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President Ebrahim Raisi looks at the Iranian flag.

Protests In Iran Risk Spreading As Ukraine War Triggers Global Food Crisis

After a break in late March, small protests have broken out all over Iran over wages and pensions. A higher cost of living caused by the war in Ukraine may be the final straw for exasperated Iranians.

In Iran, workers and pensioners have resumed protests over dismal wages and work conditions, after a two-week lull for the Persian new year holidays. Amid dire conditions for many Iranians in an economy that has become perennially dysfunctional, one economist has warned there could be another explosion of public rage against the Islamic Republic within months.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Iranians have reasons enough to be angry: unemployment, inflation, unpaid or meager wages (when paid) that barely meet bread-and-butter costs, and a regime that persists with a nuclear program that has earned the country little more than sanctions. And now, the regime's sinister ally, Russia, is provoking a spike in food prices after invading Ukraine.

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Mousavi in a photo from the 2009 campaign
Ahmad Shayegan

IRAN FILES: Dissidents' Fate, Ahmadinejad's Future, Thieves

Fate Of Dissidents In Rouhani Era
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has yet to release two leading dissidents, Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi, from house arrest, which broadcaster Deutsche Welle"s Persian-language outlet characterized as “disappointing.”

Both detainees were reformist candidates during the 2009 presidential elections and backed massive protests after incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected amid what many Iranians denounced as fraudulent voting. Authorities suppressed protests with mass arrests and the alleged torture of many detainees. Mousavi and Karrubi were also arrested as “seditious readers,” as was Mousavi’s activist wife Zahra Rahnavard.

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Mousavi supporters in 2009 — Photo: mangostar

Deutsche Welle observed that citizens’ hopes were raised with Rouhani’s implicit promises to relax Iran’s repressive environment when elected on a “reformist” ticket in August 2013, and with the release of some prisoners in September.

The three “dossiers” — of the former candidates and Mousavi’s wife — were reportedly sent “three months ago” for review by the National Security Council, a consultative body Rouhani leads, with permission from the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The broadcaster quoted presidential adviser Hesameddin Ashna as saying recently that their release might depend on some act of contrition or confessions. Ashna said that Mousavi “must make some decisions. If he cannot or does not wish to, things will become difficult for everyone.” He said some people in Iran did not view Mousavi and Karrubi as victims of injustice but beneficiaries of the state’s “mercy.”

Prague-based Radio Free Europe reported that the Supreme Leader’s website accused the “subversives” of committing an “unforgivable” sin — namely turning their “doubts” about election results into a “challenge against the system.” It was not immediately clear what that meant for their fate.

An Iranian legislator has asked the Judiciary Chief to stop “uttering slogans” and work to resolve the four-year controversy. “To resolve this issue, we need an independent judiciary, not one that takes orders from this … or that office or security agencies,” the conservative Jomhuri-e Eslami quoted Tehran representative Ali Mottahari as telling the Parliament.

He said “the solution” of insisting Karrubi and Mousavi publicly repent for their political choices “will lead nowhere, because while they may admit some of their faults, they consider the main culprit to be their opponent.”

Ayatollah Khamenei’s brother Hadi Khamenei told students in Tehran last week that “certain parties” had no interest in eliminating the “intimidating atmosphere” they had created in Iran, according to Prague-based Radio Farda, citing Jamaran, a reformist website. Khamenei, a mid-ranking cleric associated with reformists, wields little power and is sometimes described as estranged from his brother. “Those who create fear will not willingly reduce that fear. Their administration requires it,” he said.

A prominent theologian recently asked Rouhani to help release a liberal politician detained for over 40 days in the central city of Isfahan, apparently after publishing comments deemed threatening to Supreme Leader Khamenei, Radio France Internationale reported last week.

Abdolkarim expand=1] Soroush, who has lectured at Yale, Harvard and Princeton in recent years, noted that Rouhani himself is a former revolutionary, and he himself had “tasted detention and enjoyed freedom. Do not deprive the innocent of this pleasure.”

The liberal politician in question is Ali Asghar Gharavi, local head of the Freedom Movement of Iran, a group the regime barely tolerates. Gharavi apparently wrote recently in a local paper that the leadership of the Muslim community was not “God-given” but elective, which appeared to question the status of Iran’s Leader, deemed by supporters to be the leader of all Muslims.

Legal "noose tightening” on Ahmadinejad
Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may face a dose of his country’s justice at some point, following the unusually frank criticisms made by a senior judge.

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Ahmadinejad glory days, with heads of state at the 2010 Caspian Summit — Photo: Kremlin

Administrative Justice Court head Mohammad Ja'far Montazeri accused him of repeatedly breaking the law when he was president. He said Ahmadinejad “lied … and blatantly broke the law,” while “lawlessness” in his administration undermined public confidence in the state. Montazeri deplored how Ahmadinejad had appointed an “offender and a criminal” to senior positions, the conservative Jomhuri-e Eslami reported.

The man in question was likely Tehran’s former chief prosecutor Sa'id Mortazavi, apparently dismissed after the 2009 protests for his brutal interrogations, but whom Ahmadinejad later insisted on appointing head of the social security fund. More conservative papers reported Montazeri’s remarks only briefly, while reformist media gave his harsh words generous coverage — which isn’t surprising, as Mortazavi eagerly shut down newspapers as prosecutor from 2003-2009.

French daily Le Monde wrote that the “noose was tightening” around the former president.

Armed robbers should expect to die, prosecutor says
Iran Prosecutor-General Gholamhossein Mohseni-Ejei said last week that “armed thieves” may well be executed and that their “punishment can be a lesson to others,” the daily Aftab-e Yazd reported. The cleric told the press at a Tehran police station that those “especially” who robbed using knives, “blades and scimitars” could face the worst criminal charges, namely being declared an enemy of God and religion (mohareb) and “spreading corruption on earth.”

Drug traffickers are convicted and hanged on such charges. Mohseni-Ejei was informing the public of the “ongoing arrests” of a 120-member gang of thieves in Tehran.

Tehran's Molavi Bazaar
Ahmad Shayegan

IRAN FILES: Rafsanjani Comeback, Family Planning, World Cup Fever

A Rafsanjani return?
The former diplomat and Tehran-based commentator Sabah Zanganeh wrote in an item published Dec. 22 in the reformist daily Aftab-e Yazd that the former president Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, considered Iran’s great "pragmatist" politician, could help engineer a rapprochement with regional rival Saudi Arabia, for the "trust" he inspired among Iranian and Saudi officialdom.

Zanganeh was writing in response to unconfirmed reports that Rafsanjani might visit Saudi Arabia. Zanganeh wrote that "undoubtedly" relations between Iran and the Saudi monarchy had further deteriorated in recent years, after first beginning to sour with the fall of Iran’s monarchy in 1979. Clashing ideologies and interests had since fueled proxy confrontations in such countries as Iraq, Syria and Bahrain. The rise of a new generation of princes in the kingdom he added, had led the kingdom to harden its stance toward Iran. This he added, coincided with the radical Iranian governments led by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005-2013.

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Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — Photo: Mesgary

Rafsanjani was generally sidelined during the Ahmadinejad presidencies and came close to a state of political impotence; it was not immediately clear however if he would make a political comeback after the 2013 election of President Hassan Rouhani, with whom he has good working relations.

Influence on Syria, "Mischief" from America
Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, another influential cleric, told the official IRNA news agency on Dec. 23 that without Iran's presence, the Geneva 2 conference to discuss peace in Syria next month would "surely fail." Khatami said it was "America's mischief" that had excluded Iran, even if the “permanent leg of any plot against Iran" was Israel. "Whether they like it or not, Islamic Iran has an extraordinary influence, not just in Syria but in other Islamic lands ... without Iran's presence there will be no progress in Syria."

Bad faith?
Following the interim deal made last month in Geneva, Iran's Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani has urged Iran's nuclear negotiators to "clarify" the scope of agreements made with Western powers and push for an unconditional end to sanctions on Iran, the reformist Aftab-e Yazd reported.

Iranian authorities were angered by the recent publication in the U.S. of firms and persons to be penalized for violating current sanctions against Iran, saying it was a sign of bad faith. Amoli-Larijani, a conservative cleric, used a public meeting on Dec. 18 in Tehran to say that Americans had "very strange interpretations of the agreement made, which no thinking person can accept," and renewing sanctions would make the Geneva accord "meaningless."

One of Iran's negotiators told the semi-official ISNA agency on Dec. 21 that the Geneva accord would allow Iran to maintain its daily crude exports at one million barrels, instead of reducing them to 800,000 as he said Western powers had previously envisaged. Hamid Ba'idinejad said "the most important part of the Geneva accord" for Iran included "release of part of Iran's oil revenues" equivalent to the cash earned for 200,000 barrels a day, which would allow Iran to purchase food, and farming and medical products, the reformist Shargh newspaper reported. Ba'idinejad cited other sectors expected to benefit from an incipient loosening of sanctions — insurance, transportation, petrochemicals and trading in gems such as diamonds.

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Gas and oil fields near Ahwaz, Khuzestan province — Photo: dynamosquito

One hundred and nine former diplomats recently signed a public letter backing Iran's negotiations over the nuclear dossier, Arman newspaper reported on Dec. 22, describing the letter as an effective "order" for domestic critics of talks to "be quiet." The critics were likely the "hardliners" in Iran, although nobody could oppose talks per se, given their approval by the Supreme Leader.

Cleric deplores family planning “plot”
Ayatollah Naser Makarem-Shirazi, a senior Iranian cleric and jurist, deplored family planning on Dec. 18 as "a plot by America and Israel" to curb Third World populations, Aftab-e Yazd reported. Iran he said had "unfortunately fallen into this trap" — referring to family-planning policies imposed after the 1980s. Modern society had no respect for the family, the ayatollah said, and "many families no longer understand each other." To curb an expected “sharp” fall in Iran’s population he said, "families must have at least three children, though five children are better. I myself have seven."

Iran enters World Cup mindset
World Cup spirit is gradually taking over Iran, whose national team is slated to play in Brazil after missing the 2010 edition in South Africa, reports the Folha de S. Paolo blogger Samy Adghirni. "Media coverage is growing bigger every week, to the point where it is difficult now to turn on the radio without stumbling on some debate over the other teams in Iran's group (Argentina, Nigeria and Bosnia) or over the performance of national players."

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Iranian supporters during the 2006 World Cup — Photo: asadmalek

Enthusiasm is also spreading to the streets of Tehran, where weeks ago Samsung installed dozens of green and yellow billboards announcing that anyone buying an HD television could win a trip to see Iran play in Brazil. As for those not taking chances and who want to be sure to be there, they're complaining the prices are too high. One Iranian travel agency reportedly tried to charge one fan $15,000 for a package including travel, hotel and tickets to the three games.

Dial with care
Ahmad Shayegan

IRAN FILES: Bugged Phones, Nuclear Nuance, Stray Dogs

Listen closely
An Iranian parliamentarian reminded his colleagues — if they needed reminding — that all their mobile telephones were very likely bugged, Radio Free Europe's Radio Farda website reported, citing several Iranian newspapers. Tehran Member of Parliament Ali Mottahari told a Dec. 9 student gathering in Tehran that his own office was bugged, with listening devices having been found inside the air conditioning. He speculated that the move may have been for the meetings he had held there with relatives of dissidents or liberal activists. He did not specify who had bugged his office. The newspaper Arman said that Mottahari had crossed a "red line" by revealing that legislators were being spied on.

Holy death penalty?
Iran’s Judicial Chief defended the death penalty in Tehran, saying it was not a violation of human rights as Western states allege, but sanctioned by religion, the daily Shargh reported. Top judge Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli-Larijani told a public gathering that it was "really, very strange that certain countries that have exploited other nations for centuries and looted their resources" now spoke of rights violations. Opposing the death penalty he said, was “really opposition to religious commandments," observing that the Koran sanctioned the law of talion, or retaliatory execution. He vowed Iran's judiciary would do its work, regardless of "irrational words and lies" uttered against it.

Subtle shifts on nuclear weapons
Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has offered new insight on how the current administration views the nuclear issue. "We know that given the region's strategic conditions, nuclear weapons do not create security for us," he said at a conference Wednesday on international relations at Tehran University.

Zarif said "certain people" were concerned that once Iran assures the world it is not after nuclear weapons the "international fear mongering" toward Iran would cease to be effective.

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Iran Foreign Affairs Minister Zarif — Photo: Max Talbot-Minkin

Any deal with Iran would have to include the viewspoints of both sides, he said later, adding that the U.S. and Israel were not the decisive powers in the world — but that "God is the only thing that is the absolute power in the world."

Zarif's words come days after he used all his charm and media savvy on a visit of four of the six Gulf States, trying to cement links between the countries and alleviate the concerns voiced by Iran’s Arab neighbors over the nuclear deal. Learn more about Zarif's trust-building tour on this Süddeutsche Zeitung/Worldcrunch article.

Parental pardon
While murderers can expect to be executed in Iran, a victim's family may pardon a killer and settle for compensation and a prison term, as recently happened in Tehran. A 25-year-old woman's parents-in-law agreed to wave her execution, after she was convicted of stabbing to death their son — her allegedly abusive husband — in a marital fight in late March 2013, Shargh reported on Dec. 12.

Women and drugs
Drug abuse is a growing concern in Iran, and recently women addicts have been garnering particular attention. The head of the nation's Anti-Narcotics Agency told a Tehran seminar on Dec. 11 that there were some 1.3 million addicts in Iran. Nearly 90% of addicts were men, he said, while the 10% female addicts had apparently turned to drugs in response to marital problems. Four days later, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli reported that the "number of female addicts has doubled" and that addiction was "widespread" in Iran in spite of police efforts to curb the flow of drugs, the daily Arman reported. The Interior Minister said that female addiction should raise "all the alarms" as women were at the "core of family education and preservation."

In Darvazeh Ghar, one of Tehran's most deprived neighborhoods, Doctors Without Borders teams work with city hospitals and local organizations to assist women struggling with drug addiction and infectious diseases such as HIV.

The head of Iran’s social workers association, Hasan Musavi-Chalak, told ISNA news agency that the number of Iranians infected with HIV had increased from 3,400 in 2000 to currently about 27,000. He was presumably referring to diagnosed cases. Speaking on Dec. 16, Musavi said that since 1986, authorities attributed some 70% of HIV infections to drug use and infected needles, and 12.5% to unprotected sex. Iran recently announced it would open 15 HIV testing laboratories in universities.

Turn down the heat
Officials recently chided Iranians for wasting gas when heating homes and shops, and warned “wasteful” homes could have their gas cut off. The head of the National Iranian Gas Company Hamidreza Araqi said on Dec. 15 that domestic gas consumption reached a "new record" of 432 million cubic meters in the previous 48 hours, following the arrival of a cold front into a large part of the country. Araqi said gas supplies to industry were restricted in recent days and gas imported from Turkmenistan did not cover demand, Arman reported.

Iran’s First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri issued a directive “asking” all ministries and state bodies to turn down the heating on their premises. Offices, he wrote, should be kept at 18-21 °C (64-70 °F) and corridors at 18 °C.

Meanwhile, there are also related health and safety issues, as Mehr news agency reported another “record” of 132 people taken to Tehran hospitals on Dec. 13, for "suffocation, poisoning" and gas-related incidents.

Staving off droughts
Deputy Chief of Iran's Environmental Protection Organization Ahmad Ali Keykha warned that 40 of Iran’s 250 registered areas of natural marshland, or about one million hectares of marshland, were drying up or had already dried, Arman reported. Keykha warned that environmental changes meant Iran was moving toward endemic drought, while Iranians were extracting 110 times more underground water than 40 years ago.

Putting down dogs
Some 9,000 stray dogs have been rounded up from the capital’s streets over the past year — about 750 or month — to be put down, Shargh reported on Dec. 12.

Rahmatollah Fazeli, a Tehran city councilman, said they were put down under the supervision of the state environmental agency, using "defined, standard methods" he did not specify, but were not shot.