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Iran's Deputy FM Reiterates Gradual Withdrawal From Nuclear Deal

Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi outlining his country's decision for a gradual withdrawal from the nuclear deal. May 8, 2019

Iran has outlined a step-by-step withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the country’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs disclosed on May 8.

"We have not left JCPOA yet, but we have put such a move on our agenda, and that would happen step by step," Abbas Araqchi said in an interview with the state-run Channel 2 television.

Following Washington's decision last week to repeal two waivers on nuclear cooperation with Iran, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) officially declared Tehran's exit from "certain" obligations under the landmark 2015 agreement and gave a 60-day deadline to world powers to protect Iran's interests against U.S. sanctions or it will restart high-level uranium enrichment.

The decision was officially relayed in separate letters to the ambassadors of five countries still party to JCPOA: the United Kingdom, China, France, Germany, and Russia.

Araqchi gave the letters to the ambassadors, who had been invited to the Foreign Ministry.

The letters’ contents are confidential and kept at the JCPOA Joint Commission document center. However, according to informed sources, they specify the details of the decision made by the SNSC, which is headed by President Hassan Rouhani.

Elaborating on Iran's new strategy, Araqchi told Channel 2, "No country can accuse Iran of breaching or leaving the nuclear deal. All the measures Tehran has adopted so far, including Wednesday's move, has been within the deal's framework, and in the interests of the people of Iran."

Meanwhile, Araqchi stressed that the withdrawal from JCPOA will happen and if Iran's counterparts fulfil their commitments then Iran will step back accordingly.

Araqchi's comment was a reflection of what Rouhani had earlier said in a speech aired by the monopolized state-run TV.

"If the five countries came to the negotiating table and we reached an agreement, and if they could protect our interests in oil and banking sectors, we will go back to square one (and will resume our commitments)," Rouhani maintained.

Nonetheless, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have warned Tehran May 8 of severe consequences if it breaks its commitments under JCPOA. On May 9, the European powers rejected Iran’s 60-day deadline as an “ultimatum”.

Iranians React To Partial Withdrawal: 'Total Loss And Nothing More'

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (L), talking with his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) and accompanied with his chief of staff Mahmoud Vaezi, just before a meeting with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, on September 10, 2017. File photo

Iranians on social media reacted to Iran's partial withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement with anger and sarcasm, highlighting the Iranian administration's double standards, and pointing out its mistakes.

One social media user, Mehdi Yahyanezhad who is a cyber guru from North America wrote that had President Hassan Rouhani suspended JCPOA immediately after the U.S. withdrawal, Trump would have been responsible for the consequences, but now his policy of gradual withdrawal will be blamed for the failure of the nuclear deal.

Political activist Mohammad Mozaffari in Iran pointed out Iranian Foreign Minister's double standard in interviews with Iranian and foreign news agencies, quoting him as telling foreign agencies "We will not leave the JCPOA," while telling Iranian agencies "We have never signed the agreement".

In another tweet he wrote: "They said they will set fire to JCPOA if America withdraws. They said they will shut down the strait of Hormuz if Iran oil exports stop. They said they will destroy U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf if Khamenei says so. They didn't do anything." Mozaffari then tells the Iranian administration, "Do not bring about more disgrace. The people know that all this is boastful bragging."

Like many other Iranians on social media, Hadi Mousavi said that Iran will definitely negotiate with America, but only when it is too late to get any concessions.

Adviser of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Abdolreza Davari in Iran noted that today's partial withdrawal by Iran was in fact an endorsement of a decision the U.S. made four days ago to put an end to the waiver on transferring Iran's heavy water to other countries and trading its yellow cake with enriched uranium. Davari’s point is that Iran today announced it will not export its heavy water any longer; a restriction that actually the U.S. had already announced this week.

A Twitter user writing under the alias Lilith criticized Rouhani for saying that the nuclear deal was in the interest of the region and the world, adding, "It was in the interest of your pocket, but it was against the region and the whole world."

Another Twitter user writing under the alias Ryan wrote, before Rouhani managed to imitate Trump and threaten to leave the JCPOA, France told him that he has to face more sanctions by Europe if he ever did so. "There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing the desperation of the Tehran regime," he wrote.

Yet another Iranian on Twitter using the name and picture of a comedian as his avatar, sarcastically wrote: "52 weeks after Rouhani threatened the Europeans with a pull-out from JCPOA, he gave yet another 9 weeks to them...to fulfill their obligations."

Farid Ebrahimi wrote that had Iran left the JCPOA last year, it could have some support from the world community. He characterized Iran's partial withdrawal on Wednesday as "Once again, a total loss, and nothing more."

OPINION: Venezuela And Iran Are More Similar Than You Think

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (R) meets with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Tehran, November 23, 2015. File photo

The collapse of Venezuelan society under the dictatorial and socialist Maduro regime cannot fail to remind us of Iran under the Islamic Republic. Like Maduro, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has put the enrichment of his mafia clan and an exploitative revolutionary ideology before the needs of the Iranian people. Like Venezuela, Iran is experiencing black outs, water and food shortages, and collapse of order in parts of the country. And like Maduro, Khamenei uses the Basij, literally meaning Collectivos-or Maduro’s irregular armed forces- to instill fear in the population. But there are some key differences between the two as well.

If Maduro falls, the U.S. can learn much from the successes and failures of its strategy and how they can be applied to Iran. Many Iranians, much like Venezuelans, are ready to rid themselves of their dictatorial regime, as mass protests, strikes and civil disobedience have shown in the last decade. And they welcome American support. As difficult as it may seem now, the path can open toward a future in which both the democratic Iranian opposition and its American and international friends can play a decisive role in bringing freedom to Iran.

The key obstacle to change in Iran has been and will always be the massive and effective security forces. Khamenei spends billions upon billions of dollars on the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij, Law Enforcement Forces, and other official and unofficial security and repressive organizations. The Iraqi Hashd al Shaabi and Lebanese Hezbollah have also been recruited to maintain order in southwestern Iran, a region which recently experienced devastating floods.

Khamenei has managed to create terror throughout Iran and maintain his rule through brute force despite widespread civil resistance. Maduro may be brutal, but Khamenei’s regime is the master of terror and violence. International organizations, including UN bodies, have amply recorded the gross violations of human rights for four decades of the Islamic Republic.

Yet like Venezuela’s military, the Iranian military, including the Revolutionary Guards and the conventional army, the Artesh, are reported to be experiencing deep dissatisfaction and even the inability to pay salaries of rank and file soldiers. Many members of the Artesh, a draftee armed force, are reported to be malnourished and even homeless.

The Guards always fair better, but the virtual economic blockade being placed on Iran due to the regime’s support for terrorism, among many other harmful policies, could translate into widespread dissatisfaction even within the inner sanctum of Khamenei’s Praetorian Guard. Lest we forget, there is precedent for defections within the highest echelons of the regime, as General Ali Reza Asgari’s 2007 “disappearance”, widely reported to have been a defection - showed. It took some time, but eventually senior members of Maduro’s military did peel away. So may some of Khamenei’s top commanders, if the situation gets so bad in Iran that they see no other way out.

Finally, Venezuela is lucky to have Juan Gerardo Guaidó Márque, the opposition leader who has been recognized by more than fifty countries as President of Venezuela. A fearless young man, Guaidó has become the brains and leading spirit of the revolt against Maduro’s dictatorship.

Iran does not have a Guido, yet. But it does have a widespread and well networked opposition that may not always work in synch, but nevertheless keeps hammering at the legitimacy of Khamenei’s regime. And there are prominent personalities and groups within the opposition who are playing effective roles, including Prince Reza Pahlavi, Masih Alinejad, the new opposition group Iran Revival, countless women freedom activists, environmental activists, labor organizations, teachers’ unions, students, and even farmers, truckers, and gay rights activists.

Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (R) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, 09Jan2012
Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (L) is welcomed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez (R) at Miraflores Palace in Caracas, 09Jan2012

Khamenei is still strong. His men have the guns. But every day Iranian women refuse to comply with the compulsory hijab, crowds rescue them from being harassed by the morality police, and random dissidents shout slogans against the regime and in support of Pahlavi. Iranians want fundamental change- the disbanding of the Islamic Republic once and for all, to be replaced by a government of their own choosing. This can be achieved through an open and free national referendum, free elections, and an entirely new constitution. But Khamenei must go first.

When the time comes and Iranians pour into the streets again, Washington should unequivocally side with the democratic opposition and its representatives. America must also leave a door open for defecting regime officials while it crafts a way to empower Iranians seeking freedom for their country. Iranians are closely watching Washington’s reaction to popular uprisings across the world, from Sudan to Algeria and Venezuela. Success in achieving freedom in Venezuela will boost Iranians’ enthusiasm and hope for positive change. But the U.S. should be less hesitant in siding with forces that will determine the future of Iran. Those forces will burst forth more powerful than ever before once Khamenei and the Guards’ tight grip on Iran weakens. That moment has not come yet, but the path to it is wide open.

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

Iran's Judiciary Says It Was Not Involved In Any Prisoner Exchange Talks

Combo image of four Iranian dual nationals who are detained in Iran, (R to L) British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iranian-American Karen Vafadari, Iranian- American Siamak Namazi, and British-Iranian Kamal Froughi. File photos

While the spokesman of the Islamic Republic judiciary insists that it has not been involved in any talks concerning a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington, the spokesman of Iranian Foreign Ministry asserts that the case had been discussed at high-levels, for a long time.

During an event in New York on April 24, Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had said that Tehran is ready to swap prisoners with the United States.

"I put this offer on the table publicly now. [Let's] Exchange them (the prisoners)", Zarif said, adding that he has the authority to swap prisoners.

This comes while on previous occasions, he had repeatedly noted that since the Judiciary is an independent power in the Islamic Republic, it was not in his capacity to intervene in the judicial affairs of the country.

However, he made any such deal conditional on the exchange of Iranians facing extradition to the U.S. for sanctions violations.

Zarif's comments were echoed a day later by the newly appointed Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is ready to do its duties for exchange of U.S. convicts passing prison terms with the Iranians that are in U.S. prisons charged with the false charge of violation of sanctions,' said Mousavi.

Nonetheless, the spokesman of the judiciary, Gholam Hossein Esmaeeli, says that within nearly the last two months, the judiciary (under its new head, mid-ranking cleric Ebrahim Raeisi) has not been involved in any negotiation concerning prisoners swap."

Esmaeeli, who is also recently appointed as the spokesman of the judiciary, immediately admitted that he is not aware if there were such talks before his term, or not.

However, Esmaeeli reiterated that there have been no talks held about the swap of British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with U.K. in exchange for an Iranian prisoner.

"She has been sentenced in one case and is in jail going through her sentence," he said on Tuesday, May 7. "She is awaiting another upcoming trial on other charges," he added.

Iranian Intelligence authorities arrested Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe at the Imam Khomeini International Airport on April 3, 2016, on her way to London where she has been residing, after visiting her parents in Mashhad, northeast Iran.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 39, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly plotting to overthrow Iran's clerical establishment, a charge she and her family have denied.

Esmaeeli's latest comment on the 39-year-old Iranian-British is in contrast with what Zarif had earlier said.

"Now we hear about Nazanin Zaghari and her child, and I feel sorry for them, and I've done my best to help," Zarif said, adding, "But nobody talks about this (Iranian) lady in Australia (Negar Qods Kani, convicted for violating sanctions imposed on Tehran) who gave birth to a child in prison, whose child is growing up outside prison with his mother in prison."

However, Zarif later maintained that his offer for swapping prisoners was limited to the U.S., and did not include the U.K.

INSTEX Unlikely To Meet Anti-Money-Laundering Norms -U.S.

Sigal P. Mandelker, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the U.S. Treasury, listens to questions at a press briefing in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Thursday, July 12, 2018. A top U.S. official focused on sanctions on Iran linked
VIENNA, May 7 (Reuters)

The United States said on Tuesday that European powers are unlikely to live up to a pledge to prevent their conduit for trade with Iran being used to launder money or finance terrorism, raising the prospect of further U.S. sanctions.

France, Britain and Germany have set up the special purpose vehicle called Instex, a conduit for barter-based trade with Iran, in an effort to protect at least some of Iran's economy from sweeping U.S. sanctions and keep alive a big-power nuclear deal that Washington is about to quit.

The three European Union members have been trying to get Iran to keep its commitments under the deal to cut back its nuclear programme - which Washington distrusts - by helping it to circumvent the trade sanctions that Washington has reimposed.

They want Instex to meet norms for legitimate financing set by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, even though Iran as a country is not yet fully compliant with them.

But U.S. Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said this would be hard for the Iranian side of Instex, with much of Iran's economy both opaque and connected to institutions under U.S. sanctions such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

"I question how that's even remotely possible ... with a country like Iran where the IRGC is so endemic within the economy but also hidden in many different respects," said Mandelker, one of the chief architects and enforcers of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Washington has already accused the Europeans of undermining its efforts to isolate Tehran since President Donald Trump announced a year ago that it was pulling out of the big-power deal.

Iran is still complying with the restrictions imposed by the deal, which have increased the time it would need to build a nuclear bomb if it chose to.

But with the United States introducing new sanctions aimed at crippling its economy, many European officials fear the deal will soon crumble anyway.

On Tuesday, the state news agency IRNA said Iran's Foreign Ministry would announce Tehran's "diminished commitments" to the nuclear deal to the five remaining signatories on Wednesday.

FATF CHANCE

A failure by Iran to comply fully with FATF standards by June will bring enhanced FATF scrutiny of banks there, and possibly punitive measures, which are now suspended.

One European official said that the "absence of transparency and due diligence in Iran's financial system is clearly a problem in cooperation with the EU".

"With regard to Instex, we didn't say it was a prerequisite for it to conform (with FATF standards), but what is clear is that anything the Iranians would do to facilitate transparency in the economy would help Instex," he said. He added, however, that so far there had been little movement by Iran.

Nevertheless, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Russian news agency RIA on Tuesday that Iran was close to a deal to sell oil to the European Union, avoiding U.S. sanctions.

Mandelker repeatedly declined to specify what future action Washington might take, but said it would enforce sanctions strictly.

The U.S. Treasury has said Iran's central bank has transferred funds to Lebanon's Hezbollah, an armed Shi'ite political grouping that Washington considers a terrorist group.

"How can you engage in a trade vehicle with an entity that itself is supporting the movement of money for terrorist organisations?" Mandelker said.

"I think it's extremely complicated for the Europeans to think that they're going to be able to do that ... Where we see sanctionable activity, we're going to take action to confront it."

The United States and the U.N. nuclear watchdog believe Iran once had a nuclear weapons programme but abandoned it, while Iran denies ever having had one.

(By Francois Murphy Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Lawmaker Says Iran Behind Bogus Messaging Apps, Banned By Google

Iran-- logos of Hotgram and Talagram, with real Telegram in the backgroundund.

A lawmaker in Iran has revealed that the intelligence and communication ministries joined forces to create and manage diversionary social media apps to woo people away from secure international platforms.

Iran banned the popular Telegram messaging app last year after mass protests and later two new apps appeared, labelled Talagram (golden telegram in Persian) and Hotgram, trying to attract users in Iran.

At the time the Minister of Communication Mohammad Azari Jahromi had claimed other state institutions to have been responsible for the new apps, at the same time saying that these are not secure applications.

Iranian MP Nassrollah Pezhmanfar
Iranian MP Nassrollah Pezhmanfar

But a member of parliament from Mashhad, Nassrollah Pezhmanfar told the parliament’s news website in an interview that “Talagram and Hotgram were sponsored by intelligence and communication ministries”, adding that they have spent 4 trillion rials to create the two apps, which are under their control.

The money Pezhmanfar says the ministries spent would be equal to $90 million based on the official government exchange rate and around $25 million based on the current open market rate.

Many people in Iran suspected all along that the two apps were created and monitored by the Islamic Republic, and that is the reason users still cling to the real Telegram using VPNs and other internet blockage circumvention tools. Telegram, which at one point had more than 40 million users in a country with a population of 82 million, is still said to have more than 30 million fans.

This is also not the first time a political figure has mentioned the role of the government in creating insecure apps to control cyberspace. In June 2018, a member of parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission had quoted the minister of intelligence that Golden Telegram was developed by the Islamic Republic.

Google has deleted the two apps from its Android Play Store for reasons of spying and “theft” users’ personal information.

After this, Iran’s communication minister complained on his Twitter that “There are 127 non-official apps in Iran” and the deletion of the two apps from the Play Store will not satisfy domestic and foreign critics.

In his interview, Pezhmanfar says that he has “plenty of documents” to prove the two pretender applications work “under the supervision of the intelligence and communication ministries.

But why would a member of parliament disclose information that could be regarded as state secret? The fact is that Pezhmanfar is a hardliner who like his like-minded peers among the clergy and in all state institutions wants to completely put the internet under the control of intelligence organs, blocking more websites and banning more applications.

By disclosing the role of the government in creating two pretender apps and their relative failure, he is indirectly accusing the two ministries of a half-hearted attempt aimed at delaying a real clampdown on cyberspace.

President Hassan Rouhani and his communication minister Jahromi have repeatedly said limiting internet freedom even more is not a wise move.

But as United States sanctions and pressures have driven the Iranian regime to face acute dangers, such as a mass revolt, the hardliners are beating the drums of more controls, especially on cyberspace.

Economic Pessimism Takes Hold Among Iran Businesses

Iran -- Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. File photo

In its latest report, Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA) says its survey of “economic actors” shows optimism has sharply dropped in the country.

Established in 1984, ICCIMA is a non-profit and non-governmental institution which aims at facilitating economic growth and development.

Every month, ICCIMA sets a fixed questionnaire for the country's economic “actors” and influential business people and compiles a new Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) based on their responses.

The questions asked include the amount of production, sales and exports, the rate of products delivery, initial inventory, the number of new hires, the price of raw material, the cost of products, and future production forecasting.

Results published on ICCIMA's (SHAMEKH in Persian) website show that PMI in March 21-April 20 period stood at 36.38 units which indicates an almost nineteen-point drop.

Any result showing a +50-unit indicates that the economy is performing well, while a -50-unit implies that the economy is on the verge of contraction and recession.

A Radio Farda economic analyst explained that the drop followed a period of optimism, when Europe promised in late January to set up a special trade mechanism for Iran. But in March that optimism dissipated as tangible action was taken by the EU.

On April 28, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted that, despite exporting 900,000 barrels of crude oil per day, Iran's economy is expected to shrink by 6% this year, after having contracted 3.9% last year.

By contrast, it clocked 3.8% growth in 2017, before the Trump administration re-imposed economic sanctions after withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. The deal offered the Islamic Republic relief from prior sanctions in exchange for Iran's commitment to keep its nuclear program exclusively peaceful.

In its report, the IMF noted that factors, including the price of raw materials, products, and production forecasts have played a decisive role in reducing GDP.

Inflation rate in Iran that started to soar from the beginning of last year (March 21, 2018), could reach to 50% as the U.S. sanctions are driving Iran's oil exports to zero.

Therefore, the grim outlook would place Iran's inflation on par with crisis-hit Sudan and only behind Venezuela and Zimbabwe, two countries suffering from political unrest, IMF data show.

Based on several reports, the main reasons behind soaring inflation in Iran are higher production costs mainly because of the fast depreciating national currency, rial.

The rial has dropped almost fourfold in the past 15 months on the open market, disrupting Iran's foreign trade and raising annual inflation.

Iran's economy shrank by 3.9 percent last year, according to IMF estimates, and is expected to shrink by 6 percent in 2019, Jihad Azour, director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia department, told Reuters adding, however, that the projection preceded the latest elimination of waivers.

"Clearly the re-imposition of sanctions and the removal of the [oil purchase] waivers will have an additional negative impact on the Iranian economy both in terms of growth and in terms of inflation, where inflation could reach 40 percent or even more this year," he said.

U.S. sanctions against Iran have denied its government more than $10 billion in oil revenue, a U.S. official said earlier this month.

AP Source: Possible Attack On U.S. Forces Led To Deployments

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) transits the Arabian Sea, January 19, 2012. File photo

WASHINGTON (AP) — A White House decision to dispatch an aircraft carrier and other military resources to send a message to Iran followed "clear indications" that Iranian and Iranian proxy forces were preparing to possibly attack U.S. forces in the region, a defense official told the Associated Press.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information, said the Pentagon approved the deployments and that U.S. forces at sea and on land were thought to be the potential targets. The official declined to be more specific.

White House national security adviser John Bolton said in a statement Sunday night that the U.S. is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region, an area that includes the Middle East.

Bolton said the move was in response to "a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings." He didn't provide details, but said the U.S. wants to send a message that "unrelenting force" will meet any attack on U.S. interests or those of its allies.

"The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces," he said.

The Pentagon had no immediate comment on the Bolton statement.

The Abraham Lincoln and its strike group of ships and combat aircraft have been operating in the Mediterranean Sea recently. Last Wednesday a group of senior Albanian government officials visited aboard the Lincoln as it sailed in the Adriatic.

Bolton's reference to the Central Command area would mean the Lincoln is headed east to the Red Sea and perhaps then to the Arabian Sea or the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy currently has no aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Bolton's mention of deploying a bomber task force suggests the Pentagon is deploying land-based bomber aircraft somewhere in the region, perhaps on the Arabian Peninsula.

Speaking to reporters while flying to Europe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the actions undertaken by the U.S. had been in the works for a little while.

"It is absolutely the case that we have seen escalatory actions from the Iranians and it is equally the case that we will hold the Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests," Pompeo said. "If these actions take place, if they do by some third-party proxy, a militia group, Hezbollah, we will hold the Iranian leadership directly accountable for that."

Asked about "escalatory actions," Pompeo replied, "I don't want to talk about what underlays it, but make no mistake, we have good reason to want to communicate clearly about how the Iranians should understand how we will respond to actions they may take."

Asked if the Iranian action were related to the deadly events in Gaza and Israel — militants fired rockets into Israel on Sunday and Israel responded with airstrikes — Pompeo said, "It is separate from that."

The Trump administration has been intensifying a pressure campaign against Iran.

Last month, President Donald Trump announced the U.S. will no longer exempt any countries from U.S. sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil, a decision that primarily affects the five remaining major importers: China and India and U.S. treaty allies Japan, South Korea and Turkey.

The U.S. also recently designated Iran's Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, the first ever for an entire division of another government.

Trump withdrew from the Obama administration's landmark nuclear deal with Iran in May 2018 and, in the months that followed, reimposed punishing sanctions including those targeting Iran's oil, shipping and banking sectors.

Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have in recent months spoken stridently about Iran and its "malign activities" in the region.

Iran Prosecutor Warns Minister To Tame Social Media Or Face 'Consequences'

File photo:Attorney General, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri speaking with reporters, on Wednesday, March 13, 2019.

The Islamic Republic Attorney General has once again lambasted what he called "out of control cyberspace", describing two popular messaging apps, Telegram and Instagram, as "infernal," and called for restrictions on social media.

The ultraconservative mid-ranking clergyman Mohammad Jafar Montazeri also explicitly threatened the Minister of Information and Communications Technology, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, with judicial consequences.

The minister should amend the situation of the internet in Iran before the judiciary's final decision on the case, Montazeri warned, adding that Azari Jahromi has only weeks for the reforms demanded by the judiciary.

The warnings by the prosecutor came while various Iranian officials including the head of the Judiciary are active on social media. Recently, in compliance with U.S. sanctions, Instagram blocked several accounts belonging to Iran's top officials and military commanders.

Introducing the newly appointed Prosecutor-General of Tehran on Saturday, May 4, Montazeri lamented that while cyberspace has its benefits, it is a field for a myriad of “corrupt” activities and crimes.

The Prosecutor-General had earlier repeatedly called for further restrictions on the internet, but it was for the first time he explicitly warned the Minister of Communication, insisting that current status of how the internet is accessed and used in Iran should be revised; otherwise, the judiciary will step in to control it.

However, Montazeri immediately played down the threat by calling Azari Jahromi to a TV debate, and respond to the questions of an expert picked by Montazeri.

Insisting that he is the people's advocate, Montazeri said that Azari Jahromi should be accountable for not "launching a national internet," "disregarding guidelines passed by the Cyberspace Council," about "allocating broadband to foreign networks," and not replacing the "infernal Instagram and telegram Channels."

The idea of launching a "national internet," inspired by the Chinese model, was primarily tabled under Iran's hardline former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration backed by the security organizations and conservatives dominating the country. However, the idea was never implemented.

Instead, responding to the widespread protests against the 2009 controversial presidential election, the authorities blocked access to favorite social media apps, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

Nevertheless, many Iranians have access to blocked apps by using internet blockage circumvention tools, such as VPNs and proxies.

Tehran's newly appointed Prosecutor-General, Ali Alghasi-Mehr also blasted the cyberspace, and maintained, "This space should not turn into a base for questioning the Islamic regime's values, disgracing people and smearing their characters."

As a rule, whenever economic conditions worsen in Iran, the Islamic Republic authorities voice more concern about possible unrest. Experiences in the last ten years show that social media can be used effectively to mobilize protesters in Iran.

Controlling social networks at the time of crises is a "must" that should "seriously be considered," the head of the Islamic Republic's Passive Defense Organization (PDO), Brigadier General Gholamreza Jalali said on April 28.

Echoing repeated calls of the Islamic Republic's conservative authorities for more restrictions on using the internet in Iran, Jalali asserted, "During crises, social networks provoke people against the government…therefore, it should be controlled."

In the meantime, international organizations have repeatedly condemned Iran for restricting access to the internet.

Based on the latest report by Reporters Without Borders on media freedom around the globe, out of 180 countries of the world, Iran ranks 170th, dropping six grades in ranking since the last survey.

The restriction is so damaging that even the Islamic Republic's President, Hassan Rouhani lamented last February that there are "no free media in Iran," adding, "We made a mistake by filtering (social media and other internet outlets)." However, it was reported nearly three months ago that the Rouhani Administration had decided to hold an "internet disconnection drill."

Nonetheless, attacking free access to the internet and social media is spreading among the conservatives dominating Iran, as fear of unrest seems growing.

An ultraconservative clergyman, officially recognized as a Grand Ayatollah, Nasser Makarem Shirazi recently labelled the internet and social media as "swamps" and an environment made for corruption. "The reason behind most divorce cases and teaching misappropriate behavior is cyberspace and the temptations hidden in social media," Makarem Shirazi insisted.

Currently, almost all major social media websites and apps, save Instagram, are blocked in Iran, while conservatives call for blocking Instagram, as well.

Iran Intelligence 'Summons' People 'Who Showed Interest In Christianity'

Iranian Intelligence Minister Mahmud Alavi . File photo

The Islamic Republic of Iran's Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has expressed concern over Iranian Muslims converting into Christianity in various parts of Iran.

Speaking on Saturday May 4, Alavi said that the Intelligence Ministry and the Qom Seminary have dispatched individuals and institutions active in "countering the advocates of Christianity" to areas where there is a potential among the people for being influenced by Good News missionary campaigns.

The Iranian Intelligence Minister, however, did not give any further details about what the ministry has been doing to address the concern of the clerically dominated elite.

According to Alavi, in one of the cities of Hamadan Province in Northwestern Iran a number of people running ordinary businesses such as sandwich parlors have shown interest in Christianity, but the Ministry has "summoned" them.

Alavi quoted some of these individuals as saying, "We are looking for a religion that could give us peace of mind, " adding that "We told them Islam is the religion of brotherhood and friendship, but they said Muslim scholars are constantly speaking against each other. If Islam is the religion of friendship, you should first create peace and friendship among your own religious scholars."

The converts speaking to the Intelligence Ministery must have been referring to ongoing disputes between the clerics ruling Iran over political gains and financial interests. Hardliner clerics have at times even questioned President Hassan Rouhani's Islamic credentials although he is a Muslim scholar who has studied at both the Qom Seminary and the University of Tehran.

During the past years, Iranians who converted into Christianity have been sentenced to long-term jail terms and often accused of "acting against national security by operating or taking part in congregations at churches set up in people's homes."

At least 6 Iranian Christian leaders have been killed and hundreds of Christians have been interrogated and imprisoned for their beliefs since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Islamic Republic regularly persecutes people who convert from Islam to Christianity and most converts try to worship secretly at home-churches.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has banned the publication of Persian (Farsi) versions of the New and Old Testaments in Iran, some churches have been shut down and holding congregations and preaching in Persian are prohibited.

The Iranian Constitutional Law recognizes Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, nevertheless, converting into any religion other than Islam entails death sentence for the converts. Even conversion from Shiism into Sunni Islam is frowned at and is rarely made public as hardliner clerics' reaction is not hard to predict.

United Nations organs and committees, as well as international human rights organizations have repeatedly urged the Islamic Republic to respect the right to choose one’s religion and beliefs, which are supposed to be protected by Iran’s international obligations.

Iran’s Exports To EU Drop Sixteen Fold As Europe Stops Buying Iranian Oil

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

Based on the latest official figures released by the European Union, the amount of Iranian exports to the EU in the first two months of 2019 have dropped sixteen folds compared with the same period in the previous year.

Meanwhile, the value of the EU export to Iran also decreased nearly to one-third of what it was in January-February 2018.

The statistics published on the official website of the statistical office of the European Union, Eurostat, also reveal that the value of products the Islamic Republic exported to the EU was only 136 million euros (approximately $152 million).

Import and export from Iran to the European Union(In Millions of Euros) Eurostat
Import and export from Iran to the European Union(In Millions of Euros) Eurostat

The same source also reveals that before the United States’ withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers in May 2018, the value of Iranians export to the EU in the first two months of the same year amounted to more than 2.2 billion euros (approximately $2.5 billion).

However, the dramatic drop in Iranian exports to EU was in line with expectations, since 90% of it was crude and energy-related products. European countries stopped buying oil from the Islamic Republic in mid-2018.

The United States imposed financial and industrial sanctions on Tehran in August 2018, followed by bans on its oil exports and banking sector in November.

In the meantime, the value of the EU exports to Iran also dropped to 621 million euros ($695 million) in January-February 2019, while in the same period last year it amounted to 1.56 billion euros (roughly $1.75 billion).

According to the European Commission official figures, the 28-member union exported 8.9 billion euros (approximately $9.9 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 euros (approximately $10.86 billion).

The details of the statistics point to the fact that Iranian exports to the EU started

to plummet in mid-2018, as most European clients stopped buying crude from Iran.

The value of EU's imports from Iran amounted to 9.72 billion euros (roughly $10.855 billion) in 2018, or 4% less than 2017.

Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and Greece are the leading European trade partners of the Islamic Republic, respectively.

The latest statistics show that exports and imports between each of these individual countries and Iran have also sharply dropped in the first two months of the current year.

Germany, as the biggest trade partner of Iran, lost almost half of its exports' value to the Islamic Republic in the first two months of 2019.

Nonetheless, the other major European trade partners of Iran lost more exports to the Islamic Republic than Germany.

Exports and imports from Iran to European countries (In millions of Euros) EuroStat
Exports and imports from Iran to European countries (In millions of Euros) EuroStat

Based on the EU statistics, France, Italy, Spain, and Greece used to buy Iranian crude up to mid-2018, which accounted for almost all of the imports from the Islamic Republic.

Iran Trade Promotion Organization (ITPO) recently reported that the value of Iran's imports from the EU in last Iranian calendar year (ended March 20, 2019) reached $9.82 billion, with nearly 22% drop compared with the previous year.

China, the United Arab Emirates, and the EU are now Iran's main trading partners, accounting for 19.5%, 16.8%, and 16.3% of Iran’s traderespectively. The EU used to be the first trading partner of Iran before the current U.S. sanctions regime was imposed on the Islamic Republic.

Iran's Oil Exports To Slide In May, But Not To Zero - Sources

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zangeneh speaks during the 24th International Oil, Gas, Refining & Petrochemical Exhibition in Tehran, May 01, 2019
LONDON, May 3 (Reuters) -

Iranian oil exports will slide in May as the United States tightens the screws on Tehran's main source of income, industry sources said, deepening global supply losses caused by U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and OPEC-led cuts.

The United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in November after pulling out of a 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and six world powers. Those sanctions have already more than halved Iranian oil exports to 1 million barrels per day (bpd) or less.

Washington, aiming to cut Iran's sales to zero, said all sanctions waivers for those importing Iranian oil would end this week. Iran says this will not happen, although its officials are bracing for a drop in supplies.

One Iranian official familiar with oil policy said exports could drop to 700,000 bpd and as low as 500,000 bpd from May onwards. An OPEC source said Iranian exports would likely continue at about 400,000 to 600,000 bpd.

Iran would likely be able to maintain some shipments for debt repayment to China and India, and into storage in China, and smuggle a limited extra amount as it did under previous sanctions, analyst Sara Vakhshouri said.

"It's important to note that zero oil sales in May doesn't mean that there will not be oil deliveries to China or India in the month," she said.

"In total, Iran could export between 200,000 to 550,000 of oil. of which not all is sold oil."

Analysts at Energy Aspects expect a drop in Iranian shipments to around 600,000 bpd from May onwards.

Iranian exports have become more opaque since U.S. sanctions returned in November. Tehran no longer reports its production figures to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and there is no definitive information on exports.

Some of Iran's oil exports are already under the radar, making it harder to assess the actual volume.

The OPEC member exported between 1.02 million bpd and 1.30 million bpd of crude and condensate in April, Refinitiv Eikon and Kpler, a company that tracks oil flows, estimate.

OPEC HEADACHE

The dearth of information is a headache for other OPEC members and allies, which meet to set oil supply policy in June. OPEC cancelled an April meeting, partly due to this uncertainty.

Saudi Aramco, expected to be the main source of any extra oil to replace Iranian volumes, has been asking around in the market for estimates of Iranian exports, industry sources said.

Iranian oil officials have welcomed this opacity. Tehran insists it will keep selling oil and is examining new ways of doing so, Iranian oil minister, Bijan Zanganeh, was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

Kayrros, a company that tracks oil flows, put Iranian crude exports in March at 1.40 million to 1.65 million bpd.

"The uncertainty band around the decline reflects residual uncertainty about the exact number of Iranian tankers that have been operating under the radar," Kayrros said in a report.

The oil industry has for some years used tanker-tracking to work out actual supplies in the absence of timely official information. While easier than in the past due to satellite information, tanker tracking is still both art and science.

Tankers loading Iranian crude sometimes switch off their AIS signal, an automatic tracking system used on ships, only to switch it back on at a later stage of their journey, according to oil industry source, making it harder to see actual volumes.

Still, there is general agreement that crude shipments have dropped from at least 2.5 million bpd in April 2018, the month before President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran.

Iran Claims Rise In Foreign Tourism Can Replace Oil Income

Two young tourists vising the central historic Iranian city of Isfahan. File photo

About 7.8 million tourists visited Iran in the last Iranian calendar year (ended March 20, 2019) registering a 52.5% growth compared with the previous year, the deputy head of the Islamic Republic's Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization (CHHTO) said.

"A majority of foreign tourists visiting Iran last year were from neighboring countries as well as European and American countries," the government's official news agency (IRNA) cited Vali Teymouri as saying on Thursday, May 2.

Based on the latest statistics presented by the World Tourism Organization (WTO), in 2017, only 4,867,000 foreign tourists traveled to Iran which indicates to a 1.5% and 7% drop, compared with the previous years, 2016 and 2015, respectively.

The Iranian national currency, the rial lost declined almost fourfold against the dollar in 2018 which encouraged more foreigners to travel to Iran.

The majority of foreigners visiting Iran are either pilgrims to the Shi'ites' holy sites in the country or tourists hunting for cheaper goods and products.

They were scandals in 2018 regarding Iraqi and other visitors from regional countries who simply come to buy goods that are offered cheaper in Iran due to a falling currency or for sex tourism.

The head of Iran's Cultural Heritage, Handicraft and Tourism Organization, Ali Asghar Mounesan, has also admitted that the lower cost of Iran travel packages was the critical factor that made the country more attractive for foreigners.

Mounesan has gone further by saying that revenues from tourism can replace those of the oil sector. However, he did not disclose tourism revenues.

This claim is a clear overestimation, when in normal conditions, Iran can easily have $45 billion export income annually from oil, based on $60 per barrel sale price.

Turkey, with a long tradition of tourism, more accessible geographic location, a free social environment and Mediterranean beaches had a total tourism income of $29.5 billion in 2018.

But this does not mean Iran should not try to develop its tourism industry, which would depend on infrastructure and security.

Iran had had a tradition of arresting foreigners and dual-nationals visiting the country. Currently several foreign nationals and dual-nationals are imprisoned in Iran on dubious charges.

Just last April, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered to exchange prisoners with the West. At issue were the same detainees Iran has held without due process of law.

Iran is still much farther away from achieving any tourism goal even close to that of Turkey.

"Iran has 157 four- and five-star hotels, and by the end of President Hassan Rouhani's second term in 2021, the figure will increase to 210. When the infrastructures are complete, income from tourism will replace oil revenues," Mounesan boasted in a tweet recently.

Nonetheless, many experts beg to differ with Mounesan.

Mohammad-Ali Ashraf Vaqefi, the deputy head of Iranian Tour Operators Association, believes that tourism has the potential to replace oil revenues, provided the sector gets the attention it deserves.

Furthermore, Vaqefi notes that Iran's tourism is suffering from inadequate infrastructure in tandem with a negative image worldwide.

End Of Iran Sanctions Waivers To Hit Indian Economy: Analysts

This handout photo from India's Ministry of External Affairs taken on September 6, 2018 shows US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (L), US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (2L), Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (2R) and Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Si
Mumbai, May 2, 2019 (AFP) -

The end on Thursday of US sanctions waivers for purchases of Iranian oil is likely to hit India's economy hard, increasing fuel costs and quickening inflation, analysts say.

Last May, President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers that had given Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme.

The United States reimposed oil sanctions on Iran in November but initially gave eight countries -- including India and several other US allies -- six-month reprieves.

Washington announced last week that the waivers, which have also benefited China and Turkey, would expire on May 2.

"US sanctions on Iran is a double whammy for India after the Venezuelan sanctions," said Vandana Hari, founder of Vanda Insights, a global energy markets portal.

"It will have to pay more for imports and face higher foreign exchange outflows," she told AFP.

India -- Asia's third-largest economy -- imports over 80 percent of its crude oil requirements, leaving it vulnerable to oil price surges.

A barrel of crude recently hit a six-month high of $75 due to America's sanctions on Iran and Venezuela.

India buys mostly from Saudi Arabia but has a long history of purchasing Iranian crude.

New Delhi announced last month that it would acquire additional supplies from elsewhere but analysts say it won't be able to fill the gap left by Iran.

"No one is going to give charity to India in the oil market. Even Saudi Arabia has no plans to replace Iranian crude in the global market," Madhu Nainan, editor of PetroWatch, told AFP.

Oil is paid for in dollars and soaring crude prices puts pressure on India's rupee.

Higher prices also increases the cost of fuel at India's pumps and curtails government attempts to keep inflation low.

India's government cut fuel duties last year in an attempt to quell public anger after protesters took to the streets against record petrol prices.

With inflation low presently, India's central bank has cut interest rates twice this year to help boost the economy.

Any surge in inflation sparked by the end of the sanctions waivers would make it hard for the Reserve Bank of India to cut again at its next meeting in June.

India is busy with a mammoth general election and analysts say whoever forms the next government -- Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party or Rahul Gandhi's Congress -- will have to come up with a long-term solution for its oil needs.

"The Indian government needs to send a message to Washington that it understands the need for sanctions but also to press it to find a resolution to the problem," said Hari.

Iran Says Ready To Swap Oil For Goods, Investments

Masoud Karbasian, Iranian Economy Minister, speaks in parliament in the capital Tehran, August 26, 2018

Foreign companies can choose to receive crude oil instead of hard currencies for the goods they sell to Iran, the CEO of Iranian National Oil Company said on Wednesday, May 1.

Speaking to the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC)-run news website, Tasnim, Masoud Karbasian asserted, "There is a possibility for foreigners, who are inclined to deal with Iran, to invest in the country's oil development sector and receive crude in return for their commercial venture," Karbasian reiterated.

Iran has made attempts for years to attract investors, specially in its oil sector, but because of lack of transparency in its economy and tensions with the West, even Chinese companies have shied away.

On April 22, Washington ended six months of waivers that had allowed Iran's eight biggest oil customers to import limited amounts of petroleum from the country. U.S. called upon Iranian oil buyers to stop any further purchases by May 2, or face sanctions.

Retaliating, the Islamic Republic Minister of Oil, Bijan Namdar Zangeneh maintained on Wednesday, May 1, that Iran is exploring new ways of selling oil, adding, "We have agreed on new ways, but should study their process."

However, according to Reuters, only two consignments of Iranian oil are currently on the way to China, arriving there between May 5 and 7, but no one else has offered to buy Iranian crude.

Furthermore, according to Reuters, it is not yet clear whether the two consignments for China are destined for Iranian crude reserves there, or Beijing has really decided to continue buying oil from Tehran, despite U.S. sanctions.

At the moment, Iran has about twenty million barrels of oil reserves in the northeast port of Dalian on China's shores.

Meanwhile, Zangeneh dismissed Washington's decision to drive Iran's oil exports to zero as an "illusion."

The oil minister said Iran has no hostility toward its Persian Gulf neighbors but two countries, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have pledged to compensate for any shortfall in supply if Iran's oil exports dropped to zero.

Speaking at an oil and petrochemical exhibition in Tehran, Zangeneh also insisted that Washington cannot control the oil market “by mere statements.”

“The market conditions remain fragile” right now, he said, referring to Libya, where the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar has led a month-long assault to take the capital Tripoli from the UN-backed government, and Venezuela, where violent clashes erupted after opposition leader Juan Guaido called on the armed forces to rise up against President Nicolas Maduro on Tuesday.

In the meantime, the Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani claimed, "Even if we receive less money from selling oil, we will compensate the loss from another source, while continuing to sell oil."

Rouhani stopped short of elaborating on the term "another source." Iran often draws on its foreign currency reserves, which stand at around $50 billion but with U.S. sanctions in place it is hard for Tehran to access the funds.

In a speech broadcast live on state television, Rouhani reiterated, “America’s decision to drive Iran’s oil exports to zero is a wrong and mistaken decision” and Iran will not let it be carried out.

Moreover, Rouhani persistently said, “In future months, the Americans themselves will see that we will continue our oil exports.”

Earlier, he had contended that Iran has access to six ways to sell its crude which Americans are totally unaware of.

But Iran’s oil exports have steadily fallen in the past 10 months, as the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear agreement in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Iran’s oil exports have been cut by 1.7 million barrels per day.

But the global oil markets are healthy, IEA stated on April 23, adding, markets are “now adequately supplied, and… global spare production capacity remains at comfortable levels.”

How Trump's Hawkish Advisors Won Debate On Iran Oil Sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, in Washington, January 2, 2019
By Humeyra Pamuk and Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, May 1 (Reuters) -

U.S. President Donald Trump's unexpected decision to ban all Iranian oil purchases after May 1 - ending exemptions for eight nations - came after hawkish economic and security advisors allayed the president's fears of an oil price hike, according to three sources familiar with the internal debate.

The unprecedented move to fully sever Tehran’s financial lifeline - finalized just days before the April 22 announcement - underscores the influence of hard-liners within Trump’s National Security Council, which two of the sources said were the biggest advocates for the decision. They had for months argued for tightening the sanctions over the objections of State Department officials who favored allowing some partners and allies to keep buying Iranian oil.

"No one's actually tried to take this all the way to zero," a senior administration official told Reuters, adding that forging a consensus among government agencies required "a lot of work."

President Donald Trump has been eager to halt Iran’s oil exports since slapping sanctions on the Islamic Republic last November for the first time since 2015, a move intended as punishment for Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its support of armed militant groups in the Middle East. But he initially backed a go-slow approach, providing waivers to allies and trading partners such as China, India and Turkey.

The United States currently removes about 2 million barrels of oil per day from the world's supply through sanctions on the Iran and Venezuela industries. But Washington hopes that soaring U.S. oil production - now at an all-time high of more than 12 million barrels per day - will keep global markets well-supplied and hold prices down.

By the weekend of April 20, with the initial 180-day waivers given to countries due to expire May 1, top economic and security advisors convinced Trump that the time had come to cut off Iranian oil exports completely, according to the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The National Security Council played a key role in driving the argument to end the waiver program - especially Richard Goldberg, a new member of the Trump administration and a longtime advocate for confronting Iran, according to the two sources. He was "instrumental," one of the sources said.

National Security Adviser John Bolton added Goldberg to the NSC in January.

Previously, Goldberg was an adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) think-tank headed by Mark Dubowitz, a leading advocate for tougher handling of Iran since the United States' first round of sanctions against the country under former President Barack Obama.

In 2012, Goldberg was an aide to then-Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, and delivered a blow to Tehran by writing legislation that closed Iran's last legal loophole in selling oil under the Obama sanctions. That legislation targeted the Belgium-based SWIFT financial messaging system over which Iran was conducting billions of dollars in oil trade.

White House economic advisors Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow had also called for ending the waivers, according to a second senior administration official.

Trump discussed the matter with Bolton, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Energy Secretary Rick Perry as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

While Bolton and Perry backed ending the waivers, some in Pompeo's State Department reiterated worries about the potential for rising oil prices, the sources said, but they ultimately dropped their objections and supported the more aggressive policy on Iran.

At the time, the State Department had been engaged in talks with at least five of the eight economies holding waivers, according to sources - China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey.

SURPRISE ANNOUNCEMENT

The decision caught several U.S. allies and Iranian oil buyers off-guard. China's Foreign Ministry issued a formal complaint to the United States.

Separately, diplomats interviewed by Reuters from at least two large importers of Iranian oil said discussions about renewing their waivers continued until a few days before the announcement, suggesting the State Department had little time to brief partners on the decision.

Oil prices struck six-month highs after the announcement, but have since eased back.

Trump has long been anxious that rising oil prices could hurt the economy and raise retail gasoline prices, and in his last tweet before the waiver decision, he said global oil markets were "fragile". He has asked members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to increase the flow of oil to compensate for losses from Iran and Venezuela.

"This was clearly what he was balancing in his own mind," the administration official said.

One senior administration official said Trump held conversations recently with the Saudi and Emirati leaders on oil prices and received assurances that the two oil producers will ensure the market is well-supplied.

Saudi Arabia's energy minister responded by saying he saw no need to raise oil output immediately. OPEC production declined by 1.6 million barrels per day between December and March, according to the organization's figures.

'THE RIGHT TIME'

The Obama administration, which had imposed sanctions on Iran in 2012 to thwart its nuclear ambitions, kept its waivers in place through the duration of its pressure campaign.

Obama’s sanctions program ended with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an international accord with Tehran reached in 2015 aimed at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Trump ridiculed the deal and unilaterally abandoned it last year over the objections of the other signatories. International nuclear inspectors said at the time that Iran was abiding by the deal's terms.

State Department officials said it was the Trump administration's intention from the start to bring Iran's exports to zero. But the timing had not been right until now.

"We are doing this ... in a favorable market condition with full commitment from producing countries," said Frank Fannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources. "We think this is the right time."

Rouhani Calls On Iran Workers To Produce More To Defeat U.S. Sanctions

Iran's prsident Hassan Rouhani signing a bill into law declaring all U.S. forces in the Middle East terrorists and calling the U.S. government a sponsor of terrorism. April 30, 2019

The Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani accused Washington on, April 30, of indirectly pressuring working class people of Iran through "illegal and pitiless sanctions."

Speaking on the eve of the International Workers Day, May 1, Rouhani called upon the Iranian labor force to "work more."

According to Rouhani's official website, he maintained that one of the ways to confront the U.S. and its sanctions is an "increase in production" and "working more" on the part of Iranian workers to the extent that it provides welfare for the people and turns Iran into an "economic power."

However, Rouhani immediately admitted, “Increasing quality and quantity of production cannot be done with orders,” adding without elaboration, “Workers need to benefit from profits of production entities."

Since stringent international economic sanctions were imposed on Iran in 2011, workers have often gone without wages for months in many industrial units. The situation has worsened in the last two years, leading to numerous labor protests and strikes.

Unprofitable and mismanaged government factories and “privatized” entities cheaply sold to regime insiders have been unable or unwilling to pay workers on regular basis.

In this environment, Rouhani called on Iranian workers to work harder to boost non-oil exports, telling them they were "on the front line" against Washington and its pitiless sanctions.

Stating that, “During sanctions, the production sector has a weighty responsibility,” Rouhani reiterated, “Workers, employers, and producers have a vital part to play in reducing our dependence on foreign currency”, probably referring to oil exports.

Rouhani also said that boosting Iran's manufacturing output was vital for shoring up the value of Iran's national currency, the rial.

While praising a report presented by the Minister of Cooperatives, Labor and Social Welfare, Mohammad Shariatmadari, the president insisted that the figures given in the report are "promising", and the workers "must be more hopeful about the future since their spirited and vibrant work combined with rendering better service creates better products."

However, the latest reports on the future of Iranian workers leave not much room for the "rosy future" Rouhani tried to present to his domestic audience.

The Supreme Labor Council of Iran, the body responsible for setting the minimum wage, announced March 19 that it proposed to raise the minimum wage from the current 11.2 million rials ($90) per month to $140 (based on free-market exchange rate) beginning March 21.

According to the parliament’s Research Center, the cost of living for an Iranian family amounts at least to 37.6 million rials (approximately $280 based per month, which labor unions consider to be an underestimation.

Furthermore, thousands of workers across Iran have not been paid for months, forcing them to strike, and stage sit-in and protest rallies.

Nevertheless, Rouhani insisted that his administration is "standing side by side with the workers" in full force.

In the meantime, Rouhani asserted that his administration is proud of a small increase in the number of labor unions during his presidency.

"We believe that the workers should seek their rights through trade unions, and the trade unions should defend the workers' interests in different sectors," Rouhani maintained.

Nevertheless, human rights organizations, as well as the few independent (officially unrecognized) trade unions in Iran, have repeatedly lambasted the government for deploying security forces to suppress workers protests across the country, placing scores of labor rights activists behind bars.

Large factories in Iran, such as auto manufacturer, Iran Khodro, and Iran National Steel Industrial Group (INSIG) do not even have an "Islamic Workers Council," a pseudo-trade union supported and practically run by the state.

Iran Officially Launches Trade Mechanism To Match Europe's INSTEX

German head of The Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), Per Fischer (second from right) poses with the envoys of Britain, France and Germany in Iran, March 11, 2019.

Iran on April 29 announced the establishment of a company designed to match a mechanism European countries have set up to facilitate trade despite U.S. sanctions.

Earlier on March 20, the Governor of Central Bank of Iran (CBI) Abdolnaser Hemmati had announced that a mechanism similar to Europe’s Instrument for Trade and Exchanges (INSTEX) has been registered.

The mechanism, called the Special Trade and Finance Institute (STFI) was introduced after technical and expert negotiations between Iranian delegations and representatives from three European countries (Britain, France and Germany).

STFI has been devised to work in tandem INSTEX, designed to alleviate facilitate limited trade with Iran.

The newly established Iranian company has started its activity with one billion rials (about $24,000) capital.

France, Germany and the UK set up INSTEX on January 31, 2019, following the U.S. withdrawal from the deal with Iran in 2018, to help Tehran with limited trade despite U.S. sanctions.

However, the Islamic Republic's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has repeatedly called INSTEX a "meaningless" measure and "a bitter joke," adding that "Europeans should have stood up to the U.S. after it left the JCPOA and should have lifted all sanctions against Iran."

The U.S. Representative to the EU, Gordon Sondland, also reiterated on April 11, that the era of the U.S.-Europe dispute over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers is over.

"The SPVs (INSTEX) are Europe's attempt to appease Iran by showing that they are still trying their very best to facilitate proper transfers of payments to Iran. We believe that those SPVs are really nothing more than, and I've said it before, a paper tiger," said Gordon Sondland.

The formal announcement of STFI's establishment has been followed by another round of attacks by Iranian officials on the EU and on what they describe as the "EU3 procrastination."

Parliament speaker Ali Larijani insisted on Monday, April 29, that Iran no longer cares about Europe’s demands as European governments have let it down in countering "hostile U.S. policies".

“We are trying to find out why European leaders and the European Union only support us in rhetoric or only express regret at America’s actions,” Larijani said during a meeting with Wolfgang Gerstl, the head of Austria-Iran parliamentary friendship group in Tehran on Monday.

“Sure, you might say there are problems because of U.S. pressure and it might sound logical, but we look at this from our own point of view and the most important thing for us is that this behavior has raised questions about EU’s credibility and it means that the EU lacks the weight to solve problems,” local news outlets cited Larijani as saying.

Larijani expressed his dissatisfaction with the EU3 to the extent that he stressed, "We do not need Europe’s help in getting back at Washington. We will get even with America."

As U.S. Sanctions Bite, Iran Fulfills Only 63% Of Non-Oil Export Target

An Iranian customer speaks with a bank clerk at the Export Development Bank of Iran in the capital Tehran on July 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / BEHROUZ MEHRI

Iran could fulfill only 63% of its non-oil export target during its last fiscal year, Trade Promoting Organisation of Iran (TPO) announced.

Iran’s fiscal year (FY) ended March 20, 2019.

Iran had planned to export $54.9 billion non-oil products, but it managed only $39.375bn, about 1.35% less than the previous FY. Therefore, it can be argued that overall, Iran did not do so badly compared to the previous year but it failed its own high target, which became difficult to meet in an environment of tough U.S. sanctions.

The country’s oil and gas condensate also declined significantly during last year due to U.S. sanctions, but expected to shrink further as U.S. ended exemptions April 22 for Iran’s major clients.

TPO says the country’s total imports (excluding petroleum products and services) also declined 21.7% to $42.612 billion. The report didn’t mention the total export and import volume, but the International Monetary Fund released a report April 29 putting exports (including services) at $105.9 billion in 2018.

IMF’s estimate and forecast about Iran’s total exports and imports (billion US dollar) (Source:IMF)
IMF’s estimate and forecast about Iran’s total exports and imports (billion US dollar) (Source:IMF)

* IMF predicted 2019 and 2020 figures with this precondition that Iran would continue 950,000 barrel per day of oil exports (including natural gas), but U.S. sanctions demand customers to stop Iranian oil intake by May 1, 2019.

Share of products in Iran’s non-oil exports during last Iranian FY
CategoriesValue(Billion $)Y/Y changeVolume(Million tons)Y/Y Change
Petrochemicals*14.15-2%34.177-13%
Industrial19.6934.8%42.2271.8%
Carpet and handicraft0.3-34%0.01744%
Agriculture3.747-5%5.0158%
Mine1.477-34%26.311-13%

Source: TPO. * Including raw hydrocarbons, like propane, butane, etc.

Europe

Iran’s non-oil exports to Europe declined by one third year-on-year to about $1 billion, while oil exports to the declined to 203,000 b/d during, about one third of the previous year.

European clients halted Iranian oil intake in mid-2018.

Iran’s oil export to EU during last Iranian fiscal year and 2018 (1000 b/d):
Iran’s oil export to EU during last Iranian fiscal year and 2018 (1000 b/d):

Almost all of EU’s oil imports from Iran was in the first half of 2018.

Europe’s total exports to Iran during last FY stood at $9.082 billion, about 22% less than the previous year.

Except Austria’s 64% growth in exports to Iran, all of Iran’s major European partners exported less to the country.

Other major partners, including China, UAE and Turkey also had fewer exports to Iran by 22%, 35% and 19% respectively, but Russia, Oman and India increased exports by 85%, 100% and 15%.

Trade with oil clients

U.S. had extended a 6-month wavier to eight countries in November 2018 to continue buying Iranian oil imports. Only five countries; China, India, South Korea, Japan and Turkey used their waivers.

However, official figures show all five countries significantly reduced their oil and non-oil imports from Iran and except India sold fewer goods to Iran.

Iran and five oil clients’ trade turnover in 2019 (million US dollar):
Oil ClientsPeriodExports to IranY/Y ChangeImports from IranY/Y change
China1Q 2019693.5-56.60%1505-32%
IndiaJan-1933264%719-30%
South Korea1Q 201999-83%1210-15.50%
Japan1Q 2019643-99%707-79%
Turkey2019377.5-28%951.2-17%

Source: Oil clients’ custom statistics

Closing Strait Of Hormuz Is Fraught With Dangers For Iran

This file photo from around 1980 shows the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial 20-mile-wide sea link between the Persian Gulf oil-exporting nations and shipping lanes to oil-importing nations.

A war of words has erupted again between the United States and Iran over the Strait of Hormuz. But it would be in no country’s interest to see trade disrupted in this vital international waterway. Furthermore, unilateral military action on Iran’s part would be a grave mistake.

On Monday, April 22 the United States announced it would end sanctions waivers for countries importing oil from Iran, with the object of ending all Iranian oil exports. In apparent response, Alireza Tangsiri, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps navy force said that “if we are prevented from using [the Hormuz Strait], we will close it. In the event of any threats, we will not have the slightest hesitation to protect and defend Iran’s waterway.”

This is not the first time Iran has used a threat to close the Strait as leverage. Last year President Hassan Rouhani said that if the United States persisted in its efforts to cut Iran’s oil exports, Tehran would see to it that no country in the region would be able to export oil. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Rouhani’s threat reflected the regime’s official policy. President Trump responded angrily, cautioning Iran to “never ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the like of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”

The Hormuz Strait is a critical international waterway through which passes almost a fifth of the world’s crude oil supply. The prospect of reduced oil exports from Iran and instabilities in the region have caused a recent spike in oil prices, and the actual closure of Hormuz would be even more disruptive to energy markets.

Tehran seems to think it has nothing to lose by threatening to close the Strait. After all, if the United States can pressure other countries not to import oil from Iran, then the Islamic Republic would not lose more by closing Hormuz than leaving it open. The strategy seems to be, if Iran suffers, then the region will suffer.

However, this would be a grave error on Iran’s part. The Hormuz Strait is a protected international channel and attempting to close it by force would be illegal. Iran claims rights over the entire Strait, but most of the deep shipping lanes are in the territorial waters of Oman. More importantly, Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (“UNCLOS”) guarantees transit passage to waterways “used for international navigation between one part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone and another part of the high seas or an exclusive economic zone.” This would clearly apply to the Strait of Hormuz. And while the United States is not a party to the treaty it has recognized provisions of the agreement as operative parts of customary international law.

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

If Iran took unilateral action to prevent transit through the Strait it would constitute a casus belli for countries that utilize Hormuz for shipping, or indeed for any country seeking to enforce international rights, to do so. Perhaps Tehran believes that sympathetic countries on the United Nations Security Council like Russia would veto any attempt to authorize the use of force to reopen the Strait, but the disruption caused by the closure could be so profound that it would test even Moscow’s willingness to stand by its strategic partner. As well, the United States and countries in the Gulf region would undoubtedly be prepared to take military action regardless of whether the United Nations authorized the use of force or not. President Trump in particular would not think that the United States was legally constrained in its response to Iran’s provocations simply because the UN chose not to act.

Reopening the Strait would not be an easy task. Both the U.S. and Iran have prepared for this conflict scenario for decades. The 2002 “Millennium Challenge” wargame showed just how costly such a confrontation could be, with the U.S. Navy losing a simulated aircraft carrier and ten cruisers to Iranian unconventional attacks. Coalition naval forces would not simply rush into the Strait to be set upon by swarms of drones, small fast-attack boats, and shore-launched anti-ship missiles. There would be thorough preparation of the battlespace by air assets and special operations forces before any capital ships were placed in harm’s way.

And there is no reason to believe that the U.S. military response to a Strait closure would be limited to the Hormuz area. All Iranian military surface vessels and submarines, whether deployed or in port, would be considered legitimate targets, as well as any Iranian military aircraft. Iran’s communications infrastructure would be targeted, as well as its supply centers, command and control nodes, and high-level military leadership. An open military confrontation of this type would also support the argument for launching strategic strikes against Iran’s known or suspected nuclear facilities.

It would be a mistake for Iran to respond to economic pressure with open warfare. The renewed economic sanctions are not intended to bring about conflict but to encourage Tehran to agree to negotiations over a wide-ranging agreement to replace the flawed 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. As the president stated last year, this proposed approach would seek to “eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program; to stop its terrorist activities worldwide; and to block its menacing activity across the Middle East,” as well as end Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Closing the Strait of Hormuz would only further isolate Iran in the international community, hinder negotiations, and create conditions for conflict for which Tehran would pay a terrible price.

The opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Radio Farda

Shirin Ebadi Calls Iran ‘Incorrigible’

FRANCE -- Iranian Nobel Peace laureate Shirin Ebadi poses during a news conference on Iran at the Reporters without Borders (RSF) offices in Paris, February 7, 2019

Speaking to the Al Jazeera TV network, Iranian dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi has described Iran as "incorrigible," insisting that the only way toward reform in her homeland is through changing its constitution.

The interview was aired less than a week after Washington decided not to extend the Iran oil sanctions waivers.

The decision was made as part of the Trump administration's "utmost pressure" strategy aimed at depriving Iran of all its revenue from oil exports.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insists the move will choke off Iran’s revenue amounting to more than $50 billion a year.

Referring to the U.S. decision, Ebadi said she supported sanctions but only those that don't harm the Iranian people. She singled out Iran’s non-Persian speaking TV channels that use Western satellites to broadcast propaganda shows across the world.

"Prohibit the use of these satellites for Iran so that it would cut off Iran's propaganda megaphones," Ebadi told Al Jazeera. "How do you think that some of the Syrian, Lebanese, or Yemeni youth support Iran? It's through the same TV networks that the Islamic Republic deceives the young people.”

With branches in 20 countries worldwide including France, Belgium, Malaysia, Lebanon, United Kingdom, the United States, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) offers both domestic and foreign radio and television services. It broadcasts 12 local television channels, four international news television channels, six satellite television channels for international audiences, and 30 provincial television channel available countrywide, half of which make use of local accents or dialects.

The state-run IRIB, which has monopolized the right to broadcast radio and TV programs in Iran, also runs 30 radio stations exclusively for international audiences.

Furthermore, the IRIB has Arabic, Hindi, English, Urdu, French, and Spanish channels, besides the native Persian.

In an interview with pro-reform Sharq daily on March 12, former IRIB head Mohammad Sarafraz revealed that it had nearly 20,000 staff plus 20,000 more external contributors, including 3,000 managing directors.

The budget for IRIB under Sarafraz's predecessor, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commander Ezzatollah Zarghami, amounted to 20 trillion rials (approximately $480 million), with 27 trillion rials (about $640 million) in expenditures.

On April 19, Google deactivated the IRIB's English-speaking TV channel (Press TV) and its Spanish-speaking (HispanTV) accounts on YouTube for violating the company's regulations.

However, the Iranian authorities have accused Google of relenting to Washington's sanctions imposed on Tehran.

Earlier, several Iranian dissident groups had also called for imposing sanctions on the IRIB since it had aired "forced confessions" of political prisoners.

Sarafraz is the only IRIB-related person sanctioned so far by the European Union. In 2013, the EU adopted restrictive measures against Sarafraz and recognized him as being associated with violating human rights and cooperating with Iranian security services and prosecutors to broadcast "forced confessions of political prisoners." He was the manager of Press TV when his name was added to the list of individuals sanctioned by the EU.

Regardless of the sanction, Sarafraz was promoted directly by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to head the IRIB on November 10, 2014.

However, less than two years later on May 11, 2016, Sarafraz was forced to resign after political infighting among members of the ultra-conservative camp dominating Iran.

During Al Jazeera's exclusive interview, Ebadi asserted that she did not believe in foreign interference in Iran's internal affairs, but insisted that no reform is possible in her homeland under the country's present constitution.

"In the past two decades, different ways have been tested to see whether the Islamic Republic regime could be reformed or not," said Ebadi, who has lived in exile since 2009 in the United Kingdom. "Regretfully, all tests and experiences have been negative. No reform is possible in Iran until its constitution is changed, and that's what should be done by the people of Iran, and inside Iran."

The first Iranian and Muslim woman Nobel Peace Prize laureate (2003), Ebadi believes the Islamic Republic is a "one-man show" dominated by Khamenei.

"One should remember that Iran's foreign policy is not set by the foreign minister or even by the president," Ebadi said. "Therefore, Zarif is merely a puppet, and that's why when he recently resigned, they confronted him, and he immediately took back his resignation."

Ebadi, 71, asserted that one of the main reasons she calls for the change of Iran's constitution is the dominating role of its supreme leader, who has the last word on all national matters.

As far as the constitution stipulates that the supreme leader has the pivotal role in all social, political, and economic affairs of the country, Ebadi argued,no reform is possible.

In February 2017, Ebadi, along with several political activists, including prominent lawyer, Nasrin Sotoudeh, Islamic Revolution veterans Abolfazl Qadyani, renowned human rights defender and physicist Narges Mohammadi, former head of Tehran University Mohammad Maleki, and Islamic scholar Mohsen Kadivar, called for holding a referendum under the supervision of the United Nations, to decide Iran's political future.

After Murder Of A Cleric Khamenei Tells Police They Must Stop Illegal Gun Trade

A blurred photo of the alleged killer of a clergyman in Iran on April 27. The photo has been taken from one of his social media accounts.

Iran’s Supreme Leader on Sunday told law enforcement officials to deal with gun trade on social media, after a cleric was killed by a gunman the previous day.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s official website quoted him saying, “The murderer of the clergyman yesterday in Hamadan had published his photos on Instagram with four different weapons, and it is the duty of police to deal with this kind of cases”.

Khamenei was referring to the shooting of a 46 year old cleric in the Western city of Hamadan with an AK-47 assault rifle.

The police announced on Sunday that the killer was identified as Behrouz Hajiloo and in less than 24 hours was killed in a shootout with agents that lasted 20 minutes. Two police officers were also lightly injured.

The motives for the killing of the clergyman are not clear, but Iran’s minister of communications wrote on his Instagram that the murder suspect’s social media posts are full of “his racism”. He has not elaborated on what kind of racist posts the suspect has published.

Khamenei in his remarks condemning trade in weapons added, “In some countries such as the United States buying and selling guns is permitted because of the financial interests of gun-manufacturing mafia companies, but in our country we don’t have this problem and it is forbidden to buy and sell guns, which must be stopped”.

He also stressed on the “security of cyberspace” and said, “Cyberspace today has an expanded role in people’s lives and along with its benefits it also has dangers”.

Khamenei criticized the police for not being at its Islamic best and demanded from law enforcement to “seriously combat smuggling and deal with those who create insecurity in cyberspace”.

In recent years, there have been other cases of citizens murdering clergymen or vice versa. In 2018, a young man was executed for killing a cleric who had raped him repeatedly in his adolescence when he was a student at a seminary.

Human rights observers noted that during the trial of the young man, the issue of rape had been ignored. The brother of the man who was killed is a senior official close to Mr. Khamenei.

In 2006, a clergyman killed a young man named Ali Ahmadinejad in Karaj, near Tehran for saying something unethical to a woman in the metro. Eyewitnesses at the time said that the cleric pushed the young man to the ground and fired his handgun at his head. They also said that when police arrived the clergyman showed an ID card and walked away.

Morality police in Iran and clergymen have the right to apprehend people for not respecting the dress code, drinking alcohol or similar “unethical” behavior. Often fights break out when they admonish a citizen in public.

Later, the Special Court for Clergy announced that the murderer was charged with the killing and carrying an unlicensed handgun and will stand trial, but no further developments were reported in the case.

Is Iran Signaling Readiness For Negotiations With United States?

Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with diplomats representing the world powers in November 2013 as first talks were kicking off to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear program.

The "authority" given to Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss a prisoners swap with the United States may be an attempt by Tehran to show some “flexibility”; in the same way that reduction of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang started with a small athletic event.

The word “flexibility” has a special connotation here. When in 2013 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei allowed negotiations to officially start on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, he called his decision “heroic flexibility”.

Zarif’s statements in New York about a prisoner swap no doubt have Khameni’s blessing, as otherwise the Iranian Judiciary, the body that holds most of the prisoners in Iran would have protested Zarif's offer.

This development probably signals another rare "flexibility" on the part of Tehran. President Hassan Rouhani has said, "We are men of war and negotiations." While Khamenei had stressed in the aftermath of President Donald Trump's pull-out from the nuclear deal with Iran, that "We would neither go to war with America, nor would we negotiate with Americans," Zarif's offer and Rouhani's statement could signal a change in Khamenei's approach to the Iran-U.S. standoff.

One would expect Khamenei to have further toughened his position after the United States designated the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization two weeks ago. But it seems he has not blocked all options; giving Zarif something to dangle in the air.

But talking tough in front of domestic audiences and facing the reality of crippling sanctions are two different things. No matter how defiant Khamenei would like to be, the fact is that Iran’s oil exports will soon dwindle to near zero and Iran would not even be able to pay government employees - unless it taps into its foreign currency reserves. But this is also not a viable option as most of the money is outside the country and very hard to access while U.S. sanctions are in place.

It was the same situation in 2013, when Iran, on the verge of total bankruptcy, having endured three years of crippling international sanctions, agrees to negotiate over its nuclear program.

"Neither war, nor negotiation" was a wrong tactic from the very beginning. In the world of diplomacy, wars start when there is no more room for diplomacy. Countries will refrain from resorting to war as long as there is an outlet for negotiations. We saw that Trump who had threatened to totally destroy North Korea, has already held two rounds of talks with the North Korean leader he no longer calls "the missile man." Thanks to negotiations, the two countries have distanced themselves from war.

Although the talks between Washington and Pyongyang have not yet led to a tangible result, they have pulled the world back from the brink of a nuclear war.

"Neither war, nor negotiation" slogan must have been either a wrong tactic or a slogan for domestic use and saving face. Either way, the Islamic Republic is now beginning to use a small window to signal its readiness for holding talks with America.

While Zarif was in new York for a conference, he made two odd statements": First, when he was asked about an Iranian commander's threat about closing the Strait of Hormuz, he said that was a decision for the regime's military wing. This came while Rouhani had made the same threat in July 2018 and Khamenei endorsed Rouhani's statement as a decision made by the Iranian political system, adding that "It is the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry to follow up on this decision." So, the matter was within Zarif's jurisdiction, but he did not want to talk about closing the waterway.

Second, Zarif suggested a prisoner swap between Tehran and Washington, adding that he is authorized to negotiate on the subject with U.S. officials.

It appears that it was Khamenei who authorized Zarif for such a negotiation in spite of his "Neither war, nor negotiation" motto.

Nevertheless, Zarif has left a way out for himself just in case the offer of prisoner swap with America does not work. He has mentioned the possibility of exchanging British-Iranian dual national Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe who is in jail in Tehran with an Iranian woman in prison in Australia - on charges of violating U.S. sanctions - as apparently no Iranian is in jail in the UK. So, he can always say that was an offer made also to the UK and Australia.

In the meantime, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has categorically ruled out any such exchange, insisting that Zaghari is innocent and should be released anyway. But Zarif's way out will still remain open and defendable in Iran in case the idea of prisoner swap with America does not work and he comes under attack by his hardline political rivals in Tehran.

The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of Radio Farda

Police In Iran Use Texting To Summon Women Who Violate Hijab In Cars

A female taxi driver fetches a passenger in Tehran, 21Aug2011

Iranian police are using text messaging to warn female drivers and passengers who take off their hijab (scarves) or ignore the Islamic dress code while driving or riding in cars.

Hundreds of women in the capital city of Tehran recently received phone text messages, summoning them to the "Morality Police" station. After days of uncertainty about the origin of the messages, finally police announced the messages are official warnings.

The women are accused of violating the Islamic dress code, including the removal of their scarves while driving a vehicle.

"Those who are summoned will be released after committing themselves in writing that they will not repeat the offense," the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Brigadier General Hossein Rahimi announced on Thursday evening, April 25.

Should the offense be repeated, Gen. Rahimi warned, the accused will be charged and referred to a court of law.

On Thursday, hundreds of women accused of driving without respecting hijab law (the Islamic Republic's dress code) rushed to the "Morality Police" headquarters in Tehran to inquire about the texts. Their presence disrupted traffic for hours at the busy road and streets close by.

IRGC Gen. Rahimi dismissed the traffic mess as a "minor problem" that was tackled adequately by his forces.

Speaking to the government's official news agency (IRNA), Gen. Rahimi said that drivers, who had been summoned, could have been the owners of the vehicles carrying female passengers who had not respected the Islamic dress code.

Drivers of vehicles are responsible for their passengers, and should not allow them to ride in their cars without proper hijab, IRGC General insisted.

Meanwhile, Rahimi asserted that those summoned may defend themselves, and if proved innocent, they will be freed without any charges.

Earlier last week, Tehran's police chief, IRGC Brigadier general Hossein Sajedi Nia had announced the deployment of "morality police undercover patrols," with more than 8,000 male and female staff to identify dress code offenders.

In recent years law enforcement officials have detained tens of thousands of vehicles for carrying female drivers or passengers who had removed their scarves or violated the Islamic dress code in other ways.

Many human rights defenders and lawyers believe that a vehicle is a private space and should be respected by law enforcement officers.

Nonetheless, the Islamic Republic Judiciary has argued that the invisible part of the car, such as the trunk, is a private space, but this does not apply to the visible parts of a vehicle.

Furthermore, based on a law endorsed and implemented in 2015, wherever is visible to the public, including common areas of residential complexes, hotels, and hospitals, as well as vehicles, are public spaces.

Using mobile phone text messaging to warn female drivers and passengers who violate the compulsory hijab and dress code in Thran started in November 2017.

“The experiment by the capital’s police to text notices to car owners who violate the hijab rule has proven successful,” Theran's prosecutor said. “The move is aimed at reducing traffic accidents in Tehran,” the city's Prosecutor General said at the time.

The reference to accidents means that women without proper hijab distract other drivers, according to law enforcement.

Opinion: Bringing Shiite Militias Into Iran Shows Khamenei's Weakness

Iran - Iraqi militia entering Iran in April 2019 "to assist in flood relief".

Recent floods in Iran have killed dozens and displaced possibly millions of Iranians. Instead of helping them, most of the Islamic Republic’s time and energy has gone into sending foreign Hashd al Shaabi and Hezbollah fighters into Khuzestan.

These forces have engaged in light flood repair for show, but in reality they lack the equipment or skills to do any serious flood relief. Instead, they’re in southwestern Iran because Ayatollah Khamenei fears a revolt. The Hashd and Hezbollah do what they do best: intimidate, harass, and if need be, torture and kill. But their presence in Iran shows a critical weakness for Khamenei as well. And it may prove one of the bigger mistakes he has made.

The floods and the regime’s unwillingness and incompetence have led to widespread anger against the regime in Khuzestan and Lorestan provinces. Many of the Iranians affected are ethnic minorities such as Arabs, Lors, Bakhtiaris, and many others. The Arabs have in particular been a subject of the harshest of discriminations.

Although Khuzestan houses Iran’s oil wealth, Arab Iranians have received very little of it. They are poor and neglected, but still fierce and resilient. Like millions of other Iranians, they have taken to the streets for the past sixteen months in protest against a corrupt and mafia like regime. No wonder the Islamic Republic establishment is afraid. Not only Arab Iranians, but the Lors, are some of the fiercest and most independent peoples that make up the Iranian nation.

Thousands of foreign forces appear to have been allowed into Iran by Khamenei. Many come from some of the most violent regional armed conflicts; both Hezbollah and the Hashd are used by Khamenei to control Lebanon, Syria, and parts of Iraq. Hezbollah has been the vanguard of the Assad regime’s genocidal quest to suppress Syria’s opposition; the Hashd have been responsible for religious cleansing and systematic executions throughout Iraq.

But their presence on Iranian soil shows that Khamenei may not fully trust his own security forces, including the Basij and the Revolutionary Guards. Iranians are less likely to kill their own brothers and sisters while mercenaries like Hezbollah and the Hashd are less caring of Iranians.

The regime has faced the floods at the worst time possible. It is under severe economic pressure and could soon see a near total economic blockade through sanctions. The regime can hardly afford the estimated nearly ten billion dollars in flood damages. And the vast majority of Iranians want Khamenei and his regime gone forever. But they fear an uncertain future if the regime falls.

America should put as much as sanctions pressure on Hezbollah and the Hashd as possible. They’re the enemies and occupiers of the Iranian people. The Hahshd in particular should come under greater sanctions as the U.S. pressures Baghdad to reign in pro-Khamenei groups. Iran may be strong in Iraq, but its influence has weakened in the face of popular Iraqi riots against Khamenei’s regime. The U.S. should also launch an information operation campaign both against Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Hashd in Iraq. Many Lebanese and Iraqis share Iranians’ hatred of Khamenei and his mercenary armies.

As the U.S. puts pressure on the regime’s external mercenaries, a closer look at the regime’s lobbies and influence networks in America, Canada, and Europe are urgently warranted. For too long, many of these groups have engaged in shady activities trying to sway public opinion and manipulate politicians.

The future presence of Khamenei’s mercenaries wouldn’t be a surprise in bigger cities such as Shiraz, Kermanshah, Esfahan, or even in Tehran for that matter. But if there is one thing that angers Iranians, it is the presence of foreign occupiers on their soil. Iran has conquered and been conquered in the last three thousand years, but it has always remained Iranian.

Washington is wise to mimic the cries of Iranians striving to free their nation of forty years of tyranny. An emphasis on America’s opposition to the foreign occupation of Iran would reassure Iranians struggling for a future free of tyranny and abyssal darkness.

More persistent, robust and revealing journalism from foreign based Farsi media including US international broadcasters, regular outreach to the Iranian democratic opposition, and targeting of regime lobbies and former officials in the West are likely to be steps welcomed by Iranians seeking freedom. The message: Iran may be occupied now, but it won’t be occupied forever.

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

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