” for Iranian foreign policy. He opined: “We must separate foreign policy from partisan and factional fights. We must trust our foreign policy officials at the national level. This requires domestic consensus.”

After Zarif announced he would resign, a host of Iranian diplomats and foreign ministry officials said they would leave their posts if his resignation becomes final, and over 160 members of parliament wrote to President Rouhani asking him to reject the resignation. Zarif said in response to the support from his foreign ministry colleagues: “For me serving alongside you all has been an honor. I hope my resignation brings the foreign ministry back to its rightful legal position on foreign policy.”

Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Ali Motahari said that the main reason for Zarif’s resignation was not his absence from the Assad meeting, but interference in foreign policy by other domestic entities. He added that President Rouhani should never have allowed “military forces” to interfere in foreign policy.

On February 27th, President Rouhani formally rejected Zarif’s resignation, keeping him at his post as Iran’s foreign minister. Rouhani said in a letter to Zarif that he agreed with Zarif on “preserving the status and credibility of the foreign ministry, and the position of the foreign minister as the highest official implementing the country’s foreign policy.”

Rouhani also stated that Ayatollah Khamenei believes Zarif is “honest, brave, and pious.” He added that “joy and celebration” of figures such as Israeli PM Netanyahu after Zarif’s resignation is a reason for Zarif’s “success.”

Qassem Soleimani also expressed support for Zarif as the “main official responsible for foreign policy” and said Zarif has always had support of senior officials, “especially” Ayatollah Khamenei. He added that Zarif’s absence in the meeting with Assad was “not deliberate” and was due to “some lack of coordination” in the executive branch.

After Rouhani rejected the resignation, Zarif wrote a new post on Instagram thanking the president for his support. He stated: “My concerns were nothing but promoting foreign policy and the credibility of the foreign ministry as responsible for advancing foreign policies and being the frontline for defending national interests and the noble Iranian peoples’ rights internationally.”

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Hardliners Rejoiced Over Zarif’s Short-Lived Resignation

Prominent hardline politicians, mostly associated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, rejoiced over Zarif’s resignation. Read more about Jebhe Paydari in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.

Javad Karimi Ghodousi, a conservative MP from Masshad, offered sweets to other parliamentarians for Zarif’s resignation. He also stated that “Zarif’s resignation has been accepted and is certain. [Oil Minister] Zangeneh will also certainly leave.”

Ali Naderi, the editor in chief of the far-right Raja News, stated: “Zarif has wanted to leave for some time. Not just Zarif but [oil minister] Zangeneh also wanted to flee from under the rubble of the Rouhani administration, the columns of which they had built. They want to run away from their responsibilities … they were just waiting for an excuse, which was found … acceptance of their resignation means the end of heroic flexibility.”

Mahmoud Nabavian, a former MP and student of ultra-conservative Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, declared: “The man of the damaging agreements of Saadabad, Paris, Geneva, Lausanne, the JCPOA, and FATF has resigned. Thank God.”

Hamid Rasaee, another former hardline MP, stated: “Rouhani no longer has popularity. The disgraceful JCPOA agreement has reached a dead-end. Zarif is like a gambler who gambled his entire existence on trusting John Kerry and lost.”

Conservative politician Ruhollah Hosseinian added that Americans were sad with Zarif’s resignation, stating: “Americans are more unhappy than anyone about this resignation because Zarif was the only person who realized their old wish of negotiations with Iran.”

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Iran’s Freedom Movement Condemns U.S. Sanctions

On February 25th, the Freedom Movement, one of Iran’s oldest pro-democracy groups, wrote a letter condemning U.S. sanctions and “unilateral” U.S. policies against Iran. The letter says regarding the destructive impact of US sanctions: “It is the Iranian people who suffer the most harm and economic hardship from sanctions. These sanctions have weakened the middle class & the downtrodden & disrupts Iran’s democracy-seeking trend.”

The letter says that the Freedom Movement has been among the most ardent critics of Iran’s ruling system and that its members have been imprisoned and tortured. Despite this, the letter calls for the US to abide by the nuclear deal, calling it a guarantor of global peace and security.

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Qassem Soleimani Rejects Idea of Further US Negotiations

On February 28th, Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Qods Force, denounced the idea of reaching a “second JCPOA” with the United States. Soleimani said those seeking a “JCPOA 2” wished to “dry up Islamic movements.”

Soleimani suggested that former U.S. President Obama sought regime change with the JCPOA, and that President Trump simply seeks regime change on a shorter time scale. He stated: “For the enemy, the JCPOA was a triangle [with the JCPOA being one side of the triangle]. Obama believed that with time he would get to the two other sides [in subsequent “JCPOAs,” or U.S.-Iran agreements], but this impatient person who has come [Trump] insists on getting where they want in a hurry and he believes they can get there [meaning regime change].”

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Iran’s Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant Shuts Down for Refueling and Repairs

On February 28th, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesperson of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), stated that the Bushehr nuclear power plant would temporarily shut down for “refueling and necessary repairs.”  Kamalvandi stated: “Based on the existing plan, Bushehr will be disconnected from the electricity grid on Monday for two months.”

Earlier this week, AEOI had warned that because of financial issues and the depreciation of Iran’s currency, the Bushehr nuclear power plant’s operations were under “ambiguity” for the next year. However, immediately after this warning, parliament approved funding for Bushehr’s operation.

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Armenian Prime Minister Travels to Tehran

On February 27th, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan travelled to Tehran and met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Rouhani, and Foreign Minister Zarif. During their meetings, the two sides signed trade and energy agreements.

During his meeting with Pshinyan, Ayatollah Khamenei rebuked U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who said last fall that the Armenian-Iranian border is “going to be a significant issue” as the U.S. enforces sanctions. Ayatollah Khamenei stated: “Iran and Armenia have never had problems with each other … but American officials like John Bolton have no understanding of these issues and humane relations.”

In his meeting with President Rouhani, Prime Minister Pshinyan emphasized Armenia’s support of the JCPOA and said it was worried about developments surrounding the agreement. He stated that regarding the JCPOA, Armenia will “work closely with Iran and other parties.”  

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Bahraini Shia Leader Travels to Qom

Sheikh Isa Qassim, the spiritual leader of Bahrain’s majority-Shia population, has met with senior officials in Qom. Qassim was under house arrest in Bahrain for some time and has been stripped of his Bahraini citizenship. According to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim, Qassim discussed the situation in Bahrain and the conditions for Bahraini Shias in his meetings in Qom.

In 2016, after Qassim’s Bahraini citizenship was revoked, Qods Force Commander Qassem Soleimani warned Bahraini officials that the safety of Shia religious leaders in Bahrain was a “red line.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif to Travel to Damascus

On February 27th, Foreign Minister Zarif spoke on the phone with Syrian Foreign minister Walid Muallem. According to Iranian media, the two reviewed the “conclusions” of the recent meeting in Tehran between Syrian President Assad and President Rouhani, Ayatollah Khamenei, and other Iranian officials.

After the phone call, Syria’s ambassador to Tehran forwarded Syrian President Assad’s invitation to Zarif to travel for an official visit to Syria.

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Rouhani to Take First Iraq Trip of His Presidency

According to Tasnim, President Rouhani will travel to Baghdad for a state visit on March 11th with a large delegation of Iranian officials and businesspeople. The trip follows Iraqi President Barham Salih’s December 19th trip to Iran. It will be Rouhani’s first trip to Iraq of his presidency.

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Iran Warns Saudi Arabia & Pakistan Over Suicide Bombing

Week of February 18, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Financial Watchdog Extends Deadline for Iran to Pass Banking Reform Laws

On February 22nd, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks—extended the deadline for Iran to come into compliance with its standards. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the FATF’s standards. According to FATF’s statement, if by June 2019, Iran “does not enact the remaining legislation in line with FATF Standards, then the FATF will require increased supervisory examination for branches and subsidiaries of financial institutions based in Iran.”

Of the four bills introduced by the Rouhani administration to meet the FATF standards, two have been approved by the parliament and Guardian Council, while the other two remain in limbo. The bill on reforming Iran’s laws on anti-money laundering (AML) and confronting terrorism financing have been passed. However, while parliament accepted the other two bills on Iran acceding to the terrorist financing (TF) convention and Palermo conventions, both bills were rejected by the Guardian Council. (Read more on the contentious domestic debate over the FATF legislation in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered).

The TF and Palermo convention bills have been under debate in the Expediency Discernment Council—a body constitutionally mandated with resolving disputes between the Guardian Council and parliament. Ahead of the FATF plenary this week, the Expediency Discernment Council held a meeting to decide on the Palermo convention, but its members failed to reach an agreement.

The Expediency Discernment Council meets every two weeks and will meet to discuss the Palermo convention bill on March 2nd. After it reaches a decision regarding the Palermo convention, the council will discuss whether or not Iran will accede to the terrorist financing convention.

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Foreign Minister Zarif and Other Senior Officials Travel to China

A delegation of senior Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Zarif, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, and Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, traveled to Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials. In his meeting with Larijani, President Xi said China wished to increase cooperation with Iran in the fields of “security, confronting terrorism, and people-to-people exchanges.” He also called for China-Iran “coordination on international issues to promote a new type of international relations.”

President Xi praised what he said was Iran’s constructive role in the Middle East and expressed a willingness to cooperate with Iran on regional issues. He proclaimed that he “supports Tehran’s constructive role in preserving peace and stability” in the region and said that Beijing is ready to develop “close ties and cooperate with Tehran on regional issues.”

Larijani said that he discussed solutions to regional conflicts with President Xi. He stated: “We have discussed the political issues in our region, confronting terrorism, and the consultations that are necessary for peace in the region and for constructive dialogue.”

Larijani told President Xi that Iran wished to increase cooperation with China over energy and infrastructure projects. He stated: “The Islamic Republic is ready to offer China its unique capabilities in different areas including transportation, infrastructure, and energy.”

During their meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for “deeper strategic trust” with Iran and praised Foreign Minister Zarif’s address and interview last week at the Munich Security Conference. Yi stated: “I saw on television how you defended the rights of Iran loud and clear at the Munich Security Conference. I think an audience of hundreds of millions of Chinese also watched what you said and you are a famous person now.”

Yi added: “I would like to take this opportunity to have this in-depth strategic communication with my old friend to deepen the strategic trust between our two countries and to ensure fresh progress of the bilateral comprehensive and strategic partnership.”

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Hardline MP Introduces Impeachment Bill Against President Rouhani

Conservative MP Mojtaba Zonnour, affiliated with the fundamentalist Jebhe Paydari faction, has introduced an impeachment bill against President Rouhani. The bill lists 14 reasons for Rouhani’s removal, four of which have to do with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The bill claims that Rouhani gave false promises that Iran’s “economy and industry can spin simultaneously with [uranium] centrifuges spinning” and that the JCPOA removed the threat of war.

Zonnour has also emphasized that he wants Rouhani removed over deteriorating economic conditions, stating: “Today we have no answers from the administration over issues it can alleviate, such as the peoples’ empty dinner tables, corruption, societal problems, unemployment, and smuggling. The people want answers from us and we have no answers. The law allows us to either impeach or question [the president].”

Last year, hardline MPs calling for Rouhani’s impeachment were rebuked by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Read more about earlier efforts by hardliners to remove Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif from office in a previous issue of Iran Unfiltered.

According to Iran’s constitution, if at least one-third of the parliament’s 290 members sign onto an impeachment bill, the president will be summoned to parliament for questioning. If two-thirds of parliamentarians give a vote of no confidence in the president’s answers before parliament, formal impeachment proceedings are then sent to the Supreme Leader.

In response to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, influential Iranian reformist Mostafa Tajzadeh said the aim was to take advantage of the “golden period of Trump” to remove Rouhani and to establish a “military administration” before Iran’s next parliamentary elections. Zonnour denied Tajzadeh’s allegation, stating: “Anybody seeking a military government is damn wrong and those saying this are damn wrong … I was the architect of this impeachment bill … I decided to introduce this bill. I did not consult with anyone inside or outside of parliament.”

All the major factions in the Iranian parliament voiced their opposition to Zonnour’s impeachment bill, and ultimately he only secured 18 signatures in support of the bill. President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi said of the impeachment effort: “Those pursuing this are the same people who completely supported the previous administration [the Ahmadinejad presidency] and now completely oppose the current administration.”

Vaezi added: “For them, it doesn’t make a difference that the country is facing an economic war. They don’t work in line with national interests. However, we respect the parliament and don’t want to take a stance that would be in opposition to parliament.”

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Iranian Military Commanders Warn Pakistan and Saudi Arabia Over Zahedan Bombing

On February 21st, Qods Force Commander General Qassem Soleimani denounced Saudi Arabia and proclaimed that Iran would not pursue JCPOA-like negotiations over regional issues. Soleimani stated that a “regional JCPOA”—meaning negotiations with the United states and other world powers on regional issues—would be aimed at “breaking the spirit and [forward] movement of Islamic Iran.” He added: “If we carry out a second JCPOA, they will pursue other ‘JCPOAs’ with the goal being to change the country’s identity from within.”

Soleimani blamed Saudi Arabia over last week’s suicide bombing of a bus carrying IRGC soldiers in southeastern Iran, which left 27 dead. He declared: “I say to the Pakistani people that Saudi money has infiltrated their country and with these actions they want to destroy Pakistan.”

Soleimani also issued a stern warning to Pakistan: “Iran should not be tested. Whoever has tested Iran has received a severe response. We talk as a friend to Pakistan and tell it not to allow its borders to be used to cause insecurity in a neighboring country … the Islamic Republic will definitely avenge the blood of its martyrs against the mercenaries who took this action.”

Other senior Iranian military figures, such as Supreme Leader advisor General Yahya Safavi and IRGC Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, issued unprecedented rebukes of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service in the wake of last week’s suicide attack. General Safavi accused Pakistan of sheltering the Jaish al-Adl terrorist organization, which claimed responsibility for the bombing: “We believe this silence is a kind of support for this group and the Pakistani intelligence organization should account for it.”

General Jafari said along the same lines: “Pakistan should also know that it should pay the cost for the Pakistani intelligence organization’s support for Jaish al-Zolm from now on and this price will no doubt be very heavy for them.”

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Families of Detained Labor Activists Report Harassment

According to Radio Farda, Iranian intelligence agents have threatened the families of detained labor protestors Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian in order to keep them silent about the cases. According to the Haft Tapeh factory workers’ Telegram channel, the families had earlier in the week protested outside of Shush’s courthouse. The Telegram channel also stated that Bakhshi and Gholian are being compelled to record another “confession” for state television. (Read more about their cases and the Haft Tapeh worker protests in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered)

On February 18th, President Rouhani’s new health minister Saeed Namaki said Iran would face difficult economic challenges in the upcoming Iranian year of 1397 (March 21, 2019-March 21, 2020). He stated: “We should know that next year will be a difficult year. Even though this country has persevered over many hardships, 1397 will be a very difficult year on the economic front.”

Namaki added: “We are managers who worked with $6-7 per barrel oil under the most difficult conditions [during the Iran-Iraq War]. God willing, by the blood of the martyrs, especially our Revolutionary Guards martyrs who died helplessly in Sistan and Baluchistan province [last week], we will overcome these problems. However, as men charged with running the country, we must tighten our belts and first look at our wallets and then spend money.”

The cases of political prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan has gone to an appeals court, according to their lawyer. Meysami and Khandan were recently sentenced to six years in prison. Meisami was arrested last July for protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law. He undertook a 145-day hunger strike, which ended on December 23rd. On January 5th, 2019 he wrote a letter lambasting the Trump administration and Tehran’s Revolutionary Court 15, as detailed in a previous Iran Unfiltered.

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IRGC Says It Was Aware of US Sabotage Efforts

On February 20th, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, said that the IRGC was aware of efforts to sabotage Iranian military armaments. He stated: “We were able to discover this conspiracy and have turned this major threat into an opportunity.” His comments follow a recent New York Times report about a U.S. program aimed at sabotaging Iran’s missile and rocket programs.

Hajizadeh also claimed that Iran had gained access to American military systems after commandeering U.S. drones flying over Syria and Iraq. He stated: “By infiltrating into U.S. military systems, including command and control and espionage systems, we have stopped their plans [for war].”

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Iran Dismisses Warsaw Summit as a Failure

Week of February 12, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here

 

Iranian Foreign Ministry Blasts Warsaw Summit as Failing to Isolate Iran

The Iranian foreign ministry blasted as a failure the Trump administration’s co-hosted summit in Warsaw on “peace and security” in the Middle East. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi stated: “Despite the far-reaching efforts of Washington to organize an inclusive summit and create a new coalition against the Islamic Republic of Iran, the summit was a failure before it ended. The small number of attendees and low-level representatives refused to cooperate with any anti-Iranian initiative.”

Ghassemi added: “The concluding statement was a useless document. Its text came only from the two countries that hosted the summit and lacked any credibility or semblance of a decision.”

He further stated: “How can a conference about peace and security in the Middle East be successful when the main regional players such as Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine are not present? And important countries such as China and Russia and many major European countries and other countries are not present or sent very low-level officials?”

A columnist for the conservative Alef analyzed the Warsaw summit: “The U.S. regime has pursued Iranophobia because of the Islamic Republic’s role in politically isolating the U.S. at the international level and America’s defeat and frustration in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.”

The writer said of the Iranian foreign ministry’s role in diminishing the effectiveness of the Warsaw summit: “The active diplomacy of the foreign ministry caused U.S. officials to become troubled and retreat from their original claims out of fear of organizing a useless gathering. They altered the original aim of the summit and declared that the summit wasn’t targeted against any one country (Iran).”

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Islamic Republic Celebrates 40 years as Ayatollah Khamenei Calls for “Second Great Leap”

On February 11th, the Islamic Republic celebrated its 40th anniversary with marches in Tehran and across the country. According to official outlets, millions marched in the annual state-backed rallies.

At a speech in Tehran’s Azadi Square, President Rouhani lauded what he said was Iran “freeing itself from despotism, colonialism, and dependency 40 years ago.” He also praised the country’s military strengths, stating: “We will continue this path, and I say this clearly to the people of Iran, that Iran’s military power in the past 40 years, especially in the recent five years, has amazed the entire world.”

A column in the conservative Alef discussed the February 11th rallies and the question of the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy. It asked: “In all these years one question has always existed about what the secret has been behind the presence and participation of a more or less consistent amount of people in 22 Bahman (February 11th) rallies?”

The writer went on: “It was especially expected this year that because of economic and societal crises that the level of people’s participation would decrease in a visible way … what explains the people’s presence and cooperation at a time when many officials across the three branches of government are facing a drop in public trust?”

The piece, reflecting a conservative point of view, noted: “It is clear that despite all shortcomings, deficiencies, and embezzlements, the political and social lives of Iranians has tangibly changed and the Islamic Republic is present in society’s fabric. It breathes, resists, and progresses. However, just like any living being at times in fails or even regresses.”

It added: “The transformation of government and the creation of a national government was one of the greatest achievements of the Islamic Republic and is the main foundation that is preserving it. National government here means the stake that [ordinary] Iranians have in institutions from the Leadership to local government and city councils and the opportunity for them to contribute in a real way.”

The author concluded: “The constitutional revolution started the process of transitioning Iran from a tribal government to a national government. But the total amount of efforts taken during the constitutional and Pahlavi period led to no more than five percent of people having a stake in the government. The Islamic Revolution in the least optimistic view raised the stake of people in government to 40 percent, and in recent years it has remained above 30 percent [of people participating in government affairs].”

Ayatollah Khamenei also released a statement on the 40th anniversary of the revolution, in which he called on Iranian youth to take a “second great leap” to advance the revolution. In the statement, Khamenei gave an overview of achievements and events that had taken place since the revolution and a set of recommendations to the Iranian people, especially the youth.

Khamenei acknowledged regarding the situation of “justice and confronting corruption” in the country: “I explicitly say that there is a wide gap between what has happened and what should happen.”

He said of Iran’s support for regional proxies: “If back then the West’s problem was stopping Iran from purchasing basic weaponry, today its problem is the transfer of advanced weapons from Iran to resistance forces.”

Khamenei also called the United States and some European states “cowardly and untrustworthy.” He dismissed the idea of negotiations with the United States, proclaiming: “No issues can be resolved and other than moral and material harms nothing will come out of negotiations [with the U.S.].”

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Suicide Bomber Targets Bus Carrying IRGC Soldiers

On February 13th, a suicide bomber killed 27 and wounded 13 in an attack on a bus carrying Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) soldiers in southwestern Iran. The bomber drove a car full of explosives into the bus, which was travelling to the city of Zahedan. The Wahhabi-Salafist “Jaish al-Adl”—a group with a history of engaging in such terrorist attacks—claimed responsibility.

In a statement, IRGC commander Mojtaba Fada said that those killed were all from Isfahan province. He said the funeral for the soldiers would be Saturday.

Ayatollah Khamenei blamed the bombing on Iran’s regional rivals. He stated: “The connection is certain between the perpetrators of this criminal act and the spy agencies of some regional countries.” He added that the “responsible [Iranian] agencies” have been instructed to “focus” on this connection and “seriously pursue it.”

President Rouhani also linked the attack to “the White House, Tel Aviv, and their regional cronies.”

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Workers Write to International Labor Group for Support

On February 13th, the Iran-based “Confederation of Free Workers” wrote a letter to the International Labour Organization calling on the head of the organization to press the Iranian government to “unconditionally release imprisoned labor activists.” The letter specifically pointed to the labor activists Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, members of the confederation who were arrested in January. (More on their case in a previous Iran Unfiltered).

The confederation underscored a “new trend in repressing laborers” inside Iran. The letter cited the case of imprisoned labor activists Esmail Bakhshi and Ali Nejati and noted that 40 workers belonging to the Ahvaz Steel Company remain imprisoned.

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FATF Debate Coming to a Head

On February 16th, the Expediency Discernment Council is expected to reach its final decision regarding a bill introduced by the Rouhani administration to reform Iran’s anti-money laundering laws. The bill is part of a set of legislation designed to bring Iran into compliance with standards set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)—an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. The Expediency Discernment Council decision will come as the FATF deadline for Iran to reform its banking sector looms at the end of February. (For more background on the contentious domestic debate on the FATF bills, see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.)

President Rouhani’s Chief of Staff Mahmoud Vaezi recently sparked controversy after saying that the Expediency Discernment Council would be responsible for any consequences resulting from rejecting the FATF legislation. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the body’s standards. Vaezi had stated: “If the FATF legislation isn’t passed, pressure on us will increased. If the Expediency Discernment Council doesn’t approve these bills, it should accept the results of this action.”

On February 11th, Ebrahim Raisi, who ran as the main conservative presidential candidate in 2017 challenging Rouhani and heads the influence Astan Qods Razavi religious foundation, dismissed the importance of Iran passing the FATF bills. He stated: “Some state that if we don’t want to give an excuse to the enemy, we should sign these agreements and conventions. Who can guarantee that if we sign, the enemy will stop its excuses? Wasn’t the nuclear issue an excuse?”

He added: “The only solution with respect to the enemy has been steadfastness and resistance. This is an important signal and symbol to give the enemy.”

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Announcement on New Judiciary Chief Imminent

Iran’s judiciary spokesperson Gholam-Hossein Eje’i has stated that the new head of the judiciary—replacing incumbent Sadegh Larijani—will be appointed by the end of the current Iranian year (March 21st). Eje’I said: “God willing the new head of the judiciary branch will be introduced and begin work before the end of the year and before the start of the new year.”

According to some Iranian media reports, hardline 2017 presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi will replace Sadegh Larijani as Iran’s judiciary chief on March 15th, securing one of the Islamic Republic’s most senior posts.

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President Rouhani Attends Syria Peace Talks in Russia

On February 14th, President Rouhani joined Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan for the fourth round of “Astana-process” Syria peace talks in Sochi. According to Iranian media outlets, Rouhani called on the international community to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees and to support reconstruction efforts in Syria. He also said that the presence of foreign troops, namely American forces, remain in Syria “without the invitation of the [Syrian] government” and that this must “end as soon as possible.”

Rouhani said of the Astana process: “Our cooperation has managed to greatly diminish the fires of war and merciless killing that had overtaken Syria for years. Dialogue between the various sides has seen [political] differences substitute guns and bullets. Today, after over seven years since the start of the crisis, in most of this country there is security and stability except for a small part of the country.”

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Foreign Minister Zarif Travels to Lebanon

On February 11th, Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Lebanon for a two-day visit and met with figures ranging from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to Prime Minister Saad Hariri. In his meeting with Hariri, the prime minister called on Iran to release Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese citizen and information technology expert arrested and accused of being a U.S. spy in 2015.

 

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NIAC Welcomes FATF Decision to Continue Suspension of Penalties on Iran

Washington, DC – The National Iranian American Council issued the following statement regarding today’s decision by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to continue the suspension of counter-measures against Iran:

FATF made the right decision by recognizing the progress that Iran has made to reform its banking laws, while ensuring that Iran fulfills the terms of its Action Plan in order to receive the full benefit of being removed from the FATF “blacklist”. By showing itself unwilling to give in to pressure from the Trump administration and outside advocacy groups like United Against Nuclear Iran, which were pushing for the re-imposition of counter-measures against Iran, FATF smartly avoided politicization of its work and protected its integrity as a technical body assessing countries’ anti-money laundering and terrorist financing laws.

The Financial Action Task Force is an inter-governmental body that sets and promotes standards for combating money laundering and terrorist financing. FATF engages in a technical assessment of countries’ anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism laws and provides assistance to countries seeking to reform their laws in compliance with international standards.

Iran has been identified on FATF’s “blacklist” since 2008 for persistent AML/CFT (Anti-Money Laundering/Combatting the Financing of Terrorism) deficiencies. Following the nuclear accord, Iran agreed in June 2016 to an Action Plan to undertake domestic reforms to its AML/CFT laws with technical assistance provided by FATF. In response to this commitment, FATF suspended its call for counter-measures against Iran for a period of 12 months.

Iran has made significant progress meeting its Action Plan, including by passing new laws relating to money laundering.However, Iran still has work to do in reforming its terrorist financing laws. FATF’s decision to renew the suspension of counter-measures recognizes the progress that Iran has made thus far, while ensuring that Iran take the final steps to reform its AML/CFT laws before it receives the benefit of removal from FATF’s “blacklist.” Iran’s incentives to undertake serious reform of its banking laws include the potential for broader access to the global financial system, which has been denied Iran despite the lifting of U.S. and UN sanctions pursuant to the nuclear agreement. If Iran wants broader re-integration in the global financial system, then it must take the final steps to meet the terms of its Action Plan with FATF and reform its banking laws consistent with the recognized international standards. These steps are moving forward, yet the Trump administration and its political allies seem more interested in scuttling that progress due to ideological animus towards Iran rather than seeing an actual interest of the U.S. and international community realized.

The Trump administration appears to have pushed hard on FATF member-states to reject the technical assessment of the agency as to Iran’s progress and re-impose counter-measures against Iran. As is true of the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration’s ideological position towards Iran renders it unable to pursue – and often causes it work directly against – U.S. national security interests. In the case of the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration has antagonized allies and jeopardized the restrictions and strict inspections that are in place on Iran’s nuclear program. In the case of FATF, the Trump administration threatens to undermine the progress that Iran is making consistent with the FATF Action Plan to improve the transparency and integrity of its financial sector. The Trump administration showed its isolation once again by seeking to punish Iran through the FATF, despite the fact that the FATF and its other member-states recognize the progress Iran had made to reform its banking laws.

To kill the Iran nuclear deal, the Trump administration has shown itself willing to stake the reputation of international bodies, including the Financial Action Task Force and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Trump administration is playing a dangerous game with the integrity of global and multilateral institutions. Thankfully, the FATF was able to resist the Trump administration’s machinations this time around.