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Iran Judiciary Joins Forces With IRGC Against Rouhani

First deputy and the spokesman of Iran's judiciary, Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ezhe'i

Iran’s judiciary has joined forces with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, IRGC, against President Hassan Rouhani, warning of a “new sedition”.

Sedition is a term used by Iranian conservatives close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to refer to street protests against the re-election of ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

The new round of attacks against Rouhani increased when he complained of the dominant presence of “a government armed with guns in Iran’s economy”, a clear reference to the IRGC’s ever-growing economic empire.

Rouhani’s criticism was so explicit that it forced the IRGC Commander to deliver a sharp response.

General Mohammad Ali Ja'afari reportedly said that if a government is “without guns” it would be “humiliated by the enemy and will be forced to surrender”.

Referring to the row between the two sides, judiciary’s spokesman, Gholam Hossein Mohseni Ezhe’i warned against the prospects of a "new sedition".

“Based on my experience, as an individual who has been present in the executive and judiciary branches, from the advent of the Islamic Revolution until today, I say that whenever there is a smearing attempt against the IRGC, some perilous actions are in the making,” Ezhe’i said in his June 30 speech before Tehran’s Friday prayers main sermon.

Presenting some examples of what he called “attacks” and insults directed at IRGC, including comments made by the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, Mr Ezhe'i warned against moves intended to tarnish its reputation.

Ezhe’i further said: “Banisadr (1980-1981) [wrongly] thought that people had voted for him. He did not know that people voted for the system’s president. He used to tarnish and smear the reputation of the “Komitehs” [or committees -- disciplinary patrols that enforced Islamic law during the first years of the 1979 Revolution].”

Meanwhile, attacks on Hassan Rouhani by the Supreme Leader and his camp on various issues have lately intensified, as reflected in the slogans and banners during Qods Day. Videos emerged on social media from Friday’s ceremonies with some demonstrators chanting slogans against Rouhani saying “Rouhani, Banisadr, happy union to you.”

Today, Rouhani is criticized on almost all fronts by Ayatollah Khamenei. The leader famously rebuffed the president in a public ceremony, saying he should heed his own decrees, especially as far as the country’s struggling economy is concerned.

After Rouhani’s re-election this May, the war of words between the president and ayatollah Khamenei and his allies has significantly intensified.

Rouhani is particularly unhappy with IRGC’s interference in Iran’s economy.

IRGC is involved in hundreds of companies in various economic sectors; from construction to services and the oil industry of Iran.

Now the judiciary has clearly joined forces with the IRGC, which does not come as a shock, given Khamenei's total control of the state's third branch.

Hijab Rehabilitation Classes Await Iranian Women Not Wearing Proper Hijab

Poster design promoting hijab in Iran

An official from the Ministry of Justice in Iran’s Fars province has declared that those arrested for drinking alcoholic beverages and/or not observing the Islamic dress code, the “hijab”, would be sent to special rehabilitation and retraining classes.

Iranian news agencies have quoted judiciary officials as saying that the new punitive measures, announced earlier this week, are supposed to “save offenders from having a criminal record”.

That objective is, however, at odds with what was announced earlier in another part of the country. Shortly before, the prosecutor-general of Sari, in the north of Iran, had warned female drivers to wear their headscarves the right way or face their cars being impounded.

All Iranian women wear hijab by law but many women resent the laws related to how to do so. For three decades Iranian women have been struggling to assert their own freedom regarding the hijab. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been spending billions to make women observe the Islamic hijab, as the weather is getting hot in Iran, police units called "Gasht-e Ershad" (Persian for Guidance Patrols) become very busy stopping women who they deem do not wear proper hijab. Some of these women get imprisoned, fined and flogged.
All Iranian women wear hijab by law but many women resent the laws related to how to do so. For three decades Iranian women have been struggling to assert their own freedom regarding the hijab. The Islamic Republic of Iran has been spending billions to make women observe the Islamic hijab, as the weather is getting hot in Iran, police units called "Gasht-e Ershad" (Persian for Guidance Patrols) become very busy stopping women who they deem do not wear proper hijab. Some of these women get imprisoned, fined and flogged.

That means if a woman is stopped driving a car in the streets and the so-called morality police decides that she is not wearing proper hijab, she could face incarceration and risk her car being towed away. That is indeed going to be registered as “criminal record” when the law is enforced.

The new announcements signal the fact that the Islamic Republic’s decades-long battle to enforce hijab is struggling to evolve as new, and sometimes contrasting, punishments are introduced for infringements.

According to Iran’s law, a long list of actions deemed as contradictory with the teachings of Islam are forbidden. Among those, extra-marital relationship with the opposite sex, drinking alcohol and not observing the Islamic hijab are considered crimes in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Women and Human Rights activists have condemned such warnings as unfair and unacceptable; yet the confrontation of the Islamic government with the women it deems indecent continues.

Iran Condemns MEPs’ Human Rights Statement, Calls It Propaganda

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, on Monday January 2, 2017.

Iran has condemned a recent human-rights-related statement by 265 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) against the Islamic Republic, describing it as “psychological ruse, propaganda” and “unfounded claims based on false speculations.”

At least 265 MEPs, in a statement signed two days ago, strongly condemned what they called human rights violations by the Iranian government and its “support for terrorism.”

“The statement is formalized to target Iran-Europe’s expanding relations,” Iran Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi maintained on July 28. He added that “such claims have no credit whatsoever and we consider them as worthless.”

Furthermore, Qassemi reiterated that “A few members of the European Parliament notorious for having links to some dissident groups and the MKO [People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran or the Mojahedin-e Khalq] terrorist group have been trying to take advantage of their position to put forward untrue claims about the human rights situation in Iran.”

The Islamic Republic of Iran considers the MKO opposition group as a “terrorist organization” and Iranian officials refer to them as “monafeqin” which literally means “hypocrites” in Persian.

MKO is an established opposition group which is struggling to overthrow the government in Tehran.

“We consider the statement as an attempt to undermine the growing process of interaction, cooperation and relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and European countries, which have had many positive and constructive results for both sides in all areas,” Qassemi said in a statement on Wednesday, July 28.

While the recent MEP’s statement prompted Tehran to react, it is said to be only of symbolic value.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Farda, the UK’s Labour Party MEP Seb Dance confirmed that the statement was mainly “symbolic”.

“It is important to remember that a lot of what the European Parliament does might be considered symbolic, but ultimately, it is what the parliament votes on at the end of the day that matters, particularly in relation to trade issues.” Mr. Dance told Farda.

Nonetheless the Islamic Republic maintained its bitter tone; “Iran believes that such claims, which are based on deceptive acts and false and ignorant speculation, lack any credibility,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman has said.

The MEP’s statement was initiated by European Parliament member Gerard Duprez, from Belgium, who has close ties with the MKO.

Earlier, Mr. Duprez had also circulated an appeal to recognize the Iranian presidential election as dishonest. The appeal was signed by 156 MEPs on Iran’s presidential election day, May 19.

In their new statement, 265 MEPs signed Duprez’s statement to condemn the violation of human rights, including high number of executions and depriving women of their absolute rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Gerard Duprez, who is also the president of a group called “Friends of Free Iran”, has emphasized that “in solidarity with anti-Islamic Republic organizations” he is going to participate in MKO’s gathering on 27 July in Paris.

The new statement against the Islamic Republic of Iran was published at a time when, after the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Tehran nuclear deal with world powers, several senior European officials have visited Tehran and signed many MoUs and agreements.

Retaliating to the MEPs, Qassemi called it a “deceptive ruse” to derail Iran -Europe expanding relations.

However as British MEP Seb Dance said in his telephone interview with Radio Farda empowering Iran’s civil society was part of the reason for issuing the statement: “If you work with civil society, if you increase people's ability to hold their governments to account, to have a voice and say over their future, that is I think how we can build trust and build relationships.”

Referring to trade as a two-way street, Dance insisted: “We’ve got to be clear, we cannot just trade with other countries because we need the money. We need to be able to say, look, we will trade and we will grow our relationship with other countries but it has to be on the fundamental understanding of the bases of the human rights. That has to be what the EU stands for.”

During past decades, Iran has been accused many times of violating human rights by different HR organizations. High number of executions, including mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s, the undermining of women, as well as the denial of rights to ethnic and religious minorities, have always been the main reasons for condemning the Islamic Republic of Iran’s human rights record. Tehran has always dismissed the accusations.

In the past six years, the UN Human Rights Council, UNHRC, has assigned two Special Human Rights Rapporteurs for Iran. They both voiced concern about human rights situation under the Islamic Republic. In response, Tehran has accused both rapporteurs of being biased and politically-driven.

Iran has also been accused of supporting terrorism. Nevertheless, Bahram Qassemi insists that it is Iran that has become the victim. “The claims of supporting terrorism come as Iran has been targeted by many abhorrent terrorist attacks in the past, mainly by members of the terrorist Mojahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO). Around 17,000 Iranians have fallen victim to terror attacks since the victory of the Islamic Revolution.”

Regardless of “nonsense and baseless claims” raised by “supporters of terrorism,” Qassemi added, “Iran remains determined to fight the scourge of terrorism. Iran will not hesitate to firmly work towards eliminating the root causes of terrorism, insecurity and instability in the region.”

To that end, Iran Students News Agency, ISNA, quoted Qassemi as saying: “The Iranian Armed Forces, including the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), will continue to incessantly fight terrorist and Takfiri [IS] currents in the region without paying attention to the ballyhoo raised by supporters of criminal terrorists.”

MEPs, in their latest statement have raised their concern over Iran’s destructive presence in the region and, referring to IRGC’s active presence in Iraq and Syria, have called for the addition of country’s the military wing to international black lists. Iran’s military presence in the region has also raised concerns among most of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and U.S.

Tehran, in contrast, has labelled its presence in Syria and Yemen as “advisory” and with the purpose of “fighting IS”.

Cars To Be Seized If Drivers Do Not Observe Hijab, Iran Police Warns

August in the Islamic Republic of Iran is the height of morality-police season, or Gasht-e Ershad (Persian for Guidance Patrols), yet, in Sari, the capital city of Mazandaran province, the season has already started and reached a new level.

Sari’s Prosecutor-General has warned female drivers to keep their hijabs (headscarves) tight, otherwise their vehicles will be seized.

“Those women who remove their hijabs inside vehicles will be prosecuted,” the Judiciary’s website quoted Assadollah Ja’afari as saying on Tuesday, June 27.

The judiciary is prepared to “seriously confront” those who “ignore the hijab law,” Ja’afari cautioned.

Referring to Article 638 of Iran’s Islamic penal code, Sari’s Prosecutor-General reiterated: “Those who remove their hijabs will be formally accused and prosecuted for publicly conducting a ‘haram’ (sinful and forbidden by the Islamic law) action.”

The law asserts: “Anyone in public places and roads who openly commits a haram act, in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes; and if they commit an act that is not punishable but violates public decency, they shall only be sentenced to 10 days to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes.”

The Article also states that women, who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab, shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment or a fines.”

Nevertheless, Sari’s Prosecutor-General made clear the ban applied to motorized vehicles. “Private or public vehicles, motorbikes, jet skis, motorized boats and other motorized vehicles owned by individuals who remove their hijabs, or passengers who do so, do not observe the hijab law, will be impounded and moved to [police] parking lots,” said Prosecutor Ja’fari.

Moreover, “the owner of the said vehicles will be prosecuted according the law,” Ja’afari cautioned.

Earlier, Traffic Police Chief General Taqi Mohri had also warned that his forces will confront those who “break the norms” inside their cars.

On May 30, General Mohri warned that drivers and passengers could be arrested for not wearing the hijab properly or eating or drinking in public during Ramadan

“It’s true that a vehicle is an example of a private space, but it’s not the same as a house,” said Mohri. “It is up to the judiciary to prosecute and sentence whoever violates the law.”

The Center for Human Rights, CHR, quoting a prominent lawyer, Mohammad Seifzadeh, said otherwise: “According to a decision by the Supreme Administrative Court, private cars are considered private spaces and a prosecutor would have to issue a warrant to enter.”

Tehran’s Prosecutor-General, Abbas Ja’afari Dolatabadi appeared unconvinced. “Arresting people does not necessarily lead to a change in their attitudes. Punishment per se does not bear required results,” he said.

According to Dolatabadi, punishment should be limited to the necessary cases and employed on the basis of [our] facilities. “We have to focus on principle cores, organized crime and corruption that are meticulously designed and committed.”

All Iranian women wear hijab by law but many women resent the laws related to how to do so. For three decades Iranian women have been struggling to assert their own freedom regarding the hijab.

“It’s not only the question of wearing a headscarf, the question is thousands of overt and undercover morality-police forces who ambush everywhere to catch you if your scarf is a little bit slipped away from your hairline,” said a young lady from Tehran when interviewed on the topic.

US State Department Warns About Human Trafficking In Iran

Trafficking in persons report, June 2017

According to the latest human trafficking report published by the US Department of State, Iran has been a source, transit site and destination country for men, women and children subjected to human trafficking.

The report was published on June 27 in a ceremony with Secretary Rex Tillerson and President Donald Trump present.

While the Iranian tier in the human trafficking ranking has remained unchanged compared with last year, it is stated in the report that organized groups subject Iranian women, boys and girls to human trafficking.

The United Arab Emirates, Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Europe are reportedly places where Iranian nationals are trafficked and recruited as sex workers.

Another aspect brought to light in the report is the fate awaiting younger Iranian girls trafficked to the aforementioned countries.

“Iranian girls between the ages of 13 and 17 are targeted by traffickers for sale abroad; younger girls may be forced into domestic service until their traffickers consider them old enough to be subjected to child sex trafficking”, the report states.

Dubai has long been a hot-spot for Iranian sex tourism: the concentration of businesses and demand from oil-rich Persian Gulf-states has attracted a wave of sex workers from Iran. Consequently, in 2016, there was a hike in the number of sex workers arriving in Dubai, according to the report. Some of these individuals are reportedly victims of human trafficking.

Sulaymaniyah, in Iraqi Kurdistan, is another destination for Iranian victims of human trafficking, according to the report. Poverty, sexual discrimination and addiction are reportedly a few of the reasons for the hike in the number of Iranian nationals recruited to work in the sex industry and being targeted by trafficking organizations.

The human trafficking report of the US State Department mentioned what is referred to as “short-term” marriages – a term often used in the Shi'ite Islam – as another form of commercial sexual exploitation increasingly practiced in Iran. Such bonds last from one hour to one week and are strongly supported by the conservative wing of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Another form of human trafficking highlighted in the report is the “[coercion] of male Afghan migrants and registered refugees, including boys as young as 12, to fight in Syria”. The report accuses the Islamic Republic and its strong military empire, the Iranian Revolution Guards’ Corps (IRGC), of recruiting Afghan migrants by threatening them with arrest and deportation.

Death reports of these recruits regularly appear in Iranian media. The country's officials say the foreign citizens are "volunteer forces" who ask to be sent to Syria and Iraq as defenders of the Shi'ite holy sites.

Elsewhere in the report, it is stated that the Islamic Republic of Iran has agreed to improve cooperation with a few countries in the region to combat trafficking but has not disclosed details of such cooperation. As a result, the report concludes, Iran remains an important place as far as human trafficking is concerned: a source, a transit and a destination.

UN Secretary General Calls For Release Of US Prisoner, Baqer Namazi, In Iran

UN Secretary General António Guterres has reportedly asked Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to order release of Baqer Namazi in 'confidential' letter

UN Secretary General António Guterres has reportedly written a letter to the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, asking for the release on humanitarian grounds of Baqer Namazi, an 81-year-old retired UNICEF official, according to a report by Foreign Policy.

Baqer Namazi, an Iranian-American had apparently traveled to Iran in the hope of negotiating his son’s release. He was arrested in February 2016 in Tehran. According to the report, Guterres sent his letter to Rouhani asking for Namazi's release last week.

Baqer Namazi's 46-year-old son, Siamak, a former head of Strategic Planning Department with the Crescent Oil Company, had been arrested in Iran four months earlier. Both men were accused of espionage by the Iranian revolutionary court and sentenced to 10 years in prison. They were accused of allegedly collaborating with a foreign government, the United States.

“I am worried about my father’s heart problems and I’m afraid he’s going to die behind bars,” Baqer Namazi’s elder son, Babak, told Foreign Policy.

UN officials have emphasized that Guterres is acting out of humanitarian concern for Namazi [a former U.N. staffer] and not at the instruction of the U.S. government.

On May 7, several members of the U.S. House of Representatives called Donald Trump’s administration to secure unconditional release of all Iranian Americans incarcerated in Iran.

Furthermore, the U.S. Permanent Representative at the UN, Nikki Haley, also called for Namazi's release on June 15. “Detaining political prisoners is one of the worst human rights abuses a country can do,” Haley wrote on her twitter account in a statement after meeting Baqer Namazi. “Iran is doing just that with two of our citizens.” Haley tweeted.

'Unprecedented' Cyberattack Hits Ukraine, Affects Other Countries

An employee sits next to a payment terminal out of order at a branch of Ukraine's state-owned Oschadbank in Kyiv on June 27.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman says his country is suffering an "unprecedented" cyberattack but that "vital systems" are not being affected.

Although Ukraine initially seemed to be the target of the cyberattack on June 27 -- affecting government computer networks and websites of banks, major industrial enterprises, the postal service, Kyiv's international airport, and its subway system -- the attack also hit other countries and international companies around the world.

A Ukrainian government official said on June 27 that a version of the Wannacry ransomware had hit government networks and several public institutions in a widespread cyberattack.

Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, said a version of Wannacry was being used.

"The ultimate goal of the cyberattack was to try to destabilize," he wrote on Facebook, adding that the attacks probably originated in Russia.

WannaCry is a virus that shut down more than 200,000 computers in some 150 countries in May, demanding that the computer users pay hundreds of dollars to regain use of their computer and not lose their data.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Pavlo Rozenko said on Facebook on June 27 that every computer monitor in the cabinet of ministers was locked and displayed a message in English warning users that if they shut down their computers all of their data will be deleted.

Rozenko said on Twitter that "the entire network is down in the government's secretariat. It has either been hacked or shut down by the security system. That's unclear."

The Ukrainian central bank said a number of Ukrainian banks were also affected by the attack -- which it described as being caused by an "unknown virus."

"As a result of these cyberattacks these banks are having difficulties with client services and carrying out banking operations," it said in a statement, without naming any of the banks affected.

"The central bank is confident that the banking infrastructure's defense against cyberfraud is properly set up and attempted cyberattacks on banks' IT systems will be neutralized," the statement added.

Attacks Hit Other Countries

Meanwhile, a growing list of international companies based in countries like Britain, Denmark, Norway, France, Russia, and India also reported being affected by similar cyberattacks.

Russia's top oil producer, Rosneft, said its servers had been attacked, as had the Copenhagen-based international shipping company Maersk, French industrial group Saint-Gobain, and the British advertising giant WPP.

A Swiss IT company, MELANI, said on June 27 that it appeared the virus Petya, a version of Wannacry, was being circulated again.

MELANI said in an e-mail that Petya had been blamed for affecting computer networks around the world in 2016.

In Ukraine, Prime Minister Hroysman said on Facebook that "the attack will be repelled and the perpetrators will be tracked down."

Oleksandr Turchynov, the secretary of Ukraine's Security and Defense Council, said there were signs of Russian involvement in the cyberattacks.

Ukrainian state power distributor Ukrenergo said its IT system had been hit by a cyberattack on June 27, but the disruption had "no effect on power supplies."

Several local power distributors also experienced disruptions due to the cyberattack, including Kyivenergo, Dniproenergo, and Zaporizhiaenergo, Interfax-Ukraine reported.

Anotonov, the Ukrainian state-run aircraft manufacturer, has also been hit by a cyberattack. A spokeswoman for the company said it was still unclear how serious the attack is.

Pavlo Ryabikin, the acting director of Kyiv's Boryspil airport, said on Facebook that a cyberattack on the airport's official website and digital flight schedule could cause flight delays.

Also in the capital, the Kyiv subway said on Twitter that its payment system had been hit by a cyberattack and credit-card payments were not being processed.

With reporting by Reuters, Interfax, and Obozrevatel

Saudi Demolition Of Historic Shiite Homes Stokes Violence

Al-Awamiya is a town near the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia, north of Qatar and Bahrain

Saudi Arabia is demolishing centuries-old homes in a Shiite town that can further escalate tensions between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran, its arch-rival in the region.

Associated Press reported on June 27 that the demolition began on May 10 and soon caused violence in the streets of the Shiite town of al-Awamiya. Earlier in May, a few other media sources had also reported about the demolitions and the ensuing violence in the town.

Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran reached an all-time high in January 2016 when the Saudi government executed a senior Shiite ayatollah, Nimr Baqir al-Nimr, who was from al-Awamiya.

That was met with a round of fiery speeches by Iranian leaders aimed at Saudi officials followed by the storming of of Saudi Arabia's diplomatic mission in Iran – and eventually, the severing of ties.

Demolition of the historic homes in a majority-Shiite-populated area sends a strong message to Tehran, which has so far been silent about the issue.

However, Iran has frequently unleashed its rhetoric against Saudi Arabia since the early June terror attacks in Tehran. Last week in a rare gesture, Iran offered the Saudis help after an armed attack against the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

Al-Awamiya is a town of 25,000-30,000 residents in eastern Saudi Arabia. So far more than a dozen people have been killed by both security forces and Shiite gunmen, according to AP in the clashes due to the ongoing demolition.

Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki told The Associated Press that "terrorists in al-Awamiya... have increased their armed violence" since the start of the "development project in al-Mosawara."

Security forces patrol the town's streets in armored vehicles, frequently coming under fire from militants. Police say a South Asian construction worker was killed by an improvised explosive device targeting the demolition workers.

The Eastern province of Saudi Arabia has a substantial Shiite population and since the Arab Spring it has become the scene of civil unrest and armed attacks.

Activists say security forces frequently open fire in the streets. A two-year-old girl died when shots were fired at her parents' car, a shooting that activists blamed on police.

Both countries have so far kept accusing each other of supporting terrorism, interfering in the affairs of other countries and enticing sectarian war between Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

As a result, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei now regularly rebukes the House of Saud for being “tribal, reactionary, brutal, medieval and corrupt” among other things.

In response, some Saudi leaders, including the newly appointed Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, have blatantly warned the Islamic Republic that a war between the two sides would be to the detriment of the Iranian side. “We will not wait for the battle to reach inside our borderlines, instead we will take the battle inside Iranian borders,” Bin Salam has said.

'Israel Takes Hezbollah Threat Seriously'

Israel, Iran-Hezbollah Threat Heightened
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Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah armed group, has threatened Israel that a new war with his group could see “thousands of Shi’ite militia forces” joining from places like Iraq, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. While Nasrallah bantering and lambasting the Jewish state is nothing new, the reported shelling of Golan Heights could be a signal to an escalation in the clash between Hezbollah and Israel.

In an exclusive interview with Radio Farda via Skype, Seth Frantzman, opinion editor of The Jerusalem Post, said he believes the new threat by Nasrallah has been taken very seriously in Jerusalem.

“I do not think Israel takes serious the concept that there are hundreds of thousands of fighters, that is obviously a boast and an exaggeration.” Frantzman told Farda from his office in Jerusalem.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been accused of trying to form a Shi’ite crescent from against its arch-enemy, Israel, and the regional Sunni Arab states led by the rival Saudi Arabia.

Watch Full Exclusive Video Interview with The Jerusalem Post Opinion Editor, Seth Frantzman.

Khamenei: 'Fire at Will' Not Anarchy

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivers a speech after the Id Fitr prayers at the Imam Khomeini grand mosque in Tehran on June 26

In comments contrasting what he had said earlier, Ayatollah Khamenei has tried to tone down his recent remarks on “Fire at will” that caused extensive controversy and debate.

Khamenei had mentioned "Fire at will" in a speech on June 7, in what was widely interpreted as targeting Hassan Rouhani’s centrist government.

“Sometimes the central think tanks and cultural and political institutions fall into disarray and stagnation, and when that happens, commanders of the soft war should recognize their duty, make decisions and act in a fire at will form,” Khamenei had said.

But now, in his Id Fitr sermon celebrating the end of Ramadan, Iran’s supreme leader today said: “Fire at will does not call for anarchy, it does not mean giving opportunities to those making thoughtless claimants against the country’s revolutionary movement.”

Khamenei’s comments engendered widespread reaction. Several lawyers warned that using the military term can easily lead to breaking law and the violation of civil rights.

“Khamenei’s call for fire at will is [practically] shooting at the law,” said Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Meanwhile, several media and military institutions under Ayatollah Khamenei’s direct supervision tried to defuse his controversial remarks. “Fire at will means encouraging people for cultural activities,” they argued.

“Fire at will calls for spontaneous and upstanding cultural work,” Khamenei himself clarified in his latest sermon. “It does not call for anarchy, it does not mean giving opportunities to those making thoughtless claimants against the country’s revolutionary movement,” he added.

Khamenei once again called on his followers to be alert and vigilant in confronting the enemy’s soft war against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian officials often refer to Western cultural influences as a “soft war” against their national and religious values.

Despite the gravity of the words, several experts said the phrase is nothing new in Iranian politics.

“Iran’s leader spoke about firing at will only recently, but as a matter of fact, this policy has been in place and enforced for many years,” said Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi in a recent interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “Fire at Will” against presumed enemies of the state is an established policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran, argued Ebadi.

Moreover, there are analysts who believe the Supreme Leader’s target in his previous speech was Hassan Rouhani’s centrist government. Khamenei’s comment on the military term was apparently reflected in Quds Day ceremonies where tens of angry protesters attacked Rouhani’s car and bombarded him with negative slogans.

Parliament deputy speaker, Ali Mottahari, described “Fire at Will” as a two-way street where the opposition is also free to fire back.

Government’s spokesman Mohammad Baqer Nobakht cautioned against “abusing Ayatollah Khamenei’s comment on Fire at Will.” Rouhani, himself, preferred to stay away from the Ayatollah’s controversial remark.

Rouhani’s message to celebrate the end of Ramadan did not make allusion to it. “Enlightening the foundations of justice, reason, and peace in Islamic thought is the responsibility of Muslim intellectuals,” said Rouhani.

Khamenei’s speech today might come across as conciliatory – whatever the word means in the Islamic Republic. But the track record shows that despite his later softening of tone, his followers within the Basij Militia, the Islamic Revolution Guards’ Corps and security organizations tend to follow his first remarks as a directive.

Iran Drug Abuse Reaches 'Alarming' Level

More than three thousand Iranians die of drug abuse every year, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported June 24, quoting the country’s Drug Control Headquarters.

More than three thousand Iranians die of drug abuse every year, the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported June 24, quoting the country’s Drug Control Headquarters.

According to the report, Drug Control Headquarters Spokesman Parviz Afshar announced that drug-abuse related fatalities rose 6.2 percent last year. Mr. Afshar's announced rate of more than three thousand drug-abuse related fatalities seems to be an extremely low estimate.

Although it is very difficult to find independent figures in Iran, but a comparison with fatality rates in other countries can shed some light on the issue.

According to a research done in the U.K., 4.7 in every 1000 addicts died annually in England and Wales in a period between 1974 and 1993. That is - if applied to Iranian official statistics of at least 1.5 million addicts, there would be at least 7500 deaths from drug use.

“This increase has already sounded alarm bells,” Mr. Afshar said.
Opium is the most abused drug in Iran, accounting for 66.8 percent of illegal drug consumption.

Meanwhile, Afshar noted a decline in methamphetamine abuse, but added that 3600 pupils have been identified as being at high risk.

Last February, Hossein Tala, an MP and member of the Parliament’s Social Committee confirmed that 136,000 individuals were at risk of succumbing to drug abuse.

Tala said there were 130,000 addicted students in Iranian schools.
In addition, Shahindokht Mowlaverdi, President Hassan Rouhani’s deputy of women’s and family affairs, pegged the average age of addiction among female students in Iran at 13 years.

The "alarming" increase in drug abuse in Iran is happening despite Draconian punishments for drug-related offenses.

Drug smuggling is punishable by death according to Iran’s Islamic criminal code, but during recent months some legislators have decided to limit such executions.

“Voting in favor of this change will be a vote for the lives of the hundreds of families that are destroyed with the death of one of their members,” an Iranian MP wrote.

Can IS Be Stopped in Afghanistan?

An Afghan soldiers sits in a humvee during an offensive to retake Tora Bora in Pachir wa Agam district in Nangarhar Province on June 20.

The Islamic State (IS) group is rapidly expanding in parts of Afghanistan, advancing militarily into areas where it once had a weak presence and strengthening its forces in core regions, according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Depending on the location, the proliferation of IS has drawn varied resistance from the Afghan military, U.S. air support and ground troops, local militias, Taliban forces and other militant groups.

Attacking IS has become such a priority in the country, that disparate forces sometimes join together in the ad-hoc fight, with Afghan and U.S. forces finding themselves inadvertently supporting the enemy Taliban in battling IS.

Confusion

All too often, officials say, mistakes are made due to confusion on the ground.

Afghan army planes on Wednesday night accidentally air dropped vital supplies of food and water to IS militants in the Darzab district of northern Jouzjan province instead of to their own besieged troops, provincial police chief, Rahmatullah Turkistani told VOA. The supplies were meant to help Afghan forces that are countering twin attacks by IS and Taliban militants but were used instead by IS.

“It's not getting better in Afghanistan in terms of IS,” U.S. Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White told VOA this week. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.”

Reinforcements for the IS cause reportedly are streaming into isolated areas of the country from far and wide. There are reports of fighters from varied nationalities joining the ranks, including militants from Pakistan, India, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Russia and Central Asian neighbors.

Still, the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISK), as IS is known in Afghanistan, remains a fragmented group composed of differing regional forces with different agendas in different parts of the country.

“IS-K is still conducting low-level recruiting and distribution of propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, but it does not have the ability or authority to conduct multiple operations across the country,” a recent Pentagon report said. But where it operates, IS is inflicting chaos and casualties and causing confusing scenarios for disparate opponents.

In the Tora Bora area, where IS has made a strong stand in recent days, local villagers and militias joined with Taliban to rout IS. IS regained ground after a few days, leading to U.S. military air attacks on IS positions in conjunction with Afghan intelligence instructions and army operations.

IS fighters reportedly have fled from mountain caves of Tora Bora, where al-Qaida's leader Osama bin Laden hid from U.S. attack in 2001.

Displaced Families

IS fighters were also reportedly advancing in neighboring Khogyani district, displacing hundreds of families, according to district officials. It is one of several areas in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistani border, where IS has been active for over two years.

Fierce clashes in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar last month left 21 Taliban fighters and seven IS militants dead, according to a provincial spokesman. At least three civilians who were caught in the crossfire were killed and five others wounded.

“IS has overpowered Taliban in some parts of Nangarhar because the Taliban dispatched its elite commando force called Sara Qeta (Red Brigade) to other parts of the country, including some northern provinces to contain the growing influence of IS there,” Wahid Muzhda, a Taliban expert in Kabul, told VOA.

Recruiting Youth

IS has also expanded in neighboring Kunar province, where, according to provincial police chief, it has a presence in at least eight districts and runs a training base, where foreign members of IS, train new recruits.

Hundreds of miles from Nangarhar, IS is attempting to establish a persistent presence in several northern provinces where it has found a fertile ground for attracting militants and recruiting unemployed youths, mostly between the age of 13 and 20.

IS has been able to draw its members from the Pakistani Taliban fighters, former Afghan Taliban, and other militants who “believe that associating with or pledging allegiance” to IS will further their interests, according to the Pentagon report.

Hundreds of militants have joined IS ranks in northern Jouzjan and Sar-e-Pul province where local militant commanders lead IS-affiliate groups in several districts.

Darzab District

Qari Hekmat, an ethnic Uzbek and former Taliban militant who joined IS a year ago, claims to have up to 500 members, including around 50 Uzbek nationals who are affiliated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) — previously associated with al-Qaida and Taliban in Afghanistan.

IS and Taliban are reportedly fighting over the control of Darzab district in Jouzjan which they stormed this week from two different directions and besieged scores of government forces. The Taliban has reportedly captured the center of the district while IS militants control the city outskirts.

Afghanistan faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including IS, the Pentagon said.

“In areas where the government has limited influence and control, IS attempts to emerge and expand there,” Ateequllah Amarkhail, an analysts and former Army general in Kabul told VOA.

Strategy

IS has also claimed responsibility for several recent attacks in urban areas, however, with a hit-and-hide strategy that is proving effective. And it is engaging too in more skirmishes with U.S. forces that initially were sent to the country to help Afghan forces halt the spread of Taliban.

Three American service members based in eastern Afghanistan were killed in April during operations targeting IS militants, according to the Pentagon.

"ISIS-K remains a threat to Afghan and regional security, a threat to U.S. and coalition forces, and it retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks in urban centers,” the Pentagon said.

-- Written by Noor Zahid for Voice Of America

CIA Director Warns Of Iran's Regional Role

U.S. -- CIA Director Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, April 13, 2017

Tehran is the “largest state sponsor” of terror in the world and has gained “enormous influence” in the Middle East, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said in an interview on Saturday, June 24.

“Today, we find it [Iran] with enormous influence, influence that far outstrips where it was six or seven years ago,” Pompeo told MSNBC.

“Whether it’s the influence they have over the government in Baghdad, whether it’s the increasing strength of Hezbollah and Lebanon, their work alongside the Houthis in Yemen, the Iraqi Shias that are fighting along [them] now [at] the border [with] Syria — certainly the Shia forces that are engaged in Syria, Iran is everywhere throughout the Middle East,” he added.

Mike Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, was referring to Iran-backed forces who under the label of ‘Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilization Forces or PMF) are fighting to oust Islamic State group (IS) militants from Iraq-Syrian border areas.

As Yahya Rahim Safavi, the Iranian Supreme Leader’s senior military advisor has also reiterated, these Iran-backed forces’ dominance over the Iraq-Syria border blocks the way for IS militants who are escaping from Mosul and other parts of northern Iraq to join their comrades fighting in Syria.

A more important strategic reason for the Iran-supported militia's efforts to control the border is to open up a land corridor connecting Iran directly to areas held by Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If successful, Iran would have uninterrupted overland access to the Shiite-dominated part of the Middle East.

These efforts have not gone without notice in the United States and Israel. Last month, according to The Jerusalem Post, militias close to the Islamic Republic of Iran captured the strategic village of Um Jaris on the Iraq-Syria border and thus intensified “the danger of PMF joining Iran-backed forces in Syria.”

Concerns over such a developments run so deep that Israel Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz, while visiting the United States last May, presented a plan for ousting Iran from Syria.

Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, has also emphasized the necessity to annihilate IS and end Iran’s influence in Syria.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has always posed a threat to Israel's security. Recently, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said “[Israelis] are not going to see the next 25 years and, God willing, within 25 years, the Zionist regime [Israel] would not exist anymore.”

The Costs Of Iran's Use Of Missiles

An Iranian long range missile, Qadr is being prepared for launch at an undisclosed location, March 9, 2016

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) June 18 missile attacks against Islamic State group (IS) in Syria, has dimensions, costs and consequences that go far beyond what IRGC describes as a “retaliation against IS” for the June 7 “terrorist attacks” in Tehran.

After the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in 1980s and before the recent IRGC missile attacks, Iran used its missile capability only once against targets outside its territory.

On April 17, 2001, only weeks before the presidential election in Iran, the incumbent president, Mohammad Khatami convened an emergency session of the Supreme National Security Council. Immediately after the session, the bases of Mujahedin Khalq-e Iran Organization (MKO, an armed anti-Islamic Republic group) in northern Iraq were hit with missiles and artillery fire.

The eight-year Iran-Iraq war had ended, but MKO still had bases all over north and south Iraq. “One thousand missiles and artillery shells were fired at the bases’, MKO declared.

It took seven years for the Islamic Republic to reveal some details concerning the missile attack. More than 70 short range ballistic Scuds had been fired against MKO, whereas during the entire Iran-Iraq war, Iran had only fired 14 missiles. Quantity wise, it was a significant leap forward.

From 2001 onward, Iran has increased its missiles’ accuracy and power of warheads. The United States and its allies in the region have labelled Iran’s ballistic missile capability as a “threat against the region’s security”.

Sanctions and Missile Activities

Iran’s missile activities along its alleged support of terrorism, as well as abuse of human rights were three points of argument at the U.S. Senate for approving a bill of new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

UN Security Council’s resolution 2231 which after Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with the world powers (JCPOA) replaced previous UNSC’s sanctions, calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”

Furthermore, referring to a long list of restrictions, it emphatically adds, “All these restrictions shall apply until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day (18 October 2015) or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

Therefore, Iran is forbidden to have any ballistic missile activities, let alone use it in its extraterritorial military operations. Employing ballistic missiles in extraterritorial operations can easily be considered as an offensive act.

Nevertheless, all of Iran’s ballistic missiles, including Zolfaqar which was used against IS in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, are capable of carrying suitably designed nuclear warheads.

Iran -- A video grab reportedly shows missile launchers in an underground tunnel at an unknown location in Iran, October 14, 2015
Iran -- A video grab reportedly shows missile launchers in an underground tunnel at an unknown location in Iran, October 14, 2015

Meanwhile, a commission comprised of eight U.N. members has been devised to supervise JCPOA’s implementation. The commission convenes four times a year in Vienna; mainly to study Iran’s requests and related matters.

However, the other U.N. members can also present their arguments against Iran’s probable violation of the JCPOA.

The United States, as Iran's principle counterpart in nuclear negotiations, has openly declared that in case Tehran violates any article of the agreement, sanctions would immediately be reinstated as they were before the signing of JCPOA. Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury is in charge of monitoring Iran’s activities to detect Tehran’s probable violation of the JCPOA.

Every three months, he White House and U.S. Treasury review the case to decide whether to extend the suspension of sanctions against Tehran. The IRGC’s recent missile attacks in Syrian could easily lead to ending the suspension.

Political and Security Ramifications of Missile Attacks

On February 1, former U.S. National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn officially warned Iran against its missile test.

Immediately after IRGC’s recent missile attacks, Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, also cautioned the Islamic Republic to avoid verbal and practical threats against Tel Aviv.

Israel’s Channel Ten and Times of Israel also joined the chorus to raise concerns against IRGC’s missiles capability, presenting it as a serious threat against Israel’s security. They particularly emphasized that Israel’s security will be “seriously jeopardized” if Lebanese Hezbollah receives Zolfaqar missiles from the Islamic Republic.

Zolfaqar ballistic missile is an advanced version of Fateh 10 and, according to IRGC officials is powered by solid fuel and its accuracy to hit targets is much more than Scud missiles.

Moreover, the Islamic republic has declared that it has successfully produced cluster bombs and according to IRGC officials two warheads of Zolfaqar missiles fired at IS in Syria, were carrying cluster bombs, ostensibly produced in Iran.

Israel’s three layers of defense system against incoming hostile missiles plus the Patriot U.S. air defense system which also covers Arab states in southern parts of the Persian Gulf, cannot offer a hundred percent guarantee to keep the targets safe.

The U.S. military personnel based in the region and in the bases in Qatar, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have the same concerns as the Israelis. They are in Zolfaqars’ range, as well.

All these regional concerns about Iran's missiles is a factor in heightening the desire to contain Iran. It leads to more isolation, more costs for a never-ending arms race and a negative environment for foreign investments in the country.

Although the cost of firing each Zolfaqar missile is not more than three million dollars, its use can easily lead to the reinstatement of sanctions. Iran’s current economic situation is so fragile that it definitely cannot afford the return of crippling sanctions.

Turkey's Erdogan Backs Qatar, Says Calls To Shut Base 'Disrespectful'

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan

(Reuters) - President Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday dismissed calls for Turkey to close a military base in Qatar and said a wider list of demands issued by four Arab states was an unlawful intervention against the Gulf emirate's sovereignty.

In his strongest statement of support for Qatar in the nearly three-week-old crisis centered on the Gulf state, Erdogan said the call to withdraw Turkish forces was disrespectful and that Doha - which described the demands as unreasonable - was taking the right approach.

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain imposed a boycott on June 5 on Qatar and issued 13 demands including closing Al Jazeera television, curbing relations with Iran, shutting the Turkish base and paying reparations. Doha said it was reviewing the list, but said it was not reasonable or actionable.

"We approve and appreciate the attitude of Qatar against the list of 13 demands," Erdogan, speaking outside a mosque in Istanbul, said. "...This approach of 13 demands is against international law because you cannot attack or intervene in the sovereignty of a country."

The demands are apparently aimed at dismantling Qatar's interventionist foreign policy which has incensed conservative Arab peers over its alleged support for Islamists they regard as threats to their dynastic rule. Both Qatar and Turkey, whose ruling AK Party has its roots in Islamist politics, backed a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt before it was overthrown in 2013.

The Arab states have demanded Qatar cut any links to the Brotherhood and other groups they deem to be terrorist, ideological or sectarian.

Bahrain's state news agency on Sunday confirmed the demands set out by un-named Gulf officials on Friday, including that Qatar close the Turkish base, end military cooperation with Ankara inside Qatar and stop supporting militant groups. "The demands aim to achieve regional countries' stability, stand firmly against foreign interference and stop support for terrorist organizations," it said.

Turkey, the most powerful regional country to stand by Qatar, has sent 100 cargo planes with supplies since its neighbors cut air and sea links. It has also rushed through legislation to send more troops to its base in Doha. Two contingents of Turkish troops with columns of armored vehicles have arrived since the crisis erupted on June 5, and Defense Minister Fikri Isik said on Friday that further reinforcements would be beneficial. "The strengthening of the Turkish base would be a positive step in terms of the Gulf's security," he said. "Re-evaluating the base agreement with Qatar is not on our agenda."

Hurriyet newspaper said last week a joint exercise by Turkish and Qatari forces was expected following the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday which started on Sunday, and the number of Turkish soldiers sent to the Gulf state could eventually reach 1,000.

An air force contingent was also envisaged, it said. Erdogan said Turkey had also offered to establish a military base in Saudi Arabia, but never received a clear answer. "If Saudi Arabia wants us to have base there, a step towards this also can be taken," he told reporters. "I made this offer to the king himself and they said they will consider this." "They did not come back to us since that day and even though they still didn't come back to us on this, asking Turkey to pull back its troops (from Qatar) is disrespectful against Turkey".

Speaking outside the Istanbul mosque after prayers marking the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday, Erdogan said he would continue his planned program despite feeling briefly unwell. "I had a little condition about my blood pressure, related to my diabetes," he said.

Iranian Widows Suffer Disproportionate Hardships: Minister

Iranian women brandish banners calling for the improvement of women's rights during a protest in Tehran. File photo.

“Most widows in Iran are forced to hide their widowhood since some of the men’s approach towards them is immoral and abusive” says Iran’s Minister of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare.

Ali Rabiei, commemorating June 23 the International Widows Day in his Telegram channel said, “Sadly, such approaches, as a rule, have exacerbated widows’ suffering and forced them into a harrowing life,” reported Iran Students News Agency, ISNA.

International Widows Day is a United Nations ratified day of action to address the “poverty and injustice faced by millions of widows and their dependents in many countries”. The day takes place annually on 23 June.

“Women, in different societies, are facing various challenges including poverty and deprivation while Iranian women are suffering from some specific marginal ordeals, as well,” Rabeie insists.

Referring to his own unfinished study in 2010, the minister maintains, “According to the primary data, based on interviews, the widows in Iran are suffering from insecurity twice as much other members of society.”

Although many Iranian women’s rights activists have already talked about the plight of Iranian widows, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s officials quite rarely raise such topics, let alone highlighting them.

The approach toward widows and divorced women in Iran, as a rule, is not a positive one. Many Iranian men and even some of the women easily accuse widows of immoral behavior and intentions.

Iranian widows high degree of insecurity, according to Ali Rabiei is rooted in the country’s ‘social structure’ and tackling the problem needs creating jobs and providing a secure, easy and peaceful life for the widows.

Widows will only be seriously respected when the society celebrates their important and fundamental role in family life, managing the household and nurturing children, Rabiei asserts.

In commemorating the Widows International Day, Rabiei has also called for preparing the grounds to provide a comfortable life for widows in the large cities.

“Providing single parents family management counseling services” and “planning for increasing security factors” are among proposals mentioned by the minister for improving widows condition in Iran.

Meanwhile, Rabiei has also supported plans for creating proper situation where single women will be allowed to adopt children.

Widows are women whose husbands have passed away. There are currently 256 million widows living around the world.

In 2011, Entekhab website quoted an MP, Alireza Abbaspour as saying, “There are six million widows living in Iran.”

“Absent in statistics, unnoticed by researchers, neglected by national and local authorities and mostly overlooked by civil society organizations – the situation of widows is dramatic and, in effect, invisible,” maintains a UN report.

Furthermore, according to the UN report, “Once widowed, women in many countries often confront a denial of inheritance and land rights, degrading and life-threatening mourning and burial rites and other forms of widow abuse. Even in countries where legal protection is more inclusive, widows can suffer social marginalization.”

Rouhani Lambasts IRGC’s Role In The Economy

An Iranian man sits in his shop at the old bazaar in the city of Qazvin, Iran, October 2016

President Hassan Rouhani has re-emphasized his government’s commitment to entrust more economic activities to the private sector, criticizing Revolutionary Guards Corps dominant role in the economy.

“It is a necessity to delegate economic activities to the real private sector,” Rouhani said during a Ramadan fast-breaking banquet, or iftar, held late June 22 in Tehran.

In 2007, Khamenei demanded that government officials speed up implementation of the policies outlined in an amendment to Article 44 of the constitution and move towards economic privatization.

“If the policies of Article 44 of the constitution were implemented exactly, we would have a great revolution and progress,” the president continued, referring to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s orders at the time to implement the provision.

“Yet, what did we do? A part of the economy was controlled by an unarmed government and we delegated it to an armed government. This is not [a sound] economy or privatization.”

Rouhani, by using the term “armed government” referred to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which dominates Iran’s private sector.

“They were scared of the unarmed government. [How about now that] we have given the economy to a government that is armed with guns as well as with media outlets? It is armed with every means available and nobody dares to compete with it,” Rouhani said.

Meanwhile, Rouhani claimed that his government has always been committed to delegate the economy to the “real” private sector, whereas, according to economic data, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad government capped such efforts at 13 percent.

It was not the first time Rouhani targeted the IRGC’s role in Iran’s economy. In a previous speech, he lambasted the corps. “If information, guns, money, newspapers, news agencies and other hallmarks of power and authority combined into a single institution, its managers would have been prone to corruption, even if they were [Prophet Muhammad’s companions] Abuzar and Salman,” Rouhani said.

Although his criticism of the IRGC’s role in the Iranian economy sounds bitter and vitriolic, Rouhani still preferred not to name the military force directly.

Economic analyst Fereidoun Khavand highlighted the dilemma facing the Islamic Republic in past decades: “As a significant part of Iranian economy is controlled by [state-owned foundations] and military institutions, the process of privatization and ending government’s dominant role in the economy has practically reached a dead end,” he told Radio Farda.

Insisting on the necessity of security for the private sector, Rouhani reiterated: “Security is not only disturbed by the Islamic State group. The government, Parliament and the judiciary are also capable of disrupting security by issuing guidelines and disrupting the market.”

Economy requires a stable market, Rouhani continued. “All the branches of the system should provide security for the private sector,” he added.

Quds Day in Iran: Slogans, Missiles and a Divided Nation

Demonstrators hold images of US President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adorned with Islamist-inspired bears during a rally marking Quds Day in Tehran

The annual state-sponsored ceremonies of Quds Day in Iran were held this year amid rising regional tensions with Saudi Arabia, bickering between Hassan Rouhani’s government and the Supreme Leader and Tehran’s recent show of force in Syria.

The annual state-sponsored ceremonies of Quds Day in Iran were held this year amid rising regional tensions with Saudi Arabia, bickering between Hassan Rouhani’s government and the Supreme Leader and Tehran’s recent show of force in Syria.

Marking the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Quds Day was initially founded by Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, to highlight the newborn regime’s anti-Israeli stance.

This year, Quds Day marches, speeches and all sorts of social media variated from past years, as the conservatives occupied the pulpit. Hassan Rouhani was re-elected this May for a second term in office. Just over a month into his re-election, Quds Day set the stage for the months to come within the Iranian political arena.

The main theme of this years’ ceremonies was Iran’s weaponry. Iranian news agencies reported that some of the country’s ballistic missiles were put on display at a main intersection in Tehran. Fars News Agency, close to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), wrote that demonstrators were writing slogans on the missiles.

Countdown to 'Annihilation of Israeli', display installed in Tehran - Based on a quotation by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying Israel would cease to exist in 25 years, the Basij militia of Tehran has installed this street display that is allegedly showing a countdown to the annihilation of Israel
Countdown to 'Annihilation of Israeli', display installed in Tehran - Based on a quotation by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei saying Israel would cease to exist in 25 years, the Basij militia of Tehran has installed this street display that is allegedly showing a countdown to the annihilation of Israel

The agency did not publish any images of these slogans. If factual, this could be reminiscent of an IRGC’s missile test two years ago, when images depicted a “Down with Israel” slogan printed on a missile in Hebrew. President Hassan Rouhani later criticized the timing of the event, which coincided with nuclear talks between Iran and the six world powers. Rouhani was quickly snubbed by a senior IRGC commander for his comments.

Apparently, the reason behind this year's missile display was Tehran’s recent attack on what it said was a "Takfiri terrorists’ center in Syria." The Islamic Republic has used the missile attack to boast its military might and security in an increasingly volatile region.

One State, Two Leaders

The office of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seems to have taken the Quds Day opportunity to exacerbate tension with the government of President Rouhani. This month's deadly attacks on Ayatollah Khomeini’s mausoleum and Iran’s Parliament in Tehran has served as a political trump card for Khamenei’s camp. Conservatives and hardliners argue that, more than ever, the country needs security and a show of solidarity. “Anyone who shows up in the streets is helping maintain the country’s security," a new post on Khamenei’s official Telegram channel reads.

Poster published by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Telegram channel
Poster published by the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei's Telegram channel

Attacks on Hassan Rouhani by the Supreme Leader and his camp on various issues have lately intensified, as reflected in the slogans and banners during Quds Day. Videos emerged on social media from Friday’s ceremonies with some demonstrators chanting slogans against Rouhani saying “Rouhani, Banisadr, happy union to you.” This was a reference to the Islamic Republic’s first president, Abolhassan Banisadr, who was sacked from his job after less than 17 months due to major disagreements with Ayatollah Khomeini.

Today, Rouhani is criticized on almost all fronts by Ayatollah Khamenei. The leader famously rebuffed the president in a public ceremony, saying he should heed his own decrees, especially as far as the country’s struggling economy is concerned.

Iran’s joining the UNESCO 2030 resolution has been another point of contention for Khamenei’s camp. This year, slogans lambasting the government for its alleged signing of the resolution was a recurring theme of the Quds Day rallies. Meanwhile, the absence of Iran's eldest statesman, former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who died last January, was particularly felt, as Rouhani appeared to be facing conservative elements alone.

One State, One Leader

The show of force during this Quds Day was not limited to erecting ballistic missiles in the hot streets of the capital. The Supreme Leader showed once again that he was the real boss as far as the hierarchy of the Islamic Republic is concerned. The scale of protests and slogans against Rouhani reached so high that it prompted several of his aides to voice their displeasure with the slander and banter aimed at their boss. Ali Rabi’ie, Rouhani’s minister of labour, came forward and said outright that such moves could not have been rogue.

It must be noted that these people and their actions cannot be spontaneous and sprung naturally from the social basis of the demonstrators.
Ali Rabi'ie, Rouhani's Labor Minister

The Trump Administration was not what Tehran reformists wished to see in the White House. The new team in Washington pushed for a tougher stance against Tehran’s missile tests and military ambitions. Along with the increasing regional hostility between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia, this outcome is probably why Iran’s Supreme Leader and his camp decided to take center stage this year on Quds Day.

Additionally, regional and international conditions are not very helpful for Rouhani. As he preaches moderation the Islamic Republic is facing a tougher stance by Saudi Arabia and the United States.

While new United States sanctions are being imposed against certain entities within the Islamic Republic, under Tehran’s nose the new face of the House of Saud does not shy away from threatening the theocracy.

Rouhani himself might believe that his calls for moderation can make a difference; Islamic Republic’s adversaries seem to think that only outside pressure can change the behavior of the current regime.

From all the anti-Rouhani manifestations during the Quds Day public events, it might be hard to draw any other conclusion.

Claims Of Foiled Terror Plots on the Rise Since Tehran Attacks

People attend the funeral of the victims of June 7 attack at the Iranian parliament and Ayatollah Khomeini's mausoleum, June 9, 2017

Since the early June twin terror attacks in Tehran, Iranian military and intelligence organs claim to have destroyed several militant cells and foiled multiple terror plans.

A militant group in the west Iranian province of Kurdistan was demolished in the morning of June 23, according to the Public Relations Department of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

“The [militant group] had plans to carry out operations inside Iran and create insecurity,” the statement read, adding that IRGC servicemen “identified the terrorists,” managed to kill three of them and captured one in a clash.

IRGC forces confiscated the group’s weapons and ammunition in the operation, according to Tasnim, an IRGC-affiliated news website.

The militant group, affiliated with “arrogant powers,” was “knocked down in the early hours on Friday” while intending to carry out terror acts and “causing insecurity in the country,” Sepahnews, the official news website of the IRGC, reported.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies frequently use the term “arrogant powers” to describe Western powers, led by the United States.

The reports did not disclose exact location of the clash, the identity of the captured person or the number of guns and ammunition seized.

The IRGC claims it established a special operation headquarters in Iranian Kurdistan and Kermanshah provinces.

The IRGC's stated mission is to coordinate local operations against anti-revolutionary forces as well as “West-affiliated armed groups” that manage to infiltrate western and northwestern parts of Iran.

Iranian authorities frequently issue statements about foiling armed attacks and arresting or killing terror suspects, but they rarely produce evidence.

IRGC’s June 23 statement is the latest report concerning deadly armed clashes in Iran after the twin terrorist attacks in Tehran earlier this month.

Seventeen civilians died and almost 50 were wounded June 7 in two nearly simultaneous terror attacks on the Iranian Parliament complex and the mausoleum of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. All five attackers were later killed in clashes with security forces.

The Islamic State (IS) group claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Since these attacks, Iran's security forces have made frequent announcements about operations against armed groups, sometimes mentioning that alleged militants belonged to the IS group.

Last week, the official news website of Islamic Republic’s Radio and TV (IRIB) reported that an “IS team” entered west Iran through the border at Soumar, but was bombarded by security forces. Four of the infiltrated terrorists were captured, according to IRIB.

Hours later, two officials denied the veracity of IRIB's report.

Seaparately, an MP from Urmia claimed June 19 that forty IS members had been identified and arrested in West Azerbaijan province. The report was neither confirmed nor denied.

The Fars Province Justice Department also reported that six IS “elements” were tried and sentenced to prison terms on June 21.

“There has been a surge in the number of counter-terrorism operations the IRGC has launched in recent weeks,” Tasnim reported.

An IRGC unit killed Jalil Qanbarzehi, a ringleader of the Ansar al-Furqan, an Iranian Baluchi militant group, in a June 17 operation in Qasr-e Qand heights in Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan, according to Tasnim.

As the IRGC lauded its forces for “demolishing terrorists”, the Intelligence Ministry reported on its own achievements in dismantling terrorists’ cells in western and southeastern parts of Iran.

In May, the ministry’s agents identified and dismantled terrorists’ cells on a daily basis, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said in an interview with Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA).

“Nevertheless, we refrained from publicizing our operations to avoid creating a false atmosphere of panic,” he added.

Alavi, whose agents are competing with IRGC forces for credit for the recent missile attack in Syria, did not mention the incident in his latest interview. He had previously claimed that the IRGC hit IS targets in Deir ez-Zor based on information and data provided by Intelligence Ministry agents. The IRGC immediately, yet implicitly, denied the claim by emphasizing that its missiles hit IS location based on data provided by its own forces on the ground.

“Organizers of the International Quds Days rallies in Tehran have put on display the ‘Zolfaqar’ ground-to-ground missiles the IRGC employed to destroy Daesh targets in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor on June 18,” Tasnim reported.

On Sunday night, the IRGC fired six mid-range missiles from its bases in Iran’s western provinces of Kermanshah and Kurdistan at the positions of militant groups in Syria. The missile raid was made in retaliation for a recent terrorist attack in Tehran claimed by the IS group. All missiles reportedly hit their target, wreaking destruction on IS sites and killing scores of militants, according to Tasnim.

While official Iran sources have praised the attack as a ‘great success,’ the incident had varying interpretations abroad. Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot downplayed the significance of the Iranian missile strike against the Islamic State in Syria, saying “the operational achievement was less than what was reported in the media,” during a wide-ranging June 22 speech on regional security.

Though he denied IRGC’s missile efficacy, the top Israeli general acknowledged the attacks “made a statement” to the world about Iran’s preparedness to use its ballistic missiles, which the country last did in 1988.

Four Arab States Demand Qatar Cut Ties With Iran

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE and Bahrain have demanded Qatar to cut ties with Iran, and put forward other conditions, if the Persian Gulf state wishes to return to their circle.

Kuwait, which is acting as the mediator between the four countries and Doha, has handed Qatar what is reported to be thirteen conditions for resolving the crisis.

The list reportedly includes a demand for the gas-rich state to align itself politically, economically and otherwise with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which counters Tehran's influence in the region.

Qatar has been accused of harboring close ties with Iran, Saudi Arabia's regional arch-rival.

The Iran provision in the list reiterates that Doha must shut down diplomatic posts in Iran, kick out from Qatar any member of Iran's IRGC, and only conduct trade and commerce with Tehran that complies with U.S. sanctions.

These demands aim to further isolate Iran that along with Russia has been the sole regional defender of Syria's Bashar Assad.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar this month over allegations the Persian Gulf country funds terrorism — an accusation that President Donald Trump has echoed. Those countries have now given Qatar 10 days to comply with all of their demands, which include paying an unspecified sum in compensation.

Elsewhere the demands list also included conditions that the gas-rich nation had already insisted would never be met, including shutting down Al-Jazeera. Qatar's government has said it won't negotiate until Arab nations lift their blockade.

Only a day earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had warned that the demands must be "reasonable and actionable." The U.S. issued that litmus test amid frustration at how long it was taking Saudi Arabia and others to formalize a list of demands, complicating U.S. efforts to bring about a resolution to the worst Gulf diplomatic crisis in years.

Qatar's neighbors have also accused it of backing al-Qaida and the Islamic State group's ideology throughout the Middle East. Those umbrella groups also appear on the list of entities whose ties with Qatar must be extinguished, along with Hezbollah and the al-Qaida's branch in Syria, once known as the Nusra Front.

The Shi'ite Hezbollah group is openly funded by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Among the 13-point list handed to Doha, cutting ties to Iran would prove incredibly difficult. Qatar shares a massive offshore natural gas field with Iran which supplies the small nation that will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup its wealth.

If Qatar agrees to comply, the list asserts that it will be audited once a month for the first year, and then once per quarter in the second year after it takes effect. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.

Iran was among the first who came to Qatar's assistance once the blockade against the Arab state was in effect. Ten plane-loads of food sent to Doha, was Tehran's initial act in a game with her regional rivals. Iranian officials claim that now, 1100 tons of food is shipped daily to Qatar.

While the new list of demands has insisted on functioning as an encompassing document, it is apparently influenced by the rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have been on the rise in recent months following controversial comments by the new Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman in early May. Then the third in line to the Saudi throne, the Prince warned Iran that his country would not wait for the battle to be in Saudi Arabia. "Instead we will work so that the battle is for them in Iran, not in Saudi Arabia", Mohammad Bin Salman had said.
A short while later, Tehran accused its regional foe of supporting what the Iranian leaders referred to as "Takfiri terrorists".

Whatever the next stages of this conflict might be, Qatar is the latest phase of the already full-fledged proxy war between the two major regional players.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters

Central Bank: Rouhani Opponents Fueling Banking Panic

Protest in front of Iran's Central Bank by panicked depositors - May 2017

Iran’s Central Bank has entered the political fray pitting President Hassan Rouhani’s government against his conservative, hard-line opponents.

Iran’s dubious savings and loan financial institutions, with questionable or no banking credentials, have long been at the center of controversies. Some of these outfits have failed to pay depositors and daily public protests have been met either with neglect or police intervention.

Iran’s Central Bank has weighed in by accusing Rouhani’s opponents of spreading financial panic to weaken the government.

On his Twitter page, Iran Central Bank’s spokesman accused big debtors of state banks as well as some of President Rouhani’s opponents of fomenting public distrust of the banking system and instigating mass cash withdrawals. He warned that these actions are meant to create a crisis for Rouhani's government.

The spokesman, Ali Karimi claimed on June 22 that bank debtors and opponents who believe a public run on banks would challenge the government have prepared a nightmare for the country.

“We will suppress the sedition,” Karimi added, without elaborating further.

For years, politically powerful individuals have taken huge loans from state banks and never paid back. This has forced the Central Bank to prop up weak banks. In some cases, it is suspected that debtors have simply transferred the borrowed money overseas.

The Central Bank’s comments are seen as a reaction to conservative media outlets, who have circulated rumors about the insolvency of Iranian banks.

Reports concerning protest gatherings of depositors in front of Thamen Credit Institute and its branches in various Iranian cities, including Tehran and Ahvaz, were widely covered in the conservative media.

A day earlier, several depositors at Caspian Financial Institute also assembled in the streets leading to Pasteur Avenue, where the presidential offices are located. They were angrily demanding their deposits back.

“Rumors about the insolvency of the banks have been circulating among people for months and, from time to time, comments made by government officials have also intensified these [rumors] and led to concern for people on social media,” Tasnim, a news website close to the Islamic Republic Guardian Corps (IRGC) reported on June 17.

Comments made by Central Bank Governor Valiollah Saif, regarding a potential merger of troubled banks exacerbated these rumors, according to Tasnim.

The article was removed from Tasnim's website hours after publication.

Two days later, the Central Bank stated the bankruptcy rumors were fabricated and spread for personal and political purposes.

The government’s official news website, IRNA, published the statement and, after referring to Central Bank’s efforts to tackle the problem of unlicensed financial institutions, reported that most of these institutions “avoided accountability to the Central Bank, for their managers and shareholders are related to the centers of power.”

The question of financial institutions or pseudo banks were raised several times, during and after the recent presidential debates.

Rouhani and his government’s opponents partly blame the Central Bank for its failure to supervise these institutions. The government says that it wants to prosecute illegal credit and financial institutions, but it also refers to their ties to power centers including the judiciary and Basij militia.

During his last presidential debate on May 12, Hassan Rouhani claimed that Mizan Credit Institution is related to the judiciary. “Mizan wasted a lot of the government’s time for returning people’s deposits,” Rouhani asserted.

The judiciary denies having any relations with Mizan. Nevertheless, Mizan’s first logo was exactly the same as the judiciary’s.

“Mizan is related to several judges serving at the judiciary and some of its branches are located at the offices of the Justice Ministry,” said an MP, Mohammad Dehqan.

Mizan, with one million accounts and 3,200 billion Tomans (almost $1 billion) in assets was bankrupt and disbanded in 2015.

The Central Bank has time and again warned the public against unlicensed financial institutions, which control 20 percent of Iran’s total cash flow.

“To buy time and as a delaying tactic, some of these banks and financial institutions that are at the verge of bankruptcy and insolvency offer higher interest rates,” said Saif, the Central Bank’s governor.

About a year ago, the Iran Parliament’s Center for Research declared that Iran’s banking system is in a critical situation and warned that the risk of insolvency threatens all Iranian banks.

Out of 7,333 financial institutions in Iran, only 1000 are licensed, the Center reported.

In the same report, it said “Six unlicensed financial institutions control nearly 13,300 billion Tomans ($4.1 billion) which is equal to 6 percent of the total assets of all Iran banks.

“Lower interest rates will hit depositors as well as banks,” said Saif. “Depositors will receive less interest on their deposits, and are more likely to pull their money out of banks as it would no longer be profitable for them…causing the banks to go bankrupt.”

U.N. Population Report -- Iran, Large Population, Low Fertility

The world’s current population of 7.6 billion will rocket to 9.8 billion in 2050, says the latest UN report on the world’s population growth. India, Pakistan and seven other countries are the main factor in the increase.

Among the most populated countries of the world, Iran alongside Brazil, China, USA, Russia, Viet Nam, Germany, Thailand and the U.K. has the lowest fertility rate. It means the growth rate of the younger generation in the listed countries is not enough to replace the elderly.

Based on the latest assessments, the UN report asserts that 2.1 babies per each mother (21 babies per 10 mothers) are needed to resolve the problem. Nevertheless, according to the report, more countries are going to face the same problem.

A poll taken in 2015 showed that the lower fertility rate and the changes made in the definition of family in the past thirty years in Iran have been quite significant. Furthermore, the poll also indicated that men in Tehran are more reluctant to have babies than women.

“As the most populated country, India is on the way to take over china in just seven years,” UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs’ Population Division said.

Sixty per cent of the world’s people live in Asia (4.5 billion), 17 per cent in Africa (1.3 billion), 10 per cent in Europe (742 million), 9 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean (646 million), and the remaining 6 per cent in Northern America (361 million) and Oceania (41 million).

China (1.4 billion) and India (1.3 billion) remain the two most populous countries of the world, comprising 19 and 18 per cent of the global total, respectively

At the global level, the UN report affirms “the numbers of men and women are roughly equal, with the male population being slightly larger than the female population. Currently, in 2017, there are 102 men for every 100 women.”

Between 2010 and 2015, the report says “47 countries with the lowest rate of development, with 4.3 birth per mother, had the highest fertility rate. Therefore, the population of 26 African countries will at least double until 2050.

Nigeria, with the highest rate of population growth, will have more inhabitants than the USA in 2050.

However, the worrisome point in the UN report is the rapid rate of population growth in the less developed and poorer countries where there are many concerns over the shortage of water and food resources.

"The population in Africa is notable for its rapid rate of growth, and it is anticipated that over half of global population growth between now and 2050 will take place in that region," John Wilmoth, director of the Population Division said.

"At the other extreme, it is expected that the population of Europe will, in fact, decline somewhat in the coming decades," John Wilmoth added at a news conference.

The report also maintains, “While women today bear fewer children on average over a lifetime, some regions of the world are still characterized by high levels of adolescent fertility (births to mothers aged 15-19 years). Since adolescent childbearing can have adverse health and social consequences both for the young mothers and for their children, it remains a topic of concern for many countries. Among regions of the world, the adolescent birth rate in 2010-2015 was highest in Africa at 99 per 1,000 women aged 15-19, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean at 67 per 1,000.”

According to the results of the 2017 Revision, the world’s population reached nearly 7.6 billion in mid-2017. The world has added one billion people since 2005 and two billion since 1993. In 2017, an estimated 50.4 per cent of the world’s population was male and 49.6 per cent female. In 2017, 9 per cent of the global population was under age 5, 26 per cent was under age 15, 13 per cent was aged 60 or over and 2 per cent was aged 80 or over.

Fifty-one countries or areas are projected to undergo a reduction in population size between 2017 and 2050. For ten countries or areas, populations are expected to decrease by more than 15 per cent by 2050: Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Republic of Moldova, Romania, Serbia, Ukraine and the United States Virgin Islands.

Ten countries are expected to account collectively for more than half of the world’s projected population increase over the period 2017-2050: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the United Republic of Tanzania, the United States of America, Uganda, Indonesia and Egypt; in the order of the expected contribution to global growth.

OPEC Efforts To Support Oil Prices Fail

Russian Energy Minister Aleksandr Novak and Saudi ArabianEnergy Minister and OPEC conference president Khalid al-Falih attend a meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and non-OPEC producing countries in Vienna,

(Reuters) - When OPEC leader Saudi Arabia pledged in May to do "whatever it takes" to defend world oil prices, it didn't expect the market to be testing its resolve just one month later.

As the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries extended oil production cuts, oil prices fell 18 percent in just 20 days. OPEC members appear determined not to rush into deeper output curbs despite market pressure.

Oil traders have chosen to ignore bullish news for prices - including a long-awaited decline in U.S. oil stocks on Wednesday - and focused instead on negative factors such as a stubborn global glut.

As a result, the oil market posted its worst performance in the first six months in two decades effectively signalling its refusal to accept the effectiveness of the OPEC statement and its desire for further production cuts.

The "whatever it takes" pledge was made by Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al Falih at a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in early May, echoing a promise by European central banker Mario Draghi five years ago during his successful fight to defend the euro.

"You cannot fight the Federal Reserve but you can fight OPEC," said Bob McNally, President of the Rapidan Group, a Washington-based energy market and policy consultant. "Somebody at OPEC has to cut further but no one is willing."

The oil price decline and Saudi's ability to defend prices also puts in the spotlight Saudi Arabia's future king, 31-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who on Wednesday was made next in line to the throne by his father King Salman.

Prince Mohammed has been the ultimate Saudi energy decision-maker in the last two years and his strategy has shifted from orders to raise oil production to defend OPEC market share to curbing output to prop up prices.

WAITING IT OUT

Falih and other OPEC ministers and officials have said the cartel would not rush to deepen production cuts from the current four percent to arrest the price decline.

They said the group would rather wait until existing joint cuts with non-OPEC Russia finally result in a global stocks decline during the third quarter when demand for crude oil is usually strong.

OPEC and Russian sources also told Reuters there were few signs the group is preparing any extraordinary action ahead of a joint ministerial monitoring committee meeting in Russia at the end of July.

"We are in discussions with OPEC members to prepare ourselves for a new decision," Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Wednesday. "But making decisions in this organisation is very difficult because any decision will mean production cuts for the members," he added.

An oil price surge at the end of the last decade and the start of this one spurred multiple oil production projects around the world, including from U.S. shale formations, resulting in global oversupply which sent prices tumbling from $120 per barrel in 2014 to below $30 per barrel last year.

OPEC and Russia tried to stabilise prices with cuts at around $50-$60 per barrel, but this week Brent prices fell towards $44 per barrel on persistent oversupply worries.

Traders and investors have raised their bets that the oil price will remain under pressure. The U.S. crude options market shows that the largest change since the OPEC meeting in holdings of derivatives maturing in December this year is in put, or sell, options at $45 a barrel.

Open interest, which shows the number of contracts that are open that have been traded but not yet liquidated, has risen by more than 5,000 lots in the last month to nearly 38,000 lots, equivalent to 38 million barrels of oil.

SHALE RETURNS AT FULL FORCE

"Global supply outages have fallen to a new low not seen in years. U.S. shale is returning at full force ... (and there are) high storage levels afloat and on land," said Oystein Berentsen, managing director for oil trading company Strong Petroleum.

The United States is not part of any supply reduction deals and is expected to increase production from shale formations by up to one million barrels per day or almost 10 percent of the country's total crude output.

Berentsen said that unless OPEC deepened cuts or there was a large, unexpected production stoppage, prices will remain low.

"A deeper cut could arrest the price decline but OPEC needs to actually do it rather than just talk about it," said Greg McKenna, chief market strategist at futures brokerage AxiTrader.

OPEC sources have said that one of the options could be to include sooner rather than later OPEC members Nigeria and Libya in output cuts after their production grew steeply in recent months from levels previously depressed by unrest. At the moment Nigeria and Libya are exempt from the production cuts agreement.

MISTAKES OF THE PAST

Saudi Arabia, which has the cheapest production costs in the world, has repeatedly said it had learnt from its mistakes of the past, when it drastically cut production in the 1980s to prop up prices but lost market share to rivals.

Earlier this year, Saudi officials told top independent U.S. oil firms in a closed-door meeting they should not assume OPEC would extend curbs to offset rising U.S. output.

Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst at brokerage OANDA, said OPEC's other choice would be to allow oil prices to drop to levels at which even "the newly slimline U.S. shale industry struggles to break even at".

That may not be far off as prices approach cost levels for U.S. shale drillers, who are responsible for a rise in production that has undermined OPEC efforts. <C-OUT-T-EIA>

"For the (Bakken shale), wells completed in 2016-2017, wellhead break-evens average around $38 per barrel," said consultancy Rystad Energy, which specialises in exploration and production.

Besides closely following production patterns of its rivals, OPEC needs to keep a keen eye on global demand.

While major forecasters including the International Energy Agency sees global oil demand growing by a healthy 1.5 percent next year, there are signs growth is slowing in major Asian hubs China and India, the engines of demand growth in recent years.

Israel Claims Vast Power And Going 'All-Out' In Future War With Hezbollah

A F-35 fighter jet is seen after landing in the Israeli Nevatim Air force base in the Negev desert, near the southern city of Beersheva, December 12, 2016

The head of Israel's air force claimed on Wednesday that Israel's military capabilities have vastly increased compared with 2006, and now the Jewish state will have "unimaginable" military power to bear down on Hezbollah.

Major General Amir Eshel speaking at a security conference near Tel Aviv said; "What the air force was able to do quantitatively in the... Lebanon war over the course of 34 days [in 2006] we can do today in 48-60 hours."

Israeli troops poured into southern Lebanon after the Shiite militia seized two soldiers in a deadly cross-border raid on July 12, 2006 in a war that killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and more than 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets from neighboring Lebanon during the conflict, with one million Israelis in the north of the country coming under heavy fire for more than a month.

Since then Israel has built up a sophisticated defense system, including the Iron Dome short-range interceptor which has successfully brought down rockets fired from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt's lawless Sinai region and the Gaza Strip.

Israeli politicians and generals have spoken often of an intention to hit hard in Lebanon if war breaks out, in an apparent bid to deter Hezbollah. Eshel said in 2014 that another conflict could see Israeli attacks 15 times more devastating for Lebanon than in 2006.

Speaking about occasional Israeli air attacks on suspected Iranian arms shipments for Hezbollah coming through Syria, Eshel said that these have a deterrent impact on the Lebanese Shiite group. Hezbollah has also been bogged down in Syria for the lat six years, throwing in thousands of fighters into the quagmire, trying to defend Bashar al-Assad.

Eshel cautioned residents in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, to leave their homes if a new conflict erupts, saying the Iranian-backed group uses civilian homes as "launching bases for missiles and rockets".

Based on reporting by AFP, Reuters

Saudi-Iran Tensions Seen Worsening With Rise Of New Saudi Crown Prince

Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman was designated as the kingdom's next ruler on June 21.

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran -- already running high -- could worsen with King Salman's designation of his assertive and ambitious son, Muhammad bin Salman, as the next ruler, analysts say.

Saudi Arabia's new crown prince and likely next king shares U.S. President Donald Trump's hard view of Iran, but a more confrontational approach toward Tehran carries a risk of escalation in an unstable region, current and former U.S. officials told Reuters.

The crown prince said last month on Saudi TV that he was not open to trying to improve relations with Tehran, which he accused of trying "to control the Islamic world" to spread its Shi'ite doctrine.

"We know we are a main target of Iran," the prince said, adding that conflict between the Sunni-led kingdom and Shi'ite-led Iran appeared inevitable.

"We will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia," he said.

Those remarks raised alarm in Iran and helped fuel the widespread belief there that the Saudis were behind recent terrorist attacks in Tehran that were claimed by the Islamic State extremist group.

But for the last few years, Iranian rhetoric against Saudi Arabia has become almost a daily routine. From the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei down to military commanders and hardliners accuse the Saudis of supporting terrorism, being corrupt and sometimes call for the destruction of the House of Saud.

Iran's support for Houthis in Yemen has also been a stark challenge to Saudis in their own backyard.

The greatest danger for the Trump administration, a longtime U.S. government expert on Middle East affairs said, was for the United States to be dragged deeper into the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict playing out across the Middle East, a danger that could be compounded by Trump’s delegation of responsibility for military decisions to the Pentagon.

If the administration gives U.S. commanders greater authority to respond to Iranian air and naval provocations in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz, things could easily spiral out of control, the official said.

"If we were to witness an incident at sea between an Iranian and a U.S. vessel in the Gulf, at a time of immense distrust and zero communication, how likely is it that the confrontation would be defused rather than exacerbated?" Reuters quotes Rob Malley, vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group.

"If there's a more bellicose attitude towards Iran, Iran is likely to respond," said Malley, a former senior adviser on Middle East affairs under President Barack Obama.

But Luke Coffey, director of the Foreign Policy Center at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, doubted Iran would retaliate in a major way.

"Iran has very limited ability or options to retaliate against U.S. forces in the region without suffering an overwhelming U.S. response," Coffey said.

Iran's state media on June 21 called the prince's designation as the next Saudi ruler a "soft coup."

"Under his watch, Saudi Arabia has developed aggressive foreign policies in Yemen and Qatar, and he has not been shy about making strong statements against Iran," Olivier Jakob at the Petromatrix oil consultancy told Reuters.

"It is not really a question of if, but rather of when, a new escalation with Iran starts."

Petromatrix said the crown prince's designation was already contributing to a major slide in oil prices by raising doubt that the Saudis and Iran will be willing to cooperate in the future to curb production as they are today.

Based on reporting by AP and Reuters

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