China Pushing Billions Into Iranian Economy As Western Firms Stall
(Reuters) - China is financing billions of dollars worth of Chinese-led projects in Iran, making deep inroads into the economy while European competitors struggle to find banks willing to fund their ambitions, Iranian government and industry officials said.
Freed from crippling nuclear sanctions two years ago, Iran is drawing unprecedented Chinese funding for everything from railways to hospitals, they said. State-owned investment arm CITIC Group recently established a $10 billion credit line and China Development Bank is considering $15 billion more.
"They (Western firms) had better come quickly to Iran otherwise China will take over," said Ferial Mostofi, head of the Iran Chamber of Commerce's investment commission, speaking on the sidelines of an Iran-Italy investment meeting in Rome.
The Chinese funding, by far the largest statement of investment intent of any country in Iran, is in stark contrast with the drought facing Western investors since U.S. President Donald Trump disavowed the 2015 pact agreed by major powers, raising the threat sanctions could be reimposed.
Iranian officials say the deals are part of Beijing's $124 billion Belt and Road initiative, which aims to build new infrastructure - from highways and railways to ports and power plants - between China and Europe to pave the way for an expansion of trade.
A source in China familiar with the CITIC credit line, which was agreed in September, called it "an agreement of strategic intent". The source declined to give details on projects to be financed, but Iranian media reports have said they would include water management, energy, environment and transport projects.
An Iranian central bank source said loans under the credit line would be primarily extended in euros and yuan.
The China Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding for $15 billion, Iranian state news agency IRNA said on Sept. 15.
The bank itself declined to comment, in line with many foreign investors and banks, including from China, who were reluctant to discuss their activities in Iran for this story. The web sites of banks and companies often carry little or no information on their Iran operations.
With a population of 80 million and a large, sophisticated middle class, Iran has the potential to be a regional economic powerhouse. But with the risk of sanctions hanging in the air, more and more foreign investors want Tehran to issue sovereign guarantees to protect them in case the projects are halted.
Economic ties between Iran and Italy, its biggest European trade partner, have been affected.
Italy's state-owned rail company, Ferrovie dello Stato, is a consultant in the building of a 415-km (260-mile) high-speed north-south rail line between Tehran to Isfahan via Qom by state-owned China Railway Engineering Corp.
The Italian firm is separately contracted to build a line from Qom west to Arak, but it needs 1.2 billion euros in financing. Though backed by the state's export insurance agency, it says it needs a sovereign guarantee.
"We are finalizing the negotiations and we are optimistic about moving forward," said Riccardo Monti, chairman of Italferr, the state firm's engineering unit, adding that the financing should be finalized by March next year.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's promise in Tehran last year to oil the wheels of trade with a 4 billion euro credit line from Italy's state investment vehicle is effectively dead, a source in Italy familiar with the matter said.
Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (CDP) risked losing the confidence of its many U.S. bond-holders who could sell down their holdings if the credit line went ahead, the source said.
A few European banks have deepened trade ties with Iran this year -- Austria's Oberbank inked a financing deal with Iran in September.
South Korea has also proved a willing investor, with Seoul's Eximbank signing an 8 billion euros credit line for projects in Iran in August, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
But China is the standout.
Valerio de Molli, head of Italian think tank European House Ambrosetti, reckons China now accounts for more than double the EU's share of Iran's total trade.
"The time to act is now, otherwise opportunities nurtured so far will be lost," de Molli said.
A MOVING TRAIN
Iranian officials attending this week's meeting in Rome sought to goad European firms and their bankers into action by talking up the Chinese financing and investments.
"The train is going forward," said Fereidun Haghbin, director general of economic affairs at Iran's foreign ministry. "The world is a lot greater than the United States."
Some Iranian officials remain concerned that investment could become lop-sided and are looking at creative ways to maintain investment links with the West, however.
The Iran chamber is encouraging Western firms to consider transferring technology as a way of earning equity in Iranian projects rather than focusing on capital.
It was also seeking approval to set up a 2.5-billion-euro offshore fund, perhaps in Luxembourg, as an indirect way for foreigners to invest in Iran, especially small and medium-sized Iranian enterprises, Mostofi said.
The fund would issue the financial guarantees that foreigners want in return for a fee, effectively stepping in where banks now fear to tread. Most of the fund's capital would come from Iran, Mostofi said.
For now, however, big Western firms remain stuck.
Italian power engineering firm Ansaldo Energia, controlled by state investor CDP and part-owned by Shanghai Electric Group , has been in Iran for 70 years.
Its chairman, Giuseppe Zampini, told Reuters at the Rome conference there were many opportunities for new contracts but his hands were tied for now, partly because Ansaldo bonds were also in the hands of U.S. investors.
"My heart says that we are losing something," Zampini said.
Thai Male Coach Wears Hijab In Iran Women's Match
The Asian Kabaddi Championship in Iran has made headlines for some amusing photos.
They show the male coach of the Thai female kabaddi team wearing hijab in order to be able to accompany his team into the women’s arena. In Iran, men are not allowed to enter sport arenas used by women.
In a statement, Iran’s Kabaddi Federation apologized for the “sad incident” and condemned the action of the Thai coach. The federation had informed the participants about the rules regarding hijab and ban for men in advance.
In its statement, the federation admitted some “negligence” during ID control, but it added that the Thai coach had allegedly “deceived” the controllers. The federation vowed to follow-up the “violation” by the Thai coach through the World Kabaddi Federation, even though it said that the coach was sent off “after few seconds”.
While the Iranian federation claims that the Thai coach sneaked into the stadium wearing the hijab, the coach says that actually he was told to wear it if he wanted to get entry.
Somprach Phonchoo, the Thai coach, in an interview with Radio Farda confirmed that he was requested to put on the headscarf but does not say by who.
However, Mohammad Reza Maghasoudlou, the head of Iran’s Kabaddi federation came up with a funny plot. He told ISNA News Agency, "A photographer has given the scarf to the Thai man so he could enter the arena and take pictures."
“It was a naughty act and the goal was to question the games,” Maghasoudlou added.
The Asian Kabaddi Championship was held in Iranian northern city of Gorgan between Nov. 22-27. Iran women’s team missed the final after a defeat at the hands of South Korea in semi-final. In the final game, India defeated Pakistan and became champion.
Politician Threatens To Unmask Influential Borrowers Of Defunct Bank
A prominent Iranian conservative has threatened to disclose the names of those who borrowed huge sums of money from the bankrupt and now-defunct financial institution Samen al-Hojaj.
“Most of the people who borrowed from Samen al-Hojaj are veteran judges and children of prominent clergy and political figures,” former MP Ahmad Tavakkoli announced at a press conference on November 28.
Tavakkoli said if the debts were not repaid he would publicly disclose the names of the borrowers.
“The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he managed to get an arrest warrant for central bank former Governor Mahmoud Bahmani (2008-2013),” Tavakkoli told reporters.
“Corrupt individuals attract and multiply people of their caliber,” the former MP remarked.
Samen al-Hojaj was launched in 2001 under the name of Samen al-Hojaj Cooperative for the Educated and soon expanded into a financial empire.
It began operations as a credit institution in 2007. The private institution had 450 branches across the country. There was no information on the company’s stakeholders on its website.
However, according to the Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Samen al-Hojaj went bankrupt after investing in a stagnant housing market.
The managing director of the institution, Abol-Fazl Mir Ali, held membership on the boards of directors at the Iran National Oil Company and a gas and petrochemical company where former Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mohammad Hassan, one of the brothers of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have seats.
Earlier, several conservatives close to Khamenei had accused Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaign of borrowing money from Samen al-Hojaj.
After its bankruptcy and insolvency, Samen al-Hojaj was taken over by Bank Parsian, which declared it will repay depositors’ losses in installments.
Most of the legal violations by Samen al-Hojaj were committed in 2007 and onward, Tavakkoli affirmed, adding, “Yet, it was officially praised by Iran Central Bank governor in Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s administration.
Tavakkoli also disclosed that Mir Ali was placed under house arrest but should have been imprisoned.
Meanwhile, the former MP accused the Iran Central Bank of delay in declaring Samen al-Hojaj bankrupt and of not compensating depositors.
A significant number of financial and credit institutions have recently gone bankrupt in Iran, forcing depositors to hold protest rallies demanding their money.
Most of these gatherings are staged by people who claim they are victims of systematic deception and fraud by these credit institutions. They say their assets have been either plundered or they have received no interest for their deposits as promised by these institutions.
Most of these pseudo-credit institutions operate as unofficial banks that manage to evade regulations and proper registration.
In 2013, approximately 25 percent 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, according to Valiollah Seif, the current president of the central bank. Since then, he added, the number has dropped to 8 percent.
In August, Seif promised that all “illegal” financial cooperatives would 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.
Another top Iranian banker warned in October that half of Iran's banks were suffering from "toxic loans" and they should be shut down or merged.
The warning came too late for many investors who had already lost their savings.
Judicial officials now blame depositors for their losses and say the government is not responsible.
But credit institutions were practically allowed by the government to freely operate outside banking rules for more than two decades.
State media ran their commercials at prime time, and neither the executive nor judicial branches cautioned people to be wary.
Parliament Is Weighing New Law To Deal With Child Abuse Crisis
Legislators in the Iranian Parliament are weighing a new bill that empowers police forces to detain parents whose children are sexually abused.
“The number of children who are sexually abused in Iran has increased to the extent that the parents whose children are molested will be fined or sentenced to suspended prison terms,” the state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) cited an MP as saying on November 27.
The deputy head of the Legal and Judicial Commission, Mohammad Kazemi, told ILNA that “the significant increase of social disorder in recent years, numerous cases of child molesting, a child-labor crisis and child beggars, as well as sexually abused children” is alarming.
The new bill, according to Kazemi, stipulates punishment for parents deemed irresponsible and who ignore their children’s welfare.
The member of Omid (Hope), the reformists’ faction in the parliament, has also announced, “The new bill empowers security and police forces as well as social workers to separate children from parents who do not responsibly look after their children.”
The separated children will be handed over to “lawful centers,” Kazemi said, without elaboration.
The new bill is under study by the parliament at a time that the echoes of recent comments made by the director-general of Tehran’s Social Services Organization have not yet died down.
In a shocking comment, Reza Ghadimi disclosed that “90 percent of children forced to work in the capital, Tehran, are molested.”
Furthermore, in his interview with Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), Ghadimi lamented, “Sadly, after surveying 400 child workers, social workers found out that 90 percent of them had been molested. It was revealed that relatives of these children round up and send them begging around from dawn to late evening and then molest them.”
Ghadimi insisted, “These facts are well documented.”
The comments were so shocking that they triggered widespread anger and scandal all over town, forcing Ghadimi to rephrase his remarks.
“I’ve been misunderstood,” Ghadimi explained, adding, “By molesting, I did not mean sexual abuse of the working children. I meant child workers are kept in the cold outside in streets, they are not fed properly, and their faces are painted black to attract pity.”
However, the daily Shahrvand reported that it has a copy of Ghadimi’s initial remarks which clearly states that 90 people of child workers are sexually abused.
Nevertheless, government officials insisted Ghadimi’s remarks were unfounded.
Yet, according to the head of Iranian Social Emergency, in 60 percent of child molesting cases, fathers and in 86 percent of total cases both parents are responsible.
“In only 1.5 percent of child molesting cases were strangers involved,” Hossain Assadbeigi noted.
Meanwhile, he reiterated that many families whose children are molested prefer to keep it a secret and refrain from reporting it to the authorities.
A lack of reliable sources has practically made it impossible to determine the numbers of street children in Iran. However, based on a 2005 report by the U.S. State Department, and admitted by the Iranian government, 60,000 street children were accounted for in Iran.
Many children’s rights’ organizations believe the number is much higher, citing figures up to 200,000.
Iranian FM Discusses Closer Business Ties In Armenia
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with President Serzh Sarkisian and other Armenian leaders on Tuesday during a visit to Yerevan that appeared to focus on ongoing efforts to expand Armenian-Iranian economic ties.
He arrived in the Armenian capital with a large group of Iranian businessmen who held a one-day conference with fellow entrepreneurs from Armenia. Zarif and his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian opened the forum before holding talks.
“There are quite good opportunities for expanding economic relations between the two countries,” Zarif told an ensuing joint news conference with Nalbandian.
“Energy and cargo transit are very important areas of our cooperation with Armenia,” he said. “We also attach importance to our cooperation on science and technology.”
Nalbandian said, for his part, that they discussed ways of increasing bilateral commerce and preparations for next month’s meeting in Yerevan of an Armenian-Iranian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. In that context, he stressed the importance of a planned free-trade deal between Iran and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union which is strongly backed by Armenia.
According to official Armenian statistics, Armenian-Iranian trade stood at a relatively modest $197.4 million in the first nine months of this year. It was up by 10 percent from the same period in 2016.
Zarif was reported to tell Sarkisian later in the day that the current scale of Armenian-Iranian business dealings “does not befit the high level of political relations between the two friendly nations.” The two men agreed on the need to “bolster economic ties and develop mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas,” reported the Armenian presidential press office. It said Zarif called Armenia a “very good neighbor” of Iran.
Economic issues dominated Zarif’s separate meeting with Prime Minister Karen Karapetian. They discussed, among other things, the upcoming launch of a free economic zone in Armenia’s southeastern Meghri district bordering Iran. According to an Armenian government statement, they agreed that the tax haven for manufacturing firms could give a major boost to Armenian-Iranian business ties.
The statement added that Armenian-Iranian energy projects were also on the agenda of Karapetian’s talks with the chief Iranian diplomat. But it did not elaborate.
Karapetian met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, First Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri, Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh and Energy Minister Sattar Mahmoudi when he paid an official visit to Tehran in October. He reportedly discussed the possibility of a trilateral deal that would enable Armenia to import cheap natural gas from Turkmenistan via Iran. No concrete agreements to that effect have been announced so far.
The Armenian premier on Tuesday described his trip to Iran as “quite promising.” “Armenia’s government is extremely interested in qualitatively changing and raising our trade to a higher level,” he told Zarif.
Iran's Judiciary Once Again Issues An Astonishing Verdict
Iran's judiciary has once more drawn attention to itself for issuing astonishing verdicts.
In one instance, it convicted Saeed Mortazavi, Tehran’s prosecutor-general at the time of the 2009 upheavals, to two years in prison for being “accessory to murder” in the death of a detained protester in prison.
In another second instance, Mostafa Hamedani a lawyer representing a group of workers in different case against Mortazavi, has received 10 months in prison and 40 lashes simply being accused of “defaming” the same Mortazavi.
He has received this harsh verdict simply for talking about Moratazavi's conviction, nothing else.
In December 2013, the Iranian parliament published an investigative report accusing Mortazavi of financial corruption during his time (2012-2013) as the head of the country’s Social Security Organization.
The parliament’s investigation had concluded that Mortazavi had bribed some members of parliament, cabinet ministers of President Ahmadinejad, and the president’s deputy with hefty gifts.
He had also illegally transferred 138 companies, including Iran Air and two major steel factories owned by the Social Security Organization to Iran’s tycoon Babak Zanjani, who was later sentenced to death for stealing $2.7 billion from oil sales on behalf of the Ahmadinejad government.
Following these revelations, Hamedani, on behalf of his clients who were beneficiaries of the Social Security Organization, sued Mortazavi for illegal use of financial assets and embezzlement of hundreds of million dollars.
After almost two years, the court of first instance convicted Mortazavi in November 2016, but gave him a mild sentence.
Hamedani gave an interview to Iranian journalists announcing that he will appeal the verdict.
According to the lawyer, the same interview has been the basis for his conviction.
He has told the News Agency ILNA that he has been convicted just for revealing the conviction of Mortazavi by the court of first instance, something that should have been public information to start with.
Official Under Fire After Thanking Iran-Trained Afghan ‘Warriors’ for Syrian ‘Victory’
A top official in Afghanistan has come under fire for seeming to confirm for the first time that neighboring Iran has recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans and "warriors” from other regional countries to fight in Syria.
Deputy Afghan Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq made the controversial statement during a trip last week to Tehran. His remarks were recorded on video and aired and reported by Afghan media, prompting critics to take to social media to denounce him and call for his removal from office.
While addressing an international summit of scholars from Iran and other Muslim nations, the Afghan deputy chief executive is shown praising Major General Qasem Soleimani, who commands foreign operations of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The gathering was convened to discuss ways to fight “the dark ideology” of Islamic State (IS) terrorists from a unified Islamic front, according to Iranian media.
The Iranian general is said to be one of the founders of the Fatemiyoun Division, made up of mostly Afghan Hazara fighters and deployed to the Syrian conflict zone.
“I thank all the warriors who cooperated in these wars from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other parts of the world who attended the wars. In fact, it was the war of Islam against infidelity and against the conspiracies of the world arrogance,” Mohaqiq said.
The Afghan official did not elaborate and went on to commend “the prominent role” of General Soleimani in the victory in Syria.
IS In Afghanistan
Mohaqiq claimed that more than 10,000 Islamic State members who escaped the conflict, including those from Central Asian states, have now moved to Afghanistan and are threatening stability of northern and western border provinces.
“The northern part of Afghanistan, once a secure area, has now been destabilized after the incursion of Daesh,” Mohaqiq said using local acronym for IS. The instability, he warned, will threaten neighboring Central Asian nations.
The Afghan government has not yet commented on Mohaqiq’s remarks, but the foreign ministry has maintained that reports of Afghans being sent to conflict zones in the Middle East are under investigation and that the issue has also been raised with Iranian authorities.
Rights defenders have repeatedly drawn international attention to what they say is Tehran’s training and deployment of Afghan refugees in Iran.
Human Rights Watch in a detailed report published last month also accused Iran of committing war crimes by recruiting and sending Afghan immigrant children “as young as 14” to fight in Syria alongside government forces.
The report charged the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps with recruiting and providing combat training to mainly Shi’ite Hazara Afghans who have settled in Iran after fleeing decades of hostilities in their native country.
Recruits for Fatemiyoun Division are said to come mostly from about 2.5 million Afghan refugees, many of them without residency papers. Pro-government Iranian media describes the division as a volunteer Afghan force fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Rights groups have documented cases of Afghans, mostly Shi’ite Hazaras, in Iran who “volunteered” to take part in the Syrian conflict in the hopes of gaining legal status and a monthly income of around $600 for their impoverished refugee families.
Iranian authorities reportedly tell Afghan recruits they are being trained to fight to protect major Shi’ite shrines in Damascus, Aleppo and Raqqa.
Iran is reported to have poured billions into Syria in addition to raising Shi’ite militias from countries with significant Shi’ite population, including Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also hosts millions of Afghan refugees.
-- Voice of America
Syria, Iraq Reportedly Impose Restrictions On Iranian Imports
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
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
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
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.
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'
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.
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.
Iran's Social Security In Trouble As Government Owes $36 Billion To The Fund
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
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
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
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.
Analysis: Iran’s Failed Response To Natural Disasters
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
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
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
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”.
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
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
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.
Iranian Currency Reaches New Lows As Inflation Remains High
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.
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
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.
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.