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Houses of Six Christian Converts Raided, Four Detained Before Christmas

An Iranian woman walks past Christmas trees for sale in central Tehran, December 23, 2015

Four Iranian converts to Christianity have been arrested in the city of Karaj, Alborz province, less than two weeks before Christmas, reports say.

In an interview with Radio Farda, Article 18 spokesman, Kiarash A’lipour confirmed the news, adding, “Milad Goudarzi, Amin Khaki, Alireza Nour-Mohammadi and Shehabuddin Shahi were all arrested by security forces on Tuesday, December 12, in Karaj”.

According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Iran ratified in 1975, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

Meanwhile, a website that exclusively reflects the news concerning Iranians converted to Christianity, Mohabat News reported, “The security forces raided six houses in Karaj where the converts used as a home church”.

While a Christian ceremony was held, the security forced stormed into the houses, detained four and dragged them away, Mohabat News reported.

Furthermore, the security forces raided two shops belonging to two of the detainees, confiscated shoes and purses and sealed off one of the shops.

The shops were sealed off for “overcharging”, “profiteering” and “breaking guild regulations”. Moreover, a Bible and a laptop (notebook) computer were also confiscated during the security operations.

One of the shops, located in Fardiss neighborhood in Karaj is owned by one of the detainees, Milad Goudarzi.

On Tuesday, the government’s official news agency, IRNA reported that “Elements of a devious Christian cult who were promoting it and attempting to disrupt the market and economic order have been arrested”.

IRNA did not elaborate what it meant by “disrupting market and economic order.

One of the detainees, Amin Khaki was earlier detained along six of his fellow Christians in 2013 and recently freed after serving his term in a prison in Ahvaz, capital of Khouzestan province, southwestern Iran.

Many Muslims who converted to Christianity have been arrested in recent years, days before Christmas.

Last year, in a joint statement, 19 human rights organizations called on the international community to press Iran to end the persecution of newly converted Iranian Christians.

According to Christian and human rights organizations, “In less than two months, since June 2017, Judge Mashallah Ahmadzadeh of Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued long prison sentences to at least 11 Christian converts and the former leader of the Assyrian Pentecostal Church in Iran.”

On July 6, Ahmadzadeh sentenced four Protestant Christian converts to 10 years in prison each in a trial completely lacking due process, according to Mansour Borji, the advocacy director of Article 18, a London-based organization that defends Christians in Iran.

“Charges against these Christians is legally unfounded, and their conviction to 10 years’ imprisonment is violating the obvious right of freedom of opinion,” Borji told Radio Farda. “So many Christians in Iran are accused of merely attending Mass and prayer gatherings even in the privacy of their homes. They are all waiting for the Revolutionary Courts’ verdict against them.”

There are no recent official statistics available on the number of Christians in Iran, but 117,704 were counted in a 2011 state census, CHRI maintained. Those who said were Christians in an official census mostly belong to recognized and tolerated traditional ethnic churches, such as Armenian churches.

But evangelical or other new Christian movements, which are spreading covertly among Muslims, are treated harshly by the Islamic Republic.

In 2010, the World Christian Database (WCD) recorded 270,057 Christians in Iran. Some Christian organizations argue the number is much higher.

At least five church leaders have been murdered and hundreds more have been either interrogated or incarcerated in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Publishing the Persian version of the Bible in Iran is forbidden, while several churches have been forced to shut down.

Iran Refuses To Recognize Israel At OIC Summit

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qassemi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, undated

While supporting the final statement of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul, Turkey, the Islamic Republic refused to ratify its articles which recognized Israel, Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman announced Friday, December 15.

“Iran has delivered the OIC’s secretariat its written refusal to recognize Israel”, Bahram Qassemi asserted.

Citing Qassemi, Iranian government’s official news agency, IRNA reported Friday, “Supporting the final statement of the OIC’s extraordinary summit last Wednesday in Istanbul does not necessarily mean that Tehran recognizes Israel”.

Archive photo of a billboard installed in Tehran showing "countdown to annihilation of Israel", Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei famously retorted in 2015: “if Muslims & Palestinians unite and all fight, the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years."
Archive photo of a billboard installed in Tehran showing "countdown to annihilation of Israel", Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei famously retorted in 2015: “if Muslims & Palestinians unite and all fight, the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years."

The Islamic Republic’s reservation on recognizing Israel, Qassemi insisted, was reflected in a written document officially delivered to the OIC’s secretariat.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran, while supporting the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, announced that supporting the resolution endorsed at the meeting of Islamic countries’ foreign ministers and the final declaration of OIC extraordinary summit in Istanbul on the issue of al-Quds (Jerusalem) does not in any way constitute recognition of the usurper Zionist regime by Tehran,” Mehr news agency, MNA quoted Qassemi as saying.

Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in1979, the leaders of Iran have repeatedly described Israel as a “cancerous tumor” and promised to wipe it off the world map.

Such remarks have always led to widespread negative reactions from the west. “Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map,” US President Barack Obama said in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2011.

Reacting to President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, the representatives of 57 Muslim countries attending the extraordinary OIC session on Wednesday in Istanbul, called on the international community to recognize Palestine as a legitimate country and East Jerusalem as its capital.

Supporting the final statement of the OIC’s extraordinary summit last Wednesday in Istanbul does not necessarily mean that Tehran recognizes Israel.
Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Bahram Qassemi

President Trump on Wednesday, December 6, formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly seven decades of American foreign policy and setting in motion a plan to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Trump said from the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality. It is also the right thing to do. It’s something that has to be done.”

The OIC rejected and condemned “in the strongest terms the unilateral decision by the president of the United States of America in recognizing Jerusalem (al-Quds) as the so-called capital of Israel, the occupying Power,” the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)-run news agency reported on Friday.

At OIC’s extraordinary summit in Istanbul, the Islamic Republic’s president, Hassan Rouhani rejected President’s Trump decision and called for following the case of Jerusalem at the UN Security Council.

Saudi Arabia also criticized President Trump’s decision, while it had assigned a low ranking official to attend OIC summit in Istanbul.

Though President Trump's decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is without precedent, the plan is not new.

During President Ronald Reagan’s administration, a piece of West Jerusalem was leased to the American government, one day to become the new location of the US embassy to Israel.

Later, on October 24, 1995, the U.S. Congress passed a bill called the “Jerusalem Embassy Act,” which formally recognized the city as the Israel’s capital and called for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be moved there from Tel Aviv by 1999.

Support for the bill was overwhelming. It passed the Senate by a 93 to 5 vote, with four Republicans and one Democrat voting no. It also passed the House 374 to 37, with 153 Democrats joining most of the new Republican majority that had swept into power in 1994.

However, Donald Trump’s predecessors preferred not to ratify the bill, arguing that it might be detrimental to the Middle East peace talks.

Student Groups Issue New Complaints Against Restrictions

Iranian Islamic Azad University Signboard

Thirty-six students’ associations affiliated with Azad University have protested restrictions imposed on events related to Student’s National Day in Iran, on December 7, a website close to Iran Green Movement, Kalemeh reported.

In their written protest, addressed to the head of Azad University’s Board of Founders, Ali Akbar Velayati, the students have highlighted the restrictions imposed on holding the annual ceremonies.

Referring to Velayati’s remark on the necessity of respecting “different political tendencies”, the protesters have asserted that Azad University officials “are seeking to eliminate their political opponents" from the university, through “weird and unjustifiable behavior”.

Reportedly, Azad University officials had imposed restrictions on inviting political figures to deliver speeches at Student’s National Day ceremonies.

Some Azad University departments had gone even further, forbidding students to hang reformist former president Mohammad Khatami’s portraits at locations assigned to holding the ceremonies.

Moreover, while referring to the latest appointments at Azad University, the protesters have raised their concern over what they have described as “turning universities into garrisons”.

Earlier on Sunday, November 26, director of Students’ Islamic Associations, Mohammad Baqir Golshan Abadi had insisted that “Those who were involved in 2009 sedition will definitely not be allowed to speak at Student’s National Day ceremonies”.

“Sedition” is a term used by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader and his conservative allies to describe the Green Movement or five-month long protests against highly controversial official result of 2009 presidential elections, declaring the incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the winner.

Preventing the prominent reformist figures from delivering speeches at Student’s National Day was not limited to Azad University, reports from inside Iran indicate.

Following an order issued by the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ security organization, many reformists were barred from delivering speeches all over the country.

On the eve of this year’s Student Day, students were summoned over the phone and warned not to take part in protests.
Student activist

​Nevertheless, a political deputy to President Hassan Rouhani’s Ministry of Interior, Issma’il Jabbarzadeh claimed that none of the ceremonies scheduled to celebrate Student’s National Day were banned by outside interference.

“We had banned outside entities [non-academic organizations] to meddle in the ceremonies and none of the gatherings were cancelled,” Jabbarzadeh affirmed.

In a speech on December 2 in the city of Zabol in Sistan and Balouchestan Province, southeastern Iran, Rouhani had also maintained, "We are very happy that our students are now speaking loudly and clearly."

Expressing satisfaction over Student’s Day being celebrated across the country, Rouhani had affirmed, "Universities must be independent and free, and this was one of the aims of the [Islamic] Revolution."

Furthermore, Rouhani had asserted that universities must be free to criticize like seminaries’ clergy, adding, “Students speak without stammering."

Nevertheless, 92 student associations, 813 staff at student publications, and 8,000 student rights activists wrote letters in recent years protesting the “police state” and “threatening atmosphere” ruling over Iranian universities, as well as cancellation of student gatherings and extrajudicial interference to stop holding them.

According to Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), protests were held at several Iranian universities on December 7, 2017, on the occasion of Student Day. A students’ rights activist told CHRI that President Hassan Rouhani has failed to uphold his election campaign promise to end the securitization of university campuses.

“On the eve of this year’s Student Day, students were summoned over the phone and warned not to take part in protests,” student activist Mohammad Sharifi Moghaddam told CHRI. “The authorities have made it more difficult to organize unions to seek better living conditions for students. The climate for political activities now is even worse than before.”

In a Radio Farda round-table discussion, a political analyst, Mehdi Mahdavi Azad said, "One of the main goals of the regime is to control of universities, by using various means of pressures...universities present a danger of a political explosion".

Beating up a Street Vendor Shocks Tehran

Image capture from Iran purportedly showing a street vendor being beaten by municipality agents

Following the circulation of a video clip showing a street vendor being battered by the municipality staff in the capital city of Iran, a member of Tehran City Council has reported that the two employees who were involved in the incident have been suspended and soon will be summoned to court.

In an interview with state-run Iran Labor News Agency, ILNA, the deputy of Tehran City Council’s Supervision Department, Afshin Habibzadeh cited municipality officials as saying “The culprits have been suspended and their case delivered to the Disciplinary Department. Furthermore, they will be tried as soon as the legal charges against them are filed”.

The culprits have been suspended and their case delivered to the Disciplinary Department.
Tehran City Council Official

Habibzadeh also reported that Tehran City Council’s members are going to have a joint session with the Mayor to discuss the roots of such cases.

Meanwhile, Habibzadeh maintained that agents assigned to confront street and sidewalk vendors, who block public passages, are not counted as Tehran municipality’s staff, since they are directly employed by the contractors.

A video clip widely circulated in social media shows a municipality’s officer beating up a street vendor in Vali Asr crossroads, while another officer takes the vendor’s hand, violently throwing him away.

Furthermore, the video shows the two officers accompanied by a policeman detain the vendor and later continue to batter him.

The circulation of videos depicting the aggressive and heavy-handed confrontation of municipality staff with sidewalk and street vendors in social media have repeatedly shocked the public in recent years.

On Saturday, August 12, a street vendor died in a suspicious situation in city of Qom after the municipality staff violently tried to stop his business. Immediately after the incident was widely reported in social media, the Prosecutor-general summoned five employees of the municipality who were said to be involved in the case.

Ali Cheraghi, a street vendor in Tehran also died in hospital in summer of 2014 after being battered by a garbage recycling contractor’s staff who were armed with brass knuckles.

Later that year, a street vendor from city of Khorramshahr, Youniss Assakereh died in a hospital in Tehran after setting himself afire, protesting against the municipality’s staff who had accused him of blocking a public passageway and destroyed his fruit stand.

Meanwhile, there are many street vendors who maintain that city law enforcement officers are more interested in receiving “protection money” than clearing up the sidewalks and streets.

After more than a decade, a reformist is currently at the helm of Tehran municipality, while the city council is also run by the reformists supporting President Hassan Rouhani.

Homemade Synthetic Narcotics On The Rise In Iran

Synthetic narcotics confiscated in Iran, undated

Iranian police have admitted for the first time that many of the so-called industrial narcotics distributed in Iran are homemade.

Citing the commander of Iran’s Anti-Drugs Police Force (IADPF), Mehr News Agency reported on December 13, “Today, most of the new addictive drugs distributed in Iran are of an industrial type.”

IADPF head Mohammad Massoud Zahedian said that the drugs on today’s market are not necessarily imports. “Even if Afghanistan were incapable of producing addictive drugs and all our borders totally closed, we would have been unable to stop producing and distributing narcotics.”

Our schoolchildren today are incapable of saying no!
Iran Anti-Drugs Police Chief

Referring to the lucrative business of drug dealing, he said, “Many people benefit from the drug business. Therefore, the drugs market is flourishing, and many [drug dealers] are looking for new customers.”

Dealers take advantage of the Internet to promote narcotics. “Drug distributers safely lurk in the corners of the labyrinths of cyberspace to trap their young victims and promote their lethal products,” Zahedian said.

The average age for narcotic use in Iran has become significantly lower in recent years. “Our schoolchildren today are incapable of saying no. Even our youth, for different reasons, think smoking is a sign of being counted as an adult,” he said.

Zahedian also insisted that fighting drugs needs education, otherwise even 1,000 police cannot stop an adolescent from falling into a drug dealer’s traps.

The commander’s remarks come at a time when, according Iran’s Legal Medical Organization (LMO), during the first six months of the current Iranian year (strting 21st of March) 1,337 persons died of drug overdoses and 190 of using stimulant drugs.

Totally, 1,451 men and 153 women have died as a result of using narcotics and stimulant drugs in the same period in Iran, LMO has announced.

Based on an LMO report, the number of narcotics-related deaths in Iran dropped between 2007 and 2013 but has significantly increased again from 2014 onward.

The total number of narcotics victims in Iran currently shows an annual 1 percent rise while the rate for women is up 28.3 percent.

Meanwhile, the fact that crystal meth, called sheesheh in Persian, has recently become Iran’s second-most-popular drug, instantly after opium, has alarmed society.

Both methamphetamine production and abuse are skyrocketing in Iran because of the country's proximity to the region’s top drug exporter, Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press. Iranian dealers are raking in profits, primarily from students and the exhausted working class. In Iran, those caught producing, selling, or using sheesheh face potentially lethal criminal penalties.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime says Iran is suffering from one of the gravest addiction crises in the world. Health Ministry officials have estimated there are 2.2 million addicts in the country of more than 80 million, or roughly 2.75 percent of the population, but many NGOs believe the actual figures are much higher.

In July, Iran seemed poised to totally review its drug-related policies. A new plan was designed to greenlight state institutions to distribute drugs, mainly opium, among the addicted.

Saeed Sefatian, head of the working group on drug demand reduction in the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the State, said the plan would significantly reduce the volume of dirty money as well as money laundering.

The spokesman for the parliamentary Judicial and Legal Commission, Hassan Norouzi, said allowing the government to distribute opium among adults is reminiscent of what was successfully done before the Islamic Revolution, during the reign of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The plan was immediately shelved after conservative close allies of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including Zahedian, categorically dismissed it as irrelevant.

Clergy Secures Millions Of Dollars In Iran’s Budget Bill 

Iran: Hassan Rouhani , Iran`s President, gave next year budget to Ali Larijani , Speaker of parliament.

Next year’s budget bill, submitted by President Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian Parliament on Sunday, shows hundreds of millions of dollars will be allocated to the clergy and the institutions under their control.

While the government will significantly cut spending for infrastructure projects and cash subsidies, allocations for religious seminaries and similar entities will increase by double digits.

The theocratic regime of Iran considers such institutions vital for its survival. Through propaganda at the national and international level, they recruit and train new supporters for the regime.

The following are some of the examples of funds allocated to ideological entities:

  • $110 million for the High Council of Religious Seminaries, which oversees all religious seminaries in the country and issues permits for the establishment of new schools, among other things. Its budget shows an increase of more than 16 percent compared to the previous year.
  • $105 million for “supporting religious seminaries.” From that amount, $88 million will be allocated to training male clergymen and $16 million for “cultural and promotional activities” by male students of religious seminaries.
  • $5 million for supporting religious “research activities” by seminary students.
  • $150 million for the Service Center for Religious Seminaries, a welfare institution that provides support to retired and disabled clergymen and the families of deceased clergy. The institution also pays scholarships for religious seminaries and funds cultural and sports activities for students.
  • $29 million for the Council for Planning and Management of Religious Seminaries in Khorasan Province.
  • $64 million for the Policy Making Council for Women’s Religious Seminaries.
  • $75 million for Al-Mustafa International University, an umbrella organization for religious seminaries providing education to foreign students within and outside of Iran. This institution is also used for expanding influence abroad. It is worth mentioning that the budget allocated to Al-Mustafa University is much higher than the fund provided to some of the major regular universities, like Amir Kabir University in Tehran with $63 million, and Tabriz University with $64 million.
  • $23 million for the supreme leader’s representative in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The fund will be spent on deploying preachers, overseeing the compatibility of IRGC rules and regulations with Islam, spiritual ceremonies, and guiding and promoting political vision.
  • $17 million for maintaining the mausoleum and residence of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran’s Islamic Republic, and for protecting his ideological heritage by publishing books and holding commemorations and conferences.

It should also be noted that funds from the government budget are only a part of the income for influential clergymen and the religious institutions they control.

Citizens and businesses also donate tens of millions of dollars to ayatollahs, shrines, and related small and large religious networks. In addition, senior ayatollahs control foundations that are huge economic empires, with real estate holdings and industries.

For example, Astan-e Qods Razavi, the foundation controlling a huge Shi’ite shrine in Mashhad, is the biggest landowner, owning more than 43 percent of the city. Its income was estimated at $150 million annually a decade ago.

All Accused Of ‘Looting’ A Credit Institution Freed On Bail

Iranian bankrupt credit institution, Samen al-Hojaj, undated

All people accused of “looting” a credit and financial institution in Iran have been freed on bail, a justice department official announced in Tehran.

Samen al-Hojaj is a bankrupt credit and financial institution that was taken over by the private Parsian Bank.

According to an outspoken conservative figure and former MP, Ahmad Tavakkoli, most of Samen al-Hojaj customers - who borrowed huge sums of money from it and never paid back - are veteran judges and the children of prominent political and clergy figures.

Tavakkoli had threatened on November 28 to publicly disclose the names of the borrowers if the debts were not repaid.

“The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he even managed to get an arrest warrant for the Central Bank of Iran's former governor, Mahmoud Bahmani (2008-2013),” Tavakkoli told reporters.

“Corrupt individuals attract and multiply people of their caliber,” the former MP remarked.

In the last decade, many credit unions or associations have sprung up in Iran, some without a banking license and proper supervision, promising high interests to people and attracting a lot of deposits.

The managing director of Samen al-Hojaj [bankrupt credit institution] has a lot of influence. He’s so powerful that he even managed to get an arrest warrant for the Central Bank of Iran's former governor.
Former MP Ahmad Tavakkoli

Many of these financial institutions reach insolvency, either through reckless investments or handing out huge loans, often under suspicious circumstances.

More than two weeks after Tavakkoli’s threatening comments, Tehran’s Penal Court’s deputy announced on Wednesday, December 14, that all the accused have been freed, on bail.

Tasnim News Agency, run by the Islamic Revolution Guardian Corps (IRGC), cited Mohsen Eftekhari as saying, “The time for their trial has not been set, yet. The investigative procedure on the case against Samen al-Hojaj borrowers is currently underway”.

If what Tavakkoli says is true about the strong connections the accused have, it is not certain that the legal case will proceed in a timely fashion and will have a clear conclusion.

Nearly fifty complainants have already registered their names for a part of the case, while other related parts are still under initial investigation, Eftekhari said without further elaboration.

However, since some of Samen al-Hojaj depositors have received their capital and interest, it is highly unlikely to see the number of the complainants grow, Eftekhari maintained.

The bankrupt credit institution’s caretaker, Parsian Bank had earlier announced in a statement that it is set to repay the depositors of the insolvent lender by prioritizing small depositors on a timetable designed for the purpose.

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 550 branches across the country, twice the number of an average Iranian private commercial bank. 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 heavily investing in the housing market that soon suffered from stagnation.

The managing director of the institution, Abolfazl 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 Khamenei, one of the brothers of the Islamic republic’s 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.

Samen al-Hojaj is reportedly the second big-name quasi-lender to collapse in Iran, triggering new difficulties for the regulator and the banking industry already struggling under the heavy burden of soured and restructured loans, Financial Tribune reported.

A significant number of financial and credit institutions have recently gone bankrupt in Iran, forcing depositors to hold protest rallies demanding their money back.

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.

Death Penalty Rejected For Iranian Mystic Leader - Retrial

Mohammad Ali Taheri, whose death sentence was rejected by Iran's supreme court.

A court in Iran will review the case of the founder of Erfan Halqe, Mohammad Ali Taheri, his lawyer announced on December 12.

Taheri is a spiritual healer and his Erfan Halqe means Circle of Mysticism. He characterizes his school of thought as Inter-universalism.

The review follows the Supreme Court’s rejection of the death sentence issued by a Revolutionary Court, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tababaei disclosed.

Supreme Court judges again rejected a sentence condemning Taheri to death, arguing the verdict issued had been based on faulty investigation, reported state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA).

This marks the second time the Supreme Court has rejected a Revolutionary Court’s death sentence for the mystic leader, citing faulty investigation.

Now, a court of equal rank, Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court, has been assigned by the Supreme Court to retry Taheri.

Praising the Supreme Court’s judges as “sagacious,” Taheri’s lawyer said on October 29, “If a court issues an unjust verdict, the Supreme Court weighs the case more thoroughly.”

Taheri, the founder of Irfan-i Halqa, has been behind bars since 2001 and accused of “corruption on Earth.” He was sentenced to death in 2015.

However, three months later, the sentence was overturned by Supreme Court judges who argued that investigations into some of the charges, including insulting the prophet of Islam, apostasy, and collusion against national security, had been faulty.

Taheri was once again condemned to death last August, charged with “corruption on Earth,” a vague term that according to human rights activists is often used by conservative judges in Iranian courts to punish anyone who dares oppose the ruling system.

The United States reacted to reports of the death sentence by saying it was deeply concerned and called on the authorities to reverse the decision.

The U.S. State Department said on September 1 announced that the charges of founding a religious cult and “corruption on Earth” violate Tehran’s obligations to respect and ensure the freedoms of expression and religion or belief.

The statement added that the death penalty should be used only for the most serious of crimes.

“We call on the Iranian government to take whatever steps necessary to reverse Taheri’s conviction and death sentence,” it added.

Amnesty International has also insisted that Taheri is a prisoner of conscience and condemned Iran’s use of capital punishment “for vaguely worded or overly broad offenses, or acts that should not be criminalized at all.”

Tehran dismissed such criticism as part of an effort from the West to heap political pressure on the Islamic Republic.

Taheri calls his school of thought Interuniversalism in English, and was initially allowed to preach and teach in public. His classes and healing sessions were attended by people from all walks of life, including government officials and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ top commanders. Several of his books were published with permission from the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei then stepped in, warning against what he called “false mysticism that might lure people away from Islam.”

Khamenei’s allies have labeled the Circle of Mysticism a “deviant sect” while saying Taheri had amassed an illicit fortune through his teachings.

Taheri and his followers have repeatedly dismissed these allegations as baseless.

Iran’s Water Crisis Passes Tipping Point

Iran -- Drought in Khuzestan province, Iran. Undated.

A top Iranian environment official has lambasted the country’s Sixth Development Plan as detrimental to soil and water resources.

“Such plans are forced on the government without taking soil and water capacities into account,” Issa Kalantari, head of the Iranian Environment Department, said on December 11.

At a ceremony celebrating World Soil Day, he said Iran’s limited water and soil resources were endangering its ability to feed the country’s population of more than 80 million.

“Since our level of consumption has been higher than our limited resources, we are going to face soil bankruptcy as we have already experienced in water-related fields,” he said.

Excessive erosion and degrading have seriously endangered Iran’s soil resources, experts maintain.

Describing the country’s laws, including the overarching Sixth Development Plan, as unrealistic in regard to the environment, Kalantari said, “We are using our resources in excess without thinking about how to sustain them.”

The top laws of the land have forced governments to excessively build dams and consume surface and underground water resources. Meanwhile, many parts of Iran have faced unprecedented periods of drought.

According to official statistics, 750,000 wells are operational in Iran, 330,000 of which are illegal.

“Stop repeating the shibboleth and saying our country is great,” Kalantari has said against those who promote population growth, noting, “Our resources are limited. If we are going to have a larger population, we should do it in tandem with our imports.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is the main proponent of population growth. In 2014, he issued an edict obliging the heads of Iran’s ruling system to reduce the legal age for marriage and encourage families to have more children.

Kalantari had previously echoed other experts’ warnings, asserting, “Iran’s 8,000-year-old civilization will be destroyed if the level of our water consumption is not reduced.”

The former agriculture minister also cautioned that Iran’s soil resources have reached a tipping point requiring urgent measures.

“When the Iran-Iraq War started, no one considered the consequences of the armed conflict and its bombardments on the unemployment rate, because there was no time to do so. We were facing a much greater problem: the war itself,” Kalantari said in an interview with the government’s official news agency, IRNA. “Today, we’re in a similar situation. We must not consider the unemployment rate among farmers at this point in time, because we’re facing a much more critical problem.”

He further warned that if Iran does not change its approach to water use, the result would be mass migration.

“If water consumption for agriculture remains at this level, in less than 25 years Iran’s eastern and southern areas will be completely deserted, and 50 million people will have to emigrate,” he added.

Blaming the agricultural sector for excessively using Iran’s water resources, Kalantari said, “90 percent to 95 percent of water consumed in the agricultural sector must be reduced; otherwise, the problem will never be solved.”

'We Believed Our Cleric': Pakistani Polio Victim's Regretful Father Urges Others To Use Vaccine

A girl receives polio vaccine drops from a vaccination worker outside her family home in Quetta, Pakistan, in January.

ISLAMABAD -- Five-year-old Mohammad Ashar Aziz will never be able to walk without orthopedic leg braces.

The youngest of three brothers from a village near Islamabad, he is one of just 17 children in the world -- all of them in Pakistan or Afghanistan -- who developed paralysis during 2017 from a wild polio-virus infection.

His father, 41-year-old day laborer Hamid Aziz, is disconsolate because he repeatedly had the chance to immunize Mohammad Ashar for free during the past five years.

Instead, Hamid Aziz says he listened to the advice of a cleric in his village, who announced over loudspeakers of the madrasah, a local Islamic religious school, that the vaccine was “not good” for children’s health, and prevented it from being administered to any of his sons.

Whenever teams of government and international aid workers came to his village as part of a massive polio-eradication campaign, Aziz and his illiterate wife, Huma, hid Mohammad Ashar and his siblings and told the vaccination teams there were no children in their home.

“Why didn’t I give the vaccine to my son?” says Aziz, who quit school at the age of 14 and knew nothing about the polio vaccine.

“We believed what our cleric told us, but now I realize that we’ve not done the right thing for our son,” Aziz tells RFE/RL. “We realize how important it was and that we should have let him get the vaccine.”

Perceptions And Misinformation

Public health studies in Pakistan have shown that maternal illiteracy and low parental knowledge about vaccines -- together with poverty and rural residency -- are factors that most commonly influence whether children are vaccinated against the polio virus.

Pakistan Renews Campaign To Eradicate Polio
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Nooran Afridi, a pediatrician at a private clinic in Pakistan’s Khyber tribal region, says one of the biggest obstacles to eradicating polio in Pakistan has been “refusals” stemming from “antipolio propaganda” spread by conservative Islamic clerics in “backward areas.”

One common fallacy in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan with low literacy rates is that the vaccine sterilizes young boys.

Antipolio propaganda also has been fueled by distrust in Western governments who fund vaccine programs -- particularly after the CIA staged a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in 2011 to confirm the location of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Since then, some clerics have even issued fatwas saying that children who become paralyzed or die from polio are “martyrs” because they refused to be tricked by a Western conspiracy.

Taliban militants in both Afghanistan and Pakistan also have propagandized that Western-made vaccines contain pig fat or alcohol, which are both forbidden in Islam.

Pakistan’s Tehrik-i Taliban has used that false claim to justify its killing of more than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan since a massive polio-eradication effort was launched in 2012.

Massive Eradication Effort

Pakistani health workers, together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international aid organizations, have immunized millions of children across the country since 2012 with more than 100 rounds of the vaccination drive.

More than 38 million children under the age of 5, the most susceptible age group for contracting the contagious disease, were vaccinated in Pakistan during 2017 alone.

A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.
A Pakistani policeman stands guard as a health worker administers the polio vaccine to a child during a vaccination campaign in Karachi, Pakistan, in April. More than 80 polio vaccination team workers in Pakistan have been killed by Taliban militants since a massive polio eradication effort was launched in 2012.

The effort has brought Pakistan’s paralytic polio rate to its lowest level since the early 1990s.

Six of the world’s 17 paralytic cases in 2017 were reported in Pakistan, compared to 20 in 2016 and a peak of 198 cases in 2011.

In Afghanistan, there were 11 paralytic polio cases in 2017, down slightly from 13 the year before.

The WHO, which treats Afghanistan and Pakistan as a single epidemiological block, has warned that the risk of the spread of polio remains high along the countries' 1,500-kilometer shared border -- particularly among nomadic tribes that travel within both countries and across the frontier.

But the WHO also has been encouraged by Pakistan’s eradication efforts in its tribal regions along the border, where no new paralytic cases were reported during 2017.

Completely eradicating polio from Pakistan “will depend on reaching all children who have not been vaccinated,” it said in a late November report.

Both countries demonstrated “strong progress, with independent technical advisory groups underscoring the feasibility of rapidly interrupting transmission of the remaining polio virus strains,” according to the WHO, which also praised closely coordinated Afghan-Pakistani initiatives to identify children missed by vaccination programs and to understand why they were missed.

Almost Gone

Pakistan had hoped to be removed from the list of polio-endemic countries by the end of 2017 by achieving its goal of no new paralytic cases for a year -- a result achieved by Nigeria in October.

Rana Safdar, coordinator for Pakistan’s national Emergency Operations Center for Polio Eradication, announced in April that Pakistan was “about to defeat polio” because of a continued political commitment from Islamabad and support from international and Pakistani partners in the eradication programs.

The next round of mass vaccinations in Pakistan is scheduled for the end of December.

WATCH: Pakistan Launches New Polio Vaccination Drive (from July 2017)

Pakistan Launches New Polio-Vaccination Drive
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Mezhar Nisar, a member of Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s polio eradication task force, says he is confident the disease “is on the way to being rooted out from Pakistan.”

“We have addressed all the refusal issues in our overall social-mobilization strategy,” Nisar told RFE/RL. “We have involved religious scholars from the Ulema councils and community-based women health workers. This has brought the number of vaccination refusals to the minimal level. The program is fully on track.”

The Independent Monitoring Board of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) on December 8 praised the prime minister’s “hands-on approach” with Pakistani provincial leaders.

Meanwhile, in Cairo, the Islamic Advisory Group for Polio Eradication has issued a new training manual for madrasah students that supports polio eradication efforts with practical guidance about engaging with local communities in support of vaccination.

Endpolio Pakistan, which brings nongovernmental and government experts in Pakistan together with international health organizations, says declarations by Muslim scholars in Ulema councils were critical to eliminating new paralytic polio cases during 2017 from Pakistan’s tribal areas along the Afghan border.

In the town of Akora Khattak in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party chief Maulana Samiul Haq declared a fatwa in late 2013 at the Darul Uloom Haqqania religious seminary, stating that “there is nothing forbidden” in the polio vaccine.

Haq, who had close ties with the late Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, said it is “the responsibility” of the religious scholars in the Ulema councils "to remove misconceptions about the use of vaccines to protect children from the crippling disease.”

He also publicly declared that Islamic Shari'a law “has made it clear that there is no harm in it. Rather, the treatment is an obligation.”

Other clerics have issued appeals for ordinary citizens, religious scholars, and tribal elders to fully support the polio vaccination initiative across Pakistan so that every child is vaccinated -- insisting that the vaccine's ingredients are, beyond any doubt, permissible under traditional Islamic law.

Hamid Aziz says he wishes he would have had that kind of Islamic instruction when his son was born in 2012.

Instead, Aziz is now struggling on his intermittent wages of about $7 per day to come up with the funds needed to buy the leg braces that his youngest son will need to use for the rest of his life in order to walk.

“Now I am asking other parents to allow the medical workers to administer the polio vaccine to their children,” Aziz told RFE/RL. “It is good for your children.”

Written and reported by Ron Synovitz in Prague with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Ahmad Ullah in Islamabad

Speaker: Gov’t Should ‘Step In’ To Aid Detained Opposition

Iran's Deputy Speaker on the floor of parliament. File photo

Iran’s deputy parliament speaker, Ali Motahari, says if no breakthrough is reached to end the house arrest of prominent opposition figures, the government should “step in.”

While delivering a speech to students at Khajeh Nassir Tousi University on December 11, Motahari said, “The top authorities have in recent months shown some flexibility toward lifting the house arrest of Green Movement leaders,” namely former PM Mir Hossein Mousavi; his wife, Zahra Rahnavard; and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi.

“There’s a will for addressing the problem,” he said.

Referring to Karroubi being recently allowed to receive a limited number of visitors, Motahari said, “They let four political activists visit Karroubi, and a similar procedure for Mousavi is under way, as well.”

Without elaborating, he noted, “They [top intelligence authorities] have asked us to avoid raising hell, and we have obeyed. Nevertheless, our silence over the house arrests is limited. God willing, the problem will be addressed; otherwise, we will be forced to step in.”

Karroubi’s sons revealed that the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) recently ratified a resolution permitting some figures to visit the 81-year-old opposition figure.

In his speech Motahari also said, “One of the heads of power said placing people under house arrest is not a punishment. I told him he should spend 10 days indoors and under siege and see what happens.”

Living in a house where every room is constantly monitored by cameras and recording devices takes a physical and emotional toll, Motahari said. “Nobody can deny that house arrest is a punishment. These people are only allowed to see their children every other week. Moreover, until recently, they were not even allowed to have access to newspapers, radio, or television. The problem of house arrests should be resolved, and I believe it has unnecessarily turned into a source of dispute and division,” he explained.

Motahari described the house arrests as illegal, noting, “In an emergency situation, it is justifiable for the SNSC to place people under house arrest for the sake of retaining peace and order. But when the situation returns to normal, the SNSC has no authority to maintain house arrests. The SNSC is not in a legal position to sentence people.”

Calling for a public trial in a competent court, Motahari suggested, “Those under house arrest should be allowed to express their concerns. And, of course, at the end of the day, we are obliged to accept the court’s verdict. Nevertheless, the continuation of house arrests is against articles 32 to 37 of constitution.”

Karroubi has repeatedly demanded to be tried in a court of law and has asked Motahari to follow up the demand as his representative.

However, in 2013, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called upon Mousavi and Karroubi to publicly apologize for challenging the official results of the 2009 presidential election that declared the incumbent, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, the winner.

The top authorities of the judiciary have also called upon Mousavi and Karroubi to openly “repent.”

Motahari has repeatedly dismissed the call as illogical.

Mousavi, 76, Rahnavard, 71, and Karroubi have been under house arrest since February 2011 following months of widespread street protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election.

Number of Students Barred From Education Is Higher Than Reported

Applicants taking Iran's nationwide university entrance exams in 2016.

Tehran’s representative in the Iranian Parliament, Mahmoud Sadeqi says 27 graduate students have been banned from continuing their education in the current Iranian academic year.

Citing Sadeqi, state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported that despite attempts made, 12 PhD and 15 master’s students were not allowed to enter the universities this year.

According to Sadeqi, 151 PhD and 398 master’s students deemed “starred” were allowed to register and continue their education after signing a written commitment. The written commitment apparently is meant to insure that students stay away from political activities.

But there are conflicting numbers as to how many students have actually been barred this year. Other sources report much higher numbers.

“Starred students” is a term coined in 2005 following Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term to refer to students deemed politically unreliable or undesirable by Iran’s intelligence apparatuses.

An asterisk or star is added next to their name.

However, Sadeqi says the situation has improved since 2013, when Hassan Rouhani got elected president, replacing Ahmadinejad.

Based on a 2013 research by a student group, out of a total of 1,000 starred university students in Iran 768 received their star during Ahmadinejad’s presidency and 250 were expelled from the universities.

Referring to the students’ written commitment as a step “in the right direction,” Sadeqi noted, “Such commitments are an inquisition and a type of pressure on students that goes against the Iranian Constitution.” This seems to be a contradiction, which can be explained by the MP trying to be politically correct in the context of the Islamic Republic.

Earlier, Sadeqi had insisted that since denying people’s rights is against the law such commitments have no legal value even if signed by the students voluntarily.

Meanwhile, Sadeqi condemned depriving students of further education without trial and solely based on reports compiled by intelligence organs.

“Some of the students have been starred merely for electoral and political activities,” he said.

This year, at least 150 students eligible to start graduate programs have been barred from carrying on their studies at universities, daily Jame’eye Farda (Tomorrow’s Society) reported on November 30.

Citing an informed source at the Science, Research, and Technology Ministry, the daily said, “In the new educational year, between 150 and 200 students, after passing the tests for master’s and PhD degrees, have been listed as starred and barred from entering the universities.”

Analysts say the number of starred students is much more than what is officially reported.

In an article for the reformist daily Sharq, human rights activist and journalist Emadeddin Baqi wrote last week, “Based on our enquiry, the number of students who have successfully passed their exams but are not allowed to continue their education is much more than what is formally said. In fact, many of the deprived students have given up hope, leaving higher education for good.”

If Rouhani’s administration is really interested in solving the problem, Baqi remarked, it should call the starred students to come forward to determine the exact number of students who have been deprived of higher education.

Another legislator from Tehran, Ali Haidari, also lamented, “During the monarchy, there were no starred students in Iran. Even some politically active students who might have experienced life behind bars were never deprived of continuing their education.”

At a rally in 2013, Rouhani emphatically promised to address the problem when the human rights commission of an influential students association declared that more than 1,000 starred students had been barred from continuing their education in the eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Last week, in his speech on Students National Day in Iran, Rouhani said, “The sky is the place for stars, not universities.”

Nevertheless, a year into Rouhani’s first term as president, Amnesty International (AI) described the situation as grave.

Hundreds of students are deprived of further education while many of them are behind bars, AI said in a report.

A New Round Of Strikes And Protests AT Haft Tapeh Complex

Strike at the Haft Tapeh sugar producing complex

Hundreds of workers at Haft Tapeh sugar cane plantation and mill complex in city of Shush, southwestern Iran, have launched a new round of strikes while holding protest rallies to demand their overdue benefits and wages.

The protesters who have been on strike since December 2, for the second consecutive day assembled in front of Haft Tapeh office on Sunday, December 10.

Haft Tapeh workers have always had to fight for their wages, pensions and rights since the complex was privatized.

In an open letter dated October 8, 2017, thousands of Haft Tapeh workers had complained that since the March 2016 sale of the sugarcane company to the private sector they had “more than one year of suffering and anguish…we have been able to receive our wages only through protests and gatherings”.

Furthermore, the workers have lamented for being summoned to the courts and arrested.

Insisting that the only way to save the complex is returning its ownership to the public sector, the workers have also maintained, “Since the transfer of ownership to the present owners, the company’s debts have increased, with the employer only thinking of reducing the permanent workforce”.

Accusing the government of supporting the rich, the workers have complained that they have become poorer while the managers of the complex have become richer.

The ruling system’s authorities used to boast that they were defenders of the oppressed, the workers have regretfully noted, immediately adding “But now that they themselves have become rich, they [have turned into] the defenders of the rich”.

Meanwhile, the International Union for Food (IUF) in a statement on December 4, reflected Haft Tape workers grave situation, saying “Haft Tapeh workers have always had to fight for their wages and pensions and their rights. In 2008, workers formed an independent union - affiliated to the IUF - following a 42-day strike to demand long-standing wage arrears. In June this year, the workers again held work stoppages and demonstrations to demand payment of wage arrears of up to four months”.

Referring to an international campaign for defending the rights of Haft Tapeh sugar cane complex, IUF has also asserted, “In response to our international campaign, the wage arrears were partially settled; temporary workers are still owed two months' wages for 2016. But workers have not been paid since July 11”.

The Geneva based IUF also believes that privatization of Haft Tapeh industrial complex has been detrimental to the workers’ rights, “Conditions at Haft Tapeh have worsened since the company was privatized in a murky 2015 privatization deal. Pension benefits have been suspended due to the company's failure to pay into the state social security scheme”.

According to IUF’s statement, “The Haft Tapeh workers are demanding full payment of wage and benefit arrears; recognition of the union as the workers' legal representative; reinstatement of all unjustly terminated workers; and the company's return to government ownership”.

Tehran MP Says Lack of Happiness Makes Iranians The Angriest People

A street fight in heavy traffic in Iran. File photo

Unemployment, lack of happiness and difficulties in making ends meet are the main reasons for Iran being at the top of the world table for “social violence”, says a member of Iranian parliament.

Parvaneh Salahshour, a Tehran MP, is quoted by parliament’s official website on December 7 as saying, “Based on a report compiled by the Ministry of Health, quarrels and physical disputes are the second factor in leading Iranians to their death in emergency units.

Parvaneh Salahshouri insists that the latest opinion polls show that Iran is world’s number one, when it comes to social violence which indicates the fact that Iranians are the angriest people on Earth.

The degree of violence among citizens has reached a point that it cannot be ignored anymore, Salahshouri notes, adding “The problem is so worrisome that needs instant attention”.

Social violence does not have a single cause---many urban problems, including heavy traffic, noise pollution, unemployment and difficulties in making ends meet, all have a role, Salahshouri affirms.

Tehran's MP also asserts that lack of social joy and happiness is one of the reasons behind increasing violence in different layers of society.

“While Iranians are facing numerous difficulties in their lives, joy is one of the rare commodities in Iran today since a cultural norm, wrongly based on negating joy and pleasure, is widely promoted in our society”.

Iranian female members of parliament including Parvaneh Salahshouri (top right) in a session of parliament, undated.
Iranian female members of parliament including Parvaneh Salahshouri (top right) in a session of parliament, undated.

One of the best ways to address the problem, Salahshouri believes, is promoting tolerance and the positive impact of living happily.

Ms. Salahshouri has not specifically referred to a pollster but, in late last summer, Gallup published a report presenting Iraq, Iran and Sudan as the angriest countries in the world.

Did you know 70% of human behavior is based on emotions -- not reason? The report asks, adding, “While measurements like unemployment and GDP help quantify certain aspects of a society's health, virtually no macro-level data exist on the emotional state of a country. Until now.

This report, in its third year, offers global leaders, economists and political scientists' insights into people's feelings and behaviors, telling them more about their society's health and future than traditional economic measures can alone, Gallup asserts.

The report presents Iraq as the unhappiest place to live on Earth.

The poll measured the emotions of residents in 138 countries, ranging from anger and stress to sadness and physical pain. The higher the score, the more common negative feelings were to individuals living in each country.

Greeks at 67% were the most stressed in the world.

Meanwhile, more than 70% of people worldwide smiled; experienced a lot of enjoyment or laughed a lot, a day before the report was compiled.

Iraq ranked highest with a score of 57, followed by Iran with 53 points and Egypt with 50, according to the poll. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had the lowest negative experience figure, 13, which means residents there are the happiest in the world.

Almost half of Iranians – 48% – said they would not recommend their country to a friend searching for a place to live.

French Fighters Appear With Islamic State In Afghanistan

Alleged the Islamic State fighters and Taliban are presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad, October 3, 2017

Kabul, Dec 10, 2017 (AFP) - French and Algerian fighters, some arriving from Syria, have joined the ranks of the Islamic State group in northern Afghanistan where the militants have established new bases, multiple international and Afghan sources have told AFP.

It is the first time that the presence of French IS fighters has been recorded in Afghanistan, and comes as analysts suggested foreigners may be heading for the war-torn country after being driven from Syria and Iraq.

It is also a troubling sign as France, which has faced the worst of the IS-inspired violence in Europe since 2015, debates how to handle hundreds of its citizens who went to fight for the group in the Middle East.

"A number" of Algerian and French nationals entered the largely IS-controlled district of Darzab in northern Jowzjan province in November, said district governor Baaz Mohammad Dawar. At least two women were among the arrivals, who were travelling with a translator from Tajikistan as well as Chechens and Uzbeks, Dawar added.

European and Afghan security sources in Kabul confirmed Dawar's claim that French citizens were among the fighters -- though, one cautioned, "we do not know how many there are".

Gulab Mangal (C), Governor of Nangarhar province, visits Afghan soldiers who are engaged in an operation against militants, including Islamic State, in Khogiyani district of restive Nangarhar province, October 26, 2017
Gulab Mangal (C), Governor of Nangarhar province, visits Afghan soldiers who are engaged in an operation against militants, including Islamic State, in Khogiyani district of restive Nangarhar province, October 26, 2017

'The Engineers'

Three of the Algerians seen in Darzab are believed to have been in Syria and Iraq, Dawar said, suggesting they may link Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-K), the group's franchise in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the main group in the Middle East.

When it first emerged in 2015, IS-K overran large parts of eastern Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, though initially its part in the Afghan conflict was overshadowed by the Taliban. The jihadists have since spread north, including in Jowzjan on the border with Uzbekistan, and carried out multiple devastating attacks in the capital Kabul.

Mohammad Raza Ghafoori, the Jowzjan provincial governor's spokesman, said French-speaking Caucasian men and women had been seen training IS fighters in Darzab. He cited reports saying that around 50 children, some as young as 10, have also been recruited by the fighters.

Darzab residents told AFP that roughly 200 foreigners had set up camp just a few hundred meters (yards) from the village of Bibi Mariam. One local man who gave his name as Hajji said the fighters were of several nationalities, including French, and were tall, aged in their late 20s, and dressed in military clothing.

"They ride their (motor) bikes, go to the border and come back, but they talk to nobody," he said.

Hashar, a former district village chief, said some were training others to use suicide bombs and lay mines. "They are... bringing misery to normal people," he told AFP, as other villagers said many residents had fled the area.

Locals along with district governor Dawar warned the fighters were also exploiting natural resources, such as precious stones and metals. One of the security sources said that two of the French had been nicknamed "The Engineers" and appeared to be organizing some sort of extraction, "but we do not know what they are looking for".

Several European services believe the fighters are arriving through Tajikistan, the source said, adding that at least one Frenchman arrested there in July said he had wanted to join IS in Afghanistan.

Smoke rises after an air strike on Islamic State (IS) militants positions during an operation against ISIS in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, April 14, 2017
Smoke rises after an air strike on Islamic State (IS) militants positions during an operation against ISIS in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, April 14, 2017

Land of jihad

Afghanistan has long attracted foreign fighters, from the mujahedeen during the 1980s war against Soviet invaders to Al-Qaeda's later use of the country as a haven.

The Pentagon has said IS numbers fewer than 1,000 in Afghanistan. But the growing presence of foreign fighters among them indicates that IS "seeks to create an external operations node for new waves of global attacks," warned analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War recently.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an expert on jihadist groups, said he did not think the presence of foreign fighters in Afghanistan meant that IS was necessarily "shifting its base". The group's "natural home is Iraq and Syria, but I presume many of the foreigners in particular are taking the opportunity either to escape entirely or moving to other battlefields for IS where they might prove more useful," he told AFP.

The head of US forces in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has vowed the group will be "annihilated", and Washington notoriously dropped the so-called "Mother Of All Bombs" on an IS stronghold in Nangarhar in April.

But as the number of fighters grows in Darzab, the villager Hajji told AFP there were no signs of pro-government forces in the district. "(The) government is God damned," he said. "There is no government here."

Ayatollahs Back In The Spotlights On Social Regulations

An Iranian activist, Darya Safai holds a banner reading "Let Iranian women enter their stadiums" at the Iranian men's volleyball match against Egypt in the 2016 Olympics.

While President Hassan Rouhani and his government are watching from the sidelines, the conservative ayatollahs are creeping to the center stage by having the final say in matters of social freedoms.

A governmental entity, Social-Cultural Council of Women and Family, SCCWF has admitted that it has taken a debate on the question of women’s presence at sports arenas, off its agenda, after a “grand ayatollah” openly raised his opposition.

Grand ayatollahs are considered “sources of emulation” (marja’a) for Shiites on religious and behavioral matters. As Islam and especially Shiism tend to closely regulate individual and social life and relations, the role of senior clerics becomes a deciding factor.

“We respect the opinions of sources of emulation as the final verdict; therefore, the scheduled debate on the question of women attending sports events at the stadia is taken off our agenda since ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi has declared it ‘irrelevant’”, SCCWF public relations department announced.

Echoing ayatollah’s remark, SCCWF said in a statement, “As there are many more priorities concerning problems facing the female society, ratifying a resolution on women attending sports arenas is declared irrelevant”.

SCCWF was established in 2010 and most of its members are officials from different entities of power in the Islamic Republic.

The heads of three powers of the ruling system, Qom seminary and Cultural Supreme Council have two representative each in SCCWF.

The head of SCCWF, Zahra Ayatollahi on Friday, October 20 had insisted that the council was set to review the case concerning women attending sports arenas.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, November 29, Qom based ayatollah Makarem Shirazi blasted the debate as a “deviation from real problems”, insisting that the case should never be discussed again.

Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.
Ramin Mehmanparast, Iranian ambassador to Poland, reacts as women protest for Iranian women's rights to enter stadiums in Iran.

“Is our country’s problem women’s attendance at sports arena?”, Makarem Shirazi roared, adding “Our people’s problem is high price of bread, the unemployment of highly educated young people and [the crisis of] the banking system. These are the problems that have devastated our people”.

Another source of emulation, ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani also joined the chorus, labelling women attendance at sports stadiums “incompatible with their chastity”.

Instead of contemplating on whether to allow women enter sports arenas or not, let’s ponder on how facilitate marriage for them, ayatollah Sobhani maintained.

President Rouhani’s staff have repeatedly raised the issue of women being allowed to enter stadiums to watch sports competitions. Nevertheless, women are still barred from entering the arenas in Iran.

The question has turned into one of the most complicated matters facing governments in the Islamic Republic.

In 2006, a handful of women were allowed to enter the stadium and watch Iranian national soccer team’s World Cup qualifying match against Bahrain, while then president Mohammad Khatami was present.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also wrote an official letter to the Physical Education Organization asking it to facilitate women’s attendance at sports arenas but, his request was shelved after a number of senior ayatollahs opposed the idea.

Banning women from entering stadiums has forced international and Asian sports federations to warn Tehran about the consequences of depriving women from attending sports events.

They have warned that the continuation of the ban could lead to depriving Iran from holding international sports events and even participation.

Therefore, to neutralize the threat, the Islamic Republic’s officials have allowed a number of handpicked women to attend some of the international sports events held in Tehran.

Recently, the male coach of Thailand’s Kabaddi national side made news when he put on a headscarf to pretend to be a woman and entered a women-only sports arena in Tehran. His photos in hijab were widely circulated in social media.

While the Iranian federation claims that the Thai coach sneaked into the stadium wearing the hijab, the coach told Radio Farda that he was told to wear a headscarf if he wanted to get entry.

Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.
Thai coach with headscarf in Iran women's Kabaddi games.

Former Soccer Stars Accused Of ‘Nonchalance’, As Political Protest

Iran's national soccer team players in World Cup qualifier v. South Korea in Seoul on 17jun2009.Green waistband is seen on one player.

The documentary network affiliated with Iran’s official radio and television broadcaster, has lambasted the Iranian national soccer team for failing to qualify for the World Cup final round eight years ago.

The network accused the team of showing no desire for a win in their last World Cup qualification match against South Korea, in June 2009.

Five days after the controversial presidential election that kept incumbent Mahmud Ahmadinejad in office, the Iranian team played against South Korea in Seoul.

Amid clips of street protests against Ahmadinejad’s re-election, the documentary, titled Soccer Against The Enemy, harshly criticizes the team as it shows them wearing green wristbands, which were a sign of solidarity with the demonstrations at home in Iran.

Team captain Mehdi Mahdavi Kia, along with five teammates wore the symbols supporting Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Mousavi supporters insisted the election was rigged in favor of the Ahmadinejad. They poured into the streets and created unrest that left Iran shaken for more than five months.

Six players wearing green wristbands in Seoul shocked the state-run TV to the extent that it took minutes to force the authorities to censor any close-up and instead showing repeated clips of South Korean spectators.

Outside the arena in Seoul, scores of Iranians had staged a protest assembly to condemn Ahmadinejad’s re-election as a sham. They carried a banner that implicitly referred to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that read “Go to Hell, Tyrant.”

However, when the team returned to the field for the second half of the match, the wristbands were gone, while Mahdavi Kia kept his green armband as captain.

At the end of the match, coach Mansour Pourheidari tried to downplay the incident, saying, “The footballers wore green wristbands to pay tribute to Abol Fazl,” a Shi’ite saint.

The narrator of Soccer Against the Enemy repeatedly states, “It looks as if [the Iranian] footballers are not set to play for a unified team. It looks as if none of them seeks a victory.”

The Iranian state broadcaster is not an independent outlet. It is controlled by the Supreme Leader’s office.

Moreover, the narrator also repeatedly describes the match as a defeat, whereas Iran’s home and away matches against South Korea ended in a 1-1 draw.

The soccer players have not yet reacted to the documentary.

Iranian University Shuts Down After Student Strike

Iranian students protesting in the Petroleum Industry University.

Student protests in Iran this week were propelled by different grievances and demands. Some were concrete issues related to financial issues and others were the result of constant pressures and interference by security organs in universities.

One hotspot has been the Petroleum Industry University (Sana’ate Naft), where student protests began even earlier.

The university in Abadan, a petroleum industry center in southern-western Iran, has announced it will close until further notice due to a student strike that has lasted for more than two weeks.

In a statement, the university accused students of disrupting university affairs and said that the decision is based on the fact that students have refused to attend class since November 18 under the pretext of employment demands.

Students at the university, which is funded by the Oil Ministry, have organized protests in Abadan and Tehran demanding the ministry hire them after graduation as they were promised upon admission. The guidelines were changed in 2015, and the ministry now says it will only hire those who pass written and oral employment tests.

“The court of the first instance has issued a verdict in our favor that obliges the Oil Ministry to fulfill its commitment toward students,” one of the protesters, who requested anonymity, told Radio Farda. “Unfortunately, because the ministry has the best lawyers, they have appealed all the points in our lawsuit and we have to wait until the appeals court issues its verdict next year.”

Protesting students in Allameh University carry a sign that says "Bring back our expelled classmates and professors.
Protesting students in Allameh University carry a sign that says "Bring back our expelled classmates and professors.

Simultaneously, students at other universities organized protests against political suppression, gender discrimination, and increasing tuitions.

Iran's constitution provides that citizens should receive free education; however, only 7 percent of the country’s universities are actually tuition-free, current student activist Mohammad Sharifi Moghaddam told Radio Farda.

Protesting students are also demanding security agencies should stop keeping universities under tight watch, Sharifi added.

There is rarely a politically active student who has not received an anonymous threatening phone call from security agents, he said.

On December 4 and 5, hundreds of students at major universities across Iran demanded an end to political suppression, gender segregation, and discrimination, and what they call a monetization of universities and capitalization of social life.

Since the 2009 protests against the re-election of former president Mahmud Ahmadinejad, hundreds of students have been harassed and arrested by security forces for political activity. Their publications have been systematically banned or censored, and some students have been suspended or discharged from universities.

During his election campaign, President Hassan Rouhani criticized the increasing pressure on students and promised to improve the situation. Students say the president has yet to fulfil his promise.

Outspoken MP Calls For Ahmadinejad's Trial

Ali Motahari, representative of Tehran and Deputy Speaker of the Iranian Parliament

Tehran's outspoken MP and deputy speaker of parliament Ali Motahari has called for former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be held accountable in a public trial.

Ahmadinejad and his companions are “not worthy enough” to be considered the opposition, Motahari said, adding they should stand an open trial.

Meanwhile, in a letter, Ahmadinejad’s former chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, accused Iran’s judiciary of becoming an instrument for empowering and establishing the authority of a number of specific persons and groups while crushing opponents and those who criticize the current situation.

In an interview with Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) on December 6, Motahari emphasized that Ahmadinejad’s trial must be open to the public and that he should be held responsible for his illegal actions.

Deriding Ahmadinejad and his allies as the members of the “Basketist Cult,” Motahari said, “They do not have the necessary caliber to even be considered the opposition.”

After Ahmadinejad’s former deputy for executive affairs, Hamid Baghaei, attended a court hearing session carrying a red basket full of documents, a state-run news agency close to the judiciary, Mizan, coined the term Basketists to describe the former president and his supporters.

There are pending cases against Ahmadinejad in the Judiciary, but so far no action has been taken. These cases deal mainly with financial improprieties.

A self-exiled Iranian journalist, Mehdi Mahdavi Azad, told Radio Farda that labeling Ahmadinejad and his followers is beside the point.

“Ahmadinejad is trying to represent himself and his school of thought as a new voice protesting the current situation in Iran,” he said. “He is trying to distance himself from the ruling system while attracting dissident parts of society who are enraged by [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei and the head of the judiciary’s actions.”

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Mahdavi Azad said there’s a consensus among political groups in Iran, including groups supporting subversion, that Ahmadinejad’s new attempts are opportunistic and doomed to fail.

The real reason behind the former president’s recent vitriolic attacks against the judiciary, according to Mahdavi Azad, is the fact that “Ahmadinejad has concluded that, after prosecuting his closest allies, they will soon directly come for him as well.”

However, going after the former two-term president -- who was repeatedly praised by Khamenei as an epitome of servitude for the people and the revolution -- requires the supreme leader’s approval. Khamenei, however, has distanced himself from the war of words between the two sides.

Ahmadinejad has learned over the years that so long as Khamenei remains neutral, it is next to impossible for anyone to hold Ahmadinejad accountable for a series of charges, including financial corruption and mismanagement.

In November 2010, several MPs attempted to call the then-president out for what they charged was sidestepping the constitutional powers of the Parliament and circumventing checks and balances.

The protesting MPs, in a letter to the Guardian Council, listed 14 infringements, including foot-dragging by the administration on the implementation of a variety of laws as well as financial irregularities.

Ahmadinejad was also accused of three years of unauthorized imports of gasoline and diesel worth around $10 billion and the failure to account for up to 40 percent of his spending on numerous visits to cities across the country, which he called “provincial travels.”

The MPs’ attempt was nipped in the bud when Khamenei refrained from giving his backing.

Ahmadinejad and his supporters recently described the judiciary as ruthless, unjust, tyrannical, and devious. Nevertheless, the justice department, notorious for prosecuting anyone who dares to criticize the ruling system, has preferred to carry on saber-rattling with the former president rather than legally charging him.

Explainer: Taliban 'Special Forces Unit' Bursts Into Spotlight With Deadly Attacks

Analysts say the "Red Unit" differs from most Taliban fighters (such as these pictured) in the level of training and sophisticated equipment available to them.

On the increasingly crowded battlefields of Afghanistan, a feared, commando-style Taliban unit is gaining attention for a series spectacular, deadly attacks on Afghan security forces.

Known as "Sara Kheta" -- Red Unit or Danger Unit in Pashto -- it is said to be the Taliban's elite special-forces group. Unlike regular Taliban fighters, analysts say the outfit is better trained and armed and is sent on special operations targeting bases and posts of the Afghan National Army and police force.

The so-called Red Unit's rise has raised concerns among government forces struggling to fend off the Taliban since the withdrawal of NATO troops in 2014 and suffering record casualty rates on the battlefield.

When did it emerge?

The first mention of a Taliban "special-forces unit" was in June 2015, when Taliban fighters published photos on social media purportedly showing a training camp where recruits were being trained on heavy machine guns and antiaircraft guns.

In December 2015, the Taliban said it was unleashing its special forces to eliminate fighters allied with the militant group Islamic State (IS) that had emerged in Afghanistan earlier that year.

In August 2016, Afghan military officials confirmed the existence of the Taliban's Red Unit in the southern province of Helmand.

But the unit has fought its way to greater prominence in the past month or so. On November 1, the Taliban uploaded photos of the unit on its official Telegram account. The photos show members of Red Unit in new uniforms and armed with the kind of tactical assault gear worn by soldiers and law enforcement teams around the world.

Weeks later, Afghan officials blamed it for a spate of attacks on November 13 and 14 during which dozens of Afghan security personnel were killed in the southern province of Kandahar and the western province of Farah.

On December 3, Afghanistan's intelligence agency said the commander of the new unit, Mullah Shah Wali, also known Mullah Naser, was killed in an air operation in Helmand Province the week before.

How is it different from other Taliban units?

"What distinguishes this force from other fighting units is its intensive and longer training, the degree of vetting, its tactics, weapons and equipment, and structure," says Borhan Osman, senior Afghanistan analyst at the International Crisis Group (ICG).

"The unit is mainly used for quick interventions, high-value targets, special operations, or offensives such as capturing a highly strategic area, breaking major sieges of regular Taliban forces, jailbreaks, and escorting important leaders," Osman adds.

Military analysts estimate the size of the unit at anywhere from several hundred to up to 1,000 fighters.

Those tactics and capabilities were on show in the November attacks when Afghan officials said the unit, equipped with lasers and night-vision gear, attacked police checkpoints and army bases and rapidly left the scene to avoid NATO air strikes. On November 14, the unit drove a pickup truck loaded with explosives into a police checkpoint point and then launched attacks on 14 nearby posts, killing over two dozen police officers.

In Farah Province the same day, Taliban units with night-vision scopes killed eight police officers in their beds early in the morning. Three police officers in the province were also killed in night attacks around the same time.

The U.S. military has equipped many Afghan soldiers with night-vision equipment, but police forces rarely possess them.

"The Red Unit and regular Taliban forces use the same types of weapons: small arms, RPGs, and machine guns," says Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal. "Typically, the Red Unit has newer weapons, and is occasionally seen with night-vision devices that have been seized from Afghan forces."

The unit is believed to equipped with the Taliban's most advanced weaponry, including 82-millimeter rockets, laser pointers, heavy machine guns, and U.S.-made M-4 assault rifles. They are also known to have used and possess dozens of armored Humvees and Ford Ranger pickup trucks stolen from Afghan forces.

Ahmad K. Majidyar, a South Asia and Middle East expert for the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says it is misleading to call the unit a special-forces outfit because it lacks elite commando capabilities of even the Afghan Special Forces, let alone advanced elite commando units such as the U.S. SEAL Team Six.

"The Red Team is more a heavily armed group used in surprise attacks against vulnerable Afghan security check posts," he says. "It also has well-trained snipers that aid ordinary Taliban militants in their attack against the Afghan forces."

The unit has also spread from southern Afghanistan, where it was established, and has expanded into eastern and western regions.

How much of a threat is it?

"The Red Unit poses a significant threat to Afghan forces," Roggio says. "It has had great success on the battlefield when going head to head with Afghan units."

Roggio says the unit operates like shock troops, often leading assaults on Afghan district centers, military bases, and outposts.

The NATO-led mission in Afghanistan has said it has not seen any evidence of the Taliban possessing advanced weaponry like night-vision equipment, which Afghan officials say the militants have purchased on the black market or have accumulated after overrunning Afghan army bases.

But Afghan military officials have confirmed the unit's capabilities.

Kandahar's powerful police chief, General Abdul Raziq, has said the Red Unit is part of the Taliban's "new approach and new tactics," adding that it was "well equipped and highly armed."

Majidyar says he expects the Red Unit to come under increasing pressure if President Donald Trump relaxes U.S. rules of engagement.

"The Taliban will suffer more significant losses on the battlefield in the coming months," he predicts.

Iran Aims To 'Customize' Internet Filtering

Iran -- People use internet at a cybercafe in the center of Tehran. File photo

Iran's telecommunications minister says that his ministry wants to customize Internet filtering based on user’s occupation, age, and other factors.

The attorney general's office has conditionally agreed with this plan, Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi announced on December 4.

Without providing any details, he said his ministry had reviewed suggestions made by the attorney general and prepared “appropriate technical responses.” He expressed hope that the office would give its final approval for the implementation of the plan.

It seems that “custom filtering” is an effort by President Hassan Rouhani’s government to ease Internet censorship.

Internet access is heavily restricted in Iran, since its use became widespread more than fifteen years ago. In addition to pornographic and “undesirable” news and political websites, social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are also blocked for Iranian users.

Social media were widely used in the anti-government protests of 2009 against the re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.

Iran is one of the highest users of internet in the world. In 2015, 70% of Iranians regularly used the internet, ranking 16 globally.

For a state that engages in elaborate efforts, including vast bureaucracies, arrests and detentions in order to control information, this poses a constant danger. The advent of smart phones has made the situation even more problematic for the state.

By law, the working group for the determination of criminal content, which consists of several ministers and presided over by the attorney general, is responsible for Internet filtering. However, many websites and applications are blocked at the behest of the attorney general's office, which is under the control of the conservative judiciary.

The attorney general's office ordered the filtering of the voice-messaging feature from the popular messaging app Telegram in April due to purported “risks for national security.” Telegram has more than 40 million users in Iran.

In 2014, Iran expanded the so-called smart filtering of the Internet in order to censor undesirable content on websites without blocking them completely. Its application on Instagram has had 83 percent success, according to a former minister of telecommunications.

Despite the regime’s efforts to censor the Internet, Iranian users routinely get around the restrictions by using anti-filtering programs or virtual private networks.

Political Prisoner Lights A Candle In Jail On Birthday Of Her Twins

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi, undated.

A political prisoner and deputy of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran has celebrated the birthday of her children for the third time in prison, by lighting a candle.

In an open letter from prison, Narges Mohammadi, 45, has lamented, “I do not have a real and clear image of my twins, anymore”.

Ms. Mohammadi’s twins, Ali and Kiana have been living in exile in Paris along with their father, Taqi Rahmani, since 2014. Mohammadi has been allowed to talk to her children on the phone.

A prominent defender of human rights, and winner of the 2011 Per Anger Prize and Sakharov Prize (2017-2018) for defending human rights in Iran, Mohammadi was first arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 11 years in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” and “propaganda against the state.”

Upon appeal, her sentence was reduced to six years behind bars and she was released from Zanjan Prison in 2013 on medical grounds.

According to Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) Mohammadi was arrested again on May 5, 2015, two months after meeting with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief at the time, at the Austrian Embassy in Tehran to discuss the situation of human rights in Iran.

Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children, Ali and Kiana.Undated.
Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi with her children, Ali and Kiana.Undated.

In September 2016, Branch 26 of the Tehran Appeals Court upheld a 16-year prison sentence for “membership in the [now banned] Defenders of Human Rights Center,” “assembly and collusion against national security,” and one year for “propaganda against the state.”

Defenders of Human Rights Center was established by first Iranian and first Muslim woman Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Shirin Ebadi who has been living in exile since June 2009 in UK, after her life was threatened.

Mohammadi will be eligible for release after serving 10 years in prison.

After Hassan Rouhani’s second-term victory in Iran’s May 2017 presidential election, Mohammadi urged him to build the foundations for civil society in Iran.

“As a citizen who voted for you, I should and will be insistent on seeking my demands,” she noted, adding “I am an imprisoned civil rights activist, but I am not asking you to free me. I want to see [the dream for] a civil society come true. That is my demand.”

Rouhani has yet to respond to the letter.

Meanwhile, several members of American Physical Society, APS are laying the groundwork to launch a campaign, calling on the Islamic Republic of Iran to free a prominent Iranian human rights activist, Narges Mohammadi to receive her prize in person.

Ms. Mohammadi who has a degree in Solid-state Physics, jointly won APS’ 2018 prestigious biannual Sakharov Prize, along with Indian researcher Ravi Kuchimanchi.

The ceremonies for awarding the Sakharov Prize is scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, California from March 5 to 9, 2018.

Politically Suspect Students Marked With A Star, Barred From Universities

A student protest in the Oil Industry University in Iran. File photo

At least 150 students eligible to start Masters and Doctoral programs have been barred from carrying on their studies at universities, daily Jame’eye Farda (Tomorrow’s Society) reported on Thursday, November 30.

Citing an “informed source” at the Ministry of Science, Research and Technology, the daily said, “In the new educational year, between 150 to 200 students, after passing the tests for Masters and PhDs degrees, have been listed as ‘starred students’ and barred from entering the universities”.

“Starred students” is a term coined immediately after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first presidential term (2005).

It refers to students who are deemed politically unreliable or undesirable by one or more of the Islamic Republic’s numerous intelligence apparatuses.

An asterisk or star is added next to their name to separate them from others. Probably Iran is the only place where having a star(s) next to a name does not mean a positive distinction.

However, during the controversial 2009 presidential election, the incumbent, Ahmadinejad denied the existence of such a categorization.

Immediately after the denial, scores of starred students gathered to prove that they were indeed banned from continuing their education because of their religion, political views or students’ rights activities.

At least three of the students at the gathering were later detained and placed behind bars.

The question of starred students repeatedly appeared during Hassan Rouhani’s presidential campaigns. At a rally in 2013, Rouhani emphatically promised to address the problem when the human rights commission of an influential students’ association declared that more than 1000 starred students had been barred from continuing their education in eight years of Ahmadinejad’s presidency.

Nevertheless, a year through Rouhani’s first term as president, Amnesty International (AI) described the students’ situation in Iran as “grave”.

Hundreds of students are deprived of further education while many of them are behind bars, AI said in a report.

The question of starred students was raised at several meetings with Rouhani. In one of the gatherings, a student lamented, “…the heads of our universities…are merely reactionaries who have reemerged in modern suits and kill you softly”.

Two days prior to the publication of Jame’eye Farda’s report, Rouhani had insisted on television, “We cannot confine the universities into a specific political view---Students must step in and participate in political and social debates. They should have more room to maneuver. In the current situation, we should not let students to be divided over political issues”.

However, according to a number of students’ rights activists, several starred students have recently been allowed to carry on their education after signing a written commitment.

The text of the commitment has not yet been revealed.

Throwing Match Against Israeli Angers Members Of Parliament

Iranian wrestler, Alireza karimi

Members of Iranian parliament will officially question the Minister of Sports, asking him to explain the case of a young wrestler who deliberately lost a match to avoid facing an Israeli opponent in the next round.

Alireza Karimi, in a match against Alikhan Zhabrilov of Russia last Saturday, was 3-2 ahead in the fourth minute when apparently his trainers instructed him from the sidelines to throw the match.

In a video clip depicting the 86-kilogram category of the Senior U23 World Championship match held in Poland, a voice can be heard clearly instructing Karimi to lose the match.

“Alireza, lose! You must lose, Alireza!” the voice urged Karimi.

Then, apparently as a precaution, Karimi’s caoch asked for time out and talked to the young wrestler in private.

Karimi returned to the mat, opened up his guard against Zhabrilov and let the Russian finish him off and win by using consecutive leg lace or ankle locks, a technique Iranian wrestlers are renowned for easily defending against.

Had Karimi won the match, he would have faced Uri Kalashnikov of Israel in the next round.

Instead, Zhabrilov beat Kalashnikov and reached the final. Karimi was then directly obliged to face his Israeli opponent for the bronze medal.

The Iranian side was left with no other option but to use its old trick, declaring Karimi injured and unable to compete. Iran gave the Israeli athlete a walkover match on a silver platter.

Karimi by forfeiting the match against the Russian and feigning injury against the Israeli generated a wave of reactions that has now reached the parliament.

Referring to Karimi in a tweet, Tehran’s MP, Gholamreza Haidari has lambasted what he has described as “wasting the spiritual and material rights of Iranian athletes”, adding “These athletes carry the burden of Iranian diplomacy and our sports system’s paradoxes on their shoulders”.

Haidari has promised to officially question the minister of Sports in an open session of parliament and demand an explanation.

Gholamreza Heidari, Iranian reformist MP
Gholamreza Heidari, Iranian reformist MP

Earlier, two members of reformist faction Omid (Hope), Bahram Parsayee and Abdol-Karim Hassanzadeh had declared that they were going to legally sue Iranian Wrestling Federation officials for urging Karimi to deliberately lose to his Russian opponent and present his Israeli peer a walk-over win.

However, the Islamic Republic’s ministry of sports has praised Karimi’s performance and presented him ten golden coins (worth roughly $4000).

Meanwhile, Karimi has bitterly complained that the Islamic Republic’s authorities have deceived him.

In an interview with Radio Tehran, Karimi said, “I have been politically abused and played with as a political instrument”.

According to Karimi, he was told that he was going to attend a private ceremony where the president, Hassan Rouhani and the minister of Youth Affairs and Sports would also be present to show their gratitude.

“I went there, but, soon, I found out that [the president and his minister were not there, the gathering was not private and] they just wanted to politically use me. They presented me with ten gold coins in front of cameramen and reporters. I repeat that I believe they wanted to use me as a political tool until the [controversy] is over”.

Karimi reiterated that he was embarrassed for being used as a political instrument.

On Twitter, users created a hashtag labeled as #YouMustLose that has triggered hundreds of comments.

Most of the users believe Iran’s policy barring its athletes competing against Israeli peers has been detrimental for Iranian teams and athletes.

The New York Times also cited him as saying, “I do accept that Israel is an oppressor and commits crimes, but would it not be oppression if our authorities undermine my hard work again?”

Meanwhile, the head of Iran’s Wrestling Federation, Rasoul Khadem noted, “The Islamic Republic’s policy for facing Israeli opponents need updating”.

Head of wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem
Head of wrestling federation and freestyle wrestling coach Rasoul Khadem

​In an interview with reformist daily, Etemad on Tuesday, November 28, Khadem insisted that Palestinians do not know that Iranian athletes throw matches against their Israeli opponents to show their solidarity with them.

“Nobody, save Israelis, are aware of the reason behind Iranian athletes’ decision to deliberately lose against their Israeli peers”.

The International Wrestling Federation has not yet reacted to Karimi’s case.

United World Wrestling has rules stating that the unexcused and purposeful withdrawal from a competition is a punishable offense (rule 7.2.d-e). Furthermore, rule 8.2 stipulates:

“Any official or coach who incites a wrestler to leave the victory to his/her opponent shall be disqualified for the event and shall be prohibited from representing his/her national federation during events held under the control of the Federation for a period of 1 month to 3 years”.

A Small Group In Iran Owes Banks Billion Of Dollars In Bad Debts

Iranian MP Mahmoud Sadeghi, who has threatened to release the names of well-connected people refusing to pay back loans to Iran banks.

A few hundred people in Iran have borrowed billions of dollars from the country’s financial institutions and refuse to meet their obligations toward the lending institutions.

Now, a current and a former member of the Iranian Parliament have taken the issue in their own hands and are trying to force the delinquent debtors to pay their bills.

The MP Mahmoud Sadeghi published some details of 20 bad loans on his Twitter account on Thursday, November 30, and threatened to reveal the identity of the debtors if they do not make arrangements with their lenders within 48 hours.

This means the deadline is on Saturday December 2.

Just 2 days before, Ahmad Tavakoli, a former Iranian MP had made a similar threat to another group of debtors.

Interestingly, Tavakoli us a well-known conservative politician and Sadeghi belongs to the reformist camp, which is the loyal opposition.

Delinquent loans are one of the major crises Iranian banks are facing in recent years. According to several officials most of these loans have been granted through private or political connections, ignoring due process.

Some of loans have been used for purposes other than those agreed with the lending institutions.

In 2012, then President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “60% of the “country’s financial resources are blocked by 300 people.”

Eshagh Jahangiri, the deputy of the current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced in 2014 that delinquent loans to Iranian banks exceed $20 billion. He also said that a list of ca. 600 of bad debtors was prepared by the government and handed over to the judiciary for prosecution.

However, the judiciary has so far failed to take any concrete steps, apparently because many borrowers have family ties to the ruling elite or some powerful clergymen.

The MP Mahmoud Sadeghi had implied this fact in a previous Tweet published on November 28, when he demanded that Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi, one of the most influential clergyman in Iran should explain about the overdue debts of his son-in-law who is one of the major borrowers in the country.

The former MP Ahmad Tavakoli who runs an NGO named “Transparency and Justice”, has also said that the delinquent debtors of one of the financial institutions were “mostly the children of religious scholars, veteran judges, and political figures” and he would reveal their names if they do not take actions regarding the settlement of their debts.

Iran’s central bank had assigned a team to investigate the issue, but according to Tavakoli the members resigned under pressure. The former MP demanded explanations from the central bank in this regard

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