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Iran Sees 'Revival' Of Imperilled Lake Urmia

Formerly the largest lake in the Middle East, the shrinking of Urmia finally appears to be stabilising as officials see the start of a revival. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

It is one of the worst ecological disasters of recent decades, but the shrinking of Iran's great Lake Urmia finally appears to be stabilising and officials see the start of a revival.

A rusty cargo ship and a row of colourful pedal boats lying untouched on the bone-dry basin are a sign of the devastating loss of water in what was once the largest lake in the Middle East.

Situated in the mountains of northwest Iran, Lake Urmia is fed by 13 rivers and designated as a site of international importance under the UN Convention on Wetlands that was signed in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971.

The lake has been shrinking since 1995, according to the UN Environment Programme, due to a combination of prolonged drought, over-farming and dams.

By August 2011 the lake's surface was 2,366 square kilometres (914 square miles) and shrank drastically to just 700 km2 in 2013, according to the United Nations.

The catastrophe has threatened the habitat of shrimp, flamingos, deers and wild sheep and caused salt storms that pollute nearby cities and farms.

That finally triggered a coordinated effort to save the lake in 2013 -- with a joint programme between Iran and the UN Development Programme funded by the Japanese government.

The project became a priority for the incoming administration of President Hassan Rouhani.

"One of my promises was to revive Urmia lake, and I am still committed to that promise," Rouhani said during a recent visit to the region.

Some positive results are finally emerging and the lake's surface area reached 2,300 km2 last year, according to UN Development Programme figures.

"This is the beginning of the lake's revival," said Abolfazl Abesht, who heads the wetlands unit of Iran's environment department.

He warned it would take "decades" to return to the 5,000 km2 it once covered, but at least "now the trend has stopped".

A combination of prolonged drought, over-farming and dams saw the lake's surface shrink by an estimated 88 percent to just 700 square-kilometres (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
A combination of prolonged drought, over-farming and dams saw the lake's surface shrink by an estimated 88 percent to just 700 square-kilometres (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Sustainable farming

Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall have been a major factor in the lake's decline, experts say.

So, too, was the construction of a causeway in 2008 to shorten driving times between Urmia and the nearby city of Tabriz that cut the lake in two.

But people were also a major part of the problem due to a rapid rise in the population and farming around the lake, which provides a livelihood to some six million people.

The rejuvenation effort therefore focused on redirecting rivers to irrigate farmland, thus avoiding use of water from the lake, and the promotion of more sustainable farming methods.

"Almost 85 percent of the water is used for agriculture, and we are trying to help farmers reduce usage through cheap and effective techniques," said Abesht.

Measures such as using natural instead of chemical fertilisers, or levelling the land to avoid run-off, have shown major improvements for local farmer Afshin Medadi.

The 47-year-old had to invest in new equipment, but says "things are more cost-effective now", with his farm using a tenth of the water.

There has also been a noticeable reduction in the salt and dust pollution whipped up from the desiccated lake floor during storms, he added.

Others have launched their own green initiatives.

One group of 20 women set up a collective to raise awareness among lakeside communities about water waste, and encourage the production of handicrafts to boost sustainable employment.

One of the organisers, 39-year-old Kobra Asghari from the village of Gharehgozlou, hopes industries such as carpet and doll-making can gradually overtake traditional farming.

They are also encouraging women to plant less thirsty crops such as saffron and olives.

"We gradually managed to encourage the men to do the same," she said.

"People are paying more attention to their environment and the dying ecosystem."

Shahid Kalantari causeway which crosses the salt lake of Urmia in the northwest of Iran, which had been shrinking in one of the worst ecological disasters.(Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Shahid Kalantari causeway which crosses the salt lake of Urmia in the northwest of Iran, which had been shrinking in one of the worst ecological disasters.(Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Parliament Warns Iran Might Get Hyperinflation By End Of March 2019

Stacks of Iranian rial banknotes.

The research center of Iran's Parliament (Majles) has warned against "uncontrollable inflation" before the end of the current Iranian year in late March.

The parliament's research attributes the looming hyperinflation to "the quantity and quality of liquidity growth in recent years, fluctuations in the forex market and price rises during recent months."

According to the report, liquidity has more than tripled between 2013 and 2018, rising from 5,063,000 trillion rials to 16,720,000 trillion, adding that during the period a large part of the cash in the market consisted of various forms of travellers cheques or quasi-money so that bank notes constituted only 15% of the money in people's hands.

If we convert these figures to U.S. dollars based on the current free market rate, it would be $500 billion and $1.5 trillion respectively; but this does not mean Iranians have actually the equivalent of so much dollars. Their money is in local currency, which is not as fungible as a hard currency, such as the U.S. dollar.

The growth in liquidity means that the government has printed money to pay salaries and bills. Then what about inflation? So much liquidity is bound to lead to loss of value for the money.

Actually, there is double digit inflation approaching hyper-inflation. But so far, it has been somewhat controlled because of very high interest rates, the parliament report says, and the fact that a lot of the money in circulation is not in the form of banknotes.

However, if availability of actual money increases, hyperinflation will be unavoidable, the report concludes.

The parliament's research center has suggested three solutions for the problem of liquidity and high inflation: Reducing the volume of liquidity, managing and controlling the existing liquidity level, and managing the creation of new liquidity.

The research center has advised that banks should sell their surplus assets, control high-volume banking transactions and try to stabilize the foreign exchange and gold coin markets.

Other measures suggested by the Majles research center to control inflation include taxing capital gains on foreign currency, gold coins and real estate, facilitating long-term deposits for two years or more, and reducing the interest rate on short-term deposits.

Central Bank Governor Abdolnasser Hemmati in late September called on Iranian banks to sort out the overdrafts they owe to the Central Bank.

Meanwhile, Hemmati criticized "some of the banks and credit institution" for the "rising imbalance between their resources and spendings," adding that "overdrafts in the banks' accounts with the Central Bank is against the objectives of the Central Bank and its inflation control policies."

Overdraft from central bank resources causes high liquidity risk and will have serious negative impact on inflation.

One of the current concerns in Iran’s economy is that a change in the combination of liquidity by shifting from quasi-money to bank notes and withdrawal of bank deposits in order to make profit in the forex market can lead to a rise in inflation in the coming months.

According to the Iranian Statistical Center, the average inflation rate in Iran in December reached 18 percent, which shows a 2.4% rise when compared to November.

The Iranian Statistical Center has calculated the year on year inflation in December as 37.4 percent. If this number reaches 60%, then it will be considered as hyperinflation. Some economists believe the official statistics underreports inflation and Iran might already be in hyperinflation territory.

Official Says Social Media More Popular Than Iran's State TV

Social media messaging app Telegram on a smartphone.

An Iranian Culture Ministry official says the messaging service Telegram is Iran's most popular media outlet.

Speaking at a seminar on media in Tehran on 26 December, Hamidreza Ziayiparvar, the ministry's director general for media studies and planning said Telegram has 40 to 45 million users in Iran.

Telegram was banned in Iran in the aftermath of January 2018 protest demonstrations in which the messaging service was used to mobilize protesters and organize widespread anti-government demonstrations. However, the ban had very little impact on Telegram's popularity as users quickly learned to use VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) to circumvent filtering.

In Iran, the state TV was for a long time believed to be the most popular and authoritative news outlet, but it lost its significance as "national media", as government officials like to call it, due to biased news coverage in favor of the hard core and conservative faction in the Islamic Republic.

Mr. Ziayiparvar now says that "Telegram, and not the state TV, is Iran's national media," adding that "Over 60 percent of Iranians, that is 55 million people, have access to the Internet, and between 40 to 45 million of them are actively using Telegram."

The official, a journalist by profession, stressed that people did not leave Telegram despite the ban imposed by the government.

He said Instagram and Twitter are Iran's second and third most popular social media platforms after Telegram. He added that Twitter, which has some 10 million users in Iran, is mainly used by the more educated strata in the country.

Other reports put the number of Iranian users on Instagram at 15 to 22 million, but the platform is used for sharing pictures of homes, food and pets although there some more serious content is also shared.

Telegram and Twitter are officially banned in Iran and there are discussions on the media about a possible ban on Instagram to be perhaps imposed soon. However, all of Iran's top officials including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani are active on Twitter.

Recently, officials at Iran's Cyberspace control center as well as some hardline clerics called for a ban on Instagram, if it refuses to give the government access to users' private data, most notably their geolocation, which reveals their whereabouts in case security agents want to arrest them.

Apart from private messaging, Telegram also offers channels some individuals, as well as government organizations and political groups use for their messaging.

Opposition forces based abroad as well as rival political groups inside Iran widely use Telegram for dissemination of information and disinformation while the public is not fully familiar with the idea of fake news. Nevertheless, Iran's state TV has been often criticized for being less popular and reliable than some of the news channels on Telegram. The same channels, on the other hand, are often criticized by intellectuals and media professionals for biased and inaccurate reporting.

In the meantime, the government's attempt to replace Telegram with homegrown messaging services failed due to their lack of popularity and recently the government stopped funding a project aimed at developing a national messaging service.

However, the government insists that only 79 percent of Telegram's initial users in Iran are still using the messaging service after it was banned in February.

In his Wednesday speech, Ziaeiparvar said that the government can no longer ignore social media. "On social media, a single user can create a media jolt single-handedly," he said.

The popularity of social media in Iran is in spite of the government's constant monitoring and occasional clampdown on activists using the empowerment it affords them. At least two social media activists have died in jail in the past five years, one in December 2018. International media freedom watchdog Reporters without Borderss have characterized the Islamic Republic of Iran as one of the five biggest jailers of journalists in the world in its 2018 report.

Twenty Thousand PhD Graduates Are Unemployed In Iran

Iranian women in graduation ceremony in Tehran, Undated.

Iran's Deputy Minister of Science, Research and Technology for educational affairs says 20,000 Ph.D. holders in Iran are unemployed and jobless.

Dr. Mojtaba Shariati Niasar has also noted that 100,000 students are currently studying for a Ph.D., but only 4,000 of them have been employed by the universities, so far.

The ministry of Science is not responsible for creating jobs, Shariati Niasar has insisted, noting, "but it can increase the students' potential for employment by expanding their capabilities."

Earlier on December 13, the deputy governor for economic affairs and development of human resources in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, Yadollah Mehralizadeh had announced, "Out of 3.5 million unemployed persons across Iran, 30% to 35% are university graduates."

Nevertheless, the Planning and Management Organization (PMO) begs to differ, insisting that the number is much higher.

“42 percent of unemployed people in Iran have a university degree, and huge sums of money have been spent on their education,” said PMO Deputy for Social Development Sa’eed Namaki last April, adding that unemployment among university graduates leads many to leave the country in search of opportunities.

“We are facing a grave problem, and we have to address it fundamentally to stop elite Iranians from leaving the country,” said Namaki.

The head of Azad University in 2017, Farhad Rahbar had also warned about 20,000 students at the Ph.D. level in the university's nationwide colleges with no prospect of employment.

"We do not need an army of (unemployed) students anymore," Rahbar, who was sacked last August, had grumbled.

Iran's inefficient economic system has had anemic growth in the past 40 years since the 1979 revolution, while the population has more than doubled. Lack of foreign investment, mismanagement and nepotism has restricted job growth in the country, compounded by international sanctions.

Furthermore, a local website, Eqtesad Online reported last year that there were more than 204,000 persons in Iran that hold Ph.D. or Masters degree, but have no jobs.

Based on a report compiled by the Statistical Center of Iran, the majority of employed people in Iran carry high school diplomas and pre-university (college)degrees.

However, those who hold a Ph.D. are the least employed individuals among the people with jobs in the country.

State-run Mehr News Agency (MNA) has also reported that those with degrees in Computer Science top the table of unemployed graduates with 41.14 percent unemployment, followed by graduates in Environment (37.6 percent), Arts (28 percent), and Physics (27.8 percent), while graduates of Veterinary Science are at the bottom of the table with the lowest unemployment.

Meanwhile, the Statistical Center of Iran (SCI) reports the rate of unemployment in the last Iranian year (ending March 20, 2017) for the country as a whole at 12.1 percent. The unemployment rate among 15 to 29-year-olds was 25.3 percent.

However, many analysts believe the actual unemployment rates in Iran are much higher than what is reported by the SCI.

Despite the high degree of unemployment among university graduates in Iran, Shariati Niasar has previously boasted about the high number of students with higher education in the country.

During a visit to a higher education center in the city of Shirvan in North Khorasan on Tuesday, July 10, Shariati Niasar said that each year over 5,000 students graduate in the field of engineering in Iran, which is almost the same number of graduates in the field in the United States.

In the meantime, a report compiled by Iran’s parliament from December 2017 highlights the fact that unemployment among female graduates is disproportionately higher.

Iran and Russia Vow To 'Deepen And Expand' Military Cooperation

Ghasem Taghizadeh, Iran's deputy minister of defense. File photo

Iran’s deputy defense minister says the Islamic Republic is prepared for "deepening and expanding defensive and military” cooperation with Russia in all domains.

Brigadier General Ghassem Taghizadeh also lauded the "strategic cooperation" between Tehran and Moscow in what he described as "the war on terrorism" and a successful model of settling regional conflicts.

Taghizadeh was speaking to reporters after meeting Deputy Chief of the Russian Army General Staff Vice-Admiral Igor Osipov in Tehran on Wednesday, December 26.

Referring to Tehran-Moscow 2015 agreement on military cooperation, Taghizadeh reiterated that the Islamic Republic is prepared to "deepen and expand its military and defensive cooperation" in all domains with Russia.

Osipov, for his part, delivered a report on Tehran-Moscow military cooperation in various fields, insisting that "expanding, deepening and strengthening the constructive relations” between Iran and the Russian Federation is an important factor in providing security for the "region and the world".

Tehran and Moscow are cooperating with each other in Syria and fight side by side against Bashar al-Assad's opponents in the war-torn country.

While in Tehran, Osipov also met the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Deputy Commander for Coordination, Rear Admiral Ali Fadavi on the same day.

During the meeting, the two sides underlined the need for the further broadening of Tehran-Moscow cooperation, especially in military fields, “in accordance with the requirements of the regional security conditions and interventions of foreign and trans-regional states”, IRGC-run Fars News Agency (FNA) reported.

Fadavi and Osipov underlined that the defeat of the "Takfiri terrorism" in Syria has been the "product of the strategic cooperation" between the two countries' armed.

The two also exchanged views on the enhancement of cooperation in security, industrial, research and training fields.

Earlier on Tuesday, Osipov, who arrived in Tehran on Monday, had a meeting with Iranian Army Naval Forces Chief Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzad in Tehran.

"The cooperation between the naval forces of Iran and Russia will be expanded in the future," Khanzadi told reporters immediately after the meeting with his Russian guest.

The Islamic Republic's military commanders have repeatedly emphasized the necessity of expanding Iran's military cooperation with Russia.

Nevertheless, several Iranian military and political analysts, including Radio Farda’s Hossein Aryan, have also repeatedly cautioned Tehran for its closer ties with Moscow, asserting, "Russia has never been a reliable partner for Iran, and Moscow has always been adjusting his relations with Tehran merely on the basis of its interests and according to circumstances."

Aryan, believes that Russia is gradually distancing itself from Iran and leaving it all alone by itself.

"One of the reasons for it," Aryan has argued in an analysis for Radio Farda, "is the recent developments in the Middle East and Moscow-Washington relations. One of the main goals of the Iranian and Russian intervention in Syria was strengthening Bashar al-Assad’s position. As the goal has almost been achieved, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking his other goals in the Middle East."

Nonetheless, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his allies have always promoted closer ties with Moscow.

Receiving Putin on September 7 in Tehran, Khamenei had called for expanding cooperation between Iran and Russia to "contain the U.S.A." and proposed economic deals based on currencies other than the dollar.

Putin did not echo these comments and not much has happened on the economic front.

In the meantime, the Russian leader has insisted that all foreign forces, including Iran's and its Lebanese Hezbollah allies', should leave Syria immediately after the establishment of order and security in the war-ravaged country.

Despite U.S. Sanctions Iran's Budget Projects Higher Oil Revenues

An Iranian oil tanker is seen floating on the Caspian Sea, as Iranian President Mohammad Khatami attends the opening ceremony 29 April 2004, of the Neka oil terminal on the Caspian Sea, 340 kms northwest of Tehran in Mazandaran province, a swap agreement

As Iran’s oil exports have halved due to U.S. sanctions, the government has set 1,425 trillion rials income from oil, petroleum products and natural gas exports in the next year budget bill, which indicates a 32% growth year-on-year. Iran’s fiscal year starts on March 21.

The projected increase of oil revenues is odd since Iran’s exports have decreased in recent months due to U.S. sanctions. Before the reimposition of sanctions, Iran exported 2.5 million barrels per day (mb/d) of crude oil (including gas condensate), but the volume halved and is expected to decrease further in the coming months.

President Hassan Rouhani submitted the budget bill to parliament on December 25.

The government budget would receive 65.5% of total oil export revenues (including gas condensate), petroleum products (diesel and fuel oil) and natural gas. The rest of the revenues would directly go to National Development Fund (NDFI) and the National Oil Company (NIOC).

It is still not clear based on what kind of projections does the budget bill forecast a revenue growth from oil. There are no details about the exact oil export volume, oil price and the rate of the U.S. dollar used to calculate the revenue in local currency. However, according to earlier statements of officials and parliament members, the government forecasts the export of 1.5 mb/d crude oil and gas condensate at $54/barrel, while official USD rate would be 57,000 rials.

Currently, the official USD rate is 42,000 rials and this can be part of the explanation as to why more oil income is expected. By simply changing the official currency rate to the higher number of 57,000 rilas to a dollar, the oil income also increases in local currency.

Alongside oil and gas condensate, Iran is also exporting about 360,000 b/d of diesel and mazut (fuel oil). It is not clear whether the country can maintain petroleum products export volume under sanctions regime or not.

Possible scenarios for budget’s oil and gas incomes next year
Budget IncomeCrude Oil export (1.5 mb/d)Petroleum products (260-360 kb/d)Natural gas (30-60 mcm/d)Total

Rial-based Income

(trillion rials

1,104170 to 24576 to1501,425

USD-based income


$19.4$3 to $4.3$1.3 to $2.6$25
  • Each USD rate at 57,000 rials.

Why Iran eyes 32% growth in rial-based budget oil income?

Besides the arbitrary change in the USD exchange rate, which helps to project higher revenues from oil exports, there are also other factors.

One important reason is a higher share from total oil revenues in the new budget plan.

In the current year, the National Development Fund receives 32% of oil revenues, but it would receive only 20% next year; the difference going to the budget, increasing oil income by 12% to 65.5% for the operations of the government. This is simply taking from the nation’s savings account and spending money for current needs.

Iran also started limited amounts of natural gas exports to Iraq in July 2017 and the volume has reportedly increased recently to about 28 million cubic meters per day (mcm/d).

Baghdad has got sanctions waiver from the U.S. to continue Iranian gas imports until March 2019, but it seems the waiver would be extended beyond that date because a significant part of Iraq’s electricity generation depends on Iranian gas. Baghdad recently annouced that Iraq has no choice, but to import Iranian gas for at least the next two years.

The country has signed two contracts to reicive 50 mcm/d Iranian gas, but it is not clear when the volume would reach the contractual level.

Iran also exports 25-27 mcm/d gas to Turkey.

Setting projected oil price at $54 in the budget bill seems quite realistic, though the current Brent benchmark (which is $2-3/barrel higher than Iranian crude) stands at 52.14. However, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest short-term energy outlook report, Brent spot prices are expected to average $61 in 2019.

Confiscation Of Guns Underway In Iran's Volatile Province

This picture taken on September 22, 2018 in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz shows injured soldiers lying on the ground at the scene of an attack on a military parade.

Police has captured "nearly three thousand unauthorized weapons" in Dezful, in Southwestern Iran in the volatile province of Khuzestan, Iranian media reported on Monday December 24.

Meanwhile, Khuzestan Police Chief Heydar Abbaszadeh told reporters that a "general disarming" project is under way in the area, warning that "those who own and use unauthorized weapons will be strictly dealt with."

Abbaszadeh said that 2,325 individuals have been arrested in Khuzestan during the past nine months, adding that police has seized 494 combat weapons as well as 2,236 rifles during the same period.

The province is home to a major part of Iran's oil industry including the Abadan Refinery, as well as the steel mill in Ahvaz and the sugar plant in Haft Tappeh where unpaid workers have been on strike and holding protest demonstrations nearly for a year. However, no shooting was reported during last year's labor unrest in Khuzestan.

The province is also known for its Arab-Persian ethnic divide which at times brought about disturbances. An ethnic Arab group claimed responsibility for last September's attack on a military parade in Ahvaz that claimed two dozen lives and left many more wounded.

Dezful's local governor Mohamad Heydari told reporters that recently there have been "cases of armed robbery and shooting" in the city, and officials have decided to launch a general weapons confiscation project.

However, he said because of the special situation in Dezful, complete disarming will take some time. Nevertheless, he did not elaborate on what makes the city's situation "special."

Yet, the local governor warned "those who disturb order in the city" will be stopped by the authorities from "committing outrageous criminal acts."

The governor asked the police to plan and act in a way that criminals "wouldn't even think of disturbing public's peace." However, he said "Violent crimes are committed by criminals who have a long record of mischief," but said there are not too many criminals around.

The local governor further called on the police to confront armed robbery while the disarming project is under way.

Iranian media recently reported cases of tribal disputes that led to shootouts, as well as armed robberies by "bandits." Recently a local police chief in Dezful was shot dead during a clash with bandits, reports said.

In another developments, gunmen attacked "a cultural center" associated with Khuzestan's representative to the Assembly of Experts, his Telegram channel reported.

Importing, buying, selling and repairing weapons are not allowed in Iran except for authorized weapons used for hunting. Possession of unauthorized hunting or combat weapons entail between three months to ten years prison terms as well as cash fines up to 80 million rials (roughly $800).

Sunni Leader Allowed To Leave Iran And Visit Oman

Iran -- Prominent Sunni Cleric Molana Abdol-Hamid, Leader of Sunnis in Iran's province of Sistan & Baluchistan, undated.

The most prominent Sunni cleric in Iran has been allowed to travel out of the country for the first time in almost a decade.

Mawlana Abdol-Hamid (also known as Molavi AbdulHamid) arrived in Oman's capital city Oman, on Sunday, December 23, where he was welcomed and received by many people.

The official website of Shaikh Abdol-Hamid reported that he is visiting Oman just to meet Ulama (religion experts) and lay people from diverse groups.

Reportedly, more than one-third of Oman’s population belongs to Baluch community and many of senior officials of the country are also Baluch.

Oman has been mediating between the U.S. and Iran in recent years and reportedly has even served as a venue for secret meetings between the two sides.

It is possible that Abdol-Hamid's visit is the result of an Omani request or a goodwill gesture by Iran to a friendly country in the region.

Abdol-Hamid was previously banned to visit foreign countries and the mainly Sunni populated areas inside Iran.

As recent as last October, the 72-year-old Sunni cleric told pro-reform daily E'temad that he was not allowed to leave Iran for Qatar to visit his relatives.

The influential Sunni leader also disclosed, "During the previous period, heavy pressures were exerted (on me and other Iranian Sunni leaders). While Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was president, I was officially banned from leaving Iran" adding, "I sent a message to President Ahmadinejad inquiring about the reason for being banned.'It has got nothing to do with me, others are responsible for the ban’, Ahmadinejad responded."

Abdol-Hamid appealed to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, telling him that Iranian Sunnis are “unlucky” as they are discriminated against at home and looked upon suspiciously abroad for being Iranian citizens.

"Many Sunni countries do not accept us and…claim that we are the emissaries of the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, we are facing restrictions inside our homeland, Iran. We are struggling with problems in and outside Iran", the Sunni leader said.

Molavi Abdulhamid has always been the spearhead of defending Sunni rights in Iran. He has even called for Sunnis to be allowed to run for the country’s presidency. “Sunnis are facing more problems than Shi’ites in Iran, and securing religion freedom is one of the most important requests Sunnis have from the next president," said Molavi Abdulhamid, in a sermon, on May 5, 2017, at Friday Prayer in the mainly Sunni city of Zahedan in southeast Iran.

His request contradicts Iran’s constitution, which explicitly stipulates that candidates should embrace and endorse the official religion of the country – the Shi’ite branch of Islam.

Earlier, in a “guideline note”, on April 19, 2017, the Chairman of the Guardian Council, Ahmad Jannati, 91, had even called for the disqualification of all non-Muslims nominated for City and Village Councils’ membership, in constituencies where Muslims form the majority of the population.

According to unofficial statistics, up to 9 per cent of the Iran's population are Sunni Muslims; mostly Kurds in northwest, Arabs in southwest, Khuzestan province; Baluchis in Sistan and Baluchistan province; Larestanis in Larestan and Bandar Abbas; and a smaller number of Persians, Pashtuns and Turkmens in the northeast.

Sunni activists have always accused Iranian authorities of discrimination and practicing sectarian persecution against their community. In July 2015, Tehran municipality, backed by security forces, demolished the only Sunni mosque in the capital, provoking anger among the Sunnis.

In a recent report, International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran claimed that Zahedan’s Friday Prayer Leader, Molavi Abdulhamid, is not allowed to travel to anywhere outside Sistan and Baluchistan, save Tehran. Meanwhile, other Iranian Sunni clergmen are forbidden to visit Sistan and Baluchistan province, the report said.

Iran's Judiciary Signals A Less Restrictive Position On Women Attending Men's Sports

A limited group of Iranian women were allowed to attend Asian Champions League football final in Tehran on November 10, 2018.

The deputy head of Iran's judiciary says women can be allowed to go to stadiums to watch men’s sports if certain "conditions" are met.

"Women attending matches at the sports arenas, is not a problem, per se," says mid-ranking cleric Hadi Sadeqi, adding, "They are allowed to go to sports arenas, as men are, provided a number of moral and religious matters and standards are respected."

Sadeqi's comments are in sharp contrast with earlier remarks made by Iran's Prosecutor-General on the same subject. Mohammad Jafar Montazeri has repeatedly warned that his office would not tolerate women entering sports arenas, watching “half-naked” soccer players running on the pitch.

Women watching footballers "leads to sin," Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, speaking in the city of Qazvin, said on October 14. "I object to the presence of women in Azadi Stadium yesterday. We are a Muslim state, we are Muslims. We will deal with any official who wants to allow women inside sports venues under any pretext."

State-run Mehr News Agency (MNA) quoted Montazeri as also stressing, "When a woman enters a stadium and sees half-naked men in sports jerseys, it will lead to sinful acts."

Moreover, Montazeri cautioned, "If repeated, I will order the Tehran prosecutor-general to step in."

Nevertheless, it seems that the country's judiciary has decided to slightly change its position on the controversial issue, by setting some rules to allow women watch men's sports matches.

Describing women's attendance at stadiums as a fact that is not a problem in itself, Sadeqi has suggested that there could be ways to let women watch men's sports freely.

There are two "indispositions" involved in the case," Sadeqi has maintained, adding, one is the fact that "watching naked stranger men by women is banned by Islamic regulations", second, the "immoral and inappropriate environment of stadiums is not suitable for women".

However, Sadeqi has argued, "As the naked stranger men (players) are far away from the spectators, the problem needs further technical religious analysis. Therefore, we can discuss the case with foqaha (Shi'ite jurists, Grand Ayatollahs and sources of emulation)."

Dropping the ball into the court of managers of the sports arenas, the cleric said, "It is up to the managers of the stadiums to prepare a morally suitable environment where women would also be able to watch men's sports events."

Almost four decades ago, before the downfall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Iranian women were free to attend sports arenas and watch any sports competition alongside men.

Nevertheless, almost immediately after the Islamic Revolution led by the conservative clergy, women were banned from attending stadiums on the basis of an "unwritten law".

Almost forty years later, the debate over the controversial issue has become more contentious.

The outspoken deputy speaker of Majles (parliament), Ali Motahari believes that women should be permitted to watch men's soccer matches, but letting them attend arenas where men are competing in the fields such as swimming, basketball, and volleyball is against Sharia.

Meanwhile, several hardline clergymen, including the Qom-based Nasser Makarem Shirazi, who is officially recognized as a "Grand Ayatollah", are vehemently against allowing Iranian women watch live men's soccer matches at stadiums.

Ninety-one-year-old Makarem Shirazi insisted last December that the presence of women in stadiums “inevitably” leads to "morally corrupt acts".

Another ultraconservative clergyman also lambasted President Hassan Rouhani’s government last June for letting women enter Tehran’s main sports arena (Azadi stadium) and watch Iranian national football squad's televised soccer match against Spain.

“It is not glorious to allow women to enter an arena for watching soccer games,” 99-year old official Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpayegani roared.

The ultraconservative cleric has also gone further, insisting “gender segregation in Iran’s universities” should be enforced “at any cost”.

Twelve years ago, the Islamic Republic’s former President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself considered a conservative, in an executive order lifted the ban, but the order was not implemented after the top Ayatollahs opposed it.

Rouhani has also repeatedly promised to lift the ban, without delivering, so far.

Meanwhile, the international soccer body, FIFA, says that banning women from watching football games is against its regulations, and Iran should address the problem, otherwise its soccer sides will be banned from participating in international competitions.

Israel Sees Limits Of Trump Support With Syria Pullout

In this file photo taken on March 05, 2017 A convoy of US forces armored vehicles drives on the western outskirts of the northern Syrian city of Manbij. - The U.S. is preparing to withdraw its troops from Syria.

(AFP) - Israeli leaders have lauded Donald Trump for his list of decisions in support of their country since taking office, but the mercurial president's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria will not rank among them.

After Trump's surprise announcement of the pullout last week, Israel is concerned over whether its main enemy Iran will have a freer hand to operate in the neighboring country, analysts say.

Israel's response to the announcement has been measured -- careful to point out that it respects the U.S. decision, coupled with pledges to continue to defend its interests in Syria.

But beneath those public pronouncements are worries over whether Iran will seek to take advantage of the U.S. absence from the war-torn country and if Russia will respond to Israel's calls to limit it.

Beyond that, the manner in which the decision was taken and announced -- and U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' resignation in response -- may also give Israeli leaders pause, some analysts say.

"Since it's our major ally, we want the United States to be strong ... and we want an ally which is being perceived in the region as strong and effective," said Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University and who has written extensively on Syria.

"And I think that what worries some Israelis is what message does this decision -- the way it was taken, what stood behind it -- send to the region?"

The United States has only around 2,000 troops in Syria focused on fighting the Islamic State group, but they have been deployed in two areas along the Iraqi border, helping keep Iranian movement into the country in check.

There have been warnings from Israel and others that Iran is seeking to form a "land bridge" across to the Mediterranean, and some analysts have said that the U.S. withdrawal could help that effort.

With Iran supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country's civil war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long pledged to keep it from entrenching itself militarily next door. Israel has repeatedly taken action, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against what it says are Iranian military targets and advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group.

With the United States pulling out, Israel may look more to Russia, which is also backing Assad, to use its influence to limit Iran, some analysts say.

But that is not a given, and a friendly fire incident in September that led to a Russian plane being downed by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli strike remains an issue.

The incident angered Russia and complicated Israel's operations in Syria, particularly after Moscow's delivery of the advanced S-300 air defense system there in response.

Netanyahu and Israel's military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, on Sunday sought to tamp down concerns over the withdrawal.

The Israeli premier has indicated he was not taken off-guard, saying he had spoken with Trump two days before the December 19 announcement as well as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo the previous day.

"The decision to remove the 2,000 U.S. soldiers from Syria won't change our consistent policy," Netanyahu said Sunday. "We will continue to act against Iran's attempt to establish a military presence in Syria, and if the need arises, we will even expand our activities there."

Yaakov Amidror, a former national security adviser to Netanyahu and ex-military intelligence official, noted U.S. troops were not directly involved in Israel's fight against Iran's presence in Syria. But he said concerns over whether Iran will take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal were legitimate.

"From now on, it will be a free ride for the Iranians and they will use the corridor logistically to enhance their capabilities to build the military forces in Syria and to help Hezbollah afterwards," he told AFP.

An analysis by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank said "Israel is among the most important losers" of the withdrawal, along with the United States' Kurdish allies in Syria.

But Netanyahu has vowed that Israel will continue to "defend ourselves" and Eisenkot, the military chief of staff, called it "a significant event but it should not be overstated"."For decades we've been handling this front alone," said Eisenkot.

Iran's Persian Rug-makers Suffer As U.S. Unravels Nuclear Deal

steam rises from a vat of dye as a batch of thread is prepared to be used for hand-woven carpets, in a workshop at the grand bazaar in the ancient city Kashan, Iran.(AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

As the Trump administration works to unravel Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with word powers, the producers of the country's famed Persian carpets fear they will lose vital markets.

Before the U.S. withdrew from the deal and began restoring crippling sanctions earlier this year, the $425 million a year industry preserved an ancient tradition while providing much-needed income to Iranians as well as Afghan refugees, who create much of the more luxurious hand-woven pieces. Iran produces some 400 tons of carpets a year and exports 80 percent of them.

Despite the decades of mutual hostility stemming from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the United States is one of the biggest markets for Persian rugs, accounting for more than a quarter of all exports.

But that is set to change as the U.S. imposes what it says are the toughest sanctions in history, aimed at persuading Iran to dramatically change its policies in the region, including its support for militant groups and its involvement in Syria and other conflicts.

Costumers inspect a hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan
Costumers inspect a hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan

The impact of the renewed sanctions is being felt in the grand bazaar of Kashan, an ancient city in one of Iran's main carpet-weaving regions, known for its rich red, blue and yellow designs. On a recent day, many of the shops were closed and there were few shoppers.

The sanctions have fueled an economic crisis in Iran, where the currency has plummeted in recent months, wiping out people's life savings and sending prices soaring. The few tourists who visit Iran cannot use foreign credit cards because of U.S. sanctions on banking, making big purchases difficult.

"I would spend more if I could pay with my credit card," said Fabian Simon, a French tourist visiting the bazaar. "I took a certain amount of cash, and when it is finished, it is finished."

Mahmoud Morshedi, a carpet seller who has worked in the industry for more than four decades, said the production of hand-woven rugs was already suffering from the growing popularity of cheaper machine-made carpets. His company only produces around 20 hand-woven carpets a year, down from 100 in the 1990s, when they filled orders from local exporters, Tehran businessmen and wealthy buyers from Gulf countries. "They are not coming anymore," he said.

Two carpet weavers open their hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Two carpet weavers open their hand-woven carpet at the grand bazaar in Kashan, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

​A small, 1.5 square meter (16 square foot) rug can take between 18 months and four years to make, and sells for up to $6,000.

Iran is barred from exporting anything directly to the United States, and traders can only ship through third countries if they conceal the origin of the product.

Javad Esfahanian, whose family runs one of the oldest carpet-making businesses in the country, said the industry is only able to survive because of cheap labor from Afghan refugees — mainly women — who have the rare skills required for luxury weaving and who will work for as little as $1.50 per day. He estimates that some 2 million people work in the industry and another 8 million rely on their income.

But the worsening economic conditions in Iran are already pushing Afghan refugees to leave, with some 350,000 returning home in just the first six months of this year, according to the U.N. agency for migration.

"If these Afghan weavers leave Iran, I am certain that production of hand-woven carpets will come to an end. I have no doubt," Esfahanian said.

Iranian exports boomed after the landmark nuclear agreement went into effect in 2016, lifting international sanctions in return for Iran curbing its uranium enrichment. U.N. inspectors say Iran is complying with the agreement, and European countries are trying to salvage the deal, saying it provides the best means for preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

President Donald Trump was a harsh critic of the agreement, saying it was too generous and did nothing to restrain Iran's support for militant groups like the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas or its meddling in Syria, Iraq and Yemen — none of which was part of the deal.

His administration has demanded Iran overhaul its regional policies in return for the lifting of sanctions, while Tehran appears to be waiting Trump out, hoping a future U.S. administration returns to the nuclear deal.

Mohammad Esfahanian, Javad's 86-year-old cousin and the head of the Kashan Carpet Union, blamed his own country's leaders for the crisis, saying "when you start cursing others in the world, they become your enemy."

"Politics and economy are not separate from each other. If 10 stores sold the same good, which one would you buy it from? The one you have a better relationship with and the one that has a better behavior, of course."

Despite Economic Crisis, Iran Expands Ties With Gaza

A handout picture made available by the Iranian presidential office shows Iranian president Hassan Rouhani greeting Ramadan Abdullah Shalah (L), Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), in Tehran, 05 May 2016.

Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, the head of World Assembly of Solidarity Among Muslim Sects, announced earlier in December that Iran will seek to sponsor the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this year. While not mentioning the exact number of sponsored families, Araki’s statement highlights the Islamic Republic’s desire to expand influence in the Gaza Strip.

This marks a continuation of the Iranian rapprochement since 2017 with Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni-Islamist organization, following a period of tension caused by Hamas’ refusal to back Bashar Al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

What is even more surprising about this rapprochement is the fact that representatives of Hamas have supported the Syrian opposition, while both Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militant group supported by Iran, continue supporting the Assad regime. Indeed, Iran was quick in resuming its financial backing of Gaza groups, reportedly giving Hamas and other Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad over $100 million in 2018.

Despite the ongoing US sanctions on Iranian financial transactions and oil exports, the Islamic Republic has so far been more than able to exploit loopholes to maintain its financial support.

Although Hamas disagreed with Iranian support of Assad, the Syrian regime serves as an integral part in facilitating financial support to Hamas and other Palestinian groups. These transactions are part of a larger Iranian-Russian network, which transports Iranian oil to Syria in exchange for financial support going to Hamas, as pointed out by the US government, which has targeted 6 individuals and 3 entities that are part of these operations.

M302 rockets found aboard the Klos C ship, suspected of suppying Gaza groups, are displayed at an Israeli navy base in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, March 10, 2014
M302 rockets found aboard the Klos C ship, suspected of suppying Gaza groups, are displayed at an Israeli navy base in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, March 10, 2014

Moreover, both Iran and the Syrian regime have been reported to use militant groups in Gaza as proxies against the state of Israel. The latest example in these operations was reported by the Israeli army on October 27th where 39 rockets were fired at southern Israel from the Gaza Strip by Islamic Jihad. This attack is claimed to have been requested by the Syrian regime with the support of Iran, its key ally.

As the Syrian war has impacted inter-Arab relations, Iran is shaping into a much more influential power in Palestine, particularly in the Gaza Strip. Indeed, according to Yahya Sinwar, the current leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Iran currently is the largest financial supporter of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas‘ military wing.

The thaw in relations between Hamas and Iran can be explained through the growth of new disputes in the region, particularly between Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Accused of supporting militant groups such as Hamas, the Qatari government is currently being boycotted by Saudi Arabia. While king Salman met with the leaders of Hamas in 2015, relations between Hamas and Saudi Arabia has worsened in the past 3 years. As a result, Hamas has lost several of its international supporters. In this sense, Hamas’ rapprochement with Iran represents a way how the group can maintain its hold over the Gaza Strip with foreign support. Owing to the growing tensions with Israel, finding powerful supporters abroad is becoming a pressing matter.

Nevertheless, the ongoing economic crisis in Iran, made worse by U.S. sanctions, presents an immense challenge to the ambitions of the Iranian regime in the region. To improve its chances of partially overcoming its economic isolation, president Hassan Rouhani’s government has proposed legislation to meet the demands of the Financial Action Task Force, an international organization founded by the G7 to monitor money laundering and financing of international terrorist groups. Iran has until February 2019 to pass the bills, which are currently being opposed by hardliners and in limbo.

But if the proposed legislation is adopted it is clear that the future of Iran’s relations with groups designated as terrorist will become more problematic.

Isfahan's Conservative Ayatollah Says 'No Water, No Taxes'

Ayatollah Yousef Tabatabaei Nezhad

In an unprecedented comment, the Friday Prayer Leader of Isfahan, central Iran, has suggested that paying taxes to the government should be "conditional".

"The amount of tax paid by the people of Isfahan is equal to the amount of the tax paid by the people of eleven small provinces of Iran; therefore, if the government expects to receive tax from Isfahanis, it should spend it where the tax comes from", asserted Ayatollah Yousef Tababaei-Nezhad.

Meanwhile, Tabatabaei-Nezhad, who is directly appointed by the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called upon the representatives of Isfahan to Majles (parliament) to reconsider their recent decision to boycott attending the parliament sessions.

Nineteen MPs from Isfahan province refused to attend a parliamentary session last Sunday, December 16, to protest President Hassan Rouhani's failure in keeping its promise to revive Isfahan's lifeline, Zayandeh Rood river, which has recently been dried up.

The MPs are also protesting the elimination of money allocated to water projects in Isfahan from the next year budget.

In this July 10, 2018 photo, the Zayandeh Rood river no longer runs under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol bridge, named for its 33 arches, in Isfahan, Iran.
In this July 10, 2018 photo, the Zayandeh Rood river no longer runs under the 400-year-old Si-o-seh Pol bridge, named for its 33 arches, in Isfahan, Iran.

Isfahan has witnesses large and at times violent protests this year by farmers who have been deprived of their traditional water resources.

Speaking at last Friday Prayer ceremony, Ayatollah Tabatabaei-Nezhad defended the MPs position, insisting, "We supported them for they have relayed the voice of the people of Isfahan to the authorities, and ultimately, it led the president to issue an executive order for the establishment of the Zayandeh Rud river revival headquarters."

Furthermore, Tabatabaei-Nezhad reiterated that the newly established headquarters will address the problem of water shortage that tens of thousands of farmers in eastern parts of Isfahan are suffering from.

Presenting the new headquarters as "cure-all medicine" for Isfahan's tribulations, the hardline Ayatollah said, addressing the problem of water shortage will also lead to setting up the infrastructure needed for promoting tourism in Isfahan.

"Allocating the tax paid by the people of Isfahan to local projects will reactivate all industries, whereas we are currently witnessing their day-by day downfall," Tabatabaei-Nezhad lamented.

Earlier in 2016, the black-turbaned Ayatollah had claimed that the act of women taking pictures of themselves by Zayandeh Rood river was sin that contributed to water drying up.

Isfahan has been recently the scene of widespread demonstrations against transferring water from the province's resources to the neighboring areas.

In a report published on March 11, the state-run news agency, Mehr, quoted ultraconservative MP Hassan Kamran-Dastjerdi as complaining about the government diverting water from Isfahan to a neighboring province. He noted that the farmers, who had been working on the land along the Zayandeh Rood river for centuries, are frustrated with the government’s water mismanagement.

In an unprecedented move on March 16, frustrated farmers stormed the city of Isfahan Friday Prayer's compound and turned their backs to the podium in an expression of anger and dissatisfaction.

Video footage of the protests also showed the farmers chanting, “Turning our backs to the enemy, our faces to the motherland.”

Protesting farmers also slammed President Hassan Rouhani and the state-run Radio and TV with a series of vitriolic slogans, citing mismanagement of water resources.

The farmers' protests against drought and water mismanagement have frequently led to violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces.

Moreover, farmers from eastern parts of Isfahan have repeatedly smashed the pipes transferring water to Yazd, engaging in bloody clashes with security forces.

MPs Criticize Government For Neglecting Alarming Deforestation

Iran -- Zagros oak forests are dying in Iran, Dashte Barm

A local MP from western Iran and nine other members of the Iranian parliament have officially accused President Hassan Rouhani and Islamic Republic officials of neglecting the "tragedy" of deforestation in Western Iran.

Jalal Mahmoudzadeh who represents the western city of Mehabad has also criticized the Environment and Natural Resources Protection Agency for remaining silent on the issue of alarming deforestation in the Zagros mountain range area, the state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) reported.

"Immediately after the implementation of 'breathing' project – a project to allow forests to regenerate by not utilizing their resources for some time - in recent months, cutting down the trees in Zagros mountains and exploiting other forests in western Iran has once again sharply escalated," Mahmoudzadeh has lamented, adding, "The logs are mainly smuggled out of Iran feeding paper plants in neighboring countries, lining the pockets of the brokers."

Zagros forests begin in the northwestern province of West Azarbaijan, by the Zagros mountain range (with 1600 km, roughly 1,000 miles length) and extend to southern Fars province. The forests extend to eleven provinces, covering an area of some six million hectares which is 40% of the country’s forest area.

Iranian experts and NGOs have long been warning against rapid deforestation in the area, almost 70% covered by different species of rare old oak trees.

A shocking report was aired by the state-run TV Friday night, April 6, showed the illegal logging activities in Zagros oak forests in Fars Province and selling the od precious timbers at unbelievably low prices.

The report highlighted the lack of manpower for preserving the forest against offenders who were seen cutting trees during the night, attacking the reporter and his crew, and injuring one person.

Wood cutting and smuggling in Zagros ranges appear to be an organized activity. “We first thought that offenders perform individually but later found out that they are professional groups,” said Mehrzad Boustani, the director of Fars province’s natural resources organization.

Meanwhile, almost half of the oak trees in the forest areas of western Ilam and Kohgiluyeh-Boyer-Ahmad provinces are suffering from the charcoal disease which can ultimately destroy the whole forest, said Omid Sajjadian, a board member of ‘Zagros green movement’ environmental group.

Charcoal disease outbreak started some seven years ago and has turned to a major outbreak in the forest, ISNA cited Sajjadian as saying on Saturday, April 5.

As Iranian phytopathologist Ms. Mansoureh Mirabolfathi notes in a scientific paper, the long-lasting drought in the region combined with sand and dust storms has reduced the photosynthesis of the forest trees and making them more vulnerable to the disease, the Tehran Times reported on April 8.

Illegal logging can be regarded as one of the main causes of deforestation in the world and in Iran.

The fine for cutting each oak tree is 4 million rials (roughly $80) while the value of each tree is estimated to be 20 million rials ($400), the report highlights.

Generally, it takes ten years for one-centimeter growth of the oak tree diameter. And some of the trees in this forest are more than 400 years old.

Arab Media Press Review

Yemen -- A Yemeni man reads a newspaper in the southern Yemeni city of Aden, April 10, 2016

On December 13, a cease-fire was agreed for the port city of Hodayda (Hodeidah) in Yemen. The cease-fire came after the parties in Yemen’s civil war came to an agreement mediated by the United Nations. In an op-ed by Emirati newspaper Al Bayan, the newspaper cites the importance of international cooperation to maintain peace in Yemen, as the Iranian-backed Houthi militias are known for overturning the government and destabilizing the country. Al Bayan also says Iran must accept the cease-fire not because of pressure from foreign countries but rather the military efforts by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The cease-fire was reportedly broken on December 18, and each side of the conflict blamed the other. It is expected to be in place again once UN troops arrive. Pro-Houthi activist Hussain al Bukhaiti tells Al Jazeera that the peace agreement is deeply flawed because it does not allow the port to function. Bukhaiti argues that since Hodayda is one of the main sources of humanitarian aid arriving in Yemen, it should continue to function due to the ongoing famine that has gripped the country despite being held by Houthi rebels.

On December 12, Saudi Arabia announced the formation of a Red Sea and Gulf of Adan alliance that will include the countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Djibouti, Yemen, Somalia, and Jordan. The purpose of this alliance, supervised by the Arab League, is to ensure cooperation between the counties in diplomacy, trade and security, and improve relations with non-Arab countries on the Red Sea like Ethiopia, which controls Bab el Mandab, and Israel.

The Red Sea holds strategic importance for the security of many Arab countries, as 20 percent of global trade and 30 percent of the world’s oil pass through its waters. In terms of security, cooperation among Arab states will help curb pollution and illegal immigration and create opportunities to utilize the islands on the Red Sea. According to Al Jazeera, this alliance aims to let Saudi Arabia develop the Red Sea region and diversify its economy away from the oil sector.

On December 18, the UN special envoy to Syria met with the foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Russia in Geneva to form a new Syrian constitutional committee. The committee will include 150 members: 50 from the Syrian government, 50 from the Syrian Opposition, and 50 from the UN committee.

Despite long negotiations, the three countries failed to reach an agreement. In a joint statement, the Russian foreign minister delivered the outcome of the meeting. According to Al Jazeera Qatari News Agency, the statement made no mention of the panel’s composition, which hints at disagreements over candidates for the committee by the Syrian government and the opposition. The Turkish government openly resents Syrian President Bashar Al Assad; last year, Turkish President Erdogan called him a terrorist.

According to the Egyptian Al Ahram newspaper, the Islamic Republic of Iran News Agency released a statement by Iranian Foreign Ministry Bahram Ghasemi in which he insists the Iranian government believes that any Turkish military operation in Syria must first be run by Al Assad. He also stated that this matter would “negatively affect the Syrian peace progress that Iran, Turkey, and Russia have been working on.”

Afghan President Says Possible U.S. Troop Withdrawal Won't Affect Security

U.S. media report President Donald Trump is considering a significant troop withdrawal fro m Afghanistan.

A significant reduction in the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan won't impact upon the security of the war-torn country, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani said on December 21.

It was the first official Afghan reaction to reports in the U.S. media that President Donald Trump is considering a "significant" withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, with some quoting unnamed officials as saying the decision has already been made.

"If they withdraw from Afghanistan it will not have a security impact because in the last four and a half years the Afghans have been in full control," Ghani's spokesman, Haroon Chakhansuri, said via social media.

The Wall Street Journal on December 20 quoted an unnamed senior U.S. official as saying that Trump “wants to see viable options about how to bring conflicts to a close.”

The AFP news agency quoted a U.S. official as saying the decision has already been made for a “significant” U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"That decision has been made. There will be a significant withdrawal," AFP quoted the official as saying.

CNN also reported that Trump has already ordered the military to make plans for a withdrawal of perhaps half of the current 14,000-strong force.

The reports came a day after Trump surprised and angered many U.S. lawmakers, administration officials, and international allies by saying he was pulling “all” U.S. troops out of Syria, where they are leading a multinational coalition backing local forces in the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants.

It also came shortly before Trump announced that his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, would be leaving his post at the end of February. U.S. media are reporting that Mattis opposed Trump's move to withdraw from Syria. In his resignation letter, Mattis said his views were not fully "aligned" with those of the president.

The WSJ report also cited a figure of about 7,000 troops, while those by AFP and Reuters did not specify a time frame or provide further details on numbers of troops. The Pentagon declined to comment.

A U.S.-led coalition has been in Afghanistan since 2001, when it drove the Taliban from power after Al-Qaeda militants -- whose leaders were being sheltered in Afghanistan -- carried out the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

However, the Western-backed government in Kabul has struggled to counter attacks from the Taliban and other militant groups since the withdrawal of most NATO combat troops in 2014.

U.S. officials have been attempting to push the Taliban to the negotiating table with the government in Kabul. Many Taliban leaders insist that U.S. forces depart before substantial peace talks can take place.

A Huge Mistake

Mohammad Taqi, a Florida-based political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that a rapid U.S. withdrawal would be “a huge mistake.”

“If we look at it in context of talks with the Taliban, then it seems Taliban have already strengthened their position. Now the reports of [a U.S. withdrawal] show a weakening stance by the U.S., which could subsequently undermine Afghan government’s position.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan, on December 20 questioned the Taliban's determination to end the 17-year war after the group's representatives refused to meet with an Afghan government-backed negotiating team.

Khalilzad said that, while he was certain the Afghan government wanted to end the conflict, it was unclear whether the Taliban were "genuinely seeking peace."

Khalilzad's remarks came following his latest face-to-face meeting earlier this week with the Taliban, which was held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and was also attended by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The U.A.E. hailed the talks as "positive for all parties concerned," while the Saudi ambassador to Washington, Khalid bin Salman, claimed the meetings will produce "very positive results by the beginning of next year."

Meanwhile, Trump defended his unexpected decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, a move met with concern by members of the anti-Islamic State coalition but was lauded by Russia.

Trump said in several tweets early on December 20 that his decision was in line with his promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to withdraw from Syria.

He said the United States should not become "the Policeman of the Middle East," and it was "time for others to finally fight."

With reporting by The Wall Street Journal and Reuters

Outspoken MP Accuses Conservative Body Of Trying To Be A Senate

Outspoken, social conservative deputy speaker of parliament Ali Motahari, who has been battling Iranian Supreme Leader's allies on every turn.

The outspoken deputy speaker of Iran's parliament has once again accused an influential conservative arbitration body of overstepping its legal authority and interfering in legislative procedures.

Ali Motahari has lambasted the Expediency Discernment Council for its role in blocking the passage of President Hassan Rouhani's four proposals collectively known as the "Palermo Bills" in Iran, adding that the arbitration council is “dreaming of becoming the Senate”.

The Palermo Bills, if adopted, would pave the way for the country to meet the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) requirements -- as well as those of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), Convention against Funding Terrorism (CFT), and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes -- in the hope of reducing international pressure on Iran’s deteriorating economy.

Nevertheless, the bills have triggered a series of heated debates and disputes between Majles (parliament) and the Guardian Council (GC).

Based on the Islamic Republic Constitution, all bills and parliamentary motions passed in Majles (parliament) should be endorsed by the GC “to ensure the compatibility” of laws with “Islam and the Constitution”. If the GC demanded amendments in draft laws, parliament might obey or refer the disputed bills and motions to the EDC for arbitration. Then, the decision of EDC would be final.

Currently, the fate of the Palermo Bills is in the hands of EDC, which is supposed to issue a verdict for or against one of the two sides.

Nevertheless, Ali Motahari believes that the EDC has overstepped its authority by independently amending the Palermo bills.

The EDC's public relations office recently announced that the council had amended one of the disputed bills.

Ali Motahari immediately lambasted the announcement on his Instagram account, describing it as "not convincing, and an excuse even worse than the sin".

Tehran's MP who is notorious for not mincing his words, demanded, "In what capacity, and based on which Articles of the Constitution, the EDC has given itself the authority to amend the legislation?"

Article 112 of the Islamic Republic's Constitution, Motahari has argued, "explicitly stipulates that the role of the EDC is limited to arbitration between Majles and the Guardian Council."

Therefore, Motahari has gone further to say the EDC has no right to amend a governmental bill or parliamentary motion.

Referring to the chairman of the EDC, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, who is on leave of absence for medical treatment, Motahari said on his Instagram account, "Apparently, in the absence of their chairman, a number of the EDC members have grabbed the chance to dream about turning the council into a Senate."

However, the dream will never come true unless the country's constitution changed, he retorted.

Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has given Tehran until February to either endorse UNTOC or be added to its blacklist of countries refusing to cooperate in the fight against money laundering and financing terrorism. The International Monetary Fund is urging Tehran to endorse the bills.

Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also urged Tehran to endorse the bills, implicitly warning that, if not, it will meet more hurdles in its global banking transactions.

Iran and North Korea are the only countries on the FATF blacklist, but the Paris-based organization has suspended countermeasures against Tehran while it works on reforms.

MP Calls For Probe Following Political Prisoner’s Death

The funeral of Vahid Sayyadi Nasiri, a political prisoner who died in a prison in Qom after a hunger strike.

A representative of the city of Tehran in the Iranian Parliament has officially demanded that the justice and intelligence ministers explain the reasons behind the arrest, and ultimate death, of a political prisoner behind bars.

In two separate letters addressed to Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi and Justice Minister Alireza Avaei, the chairman of the parliament's Culture Commission, Ahmad Mazani, asked them to explain why Vahid Sayadi Nasiri was detained and how he died.

Iranian political activist Sayadi Nasiri died after weeks of being on a hunger strike at a prison in Qom, 127 kilometers (79 miles) south of the capital city, Tehran.

His sister, Elaheh Sayadi Nasiri, told Radio Farda's Mahtab Vahid-Rad that the authorities contacted the family on December 12 instructing them to go to Behesht-Masoumeh Cemetery in Qom to receive his body.

"Protesting the situation of prisoners in Qom, my brother had gone on hunger strike and demanded to be returned to the political ward at Tehran's Evin Prison," she said.

Sayadi Nasiri went on hunger strike in late October to protest being locked up with “ordinary criminals,” in violation of Iran’s regulations on separation of inmates.

Days after his death, the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) cited an "informed authority" as saying that the political prisoner belonged to a militant exiled group.

The news agency said Sayadi Nasiri was a member of the Tondar group and arrested for planning malign operations against the establishment in Iran.
Sayadi Nasiri's relatives and human rights activists have dismissed the accusations as fake and unfounded.

At least four other prisoners have mysteriously died in the past year in Iran. Investigations into their deaths have led to no conclusions so far.

The Iranian authorities, as a rule, attribute such deaths to suicide. In Sayadi Nasiri's case, Qom Prosecutor Mehdi Kaheh claimed the 37-year-old activist suffered from liver malfunction and died of related causes nine days after being taken to a hospital.

"What worries the public and their representatives to parliament is the repetition of such unpleasant incidents," mid-ranking cleric Mazani wrote to the two ministers. "Therefore, for the sake of informing people and eliminating ambiguities, firstly, make public the legal evidence and the reasons for arresting Vahid Sayadi Nasiri; secondly, disclose his cause of death, whether he died on hunger strike or because of a disease or other factors. Thirdly, report on possible negligence of the prison authorities in looking after the prisoners."

The ministers have not yet responded.

Iranian prosecutors and prison authorities hold little accountability to an independent body, especially when it comes to cases of political detainees.

Deaths in prison are rarely investigated in a transparent manner, and relatives and defense lawyers are usually kept in the dark.

Sayadi Nasiri was initially arrested in September 2015 and sentenced to eight years on charges of insulting religious sanctities including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and propaganda against the state on his Facebook account.

Benefiting from an Iranian New Year pardon, he was released last March after spending two and a half years behind bars.

However, his release was short-lived, and intelligence agents in Qom arrested him again for the same charges in August.
Iran is routinely criticized by all major international human rights groups for gross violations of civil rights and individual rights of dissidents.

On December 17, French authorities called for "light to be shed" on the death of Sayadi Nasiri.

The French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it had learned "with consternation of the death in detention" of Sayadi Nasiri, saying he had been imprisoned "for his political activity.”

France's statement added that the death of Sayadi Nasiri, who was not well-known among activists in Iran, comes at a time of "mounting harassment of human rights defenders in Iran."

Earlier, the United States had also condemned Tehran for the “unconscionable” death of Sayadi Nasiri.

In a statement on December 13, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said Sayadi Nasiri, who died on December 12, had been “arbitrarily detained” by Iranian authorities after his arrest four months ago.
The State Department statement said he was “just one of many more unjustly detained prisoners held at the mercy of the Iranian regime’s whims.”

Financial Transparency Bills 'Contradict Constitution' - Watchdog Official

Mohsen Reazaei speaking on December 17, 2018.

The secretary of a powerful watchdog body in Iran has said that financial transparency bills proposed by President Hassan Rouhani's administration are somewhat against the Islamic Republic's constitution and long-term general policies.

Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of Expedience Discernment Council (EDC), said December 17 in Tehran that three out of four Palermo Bills go against the country's constitution and long-term high policies, but did not specify the points of contradiction

Meanwhile, an MP believes that the EDC has killed the spirit of the bills.

Rouhani's proposals collectively known as the "Palermo Bills" in Iran, if adopted, would pave the way for the country to meet FATF requirements -- as well as those of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT), and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes -- in the hope of reducing international pressure on Iran’s deteriorating economy.

Originally proposed in November 2017, the bills have met with staunch resistance from hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who says the agreements were “cooked up” by foreign enemies.

Rezaei is a former senior IRGC commander and a trusted person of the Supreme leader.

The fate of the bills, already passed by parliament and amended according to the Guardian Council (GC) demands, are currently in the hands of EDC which has the final say.

Based on the Islamic Republic Constitution, all bills and parliamentary motions passed in Majles (parliament) should be endorsed by the GC. If the GC demanded amendments in the draft laws, parliament might obey or refer the disputed bills and motions to the EDC for arbitration. Then, the decision of EDC would be final.

While the fate of the Palermo Bills is not yet decided, several mid-ranking clergies, who are appointed by the Islamic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Friday Prayer Leaders across Iran, have openly attacked the bills, describing them as "against national interests".

In the meantime, a pro-reform MP, Mohammad Javad Fathi believes that the EDC has amended the Palermo Bills in a way that it has killed the spirit of President Rouhani's proposals.

The amendments make combatting money laundering practically impossible, Fathi has lamented, adding that the amended version might not meet FATF's demands and expectations.

Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has given Tehran until February to either endorse UNTOC or be added to its blacklist of countries refusing to cooperate in the fight against money laundering and financing terrorism. The International Monetary Fund is urging Tehran to endorse the bills.

Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also urged Tehran to endorse the bills, implicitly warning that, if not, it will meet more hurdles in its global banking transactions.

President Rouhani has also personally defended his plan to join international anti-money laundering conventions such as FATF.

“Without cooperation with foreign banks, the cost of living would be 20 percent higher. Passing FATF bills mean costs would decrease 20 percent,” Rouhani said on December 10 at a meeting with officials from the Roads and Urban Development Ministry, reported official news agency IRNA.

“It is not acceptable that some organizations come up with rhetoric (against passing such bills) without telling people the consequences of not doing so,” he added.

“Is it possible to not work with foreign banks today?” Rouhani asked, adding that some people are creating propaganda against the issue and saying signing the convention would lead to a weakening of Islam. “If they understood Islam, they wouldn’t say that,” he added.

The opponents are mainly Friday Prayer leaders, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders, and other conservative allies of Khamenei’s. They argue that passing the bills will threaten Iran’s security, whereas analysts say the real fear in circles loyal to the Supreme Leader is that adhering to rules for financial transparency would prevent Tehran from funding the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas militant groups.

While the heated debate over the bills is still going on, the Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh has insisted the probability of approving FATF related and money laundering bills is high.

The senior MP went on to say that he was present at the EDC's Saturday session which was dedicated to reviewing the bills, adding that the council is following the bills "seriously".

Iran and North Korea are the only countries on the FATF blacklist, but the Paris-based organization has suspended countermeasures against Tehran while it works on reforms.

Khamenei's Man Asks When Is Europe Going To Help Iran

Former nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, during a meeting in the Iranian Parliament to review Iran nuclear deal, on September 07, 2015.

A former Iranian nuclear official and a confidant of Iran’s Supreme Leader has attacked the policy of relying on Europe to help Iran in trade, essentially circumventing U.S. sanctions.

Saeed Jalili, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s representative to the influential Expediency Discerning Council (EDC) said, "After seven long months, are the Western Europeans going to run the SPV and save the [nuclear] deal or not?"

Jalili was referring to a mechanism designed by EU to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive after Washington dropped it last May.

The Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) is expected to act as a kind of clearinghouse that could be used to help match Iranian oil and gas exports against purchases of EU goods in an effective barter arrangement. However, no EU country has so far come forward as a potential host - delaying the plans.

"Do not keep Iran inactive, waiting to see whether a handful of European governments will register SPV, or not," Jalili told a gathering at Sharif University in Tehran on Monday.

He also attacked President Hassan Rouhani’s administration for pushing Iran to adopt laws against money laundering and financing terrorism. "Hopefully you (President Hassan Rouhani and his cabinet) have concluded that the West is not the whole world. Therefore, do not argue that Iran should endorse an international convention for the appeasement of a handful of western governments."

Jalili, who as the secretary of the Islamic Republic's Supreme National Security Council (2007-2013) led the Iranian team in its nuclear negotiations with world powers, was referring to four bills (collectively known as the Palermo Bills) recently proposed by the Iranian government.

Rouhani's proposals, if adopted, would pave the way for the country to meet FATF requirements -- as well as those of the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC), Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT), and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes -- in the hope of reducing international pressure on Iran’s deteriorating economy.

Nevertheless, the bills have triggered a series of heated debates and disputes across Iran, and now it is up to EDC to decide their fate.

Meanwhile, EU's hesitation in implementing the SPV has once again set the scene for the conservative allies of Ayatollah Khamenei to renew their attacks on Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA) or the 2015 nuclear agreement.

Jalil also asserted, "Did (the US Secretary of State John) Kerry's signature guarantee JCPOA, or not? Is JCPOA a shining sun, or a switched off lamp? Has there ever been a rational deal where one side respects all its commitments, while the other turns the tables?"

However, Jalili, whose doctoral thesis is entitled "The Foreign Policy of Prophet Muhammad", did not mention the fact that his successor in nuclear talks, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led the Iranian team more successfully, neutralizing four UN resolutions against Iran, through talks that led to JCPOA, ending most of the crippling international sanctions, at least until May 2018 when President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of JCPOA.

Iran Hackers Targeted Nuclear Scientists, U.S. Officials

A photo released in Iran showing IRGC hackers in an unknown location. Undated

According to a cyber security research lab Certfa Iran backed hackers targeted U.S. government officials, think-tank employees and nuclear scientists around the world.

The hackers used sophisticated "Phishing attacks through email or social media and messaging accounts of public figures.” The attackers allegedly also managed to breach two-factor authentication.

According at an AP report Certfa managed to extract a partial list of 77 Yahoo and Gmail addresses accidentally left by hackers on one of their servers.

Certfa researchers allege that the hacking group Charming Kitten is behind this attack because "domain names and servers of this campaign are very similar to the methods" of Charming Kitten. Although the group used Virtual Private Networks to mask their locations Certfa says they managed to trace some of the IP address to Iran.

The list of 77 emails was discovered in November but there are no details as to when the scheme took place. It seems that the hacking goes back to the Obama years, but it is not clear when it ended or if it continued until recently.

Allison Wikoff a researcher at Atlanta-based Secureworks who previously also covered the Iran backed “Mia Ash” campaign came to the same conclusion about the origins of this campaign.

The hackers mimicked the look of login pages of Yahoo and Gmail. Crafting careful spear phishing emails they directed the victims to these pages.

Using the services of Google Sites the hackers were able to give an impression that the users were really on a Google or Yahoo website. Using embedded images in emails the group was able to follow in real time if a user clicked on an email.

This way they were also able the overcome the two-factor authentication security method. When user sent for the authentication password he was directed to another fake site which looked exactly like a Yahoo or Gmail site to enter this code.

Certfa Visual Of Sites Used In Iran Hacking Scheme
Certfa Visual Of Sites Used In Iran Hacking Scheme

Nuclear scientist of Pakistan’s Ministry of Defense, a senior employee of the Research and Training Reactor in Jordan and high-ranking scientist from Syria were also revealed to be targeted.

According to AP, Guy Roberts the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs was one of the U.S. officials targeted.

The group also targeted staff of the National Security Council and former Obama officials that were connected to the Iran-Nuclear negotiations. Thirteen U.S. Treasury officials, including the director of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network which tracks terror financing was also among the targets.

In March of 2018 the Department of Justice issued indictments for nine Iranians for conducting a “massive cyber theft campaign” for the IRGC. Another two indictments were issued in the case of Iranians in ransomware scheme in November which targeted computer systems at hospitals in the United States. Iran has denied charges of the being engaged malicious hacking.

Source: Certfa, AP

Deceased Political Prisoner Is Now Accused Of Terrorism

Iranian prisoner of conscience, Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, who died after a hunger strike in Qom prison on December 12, 2018.

A political prisoner who recently died in custody is now being accused of belonging to a militant exiled group, according to state-run ISNA, citing an "informed authority".

The news agency says that Vahid Sayadi Nasiri was a member of the Tondar group and arrested for "planning malign operations [against the establishment] in Iran."

Tondar, or the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, also known as Soldiers of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, is reportedly a militant Iranian exile royalist group seeking to overthrow the ruling government and restore the Iranian monarchy. The group is banned in Iran. Tondar, a name that means 'thunder' in Persian, is not on the U.S. terrorist watch list.

Although it has been described as "a little-known exile group" by the Guardian's Robert Tait in 2009, Tondar has made several headlines in recent years. The group was founded by a London-based former movie dubber, Fathollah Manoucheri aka Forood Fouladvand, who has reportedly been missing since January 2007 while visiting Turkey.

Speaking to Radio Farda's Farhang Ghavimi, Fouladvand's son, Keyanoush, said in June 2008 that his father was kidnapped in an Iranian border area by Iranian intelligence agents on January 17, 2007.

Vahid Sayadi Nasiri, 37, was initially arrested in September 2015 and sentenced to eight years on charges of insulting religious sanctities, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and propaganda against the state on his Facebook account and sentenced to an eight year prison term.

Benefiting from an Iranian New Year pardon, he was released last March after spending two and a half years behind bars.

However, his release was short-lived, and intelligence department agents in the city of Qom, 127 kilometers (79 miles) south of Tehran, arrested him again in August.

Nasiri went on a hunger strike in late October to protest being locked up with "ordinary criminals," which he said violates Iran's regulations on the principle of separation of inmates.

Although Nasiri's relatives insist he died after 60 days of hunger strike, Qom Prosecutor Mehdi Kaheh has claimed the activist suffered from liver malfunction and died of related causes nine days after being taken to a hospital.

Citing its unnamed source, ISNA reported, "After being released, Vahid Sayadi Nasiri started cooperating with the Tondar terrorist group under assumed names, Arash Sayadi and Shapour Zolaktaf, and was later arrested for planning bomb attacks in the city of Qom."

ISNA's source also claimed Tondar was responsible for the 2008 Shiraz explosion at the Hosseynieh Seyed al-Shohada in which 14 people, including children, were killed and more than 200 injured.

Mohammad-Reza Ali-Zamani and Arash Rahmanipour, accused by the government of being members of the assembly, were arrested and tried for the bombing. In January 2010, they were executed for moharebeh, or "waging war against God", and attempting to overthrow the Islamic regime.

Nonetheless, the group's members have repeatedly denied they are a terrorist organization involved in attacks in Iran.

Iran is routinely criticized by all major international human rights groups for gross violations of civil rights and individual rights of dissidents.

The United States has condemned Tehran for the “unconscionable” death of Nasiri, who had been jailed for messages he wrote on social media.

In a statement on December 13, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said Nasiri, who died on December 12, had been “arbitrarily detained” by Iranian authorities after his arrest four months ago.

The State Department statement said he was “just one of many more unjustly detained prisoners held at the mercy of the Iranian regime’s whims.”

Prominent Rights Lawyer To Be Tried By Controversial Judge

Iranian rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been persecuted by the Islamic Republic for the past almost for a decade.

The bill of indictment against prominent Iranian lawyer and civil rights activist Nasrin Sotoudeh has been delivered to the Revolutionary Court, her attorney, Payam Derafshan, disclosed on December 15.

Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, head of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, is expected to preside over Sotoudeh's hearing.

However, Moghiseh is the same judge who was sued by Sotoudeh's lawyers Derafshan and Mohammad Moghimi last September.

The lawyers filed a lawsuit against Moghiseh accusing him of unlawful sentencing and displaying a lack of impartiality in their client’s case.

Derafshan published details of the lawsuit on his Instagram account on September 29.

His post stated that in 2015, Moghiseh sentenced Sotoudeh to five years in prison for espionage even though she was on trial for propaganda against the state, which carries a maximum one-year prison sentence. Even if she had committed espionage, the maximum penalty for that charge is three years in prison, noted the lawyers, according to the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

Derafshan said there are only two cases against his client. One is related to a complaint tabled by an interrogating judge in the city of Kashan and the other to Sotoudeh's membership in LEGAM, a group whose Persian acronym stands for banning the death penalty step by step.

Moghiseh sentenced Sotoudeh in absentia to five years’ imprisonment in a legal case incompatible with the indictments issued against her, Derafshan said.

Sotoudeh was originally charged with insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Derafshan noted. "But the head of Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran has issued a verdict that is exclusively for criminals suspected of espionage."

The lawyers protested the verdict, but Moghiseh announced that from the court's point of view, the charge against Soutodeh was espionage.

Sotoudeh, 55, has represented imprisoned Iranian opposition activists and politicians following the controversial June 2009 Iranian presidential elections as well as prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors.

Her clients have included Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and anti-compulsory hijab activists known as the Girls of Revolution Street.

Since December 2017, scores of Iranian women have been arrested for peacefully protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law by removing and waving their headscarves on busy streets. At least three of the women have been officially charged for acts of civil disobedience.

Sotoudeh was first arrested in September 2010 on charges of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security and was imprisoned in solitary confinement at Evin Prison. In January 2011, Iranian authorities sentenced her to 11 years in prison, in addition to barring her from practicing law and from leaving the country for 20 years. An appeals court later reduced the prison sentence to six years and her ban from working as a lawyer to 10 years. The Iranian Bar Association allowed Sotoudeh to represent suspects in cases not directly related to political charges or the country's security affairs.

After being released in September 2013, she was arrested again on June 13.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Iranian authorities have escalated their crackdown on lawyers. Over the past month, Revolutionary Courts have sentenced at least three lawyers to long prison terms for human rights activism and security forces have arrested another lawyer, HRW said in a statement on December 13.

“Now Iran is not only arresting dissidents, human rights defenders, and labor leaders but their lawyers as well, criminalizing their fundamental freedoms,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at HRW. “Lawyers should be the cornerstone of protecting the rights of the accused, but in Iran, they are just another enemy of repressive authorities.”

Fertile Soil Being Smuggled Out Of Iran On Large Scale

Tea farm in semi-tropical Gilan Province, Iran

For the first time, an Iranian environmental official has admitted that fertile soil from farms and pastures is being smuggled abroad.

The director-general of the Department of Environment's (DoE) Office of Water and Soil in Iran, Ali Moridi however insists that the smuggling is relatively controlled.

Although it is the first time that an Iranian government official explicitly admits Iranian fertile soil is smuggled out of the country in recent years, several social media reports had raised the alarm in recent years about smuggling on a massive scale.

In the past, footage of digging and collecting Iranian agriculture soil to be smuggled out were widely circulated on the social media.

Nevertheless, the authorities have dismissed past reports as "fake news" and totally unfounded.

After controversy broke out, there were further reports on social media, claiming that to cover-up smuggling fertile soil, it is sold to UAE and other Arab states south of the Persian Gulf in flower pots, registered as "flower export".

The reports were so rife that a member of Majles (Islamic Parliament) Agriculture Commission called upon DoE officials last March to seriously look into the claims.

Nonetheless, DoE never responded to the demand, at least publicly.

"Smuggling Iranian farm and pasture soil started in early 2000 (during the second term of pro-reform Mohammad Khatami's presidency) and has since continued," Moridi told the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), without disclosing who is behind the smuggling or how it is done.

The soil smuggled, Moridi noted, is mainly from southern parts of Iran, including the province of Fars.

"The principal destination of smuggled Iranian soil is the littoral states of the Persian Gulf, particularly United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar," Moridi maintained, adding, "Iranian soil is used for building artificial islands in UAE, and drying up the sea in Qatar."

Moridi's comments are published at a time that an official of DoE, Mohammad Darvish says Soil erosion in Iran is so high that it is costing the country $56 billion every year.

Critics say that is hard to believe such large volume smuggling can be done without Iran's security agencies knowing about it. Why is it being tolerated, is anybody's guess but for many Iranians it is easy to suspect Iranian officials and even the military to be involved.

On average, soil erosion in Iran is three times more than other Asian countries, and it is one of the highest in the world, the Tehran Times cited Darvish as saying.

"This is while hundreds of thousands of Iranians lost their lives during an eight-year war [1980-1988 Iraq-Iran war] to safeguard the soil, but they are now losing equal to Lesser Tunb [a disputed island in the Persian Gulf] every year only because of adopting wrong policies," Darvish has lamented.

The head of Iran's Society of Soil Sciences also says, two billion tons of Iranian fertile soil is lost annually through erosion leaving the country with $56 billion damage each year.

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

The soil is more important than water because 200 to 1,000 years are required to form soil, but there are some ways to turn saline water into fresh water, Darvish has pointed out.

About 10% of the land in Iran is arable.

Rich fertile soil (or good dirt) may become more important to land values than oil or minerals in the ground, experts say. Some even have gone further by saying that it is already a strategic asset on par with oil. Lennart Bage, a development expert and head of Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency believes, “Now fertile land with access to water has become a strategic asset.”

Prince Reza Pahlavi's Remarks At The Washington Institute

Washington - Prince Reza Pahlavi speaking at the Washington Institute. Dec. 14, 2018

I’m very happy to be here today and I express my gratitude to the Washington Institute for hosting this discussion. Organizations like the Washington Institute continue to play a critical role in advancing scholarship and understanding regarding the modern Middle East. Their contributions to the formulation of foreign policy can be particularly meaningful, especially during the more sensitive or turbulent periods in our region’s history.

I would like to begin by invoking a popular protest slogan that is heard often these days in universities, factories, mosques and streets across Iran. I quote my compatriots: “Our enemy is right here; they lie when they say it’s America.” Perhaps no other rallying cry communicates more effectively Iran’s wholesale rejection of the Islamic Republic.

From its inception in 1979, the Islamic Republic sought to subvert Iran in order to advance its own ideological, economic and security interests. It changed our centuries-old flag and suppressed our ancient traditions. It purged our universities and persecuted or killed our artists. It institutionalized inequality and discrimination based on religion and gender. It destroyed the very soil, air and water that comprises Iran in the physical sense. And it plundered, voraciously, stealing our people’s private property, appropriating major Iranian businesses and siphoning off revenue from trade in our natural resources.

Washington - Prince Reza Pahlavi at the Washington Institute. December 14, 2016
Washington - Prince Reza Pahlavi at the Washington Institute. December 14, 2016

With wealth taken from the Iranian people, the regime worked to spread its brand of hate and destruction throughout our region and to cause instability and conflict worldwide. It established paramilitary organizations and other non-state actors to serve as proxies for the destabilization and subversion of our neighbors. It threatened the world with weapons of mass destruction. It fomented and prolonged sinister wars that have left hundreds of thousands of Muslims dead and made millions of others refugees. And it both sponsored and conducted terrorism, killing countless innocents in the Middle East, Europe, South America and the United States. Thankfully, its two most recent known foreign terror attempts were uncovered and prevented in Europe.

The Islamic Republic took our land and our nation hostage. At least until now, it has survived, but only through fear, repression and violence. But Iran and Iranians have had enough. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and untold risks, the Iranian people have opened a new era of opposition to the regime. In towns and cities across Iran every day, they are confronting it tirelessly and courageously. Through public protests, labor strikes and innumerable acts of civil disobedience, they are expressing their rejection of its every principle, element and faction. They want their freedom, their dignity and their country back.

To the international community, the promise of my compatriots’ movement represents a historic opportunity to achieve an enduring solution to the numerous threats emanating from the Islamic Republic. In fact, this is an opportunity to transform the Middle East, because a democratic Iran will be representative of its people, and a representative Iran will be a very different force outside its borders. Consider whether a democratic Iran would promote Shiite revolutionary politics, prop up terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, Hamas or the Houthis, facilitate the shameful mass murdering of innocent Syrians or Yemenis, or threaten Israel with destruction. Of course not!

A representative Iranian government will reflect the culture of Iran and the feelings and aspirations of its people. Envision an Iran that works closely with its Arab neighbors to stamp out terrorism and extremism in the region; that welcomes Israeli scientists to help with its water crisis; that embraces American and European investment in the boundless potential of its economy; that shares its most brilliant minds with the great centers of learning and development in the West; that exports its dazzling art and beautiful music; and that honors its country’s spirit of love and tradition of friendship toward foreign nations.

Again, I point to the actions and words of my compatriots. In universities in Iran, students sidestep or leap over American and Israeli flags painted on the ground – this is both a remarkable rebuke toward the regime and a moving illustration of Iranian goodwill. In their protests, my compatriots chant: “Syria and Palestine are the reason for our misery”; “Leave Syria alone; think instead of conditions at home”; “Neither for Gaza, nor for Lebanon; I’ll die only for Iran”; and “We may die, we may die, but we will reclaim Iran”.

For almost 40 years, I have worked toward a single objective: a secular democratic Iran built upon the pillars of human rights and rule of law. I have insisted that the Islamic Republic poses an existential threat to Iran and its people, and that the Islamic Republic cannot be reformed. I have been steadfast in my belief that a secular democratic Iran may be achieved only through non-violent means. And I have been unwavering in my faith that the Iranian people can and will be the principal agents of change. But international attention and support remain critical.

Dr. Martin Luther King is one of my personal heroes. As I work to build international support for the Iranian people’s struggle, I often recall his famous covenant that “we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” In that vein, I want to make clear that the Iranian struggle should not be viewed through the prism of domestic partisan politics in this or any other democratic nation. This is a struggle about human dignity and liberation and it deserves equal and unqualified support across the democratic political spectrum.

At no time in its almost 40-year history has the Islamic Republic been as unpopular and vulnerable as it is today. Foreign policy toward Iran should be mindful of the reality that my compatriots are presently in the throes of a national struggle to reclaim Iran from the Islamic Republic. My focus is on guiding this process of change so that its outcome is secular, democratic and lasting.

The opinions expressed in these remarks are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda

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