Week of January 28, 2019 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council | Subscribe Here
Note from the editor: There was no Iran Unfiltered last week because author Sina Toossi took part in an expert briefing on Capitol Hill. See a write-up of the event here.
This week, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, rebuked China for slowing down its efforts at redesigning Iran’s Arak Heavy Water reactor as required by the JCPOA. He also announced advances in increasing Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry was lukewarm on the EU’s launch of its long-awaited “special purpose vehicle” to facilitate trade with Iran, now dubbed “INSTEX” (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges). Conservative officials, including former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili and powerful cleric Ahmad Jannati, have issued strong warnings against relying on the West.
Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council continued to debate bills designed to bring Iran into compliance with the guidelines set out by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that sets global standards for banks. Some officials have noted that the matter may be resolved in a popular referendum. Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the National Security Council, also said that Iran won’t increase the range of its missiles as per its “defense doctrine.”
President Rouhani, meanwhile, has called on the public to blame America, not his administration, for the impasse between the two countries. He also strongly rebuked the Iranian government’s longstanding policy of blocking Internet sites and applications. His communication minister further stated that Friday Prayer leaders wish to remove the ban on the popular messaging app Telegram and denied rumors that Instagram would be blocked.
On the foreign policy front, President Rouhani’s first Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, to discuss Syrian reconstruction efforts among other issues. Foreign Minister Zarif also censured the UAE for clamping down on Iranian traders amid reports that Iran’s trade with Oman and Qatar is increasing. A senior analyst at a Rouhani administration-linked think tank also gave a far-reaching interview on the importance of the JCPOA for Iran and America’s posture in the Middle East.
In human rights-related developments, two prominent political prisoners, including an activist who wrote a letter rebuking the Trump administration’s Iran policy, were sentenced to six-years imprisonment. Two activists that were arrested in recent labor protests, Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Gholian, have been rearrested after state television aired their “confessions.” An investigative journalist who uncovered an embezzlement scheme was also sentenced to five years in prison, while two members of a pro-labor group have been arrested. Meanwhile, a University of Melbourne demographer arrested in December has been released from prison, while the trial of eight environmentalist activists arrested last January has begun.
Nuclear Chief Rebukes China, Announces Nuclear Advances
On January 30th, Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, stated that China has reduced the “speed” of its cooperation with Iran over renovating the Arak Heavy Water reactor in line with JCPOA requirements. Salehi said that Chinese cooperation over the Arak reactor slowed after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA last May because of China’s “fear” of U.S. sanctions.
Salehi said Iran had notified China that it was prepared to redesign the Arak reactor itself. He stated: “We announced to them [the Chinese], if they don’t continue construction on the Arak reactor, we ourselves will continue the work.” Salehi added that “we have prepared ourselves for the worst scenario … The responsibility for the reactor’s design is with Iran and roughly 900 specialists are working on the renovation project.”
Salehi also said Iran had created the infrastructure necessary to increase its uranium enrichment capacity, in line with an instruction from Ayatollah Khamenei last May. He proclaimed: “We have taken all the steps to have the capability of reaching 190,000 SWU (a unit measuring uranium enrichment capacity).”
Salehi discussed a new centrifuge production hall in the Natanz enrichment facility that has been built as part of efforts to attain a 190,000 SWU capability. He stated: “Right now, in this facility, we produce IR-4 and IR-6 centrifuges. This facility can nominally hold between 50-60 centrifuges.”
He added regarding Iran’s centrifuge models: “Right now, IR-4 and IR-2 centrifuges have reached the stage of mass production. Iran is now experimenting on IR-6 and IR-7 centrifuges.”
On January 30th, Iranian authorities also announced that 30 tons of mined uranium “yellowcake” have been transported to Iran’s uranium hexafluoride conversion facility in Isfahan. Salehi said of Iran’s yellowcake production facility in the city of Ardakan: “On an annual basis this factory converts 84 thousand tons of uranium ore to yellowcake. In the past two years, this factory has been upgraded, and in the past one and a half years, on an experiential basis, it has produced 40 tons of yellowcake.”
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Foreign Ministry Tepidly Welcomes EU Sanctions Relief Mechanism
On February 1st, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Ghassemi discussed the EU’s launch of INSTEX to facilitate trade with Iran. He stated: “Iran’s requests that Europe implement all of its commitments in the shortest amount of time that is possible.”
Ghassemi said INSTEX’s launch was “just the first step by Europe to implement its commitments to Iran.” He stated that INSTEX’s launch was “very late” and stressed that the EU must ensure that the mechanism “compensates for some of America’s illegal sanctions.”
He added that Iran had not received sanctions relief from Europe since the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA: “Despite the EU’s political position regarding preserving the JCPOA and the need for Iran to derive economic benefits from the deal and the limited steps taken by the EU such as updated its blocking regulation laws, unfortunately we have not witnessed yet tangible results and practical actions that benefit Iran.”
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Former Chief Nuclear Negotiator Cautions Iran Against Relying on Europe
On February 1st, Saeed Jalili, the conservative former chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the National Security Council, warned against Iran trusting Europe. He stated: “Those would want to stand up against Americans by relying on Europe are on the wrong path.”
He added regarding U.S.-Iran negotiations: “Some say we should take excuses away from the enemy. However, an enemy that is after excuses will move against us regardless.”
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Powerful Conservative Cleric Denounces Officials Who Look to the West
On February 1st, hardline cleric Ayatollah Jannati, the secretary of the Guardian Council and chair of the Assembly of Experts, censured officials seeking to improve ties with the West. He stated: “Unfortunately, some officials today, more than thinking about the people think about themselves or do not have the capability to fix problems. Today we see that many officials are materialistic. God damn this wrong thinking that some officials have which believes that the West and the Americans can solve our problems.”
He added: “The American government is declining and today even its allies don’t listen to its words and aren’t afraid of it. We shouldn’t show fear towards America.”
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Debate on FATF Bills Continues in Expediency Discernment Council
The domestic fight over Iran passing laws to align its banking sector with FATF standards continues in the Expediency Discernment Council. Since 2016, FATF has suspended countermeasures against Iran, conditioned on Iran implementing an action plan to bring the country into compliance with the standards (see previous issues of Iran Unfiltered for more information on the contentious FATF debate).
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 are still 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.
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. Recently, Ahmad Vahidi, the head of the Expediency Discernment Council’s political-defense committee, stated that “if the Palermo bill reaches a dead end in the expediency council, it will be put up for a vote by the public.”
Most of the opponents of the terrorist financing and Palermo bills are political opponents of the Rouhani administration. Vahidi himself has stated that the goal of getting Iran to accede to these conventions is to weaken Iran’s “defense and atomic strength.”
However, on January 28th, Expediency Council member Majid Ansari predicted that the Palermo bill would be approved by the council. He said that although a referendum is an option in the event of a deadlock, it wouldn’t be necessary because the bills would be “resolved” in the Expediency Council.
According to Ansari, Iran’s former chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, a prominent conservative figure, supports the FATF bills. Ansari says that Jalili called for the bills to be passed in a handwritten letter.
Ansari also asserted that the FATF debate was being manipulated. He opined: “A suspicious current is taking advantage of the pure and real emotions and concerns of the faithful, young people, and students, in order to take this issue out of its natural path.” He added that he has received death threats via text message, just as parliamentarians did during their debate on the FATF bills.
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National Secretary Council Secretary Says Iran Won’t Increase Range of Missiles
On January 29th, National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani declared that Iran had “no intention” of increasing the range of its missiles. Shamkhani stressed that the reason for this had to do with Iran’s “defense doctrine” and that otherwise, Iran has the capability to increase the range of its missiles.
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Rouhani Blames America for Economic Woes
On January 30th, President Rouhani gave a speech denouncing U.S. pressure policies. He stated: “In America’s recent confrontation with the Iranian people, which began last January (2018), it has been defeated politically, legally, and on the regional and international fronts. On the economic front, with self-sacrifice and steadfastness from the people, they will be certainly defeated as well.”
Rouhani stated that the U.S., not Iran, is isolated: “The whole world, except for a few countries, is supporting Iran and accusing the United States. America has not only been unreliable towards the Iranian people, we shouldn’t analyze things incorrectly.”
Rouhani stressed that the U.S. government is to blame for the current impasse, not his administration: “Today we shouldn’t lay accusations at the hardworking government of the Islamic system instead of America. The U.S. also broke its commitments regarding Europe, China, NAFTA, and against Muslims and Palestinians … the mistakes of America aren’t two or three. No one should say that Iran’s government didn’t have foresight. The criteria for making a commitment isn’t this, it’s not how long the other party stays. The core of our commitment [under the JCPOA] was in the interests of the country and still is today.”
Rouhani then stated that the level of economic pressure on Iran today is greater than at any point since the 1979 Revolution: “The government, people and the guidance of the Leader, can altogether help us overcome all problems. At this moment, the greatest economic pressure of the past 40 years since the revolution is being exerted on the Iranian people. But with unity we will overcome all these problems.”
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Rouhani Rebukes Policy of Blocking Websites as Futile
On January 21st, President Rouhani gave a speech during which he discussed freedom of speech and the futility of blocking websites. He stated to an audience of managers from the communications ministry that fighting “public demands” was neither “legal nor legitimate.”
Rouhani added: “In the country, we don’t have free media. There is only state media. To have freer access to information, the people seek access to social media. We are thus seeing an inflated use cell phones and social media.”
Rouhani said that groups of different persuasions in Iran need their own media. He stated: “If different groups in the country have their own radio and television stations, they would express themselves through these mediums. This would naturally reduce the inflated use of mobiles and social media.”
Rouhani further said that every faction in Iran needs a media outlet. He stated that if each expressed their positions “officially and openly,” it would be become clear “who says what and who supports which party or faction.”
Rouhani then stated that the Iranian government’s policy of blocking internet sites and applications was a “mistake.” He stated: “We have to admit that we made a mistake in thinking that if we say using such and such medium is prohibited, everyone would listen. We saw that every time after blocking different mediums, methods to work around these blocks were created … at the end, the damage done especially to our youth and children from using workarounds has been greater than if they would have been able to naturally use the software that we blocked.”
In May 2018, six Rouhani administration ministers and two parliamentarians who serve on the “Committee for Identifying Criminal Content,” wrote a letter to Iran’s attorney general asking for Twitter to be unblocked. The decision to block or restrict access to websites and applications is made by either this committee or the judiciary. The judiciary blocked the popular messaging application Telegram last year.
The “Committee for Identifying Criminal Content” is comprised of 12 members and headed by the attorney general. The members consist of six government ministers, two members of parliament, the chief of police, the head of the Islamic Propagation Organization, the head of the state media organization, and a representative from the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution—a Qom-based cultural body.
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Communications Minister Says Friday Prayer Leaders Want Telegram Unblocked, Denies Rumors of Looming Instagram Ban
On January 28th, Communications and Information Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi stated that Friday Prayer leaders across Iran have called for the popular-messaging application Telegram to be unblocked. Telegram was blocked last May with an order from the Iranian judiciary, despite opposition from the Rouhani administration. Jahromi said that despite opposition from Friday prayer leaders, the judiciary was unwilling to remove the ban.
Jahromi stated: “The judiciary as the main decision maker in this regard is still holding on to its position and we see no change in the judiciary’s beliefs on this issue. They believe that the reasons for ban still exist and haven’t been resolved for it to be lifted.”
Jahromi also denied rumors that Instagram would be blocked. Jahromi made his statement on Twitter after conservative MP Javad Karimi Ghodousi said that “blocking Instagram is the decision of the government and the minister of communications told me himself he would soon carry this out.”
Jahromi contradicted Ghodousi, stating: “The view of one institution is not the view of the government. No order has been given to the administration to block Instagram.”
Over the past month, there have been several contradicting accounts by officials that Instagram would be blocked. Weeks ago, Javad Javidinia, the social media deputy for Iran’s attorney general, claimed there was a judicial order to block Instagram.
However, Mohammad Ali Sajani, a member of a parliamentary oversight body, dismissed Javidnia’s remark. He said that according to the attorney general, Instagram would not be blocked.
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Vice-President Jahangiri Meets with Bashar al-Assad
On January 28th, President Rouhani’s first-vice president Eshaq Jahangiri travelled to Damascus and met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Jahangiri was accompanied by a delegation of senior Iranian officials and businesspeople.
Jahangiri said of his trip: “Great agreements have been reached in the direction of advancing cooperation between our two countries. These agreements prove that the Islamic Republic will stand with the Syrian government and people in their reconstruction efforts just as it stood with them during the period of confronting terrorism.”
He added: “The prerequisite for economic cooperation is banking cooperation. For this reason, during this trip, agreements have been reached between central bank heads of our two countries.”
Syrian President Assad said that the agreements signed with Iran had “strategic significance” and “reinforce the two countries’ resistance and perseverance against the economic war being waged by some Western countries.” He added: “After the complete liberation of Syria, reconstruction will become the most important priority of the Syrian government. We desire broader cooperation with Iranian government and private companies in different areas.”
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Foreign Minister Zarif Rebukes the UAE as Iranian Trade with Oman and Qatar Increases
On January 28th, Foreign Minister Zarif sharply rebuked Emirati policies towards Iran in response to criticism that the foreign ministry was not reacting to an Emirati clampdown on Iranian traders and currency dealers. He said that “because of political and strategic mistakes of Emirati officials, the Emiratis entered the level of behaving in an unacceptable way.”
Zarif stated that Iran was exploring countermeasures, stating that the “approach being taken by the Islamic Republic of Iran, in addition to diplomatic steps, is to create the necessary opening points for countries that can replace the Emirates [as a major Iranian trade partners] and finding alternative methods so that we maintain our economic relations without worry of Emirati actions.”
According to reports, many Iranian traders have left the UAE for Oman and Qatar. While the UAE used to be Iran’s largest training partner, it has been replaced in recent years by China. According to official Iranian statistics, the UAE’s exports to Iran in the past nine months has dropped by 29 percent to under $5 billion. In contrast, Iran’s imports from Oman in the past nine months have increased nearly threefold, reaching $400 million.
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Rouhani Administration-linked Analyst Discusses Importance of JCPOA
On January 13th, Diako Hosseini, the director of the World Studies Program at the Rouhani administration-linked Center for Strategic Studies think tank in Tehran, discussed the importance of the JCPOA and America’s posture in the Middle East. He stated: “I don’t think America is worried about Iran leaving the JCPOA, but it is in fact eagerly counting down for Iran to do this … I believe that the main aim of America’s economic and political pressures against Iran is to make Iran tired and incentivize [it] to leave the nuclear deal.”
Hosseini asserted that the U.S. wishes to reduce its presence in the Middle East but had to balance this aim with maintaining its credibility with allies. He stated: “The Trump administration knows well that America no longer has far-reaching interests in this region and must, as quickly as possible, readjust its military and economic focus to another vital area, the Asia Pacific.”
He added: “However, this action requires gaining confidence that a gradual reduction of America’s presence in the Persian Gulf and West Asia will not create a power vacuum and doesn’t lead to the creation of challenging and hostile powers [to the U.S.], which would threaten U.S. allies and ultimately destroy Washington’s credibility in supporting its allies.”
Hosseini also contended that U.S. efforts to create international consensus against Iran would not be successful. He stated: “Naturally, Pompeo’s trip to the region is a continuation of efforts to create international consensus against Iran. Successfully creating international consensus against Iran to a large degree hinges on first successfully creating regional consensus against Iran.”
He continued: “America must prove that Iran is really a regional danger and that international consensus to help U.S. regional allies against the Iranian threat is necessary. This is not an easy task because Iran in reality is not a threat to its neighbors and because it seems that Iran’s neighbors do not agree on an Iranian threat.”
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Labor Activists Rearrested
On January 20th, activist Sepideh Gholian was arrested again in Ahvaz. Gholian was first arrested in November in connection to the labor protests led by workers from the Hafte Tapeh sugarcane factory and from Ahvaz Steel company.
According to a Hafte Tapeh media channel, security forces entered Gholian’s family home to detain her without an arrest warrant. After a physical confrontation with her brother, both Gholian and her brother were arrested.
BBC Persian reported that an audio clip has been released of Gholian from the time of her first arrest, in which she tells an intelligence official that she would commit suicide if her “confession” was released publicly. On January 26th, Iranian state TV aired the “confessions” of Gholian and labor leader Esmail Bakhshi.
Bakhshi was also re-arrested on January 20th. As detailed previous issues of Iran Unfiltered, Bakhshi’s torture allegation spurred outcry, investigations, and eventual denials from officials that he had been tortured.
In the aftermath Bakhshi’s rearrest, 21 Iranian judiciary lawyers wrote a letter emphasizing that Bakhshi could not receive a fair trial in Shush. The lawyers said that given Bakhshi claims of having been tortured while in the custody of authorities in Shush, the court would not be a neutral party.
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Political Prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan Handed Six-Year Sentences
On January 19th, Abolqasem Salavati, the head judge of Tehran’s infamous Revolutionary Court Branch 15, handed out six-year sentences against political prisoners Farhad Meysami and Reza Khandan. Their lawyer says the ruling is not final and that they will appeal it. A previous issue of Iran Unfiltered detailed a letter by Meysami rebuking both the Trump administration’s Iran policy and Revolutionary Court Branch 15.
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Investigative Journalist Sentenced to Five-Years Imprisonment
On January 23rd, investigative journalist Yashar Soltani was sentenced to five years imprisonment. Two years ago, Soltani had released a report documenting corruption in the Tehran municipality related to giving away government property for political purposes.
According to his lawyer, the charges include “collecting and publishing classified information related to the Judiciary’s General Inspection Office and publishing false information with the aim of disturbing public sentiment.” Soltani has 20 days to appeal his sentence.
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University of Melbourne Professor Released from Prison
On January 27th, Meimanat Hosseini-Chavoshi, a demography professor at the University of Melbourne arrested in December, was released. As covered in a previous Iran Unfiltered, Hosseini-Chavoshi was arrested under charges of “infiltration,” i.e. being a foreign agent seeking to engineer “soft regime change” by changing the Islamic Republic from within.
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Two Members of a Pro-Labor Group Arrested
On January 29th, the “Confederation of Free Workers” announced in a statement that Jafar Azimzadeh and Parvin Mohammadi, respectively the secretary and member of the managing committee of the confederation, have been arrested. Azimzadeh was previously arrested in 2016 and was released after undertaking a two-month hunger strike. Mohammadi had in recent months written articles condemning the government’s reaction to protests by the Hafte Tapeh factory and Ahvaz Steel workers.
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Trial of Detained Environmentalists Begins
On January 30th, Iranian outlets reported that the trial of eight environmentalists arrested last January has begun in Tehran’s Revolutionary Court Branch 15, under judge Abolqasem Salavati. Read about the case of the detained environmentalists in previous issues of Iran Unfiltered.
Mohammad Hossein Aghassi, the lawyer for one of the defendants, said that he wasn’t given permission to be in the court because the judiciary had chosen its own lawyers for the suspects. Aghassi said that the charges against four of the defendants was “sowing corruption on Earth,” a capital offense in Iran. Three others were charged with espionage, and one with “acting against national security.”
Aghassi added: “The actions that some of these suspects have committed was approaching military facilities as they were doing environmental activities and gathering military information from these areas.”
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