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Centrists, Civil Society Must Work Together To Check Iran’s Military Before It’s Too Late

Qassem Soleimani (C) commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, in a ceremony at the presence of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on September 16, 2015.

The deep entanglement of Iran’s military apparatus in the country’s politics, economy, and society is a well-known fact. Its interventionist role must be curbed to avoid catastrophe.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a force of roughly 125,000 personnel officially tasked with protecting the Islamic ruling system, also has its fingers in almost every sector of the economy, engaging in all manner of commercial activities, often without paying tax or answering to anyone, least of all the government. Along with their Basij paramilitary branch, the IRGC responds to anti-establishment protests and calls for democratic change in Iran with an iron fist.

Although there are no free and fair elections in Iran, the IRGC views even the sham elections as an impediment to their domination if their candidates are not chosen.

As the constitution allows, candidates for presidential and parliamentary elections are rigorously vetted by unelected and hand-picked ideologues, but voters time and again refuse to choose military’s candidates, even from the limited pool offered to them.

In 2005 and 2009, the military vigorously intervened to elect and reelect their candidate, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as president, with disastrous results. People revolted in the streets and the regime paid a high price. In 2013 and 2017 the military’s candidates did not have a chance, and Hassan Rouhani was easily elected and reelected.

Even Ahmadinejad, the military backed candidate, during his second term began to show defiance to the Supreme Leader, who enjoys the dogged loyalty of the IRGC.

Nevertheless, we were recently reminded again of the IRGC’s influence when Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was left in the dark about Syrian President Bashar Assad’s visit to Iran, after which Zarif immediately tendered his resignation. Instead of meeting with the foreign minister, Assad met with IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Soleimani, further proof that the military represents Iran in the region; not the foreign ministry.

Meanwhile, Rouhani has also attacked the military’s role in the economy. He has said that companies set up by state actors outside the jurisdiction of the government play a counter-productive role, since they are not accountable to private owners and not accountable to the government. He reiterated that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also spoken several times about the military disengaging from economic activities.

Judging by their rhetoric, the IRGC are pursuing the following agenda:

First, with the help of the state broadcaster, dozens of websites, and Friday prayer leaders, they divide society into “true Jihadi revolutionaries” and Westernized Iranians who are not to be trusted.

Second, they are bent on keeping Iran from normal relations with the West by labeling the nuclear agreement as “treason” and not allowing Iran to accept laws against money-laundering and terror-financing demanded by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). In this case they are completely opposed to Zarif. The FATF requirements are not just Western demands. If Iran refrains from accepting these conditions, no one will do business with the country’s financial system; neither China nor South Africa—not even the Russians, as Zarif has publicly argued.

Third, they try to portray the Rouhani government as the culprit for the country’s economic problems, while they are the ones who are responsible for creating non-transparent monopolies, and along with Khamenei, have pursued a foreign policy that has led to Iran’s economic isolation.

Fourth, IRGC affiliates and their hardliner allies constantly call for Rouhani’s resignation.

The power struggle between hardliners and centrists within the ruling establishment presents an opportunity for civil society and democratic forces to strengthen labor unions and various other grass-roots organizations.

But while the infighting can be exploited by pro-democracy civil society, one mustn’t forget that centrists such as Rouhani and Zarif prevent war and they should be defended on those grounds.

In historical examples of successful transitions to democracy, there has always been an alliance of democracy and civil society activists with centrists. The two must band together to prevent the military from tightening its grip on the country to a stranglehold, as has been the case in Pakistan and Egypt.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda

Why Iran’s Reformists Welcome A Hardliner As Judiciary Chief?

Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in Tehran on May 17, 2017.

In a strange twist some Iranian reformists have welcomed the likely appointment of hardliner cleric Ebrahim Raeesi as Iran’s next Judiciary chief.

This comes less than one week after Abdolkarim Soroush, a prominent reform figure characterized Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, as one of the most knowledgeable men in Iran’s history.

Even some conservatives have interpreted the move as a way of pleasing the hardline-dominated establishment to garner a share for reformists in the country’s political life.

Raeesi (Raeisi) will be the first Iranian Judiciary Chief who has been defeated in a presidential election. He competed with Hassan Rouhani in 2017 and lost the election, ironically, because reformist groups constantly reminded the public of his alleged involvement in the mass murder of political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Raeesi’s appointment as head of one of the three branches of the government regardless of his failure in the test of popularity, has been regarded as a sign of Islamic Republic leader Ali Khamenei’s stubbornness vis-à-vis Rouhani and his supporters.

Nevertheless, some reformist figures are now expressing hope that Raeesi’s appointment would lead to “positive changes”. Some have pointed out that he will be the first Judiciary Chief who has in fact a track record as a judge. Some others have hoped that Raeesi might remove some of the so called “hanging judges” from their posts.

A reformist figure and a relative of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami, Shahab Tabatabai, wrote an article in reformist daily Sharq in which he praised Raeesi for his long record at the Judiciary and opined that he should not be judged based on his election platform. Hardline daily Javan, affiliated with IRGC exclaimed why Tabatabai would praise Raisi as “a handsome man.”

Tabatabai also gave credit to Raeesi for acquitting an intellectual magazine’s editor in the 1990s, labelling it as an unprecedented decision.

Javan wrote that a reformist’s praise for a hardliner is “suspicious,” and asked: “Is this the same Raeesi you introduced in 2017 as a violent hardliner and a supporter of torture and execution?”

Another reform figure, Hossein Musavi Tabrizi, a former prosecutor-general, told Ensaf News website: “I have not seen any bad behavior on the part of Mr. Raeesi. When I knew him, he had a pleasant character and was not violent.”

According to Sharq, both Tabrizi and former Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi, a reform-minded figure, have predicted that “the situation of the Judiciary will possibly be better under Raeesi.”

Mohammad Reza Khabbaz, a member of the reformist National Trust Party, whose leader Mehdi Karroubi has been under house arrest during the past eight years, has said that “the country should benefit from Mr. Raeesi’s valuable presence.”

Outspoken reformist MP, Mahmoud Sadeqi has also welcomed Raeesi’s likely appointment, although his welcoming tweet has triggered a lot of criticisms.

At the same time, no reform figure has been seen to react negatively to the appointment. Either they thought their reaction would be ignored or be costly for them.Some may have thought welcoming Raeesi could soften his position about reformists.

Prominent reformist journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi has a different view. He wrote: “During the 2017 election campaign, Raeesi showed that unlike Rouhani or conservative candidate Qalibaf, he was not a political trickster. He was portrayed then as a simple man. Some people even liked his body language in a meeting with a pop singer. That is how he won 40 percent of the votes.”

Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in the city of Mashhad, on May 17, 2017.
Presidential candidate Ebrahim Raeesi, during a campaign rally in the city of Mashhad, on May 17, 2017.

He added: “This image has made Raeesi more desirable than his predecessors at the Judiciary. However, one needs to wait and see his performance.”

The comment, however, was met with criticism on the part of reformist figure Mostafa Tajzadeh, who spent time in prison, said you cannot pin your hopes on Raeesi to meet the society’s requirements. “Iran needs an impartial, independent and accountable Judiciary,” he stressed.

The Judiciary under the last two Judiciary chiefs, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Sadeq Amoli Larijani has been widely criticized by lawyers, activists and even former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for unfair trials and for giving in to pressures and interventions by intelligence organizations.

For conservatives, however, Raeesi’s appointment has a symbolic meaning. They believe Khamenei might be grooming Raeesi for the post of Supreme Leader in the future. That could also be another reason for reformist’s soft tone in their comments about the man. In this case, they are playing some kind of delicate game they are not likely to win as their past experiences indicate. After the reformist administration of President Khatami (mid-1990s to mid 2000s), Iranian reformists have not been on the winning side of political wranglings.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda

Dubious Caspian Sea Water Transfer Project Moving Ahead

An Iranian fisherman pulls in his almost empty net after an unsuccessful fishing trip in the Caspian Sea in Koshk Estalkh village near the northern port city of Bandar-e Anzali on November 1, 2013. An environmental expert in Iran, told Isna news agency on

A highly controversial proposal to transfer water from the Caspian Sea to the parched inland province of Semnan has reportedly been approved by Iran’s parliament, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and coastal residents.

Visiting Semnan in December, President Rouhani, who was born in the province, insisted the problems with the project had been addressed and it would go ahead.

"If there are investors interested in the project, the government is prepared to expedite all necessary licenses,” Rouhani said.

Several MPs from the Mazandaran province on the Caspian Sea in northern Iran have denounced the water transfer project as “unscientific” and “impractical,” with irrevocably damaging consequences for the region's ecology and economy. They have vowed to stop the project.

Infographic: Proposed Caspian water pipeline
Infographic: Proposed Caspian water pipeline

Accusing Rouhani of setting aside fifty billion rials (roughly $1.2 billion) earmarked for the project for “his fellow Semnanis,” MP from the coastal city of Noshahr, Ahmadi Lashaki, has warned "The nature loving people will not allow the dream of those who are determined to dry out the Caspian Sea to come true."

Meanwhile, local news outlets reported May 3 that the head of the Department of Environment, Isa Kalantari, had dismissed his deputy, Miss Parvin Farshchi, for her opposition the water transfer project.

Speaking to state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA) May 4, Kalantari said that he had decided to dismiss Ms. Farshchi months ago, and her dismissal had nothing to do with her opposition to the project.

Meanwhile, in an interview with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)-run Tasnim news agency, Miss Farshchi asserted that she was not aware of the reasons behind her dismissal, but, "As an expert, I believe that transferring the Caspian Sea water to Semnan is not a wise decision---based on environmental, economic, and social reasoning, transferring water from one basin to the other is wrong."

Farshchi is not the only expert who is staunchly against the controversial project.

“The detrimental impacts of transferring water from the Caspian Sea to the central province of Semnan can be more catastrophic than a nuclear explosion,” Mohammad Darvish, a faculty member of the Research Institute of Forests and Rangelands told the state-run Mehr News Agency (MNA) January 24.

Transferring water from the Caspian Sea can lead to multi-faceted environmental disasters both for the sea and the regions along the route, Darvish maintained.
He described two possible scenarios for this transfer, both of which would cause serious environmental damage.

If the water desalination is carried out at the source, the Caspian Sea will be more salinized, threatening its ecosystem more than ever, he told MNA, adding, “The pollution level of the sea is currently 40 times above the standard range, and it cannot withstand any further pollution.”

The second scenario is to do the desalination at the destination. This means that salty water is going to flow in pipelines through Hyrcanian forests. “If, due to an earthquake or chemical reactions or any other reason the pipe bursts, a true catastrophe will occur in the forests which can be even more disastrous than a nuclear explosion.”

He further argued that such water transfer programs should be approved by other Caspian Sea coastal cities, adding, “They have a share in the sea water as well.”

Instead of implementing the expensive water transfer project and harming the sea’s environment, water consumption patterns must be managed in different sectors, ISNA also quoted former DoE deputy Abdolreza Karbasi as saying February 24.

"Given that Iran is located in arid and semi-arid areas, and water supply must be provided, in the future, construction of water desalination system might be inevitable,” Karbasi lamented, adding, however, water management systems must first be transformed before this option is considered.

The plan to transfer water through a 200-kilometer pipeline from the Caspian Sea, Mazandaran Province to Semnan Province has been promoted as a solution to help meet growing demand in the agricultural, industrial, and household consumption sectors of the water-stressed region.

Iran is experiencing an unprecedented drought that has pitted regions against each other as they compete for scarce water supplies.

sources ISNA, MNA, Tasnim

Prominent Women’s Rights Activist Faces 34 Years In Prison

Nasrin Sotoudeh at her home in Tehran. File photo

Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh faces up to 34 years in prison and 148 lashes after being convicted in two trials that Amnesty International has called “grossly unfair.”

In a letter addressed to the mid-ranking cleric Ebrahim Raeisi, who is expected to replace Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani as Iran's chief justice, AI called for the immediately release the 55-year-old lawyer and human rights activist.

The charges against Sotoudeh stem solely from her peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting Iran’s forced hijab (veiling) laws, and her outspoken opposition to the death penalty, AI said in its letter.

"She has been prosecuted on seven charges, some of which are related to her opposition to forced hijab laws, including 'inciting corruption and prostitution' and ‘openly committing a sinful act… by appearing in public without a hijab.’ Some of her legitimate activities that the authorities have cited as ‘evidence’ against her include: opposing forced hijab; removing her headscarf during prison visits; defending women who peacefully protested against forced hijab; giving media interviews about the violent arrest and detention of women protesting against forced hijab; and placing flowers at the scene where a woman protester was violently arrested. Other charges brought against her include 'forming a group with the purpose of disrupting national security' and are based, in part, on her work with three human rights groups including the Campaign for Step by Step Abolition of the Death Penalty" AI said.

Although Sotoudeh was initially charged with “spreading propaganda against the system” and “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security,” the judge convicted her on a charge not mentioned in the indictment, that of “assisting in hiding spies with the intent to harm national security,” citing activities such as her meetings with foreign diplomats to convict her. This case is now before an appellate court.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in a statement issued March 5 said it forcefully condemns the conviction of the prominent Iranian defense attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh in a court process sorely "lacking in international standards of due process".

“No amount of spin will be able to conceal the fact that Sotoudeh is being persecuted for her peaceful defense of human rights in Iran, including a woman’s right to choose whether to wear a hijab,” said CHRI’s Executive Director Hadi Ghaemi.

“The international community should band together to forcefully condemn the abhorrent treatment of this courageous defense lawyer and demand her release,” he added.

Though convicted, Sotoudeh has not yet received the verdict in writing, says her husband Reza Khandan.

Sotoudeh is held incommunicado in Tehran's notorious Evin prison, Khandan disclosed in an interview with Radio Farda January 13.

"The prison authorities have held Nasrin incommunicado after finding a small pair of scissors in her personal effects," Khandan said.

Khandan, who was himself recently released from Evin after months in custody, also told Radio Farda that because of the negligence of the prison authorities, the inmates have recently been forced to personally procure their food.

According to Khandan, Evin's authorities have decided to increase their pressure on female inmates to prevent leaks concerning the conditions in the prison.

Sotoudeh is the winner of numerous prestigious international awards, including the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write (2011), Southern Illinois University School of Law Rule of Law Citation (2011) and Sakharov Prize (2012).

In September 2018 she was also awarded the annual tribute for a lawyer, the 23rd Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize initially bestowed on Nelson Mandela in 1986 when in jail.

Iran-EU Trade Plunges As Iran Increases Imports From Russia, U.S.

IRAN -- Security guards with their sniffer dogs patrol in front of a cargo ship during the inauguration ceremony of the newly built extension in the port of Chabahar on the Gulf of Oman, southeastern Iran, near the Pakistani border, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017

Iran-EU trade turnover declined significantly in the second half of 2018 due to U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The United States withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran in May last year and imposed financial and industrial sanctions on Tehran in August, followed by sanctions on its oil exports and banking sector in November.

According to the European Commission’s official figures, the 28-member union exported €8.9 billion to Iran in 2018, about 17.6 percent less than 2017, while their imports from Iran declined 4 percent year-on-year to €9.72 billion.

The details of statistics indicate that Iran’s exports to the EU started to plummet in mid-2018, as most European clients stopped buying oil from Iran. Oil is the largest part of Iran’s exports to the EU.

Infographic:EU Exports and Imports Iran
Infographic:EU Exports and Imports Iran

The EU’s exports to Iran also dropped in November and December 2018.

The statistics indicate that oil and petroleum products constitute about 90 percent of Iran’s total exports to the EU.

Infographic:Iran’s oil and petroleum products exports to the EU:
Infographic:Iran’s oil and petroleum products exports to the EU:

During the previous round of international sanctions (2012-2016), Iran-EU trade decreased dramatically, but it began to rise again after the sanctions were lifted.

Trade with Iran constitutes only about 0.5% of the EU’s total foreign trade, but the EU has a more than 20% share in Iran’s total imports.

Infographic:EU Export and Import Iran 2008-2018
Infographic:EU Export and Import Iran 2008-2018

It is not only the EU that has suffered in trade with Iran due to U.S. sanctions. China, Iran's biggest trade partner and oil importer, also decreased trade with Iran during the final months of 2018.

Infographic: China Export Import Iran 2018
Infographic: China Export Import Iran 2018

India, Iran's second-biggest oil buyer, saw its imports from Iran increase from $11.1 billion in 2017 to $14.787 billion in 2018, while its imports from Iran increased 9.82% to $2.86 billion. However, in late 2018 Iran’s exports to India dropped more than half after Iran's oil exports plunged, according to India’s Department of Commerce.

Turkey is also one of Iran's major trade partners, and it imports Iranian oil, as well. According to Turkey’s official statistics, its trade with Iran was affected by U.S. sanctions.

Infograpahic :Turkey Export Import Iran 2017-2018
Infograpahic :Turkey Export Import Iran 2017-2018

Souring U.S. and Russian exports to Iran

Unlike other trade partners, the United States and Russia increased exports to Iran significantly in 2018.

The United States increased exports to Iran 262 percent in January-November 2018 to $435.5 million, while U.S. imports from Iran increased 24 percent to $67 million. In the last few months of 2018, Iran’s exports to the EU reached about zero, but U.S. exports to Iran increased dramatically.

The United States hasn’t published statistics for December yet.

Infographic:U.S. Import Export Iran 2017-2018
Infographic:U.S. Import Export Iran 2017-2018

Iran Parliament Bans MPs' Re-Election Beyond Three Consecutive Terms

IRAN -- Iranian President Hassan Rohani (Left) speaks at parliament in the capital Tehran on December 25, 2018 as he presents his government's 2019-2020 budget, with a notice below his podium providing Christmas greetings to Christians.

The Iranian Parliament on March 3 voted to prevent members from being reelected for fourth consecutive terms in a bid "to rejuvenate the parliament, to make it agile and facilitate the rotation of political elites." However, the ratification has yet to be approved by the Guardian Council.

If it receives final approval, the new legislation would limit the tenure of members of parliament to three consecutive terms and require them to wait four years before being eligible to run for a fourth term.

The legislation will deprive some 34 incumbent MPs, including parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani, from pursuing seats in the next election in 2020.

The Iranian Constitution limits presidents to two consecutive terms in office, but it makes no mention of how many times people can be elected to the parliament.

Almost everyone in positions of power in Iran's political establishment has been involved in the government for the past 40 years, and many are of an advanced age. Iranians still remember a particular politician who served as an MP for several terms and until recently was a member of the Tehran city council who was caught by photographers dozing off in official meetings. Photos of sleeping politicians at the Assembly of Experts are frequently featured by the media.

Opposition to the legislation has already started. Several MPs, particularly those affiliated with the ultraconservative Paydari (Steadfastness) party, signed a letter to the speaker saying, "It might deprive wise but otherwise aging individuals from running for the parliament." They also called on the Guardian Council to reject the legislation.

Ironically, Isfahan MP Hassan Kamran, who has served six terms over 24 years as MP at the parliament, has supported limiting the number of re-elections.

Nevertheless, former reformist MP Rassoul Montajabnia told reporters, "I suspect there is a political agenda behind this move to deprive a number of influential MPs from getting elected once again." He also predicted the new legislation will be rejected by the Guardian Council.

The idea of limiting the number of times MPs can be reelected was put forward three times before, in 2003, 2014, and 2018, but every time it faced strong opposition.

In an article in the administration-owned daily Iran, prominent lawyer Bahman Keshavarz pointed out that the new legislation violates Article 62 of the Iranian Constitutional Law, which does not impose any limitation on reelection.

Former reformist MP Mohamad Reza Kahabbaz argued in a commentary in the same paper that "the reason to limit the re-election of presidents is to prevent dictatorship and corruption, but an MP has no money or executive power at his or her disposal. On the contrary, experience could add value to an MP's performance."

MP Ezzatollah Yousefian Molla argued that the new legislation limits voters' choices, and lawyer Hossein Naqqashi wrote that MPs’ responsibilities include legislation and supervision and it is unlikely that a prolonged presence in the parliament would adversely affect either of those functions.

Meanwhile, the proposed legislation included calls for parliamentary elections at the provincial level and stipulated that apart from individual candidates, political parties can publish and promote lists of their own candidates. While there have been many debates on the issue of re-election, MPs were not observed reacting or discussing the implications of other parts of the legislation.

Imprisoned Former Revolutionary Calls For Khamenei To Step Down

File photo: Abolfazl Ghadyani, political activist.

The only way forward for Iran is a unified push by all political movements for a direct, democratic referendum on changing the Islamic Republic’s ruling system, former revolutionary Abolfazl Qadyani said from his prison cell.

73-year-old Qadyani (also spelled as Ghadyani) is a co-founder of the political group Mojahedin of the Islamic Revolution of Iran Organization (MIRO). He helped the clerics consolidate power after the downfall of the monarchy forty years ago. The MIRO strongly supported the Islamic Republic’s ruling system until 2009, when the group fell out with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after the disputed re-election of populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Khamenei “will not submit to reform,” and the only way out of Iran’s economic and social turmoil is for the Supreme Leader to step down, Qadyani wrote in a letter smuggled out of prison and published on Kalemeh, a website affiliated with the Green Movement, the political uprising sparked by Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.

Qadyani’s comments were in response to a speech Khamenei gave on the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution February 12.

"The Islamic Revolution has been mighty, but merciful; forgiving and even oppressed since its inception, this Revolution has never been merciless nor has it ever shed blood; it has neither been passive nor hesitant,” Khamenei said in his speech.

Comparing Khamenei's statement to the philosophy of the German Nazi politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany Joseph Goebbels, Qadyani has insisted, "the Supreme Leader believes that if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it, hesitating to question its credibility. The bigger a lie, the better."

In an earlier letter published in November, Qadyani had described lifetime appointments, including that of the Supreme Leader, as the “mother of all corruption.”

"The power in Iran, as everybody knows, is monopolized by the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist (the philosophy behind the position of the Supreme Leader). Therefore, since the Supreme Leader is under nobody's supervision and not accountable to any institution, he is responsible for spreading the corrupt products of the concentrated power for life across the land,” he wrote.

Qadyani, himself a former pro-reform activist, also criticized Iranian reformists in his most recent communication from behind bars for their steadfast belief that the regime can reform itself.

“They [reformists] want to reform a corrupt and flawed structure,” he wrote, “they are either not reformists or simply cherish an impossible dream.”

He called on all political activists, including those in the reform camp, to demand Khamenei step down. Otherwise, he warned, Iranians may face the same sad fate as Libyans and Iraqis, whose dictators were forced from power.

"The current dominant regime will never submit to reform since its legal and real structure is fundamentally against reform," Qadyani argued, adding, "Therefore, it should be forced by resistance and persistence to accept structural amendment through reform or national referendum.”

Qadyani is in prison along with many other political activists who publicly challenged the results of the 2009 presidential election. Along with fourteen other activists, he signed a statement in 2017 demanding a referendum on changing Iran’s cleric-dominated ruling system to one of secular democracy.

Iran's Khamenei Doubted Europe Could Help Tehran Against U.S. Sanctions

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of the air force staff in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. Khamenei is defending "Death to
LONDON, March 4 (Reuters)

A closed-door speech last year by Iran's Supreme Leader voicing doubt about the Iranian government's diplomatic overtures to Europe was released on Monday in a sign of feuding over foreign policy that led to a brief resignation by the foreign minister.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's address in mid-2018 appeared to forecast European difficulties in honouring pledges to protect trade with Iran from new U.S. sanctions after Washington's repudiation of world powers' 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

The publication of Khamenei's speech eight months after the fact showed that while President Hassan Rouhani was trying to save the nuclear deal with European powers, who remained committed despite the U.S. exit, Khamenei was not optimistic.

The Europeans would naturally say they are protecting Iranian interests with their package but the Iranian government "should not make this a main issue", Khamenei, an anti-Western hardliner, was quoted as saying by his official website.

He said the nuclear deal did not resolve “any of the economic problems” of Iran. He predicted that a mechanism proposed by the EU to shield business with Iran against the U.S. sanctions would also be no panacea for Iran's economic hardship.

"(The Europeans) are bad. They are really bad. I have a lot to say about the Europeans; not because of their current policies, but their mischievous nature over the last few centuries," said Khamenei. "Do not tie the Iranian economy to something that is out of our control."

BRIEF RESIGNATION

His speech, made in a meeting with the cabinet, were published a week after Rouhani rejected the resignation of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, a U.S.-educated veteran diplomat who championed the nuclear deal.

Khamenei's comments cast doubt on the efficiency of Zarif's past and present efforts to keep the agreement alive.

Zarif, who retracted his resignation after Rouhani refused to accept it, said on Monday he had acted in order to preserve the dignity and credibility of the Foreign Ministry, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

"It should be sensed in the world that the words of the Foreign Ministry are the words of the entire country and its leaders," Zarif said, according to Fars news agency.

"And this ministry is responsible for the foreign relations of the whole country. It's not that any body inside or outside the government has its own foreign policy, and we're only responsible for the foreign policy of the foreign ministry. In that case, there would be no need for a foreign ministry."

Iran and six big powers struck the nuclear deal in 2015 after over a decade of negotiations. Sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Nations were lifted in return for Iran agreeing long-term curbs on a nuclear programme the West suspected was geared to developing an atom bomb.

ROWS OVER RELATIONS WITH WEST

Iranian politics has long been riven by factional struggles, especially on fraught relations with the West.

While Rouhani and his moderate camp still back the nuclear deal and seek rapprochement with the United States and Europe, hardliners, echoing Khamenei’s stance, reject any yielding to foreign pressure as inimical to Islamic revolutionary values.

Khamenei, who has the final say on all major Iranian domestic and foreign policy and only reluctantly backed the nuclear negotiations, warned Rouhani's government on Monday not to be deceived by European countries and their "smiles".

France, Germany and Britain opened a new channel for non-dollar trade with Iran in January, although diplomats say it is unlikely to enable the big transactions Tehran says are needed to keep a nuclear deal afloat.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi praised the proposed EU mechanism, known as Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), as a "late but important step". Qasemi, however, warned that the Islamic Republic would accept no conditions from the EU.

"The European countries know we do not accept conditions and we do not seek permission for our foreign policy."

France has called on Iran to stop all activities linked to its ballistic missile programme or face sanctions.

Iran has threatened to pull out of the 2015 deal itself unless EU powers demonstrably protect its economic benefits. The Europeans have promised to help companies do business with Iran as long as it abides by the deal.

The new sanctions imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump have largely succeeded in persuading European companies to shelve business projects with Iran.

The Trump administration says that although Iran has met the deal's terms, the accord was too generous, failing to rein in ballistic missile testing or to curb Iranian involvement in regional conflicts such as Syria and Yemen.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Babak Dehghanpisheh Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photojournalist Yannis Behrakis Dead At 58

FILE PHOTO:A member of the Ukrainian synchronised swimming team performs its free routine during an Olympic Games qualification tournament at the Olympic Aquatic Centre of the Athens Olympic Sports Complex (OAKA) April 17, 2004. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis/

Yannis Behrakis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, has died after a battle with cancer. He was 58.

His death on March 3 was confirmed by his employer, Reuters, where he had worked since 1987.

For 30 years, Athens-born Behrakis covered many of the most tumultuous events around the world, including conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and Chechnya, a huge earthquake in Kashmir, and the Egyptian uprising of 2011.

Behrakis receives the Photo Trophy awarded by Nikon during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Bayeux-Calvados festival in Bayeux, France, in October 2016.
Behrakis receives the Photo Trophy awarded by Nikon during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Bayeux-Calvados festival in Bayeux, France, in October 2016.

"My mission is to tell you the story and then you decide what you want to do," he once said in discussing the European migrant crisis. "My mission is to make sure that nobody can say: 'I didn't know'."

His pictures won international awards, including the World Press Photo in 2000 and Photographer of the Year by The Guardian in 2015.

A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to leave a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos, in September 2015.
A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to leave a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing part of the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesbos, in September 2015.


Behrakis led a team of Reuters photographers to the 2016 Pulitzer Prize, covering the refugee crisis.

"His pictures shaped the very way in which we perceived events, from the war in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone to the refugee crisis and the Arab Spring,” Greece's foreign press association said.

Antigovernment protesters carry an injured man on a stretcher after clashes with riot police on Independence Square in Kyiv on February 20, 2014.
Antigovernment protesters carry an injured man on a stretcher after clashes with riot police on Independence Square in Kyiv on February 20, 2014.

In a message posted on Twitter, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi praised Behrakis for highlighting the plight of refugees.

“Mourning photographer @yannisBehrakis, who helped us remember a fact most obvious but frequently forgotten - that fleeing refugees are above all human beings in danger and distress,” Grandi said.

FILE PHOTO: Iranian women pray at the site in Masala square where the body to Ayatollah Khomeini lies in state, in Tehran, Iran, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
FILE PHOTO: Iranian women pray at the site in Masala square where the body to Ayatollah Khomeini lies in state, in Tehran, Iran, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

FILE PHOTO: A woman from an African Islamic country (in white) stands among Iranian women during the national anthem of Iran at the opening session of the 8th Islamic Conference Summit in Tehran's new conference building on December 9. REUTERS/Yannis Behr
FILE PHOTO: A woman from an African Islamic country (in white) stands among Iranian women during the national anthem of Iran at the opening session of the 8th Islamic Conference Summit in Tehran's new conference building on December 9. REUTERS/Yannis Behr

FILE PHOTO: A man is carried at the site in Masala square where the body to Ayatollah Khomeini lies in state, in Tehran, Iran, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis
FILE PHOTO: A man is carried at the site in Masala square where the body to Ayatollah Khomeini lies in state, in Tehran, Iran, June 5, 1989. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Kurdish Syrian immigrant Sahin Serko cries next to his 7-year-old daughter Ariana minutes after crossing the border into Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on May 14, 2015.
Kurdish Syrian immigrant Sahin Serko cries next to his 7-year-old daughter Ariana minutes after crossing the border into Macedonia near the Greek village of Idomeni on May 14, 2015.
Kurdish civilians are seen atop a hill overlooking the Syrian town of Kobani on November 3, 2014.
Kurdish civilians are seen atop a hill overlooking the Syrian town of Kobani on November 3, 2014.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Crisis Leads Iranian Armed Forces Banks To Be Merged Into Bank Sepah

File photo:Iranians withdraw money from an ATM machine at a Bank Sepah in the capital Tehran on January 19, 2016. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The Central bank of Iran (CBI) announced on Saturday March 2 That five banks and financial institutions affiliated with the Iranian armed forces will be merged into Bank Sepah.

Iranian banks have been suffering from financial crisis for several years, with outstanding loans given to insiders and lack of proper banking supervision. Many credit institutions have gone bankrupt, leaving millions of ordinary people with no savings.

This has put undue burden on the government and the central bank to often rescue shaky banks.

According to the CBI, the measure is based on a ratification by the Money and Credit Council and the High Economic Council, which has been approved by the heads of the three branches of the government as part of an initiative "to reform the banking system and putting the money market in proper shape."

Iranian economist Ahmad Alavi told Radio Farda that, "According to the Central Bank the aim of the merger is to 'solve some problems' in the banking system, but there is no transparency regarding the nature of those problems. However, the problems appear to be a combination of lack of compliance to banking regulations, lack of transparency, as well as money laundering and high risk of bankruptcy."

Alavi stresses that these banks are plagued by widespread corruption, and offering unreasonable interests, while they are practically on the verge of bankruptcy because of heavy losses. Nevertheless, the Central Bank conceals the problem to prevent customers from rushing to the banks to withdraw their money.

The five entities to be merged into Bank Sepah are: Bank Ansar, Bank Qavamin, Bank Hekmat Iranian, Bank Mehr Eqtesad and Kowsar Credit Institute. Some of these are said to be suffering from accrued losses.

Kowsar Credit Institute was established by the Ministry of Defense in 2008. Bank Ansar belongs to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and is part of the IRGC's cooperative foundation.

Bank Mehr Eqtesad Iran, which belongs to the Basij militia force, was first launched as the Basij Fund in 1993 to offer banking services to Basij members, but it later extended the scope of its activities to public domain.

Bank Qavamin was established in the year 2000 by Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who was Iran's police chief at the time. Qalibaf later started his political activity and became the mayor of Tehran and took part in several rounds of presidential elections with no success.

Bank Hekmat Iranian belongs to the army of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The Central bank says that after the merger, all of the services rendered previously to their customers by individual entities, will be offered by Bank Sepah "with a strong management, as usual."

It was the Iranian minister of defense brigadier general Amir Hatami, who in 2017 first broke the news about delegating some of the financial entities affiliated with the armed forces to civilian organizations.

Hatami said at the time, that the Islamic Republic leader Ali Khamenei has ordered the chief of staff of the armed forces to do a feasibility study about delegating "irrelevant" organizations within the army, IRGC and Ministry of Defense to civilian bodies.

Bank Sepah, which is going to take delivery of the armed forces' financial empire, has been maintaining close links to the military from the date of its inception, as it is the bank that handles military personnel's financial affairs, including their salaries and pensions.

Some economic observers say like most other Iranian Banks, Sepah has not been paid back the loans it has given to well-connected individuals and financial entities in recent years.

According to the Central Bank, the Iranian Stock Exchange Organization is to handle issues relating to the shareholders of the four bank and one financial institutions to be merged in Bank Sepah.

The CBI has promised that all those who worked for individual banks and institutions would be carrying out their responsibilities as before and the payment of their salaries will not be halted at any point. However, economic analysts have said that laying off a number of their staff members currently working at more than 2000 branches will be inevitable.

Previous plans by banking managers for the merger of some of these banks have remained inconclusive. However, the merger is more likely to materialize this time as it is evident by the calibre of decision makers and the pressures on the banking system that forces it to tighten its organization.

Iran Vehemently Rejects U.N. Human Rights Report

File photo:Mohammad Javad Larijani of Iran's human rights council

The Iranian Judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights has lambasted the United Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights in Iran for his latest report on the country.

In his latest report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on February 27, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman voiced concern over human rights violations in Iran, in particular the way the death penalty is implemented.

A British-Pakistani legal scholar and professor of Islamic law and international law at Brunel University, Rehman expressed deep regret that children as young as 9 years old can still be executed, noting that at least 33 minors have been executed since 2013.

Retaliating, the Iranian judiciary’s High Council for Human Rights rejected the report as baseless, saying Rehman is "misusing his position to spread propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

Once again, Tehran has responded by targeting the UN rapporteur rather than the facts reflected in his report, according to human rights activists.

In a statement issued on March 2, the High Council for Human Rights said Rehman’s numerous "interviews" with various media outlets including the BBC, which is “well known for its hostile reports against Iran,” are “a blatant violation” of the UN framework, within which he has been chosen as special rapporteur, local news outlets reported.

The High Council for Human Rights is led by the brother of the judiciary and parliament speaker Mohammad Javad Larijani, who cautioned that if the UN high commissioner is incapable of controlling Rehman's violations and stop his misbehavior, Tehran will review its overall cooperation with the international body.

However, Larijani did not elaborate on the accusations leveled against Rehman.

Focusing on the execution of child offenders, Rehman had said that Iran must "urgently amend legislation to prohibit the execution of persons who committed [a crime] while below the age of 18 years and as such are children, and urgently amend the legislation to commute all existing sentences for child offenders on death row.”

Directly addressing the high authorities in Iran, Rehman had asked them to provide the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special rapporteur with a list of all child offenders on death row.

Responding to the report, Larijani has sufficed to dismiss Rehman's report as "baseless" and "unrealistic.”

Echoing Larijani's statement, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi also said Iran believes that the extension of the mandate of the special rapporteur for another year is “unjustifiable and unnecessary.”

Once again, Qassemi stopped short of presenting any evidence proving Rehman's latest report as irrelevant and unfair.

Tehran has not responded yet to Rahman's allegations, which include coerced confessions, suppressing workers, teachers, and Sufi dervishes of the Gonabadi denomination, and widespread discrimination against the Kurdish, Baha'i, and Sunni minorities.

Executions Down In Iran, But Total 6,000 In Ten Years - Report

Iranian criminals hang limply from the nooses during public execution. File photo

An Oslo-based human rights organization monitoring the death penalty in Iran has disclosed that the country has executed nearly 6,000 people over the past decade.

In its annual report published on February 26, Iran Human Rights (IRH) announced it had evidence showing that almost 6,000 people were executed in the fourth decade since the establishment of the so-called Islamic Republic in Iran.

The report, which focused on executions over the past year, maintained that in 2018 at least 273 people were executed in Iran. This is the lowest number since 2007 and represents a 47 percent drop from the previous year. IHR also noted that the reduction is mainly due to a decline in the number of drug-related executions, following the enforcement of amendments to the anti-narcotics law, which aims to restrict the use of the death penalty for such offenses. The number of drug-related executions declined from 230 in 2017 to 24 in 2018, according to the report.

“This is probably the most significant step toward limitation in the use of the death penalty in the history of the Islamic Republic and probably 2018’s most significant change in death penalty trends worldwide. We hope it is the first step of many that the Iranian authorities must take in order to improve their dark human rights record,” IHR spokesman Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam said.

IHR insisted that due to a lack of transparency it is not known how many death sentences have been commuted thanks to the new legislation but the execution of 20 drug offenders in the last three months of the year gives "one reason to fear" that the reduction of drug-related death sentences might have come to an end.

IHR criticized the legal procedures behind the death penalty in Iran. "Lack of due process, legal provisions contrary to international human rights treaties, public executions, juvenile executions, harassment of human rights defenders, and a lack of transparency on use of the death penalty remain major issues [in Iran]," it said in the report.
In violation of international obligations, IHR noted, Iranian authorities continue to execute juvenile offenders. At least six juvenile offenders were executed in 2018, one more than the previous year, and several juveniles are in danger of execution, it reported.

Amnesty International and UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of the Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman have also recently raised deep concern over the execution of juvenile offenders in Iran.

In his latest report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council on February 27, British-Pakistani legal scholar and professor of Islamic law and international law at Brunel University Javaid Rehman said children as young as 9 years old can still be executed in Iran, noting that at least 33 minors have been executed in the country since 2013.

Despite its commitment to the international conventions, Iran is the only country in the world that still executes underage offenders.

IHR reported that only 34 percent of the executions in Iran were publicly announced by the ruling establishment, and the rest were divulged by IHR sources in the country. Seventy percent of executions in 2018 were related to murder charges.

"In 2018, the Iranian authorities once again displayed their systematic violations of due process and the rule of law. Televised confessions, unfair trials, and reports of torture are reminders of the fact that sustainable improvements in the status of human rights and serious steps towards abolition of the death penalty are not possible without fundamental changes in Iran’s judicial system," IHR said.

IHR said that the Iranian authorities have demonstrated their willingness to use the death penalty as a means to intimidate civil society and counteract public protests.

Referring to the brutal suppression of Sufi dervishes of the Gonabadi denomination, IHR highlighted the execution of dervish Mohammad Salas, who was executed for allegedly running a bus over the security forces and killing three. Salas and his lawyer, prominent Iranian legal counsel, Zeinab Taheri, had argued that he had not even been present at the scene of the crime.

IHR also noted the execution of three members of another minority group, saying that Iran used the execution of Kurdish political prisoners as a means of intimidating growing Kurdish civil movements while threatening striking truck drivers and shopkeepers with the death penalty.

"These are just a few examples of how the Iranian authorities use the death penalty as an instrument of oppression of the people," IHR said.

The Iranian Criminal Code allows for several execution methods, including hanging, firing squad, crucifixion, and stoning. However, hanging has been the only method used since 2010.

The 11th Annual Report on the Death Penalty in Iran by IHR and ECPM coincides with the 40th anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution and the downfall of the monarchy.

IHR's report does not include extrajudicial killings at Iranian prisons.

Iran is believed to execute the most people per capita and ranks second worldwide for the number of executions. The extensive list of crimes punishable by death in Iran includes alcohol consumption, sexual relations, and drug trafficking as well as plotting against the regime, “spreading corruption on Earth,” and “waging war against God.”

Imprisoned Iran Activist Denied Hospital Visit Despite International Calls

Iranian civil and labor activist Sepideh Qolian (Gholian). File photo

The head prosecutor in the city of Shush has rejected calls to have imprisoned journalist and civil rights activist Sepideh Qolian (Gholian) taken to a hospital.

Citing an "informed source, the New York-based Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that at a meeting with her relatives last week, Qolian was in “extremely alarming mental and physical condition.”

"Qolian had lost weight, could not keep her balance while walking, and was reciting melancholic verses," the source told CHRI.

According to the Telegram app channel of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane mill workers’ union, Qolian, who is currently in solitary confinement, has been denied crucial medical treatment.

“Her condition has become so bad that she needs to be quickly taken to a medical center. But the prosecutor and Intelligence Ministry authorities in Shush are keeping her in solitary confinement in order to put more pressure on her and her family. They are putting her under the maximum amount of physical and mental pressure while she is sick and weak,” the union said.
Qolian’s relatives had asked the Shush prosecutor to allow her to be taken to a hospital, but they were told she would be visited by the prison's physician if needed.

Previously, the union had disclosed that Qolian, along with Haft Tapeh workers' spokesman Esmail Bakhshi, had been pressured to make "forced confessions" and written apologies.

“My client is under such intense pressure that he lost consciousness in front of his family during a visit today [February 24], and for a moment they thought he had died. Fortunately, he regained consciousness,” Bakhshi's attorney, Farzaneh Zilabi, told the union.

Bakhshi is the spokesman for the independent trade union of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane industrial complex, which has seen repeated strikes and protests in recent months, with workers demanding back pay and better conditions. Qolian and Bakhshi were first arrested on November 18 during protests at the complex along with more than a dozen other activists and workers.

Bakhshi and Qolian were released on December 12 after 80 international labor organizations signed a letter addressed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for the release of all peacefully protesting workers.

After alleging abusive treatment while in detention and challenging the intelligence minister to a live television debate, Bakhshi, along with Qolian, was arrested again on January 20.

"I was beaten and tortured almost to death for no reason," Bakhshi said before he was re-arrested. "I was so badly battered that I could not move for 72 hours in my solitary confinement cell. The pain was so unbearable that it made sleeping impossible.”

Backing up Bakhshi's remarks, Qolian said she was also beaten and showered with sexualized insults while in custody.

In response, state television aired a “documentary” aiming to discredit the labor rights movement in which the activists said they were forced to confess to being part of an international Marxist cabal.

Aired on primetime national TV on January 19, the program attempted to connect the recent strikes and protest rallies at the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane plant to an Iranian exiled dissident group, the Worker-Communist Party of Iran (WCPI) Marxist, as well as to the United States and Israel.

Speaking exclusively to Radio Farda, WCPI's spokesman categorically denied any relation with Bakhshi.

The Haft Tapeh trade union also issued a statement calling the program “a desperate attempt to suppress the righteous voice of the workers, toilers, and oppressed.”

Amnesty International (AI) has launched a campaign for the unconditional and immediate release of Bakhshi and Qolian.

In a written letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, AI Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa Philip Luther said, "I urge you to ensure that Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Qolian are released immediately and unconditionally as they are prisoners of conscience, jailed solely for peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression, association, and assembly; pending their release, they are protected from further torture and other ill-treatment; their allegations of torture are investigated and those responsible are brought to justice in fair trials."

According to AI, “There are real fears that Esmail Bakhshi and Sepideh Qolian could be facing a second round of torture after their re-arrest. The timing of their arrest strongly suggests it is part of a sinister attempt to silence and punish them for speaking out about the horrific abuse they suffered in custody."

CHRI, Human Rights Watch, independent trade unions, and more than 800 civil rights activists have also called for the unconditional and immediate release of Qolian and Bakhshi.

Ex-judge Guilty In Argentina Of Cover-Up In 1994 Jewish Bombing Case

People hold up pictures of those who died in the AMIA Jewish center bombing that killed 85 people as they commemorate the attack's 22nd anniversary in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Monday, July 18, 2016. File photo

The former Argentine judge who led the probe into the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires was jailed for his role in a cover-up Thursday, but the country's former president Carlos Menem was acquitted.

Juan Jose Galeano -- who for a decade led the initial investigation into Argentina's worst terror attack -- was jailed for six years for concealment and violation of evidence.

Former intelligence chief Hugo Anzorreguy was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail for his role in obstructing the probe of the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) center, which killed 85 people and injured 300 others.

They were among 13 defendants facing a slew of corruption and obstruction of justice charges in a trial that lasted four years.

"I am at peace. We wanted the truth and they are going to pay for what they did," said Jorge Burstein, a member of an association for the AMIA victims.

But he added that the "investigation must continue."

No one has ever been convicted of the bombing, though Argentina -- and Israel -- have long pointed the finger at Iran.

They suspect a Lebanese Hezbollah operative of carrying out the suicide bombing on Tehran's orders.

But decades of investigation in Argentina have been roiled by political interference and allegations of high-level corruption.

Shady dealings

On Thursday -- nearly 25 years after the bombing -- the court sentenced Carlos Telledin, a used car dealer who sold the van that contained the bomb, to three-and-a-half years in jail.

Prosecutors said Galeano paid Telledin -- who was also a police informant -- $400,000 to implicate a group of police officers early on in the probe.

Galeano however denied prosecutors' assertions that he had acted on the orders of Menem, who is now 88.

Prosecutors had called for a four-year jail sentence for Menem, Argentina's president from 1989-1999, on grounds that he ordered the cover-up.

The aging statesman gave little away in his testimony to the court, keeping mum on what his lawyer said were state secrets that could affect Argentina's "peaceful coexistence with other nations."

Argentina's President Carlos Menem wearing a presidential sash while attending Te Deum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 9, 1996.
Argentina's President Carlos Menem wearing a presidential sash while attending Te Deum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, July 9, 1996.

As he left the court Thursday, Menem's lawyer Omar Daer described the former president as "relieved," adding that the court had shown "that there never was an order on his part to stop the investigation."

Menem was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2013 for violating an international arms embargo in a weapons deal. Again, in 2015, he received a four-and-a-half-year sentence for bribing officials.

But his status as a member of the Argentine senate means that he has benefited from immunity from imprisonment.

Buried leads

Decades of obstructed investigation meant a key line of enquiry in the case, the so-called Syrian track, was abandoned -- a lapse lamented by prosecutor Miguel Yivoff during the trial.

That track led to Syrian businessman Alberto Kanoore Edul, a boyhood friend of Menem. The prosecutor said that on the day of the attack, the businessman had spoken with Telledin.

Galeano, the ex-judge, said during the trial that the investigation was flawed by problems within the Argentine secret services.

He was accused of acting on Menem's orders to drop the Syrian track of the investigation implicating Edul and other businessmen linked to the purchase of the bomb materials.

In addition to Galeano and the intelligence chief, two police officers and two former prosecutors in the case were also sentenced to jail time.

However, a former Jewish community leader, Ruben Beraja, as well as a lawyer and two former members of the intelligence services, were acquitted.

Prosecutors separately indicted ex-president Cristina Kirchner in 2017 for whitewashing Iran's alleged role in the attack.

Kirchner had the Argentine Congress's backing for a 2012 political deal with Iran to allow Iranian suspects to be questioned in their own country by Argentine prosecutors.

The deal was never ratified by Tehran, but prosecutors investigating Kirchner for corruption say the deal was effectively a cover-up to absolve Iran in return for lucrative trade deals with her government.

Tehran has always refused to hand over Iranian diplomats suspected of having participated in the planning of the attack.

Iran Ranks Near Bottom On World Bank Index Of Women’s Equality

Rouhani female supporters in an election rally on May 9, 2017. Gender equality was stressed by women as one of their important demands during election rallies.

Women in Iran are paid less than three-quarters of the salaries paid to their male compatriots, the World Bank said in a study published February 28. In terms of economic equality for women, Iran ranks 185 out of 187 countries included in the study, behind only Saudi Arabia and Sudan.

The study, titled "Women, Business, and the Law 2019: A Decade of Reform,” examined ten years of data, exploring how the economic decisions women make are affected by the law. It examined 35 indicators of equality, covering topics ranging from property ownership and inheritance laws to job protections and pension policies, as well as rules governing marriage, movement, travel, pay, and personal safety.

In addition to being ranked against other nations, the countries included in the study were given scores on a 100-point scale. The Islamic Republic obtained only 31.25 points, while the global average score is nearly 75. Among the countries Iran fell behind in the scoring are the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa and Uzbekistan in Central Asia, both of which scored 70 points.

“If women have equal opportunities to reach their full potential, the world would not only be fairer, it would be more prosperous as well,” World Bank Interim President Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement.

The six countries that received a perfect score of 100, Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg, and Sweden, were found to give women and men equal legal rights in the measured areas. However, none of these economies garnered the maximum score a decade ago, indicating they have all implemented reforms in the meantime.

The report also shows progress over the past ten years overall, with the average score rising from 70 to 75. The reports authors attributed this gain to laws and regulations passed over the last decade allowing greater inclusion of women. The report cited 274 reforms in 131 countries.

The report found that 35 countries have proposed laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, granting protections to an additional two billion women, while 22 nations have abolished restrictions that kept women out of certain industrial sectors.

According to the World Bank, Iran is the second largest economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region after Saudi Arabia, with an estimated Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2016 of $412.2 billion.

Taliban Revive Harsh Rule In A Remote Afghan Province

Women in the Taliban controlled parts of Badakhshan are not allowed to step outside without a male guardian (file photo).

RFE/RL Gandhara - The Taliban never managed to capture the mountainous northeastern province of Badakhshan when they swept Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Today, they control large parts of the remote region bordering Tajikistan, Pakistan, and China, and the hard-line Islamist movement has revived its harsh rule there. Now billing themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, formal name of the Taliban, the movement still focuses on curtailing individual freedoms, imposing gender segregation, strict rules, and punishments in the name of Islamic Shari’a law.

As the United States attempts to negotiate peace with the Taliban, many Afghans see the insurgents’ worldview as largely unchanged after a quarter-century of fighting.

Minagul Osmani, a 24-year-old Afghan woman, first fled Taliban rule when the insurgents overran her village in Badakhshan’s Warduj district in 2015.

Now living in neighboring Baharak district, she told Radio Free Afghanistan that the Taliban’s first major change was to impose harsh rules for women. “They do not allow women to step outside without a male guardian,” she said.

Compared with the Afghan government, Osmani noted, the Taliban are unable to provide key services. “They closed the school and health clinic,” she said. “After the elders intervened, they reopened the school, but the clinic remains closed, which really affects pregnant women and mothers with young children.”

A farmer living in Warduj says he has seen the Taliban dole out harsh Islamic punishments. The Taliban follow a strict criminal code called Hudood, which ordains punishments such as amputating limbs for theft, stoning for adultery, and lashes for alcohol consumption.

“I have seen people stoned to death, hands amputated, and people flogged,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan, requesting his name be withheld due to possible Taliban reprisals. “Women are flogged if they go out without male guardians.”

The farmer says he has been beaten by the Taliban many times. He says the arrival of the Taliban has increased poverty in the region, where most people depend on subsistence farming and animal husbandry.

FILE: A protest rally in Badakhshan
FILE: A protest rally in Badakhshan

“There is a shortage of food, and people can often be seen begging at mosques,” he said. “Despite this, Taliban fighters often force people to feed them.”

He says he longs for a return to government control.

“It was much easier to talk to government officials. They sometimes listened,” he said. “The Taliban only expect us only to obey.”

In an apparent effort to appeal to more Afghans, the Taliban have tried to show flexibility on some of their harshest policies, stating that the movement is not seeking a monopoly over power and is open to compromise.

The movement recently announced it is “committed to all rights of women.” But the commitment comes with some major caveats.

“Islam and then Afghan tradition [are] two major values of the Afghan Mujahid nation, so Islamic Emirate is also committed to all rights of women within this framework,” the February 5 Taliban statement noted. “The policy of the Islamic Emirate is to protect the rights of women in a way that neither their legitimate rights are violated, nor their human dignity and Afghan values are threatened.”

A closer reading reveals that the primary aim is still to create a state and society that the movement considers Islamic, which is why it wants to replace the current Afghan Constitution, which incorporates international human rights conventions.

“Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers it necessary that constitution must be based on principles of Islamic religion, national interests, historical achievements and social justice,” the Taliban statement said. “It should be committed to human dignity, national values and human rights, and could guarantee territorial integrity of the country and all rights of all the citizens.”

Ashley Jackson, a research associate with the Overseas Development Institute in London, has studied Taliban governance in rural Afghan regions.

She told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website that the Taliban leadership has learned from the movement’s mistakes and the challenges it faced while in government. She says there’s a sense of continuity despite the Taliban embracing some pragmatism while fighting a complicated insurgency since losing power in late 2001.

“The degree to which their fighters on the ground have changed in outlook and ideology is questionable,” she said. “At their core, they remain a highly conservative, rural-based movement that is seeking to restore a pure form of Islamic government -- which entails many familiar elements from the 1990s.”

According to the Afghan Analyst Network (AAN), some Badakhshan clerics and locals have been part of the Taliban since the 1990s. Apart from one major battle in 1998, control of Jamiat-e Islami, a predominantly Tajik Islamist party, was never challenged in Badakhshan.

With the help of local Tajik commanders, most of whom were educated at Pakistani religious schools, the Taliban ramped up its recruitment drive in 2004. In 2012, they increased military activities and the recruitment of graduates from madrasahs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many fighters hail from strategically located Warduj, and the region provides the bulk of local Taliban leaders and cadres in Badakhshan, according to AAN.

After overrunning Warduj in October 2015, the Taliban took over neighboring Baharak. Out of the 28 Badakhshan districts, they have also sporadically controlled or made incursions into Yumgan, Jurm, Raghistan, and Kohistan. While the government reclaimed several lost territories, the Taliban still control Warduj and Yumgan, although the violence has turned Badakhshan into a contested territory.

Mohammad Daulat Khawar, district governor of Warduj, operates out of Baharak. He says the 1,300 families who fled the Taliban’s capture of Warduj now live in dire conditions in Baharak.

Khawar told Radio Free Afghanistan that some of the 19 schools in Warduj have reopened after two years. The eight girls’ schools in the district are allowed to offer elementary and middle grades.

“Overall, the standard of living has taken a turn for the worse,” he said. “They have lost services, projects, and any prospects of work. Poverty is rampant.”

Mawlawi Abdul Wahab Majdi, 38, a former teacher at Warduj's women’s teacher-training college, says the college remains shut since the Taliban takeover. He says its more than 100 female students have been deprived of their education.

However, he sees some change in the Taliban’s behavior.

“The first two years after they took over was a reign of terror,” he noted. “But since last year they have changed and are now more cautious in their dealings with people.”

Rahmuddin, 49, who goes by one name only, hopes to return to Warduj with his 12 family members if peace returns. He supports the ongoing efforts to make peace with the Taliban but expects protection.

“We support a peace where the rights of all people are protected,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Otherwise our misery will not end, and there will be no peace.”

Illegal Villa Of Former Minister's Daughter To Be Demolished

A villa illegally built in the outskirts of Tehran was demolished recently. Another one belonging to the daughter of a former minister is slated to be also destroyed.

A villa owned by the daughter of a former member of President Hassan Rouhani's cabinet will be soon demolished, the state-run Mehr News Agency (MNA) cited the mayor of the city of Lavasan as saying on Thursday, February 28.

Days earlier, Friday Prayer Imam of the city, Saeid Lavasani had disclosed that three officials affiliated with the Endowment Organization of Tehran and Shemiranat have been arrested and charged with land-grabbing, abusing their authority.

Lavasan is an opulent town in Shemiranat County, Tehran Province, situated eleven kilometers (roughly seven miles) northeast of the capital Tehran.

The effluent city is known for its pleasant weather and the luxurious villas and home to many upper-class and wealthy families. Many Iranians call it the Beverly Hills or Switzerland of Tehran.

A tweet that says these villas belong to the sons of the elite and even the Shah could not imagine it.

Land-grabbing and speculation have recently placed the area under the magnifying glass of local news outlets in recent months. Furthermore, social media is loaded with images of unbelievably luxurious mansions in the city, while tens of thousands of Iranians live in cardboard boxes, and even in newly dug graves.

The name of Rouhani's former minister has not yet officially been revealed, but the daughter of his former minister of Industry, Mohammad Reza Ne'matzadeh, has recently been accused of illegally owning a plot in Lavasan and building a mansion on the usurped spot.

Former minister's young daughter, Shabnam Nematzadeh is the owner and Managing Director of Rasa Pharmed, a company that dominates a big chunk of Iran's medicine business.

Shabnam Nematzadeh's mansion, if demolished, will be the second of its kind. Late November last year, another villa built on the mountainside in a neighboring posh area, Oushan, was also demolished.

In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, men take pictures while visiting Niavaran Palace, now a museum, that was the primary and last residence of late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his family prior to leaving Iran for exile in 1979.
In this Jan. 15, 2019 photo, men take pictures while visiting Niavaran Palace, now a museum, that was the primary and last residence of late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his family prior to leaving Iran for exile in 1979.

There are other similar cases under investigation, local media report.

Some of the mansions built by wealthy and influential families in posh areas near Tehran are even more majestic than the modest palaces of the former king of Iran, Shah Mohammad Pahlavi, who left the country after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Pictures of the former king's palace in Tehran are circulated on social media side by side the magnificent new mansions as a comparison.

Khamenei's Silence Keeps Anti-Money Laundering Bills In Limbo

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. File photo

Gholamali Haddad Adel, a member of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council and a close relative of Iran’s Supreme Leader, says Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has not expressed any view on two bills that would join Iran to the Palermo Convention about money laundering and anti-terror financing.

These are two of the four bills the Iranian parliament has approved to meet the requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), but constitutional watchdog Guardian Council has ruled it out and the case has been referred to the EDC as the final arbiter.

Speaking to Fars news agency on February 28, Haddad Adel added that Khamenei “has not confirmed the views of those who support the bill and has asked the council members to pay more attention to the faults they have found in the bill.”

This contradicts Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s recent remark about Khamenei supporting the approval of the bill.

The Iranian currency has dropped against the dollar after the council postponed the discussions about the bills.

The opponents of legislation, who also oppose the Rouhani administration, say that approving the bills against money laundering and funding terrorism will prevent Iran from extending financial assistance to HAMAS and the Lebanese Hezbollah, while also leaving the doors open for espionage against the Islamic Republic.

The bill’s supporters say its opponents in fact fear economic transparency and prevention of financial corruption.

There were originally four bills and two have been approved but the remaining bills are still waiting final approval by the Expediency Discernment Council.

The FATF has already renewed Iran’s deadline to join the four conventions against money laundering and financing terrorism four times, most recently in mid-February. Eventually, if Iran fails to meet FATF’s requirement, it will be listed once again in the FATF’s black list, making it even harder for Iran to run its international financial affairs including repatriating its oil revenues.

Rouhani said in December that Iran spends 20 percent more than other countries on its international financial transactions because it has failed to ratify the four bills.

In the meantime, members of the parliament and the Expediency Council who have openly supported the ratification of the bills have received death threats from unknown senders, presumably hardliners.

Some conspiracy theorists speculated that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s attempted resignation this week was a stunt by the administration to make Khamenei express a clear position about the bills. Rouhani even tried to put words in Khamenei’s mouth but the denial by Haddad Adel proved Rouhani wrong and left the problem unsolved.

On the other hand, Khamenei has often evaded a clear decision or public statement about certain controversial issues, so every side of the argument can claim the Supreme Leader is on their side. His silence on this issue has changed the minds of some council members such as Ahmad Tavakoli who has turned against the bills after months of supporting the legislation.

Once again, the Islamic Republic appears to be in a deadlock because of its structural flaws and blurred lines od responsibility. This time, the indecision is endangering Iranians’ livelihood as collecting the oil money could become even more difficult for the Islamic Republic while sanctions are tearing apart its economy.

UN Urges Iran To End Child Executions

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres (C) and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet (R) arrive at the opening day of the 40th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on February 25, 2019 in Geneva. (Photo by F

In his latest report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council February 27, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran Javaid Rehman raised his concern over human rights violations in Iran, paying particular attention to the way the death penalty is carried out in the Islamic Republic.

A British-Pakistani legal scholar and Professor of Islamic Law and International Law at Brunel University, Rehman expressed deep regret that children as young as nine years old can still be executed, noting that at least 33 minors have been executed for their offenses since 2013.

Javaid Rehman is a British-Pakistani legal scholar and Professor of Islamic Law and International Law at Brunel University and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Javaid Rehman is a British-Pakistani legal scholar and Professor of Islamic Law and International Law at Brunel University and the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Rehman said Iran must "urgently amend legislation to prohibit the execution of persons who committed [a crime] while below the age of 18 years and as such are children, and urgently amend the legislation to commute all existing sentences for child offenders on death row.”

Directly addressing the high authorities in Iran, Rehman has asked them to provide the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur with a list of all child offenders on death row.

While praising the decline of the number of executions related to narcotics and drugs smuggling following a recent amendment of the law, Rehman noted that the death penalty should only be imposed for the “most serious crimes,” a term widely understood to mean only premeditated killings.

“Concerns were raised following the establishment of special courts in August 2018 to try 'economic crimes' which carry the death penalty,” Rehman said.

Furthermore, Rehman pointed to reports indicating that ethnic and religious minority groups constitute a disproportionately large percentage of persons executed or imprisoned in Iran

"Concerns have been raised, for example, about the situation of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Kurdish Iranian, whose death sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court upon its second review in October 2018 amidst reports that he had been subjected to torture in detention and had been denied access to a lawyer of his choice" Rehman maintained.

Rehman also raised the issues of the detention of Iranians with dual citizenship, the suppression of ethnic minorities, including Sufi dervishes of the Gonabadi denomination, Baha'is, newly converted Christians, and widespread detentions in the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kurdestan, and Sistan & Blauchestan.

The recent crackdown on labor rights in Iran was also given special attention in Rehman’s report.

Workers’ strikes at the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane mill in the city of Shush, the Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) in Ahvaz, in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, as well as widespread protests by teachers and truckers were noted.

Rehman offered the Islamic Republic a list of recommendations for improving its human rights record, including ending the death penalty for all but the most serious crimes, ensuring that prisoners are protected from torture and ill-treatment, including coerced confessions, guaranteeing all accused access to a lawyer of their choosing, and addressing all forms of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities and ending persecutions of these groups.

Ancient Engraved Signatures Of Masons Found In Iran

Signatures of stonemasons dating back to Achaemenid empire discovered in Iran.

Signatures of stone masons have been discovered in a 2500-year-old site in southern Iran, the state-run Iran Labor News Agency (ILNA) cited a prominent archeologist on February 25.

The ancient autographs engraved into blocks of stone date back to the days of Cyrus the Great, ruling over the vast Achaemenid Persian Empire, says the prominent Iranian archaeologist, Afshin Yazdani.

The huge engraved stones were found in an Achaemenid diamond mine in Sivand, in the city of Pasargadae, in Fars province, southern Iran.

"Based on new discoveries, we found three different types of ancient masons' signatures", Yazdani asserted, adding, "The most clear-cut of the stones was found at the southern front of 'Takhtgah' (where the imperial throne is located)."

Honor Guard At The Tomb Of Cyrus The Great In 1971
Honor Guard At The Tomb Of Cyrus The Great In 1971

Based on the traditions of the time, Takhtgah was the royal palace of Cyrus' capital city. He had employed the most skilled architects and masons of his large empire to build Takhtgah's parapet.

The signatures show that the builders of Takhtgah were working under three distinct groups led by a single master stonecutter.

The engraved stones have been found 32 km (roughly twenty miles) from Pasargadae. Apparently, the stones were left there, since Cyrus died and his plan to build Takhtgah never finished.

Pasargadae is a complex of buildings, including the Mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, remains of the palaces of Achaemenid kings and successors of the legendary monarch, royal gardens, fountains and stone aqueducts.

The new discovery will help historians, anthropologists and sociologists among others to understand the mechanism and system through which the labor force was employed 2500 years ago, Yazdani believes.

Pasargadae was the capital of the Achaemenid Empire under Cyrus the Great (559–530 BC), who ordered its construction. It is located near the city of Shiraz, southeast Iran. One of Iran's UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Pasargadae includes the limestone mausoleum of Cyrus the Great, who has been praised in Jewish scripture as "messiah" and "anointed" for helping captive jews to return to their homeland. Cyrus is the only gentile (non-Jewish) figure in the Bible to be called so.

One of the few surviving sources of information that can be dated directly to Cyrus's time is the Cyrus Cylinder, now kept at the British Museum in London.
Many believe that the Cylinder is the first human rights charter ever composed.

European Lawmakers Call For Release Of Iran Environmentalists

Iran ecologists imprisoned for more than a year in Iran on vague security charges. File photo

In a letter to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, 26 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have expressed their "strong concern" over the prolonged detention of eight Iranian environmentalists accused of spying.

Calling on Rouhani to ensure the release of the environmentalists, the MEPs said the activists’ closed-door trial, which began January 30, “falls seriously short of fair trial standards.”

The MEPs noted that the hardline judge presiding over the case, Abdolghassem Salavati of Branch 15 of Teheran’s Revolutionary Court, reportedly prevented a defendant from appearing in court with a lawyer of his own choosing, and later one of the defendants told the court she had been tortured in detention.

The eight are accused of spying and various national security crimes. Four of the defendants are charged with “sowing corruption on Earth,” a charge that can carry the death sentence in Iran.

Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi has claimed the activists were “seeking proximity to military sites with the cover of environmental projects and obtaining military information from them.”

Niloufar Bayani, Houman Jokar, Ms. Sepideh Kashani, Amirhossein Khaleghi, Abdolreza Kouhpayeh, Taher Qadirian, Sam Rajabi, and Iranian-American Morad Tahbaz, are members of a local environmental group called the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, which was established by Iranian-Canadian sociology professor and well-known environmentalist Kavous Seyyed-Emami.

Emami was arrested along with the other eight environmentalists in January 2018, but died in jail a few weeks later under suspicious circumstances. Authorities at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison maintain that the 63-year-old Emami committed suicide while in custody, an explanation his family reject.

In their letter, the MEPs called for a full investigation into Emami’s death and criticized authorities for placing a travel ban on Seyyed-Emami's wife, Iranian-Canadian Maryam Mombeini.

None of the defendants have been allowed to choose their own legal counsel. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Iran is required to ensure that anyone facing criminal charges has access to a lawyer of their choosing.

"We understand that the Iranian judiciary has accused the activists of using environmental projects as a cover to collect classified strategic information, but a committee established under your authority has found no evidence of these allegations,” the MEPs wrote to Rouhani.

The MEPs, who belong to different political factions, including Christian Democrats, Socialists, Conservatives, Liberals, and Greens, also affirmed in the letter, “We believe that respect for international human rights standards should be at the core of EU-Iran bilateral relations, and it is cases like these that serve as a litmus test for your government’s commitment to making progress in its human rights record."

The case of the Iranian environmentalists has received some high-profile attention from other corners as well. In a February 6 tweet, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who is also known for his environmental activism, called for support for the environmentalists, asking his followers to “stand by those risking their lives to protect the future of our planet and its inhabitants.”

DiCaprio also shared a petition calling for the release of the environmentalists.

Iran’s Intelligence Ministry, which is constitutionally responsible for all espionage-related cases, has repeatedly affirmed that there is no evidence against the defendants and members of parliament have also come to their defense, but the hardline Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Judiciary insist on their guilt.

Despite the position of the Intelligence Ministry, Iran’s Prosecutor-General, mid-ranking cleric Mohammad Jafar Montazeri reiterated in November last year that the environmentalists were "agents of influence for Israel and the United States,” and referred to “documents” he says can prove that charge.

Tasnim news agency, which is linked to the IRGC, quoted Montazeri as saying that Israel and the U.S. agents infiltrate environmental protection organizations because activists have access to “sensitive and vital locations” in the country, where they place cameras under the pretense of protecting wildlife.

Iran Guards Commander Threatens To Block Strait Of Hormuz

File photo:The newly appointed IRGC's Navy Commander Alireza Tangsiri, undated.

If U.S. sanctions stop Iran’s oil exports, the Islamic Republic’s armed forces will block the Strait of Hormuz, says Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Navy Commander Rear Admiral Ali Reza Tangsiri.

Speaking to Iran’s state-run Arabic TV channel Al-Alam February 25, Tangsiri said, "As long as Iran is able to export its oil through the Strait of Hormuz, and there is no obstacle restricting the departure and arrival of our ships, the waterway will remain open."

The Strait of Hormuz, which connects the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, is the only waterway linking the Persian Gulf to the open sea. With 20 percent of the world’s petroleum passing through the strait, it is key to the global oil supply chain. The strait has been the site of repeated standoffs between Iran and the United States.

Tangsiri cautioned, however, that if Iran’s oil sales or the movement of its oil-carrying ships is in any way restricted, the strait will be closed.

Earlier, the Secretary of the Islamic Republic's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) and former Defense Minister (1997 – 2005) Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani had said, “There are multiple ways to ensure the blockage of the strait, but we hope we won’t have to use them.”

New sanctions reimposed on Iran by the U.S. after it withdrew from the nuclear deal last May aim to bring Iran’s oil sales to zero, but Washington has granted temporary waivers to eight major buyers of the Iranian crude: China, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey.

It is not clear at this point if the U.S. will renew the exmptions. U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook has insisted that Washington has no plan at this time to extend waivers to importers of Iranian oil.

Infographic: Strait Of Hormuz Shipping Lanes
Infographic: Strait Of Hormuz Shipping Lanes

"Iran's oil customers should not expect new waivers to U.S. sanctions,” the top State Department official reiterated. The current exemptions are until May.
Brian Hook also said, "The November waivers were designed to prevent a spike in oil prices, and it appears that there will be enough oil supply to satisfy demand this year."

Responding to Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. Operational Commander in the Persian Gulf Admiral John Richardson has said in the past that the United States is determined to keep the Strait of Hormuz open to international navigation even if it has to use force.

Before resigning from his post February 25, Iran’s former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif maintained that even if all Iranian oil buyers cancel their deals with Tehran, Iran has "other means" to insure its oil sales. Analysts say threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz is the ace Tehran believes it has up its sleeve to play if U.S. sanctions threaten to cripple its oil sales.

In comments in January, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also said there are several ways Iran can ensure its oil sales despite U.S. sanctions.

Since the re-imposition of the second batch of U.S. sanctions on Iran last November, the IRGC has performed several drills in the Persian Gulf in tandem with Iran's regular army. Referring to the maneuvers, Tangsiri said that Iran feels threatened by the presence of foreign naval forces in the Persian Gulf.

"These maneuvers only show a little bit of Iran's genuine military capability, and they [Iran’s enemies] will see Iran's real power when hit by a mighty strike,” he said.

Tensions came to a head December 21 when a naval drill codenamed "Great Prophet XII" kicked off by the IRGC forces at the same time that U.S. aircraft carrier USS John Stennis sailed into the Persian Gulf. IRGC forces fired several rockets and flew a drone near the carrier. The head of the Iranian Defense Ministry’s Marine Industries Organization Rear Admiral Amir Rastegari insisted the rockets and drone were not aimed at the U.S. carrier.

Despite the intensifying war of words between Iran and the U.S., Islamic Republic’s senior officials, including its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have insisted there is no possibility of an actual war in the region.

Nevertheless, in a speech last September Khamenei stressed the need for further empowerment of the Iranian armed forces in order to “scare the enemy.”

On February 22, Iranian Naval forces began a massive three-day drill in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman codenamed "Velayat 97.” The drill was held in an area of two million square kilometers, reaching to northern parts of the Indian Ocean

Star Athletes Call Out Iran Ministers For Hypocrisy

Iran -- Ali Karimi and Voria Ghafouri Iranian soccer (football) players

Iranian athletes who have publicly criticized authorities for the economic hardships facing Iranians have been warned by the Supreme Leader not to “bite the hand that feeds them.”

Scores of Iranian athletes took to social media to condemn recent comments from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as tone deaf. Zarif had said that in the current economic climate, “we are all under pressure.”

Bayern Munich and Iranian national soccer player Ali Karimi responded on his Instagram page, “Which 'we' are under pressure Doctor [Zarif]? Strictly speaking, 'you', or ‘us’?”

Karimi's fellow soccer player Voria Ghafouri also addressed the foreign minister on social media, writing, “You are not under pressure. As a matter of fact, it is the ordinary people who are under pressure."

Ghafouri later added, “Some of the authorities add salt to injury with their remarks.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei admonished the athletes in a February 18 speech, saying, “Some who benefit from this country’s peace and security, who enjoy their jobs and favorite sport, bite the hand that feeds them. They should know that their security is obtained by the current polices of the regime.”

Iranian Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs, Masud Soltanifar.
Iranian Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs, Masud Soltanifar.

Just hours after Khamenei’s speech, state media reported the Ministry of Sports security department had summoned Ghafouri to explain his remarks.

Iran's Minister of Sport and Youth Affairs, Masoud Soltanifar, similarly chided the sportsmen, saying, "Athletes should never forget what a peaceful and safe environment they are living in. It is the peace, freedom, and security that gives them the guts to criticize the highest authorities of the ruling establishment.”

Speaking at a session of the Iranian National Olympic Committee, Soltanifar called upon the Iranian athletes to be “a little more tolerant,” and understand that the current economic pressures on the country are the outcome of "unjust" sanctions.

Video of Soltanifar’s remarks circulated on Instagram drew a barrage of criticism.

Iranian wrestling superstar Alireza Karimi Machiani tweeted, "In such an abnormal situation, you [Soltanifar] and your deputies should also work without salary and bonuses and bear the difficulties along with ordinary people."

"My father's pension, after 25 years of service, is under 30 million rials”, ($220 monthly based on free market rate of exchange), Machine continued, asking, “Is the official, who calls us to bear the difficulties capable of living on such minimal income?"

Machiani told the state-run Iran Students News Agency (ISNA), "Some of the officials have astronomical salaries and their children live a luxurious life in the U.S.A. and other countries. They speak in a way as if the people are indebted to them.”

The national record holder of the long jump and two-time Olympic competitor Mohammad Arzandeh went further by posting on social media, "Please shut your mouth and say nothing, Mr. Soltanifar."

Winner of five Asian medals in track and field Ehsan Mohajer Shojaei also blasted Soltanifar and the President of the National Olympic Committee (NOC) of the Islamic Republic of Iran, former intelligence officer, Reza Salehi Amiri, posting on social media, “Why should only people bear difficulties? Are your relatives also struggling with difficulties?"

World champion in Para-Taekwondo Mehdi Pour Rahnama also admonished the sports minister, writing, "I wish you had a little bit of honor, a tiny bit of honesty. Why have you been lying for so long?"

Dozens of other athletes joined the chorus to condemn Soltanifar's remarks. The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports removed the video of the minister’s comments from Instagram after it attracted a flood of angry comments.

Hijabs & Harassment: How Iran Soured Its 'Sisters' On The Revolution

For more than a year now, the "Girls of Revolution Street" (and a few men) have conducted sporadic one-person protests against the hijab by removing their head scarves and waving them in crowded public spaces in the capital.

Forty years ago, Iranian women and girls of various political and social stripes helped to bring on Iran's 1979 revolution to topple the shah.

But according to some of those disillusioned by decades of gender discrimination under the leadership of the ensuing "Islamic republic," many of those same women quickly fell victim to the religiously dominated hierarchy that replaced the monarchy.

Chahla Chafiq
Chahla Chafiq

Twenty-four-year-old leftist student Chahla Chafiq was one of millions of Iranians protesting in the streets against what they regarded as the brutal and severe rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi.

Chafiq, now a Paris-based sociologist and author, says she had joined the revolutionary movement hoping for a "better Iran" but instead she and 38 million other Iranians got a "winter of repression" that sent her into exile just three years later.

She recalls the joy and excitement giving way to shock and frustration once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the clerical elite signaled that women would be sidelined and stripped of many of their rights.

Chafiq calls it "an intellectual earthquake."

"I kept asking myself why I hadn't looked, why I hadn't seen it coming," she says.

She remembers that amid the tumult, groups of male co-revolutionaries would brashly push men and women into separate columns of demonstrators and tell women to cover their hair with scarves.

"They would address us as 'sisters,'" Chafiq says. "It was a new term for me."

But the label would stick among conservatives and state officials, who routinely addressed women as "sister" or "mother" to emphasize traditional roles and devoid them of any sexuality.

"'What's wrong with it?'" she remembers men saying of the conspicuously religious head scarf for women that the shah's father had banned nearly half a century earlier, elevating its political significance.

So just as the Islamic head scarf, known as the hijab, had become a powerful symbol of opposition to the Pahlavi dynasty, women were being made convenient pawns in the broader political effort to denounce the brutality, perceived inequities, and even the modernization of the past half-century.

'Catastrophe' In The Making

It didn't take long for Khomeini, who had himself accused the shah of reversing gains for women, to impose a strict dress code to "save" women from "becoming this plaything that they want to turn you into."

"There should be no sin within Islamic ministries. Naked women should not come to Islamic ministries. Women can go [to ministries] with the hijab," the daily Kayhan quoted Khomeini as saying on March 7, 1979. "There's no problem for them to go to work, but they need to have the Islamic hijab."

The announcement came as a shock to many women, including Chafiq, who calls it the beginning of an era of repression against women.

"I remember it was very surprising for me, even the term he used -- he said women should not go to work at ministries 'naked.' It was absurd and laughable. At the same time, it was the announcement of a catastrophe," she says.

The very next day, on International Women's Day, thousands of women and men poured into the streets to protest (see tweet below). Their chants inveighed against the chador -- the full-length covering that leaves only the hands, face, and feet exposed -- and challenged "dictatorship" and the notions of "should and should not in freedom."

Read in full...

Jailed Labor Activists’ Relatives Threatened To Keep Quiet

Esmail Bakhshi's family picketing in front of Shush Courthouse. February 17, 2019.

Relatives of labor activists currently held incommunicado by Iran’s authorities, report they have been warned to keep quiet about their loved ones’ imprisonment.

Family members of Esmail Bakhashi and Ms. Sepideh Qolyan say they received phone calls from the Intelligence Department of the city of Shush in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan Province warning them to keep quiet “or else.”

Bakhshi is the spokesman for the independent trade union of the Haft Tapeh Sugar Cane industrial complex, which has seen repeated strikes and protests in recent months, with workers demanding back pay and better conditions. Qolyan is a labor rights activist and journalist. Both were first arrested November 18 during protests at the complex along with more than a dozen other activists and workers.

Iranian labor leader Esmail Bakhshi has alleged that he was tortured during 25 days in prison.
Iranian labor leader Esmail Bakhshi has alleged that he was tortured during 25 days in prison.

Bakhshi and Qolyan were released December 12 after eighty international labor organizations signed a letter addressed to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei calling for the release of all peacefully protesting workers.

After alleging abusive treatment while in detention, the two were arrested again January 20 and their families have not heard from them since.

"I was beaten up and tortured almost to death for no reason," Bakhshi said before he was re-arrested. "I was so badly battered that I could not move for 72 hours in my solitary confinement cell. The pain was so unbearable that it made sleeping impossible.”

Qolyan said she was also beaten and showered with sexualized insults while in custody.

Both activists demanded Intelligence Minister and mid-ranking cleric Mahmoud Alavi answer for their mistreatment while in jail. They were arrested again shortly after.

Meanwhile, Bakhshi’s trade union has announced they believe authorities are preparing a defamation video containing a forced confession from Bakhshi.

The activists’ relatives had assembled outside the Shush Justice Department offices February 20 to call for their immediate and unconditional release.

The same day, Bakhshi’s relatives went to the Shush courthouse seeking information about the case against him, where they say they were set upon court agents who physically and verbally assaulted them. Bakhshi’s union says his mother fainted after being placed under arrest and was taken to the hospital.

In a related story, relatives of the detained secretary of the board of directors of the Free Trade Union of Iranian Workers, Jafar Azimzadeh, also reported threatening phone calls.

Jafar Azimzadeh, Secretary of the Board of the Free Workers Trade Union of Iran and Parvin Mohammadi (L), Deputy Secretary of the Board.
Jafar Azimzadeh, Secretary of the Board of the Free Workers Trade Union of Iran and Parvin Mohammadi (L), Deputy Secretary of the Board.

"Unknown individuals called on Azimzadeh's father-in-law ordering him to stop his daughter from digging into her husband's case," the union reported.

Azimzadeh was arrested January 29, and hours later, the vice president of the union, Parvin Mohammadi, was also arrested.

Security forces confiscated the personal belongings of Azimzadeh and Ms. Mohammadi, including their laptops and cell phones, during two separate raids, according to reports.

According to Azimzadeh's legal counsel, Mohammad Ali Jedari Foroughi, the labor rights activist had earlier been sentenced to eleven years for the same charges by another branch of the Revolutionary Court in the city of Saveh, southwest of Tehran, but was later acquitted.

"Based on the illegality of issuing two different verdicts for the same charges, we are appealing against the latest ruling,” Foroughi told Radio Farda.

Azimzadeh is currently serving a six-year term behind bars in Tehran's infamous Evin Prison.

Union members and labor rights activists say the authorities are trying to silence discussion of the detentions by creating an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.

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