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Opposition Leader In House Arrest Demands Khamenei Release Old Tape

Supporters of Iran's presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi standing by a burning vehicle during protests in Tehran, 19Jun2009

The leader of Iran's pro-reform "Green Movement" has challenged the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, by calling for the release of the uncensored video of their last meeting in 2009.

Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi (1981-1989), who has been under house arrest since 2011, was responding to footage recently published by Khamenei's official website. The two-minute footage shows Khamenei speaking to a limited number of clergy whose faces, for an unknown reason, are deliberately blurred.

Mousavi was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s main challenger in the 2009 presidential election. Ahmadinejad was endorsed by Khamenei and officially declared the winner right after polls closed, angering many voters. Nevertheless, Mousavi, in tandem with another challenger, former speaker of Majles (parliament) Mehdi Karroubi, refused to accept the official outcome calling it an “engineered result”.

Their protest led to more than five months of anti-Khamenei demonstrations that left dozens killed and hundreds imprisoned. The uprising was immediately branded as "sedition" by hardliners close to Khamenei.

Later in 2011, Mehdi Karroubi, Mousavi and his wife were extrajudicially confined to their houses after they called for street demonstrations in solidarity with the so-called Arab Spring.

To celebrate the publication of a new book about the 2009 controversial presidential election, Khamenei's office circulated a two-minute footage on its website showing him in a gathering with a few clergymen, on July 20, 2009, in the midst of protests against Ahmadinejad's re-election.

Mir Hossein Musavi (C) raises his arms as he appears at an opposition protest in Tehran, 15Jun2009
Mir Hossein Musavi (C) raises his arms as he appears at an opposition protest in Tehran, 15Jun2009

Addressing the clergy Khamenei lambastes Mousavi by referring to quotations allegedly made by two former Presidents, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Mohammad Khatami, against the former PM.

In the same footage, armed with the citations, Khamenei harshly criticizes Mousavi's position regarding the election result and dismisses his ideas. He also accuses him of inciting people to revolt.

A website promoting Iran's "Green Movement", Kalemeh, reports that after Mousavi was informed about the two-minute "doctored" and "edited" footage, he called for the release of the uncensored footage of his negotiation with Khamenei, in full, for the sake of informing the people.

However, Kalemeh has not elaborated on the "information" that, according to Mousavi, the people of Iran deserve to have.

In the meantime, Kalemeh reports, "The Islamic Republic's propaganda machine once again spent huge sums…to disseminate false information and fake news regarding the 2009 presidential election and events related to it.”

December 30 was the anniversary of a state-sponsored march to counter the Green Movement protests and state organization came out in full force to spread the official version of the 2009 events.

Dozens of speeches were organized, thousands of banners and posters were produced across the country, TV documentaries were aired and books were published on December 30, 2018 to smear the character of Mousavi, his wife, and Karroubi who are still under house arrest, Kalemeh reports.

In recent days, Ayatollah Khamenei's allies, in an orchestrated manner, have repeatedly warned against the recurrence of a "sedition" similar to the one in 2009.

The head of the Islamic Republic's judiciary, who was recently appointed by Khamenei as the chairman of the influential Expediency Discernment Council, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, explicitly warned against the "repetition" of the 2009 "sedition".

One of the advisors of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' chief commander, Ali Mohammad Naeini also warned that, since the parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held later in 2019, and there are labor and civil rights protests across the country, the establishment should be vigilant against flare-ups in coming year.

These warnings echo remarks earlier made by Khamenei, calling upon the authorities to be vigilant against the "enemy" and the repetition of the 2009 "sedition" in the next Iranian year.

Questioning the warnings, Tehran's outspoken representative to Majles and its deputy speaker, Ali Motahari has lambasted Khamenei's allies, including Friday Prayer Leaders who have vehemently warned about the possibility of "sedition".

"I do not know the basis for their warnings. Yet, it might be better to ask them to tell us what sort of sedition they are going create, again?" Motahari has retorted.

Zarif Says Oman Informed Iran About Netanyahu's Trip In October

Israel’s Netanyahu met the Sultan of Oman in late October. According to the official statement the two discussed ‘ways to promote peace in the Middle East’. File photo

Iran’s foreign minister says that Oman had informed Iran about Israeli prime minister Benjanim Netanyahu’s visit to the Arab country in late October.

This was the first time in more than two months an Iranian official acknowledged that Tehran was informed beforehand about the historic trip.

Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview with Iran’s Hamshahri newspaper said Iran’s response to Oman was that the trip was not “in line with Oman’s interests”.

After Netanyahu’s trip, Israeli media and other news outlets speculated that he used the visit to send a warning or a message to Iran, using Oman’s diplomatic channels to Tehran.

There is also the possibility that Oman could act as a mediator between Israel and Iran, given the Sultanate’s role in kick-starting the Obama era nuclear negotiations with Tehran, resulting in the 2015 agreement restricting Iran’s nuclear program.

Zarif has also disclosed in his interview that after the visit, Oman informed Tehran about what had transpired and assured the Islamic Republic that Netanyahu’s trip was not “against Iran’s interests”, saying that Oman and Iran should not necessarily share the same opinion on all issues.

Oman is one of the few Arab countries of the Persian Gulf region that in the past 40 years has maintained normal relations without tensions with the Islamic Republic.

After Netanyahu’s trip mid-ranking Iranian officials had voiced dismay at Oman’s decision to host the Israeli leader.

In recent years, relations between several Arab countries and Israel have improved, contrary to Tehran’s wishes. Israel is enjoying substantial support from the United States and is acting confidently in the region.

However, Zarif in the interview once again reiterated his recent claim that Iran is not after Israel’s destruction.

Zarif also told Hamshahri that President Donald Trump’s re-election cannot be ruled out and Iran might end up having to deal with him for another six years. But he said that the U.S. should “seriously alter their behavior” to make it possible for Iran to negotiate.

The Trump administration in turn has put forth twelve conditions for Iran to meet before Washington would change policy toward Tehran. The U.S. is demanding that the Islamic Republic stop supporting militant groups, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and the Taliban. It also wants Iran not to interfere in the affairs of regional countries.

Broadway Hits Iran With Unique Take On 'Les Miserables'

A French 19th-century epic on sociopolitical tumult, crime and punishment -- have been frequently shown in Iran(Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

Iranian theatre director Hossein Parsaee calls Victor Hugo's classic a "masterpiece without borders" but his groundbreaking production of "Les Miserables" that has hit the stage in Tehran has a few unique twists.

For a start, none of the actresses are allowed to reveal their own hair, and in case their wigs look too natural, the poster advertising the show carries a bright red notice underscoring that their locks are fake.

Nor do the actors and actresses touch hands, or have any other physical contact throughout the musical.

This is, after all, the capital of the Islamic republic, even if the blockbuster show in the luxurious Espinas Hotel feels a world away from the usual stereotypes about Iran.

The concessions to the government's view of Islamic rules are often subtle.

There is, for instance, always at least one other voice accompanying an actress when she sings -- since female solos are taboo -- although spotting the second voice can be tricky.

All the other staples of a big-budget musical are here: a live orchestra, billowing dry ice and dazzling light displays.

With a cast, crew and orchestra of over 450, the production has played to sold-out 2,500-strong crowds for six nights a week since it debuted in November.

Theatre-goers gather at the Espinas Hotel in the Iranian capital Tehran, before watching the musical production Les Miserables(Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)
Theatre-goers gather at the Espinas Hotel in the Iranian capital Tehran, before watching the musical production Les Miserables(Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

- 'It was all perfect' -

It was a mainly young, well-heeled crowd when AFP visited recently, and they could barely control their excitement at a rare chance to attend a musical in their home city.

"It was so much more than I expected," gushed Maryam Taheri, a 45-year-old housewife, after the show.

"The acting, the music, the lighting -- it was all perfect."

Foreign-made TV, film and cartoon versions of "Les Miserables" -- a French 19th-century epic on sociopolitical tumult, crime and punishment -- have been frequently shown in Iran, where the book has also been translated.

The classic work even has the stamp of approval from supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has described Victor Hugo's book as "a miracle among novels... a book of kindness, affection and love."

The new production is being hailed as the most spectacular play yet staged in Iran, and arrives at a topical moment with the ongoing "yellow vest" protests in France.

"After 200 years you see it happening again in France," contends businessman Mehdi Hooshyar.

"This is good, it shows whenever their society stagnates, something like this happens to move it forward," he said.

"The revolution is still alive."

A scene from the musical production Les Miserables, performed by Iranian artists at the Espinas Hotel
A scene from the musical production Les Miserables, performed by Iranian artists at the Espinas Hotel

- 'No Miserables allowed in' -

The lavishness of the production has brought its share of criticism, however.

The play has come at a volatile moment in Iran, when anger at economic inequality and corruption dominates political debate.

Tickets, priced between 500,000 and 1.85 million rials (roughly $5 to $20, 4.4 euros to 17.5 euros), are beyond the means of most Iranians.

"No Miserables allowed in," said a conservative daily, Javan.

Director Parsaee said connecting with Tehran's elite was part of the point.

"This story is relevant to all times, and all places, and that includes today's Tehran. It's about the class divide, the social breakdown and the poverty that exists today," he told AFP.

"It's a reminder to the audience that other classes exist and we need to see them and know about them. It's a serious warning."

- 'No taboos broken' -

Much of the show seems to run against Iranian taboos, not least the mixed dancing and drinking in brothels and inns.

But Parsaee, who used to head the performing arts department at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, knows the red lines well.

"The review board saw the play in its entirety before we were allowed to begin our run," he said.

"They found it completely compatible with the rules and regulations. No taboos were broken."

The director's love for musicals started around a decade ago when he saw "Oliver Twist", based on the Charles Dickens classic, in London.

"I was depressed for days, thinking why can't we do this? I vowed to myself that I would one day make a musical in Iran."

He did precisely that, bringing "Oliver Twist" to the stage in Tehran last year.

And now he has established a production company to train a new generation of musical directors.

"I've opened the door on musicals in Iran, and now, like a relay race, others must advance it to a point that there won't be any difference between Iran and Broadway."

Rafsanjani's Daughter Says His 'Mysterious' Death Unresolved

An empty seat, with a photo bearing a portrait of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is seen during a session of Iran's Assembly of Experts in Tehran, March 7, 2017

Almost two years after the allegedly mysterious death of one of the shrewdest leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran, his case has been shelved.

The Ayatollah's eldest daughter, Fatemeh Hashemi insists that her father died of "unnatural causes", yet the Islamic Republic's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) has ordered the termination of a probe into his death.

The body of 82-year-old former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s was discovered by one of his bodyguards on January 8, 2017, in a swimming pool in Koushk Garden, northern Tehran, as was officially announced at the time.

The Ayatollah used the pool once or twice a week. He swam alone that evening while the lights of the pool were said to be mysteriously turned off and the guards stayed outside, initial reports said, and one the guards discovered the body after Rafsanjani failed to come out at the usual time.

Speaking to Jamaran, a website close to the family of the Islamic Republic's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Fatemeh Hashemi disclosed on Tuesday, January 1, that two months before Rafsanjani's death, two Iran-Iraq war veterans warned her that a number of individuals were after assassinating her father.

"Two months before my father's death, two gentlemen, who claimed to be war veterans, came to my office and told me that unidentified individuals intend to assassinate my father, asking me to relay their message to him," Fatemeh Hashemi told Jamaran website, without elaborating on the identity of the two individuals.

The main figures of Islamic Republic in Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (L), Supreme Leader Rouhollah Khomeini (C) and Hossein Ali Montazeri, undated.
The main figures of Islamic Republic in Iran, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (L), Supreme Leader Rouhollah Khomeini (C) and Hossein Ali Montazeri, undated.

While insisting that she reported the warning to the SNSC, headed by President Hassan Rouhani, Fatemeh Hashemi is silent on the response from SNSC or her father.

Furthermore, it is not yet clear whether the meeting with the two mysterious war veterans was reported to SNSC before or after Rafsanjani's death.

Meanwhile, Fatemeh Hashemi has once again divulged that her father's urine and towels were contaminated by radioactive materials ten times higher than the permissible level of radioactivity in any person.

Earlier, in December 2017, Fatemeh's younger sister and former Tehran representative to Majlis (Islamic parliament), Faezeh Hashemi had also insisted that her father's body had contained radioactive elements “10 times more than the allowed level".

The younger daughter also disclosed that her sister, Fatemeh and her mother were tested for radiation. Her mother had three times the normal level and her sister had twice. She did not say when the tests took place, but most probably, it was after they learned about high levels of radiation in her father's body.

Members of the SNSC told the family that they did not know about the source of the radiation, however, they had concluded that it was not the reason for Rafsanjani’s death and therefore, the case had been closed, Faezeh Hashemi told pro-Rouhani daily E’temad.

The SNSC has not yet responded to the comments by Rafsanjani's daughters.

Iranians gather around a hearse carrying the coffin of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during his funeral ceremony in the capital Tehran, 10Jan2017
Iranians gather around a hearse carrying the coffin of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani during his funeral ceremony in the capital Tehran, 10Jan2017

A month after the death in the pool, Rafsanjani's brother, Mohammad, maintained that the former President (1989-1997), speaker of Majlis (1980-1989), the chairman of the influential Expediency Discernment Council (1989-2017) and the chairman of the Assembly of Experts (2007-2011) had neither been "assassinated" nor "drowned". He died of cardiac arrest, Mohammad Hashemi asserted.

Nevertheless, a month later, he noted that although the cause of his brother's death is officially described as "cardiac arrest", but the cause of cardiac arrest had not been announced.

Referring to the mysteries that have shrouded her father's death, Fatemeh Hashemi has repeatedly asked why her father's body was taken to hospital with a 21-minute delay.

Dismissing the remarks attributed to her father's bodyguards as "contradictory' and "suspicious", Fatemeh Hashemi says, "Why there was no death certificate at the time of my father's burial? And why samples were not taken from his body to decide the exact cause of death?"

If they had asked our permission for an autopsy, Fatemeh Hashemi reiterates, we might have declined it, but taking samples from a body would have not been a big deal.

Earlier, she had pointed out that "They stormed my father's office at the Expediency Discernment Council and took away 'important materials' kept in the safe, immediately after his death."

However, once again, Fatemeh Hashemi has preferred not to elaborate on the identity of those who allegedly stormed her father's office.

Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, once considered as the second strongest man in Iran for more than three decades, clashed with his longtime friend and ally, the Islamic Republic's current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, over the disputed re-election of hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009, emerging as a figure that might be able to rein Khamenei's autocratic rule over the country.

In 2013, the clash between the two old comrades came to a point that Rafsanjani was disqualified from standing in presidential elections and swung his political weight behind a so-called moderate and longtime associate, mid-ranking cleric Hassan Rouhani, who won the vote against the candidates believed to be Khamenei's favorites.

Khamenei never hid his discontentment with the Rafsanjani-Rouhani axis promoting less bellicose stance toward the West.

“World of tomorrow is a world of negotiations, not the world of missiles,” Rafsanjani twitted on March 2016, explicitly dismissing Khamenei's stance toward the outside world as a "non-starter".

Responding to the derisive tweet, but without directly naming Rafsanjani, Khamenei fired back, “People say that tomorrow’s world is a world of negotiations and not a world of missiles. If they say this thoughtlessly, it shows they are thoughtless. However, if this is intentional, then this is treachery.”

At the time of his death, Rafsanjani was seen as more moderate and pragmatic man and thousands came out to show their respects during his funeral.

The clash of the two Ayatollahs ended before reaching a crescendo on January 8, 2017, when Rafsanjani's body was discovered in an unlit pool in northern Tehran.

Oil Price Outlook Not So Bright In 2019 As Iran Loses Exports

In this Sept. 4, 2018 photo released by an official website of Part of the Pardis petrochemical complex facilities in Assalouyeh, Iran on the northern coast of the Persian Gulf. Sept. 4 2018. File photo

Reuters has surveyed 32 economists and analysts to find out what are their predictions for oil prices in 2019 and it seems that no one expects to see more expensive oil, at least for a while.

The experts believe North Sea Brent will hover around $70 a barrel in 2019, which is close to the 2018 average. Currently Brent is trading at $54. So, it will take time for oil to climb back to $70 a barrel, if favorable conditions prevail.

For a while at least, Brent oil will trade lower than the $70 target analysts have set for 2019. But other types of oil usually trade lower than Brent, so countries such as Iran will sell their oil much cheaper.

In the sanctions environment, Iran has to give further discounts to customers, which will cut into its revenues.

The main reason for the lackluster price outlook is oversupply, fueled by U.S. production and the expectation of global economic slowdown reducing demand.

President Donald Trump has been lobbying for lower prices, asking Saudi Arabia to help keep oil cheap. But at the same time, his sanctions on Iran’s oil reduced supplies by at least a million barrels per day. This played a role in higher prices in October and November, but then the market noticed an actual abundance of crude in early December and prices tumbled.

Iran could lose more oil exports if the U.S. had not given sanctions waivers to several friendly countries, such as India and Japan. But these waivers might come to an end and maybe another half a million barrels a day might be taken off the table, helping prices go up a bit.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other producers including Russia, known collectively as OPEC+, agreed in December to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day (bpd) to try to drain global crude inventories and support prices.

But the cuts have not gone into effect yet and prices have fallen more than 15 percent since the announcement.

"The market had largely priced in renewed production cuts from OPEC. As a result, we expect prices to sink if OPEC or Russia diverge from their production quotas notably," said Cailin Birch, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit told Reuters.

"We expect the cuts to be renewed in April, when the deal comes up for review, as higher output from the U.S. and weakening global demand require continued restraint."

Oil prices have fallen more than 40 percent from multi-year highs reached in early October on concerns about the impact of a trade dispute between the United States and China on global economic growth and demand for oil.

Another potential headwind next year is slowing consumption.

Many analysts project demand growth of a little over 1 million bpd in 2019, compared with an increase of 1.54 million bpd in 2018, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Meanwhile, U.S. shale oil output growth is expected to remain robust, adding to supply. The United States surpassed Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world's biggest oil producer in 2018, with overall U.S. crude production climbing to a record 11.7 million bpd.

Overall, this is not a rosy picture for Iran, already suffering from deep economic crisis, compounded by U.S. sanctions, which have impacted the country’s banking ties with the world and its non-oil trade.

With reporting by Reuters

Bill Against Terror-Financing Rejected Again By Conservative Watchdog

Iran parliamentarians hotly debating legislation demanded by international Financial Action Task Force. File photo

Iran's Guardian Council has for the second time rejected a bill against funding terrorism, Fars news agency reported on January 1.

The bill is one of a collection of four pieces of legislation against money laundering and funding terrorism Iran's Parliament (Majles) has approved to meet the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body working to ensure countries and financial institutions have the right mechanisms to prevent corrupt dealings.

Majles ratifications need to be approved by the Guardian Council, a watchdog that makes sure laws are consistent with Iran's constitution and Shiite religious rules.

It is not clear what exactly is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's position on the final adoption of these laws. He clearly controls the Guardian Council, but is it his wish to reject the bills, or he does not want to make any decision and the Council members also do not want to be responsible in the matter.

The Guardian Council has said that the Majles has resolved only two of the 22 problems concerning the anti-terror-financing bill, which is said to be the most important one of the four FATF requirements.

The Council has so far approved only one of the other bills and rejected the other three. Now the Expediency Council, as the final arbiter between the Majles and Guardian Council has to pass a verdict on the three remaining bills.

A quick decision by the Expediency Council is essential for Iran as FATF's deadline ends in less than two months. The Council's new chief, Sadeq Amoli Larijani, was appointed on December 30, after a one year state of lull while its former chairman was in his death bed.

An influential Expediency Council member, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, has said in an interview with the administration-owned Iran newspaper that the Expediency Council might complete its review of the legislation next week. Bahonr added that in his opinion the Expediency Council will approve the remaining FATF bills.

At least two other Expediency Council members, conservative Ahmad Tavakoli, and reformist Majid Ansari have also opined that the council will approve the bills.

The three members expressed optimism about the approval of the bills while previously a committee at the council had said there were "flaws" in the bills.

The speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Larijani, has said that European banks, as well as some banks in "friendly countries," possibly meaning Russia and China, have withheld their cooperation with Iran waiting to see if Tehran will meet the FATF requirements.

President Hassan Rouhani has also said that Iran's banking transactions will cost 20% more if the FATF bills are not ratified in time.

Hardliners who oppose Iran joining the FATF have said that they fear approving the bills against money laundering and funding terrorism will prevent Iran from extending financial assistance to groups such as HAMAS and the Lebanese Hezbollah.

The bills' supporters say its opponents in fact fear transparency and anti-corruption campaigns.

The ratification by the Majles includes a clause that says the Islamic Republic does not recognize groups committed to "legitimate defense" as terrorists.

In October 2018, the FATF temporarily suspended counter-measures against Iran and has taken it out of its blacklist until February and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has advised Tehran to ratify the anti-corruption bills before the February 2019 deadline.

For Iran, access to finance has become particularly pressing since the United States walked out of a 2015 nuclear deal in May 2018 and began reimposing sanctions. The other parties to the deal -- Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia -- have sought to salvage the agreement and maintain trade with Iran, but have demanded that it accedes to the FATF.

Full Impact Of U.S. Sanctions Coming Into View: Iran’s Exports Halve

Iran -- A general view of an oil dock is seen from a ship at the port of Kalantari in the city of Chabahar, 300km (186 miles) east of the Strait of Hormuz, January 17, 2012

Latest figures released by Iran on December 30, indicate that the country’s non-oil exports have halved alongside a plunge in oil exports, after the United States imposed oil-related sanctions on November 4.

The country exported only $1.867 billion non-oil goods during November 21-December 22, less than half of Iran’s monthly average during the current fiscal year, which started on March 21, 2018.

The plunge in exports was partly due to a complete stoppage in ultra-light oil (gas condensate) sales, which Iran includes in non-oil export basket. The monthly gas condensate export has averaged at about $330 million, or only a seventh of the drop in total non-oil exports during November 21-December 22.

In the other world, U.S. oil-related sanctions also seriously impacted Iran’s non-oil exports as well. The U.S. also imposed financial sanctions on Iran in August, but the details of custom’s statistics does not show any meaningful change in the non-oil exports level during the August-November period.

Source: Custom statistics ($ Billion/month)
Source: Custom statistics ($ Billion/month)

During the first nine months of the fiscal year (FY), the country has exported about 5.6 million metric tons of gas condensate at $2.776 billion, which indicates a 50% decline year-on-year.

However, the country’s total non-oil exports during March 21-December 22 reached $33.36 billions, or 4.5% more than the same period in last FY.

Despite this growth, Iran has fulfilled less than 70% of its non-oil export target for the period.

Its non-fuel imports also declined 13.3% year-on-year to $32.62 billion.

Oil exports

Iran does not reveal its crude oil export volume officially, but Reuters reported recently that the country’s oil and gas condensate exports to Asia plunged to a five-year low of 664,800 barrels per day (b/d). The volume was about 1.7 million b/d in 2017 and 1.5 mb/d during ten months of 2018.

Iran’s total oil exports to China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Italy and Greece, which have received U.S. waivers also expected to drop to about 1 mb/d in November, compared with 2.5 mb/d average in 2017.

Source: Reuters statistics
Source: Reuters statistics

The Iranian government recently submitted next year’s budget to parliament, eying 1.5 mb/d oil and gas condensate exports.

World Bank and the International Energy Agency estimate Iran’s total oil and gas condensate exports volume around 1 mb/d next year.

Top 18 From 2018 On Radio Farda English

ITALY -- A young actress plays the role of Giorgia, 10, forced to marry Paolo, 47, during a happening organised by Amnesty International to denounce child marriage, on October 27, 2016 in Rome.

Parliament Rejects Motion To Ban Marriage Of Girls Under Thirteen

A parliamentary motion banning child marriage in Iran has been rejected by Majles (parliament), an MP reported.

A member of women's faction in the Islamic Republic's parliament, Tayyebeh Seyavoshi says, "The Legal and Judicial Commission of Majles has rejected a parliamentary motion that proposed a ban on allowing under thirteen-year-old girls to marry."

U.K. -- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II takes part in a flying display at the Farnborough Airshow, south west of London, July 12, 2016
U.K. -- The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II takes part in a flying display at the Farnborough Airshow, south west of London, July 12, 2016

Russia Denies Israeli Fighter Jets Reached Iran Airspace Undetected

An unnamed source affiliated with the Russian Defense Ministry has denied a report by a Kuwaiti daily claiming two of Israel’s F-35 fighter jets flew over Syria and Iraq last week to reach Iranian airspace without being detected by Russian radars based in Syria.

Iraq’s Defense Ministry also denied Israel’s jets had violated its airspace.

U.S. -- Reza Pahlavi, the last heir apparent to the defunct throne of the Imperial State of Iran and the current head of the exiled House of Pahlavi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2018
U.S. -- Reza Pahlavi, the last heir apparent to the defunct throne of the Imperial State of Iran and the current head of the exiled House of Pahlavi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Washington, U.S., January 3, 2018

​Exiled Prince Calls On Security Forces To Join Iran Protests

On Wednesday, the sixth day of widespread protests against the ruling system in Iran, exiled Prince Reza Pahlavi has called on the police and security forces to join the demonstrators.

“The death of a number of the bravest men and women of our homeland and detention of many more during national protests make people more resolved in continuing the path they have taken," Pahlavi tweeted, adding, “I ask the military and police forces to separate their lot from the suppressing despots and join the people, right away.”

Iran -- A picture posted by Iran's ICT minister Azari Jahromi regarding the Cisco Switch Flaw which cause an attack to some Iranian databases, shows the United States’ flag
Iran -- A picture posted by Iran's ICT minister Azari Jahromi regarding the Cisco Switch Flaw which cause an attack to some Iranian databases, shows the United States’ flag

​Minister Reveals Cyber Attack On Iranian Data Centers, Blames Foreign Hackers

Iran’s Telecommunications minister has criticized the government’s cyber-attack monitoring center for failing to detect an attack that led to the hacking of several Iranian data centers on the evening of April 6, despite a warning about the attack ten days before it took place.

Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi first said in a tweet Friday evening “Several Iranian data centers came under cyber attacks tonight. Some of the smaller routers have been changed to factory setting.”

Iranian travelers standing in front of a currency exchange store in Tehran, in hope to exchange their moneys, on Wednesday April 11, 2018.
Iranian travelers standing in front of a currency exchange store in Tehran, in hope to exchange their moneys, on Wednesday April 11, 2018.

Iran Bans Sale Of Foreign Currencies At Exchange Bureaus

Iran’s central bank has announced a ban on the sale of foreign currencies at exchange bureaus. Under new government guidelines, exchange bureaus no longer have the right to buy, sell, or transfer foreign currencies, and the central bank will no longer provide cash to the bureaus.

Mohammad Ali Karimi, head of public relations for the central bank, announced on state-run television on April 13 that the guidelines aim to “redefine the job description of exchange bureaus,” adding, “They might be given the role of a mediator for cases when Iranian banks are not interacting with some foreign banks.”

Russia -- Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev delivers a speech as he attends the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow, April 27, 2016
Russia -- Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev delivers a speech as he attends the 5th Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow, April 27, 2016

Russia Reportedly Prevented Israeli Attack on Iran’s Missile Factories in Lebanon

According to the London-based daily Asharq al-Awsat, Russia has prevented “an inevitable Israeli attack” on what the daily characterizes as “Iran’s missile factories in Lebanon and Syria.”

The daily quotes “informed sources” as saying that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had complained about “the continuous supply of arms to Hezbollah” by Iran in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month.

Protesters In Jomhouri (Republic) Avenue In Tehran Protesting The High Price Of The Dollar/ UGC
Protesters In Jomhouri (Republic) Avenue In Tehran Protesting The High Price Of The Dollar/ UGC

Tehran’s cell phone market went on strike on Sunday June 24, with store owners and people marching in protest in Jomhouri (Republic) Avenue as the city’s Forex market, just a stone-throw away, recorded the highest value for US dollar against the Iranian currency rial.

Cell phone sellers decided it was impossible to sell any handset considering the exchange rate of over 90,000 rials per dollar. They said the rising exchange rate has brought about an uncertainty in the market which made cell phones extremely expensive for buyers.

Iran -- vehicle imports in Kangan port in Bushehr province on December 28, 2014.
Iran -- vehicle imports in Kangan port in Bushehr province on December 28, 2014.

Iran Minister Shocked By $250 Billion Of Import Requests

Iran’s Minister of Industry, Mines and Business says, fluctuations in the local forex market in the past four months have tripled the number of applications for import licenses worth $250 billion dollar.

Describing the figure as “unbelievable”, Mohammad Shariatmadari has insisted that a “number of” profiteering individuals are trying to “fish in troubled waters”, referring to the current currency and economic crisis.

IRAN -- An Iranian man holds U.S. 100-dollar bills bearing the portrait of U.S. statesman, inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin at a currency exchange office in a shopping centre in the capital Tehran, April 10, 2018
IRAN -- An Iranian man holds U.S. 100-dollar bills bearing the portrait of U.S. statesman, inventor and diplomat Benjamin Franklin at a currency exchange office in a shopping centre in the capital Tehran, April 10, 2018

Dollar Hits A New High On Iran's Black Market

On June 23, the value of each U.S. dollar climbed to 80,000 Iranian rials on Saturday, the first day of the week in Iran.

The Iranian currency has lost almost one third of its value in the last two months and the dollar has climbed from around 40,000 rials a year ago to double that amount.

Photos released by Iranian Tasnim News agency shows Iran's Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, Major general Mohammad Bagheri, among iranian forces in Syrian Aleppo, undated.
Photos released by Iranian Tasnim News agency shows Iran's Chief of Staff for the Armed Forces, Major general Mohammad Bagheri, among iranian forces in Syrian Aleppo, undated.

Iran Rejects Russian Demand To Withdraw Troops From Syria

May 21st--“As long as it is necessary, the risk of terrorism in Syria exists, and the Syrian government wants Iran to continue its support, we will remain in Syria,” Bahram Ghasemi, spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said on May 21.

“No one can force Iran to do anything. Iran is an independent country and determines its policies in the region and the world based on its national interests,” he added.

Since the civil war started in Syria in 2011, Iran has deployed thousands of troops, many of them Shi’a recruited from Afghanistan and Pakistan, to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which Tehran considers crucial for its adversarial policies against Israel.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei March 8 2018
Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei March 8 2018

Khamenei Attributes Peaceful Anti-Hijab Protests to ‘Enemy’ Influence

In his first reaction to Iranian women’s peaceful protests against compulsory hijab, Iran’s Supreme Leader has said these are “the outcome of the enemy’s widespread propaganda, and spending hefty sums in order to influence Iranian women’s attitude towards hijab.”

Trying to undermine the protests against compulsory hijab that has grabbed international attention, ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “All that propaganda and expenditure led to the insignificant result of a few girls taking off their headscarf.”

Iran-- Poverty and marginalization in Iran, undated
Iran-- Poverty and marginalization in Iran, undated

26 Million Iranians Suffer Absolute Poverty, Says Prominent Economist

A prominent Iranian economist says 33 percent of the country’s population live in absolute poverty, and six percent are starving.

A family of four living in an urban area with a monthly income below forty million rials (roughly $1000) is living in poverty, Hossein Raghfar told state-run Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) April 7.

Iranian Army Commander Abdolrahim Mousavi who appointed as the forth commander-in-chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army on Monday August 21, 2017.
Iranian Army Commander Abdolrahim Mousavi who appointed as the forth commander-in-chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran Army on Monday August 21, 2017.

We Will End Israel’s Life In less Than 25 Years -Iran’s Army Commander

Chief Commander of the Islamic Republic’s regular army has once again threatened Israel with total annihilation.

Referring to a comment by the Islamic Republic’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi said, “We will finish off Israel’s life within less than 25 years.”

Khamenei had asserted earlier, “I would say that they [Israel] will not see the end of these 25 years.”

Iranian TV Broadcasts Footage of Encounter With U.S. Carrier
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Iran Airs Video Said To Show March Encounter With U.S. Carrier

Iran's state TV has broadcast footage purporting to show a close encounter between the Revolutionary Guard's navy and the USS Theodore Roosevelt early this year.

PressTV's website says the encounter occurred March 21 in the strategic Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea. The TV agency says the video was aired Saturday as part of a documentary.

Turkey -- A protestor holds a picture of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate, on October 5, 2018 in Istanbul. Jamal Khashoggi.
Turkey -- A protestor holds a picture of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate, on October 5, 2018 in Istanbul. Jamal Khashoggi.

​Why Is Iran Silent About The Khashoggi Case?

Nearly two weeks after the controversy about the disappearance and possible death of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Iran has not reacted to the case.

Tehran could have easily used such a big international issue as propaganda leverage against Saudi Arabia; its regional rival and enemy.

Behrouz Bonyadi Iranian MP
Behrouz Bonyadi Iranian MP

Iran MP Unleashes Harsh Attack On Putin, Assad And Regime Policies

A member of the Iranian parliament has harshly criticized Bashar Assad of Syria and Vladimir Putin of Russia on June 27, saying that these two leaders will “soon sacrifice us” to Israel and the U.S.

Behrouz Bonyadi in a speech before the start of the regular meeting of parliament declared, “Bashar Assad, with full impudence, has cozied up to Putin”. In these unprecedented remarks, Bonyadi added, “Russia will not be a trustworthy friend for us”.

Château Val Ory in Moka, an Iranian heritage, in Mauritius, undated
Château Val Ory in Moka, an Iranian heritage, in Mauritius, undated

Reza Shah’s Residence For Sale

Iran’s Foreign Ministry is set to sell three estates owned by Iran in sub-Saharan Africa, including a previous residence of Reza Shah, who was forced to abdicate the throne by the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in 1941.

In a proposal delivered to President Hassan Rouhani, the Foreign Ministry has asked his administration’s approval for selling three estates owned by the Iranian state, including Reza Shah’s residence on the African Island-state of Mauritius.

Iran - Form left: 1- Mir-Hossein Musavi (Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989), 2- Ali Khamenei (current Supreme Leader of Iran and was the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989), 3- Ahmad Khomeini (son of Ayatollah Khomeini), 4- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanja
Iran - Form left: 1- Mir-Hossein Musavi (Prime Minister of Iran from 1981 to 1989), 2- Ali Khamenei (current Supreme Leader of Iran and was the president of Iran from 1981 to 1989), 3- Ahmad Khomeini (son of Ayatollah Khomeini), 4- Akbar Hashemi Rafsanja

Shocking Video Clip From 1989 Shows Khamenei Elected Only For One Year As A Caretaker

A 20-minute video clip showing an emergency closed-door session of the Assembly of Experts choosing a mid-ranking clergy, Ali Khamenei as the successor of ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini has been leaked for the first time.

A copy of the video reviewed by Radio Farda, shows that contrary to what was earlier believed, Ali Khamenei was assigned to serve as a “caretaker” of the Islamic Republic’s leadership for a limited one-year period, after which the country’s leadership will be transferred to a council with members elected through a referendum.

Iran's Supreme Leader In 1989: 'I Am Not Qualified'
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Iran – Shrine of 8th Shiite Imam in the northwest city of Mashhad, undated.
Iran – Shrine of 8th Shiite Imam in the northwest city of Mashhad, undated.

Iranian Media Warned Not To Report On Iraqi Sex Tourism

The head of the Islamic Republic’s judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, has warned Iranian media not to cover sex tourism unless they want to face prosecution.

The warning was issued September 10 amid increasing reports of Iraqi Shi'ite pilgrims to the holy city of Mashhad hiring sex workers during their stay. Some reports allege sex tourism has become a bigger draw for Iraqis to the holy Shi’ite city than the religious sites.

Khamenei Praises Controversial Film Targeting Intelligence Ministry

Iranian director, Abolghasem Talebi whose Golden Collars film alleged foreign infiltration into Iran's intelligence ministry. File photo

Iran's Intelligence Ministry has objected to the airing of a movie on the country's state-run TV, which alleged that foreign agents had infiltrated the ministry during mass unrest following the 2009 disputed presidential elections.

According to the ministry, the director of the movie, Abolghasem Talebi was a former agent who had been dismissed and his film is full of lies. The Intelligence Ministry had repeatedly warned the state TV not to run the movie but TV officials finally ignored the warnings, ISNA reported.

An Intelligence Ministry official told ISNA that the ministry had issued the same warning in previous years.

There are multiple intelligence organizations in Iran. The intelligence ministry works within the presidential administration, while the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, IRGC has its own intelligence units, in competition with the official ministry.

Iranian TV, controlled by the office of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, aired the Golden Collars while critics in 2009 had said the film distorted the reality of post-election unrest in Iran by portraying the protests as having been engineered by foreigners.

Nevertheless, Talebi says that the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei contacted him over the phone after the screening and thanked him for making the movie and conveyed his respect for the film's actors.

In a December 30 tweet, Talebi quoted Khamenei as having said "I watched your film once again. Bravo, Bravo, Bravo! Thank you and please give my respect to the actors."

In another tweet one day before the screening, Talebi said that an Intelligence Ministry official contacted him and told him that the ministry previously prevented the airing of the movie as it contained unfair allegations against the ministry's officials.

Following the screening, the ministry issued a statement, disclosed the film director's security background as an agent and said the Ministry did not expect him to distort the image of his former colleagues.

Several people were killed by security forces, and hundreds jailed during the post-election unrest in 2009, with several others arrested and still missing. The ministry's concern is that unfair treatment of the events in that year could potentially lead to sensitivities that would further fragment the Iranian society.

Islamic Republic officials call the aftermaths of the 2009 election "sedition". Many officials including Khamenei have attributed the unrest to foreign influences they have never proved, although prisoners were pressured to make "confessions" about the involvement of foreign elements in the protests and have used the forced confessions to further suppress protesters.

The controversial movie, Golden Collars, depicts foreigners' involvement in the unrest and their alleged infiltration into the Intelligence Ministry.

A deputy culture minister at the time had said that the government had "partly funded" the movie, however, the government investment was hefty and the budget allocated to the movie could have funded more than a few films at the time. The government was headed by former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose disputed re-election was the reason for the unrest.

The official had also disclosed that a number of state officials were against the production and screening of that movie. The official, Javad Shamaghdari, pointed out that the film was finally made with the intervention of Khamenei's office.

Some film industry activists at the time protested the unfair allocation of funds for that movie but no one in the government paid any attention to grievances.

The film was aired on Ofogh channel of the state TV which is linked to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corp.

Talebi is not the only Iranian filmmaker who had links with the Intelligence Ministry. At least three other filmmakers have either spoken about the ministry's investment in their movies or have thanked ministry officials in the final credit titles or said in their interviews that the ministry offered consultations during production.

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

billion

$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)
KASHAN, Iran (AP)

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

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