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Syria, Iraq Reportedly Impose Restrictions On Iranian Imports

Trucks are seen at Haj Omran border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, October 14, 2017

While the Supreme Leader of Islamic Republic has triumphantly declared victory over the Islamic State group in Syria, Damascus has put restrictions on imports from Iran, the deputy head of Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture, ICCIMA., announced.

Furthermore, Iraq has also quintupled tariffs for Iranian dairy products, from 5% to 25% overnight.

State run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA cited Hassan Selah Varzi Friday, November 24, as saying, “The restrictions Syria has imposed on Iranian imports has practically has put a halt to exports from Iran to Syria”.

Selah Varzi explained, “The Syrian market is full of contraband goods smuggled from Turkey and Syrians long to buy them”.

However, Selah Varzi stopped short of providing details on the restrictions.

According to the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, the volume of Tehran’s [non-oil and petrochemical] exports to Syria, prior to the civil war, was $350 million per year which has currently dropped to $250 million.

Lacking a common land border with Syria is one of the main problems for Iranians for exporting their goods to the country, while Turkey can easily reach the Syrian market through its common border with the country.

Other problems facing Iranian exporters to Syria, according to ICCIMA officials are complicated customs regulations and extreme bureaucracy.

In recent years, the Islamic Republic has significantly backed Syria with financial assistance, including a one billion-dollar credit line and $3.6 billion for importing goods.

Moreover, Reuters and other international news agencies have reported that since 2013 the Central Bank of Iran has granted Syria several credit lines including $5.6 billion mainly for importing oil from Iran.

In 2015, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signed a law ratifying a $1 billion credit line from its top regional ally Iran, Syria’s state news agency SANA said, funds which will could help ease economic strains from the costly war.

The agreement was between two state-owned banks, the Syrian Commercial Bank and the Export Development Bank of Iran. Syria signed a previous $3.6 billion credit line with Iran in July 2013 which was used up mostly for oil imports, Reuters reported at the time.

However, many analysts believe that Iran’s financial assistance for Bashar al-Assad is much higher than what is publicly admitted.

Meanwhile, Iran and Syria have several agreements on joint plans for developing oil and energy industries.

In 2015, in a report based on research and professional estimations, Bloomberg reported that the Islamic Republic spends at least one billion-dollar per year to help Bashar al-Assad.

In the meantime, ICCIMA deputy has complained about significant increase of Iraqi tariffs for Iranian products.

“Overnight, Iraq has increased from 5% to 25% its tariff for Iranian dairy”.

According to Selah Varzi, 75% of Iranian exports to Iraq are dairy products and the higher tariff is catastrophic for the Iranian dairy industry, possibly leading to the bankruptcy of many dairy producers.

Last year, Iran with $6.2 billion exports was the third largest exporter to Iraq after China an United Arab Emirates, respectively.

The Pressure On Ahmadinejad And His Allies Continues

Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (C) alongside his aides speaking at a gathering in a shrine near Tehran on Saturday November 18, 2017.

Mahmud Ahmadinejad and his close allies are still looking for a hattrick to stay in the game. They have even tried the age-old tactic of taking refuge in a holy shrine, but it failed to achieve the desired result.

Their ephemeral sit-in protest at the Shi’ite holy shrine of Shah Abdol-Azim in Shahr-e Rey, southern Tehran, ended when an alleged bunch of plainclothesmen stormed the shrine and battered the supporters of the former two-time president.

The clash garnered the outcome the attackers wanted: end your show or expect more to come.

For Ahmadinejad’s trio of supporters -- his former deputy president in executive matters, Hamid Baghaei, close aide Ali Akbar Javanfekr, and his chief accountant, Habibollah Khorasani -- the message was crystal clear. The sit-in was a nonstarter.

Even Ahmadinejad’s presence and his vitriolic speech against the influential Larijani brothers did not attract the needed public attention.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters submitted to the police for the sake of appearances, declaring they were ending their sit-in lest the “rogues” disturb the peace of pilgrims and insult the Shi’ite sacred mausoleum.

However, the bitter experiment of the trio deepened when they heard that the managing editor of a website supporting Ahmadinejad, Dolat-e Bahar (The Government of the Spring) had been detained.

The website reported on November 21 that Mohammad Hossein Heidari had been arrested and would be kept behind bars until raising 1 billion rials (roughly $30,000) in bail.

The website had already maintained it had been blocked by the authorities for publishing Ahmadinejad’s acerbic attacks against the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, and his brothers.

It was also reported that Ahmadinejad’s official website has been shut down by security officials.

Meanwhile, the court in charge of trying Baghaei held a session in his absence, declaring the end of legal procedure.

“The judge has asked some questions, and as soon as the answers are received he will issue his verdict,” Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on November 22.

Baghaei sarcastically responded on Twitter, writing, “End of what legal procedure? Sham indictment! Formal phony trial! Assigned Judge! The verdict, ready to be typed! May you never get tired Messrs. Sadeq Larijani [the head of judiciary], Sheikh Hossein Ta’ib [a cleric in charge of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps intelligence department] and Hassan Rouhani.”

Baghaei was first arrested for embezzlement in 2015 but, according to Ahmadinejad’s close allies, he was later freed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s special order.

Once again, last July, Baghaei was detained but later released on a large bail.

Currently, another close ally of Ahmadinejad, Esfandyar Rahim Mashshayee, has also been summoned to court for allegedly insulting the supreme leader, offending the ruling system’s officials, and spreading false information.

Ahmadinejad has also been accused of corruption.

On July 30, the head of the Audit Court announced seven verdicts against Ahmadinejad, but the full report was not made public.

At the time, the former president dismissed the charges and threatened to disclose a “cowardly scenario” by “bands of power and wealth.” He alleged that a “cabal” was waging war against the former leading officials of his administration.

The Iranian Parliament’s Audit Court announced on October 18 that Ahmadinejad, in the last 18 months of his presidency, spent approximately $1.3 billion of Iran’s oil income illegally.

On November 22, parliament’s news website published the report of the court about “oil related infractions” of the Ahmadinejad government.

The court ordered the former president to repay $1.3 billion to the treasury. The ruling maintains that that during Ahmadinejad’s tenure oil revenues were spent without proper transfer from the Oil Ministry to the treasury.

Although the court has found Ahmadinejad directly responsible, it has not issued any other measures against him.

The Audit Court has limited powers of punishment. It can reduce an official’s pay or at most fire officials from government jobs, but it is not empowered to issue harsher verdicts.

Ahmadinejad has always maintained that his administration has been the most transparent and cleanest government Iran has ever had.

Report: Iran’s Social Security Organization At The Brink Of Bankruptcy

Retired people demonstrating in Tehran. They demand higher retirement checks as the Iranian currency has steadily lost its value. File photo

A report published by the Iranian Parliament’s Research Center says that the country's Social Security Organization is facing a serious risk of bankruptcy.

“The likelihood of a financial insolvency of the Social Security Organization in the next decade is very high”, the report warns and adds that the dimension of the crisis will be so huge that the government would not be able to control it.

Considering the nationwide coverage provided by the Social Security Organization and the diversity of the beneficiaries, its possible bankruptcy could result in widespread economic and social unrest in the country, the report reads.

Iran’s Social Security Organization is a public institution that operates independently and provides health insurance, pension and unemployment benefits to its members. They range from workers and government employees to self-employed individuals. More than 42 million Iranians (ca. 52% of the population) receive some type of benefit from the organization.

According to Iranian Parliament’s Research Center, a rapid increase in the number of beneficiaries, due to an aging population, low birth rates, increasing costs of health-care services, budget deficit, mismanagement, government’s interference, and government’s failure to meet its financial obligations are the major factors responsible for the crisis that the Social Security Organization is facing.

The Organization also owns dozens of companies that are not profitable and its former head was convicted of corruption charges in 2016.

On Monday, Members of the Iranian parliament warned about the possible bankruptcy of the Social Security Organization and urged the government to start paying its massive debt to the fund. A high-ranking official of the Social Security Organization announced recently that its uncollected receivables is more than $36 billion. Most of this is due to delayed government contributions to the fund and accumulated interest. However, the Parliament’s Research Center estimated the this amount to be $29 billion.

In order to solve its financial problems temporarily, the Social Security Organization has been borrowing money from banks.

According to the report, the organization’s debt to banks subsequently has jumped from less than $1 million in 2011 to more than $2 billion last year, making the Social Security Organization a “super borrower”.

The organization’s spending during last year has also exceeded $2 billion, 15% more than its income.

If the current trend continues, within 8 years its budget deficit will reach $27 billion, the report says.

Release Labor Activist - Center For Coordinating Islamic Councils

Reza Shahabi, the Treasurer of Tehran public bus company union.

The secretary of Center for Coordinating Islamic Work Councils in Tehran has announced that the legal case against imprisoned labor activist, Reza Shahabi must be reviewed, noting, “Defending trade union rights is not a crime and article 26 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution on workers and labor associations must be upheld.

According to state-run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA, Hossein Habibi insisted that Reza Shahabi’s legal case should be reviewed and, as an elected member of Tehran workers, he is going to follow his appeal.

Mr. Habibi represents the officially sanctioned trade unions of the Islamic Republic and his defense of an imprisoned labor activist is important.

The detained treasurer of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, Reza Shahabi, under pressure from the Prosecutor-General’s office, introduced himself to Rajaei Shahr prison last summer.

Shahabi who was on medical furlough, found out that the Prosecutor-General had not endorsed his furlough and decided to put him back in prison.

You have gone on an unauthorized medical furlough, Shahabi was told; “Therefore, you are condemned to stay behind bars for another 968 days”.

With no success, Shahabi tried to clarify the case by explaining that his medical furlough was approved by the Forensic Medicine Organization, which must certify if a prisoner is seriously ill.

As his protests fell on deaf ears, Shahabi went on hunger strike and soon his health deteriorated to the extent that international human rights organizations and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), issued statements, calling for his unconditional release.

Shahabi’s health condition deteriorated so much that according to ILNA, “The members of the High Center for Islamic Labor Councils intervened and called upon the Labor Minister to use all his influence to release Shahabi”.

A protest was held in front of Iranian parliament in September demanding his release. The police forcibly dispersed the protestors.

Dozens demonstrated in front of Parliament demanding the release of Reza Shahabi.
Dozens demonstrated in front of Parliament demanding the release of Reza Shahabi.

The imprisoned labor activist ended his hunger strike after fifty days while he was promised that his case would be reviewed.

Shahabi who is a board member and the treasurer of the Tehran public bus company union, insists that his 986 day sentence should be repealed. He has vowed to go on another hunger strike if his demands are not met.

Many international Labor organizations, including International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and International Union of Industrial Workers have called upon the Islamic Republic officials to help release Shahabi.

ITUC’s Secretary-General, Sharon Burrow, while referring to what she described as years of torture and inappropriate treatment of Shahabi behind bars, reiterated, “[Reza] the labor rights activist was on medical furlough but Tehran’s prosecutor-general refused to extend his parole.”

Protesting the inhumane situation and injustice against Shahabi, Burrow wrote in a letter to President Hassan Rouhani, “Leaving Reza Shahabi behind bars is against Iran’s international commitments, which prohibit detaining labor activists who are peacefully campaigning for workers’ rights”.

The Secretary-General of the International Industrial Workers’ Union, Walter Sanchez has also written a letter to Rouhani warning him, “Years of imprisonment, torture and mistreatment during interrogations have alarmingly deteriorated Reza Shahabi’s health”.

Citing Hossein Habibi, ILNA reported, “Shahabi’s initial charge was attempting to launch an illegal entity, whereas, what he did was in accordance with Article 26 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution, stipulating that defending labor rights is quite lawful”.

Article 26 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution explicitly stipulates, “The formation of parties, societies, political or professional associations, as well as religious societies, whether Islamic or pertaining to one of the recognized religious minorities, is permitted provided they do not violate the principles of independence, freedom, national unity, the criteria of Islam, or the basis of the Islamic republic”.

It also insists, “No one may be prevented from participating in the aforementioned groups, or be compelled to participate in them”.

Meanwhile, Hossein Habibi has bitterly demanded’ “Why the judiciary does not take any action toward maintaining labor rights?”

Furthermore, he has asserted that, regarding Reza Shahabi’s poor health, the Center for Coordinating Islamic Councils expects his legal case reviewed as soon as possible.

Outspoken Daughter Of Slain Iranian Dissidents Going On Trial For 'Spreading Propaganda'

"It's a fact that the security establishment murdered my parents," says Iranian artist Parastou Forouhar. "They said themselves that they did it."

The murders of Parastou Forouhar's parents were pinned on Iran's Intelligence Ministry. Now, the same ministry is going after the artist for speaking out about their deaths and her alleged ties by extension to a scandal over an activist who was photographed drinking wine.

Forouhar will go on trial on November 25, three days after the 19th anniversary of the deaths of her parents, Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar. The two political activists and dissidents were stabbed to death in their Tehran home in November 1998 in a killing that officials later blamed on rogue intelligence agents, despite suggestions otherwise.

Their deaths were part of a series of extrajudicial killings of Iranian dissidents and intellectuals that later came to be known as the "Chain Murders of Iran."

Authorities said the agents responsible for the killings had acted "arbitrarily." An investigative journalist and activists suggested that senior officials had authorized the killings, however.

Forouhar, an artist based in Germany who travels to Tehran every fall to hold a memorial service for her parents, has suggested that she's being pressured over her efforts to keep her parents' memories alive, as well as her calls for justice.

Parvaneh Forouhar was murdered in her home in Tehran in 1998, along with her husband, Dariush (not pictured).
Parvaneh Forouhar was murdered in her home in Tehran in 1998, along with her husband, Dariush (not pictured).

The charges against Forouhar include "spreading propaganda against the [Iranian] establishment," which she says stems from her interviews and attempts at raising awareness about the killings.

"The [Intelligence Ministry] charged me with 'propaganda against the state' because they said I gave interviews [to foreign media] and condemned the security establishment for murdering my parents," Forouhar told the New York-based Center For Human Rights In Iran last week.

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Iran's Social Security In Trouble As Government Owes $36 Billion To The Fund

Iran's Social Security Organization

Members of the Iranian parliament have urged the government to start paying its massive debt to the country’s Social Security Organization.

In a letter to President Hassan Rouhani on November 20, 157 MPs referred to a law requiring the government to pay its debts to the organization within 10 years and demanded that the government allocate sufficient funds for this purpose in its next year’s budget.

The government's debt to the Social Security Organization, a public institution that operates independently, is estimated to be more than $36 billion. Most of the accumulated debt is due to delayed government contributions to the fund and its interest.

Iran’s Social Security Organization provides health insurance and pension to its members that include workers, government employees, and even self-employed individuals. More than 42 million Iranians (ca. 52% of the population) receive some type of benefit from the organization.

The Social Security Organization provides services to the most vulnerable groups in the society, namely workers and therefore it is important for the government to meet its financial obligations, the Iranian MPs say.

According to the letter, not paying the organization’s debts would weaken it which could have “undesirable” social, economic, and political consequences and finally lead to its bankruptcy as several other retirement funds have experienced.

Ahmad Alavi, an Iranian economist residing in Sweden is not optimistic that the demand of the Iranian MPs can be fulfilled. The government is already facing a massive budget deficit and has many other financial commitments that prevent it from being able to pay its debts to the Social Security Organization, Alavi told Radio Farda.

According to experts such as Mr. Alavi, most of the damage to the organization was inflicted during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, which wasted money on subsidies and “buying off” various individuals or groups by engaging in favoritism.

Alavi also says that the government owes substantial amounts of money to private contractors too, who over the years have worked on government construction and other projects. One reason why some companies do not pay their workers on time, is the fact that the government does not pay what it owes to these companies for work already completed.

Not paying workers’ wages for months leads to labor protests, which has become a frequent phenomenon in the past year.

According to the officials of Iran's Social Security Organization, the financial constraints have affected the quality of the services provided by their institution. The results of a recent poll conducted by the organizations shows that 52% of the pensioners are financially struggling.

Political Groups Launch Council of Iranian Democrats

The first conference of the Iranian Democrats Council which was held in Cologne on Saturday November 18, 2017.

Ten political groups from various Iranian national communities came together on November 18 in Cologne, Germany, with the ambition to create an alternative choice for the Iranian people.

Under the banner of justice, freedom, security, and human rights, the parties promised as a united coalition to guarantee national minority rights while maintaining territorial integrity.

The new coalition, branded as the Iranian Democrats Council(IDC), is an offshoot of a larger group, the Congress of Nationalities for a Federal Iran.

In an interview with Radio Farda’s Shahram Mirian, a member of the IDC representing the Kurdistan Democratic Party and one of the speakers at the conference, Khalid Azizi, described the gathering as positive and crucial.

“The Islamic Republic’s strong point is the fact that its opposition has always failed to unify. They have always been dispersed, therefore, this conference is the first step toward creating a unified coalition that could be presented to the people as an alternative to the current ruling system in Iran,” Azizi said.

Another speaker at the conference, London-based women’s rights activist Nahid Hosseini, maintained, “The spontaneous reaction of Iranians to the recent earthquake in western parts of the country, sidestepping the regime and helping the survivors proved their readiness for creating a united front.”

Hosseini said that Iranian political parties “have always come together but never succeeded to create a solid bloc. As soon as they get together, they are accused of plotting separation and secessionist attempts. Yet today we saw that everybody was talking about Iran’s territorial integrity.”

Washington-based Karim Attarian also lamented, “For almost 40 years, we have been an opposition to the Islamic Republic, and the Islamic Republic would love to keep us as its opposition for another 40 years.”

“The Islamic Republic proved that ruling systems based on ideology are doomed to fail. We, as an opposition, are not against the religion; we believe in separation of politics and faith,” he added.

More than 20 dissidents delivered speeches at a series of panels. Most tried to present proposals for a “peaceful, non-violent political transition” in Iran.

The conference, which vowed to meet again, ended with a unanimously approved resolution in Persian and English. The resolution accuses Iran of “mismanagement, plundering of national wealth, suppression and violations of the fundamental rights of the Iranian peoples,” asserting that “the government of the Islamic Republic is a state-terrorist government that has misused the resources and wealth of the country for its evil intentions over the past decades by relying on political Islam and the reactionary system of Velayat-e Faqhih as its ideology.”

While respecting the UN Human Rights Charter, the resolution insists, “We believe that the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran is by no means susceptible to reform.”

Therefore, the resolution concludes, “The change of regime is a national Iranian agenda, using peaceful means to transition to the rule of law, based on a decentralized federal democratic republic…based on separation of religion from the state, pluralism, social liberty, and social justice, utilizing all methods of peaceful struggles including civil disobedience, civil uprising, and other appropriate means of addressing and defending the rights of people of Iran.”

The resolution also promises, “In future democratic Iran, the legal and gender equality between men and women, the freedom of all religious and beliefs, the individual and collective rights of citizens, the freedom of the various cultures, the freedom of the press and the media, the freedom of political and social activities must be guaranteed.”

Besides the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Komoleh Party of Kurdistan is also part of the new council.

People’s Party of Baluchistan and the Democratic Party of Baluchistan joined the council with the Solidarity Democratic Party of Ahwaz, Political and Cultural Organization of Azerbaijan, Political, Democratic Party of Lorestan and Political and Cultural Organization of Turkmen Sahara.

Solidarity for Freedom and Human Rights Organization is the tenth signatory of IDC.

Low Income Iranians Forced To Live In Shipping Container Homes

Low income people around large cities in Iran, increasingly live in shipping containers.

Iranians increasingly use shipping container homes instead of regular houses or apartments, an Iranian MP said and warned about the consequences.

People in outskirts of large cities such as Tehran are deprived of basic housing and therefore an increasing number of them choose to live in shipping container homes, Masoud Rezaei was quoted as saying by Iranian media on Monday.

Iranian officials say that in the last 11 years, home prices have skyrocketed which has resulted in higher rents.

Currently in the capital Tehran, home buyers, on average, have to pay more than $1180 for one square meter, and renters must pay $7 for each square meter.

The minimum monthly wage for a worker in the current Iranian calendar year is just above $227, which means that a worker in Tehran with his entire monthly salary can only afford a residential unit that does not exceed 32 square meters (roughly 300 sq. feet).

According to a report by Shahrvand newspaper, renting price for shipping container homes is 1/8 of the rent for regular homes. “Depending on the area where the container is located and its type, the [monthly] rent varies from $12 to $73,” a real estate agent told Shahrvand.

Iranian MP Rezaei criticized the government for not paying enough attention to poor people living in outskirts of the cities and said the emergence of slums will lead to security problems for the cities, an increase of diseases, “moral corruption”, and other social problems.

“It is time that government officials stop with their empty promises and take actions in order to distribute opportunities equally, fight unemployment, and improve the economy and people's life situation.”

It is not clear how many people are living in shipping container homes in Iran. However, last year, the head of Iran’s welfare organization described the emergence of slums, in addition to unemployment, as major “threats” to Iran and announced that between 12 and 13 million Iranians (between 15-16.25% of the entire population) live in slums.

Abbas Akhoundi, Minister for Roads and Urban Development has even spoken of 19 million living in slums (23.75% of the entire population).

In the months leading up to the 1979 Iranian revolution, growing slums around Tehran was one of the major talking points of anti-Shah activists.

Leaked Memo Fuels New Allegations Of Ethnic Bias In Afghan Government

Is the "national unity" government of President Ashraf Ghani (left) and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah divided beyond repair?

The letter, sent earlier this month by an Afghan police commander, requested recruits for a new antiriot force in the capital, Kabul. Officer candidates should come from the country's main ethnic groups -- Hazara, Uzbek, and Pashtun.

Left out was the country's second-largest ethnicity -- Tajiks.

Now the letter has leaked, published in the Afghan press and circulated on social media, sparking an uproar and provoking new accusations of systemic ethnic favoritism in the administration of President Ashraf Ghani.

The controversy comes with ethnic tensions already running high, spurred on by an unpopular central government divided between Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who draws political support from the Tajik community. Ghani, a Pashtun, has been dogged by claims of favoritism and stoking tensions, allegations that he vehemently denies.

In the November 18 letter written by Abdul Fattah Frogh, a commander of the Afghan Public Protection Forces (APPF), he asks officials for recruits for the new force, and pointedly singles out Tajiks.

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Analysis: Iran’s Failed Response To Natural Disasters

Aid is being distributed to earthquake stricken areas in western Iran.

After the Nov. 12 earthquake in western Iran that left hundreds dead and thousands wounded -- and a death toll expected to climb as rescue efforts are still under way -- the country has witnessed an unprecedented wave of sympathy.

Instead of donating to government agencies, citizens have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to personal initiatives. Volunteers from across the country and dozens of trucks loaded with donated goods rushed to the disaster-hit area.

Many Iranians quite simply and justifiably do not trust their government to handle the catastrophe and are trying to take the situation into their own hands. This phenomenon has its roots in the undemocratic structure of the country.

In democratic countries, along with the central government, there are regional and local governments that can take charge and respond to natural disasters.

Unfortunately, anyone who would suggest the benefits of a federal structure, with local governments, is promptly accused of treason and supporting separatism in Iran.

In a democracy, the central government becomes involved only when local authorities are not able to handle the crisis on their own. But this is not the case in Iran, where local governments do not exist and the institutions that do exist on a local level are weak.

Therefore, any crisis has to be resolved by the central government, which suffers from widespread corruption, is slow to respond, and prioritizes political interests over helping people and saving lives.

If local emergency institutions prepared for natural disasters existed, the number of casualties and the suffering of victims would be much less than today.

Local institutions can mobilize rescuers and equipment in a short period of time, and this is crucial for earthquakes in particular. But in the absence of such institutions, the local population has no option but to rely on the central government for support.

Unfortunately, anyone who would suggest the benefits of a federal structure, with local governments, is promptly accused of treason and supporting separatism in Iran.

A Lack of NGOs

The Iranian regime has systematically suppressed social and political activists and banned most nongovernmental organizations.

It has tried to replace NGOs with the paramilitary Basij, which is loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In some cases, the regime has even created fake NGOs because it views organic ones as a challenge to its centralized power.

In emergency situations like natural catastrophes, NGOs can play a significant role. A group of local volunteers consisting of 10 or 15 members can help the victims of an earthquake more effectively than a 100-strong military unit stationed miles away. Individual, ad-hoc initiatives were plenty but the absence of local and national NGOs was evident.

While Iran paid thousands of dollars to Lebanese citizens who lost their houses in Israeli attacks, Iranian villagers who lost their houses in earthquakes can never hope to see such generosity from their government.

Many victims of previous earthquakes in Iran are still struggling to recover, having not been able to rebuild their houses and are still living in tents and huts. The government has allocated funds for the reconstruction of their houses, but the money was lost to institutions such as Basij and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

While Iran paid thousands of dollars to Lebanese citizens who lost their houses in Israeli attacks, Iranian villagers who lost their houses in earthquakes can never hope to see such generosity from their government.

President Hassan Rouhani’s recent remarks show that he realizes the severity of the problem. Immediately after the earthquake, he noted that many of the affordable houses built under his predecessor, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, were destroyed and added that the government should refrain from such ventures.

“We should assign the job to the people. They can do things better, faster, cheaper, and more precisely,” he said.

The views expressed in this op-ed do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda.

Muslim Leader's Arrest In Kyrgyzstan Puts Attention On Secretive Islamic Society

Yaqyn Inkar members said being on video is a sin in Islam and asked that their faces not be filmed during an interview by RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service.

The arrest of a leader from a banned Islamic group in Kyrgyzstan has put a spotlight on a secretive community that tries to live as Muslims did in the seventh century.

Kyrgyz police said on November 14 that they had arrested a man from the group, which is known as Yaqyn Inkar.

The 47-year-old man, whose legal name was not given but is known by the nickname Nurmoldo, was ordered held for two months while he is investigated for inciting “national, racial, religious, or interregional hatred,” police said.

He was arrested in Belovodsk, near Bishkek, on October 20.

Local news reports said he has two wives and 12 children, but little else is known about him.

'Denial Of Everything Except God'

His arrest brought renewed attention on the little-known, mysterious Muslim community, which a court in June declared an extremist organization and banned its activities.

Taking its name from the Arabic words “yakan” and “inkar” -- which translate as “denial of everything except God” -- members of the community say they are expected to live as people did during the life of the Prophet Muhammad, using “only what God sent.”

They say there is no need to work. They even say that their teachings say that those who work are infidels.... They can be dangerous for society."
-- Rustam Ybykeev, Islamic official in Karakol

Men are supposed to grow out their beards and often wear Pakistani-style white clothes. Followers do not recognize any state institutions and refuse to register their children’s births or send them to school.

All electronic devices -- including mobile phones and televisions -- are forbidden and members are expected to eschew cars or buses, traveling instead by foot or on horseback.

They also believe that work interferes in their religious rituals and that men are not obligated to provide for their families, leading many of them to not hold jobs because they believe that “God will provide.”

The community also does not use money and its members are not supposed to go to doctors or accept aid from social services.

Modern Dress, Mobile Phones

Despite the stated strictures, however, many members don’t appear to follow many of the tenets of the community, as RFE/RL Kyrgyz Service reporters found during a visit to a community in the northeastern Issyk-Kul region.

Some of the men were wearing modern dress and several carried mobile phones, though they claimed not to use the Internet.

Yaqyn Inkar members said being on video is a sin in Islam and asked that their faces not be filmed during the interview.

One of the believers, Abdurakhim Abdraev, said they were not members of Yaqyn Inkar but rather of the worldwide Islamic movement Tablighi Jamaat.

“In today’s society, many things are going in ways that are not in accordance with Sunni regulations regarding the [Islamic way of life],” he told RFE/RL.

Tablighi Jamaat, which translates as Messenger’s Assembly, is banned in Russia and every other Central Asian country except Kyrgyzstan.

Kadyr Malikov, a religious expert and director of the analytical center Religion, Law, and Politics in the capital, Bishkek, said that Yaqyn Inkar is a breakaway group of Tablighi Jamaat that was started because some members of Tablighi Jamaat did not think the group was as true to original Islamic ideals as it should be.

In 2016, there were estimated to only be a few dozen members of Yaqyn Inkar. Those numbers are believed to have grown into the hundreds, though precise numbers are unknown.

'Dangerous For Society'

Begun around 2012, the Yaqyn Inkar community spread mainly in the northern districts of Tyup and Ak-Suu, as well as in the city of Karakol and other parts of the Issyk-Kul region, according to Malikov.

Some Kyrgyz officials have expressed concern that the movement could spread to southern regions, which is traditionally more observant than the largely secular north.

Mainstream Islamic officials in Kyrgyzstan have been critical of Yaqyn Inkar.

“They say there is no need to work. They even say that their teachings say that those who work are infidels.... They can be dangerous for society,” Rustam Ybykeev, an Islamic official in Karakol, told RFE/RL.

Mufti Maksatbek Toktomushov said the Yaqyn Inkar members “do damage to themselves” and attract people to a form of “Sufism.” He attacked their belief that men do not need to provide for their families because God will do so.

“As a result, in some cases people refuse to support their children and even leave them.... But in real Islam, everybody has obligations,” he said. “You have obligations, your wife does, [and] your children have rights, which their teaching apparently does not agree with.”

Khameni's Top Aide Defends State Built Housing Demolished in Earthquake

Vahid Haqqanian seen next to the Supreme Leader in Rouhani's inauguration.

A top consultant to the Supreme Leader ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stepped in to defend the controversial “Mehr” (affection) housing project in full force.

The November 11 earthquake that hit western Iran, devastated state built apartment buildings leading to attacks against former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who initiated the project.

Critics, among them President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, have maintained that the residential units built on free plots granted by the state were so fragile that most of them easily collapsed in the earthquake, killing hundreds.

However, the Supreme Leader’s top aide, who usually keeps away from the spotlights, Vahid Haqqanian has dismissed the criticism and branded it as “panic mongering”.

Based on audio and video clips widely circulated in social media, Haqqanian, an Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’, IRGC commander and reportedly the “right hand” of the Supreme Leader, has lambasted Rouhani and his first deputy for “unfair” comments on “affordable” Mehr housing units mostly built during Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

“May God damn [Vice President] Jahangiri who initiated the politically motivated criticism of Mehr buildings”.

A day after the earthquake hit Kermanshah province, Rouhani’s first deputy, Ishaq Jahangiri bitterly declared that most of the buildings which collapsed in the earthquake belong to the Mehr housing project and most of the victims have been residents of these units.

“The project had no oversight, whatsoever”, Jahangiri said.

Furthermore, Rouhani also personally stepped in and attacked the state-built housing projects, describing them as a scheme deeply mired in corruption.

The dangerous 7.3 earthquake that hit the Iran-Iraq border region, was relatively close to the surface, but Iran suffered a heavier casualty rate, which many blamed on the collapse of many state built housing projects.

Nonetheless, Haqqanian has insisted that the “Mehr housing units are quite safe and comments on their fragility is merely panic mongering that could lead to fear among twelve million people living in the state built apartments”.

Meanwhile, deputy for construction affairs of Kermanshah Province, Mojtaba Nik Kerdar announced on Saturday, November 18, “[During the earthquake] two Mehr bulildings in city of Sarpol-e Zahab completely collapsed and 100 of the residents were killed”.

The head of Iran’s engineering supervisory board, Hassan Ghorbankhani also reiterated that his institution has never had any supervision over Mehr housing project.

The fact that state built units have collapsed but privately built ones are still standing reveals that corruption has been involved in building Mehr units, Rouhani had insisted, adding “It proves that governments are not good in building houses and people do much better in that sense”.

Mehr Housing project was an ambitious scheme initiated by then President Ahmadinejad in 2011.

“When I wrap-up my second term of presidency”, Ahmadinejad proudly declared in 2011, “The problem of housing in Iran will be rooted out”.

The promise was never fulfilled. Ahmadinejad wrapped-up his presidency with about two million Mehr units built all over Iran, leaving the rest of the project for his successor, Rouhani.

Nevertheless, Rouhani from the first days of his presidency did not shy away from saying that the Mehr project is an unbearable responsibility for the government.

On October 30, 2013, Rouhani’s minister of housing, Abbas Akhoundi announced “We discontinue Mehr Housing Project, but we will finish only the incomplete buildings”, adding that the government will come up with another social housing plan.

Rouhani and his close allies have always insisted that units built under the Mehr Project have no sewage and water purifying systems and they are built in locations devoid of necessary infrastructure.

But in a meeting with Rouhani and his cabinet members in 2014, ayatollah Khamenei explicitly ordered them to seriously carry on the project for “Millions of people are waiting for the completion of the project”.

In a reversal, Rouhani obediently declared that his government will not abandon the project.

Before Haqqanian’s comments in defense of the Mehr Housing Project, Ahmadinejad and his allies had also forcefully defended their record.

Ahmadinejad adviser Ali Akbar Javanfekr reiterated, "Heavy waves of propaganda against Mehr are aimed at covering up the weakness and inefficiency of the (Rouhani) administration in helping quake-hit people."

Notorious Baseej Patrols to be Re-Deployed All Over Iran

Gholamhossein Gheybparvar is a senior officer in the Revolutionary Guards who currently commands Basij forces, undated.

Neighborhood patrols will to be deployed all over Iran, the commander of Mobilization Resistance Force, Baseej, has announced.

“We have plans to reduce the number of checkpoints and gradually replace them with neighborhood patrols”, Iranian Students News Agency, ISNA cited the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ commander of Baseej, General Gholamhossein Gheybparvar as saying on November 15, in a press conference.

Meanwhile, in its Thursday edition, the reformist daily Etemad has compared the new plan to the notorious Revolutionary Committees, renowned as “Komiteh”s in 1979 when the Islamic Republic was established in Iran.

Immediately after the Islamic Revolution, the Komitehs, pushing the regular police forces aside, were deployed in all major cities, erecting checkpoints wherever they wanted, inspecting and searching people, vehicles and arresting whoever they suspected of being anti-revolutionary.

“Of all the Government agencies created as a result of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, not one is more feared or detested than the Komiteh, or Committee, the national disciplinary patrol responsible for enforcing Islamic regulations on social behavior” reported the New York Times in 1990.

Now, apparently the most feared Komitehs are set to return.

The commander of Baseej has not explained the necessity and reason behind devising the new plan but, has maintained, “The candidates for serving as patrols will be selected and trained after their credentials are approved”.

The new patrols, according to General Gheybparvar, “Are not going to be armed and will serve in coordination with judiciary and police forces”.

Exercise of "Sarollah", a 50 thousand Basij unit in Tehran. The mounted Baseej played a major role in breaking up protest gathering. Sept, 2015
Exercise of "Sarollah", a 50 thousand Basij unit in Tehran. The mounted Baseej played a major role in breaking up protest gathering. Sept, 2015

Furthermore, the IRGC general has insisted that the new patrols will not enter people’s private properties and will only take the responsibility for providing security in public places.

However, he has also not elaborated on what the new patrols can do that the police cannot.

Though, immediately after the Islamic Revolution, Baseej forces were deployed and set their own checkpoints all over Iran, but their numbers were significantly reduced in late 1980s.

In 2008, once again, Baseej patrols reappeared all over Iran. They used to patrol major cities on foot and in groups of five.

“Baseej patrols are deployed in 1000 urban locations all over Iran to help providing stable security in the neighborhoods, confront the burglars and thugs and prevent any attempt to vandalize and damage public properties”, Baseej’s Operations deputy, Ahmad Zolqadr said at the time.

Nevertheless, a year later, in 2009, during the controversial presidential election, the newly deployed patrols played a crucial role in suppressing millions of people who protested official result of the voting and reelection of the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Video clips and images showing a Baseej patrol car storming into protesters was widely distributed and shocked everybody.

According to reformist daily Etemad, the new plan is a sort of history revisited. The new patrols, Etemad says, are a reminder of Komitehs in 1980s when they were involved in a gamut of matters, including confrontation with distributors of what was labelled as “illegal cassettes” and tapes of songs and videos as well as storming into family parties they labelled as immoral.

Meanwhile, a motion titled as “strengthening Baseej” was passed by majlis on Wednesday, November 15. The parliamentary motion was originally passed in 2015 but the Guardian Council, GC returned it to majlis for some amendments.

Based on the new amendments, the government is dutybound to allocate suitable plots for military training of Baseej forces and their maneuvers.

Several other motions have also passed in recent years aimed at strengthening Baseej.

Baseej forces are mainly selected from volunteer youth, usually school dropouts who relish a powerful role in society.

It is not clear why parliament insists on strengthening Baseej and not the regular police force.

Chinese And Asian Banks Curtailed Ties To Iran - Iranian Official

An official of Iran’s Chamber of Commerce (ICC) says that China has imposed further restrictions on banking ties to his country.

Ali Shariati, a member of ICC told Iranian News Agency ILNA on November 14, that bank accounts belonging to Iranian businessman in China, Dubai, and Malaysia have been also “blocked” in recent days.

“China had limited its banking ties to us since weeks, but the restrictions have been boosted after the recent trip of U.S. president Donald Trump to Beijing”, Shariati added.

According to him, even students in Malaysia have been affected by the recent development. Malaysian banks have told “Iranian businessmen and students that they cannot provide services to them”, he said.

“Unfortunately, two years after the nuclear agreement, the Iranian businessman are still facing banking problems and many big banks are not ready to do business with Iran”, Shariati reiterated.

Last month, Iranian media had reported about similar restrictions by Chinese major banks including Agriculture Bank of China and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). However, based on a report by Mehr News Agency, the measures by Chinese banks had nothing to do with the U.S. sanctions.

On October 28, Mehr quoted Chinese officials as saying that the restrictions were caused by enforcing stricter regulations on Chinese banks as part of (Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering) FATF, an intergovernmental anti-corruption and money laundering body created by the Group of Seven leading industrial countries in 1989.

Following the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, all U.N. sanctions related to Iran’s nuclear program were lifted. But international companies and banks are still hesitant to do business with Tehran due to fear of violating unilateral sanctions imposed by United States against Iran.

President Trump said on October 13 he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the international agreement to curtail its nuclear program, and his administration imposed new economic sanctions in July against several Iranian entities and individuals over its ballistic missile program.

The Trump administration has also said Tehran’s “malign activities” in the Middle East undercut any “positive contributions” coming from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.

After Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Houthi rebels in Yemen on November 4th, United States and France accused Iran of supplying the missile to the Houthis. French President Emmanuel Macron even spoke of possible international sanctions against Tehran over its missile program.

US Announces Ways To Provide Help For Quake Victims In Iran

A woman mourns at an earthquake site in Sarpol-e-Zahab in western Iran, November 14, 2017

U.S. Department of the Treasury officially highlighted on Tuesday, November 14, the ways in which Americans can provide humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people.

“In light of the tragic earthquake in Iran, we would like to highlight some of the ways in which Americans can provide humanitarian assistance to the Iranian people, consistent with the Iran-related sanctions administered by the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC)” U.S. Virtual Embassy Iran cited OFAC as saying.

General License E (GL E), issued by OFAC in 2013, authorizes nongovernmental organizations to export services to Iran in support of the provision of relief services related to natural disasters, the provision of donated health-related services, and the distribution of donated articles (such as food, clothing, and medicine) intended to be used to relieve human suffering in Iran” U.S. Virtual Embassy Iran reported.

Furthermore, according to OFAC’s statement, “In addition, GL E authorizes transfers of up to $500,000 per 12-month period in support of these activities, subject to certain conditions”.

However, OFAC has noted, “Donations of food, clothing, and medicine, when intended to be used to relieve human suffering, are exempt from the sanctions on trade between the United States and Iran, as long as the donations are not being sent to the Government of Iran or any Iranian individual or entity on the List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons (SDN List)”.

Finally, OFAC states, “Subject to certain requirements, OFAC authorizes U.S. financial institutions to process noncommercial, personal remittances to Iran, which may include a personal transfer of funds from the United States to Iran to assist a friend or family member.

Further information on Iran-related sanctions administered by OFAC, including specific guidance and FAQs, can be found here: https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/Programs/pages/iran.aspx.”

The preliminary magnitude 7.3 quake, with its epicenter located about 19 miles south of Halabjah, Iraq, recorded at 9:18 p.m. (local time GMT+3:30) on Sunday, was felt as far away as Turkey and Pakistan.

The earthquake has been described as the world’s largest in current year.

In a statement on Monday, US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “The United States expresses its sincere condolences to all of those affected by the earthquake in Iran and Iraq.”

“We keep the families of those who were killed, and injured, in our thoughts as well as the communities that have suffered damage to homes and property,” she added.

Earlier, in late August Iran had voiced solidarity with the storm-stricken Americans as well as the families of the victims of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and claimed over forty lives.

U.S. severed its diplomatic relations with Iran after 52 of its embassy staff were taken hostage in 1979 in Tehran.

Why Iran Quietly Abolished Death Penalty For Some Drug Crimes

Critics say the extensive use of the death penalty -- including frequent mass hangings that the public is encouraged to attend -- has done little to stop drug use and trafficking in Iran.

Iran has some of the toughest antidrug laws in the world, with authorities handing out the death sentence to offenders trafficking or possessing as little as 30 grams of hard drugs like heroin or cocaine.

So it was a major turnaround when the parliament and the Guardians Council, the powerful clerical body that must approve all proposed legislation, abolished the death penalty for some drug-related crimes.

The amendments to the law, which came into effect on November 14, increase the threshold for the use of the death penalty. Capital punishment is reserved for those charged with trafficking 2 kilograms of hard drugs or more than 50 kilograms of cannabis or opium. The death sentence still applies for repeat offenders and lethal drug-related offences.

The changes to the decades-old laws -- expected to curb the number of executions in the Islamic republic, which has one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world -- have been driven by both international and domestic factors.

Read the full article

Iranian Currency Reaches New Lows As Inflation Remains High

A money changer poses for the camera with a U.S dollar (R) and the amount being given when converting it into Iranian rials (L), at a currency exchange shop at Tehran's business district. File photo

The value of the Iranian rial has again dropped in recent days, reaching a new record low for the national currency. On November 13, one U.S. dollar was exchanged at 41,100 rials, indicating an increase of more than 500 rials in just under two weeks.

The euro showed a similar trend reaching 48,900 rials, jumping more than 1,000 rials compared with the beginning of November.

One of the main reasons for rial’s downward spiral is the continuous high inflation rate. According to Iran's central bank, the inflation rate has hovered close to 10 percent for the past six months, more than three times the current global average.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projected Iran would not experience a positive change in this regard anytime soon. Based on the recent IMF report, Iran's inflation rate in 2017 will be 10.5 percent and 10.1 percent by the end of 2018.

Inflation being a structural problem, there are also other factors in play.

The recent decision by the central bank to lower interest rates for long- and short-term deposits from more than 20 percent to 15 percent. Following that decision, Iranian media have reported that people are less inclined to deposit their money in banks. Under such circumstances, buying foreign currencies seems a safer investment, which also pushes the exchange rate higher.

At the same time, it is possible the Iranian government wants to see the currency rate rise to certain levels in order to fill its budget deficit. In a country where the state controls major parts of the economy, the government is the main source of foreign currencies for the market.

10000 Rials Bank note used just before the Islamic revolution in Iran. It was valued at around $150.
10000 Rials Bank note used just before the Islamic revolution in Iran. It was valued at around $150.

Iran -- 10000 Rials Bank note which is used since 90'sin Iran. Its value is now 25 cents.
Iran -- 10000 Rials Bank note which is used since 90'sin Iran. Its value is now 25 cents.

Currently, foreign currencies are traded at two different rates: one a free market rate, which was at around 41,100 rials to the dollar as of November 13, and an official rate offered to some by the government for subsidized transactions such as vital imports, set by the central bank at 35,249 rials. The two-rate system has resulted in widespread corruption. By manipulating regulations or through their ties to bank officials, some receive foreign currencies at the government’s preferred rate and sell it on the free market for a considerable profit.

The Iranian government has long spoken of its plan to eliminate the two-tier system, but it has hesitated because of fears of uncontrolled negative consequences, such as skyrocketing prices of goods and services. It is possible that higher currency rates are a sign of a one-rate system being implemented in the near future.

While the devaluation of the rial can be a short-term solution for the budget deficit and encourage more exports by domestic producers, the Iranian government cannot continue devaluating the currency indefinitely. Rather, it needs to implement some vital reforms in the budget structure and financial system.

Currently, there are many institutions that swallow a big chunk of the country's financial resources without having a transparent record, including religious and military institutions mostly controlled by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

If President Hassan Rouhani wants to make Iran's economy stable, he needs to address this issue first and make institutions transparent and accountable without delay.

Hardline Newspaper Kayhan Blasts Government For Brief Shutdown

Hossein Shariatmadari is the managing editor of Kayhan, a conservative Iranian newspaper.

After a two-day suspension last week of his hardline conservative newspaper Kayhan, Managing Editor Hossein Shariatmadari said the ban was politically motivated.

In an interview with Fars, a news agency run by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Shariatmadari, himself an IRGC member and appointed to his editorial post by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, dismissed the suspension of the daily newspaper as unlawful.

Earlier, the government’s official news agency, IRNA, had reported that Tehran’s prosecutor-general’s office had said Kayhan’s headlines were against Iranian policy on security and regional matters and, as a punishment, it would be banned from publishing for two days.

In a controversial banner headline on November 6, Kayhan had applauded “Ansar-Allah’s Missile Fired at Riyadh; the Next Target, Dubai.”

The headline referred to a missile fired on November 4 by Houthi rebels in Yemen, targeting Riyadh’s airport. However, the missile was intercepted and brought down by Saudi Arabia’s missile shield.

Reacting to the headline, Ala’uddin Zohourian, secretary to the press supervisory board affiliated with the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, said the headline was against national security and that the daily had been given notice.

Nevertheless, Kayhan stood firm on November 7, saying it was in Iran's national interests to defend the Yemeni people rather than "Dubai’s skyscrapers."

Now after the suspension ended, Shariatmadari has once again defended his daily’s approach, maintaining the real reason behind the suspension was not the controversial headline but rather the newspaper’s revelations about mismanagement by Rouhani’s government.

“The government lacks sufficient capability and expertise to recognize national interests,” Fars cited Shariatmadari as saying. “The government has indeed harmed the country in many ways during the past four years.”

Elaborating further, Shariatmadari presented a long list of damages he says Rouhani’s administration has incurred on Iran and Iranians during his presidency. Referring to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, as a disaster, he also listed cooperation with the Financial Action Task Force, FATF, and the UNESCO 2030 document as “devastating” results of the incumbent’s performance.

Shariatmadari said it was also devastating when, in the middle of heated arguments and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear case, the government declared that Iran’s national treasury had run out of funds. “It was also damaging that [Rouhani’s government] created the illusion that the U.S. was capable of demolishing Iran’s military facilities by dropping only a single nuclear bomb,” he said.

Kayhan daily newspaper front page headline saying, “Ansarallah’s missile launch against Riyadh, Dubai next target”.
Kayhan daily newspaper front page headline saying, “Ansarallah’s missile launch against Riyadh, Dubai next target”.

Accusing the government of mismanagement of the economy, Shariatmadari noted, “The government’s destructive policies led to many factories and manufacturing units shutting down. The officials were paid astronomical sums of cash as salary and bonuses.”

Shariatmadari also cited Rouhani’s government repeatedly targeting the IRGC missile program as further evidence that Iran’s current executive organ is incapable of discerning national interests.

Kayhan (meaning Cosmos in Persian) was established in 1943 while Iran was occupied by allied forces during World War II. It went on to become one of the region’s most popular dailies. In the months leading up to the 1979 Iranian Revolution, its circulation reached 1 million.

Though there are no dependable statistics in Iran, it is believed Kayhan’s circulation has dropped over the past decades and is currently estimated to be 30,000 to 35,000 copies a day. However, many believe most of Kayhan’s readers are either state-run entities forced to subscribe or people interested in reading obituaries.

Shariatmadari carries the title of ayatollah Khamenei’s representative and is known to be close to the Supreme Leader.

Many have gone further, saying that what appears in Kayhan is a reflection of Khamenei’s opinions, and that it was Kayhan that laid the groundwork for Khamenei to order an annulment of UNESCO 2030, a document for developing education all over the world.

Kayhan, under Shariatmadari, has long been described as the main mouthpiece for Khamenei and his hard-liner and ultraconservative allies, who wield the real power in Iran, even when they lose elections.

So far, Kayhan has enjoyed a hidden privilege that allows it to target Khamenei’s critics with total impunity.

Neither Khamenei nor Rouhani and his ministers have reacted yet to Kayhan’s recent headline or Shariatmadari’s latest comments on the government’s “disastrous” performance.

Shariatmadari has managed the Kayhan publishing house, which includes the daily newspaper, since 1993.

Earliest Evidence Of Winemaking Found In Georgia - Beating Iran's Record

Grapes collected during a harvest near the village of Vazisubani, Georgia. New research indicates that wine has been made in the country for at least 8,000 years. (file photo)

The world's earliest evidence of grape winemaking has been detected in 8,000-year-old pottery jars unearthed in Georgia, making the tradition almost 1,000 years older than previously thought, researchers said on November 13.

Previously, the oldest chemical evidence of wine in the Near East dated to 5,400-5,000 BC and was from the Zagros Mountains of Iran, said a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a U.S. journal.

The world's very first wine is thought to have been made mostly from rice in China around 9,000 years ago, followed by the grape-based alcohol found in Iran. The find in Georgia dates to about 6,000 BC, the researchers said.

"We believe this is the oldest example of the domestication of a wild-growing Eurasian grapevine solely for the production of wine," said co-author Stephen Batiuk, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto.

Georgia, using the same Eurasian grape variety, Vitis vinifera, remains a major wine-growing region today.

"The wine was probably made similarly to the traditional qvevri method in Georgia today, where the grapes are crushed and the fruit, stems, and seeds are all fermented together," Batiuk said.

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David Lordkipanidze, director of the Georgian National Museum who helped lead the research, said wines made in Georgia today still use large qvevri jars similar to the ancient ones, which measured 80 centimeters tall and 40 centimeters wide.

The team of researchers hailed from the United States, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Israel, and Georgia. They have been working for the past four years to re-analyze archeological sites that were found decades ago.

The fragments of ceramic casks, some decorated with grape motifs and able to hold up to 300 liters, were found at two archaeological sites called Gadachrili Gora and Shulaveris Gora dating from the Neolithic period, about 50 kilometers south of the Georgian capital Tbilisi.

Researchers used a combination of mass spectrometry and chromatography techniques to identify the compounds found in wine in the ancient jar fragments.

Their chemical analysis "confirmed tartaric acid, the fingerprint compound for grape and wine," they said in their report.

Wine 'Central' To Western Civilization

Researchers also found three organic acids associated with wine -- malic, succinic and citric -- in the residue from the jars.

"The Eurasian grapevine that now accounts for 99.9 per cent of wine made in the world today, has its roots in Caucasia," Batiuk said, adding that the domestication of the grape "eventually led to the emergence of a wine culture in the region."

"Alcohol had an important role in societies in the past just as today," he said. "Wine is central to civilization as we know it in the West."

"As a medicine, social lubricant, mind-altering substance, and highly valued commodity, wine became the focus of religious cults, pharmacopoeias, cuisines, economies, and society in the ancient Near East," he said.

But the study's lead author, Patrick McGovern, a scientific director at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia who also co-authored the 1996 Nature study that placed the earliest evidence for grape wine in Iran, said the search for the truly oldest wine artifacts will continue.

"Other sites in the South Caucasus in Armenia and Azerbaijan might eventually produce even earlier evidence for viniculture than Georgia," McGovern said.

"The Taurus Mountains of eastern Turkey are also a prime candidate for further exploration with its monumental sites at Gobekli Tepe and Nevali Cori at the headwaters of the Tigris River," dating as far back as 9,500 BC, he said.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

As Syria Peace Talks Loom, Israel Warns It Will Act To Keep Iran Away From Border

Syria's main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Naser al-Hariri and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend a round of negotiation, during the Intra Syria talks, in Geneva, May 16, 2017

Saudi Arabia is set to host what it has called an “expanded” conference for the Syrian opposition this month, aiming to unify its position ahead of United Nations-backed peace talks, the state news agency SPA reported on Monday, November 13.

Apparently, Riyadh has already gained Moscow’s support for holding the three-day conference on 22-24 November, in Riyadh.

Earlier on November 8, the Russian foreign ministry had announced that Moscow supports Saudi Riyadh’s efforts to form a unified delegation from the Syrian opposition to participate in the Geneva talks, the Russian news agency, TASS reported.

Saudi Arabia backs a grouping of anti-Assad figures called the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) led by Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister under Assad, Reuters reported on Monday.

The HNC has represented the Syrian opposition at previous Geneva talks. A number of other political opposition groups and figures backed by other countries including Russia and Egypt also exist.

The kingdom, a leading backer of Syrian rebels, supports an international agreement on the future of Syria but insists that President Bashar al-Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end.

However, several rounds of U.N. talks in Geneva between the Damascus government and the opposition have made little progress, so far.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested on Monday that Israel would take military action in Syria whenever it sees fit as it seeks to ensure Iran-backed forces stay away from its territory.

Israel has long accused the Islamic Republic, its main enemy, of taking advantage of Syria's civil war to send its Islamic Revolution Guard Corps forces and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah into southern Syria, close to the border with the Jewish state.

While it has sought to avoid being dragged into the fighting in Syria, Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes aimed at what it has called “preventing arms deliveries [from Iran] to Lebanese Hezbollah, which fights alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces”.

Israel was reportedly demanding a buffer zone in southern Syria near Israeli territory of some fifty kilometers (thirty miles), but an agreement reached last week between the United States, Russia and Jordan fell short of that demand, Israeli media said.

"I have made it clear to our friends, first of all in Washington and also to our friends in Moscow, that Israel will act in Syria -- including in southern Syria -- according to our understanding and according to our security needs," Netanyahu told senior members of his Likud party, according to a party statement. "This is what is happening, and this is what will continue to happen", Netanyahu cautioned.

The November 8 agreement between Jordan, the United States and Russia seeks to build on a ceasefire already in place in southwestern Syria.

On Saturday the Israeli military said it shot down a Syrian drone carrying out a reconnaissance mission over the Golan Heights, AFP reported.

"We will not allow the consolidation of a Shiite axis in Syria" as a base for operations against Israel, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement after the incident.

Later Monday, Netanyahu echoed his defense minister’s position, while insisting that some of Israel's “moderate’ Arab neighbors shared its concerns.

"We stand side by side with countries of the moderate camp in the Arab world, confronting radical Islam, no matter where it comes from, be it Iran, the Islamic State group or elsewhere," he asserted, without naming the countries.

"I think that this growing closeness and consultation is first and foremost good for security and ultimately for peace," he added.

"Iran knows very well, and everyone else should be aware, that we shall not agree to nor accept its military deployment in Syria," Netanyahu noted.

Based on reporting by Reuters and DPA

Powerful Earthquake Wrecks Havoc In Western Iran -- Photogallary

Labor Activist Returned to Prison Amid Health Concerns

Mahmoud Salehi , labor activist, in chains while in hospital.

Imprisoned labor rights’ activist Mahmoud Salehi was transferred to the central prison in the city of Saqqez on November 11 despite doctors’ saying his health is too fragile.

Salehi’s wife, Najiba, who acts as the spokeswoman for the committee petitioning for his freedom, has accused Iran’s justice department and Intelligence Ministry of “joining hands to do their best to stop granting Salehi medical furlough.”

Security agents arrested Salehi on October 29 to commence his one-year prison sentence but five days later he was taken to the hospital in Saqqez for heart failure.

Meanwhile, Salehi’s family, citing local cardiologists, say the labor activist needs an advanced medical facility and should be transferred to a better-equipped hospital in Tabriz, Tehran, or Urmia.

Salehi’s son, Sarmand, had earlier told Radio Farda that his 45-year-old father has had two previous heart operations this year.

Salehi is a baker from the city of Saqqez in Kurdestan Province. He is one of the founders of the Coordinating Committee of Labor Organization and has been arrested several times for allegedly organizing strikes and launching labor rights movements.

“My father lost his kidneys during the last detention in 2015, but now we are really worried for his life,” Sarmand told the Iran Human Rights Monitor.

Iranian officials have not yet responded to the allegation.

Reportedly, Salehi was watched by three prison guards who had shackled and handcuffed him as he was bedbound in the hospital.

Salehi, who suffers from diabetes and lost his kidneys while imprisoned at the Intelligence Ministry’s detention center in the city of Sanandaj, regularly needs dialysis.

Seven Iranian labor associations have joined international human rights institutions in condemning the humiliating treatment. In a joint statement, they called upon the Iranian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the labor activist.

“The topmost executive and judiciary authorities will be responsible for any possible harm to Salehi’s health,” they said.

Meanwhile, 536 Iranian labor, teachers, and social activists signed a statement protesting what they call “inhuman behavior.”

Pictures of Salehi and another prisoner of conscience, Mohammad Nazari, handcuffed and shackled on their hospital beds triggered a widespread wave of criticism on social media.

“It is regrettable that Iranian officials, instead of immediately releasing Salehi and Nazari, have treated them as criminals, persecuting, humiliating, and tying them to their beds,” AI’s researcher for Iran-related cases, Raha Bahreini, told Radio Farda.

In a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General-Secretary Sharan Burrow also voiced her deep concern over Salehi’s deteriorating health.

“Salehi should not be returned to prison and all charges against him must be canceled,” she wrote.

In an interview with Radio Farda, ITUC Iranian consultant Mehdi Kouhestaninejad insisted Salehi’s case is being watched closely.

Referring to the pictures of Salehi in his hospital bed, Kouhestaninejad criticized what he branded as Iran’s “boundless cruelty” toward labor activists.

“Despite the ruling system’s constant attempts to scare off workers and labor activists from demanding their absolute rights, we have recently witnessed a significant increase in the number of labor protest rallies,” he said.

Kouhestaninejad said the number of attempts to launch independent and nongovernmental labor unions in Iran has also increased in recent months, which, by itself, shows that Iran has failed in its systematic efforts to scare off workers.

Iran’s government has apparently decided to avoid commenting on the recent labor developments so far.

Bankruptcy of ‘Illegal’ Banks Leads To Protests In Iran

Protesters in front of a Caspian bank branch demand their deposits.

Iran is facing a wave of protests by customers of several bankrupt credit institutions who have lost their savings. Angry protesters gather in front of government buildings almost on daily basis demanding action against what they believe is large scale fraud and asking for redress.

The crisis has its roots particularly in the expansion of the so-called cooperatives which have been functioning as mini banks, without following standard rules and regulations for many years.

Cooperatives are a simple concept but their banking activities have enormous consequences.

Here is how it works. Several persons create a small association, called Ta’avoni or cooperative to support each other. The Ta’avoni, which can rely on government subsidies, uses the capital invested by its members to engage in business activities, construct or buy houses, or even provide financial services.

The original law on cooperatives was passed in 1971; however the institutions first started to flourish in the 1990s when the government encouraged their creation as part of its effort to privatize the economy.

Over the years, their number climbed to more than 7,000 and their financial activities expanded beyond the original purpose, overlapping with those of conventional banks.

They started to invest in a wide range of fields, pay interest for deposits and provide loans to their customers. Some of them were able to attract hundreds of thousands of depositors by promising much higher interest rates than regular banks.

Usually such activities need permission from Iran’s Central Bank. But experts say that the cooperatives did not seek such permission and their role in banking has been tolerated.

During the era of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the central bank was “nice” to cooperatives, Tahmasb Mazaheri, the former head of Iran's Central Bank stated recently in an interview, referring to the fact that the cooperatives were able to operate in a gray area. However when several of them became bankrupt, the government started to label them as illegal.

Victims of financial institutions during a protest in Tehran. The child hold a placard saying, "Where is my daddy's car".
Victims of financial institutions during a protest in Tehran. The child hold a placard saying, "Where is my daddy's car".

For a long time, Iran’s Ministry of Cooperatives --without having enough qualification in the banking field-- was in charge of issuing permits for credit institutions. Some of them even did not seek any permit. Their work was tolerated, nevertheless.

For the first time in 2007 a law was passed by the Iranian parliament bringing the activities of all financial institutions under the supervision of the Central Bank. But even the Central Bank was too sloppy in regulating them as the authorities now admit.

Lack of proper supervision led to widespread corruption in the cooperatives. The main shareholders were able to use the capital of their institutions for personal gain, buying property end luxury cars for themselves and their relatives.

In 2013, approximately 25% of the cash flow in the country’s financial market was handled by such institutions which were not under the supervision of the central bank, Valiollah Seif, the current president of Iran’s Central Bank announced in July. Since then, he added, the number has dropped to 8%.

In August Seif promised that all “illegal” financial cooperatives will be shut down by the end of the current Persian year (March 21, 2018). At the same time, he asked citizens not to be deceived by higher interest rates offered by “unknown” and “illegal” financial institutions.

The warning came too late for many investors who already had lost their savings.Judicial officials now blame the depositors for their loss and say the government is not responsible. But the fact is that credit institutions were allowed to operate outside banking rules for more than two decades. State media ran their commercials at prime time and the executive or the judiciary branches did not warn people to be wary.

Radio Farda’s economic analyst, Fereydoon Khavand, says that if there was transparency in Iran and the government did its job properly, then depositors could be fully held responsible for the risks they took. “But this is not the case in Iran. People do not even know which institutions are licensed to operate” as proper banks.

For the same reason many people who lost their money due to investment in the so-called “illegal financial institutions” protest on daily basis in different Iranian cities, chant slogans against the head of Iran’s central bank and demand compensation for their loss.

Reuters - US Signals Caution To Saudis Despite Shared Concern About Iran

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud welcome U.S. President Donald Trump during a reception ceremony in Riyadh.

WASHINGTON, Nov 11 (Reuters) - Despite President Donald Trump's full-throated support for Saudi Arabia, the United States appears to be signaling a desire for Riyadh to take a more cautious approach in its regional power struggle with Iran, experts say.

The Trump administration, which shares Saudi Arabia's view of Iran as a regional menace, has strongly backed the Kingdom in the wake of a failed missile attack from Iran-aligned forces in Yemeni territory that demonstrated an ability to strike the Saudi capital.

Trump has cultivated much warmer ties with the Saudis after a fraught relationship with the Obama administration - the president made Riyadh his first stop on his maiden international trip - and has vowed to take strong action to confront Iran.

Nevertheless, Washington, which has U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq, is telegraphing a more tempered stance toward the confrontation in a region beset with turmoil.

On Thursday, the State Department called for "unimpeded access" for humanitarian aid to Yemen, after Saudi Arabia imposed a blockade on the country to stem the flow of arms to Iran-aligned Houthi fighters.

A day later, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made clear he still recognized as Lebanon's prime minister Saad al-Hariri, who unexpectedly announced his resignation on Nov. 4 from Riyadh.

In announcing his decision on television, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world, thrusting Lebanon into the front line of the competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran.

Two U.S. officials said the Saudis, led by Crown Prince Mohammed, had "encouraged" Hariri to leave office and Lebanese officials say he is being held in Saudi Arabia, a charge Riyadh denies. Hariri has not commented publicly on whether he is free to come and go as he pleases.

In a statement on Saturday, the White House said it "rejects any efforts by militias within Lebanon or by any foreign forces to threaten Lebanon's stability...or use Lebanon as a base from which to threaten others in the region."

When asked to comment on whether the United States was pushing for a more cautious Saudi response, both the White House and State Department referred to Saturday's statement on Lebanon.

Tillerson was "not going along with the Saudi position in describing the Lebanese state as under capture by Hezbollah,” said Paul Salem, the senior vice president of the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

"That’s significant." Tillerson was also "signaling to the Israelis ... that now is not the time to go after Lebanon," said Salem, referring to long-standing Israeli concerns about Hezbollah's growing military prowess.

Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said he believed the Trump administration was still seeking to help the Saudis advance their interests against Iran without destabilizing the region.

"This is a delicate balancing act. It involves supporting allies in a policy that the administration agrees with, while trying to mitigate aspects of it that it (sees as) overstated," Takeyh said.

Tillerson's statement also urged "all parties both within Lebanon and outside" to respect Lebanon's independence and said there was no role for any foreign forces.

The United States regularly criticizes Iran and Hezbollah for their role in Lebanon. Tillerson's backing of Hariri and the Lebanese government contrasted sharply with the approach taken by Saudi Arabia, which has lumped Lebanon with Hezbollah as parties hostile to it.

"I see Rex Tillerson as being an old fashioned American diplomat and old fashioned American diplomacy in the Middle East is all about stability," said F. Gregory Gause, chairman of the International Affairs Department at Texas A&M University."I'm not entirely sure that that is the position of the chief executive of the United States," Gause added.

CONCERNS WITH SAUDI PURGE

The Saudi actions coincide with an anti-corruption purge by the country's future king that tightened his grip on power.

Trump tweeted on Monday that he had "great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia" following the mass arrests - the biggest such purge of the kingdom's affluent elite in its modern history. Trump also tweeted that "they know exactly what they are doing."

Former and current U.S. officials with deep knowledge of Saudi Arabia say Trump's enthusiastic support for Prince Mohammed has emboldened the youthful Saudi leader.

Tillerson told reporters the purge appeared "well intended" but the mass arrests, which have swept up officials long known in Washington, also fueled U.S. concerns. "It raises a few concerns until we see more clearly how these particular individuals are dealt with," Tillerson added.

Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser, who has cultivated a close relationship with Prince Mohammed, recently returned from Saudi Arabia, fueling speculation on whether he may have had wind of the Crown Prince's plans. A senior administration official said they had no advance knowledge.

'We Have No Problem with Lawful Protest Rallies' – Tehran’s Governor

Tehran's governor and former Interior Ministry official, Mohammad Hossein Moghimi, undated.

During Hassan Rouhani’s presidency licensed political, electoral or protest rallies have never been confronted by force, Tehran’s Governor-General has maintained.

Mohammad Moghimi, who before being appointed as governor was a senior staffer at the Interior Ministry, has described his comment as “important”.

In an interview with state run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA, Moghimi has also claimed, “In last May’s presidential election, hundreds of speeches were delivered but we had no problem at all and none of the participants or organizers of the gatherings” were subjected to any harsh treatment.

The Interior Ministry, however, usually rejects requests by independent entities, syndicates and unions for holding rallies. Practically, licenses for any sort of assembly are issued only for the institutions affiliated to the regime.

Moghimi also argued, “The reason behind holding rallies without any clashes was the fact that police and security forces behaved properly, while the organizers and participants at the assemblies complied with law and regulations”.

Meanwhile, Tehran’s governor has insisted that protest rallies in front of parliament have never led to any security problems.

Admitting that restrictions have recently been imposed for holding rallies in front of the parliament, Moghimi has said, “The restrictions were imposed after IS attacks. Nevertheless, as a security measure, we are going to find a location nearby exclusively for holding legal and licensed protest rallies”.

However, reports on protest rallies contradict Tehran’s governor.

Last September it was reported that security agents and police forces, riding motorbikes stormed into a peaceful protest rally at two industrial units in Arak. Dozens of participants in the rally, protesting unpaid salaries, were wounded and taken to hospitals.

Police and security agent’s reaction to the peaceful assembly was so heavy handed that members of parliament to write two separate letters to Moghimi’s boss, Minister of Interior and condemn the police brutality.

Furthermore, the deputy speaker of parliament, Ali Motahari, insisted on September 24, “Not only worker have a right to protest, but everyone, provided they are unarmed and not violating Islamic rules. No one should confront such protests.”

Article 27 of the Islamic Republic’s Constitution explicitly provides for freedom of assembly, "provided arms are not carried" and the assemblies "are not detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam".

Nonetheless, instances of police and security forces clashing with peaceful protest rallies have significantly increased in recent months.

Moreover, many workers, teachers and human rights activists have arbitrarily been placed behind bars, in some cases even without being charged.

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