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U.S.: Undersecretary Of State Pushes For More Interfaith Dialogue

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes being interviewed at RFE/RL's Prague headquarters (RFE/RL) PRAGUE, June 11, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- On June 11, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes, a longtime confidante of U.S. President George W. Bush, visited RFE/RL's Prague broadcast center. In a wide-ranging discussion with several RFE/RL correspondents, Hughes laid out her strategy for reaching out to other cultures and societies as part of the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Hughes emphasized the need for greater dialogue among cultures and the role of people-to-people exchanges in order to counteract extremist and terrorist ideologies.


Listen to the complete interview (about 27 minutes):
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RFE/RL: As underscretary of state for public affairs and public diplomacy, what are the main opportunities and challenges you are facing in fulfilling your mission?


Karen Hughes: I really view my job and the way I describe it in simple terms is [that] I'm focusing on America's conversation with the world. And I say "conversation" because I think sometimes the world thinks we speak at them, rather than listening to them. So I've tried to focus a great deal on listening and engaging in dialogue.


And as I travel the countries I try to meet with people. I meet with a wide sector of people, young professionals, people in low-income neighborhoods. Many people have told me that I've gone places where an American has never gone before. I try to appear on television shows where they've never interviewed an American before, to really reach out. The core of public diplomacy is, I believe, people-to-people programs and exchanges and ways that we can actually reach out to people.

So in the aftermath of September 11, the president made it our policy to foster freedom everywhere, to foster democracy, to encourage the democratic aspirations of people, because -- again -- we feel that’s in our national interests as well as in their interests.

I have three strategic goals for the way I look at, the way I constantly ask my staff to look at, our public-diplomacy efforts and I'll just go through them all quickly. The first is I believe it's very important that America continue to offer the world a positive vision of hope and opportunity that’s rooted in our values, our belief in freedom, our commitment to human rights, our belief in the worth and dignity and equality and value of every single person in the world. I saw a focus-group interview [with] a young man in Morocco and he said: "For me, America represents the hope of a better life." And I think it's vitally important that our country continue to offer that hope to people everywhere, whether it's people in Afghanistan, or Uzbekistan, or Iran -- that we've got to offer that hope that’s rooted in our fundamental values again. The most fundamental of all is that we believe every person matters, every person counts, and every person has the right to live a life that’s meaningful and to contribute.


Hughes speaks to an Afghan child during a visit to Kabul on February 26, 2004 (epa)

A second strategic imperative is to work to isolate and marginalize the violent extremists and to undermine their efforts to impose their vision of ideology and tyranny on the rest of us. And so we work very hard to encourage interfaith dialogue, to talk about the fact that we think people of all faiths share certain beliefs -- in the value of human life, for example. And the violent extremists obviously don't value human life -- they've targeted innocents and committed horrible crimes against innocent civilians across the world. So I think it's very important that we, as a world community, as an international community, draw a very clear contrast between our vision -- which is for education and openness and tolerance and inclusiveness -- and the extremist vision, which is a very narrow, rigid ideology. Essentially they say, "You have to agree with us, or we want to kill you." And so it's very important that we draw that distinction in very stark terms.


And the final strategic imperative is that I believe it's very important for America to foster a climate of common interests and common values between Americans and people of different countries and cultures and faiths across the world. And that's particularly important at this time when we are engaged in a worldwide war against terror. One of our former ambassadors, when I met with him, said to me: "Karen, you know, American foreign policy can't be just seen as focusing on common threats. We have to focus on common interests and common values." And I find as I travel the world we do have a lot in common, even though we don't always recognize that. If you ask a lot of people around the world "what's most important to you," frequently they’ll say their faith, their family, their sense of social justice and responsibility. If you ask Americans "what's most important to you," we'll say "our faith, our family, our communities." Often, though, if you ask the people in other parts of the world "do you think Americans value faith and family," they don't understand that about us. So I think it's very important that we talk and engage in dialogue so that we understand that we do have a lot in common.


I'm a mother. I have a son who I love dearly and a daughter, and I want the best for them. I want them to be educated; I want them to have a chance to travel around the world and meet other people; I want them to grow up and have an opportunity for a job and a productive, meaningful life. And that's what parents across the world want for our children. And so I think it's very important that we reach out in that spirit to the rest of the world.


RFE/RL: You just spoke about the importance of having a dialog between the United States and the Muslim world. Do you see a role that international broadcasters could play in that dialogue?

Afghanistan stole my heart on my first visit to Afghanistan several years ago. I was so impressed by the great courage, particularly of the women there who have been through so much after years of war and years of the Taliban rule. Yet I met women who, despite threats of really their life in some cases, were having home reading classes to teach little girls to read because little girls were forbidden from going to school or learning to read. And I met women who just had so much courage, who had lost husbands at war and yet had been struggling to try to support their families.

Hughes: Absolutely. I'm here at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and I was just told that of the 28 countries where you broadcast, I think, 18 have majority Muslim populations. And so that's a very important voice for our values going into those countries. Your mission here is to provide the truth and to provide audiences in those countries with information that is accurate. One of the challenges, I think, that I face in my job, one of the things I say, is that I want people to be able to decide for themselves. And I think that's very different from the extremists that we face. The extremists want a very narrow, rigid view of the world. They basically say, "it's our way, or you're wrong."


Young people in Tehran (RFE/RL file photo)

We want people to decide for themselves, and I think that's a very powerful point, particularly for young people. Young people want to learn; they want to make up their own minds; they want to explore; they want to hear a variety of news and information. And broadcasting helps provide that credible source of news and information, often in countries whose governments control the news or control information about what is happening within their own borders. So your service provides open information and an opportunity for young people to decide for themselves.


Another big part of my strategy is to try to empower our own citizens. We have in America 6-7 million Muslim-Americans, and I believe they are a very important bridge to the wider Muslim, Islamic world because many of them are from cultures around the world, came from those countries, and so know both cultures, know both their home culture and their now American home culture. And so I think they are an important bridge.


I was in Germany not too long ago, and I was meeting with a group of Muslims who live there and this woman was telling me how isolated her community is. And I said, "Well, could I come meet and maybe talk with people in your community?" And she looked at me and kind of shook her head and said: "No, not really." I was kind of taken aback and I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "Well, we wouldn't want our own government officials to come and meet with us, so why would we want yours?" Because there is such a hostility, a sort of disconnect, the community feels very isolated there. And I said, "what if I sent a group of Muslim-American citizens over here to meet and talk with you?" And she said, "that'd be great!"


And so, beginning next week, we're going to be sending Muslim-Americans to different regions of the world to meet with Muslim communities and begin a dialogue. And so I think one of my roles is to help empower those voices and to let Muslim communities across the world hear different points of view and hear debates, and I know that's one of the things that our broadcasting encourages is: "Let's look at...." [and] "We've got to talk about...."


We have in America separation of church and state, but that doesn't mean -- I think I'm worried that sometimes freedom of religion has come to mean freedom from religion. And I don't think that's what was intended. America has people of many different faiths -- Muslims work and worship and practice their faith very freely in my country. And so do many Jewish citizens. So do many Christian citizens of all different denominations. And some Americans choose to practice no faith at all, and that's fine too. So we have a very diverse and tolerant society. And I think it's important that we allow and, through our broadcasting, that we allow discussion of these kinds of issues.


RFE/RL: There are countries in the world that you can visit, where you can talk directly to people. But there are countries, like Iran, that are much more difficult to visit. Do you have different strategies for communicating with people in more isolated societies?


Hughes: That's where broadcasting [into Iran] becomes even more important, because Radio Farda does reach an audience that we're not able to reach. President Bush has recently requested supplemental funding for additional broadcasting into Iran and also for an opportunity to try to begin some people-to-people exchange programs, where we could begin to try to have some exchanges. That's going to be difficult and we recognize that.


So our broadcasting becomes very important in terms of being able to establish a dialogue, and some of the correspondents here were sharing with me that you hear from many of your listeners within Iran, that they would call and leave messages or they would send e-mails. I think that's a very important dialogue.

America has people of many different faiths -- Muslims work and worship and practice their faith very freely in my country. And so do many Jewish citizens. So do many Christian citizens of all different denominations. And some Americans choose to practice no faith at all, and that's fine too. So we have a very diverse and tolerant society.

We, of course, have many Iranians in America and they are in touch with people in Iran. For example, recently, I reached out to them and had conference calls with them to get their points of view about events in Iran and how we might better engage with the people of Iran. But clearly it's a problem.


In societies such as Cuba, for example, as well. Again we try to broadcast into Cuba, but we don't have formal relations, therefore we don't have formal exchanges. We, again, have a lot of Cuban-Americans who communicate to some extent with family back at home. So we have to adapt our strategies to each country. By and large, however, I think that in today's world, it's very different than public diplomacy was in the Cold War. In the Cold War, as you know because Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was such a vital part of it, we were broadcasting news and information into societies that were largely closed, that were hungry for that information. That's still the case in Iran today, or in places like Cuba.


Iraqis in Baghdad watching the news on television (epa file photo)

However, in much of the world -- particularly across much of the Middle East, for example -- there's no longer an information deficit. In fact there is an explosion of information, and it's a completely different world that we're dealing with because a lot of it is propaganda, a lot of it is not true, a lot of it is rumor and myth and it goes around the world instantly on the Internet. I remember one of the great ironies that I saw recently of the modern communications age was when one of Saddam Hussein's ministers -- the minister of information -- was standing outside Baghdad, saying that American troops weren't there [while] you could see on your television screen that, yes in fact they were, and you could see Baghdad in the background.


And so today, in today's world, when we see on our television stations pictures from around the world in an instant what we're vying for, I think, is attention and credibility in the midst of an often-crowded communications environment and that's why it is so important, I think, that our broadcasting is committed to telling the truth and to portraying truthful, accurate information without bias, without propaganda, without slant, but providing the truth to people across the world.


RFE/RL: You earlier indicated that you have made several trips to Afghanistan and you are a good friend of the Afghans, especially the women. Are there any concerns about what seems to be a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan with advances by the Taliban and especially the anti-U.S. rioting that took place recently? And you are also welcome to make any statement for Afghan listeners.


Hughes: Well, thank you so much. Afghanistan stole my heart on my first visit to Afghanistan several years ago. I was so impressed by the great courage, particularly of the women there who have been through so much after years of war and years of the Taliban rule. Yet I met women who, despite threats of really their life in some cases, were having home reading classes to teach little girls to read because little girls were forbidden from going to school or learning to read. And I met women who just had so much courage, who had lost husbands at war and yet had been struggling to try to support their families.


Of course, everywhere I went, the people were so gracious, so warm. You’d meet people who had virtually nothing and yet they would offer you everything. They’d invite you to their home, and serve you tea and greet you with great warmth. I really admire the courage of the people of Afghanistan.


And I found when I was in Afghanistan that the people of Afghanistan were very grateful. Everywhere I went, they said two things to me. They said: “Tashakkour” -- “Thank you.” And then they said “don’t leave,” because they very much want a chance at peace and stability.


I think what we are seeing now is some Taliban remnants try to take advantage of a situation there as NATO takes the lead of the operations for the coalition there. I think we are seeing increased presence of NATO in the southern part of Afghanistan, and so we are encountering some Taliban forces that we had not encountered before because we hadn’t had that kind of presence in the southern part of the country.


I saw the American ambassador to Afghanistan interviewed about the riots. He said he thought it was more of a crowd that got out of control, and was just sort of in a very ugly, feisty bad crowd dynamics. Because he said his experience is still by and large the same as mine, and that is that the majority of the Afghan people want the presence of American forces and coalition and NATO forces in Afghanistan, because they know that is the best hope to have peace and prosperity in their future.


Afghans in Jalalabad celebrating Norouz in March (RFE)

I am looking forward to going back to Afghanistan. I again think the people there very much want.... They are very entrepreneurial. I remember seeing, I would see piles of rubble from the destruction of war and then every few feet the bricks had been cleaned up and someone had put up a sign and they were going into business. I think that’s a very moving tribute to the spirit and the character of the Afghan people.


We are committed to Afghanistan. America is committed to Afghanistan. NATO is committed to Afghanistan. And we want Afghanistan to succeed. It’s fairly exciting that we have a democratically elected government there. I had the privilege of attending President [Hamid] Karzai’s inaugural and watching the Supreme Court under the new constitution administer the oath of office to the new president, the chief justice. I couldn’t help but think, you know, two years ago none of this was here. There wasn't a constitution; there wasn't an elected president; there wasn’t.... Now we have a parliament with a number of women in parliament. I am looking forward to visiting with some of them on my next trip to Afghanistan.


RFE/RL: There seems to be a problem between two important allies in the war against terrorism -- Pakistan and Afghanistan. Using your status in the administration in promoting communication and dialogue, can you influence this? Can you do anything about it?


Hughes: Well, I certainly hope I can. I’ve been to both countries. I was in Pakistan not too long ago. I led a group of business leaders to Pakistan to help raise money for recovery from the horrible [October 2005] earthquake there.


I am aware that there are tensions and, unfortunately, there are some very difficult regions along the border between the [two] countries. Americans ask me all the time, why haven’t we caught [Al-Qaeda leader] Osama Bin Laden if he is there? I have flown over that country. As you know, it is extremely rugged. It’s hard to imagine. I remember flying over some of those mountains and thinking there is no way anyone could live there. And then they had put me on night-vision goggles and I looked down and there were hundreds of fires where people had campfires, where people were living all throughout those mountains and they go for miles and miles, and it was incredibly rugged and incredibly hostile territory and incredibly difficult to imagine. And of course, [there are] long traditions and long grievances. So it’s difficult. But I certainly hope that America, our government could in some way perhaps encourage better relations.


RFE/RL: You have spoken about the importance of faith, at least of telling the world that Americans are people of faith. How important is sensitivity to religious issues in your communications strategy, especially sensitivity to Islam? And would you talk a little bit about the role of this interfaith dialogue you have been active in? How that is involved in your strategy?


Hughes: I think it is absolutely vital, because as a communicator I understand that the way that you really communicate with people is that you have to speak in ways that are relevant to their lives. And so if you are speaking with someone whose faith is the most important thing in their life, which it is for many people across our world, you can’t just ignore that factor.


Azerbaijani women worship in a Baku mosque (AFP file photo)

I was one of the people who advocated that the president visit the mosque in the aftermath of [the] September 11[, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington] to send a signal that we understood that we have many Muslims in America who are very peaceful citizens, who are proud Americans, and that this was not about the faith of Islam, but this was about some people who were violent extremists, who were trying to use the cloak of religion to try to cover acts that were really acts of murder. So I was an advocate of that, and I think it’s very important that we show the world that America is a very tolerant and diverse society where people are welcome to practice their faith.


It’s interesting, I was in Morocco last week and I was talking with a couple of people who had been on exchanges and I asked them what their feeling was in America. And they said they felt so free -- they couldn’t believe how free they felt. A woman who wore cover told me how sometimes when she travels to Europe and other places, she feels as if people stare at her and look at her as is she is a little different or a little suspect. And yet she said in America she felt totally free, and she didn’t have that feeling in America. Because we are a very diverse and very welcoming country and society.


And I think it is important that we seek to foster interfaith dialog and that’s one of the things that President Bush asked me when I took this job. He said, "meet with religious leaders, foster conversations among religious leaders." I’ve attended a number of interfaith conferences. Because again you have to recognize that faith is very important to many people’s lives. So if you exclude that from your conversation, you are excluding something that is very important to many people.


The other thing is that the world’s major faiths have many things in common. The world's major faiths all believe that we should try to live in peace and love for each other, that we should love God and love our neighbor. All believe and teach that life is precious and that the taking of innocent life is wrong. It’s important that we talk about these things. Sure, we have differences. We have important theological differences. But we also have much in common. And I think it is very important that we foster that kind of dialogue.


RFE/RL: The United States has been accused of having allies that are undemocratic even as America promotes democracy and freedom. How do you answer critics who charge that the United States preaches one thing but practices another?


Hughes: President Bush made it very clear in his second inaugural address that he felt that America had to stand for freedom everywhere in the world and that, in the aftermath of September 11, America had reevaluated our national security, had looked at the situation around the world and had realized that when you have regions where there is a freedom deficit, then you often have the kind of conditions that can be taken advantage of. You have a kind of hopelessness, you have a sense of simmering anger that can lead people to get on airplanes and do crazy things like flying them in the buildings full of innocent people. He recognized that we had to address that.


So in the aftermath of September 11, the president made it our policy to foster freedom everywhere, to foster democracy, to encourage the democratic aspirations of people, because -- again -- we feel that’s in our national interests as well as in their interests. He said we have no monopoly on freedom in America. We believe that men and women were endowed by their creator with certain rights, as our Declaration [of Independence] says, and among them are the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- in other words, to freedom. And so we have an obligation to stand for that everywhere. He also said we recognize that will come in different ways in different places, and that the pace of change will be different in different places.

And I think it is important that we seek to foster interfaith dialogue and that’s one of the things that President Bush asked me when I took this job. He said meet with religious leaders, foster conversations among religious leaders. I’ve attended a number of interfaith conferences. Because again you have to recognize that faith is very important to many people’s lives. So if you exclude that from your conversation, you are excluding something very important to many people.

For example, in some place like Egypt, we spoke up and commended the step of having a multiparty presidential election. I remember being in Egypt and talking with a young man -- he was not much older than my son -- and he had just voted for the first time in the presidential election and I said, “did you have a choice of candidates?” And he said “yes.” And that was the first time that there had been a choice like that.


Then they had parliamentary elections that were not as open and not as free. And we expressed our concerns about that. So when there are crackdowns against people who are trying to peacefully exercise their right to speak out, we will speak up and say that we disagree with that.


Again, we recognize that the pace of change will be different in different places. There will be slow steps in some places. In other places, there will be bigger steps. But what we are seeing across the world, we hope, and what we are trying to encourage, is the advance, greater liberties, greater freedoms.


The women of Kuwait, for example, now have the right to vote and the right to run for office. So we are seeing advances.


A man in Hebron walks past a Hamas election poster during the Palestinian Authorities legislative elections in January (epa)

We’ve seen elections in the Palestinian territories. [We] didn’t agree with the positions of the government of Hamas that was elected there. Yet we absolutely agree that the Palestinian people have a right to make a choice. Once they make that choice, however, the international community can say: "Well, we don’t agree with some of the actions of that government. We don’t agree with a government that refuses to renounce terror and that refuses to recognize its neighbor’s right to exist, and that refuses to live up to previous obligations under the peace process. But we do agree that it is good for the people to get involved, to make their voices heard.


And so slowly, but surely, we believe that freedom is on the advance. We have in the world today many more democratic nations than we had in the past. So we are making progress, and the United States will continue to stand for greater freedom, for greater human rights, and for the voices of those people in their societies to speak out and influence the direction of the governments of their societies.


RFE/RL: Central Asia is exactly a region with a "freedom deficit," as you put it. Does it pose a dilemma for the United States, as on the one hand most of the governments in Central Asia are undemocratic, and, on the other, they are strategically important in the war against terrorism? Is it a dilemma for the United States whether to support them and to cooperate with them in the war against terrorism or do you see undemocratic governments as a cause of terrorism?


Hughes: I think I would separate the two slightly in that President Bush has said we want to work across the world with people who want to crack down in the fight against terrorism. We want to work on a lot of different levels. We work with the governments, for example, to try to withhold funding to terrorist organizations. We try to share intelligence. We try to share law enforcement. And that is a global strategic issue with which we work with governments across the world.


I hope most governments in the world want to protect their citizens. President Bush believes that the most fundamental responsibility of government is to try to protect its citizens’ right to not have airplanes fly into buildings where you are just going to work one day. So we work in cooperation with governments across the world to try to share information and intelligence to protect the lives of our citizens.


Parliamentary candidate Shukria Barekzai at a Kabul voting station during the country's legislative elections in September 2005 (RFE/RL)

At the same time, we speak very proudly on behalf of human rights. And when we see governments repressing the human rights of their people, we speak out against that. When we see, for example, as we have recently in Russia, independent media being shut down and harassed and driven out of the country, we speak out against that. So we seek to foster in countries around the world a climate of opportunity for people to participate.


We recognize that in Central Asia that’s a very great challenge. So, one of the things I work to do in my area is to foster the kind of exchanges, the kind of growth of civil society, to try to have people come to the United States and meet with civil-society organizations with the hopes that they can go back to their country and help form those kinds of civil-society organizations. We recognize that in many countries, it’s very difficult to do. It’s difficult for citizens to peacefully assemble and try to either express their political views or even express nonpolitical, charitable [views], to assemble together. But we work. And again, some of this is a process that takes a great deal of time.


As people here in the Czech Republic know very well, it takes time sometimes. But we are confident that as we work to exchange people and exchange ideas, as we work to support civil-society institutions, as we work to support education programs, as we work to broadcast truth and information into these societies -- that ultimately will help to empower people, so that they themselves have the information and the skills and the strength to make their societies a better place.

U.S. Undersecretary Of State Karen Hughes

U.S. Undersecretary Of State Karen Hughes

U.S. Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes greets students from the State Islamic University in Jakarta, Indonesia, on October 21, 2005 (official site)

MEET THE NEWSMAKER: Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs KAREN HUGHES has been tasked by U.S. President George W. Bush with leading efforts to promote U.S. values and confront ideological support for terrorism around the world.
She oversees three bureaus at the U.S. State Department: Educational and Cultural Affairs, Public Affairs, and International Information Programs. She also participates in foreign-policy development at the State Department.
A longtime adviser to Bush, Hughes served as counselor to the president for his first 18 months in the White House. As counselor, she was involved in major domestic and foreign-policy issues, led the communications effort in the first year of the war against terrorism, and managed the White House Offices of Communications, Media Affairs, Speechwriting and the Press Secretary.
Hughes returned to Texas in 2002, but continued to serve as an informal advisor to the president and was a communications consultant for his 2004 reelection campaign.
She is the author of "Ten Minutes From Normal," the story of her experiences working for Bush, and she helped write the president’s autobiography, "A Charge To Keep"....(more)

Karen Hughes on November 14, 2005, speaks to Pakistani women who were left homeless by an earthquake in that country in October 2005 (official site)

Karen Hughes (left) having a working lunch with President George W. Bush (center) and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in the White House on October 5, 2005 (official site)

Hughes (right) reads a book with Kashmiri earthquake survivors during a visit to a tent school in Muzaffarabad on November 14, 2005 (official site)


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Hard-Liners Ahead In Tehran After Iranian Elections With Record Low Turnout Reported

An woman in Tehran casts her ballot during Iranian elections on March 1.
An woman in Tehran casts her ballot during Iranian elections on March 1.

Iranian state media says hard-liners are ahead in the capital, Tehran, as vote counting progresses in Iran's March 1 elections, which were marred by what appears to be a record-low turnout prompted by voter apathy and calls for a boycott by reformists.

The elections for a new parliament, or Majlis, and a new Assembly of Experts, which elects Iran's supreme leader, were the first since the deadly nationwide protests that erupted following the September 2022 death while in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for an alleged Islamic dress-code violation.

Iran's state-run IRNA news agency said 1,960 from 5,000 ballots in Tehran have been counted so far, with hard-liners ahead as expected.

An alliance led by hard-liner Hamid Rasaee won 17 out of 30 seats in Tehran, state radio reported, while the incumbent parliamentary speaker, conservative Mohammed Baqer Qalibaf also obtained a new seat.

The turnout appears to be at a record low, according to unofficial accounts, despite the officials' repeated appeals to Iranians to show up en masse at the polls as Iran's theocracy scrambles to restore its legitimacy in the wake of a wave of repression in 2022 and amid deteriorating economic conditions.

The Mehr news agency, citing unofficial results, reported that voter turnout in Tehran was only 24 percent.

Iran's rulers needed a high turnout to repair their legitimacy following the unrest, but many Iranians said they would not vote in “meaningless” elections in which more than 15,000 candidates were running for the 290-seat parliament.

State media reported that the turnout was "good." Official surveys before the election, however, suggested that only some 41 percent of eligible Iranians would come out to vote.

The Hamshahri newspaper said on March 2 that more than 25 million people, or 41 percent of eligible voters, had turned out, thus confirming the official survey.

If the figure is confirmed, it will be the lowest election turnout in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that brought the current theocracy to power, despite officials twice extending voting hours to allow late-comers to cast ballots.

The pro-reform newspaper Ham Mihan published an opinion piece titled The Silent Majority, reporting a turnout of some 40 percent.

Shortly afterwards, however, the title of the piece was changed to Roll Call without any explanation, which commenters on social media networks blamed on pressure exerted on the newspaper by authorities.

So far, the lowest turnout, 42.5 percent, was registered in the February 2020 parliamentary elections, while in 2016, the turnout was some 62 percent.

As the voting concluded, the United States made clear that the international community was aware that the results of the poll would not reflect the will of the Iranian people.

"As some Iranians vote today in their first parliamentary election since the regime's latest violent crackdown, the world knows the Iranian people do not have a true say at the ballot box," U.S. Deputy Special Envoy for Iran Abram Paley wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Ahead of the vote, prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, said they would boycott the elections, labeling them as superficial and predetermined.

Mohammad Khatami, Iran's first reformist president, was among the critics who did not vote on March 1.

Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has also voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

Voter apathy, along with general dissatisfaction over living standards and a clampdown on basic human rights in Iran, has been growing for years.

Even before Amini's death, which sparked massive protests and the Women, Life, Freedom movement, unrest had rattled Iran for months in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of insurance support.

In a last-ditch effort to encourage a high turnout, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his ballot in Tehran that voting would “make friends happy and ill-wishers unhappy.”

While domestically attention is mostly focused on the parliamentary elections, it is perhaps the Assembly of Experts polls that are more significant.

The 88-seat assembly, whose members are elected for eight-year terms, is tasked with appointing the next supreme leader. Given that Khamenei is 84, the next assembly may end up having to name his successor.

Analysts and activists said the elections were “engineered” because only candidates vetted and approved by the Guardian Council were allowed to run. The council is made up of six clerics and six jurists who are all appointed directly and indirectly by Khamenei.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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In dozens of audio and written messages sent to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda from inside Iran, many said they were opting against voting because the elections were “meaningless” and likely to consolidate the hard-liners’ grip on power.

With reporting by Reuters

Iranian Grammy Winner Sentenced To Prison, Writing Anti-U.S. Music

Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security."
Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security."

An Iranian court has sentenced Grammy winner Shervin Hajipour, who was first detained after his song Baraye turned into an anthem of anti-establishment protests in 2022, to nearly four years in prison while also forcing him to write music critical of the United States.

Hajipour shared the news along with a picture of the court verdict on his Instagram account on March 1. He thanked his lawyers for "trying their best" and used a Persian expression that suggested he had no regrets.

Hajipour has been handed eight months in prison for "propaganda against the establishment" and three years for "encouraging and provoking the public to riot to disrupt national security." Hajipour will serve only the longer of the two prison sentences.

The singer and songwriter has also been ordered to "create music about America's crimes against humanity" and "document America's human rights violations in the last century" and publish his findings on social media.

He has also been banned from leaving Iran for two years and ordered, among other things, to publish on social media handwritten notes from religious books about women.

Baraye, whose lyrics were heavily inspired by social media posts from Iranians explaining why they were protesting, won the inaugural Special Merit Award for Best Song For Social Change at the 2023 Grammys.

The protests in 2022 erupted after Mahsa Amini, who had been detained for allegedly wearing "inappropriate" attire, died in police custody. The monthslong unrest gave birth to the "Women, Life, Freedom" movement and presented one of the strongest challenges to the Islamic republic since its inception.

Hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested as the authorities cracked down on the protests.

Hajipour was arrested in September 2022 and held for about three weeks before being released on bail.

Iranian Media Says IRGC Commander Killed In Suspected Israeli Strike On Syria

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.

An Iranian commander was among three people killed in a suspected Israeli air strike on Syria, Iranian state media reported on March 1.

Reza Zare'i, a "military adviser" with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Navy (IRGC), was killed following strikes on the Syrian coastal city of Banyas, the IRGC-linked Tasnim News Agency reported. It said he was a member of the IRGC Navy.

Earlier, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights said the strikes came at dawn and targeted a villa, killing an Iranian commander and two companions who were not Syrian.

The IRGC has not commented on the reported death of one of its commanders. Iran refers to its troops in Syria as "military advisers."

At least 11 members of the IRGC, including an Afghan fighter with the Fatemiyun Brigade, have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes in Syria and Lebanon since the outbreak of war in the Gaza Strip in October.

Israel launched a deadly offensive against the Palestinian enclave in response to a multipronged attack by Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist group by the United States and European Union. Around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Hamas attack inside Israel, while more than 250 were taken hostage and brought back to Gaza.

Iran has supported the assault by Hamas but denied it was involved in planning it. U.S. intelligence has indicated that Iranian leaders were surprised by the attack.

Iran's regional allies have been targeting Israeli and U.S. interests in the Middle East following Israel's attack on Gaza. However, armed groups backed by have scaled back their attacks on American bases following a series of U.S. strikes last month, according to the New York Times.

Iran stepped in to defend President Bashar al-Assad in 2013 when his rule was challenged during the Syrian civil war. Hundreds of IRGC commanders and officers and believed to be present in Syria, where Tehran has also built up a large network of militias, consisting mostly of Afghans and Pakistanis.

Updated

Turnout Becomes Focus Of 'Engineered' Iranian Elections Amid Widespread Dissatisfaction

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballots at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei casts his ballots at a polling station in Tehran on March 1.

Iranians voted on March 1 in two elections that will usher in a new parliament and Assembly of Experts as opinion polls projected a low turnout amid calls for a boycott of what many see as "engineered" balloting.

Voting began at 8 a.m. local time in the first election since the deadly nationwide protests that erupted following the September 2022 death while in police custody of Mahsa Amini. She had been detained for allegedly not following Iran's hijab laws.

Iran's rulers need a high turnout to repair their legitimacy following the unrest, but many Iranians said they would not vote in "meaningless" elections in which more than 15,000 candidates were running for the 290-seat parliament. Partial results are not expected before March 2.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said they would boycott the elections, labeling them as superficial and predetermined. Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

The state-linked polling agency ISPA, which ordinarily releases frequent polling data ahead of elections, put out its first and only survey results on February 28. It found that only 38.5 percent of respondents said they would "definitely" turn up to vote and projected turnout of 41 percent on election day.

Another poll by the state broadcaster IRIB, which was released on February 29, projected a 43.1 percent turnout.

Turnout was "good," state media reported, but witnesses who spoke with Reuters said voting at most polling centers in Tehran and several other cities was light. Officials twice extended voting hours to allow late-comers to cast ballots.

Voter apathy, fueled by general dissatisfaction over living standards and a clampdown on basic human rights in Iran, has been growing for years.

Even before Amini's death, which sparked massive protests and the Women, Life, Freedom movement, unrest had rattled Iran for months in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support.

In the last parliamentary elections in February 2020, ISPA predicted a 52 percent turnout, but actual participation was 42.57 percent --- a historic low for legislative elections since the Islamic republic came to power in 1979.

In a last-ditch effort to encourage a high turnout, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said after casting his ballot in Tehran that voting would "make the friends happy and ill-wishers disappointed."

While domestically the attention is mostly on the parliamentary elections, it is perhaps the Assembly of Experts polls that are more significant. The 88-seat assembly, whose members are elected for eight-year terms, is tasked with appointing the next supreme leader. Given that Khamenei is 84, the next assembly may end up having to name his successor.

Analysts and activists said the elections were "engineered" because only candidates vetted and approved by the Guardians Council are allowed to run. The council is made up of six clerics and six jurists who are all appointed directly and indirectly by Khamenei.

In dozens of audio and written messages sent to RFE/RL's Radio Farda from inside Iran, many said they were opting against voting because the elections were "meaningless" and likely to consolidate the hard-liners' grip on power.

State television has been providing wall-to-wall coverage of the elections from across the country. News outlets linked to the establishment tried to generate excitement on banned social media platforms -- including Telegram, Instagram, and X (formerly Twitter) – by posting videos with catchy captions.

As has become the norm, some outlets, including the IRIB-run Young Journalists' Club, have posted videos and images of women in polling stations dressed in attire that on a normal day would likely earn them a warning or even detention.

Activists and opposition groups post statements on social media arguing that a high turnout would legitimize the Islamic republic.

In the run-up to the elections, authorities arrested several people for allegedly calling for a boycott.

With reporting by Reuters
Updated

Iran Cracks Down On Calls For Election Boycott

A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.
A woman walks past campaign posters for the parliamentary elections in Tehran.

Several people have been detained in Iran for allegedly calling for a boycott of parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections scheduled for March 1.

A young woman was arrested on February 28 for "opposing electoral participation" in Tehran's Valiasr Square during an event called "Free Tribune," witnesses told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

They said the woman estimated to be in her 20s protested in front of a state television camera, symbolically removing her head scarf while declaring, "Vote or no vote, we will not vote."

A street vendor, who claimed to have witnessed the event, said the woman was quickly surrounded and subsequently detained by several security personnel after she waved her scarf over her head in protest.

Other eyewitness accounts detailed the intervention of two female officers, who covered the young woman with a chador cloak, while five male officers forcibly escorted her to a van.

The woman, described as having dyed, long hair and a slim build, was reportedly shouting for the officers to release her. Security forces present at the scene issued warnings to bystanders not to film the arrest and to disperse.

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Many Iranians have said they will not vote in what they said will be "meaningless" elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country's hard-liners.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Iran's elections could not be considered free and fair.

"I suspect that a great number of Iranians have no expectation that those elections will be free and fair," Miller told reporters at the State Department on February 29.

"As you probably already know, thousands of candidates were already disqualified in an opaque process and the world has long known that Iran's political system features undemocratic and nontransparent administrative, judicial, and electoral systems.”

In the lead-up to the election, "Free Tribunes" have been organized by student groups in Tehran, where sentiment against the elections has spilled out.

Similar events have taken place -- in public and online -- in several areas of the country.

In the West Azerbaijan Province, police chief Rahim Jahanbakhsh announced the arrest of 50 people responsible for managing social-media pages that authorities say incited public unrest and discouraged election participation.

The arrests, Jahanbakhsh noted, were conducted in coordination with judicial authorities, though the identities of those detained remain undisclosed.

Jahanbakhsh also warned that publishing any content deemed provocative on social media would be considered a criminal offense.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has tried to push the importance of high voter turnout in the elections after more than a year of unrest that had boosted growing skepticism over the efficacy of participating in the electoral process.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Independent polling on electoral participation is restricted in Iran, with government-conducted surveys rarely made public.

However, a leaked poll from a state-affiliated center suggested a mere 30 perecnt of voters may turn out for the upcoming elections, a figure that was swiftly retracted from publication. In the previous parliamentary elections in 2020, voter turnout was reported at a historic low of approximately 42.6 percent.

Prominent figures, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi, have said openly they will boycott the elections, calling them superficial and predetermined. Similarly, Mostafa Tajzadeh, a former deputy interior minister, has voiced his refusal to vote, criticizing the supreme leader's indifference to the country's crises.

The elections also mark the first balloting since the widespread "Women, Life, Freedom" protests, ignited by the 2022 death of Mahsa Amini while in custody of the morality police. The protests led to a heavy-handed response from the government, including widespread arrests and crackdowns on demonstrators. At least 500 protesters were killed.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

German-Iranian Woman Returned To Tehran Prison After Medical Furlough Cut Short

Nahid Taghavi after her release
Nahid Taghavi after her release

A German-Iranian woman has been ordered back to jail in Tehran after several weeks of medical leave despite mounting concerns over her health, her daughter said on February 29.

Nahid Taghavi, 69, was sent back to Evin prison "arbitrarily and for no clear reason" on February 28, said Mariam Claren on X, formerly Twitter.

Taghavi's supporters have previously said she suffers from a herniated disc, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Claren said she developed "a painful eye disease in the last weeks, which must be strictly monitored by doctors."

Taghavi, held in Iran since 2020 on national security charges, was granted a medical furlough on January 9 under strict conditions, including that she wear an electronic tracking device and remain within 1 kilometer of her home in Tehran.

Her daughter said the conditions made it almost impossible for her to receive necessary medical care.

Taghavi, an architect, was convicted in 2021 of "leading an illegal group." She was sentenced to 10 years in jail, according to her lawyer. She has been forced to endure prolonged solitary confinement.

The German Foreign Ministry condemned the decision to send Taghavi back to jail, which it said was "taken in blatant disregard of her health."

The ministry said Taghavi was seriously ill and should be receiving medical treatment.

"Her furlough was terminated abruptly, without her even being able to receive the necessary medical treatment," the ministry said, adding that Germany will "continue to work tirelessly for her release."

Human rights groups and Western governments have accused Iran of imprisoning foreign nationals and dual citizens in order to pressure other countries into releasing jailed Iranians in prisoner swaps.

Tehran has repeatedly said it does not recognize dual nationality and denies holding foreign nationals for political reasons.

With reporting by AFP and dpa

Killing Of Street Sweeper Puts Spotlight On Iranian Leader's 'Fire At Will' Approach

The recent killing of a young street sweeper in Iran has raised fears that the country's clerical regime has given many pro-establishment Iranians the green light to confront any perceived threat to the Islamic republic or violations of its rules. (file photo)
The recent killing of a young street sweeper in Iran has raised fears that the country's clerical regime has given many pro-establishment Iranians the green light to confront any perceived threat to the Islamic republic or violations of its rules. (file photo)

Iranians are blaming the killing of a young Afghan street sweeper in Tehran on the authorities' adoption of a "fire at will" approach that allows staunch supporters to take the protection of the Islamic Revolution into their own hands.

The street sweeper, identified as Elias Mohammadi, was thrown off a bridge to his death in the early hours of February 9.

A man arrested in connection with the attack, whose name has not been revealed, told Iranian media that he acted in the belief that Mohammadi was seeking to "insult" flags raised in the Iranian capital to mark the revolution's 45th anniversary on February 11.

The apparent act of revolutionary fervor, coming years after Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave supporters free rein to protect the Islamic republic's core values, led to suggestions that the approach has left even ordinary municipal workers at risk.

"Street sweeping is probably the least safe job in Tehran," the reformist Etemad newspaper wrote on February 27.

On social media, observers highlighted how supporters of Iran's clerical establishment feel emboldened to carry out acts of vigilantism in defense of the state.

Moein Khazaeli, an Iranian human rights lawyer based in Sweden, wrote that Mohammadi's death was "the direct result of...the promotion of the culture and ideology of 'fire at will.'"

Khamenei first endorsed the approach in June 2017, when he described supporters as "officers of the soft war" who were free to act independently to put the Islamic republic's teachings into practice at their own discretion.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (file photo)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (file photo)

"Everyone must work independently; as they say on the battlefield, 'fire at will,'" he said in an address to university students in Tehran.

His remark was widely taken as giving pro-establishment Iranians the green light to confront any perceived threat to the Islamic republic or violations of its rules.

With criticism of the clerical establishment at the heart of various mass demonstrations in recent years -- including over contentious elections, Iran's draconian hijab law, and the suppression of human rights and political opposition -- the ingredients for vigilante justice abound.

As authorities have increasingly enforced the requirement that women wear a hijab, or head scarf, numerous cases of ordinary citizens taking it upon themselves to warn, and in some cases attack, women who do not cover their hair have been documented.

"The heinous killing of the Afghan street cleaner, like all those murdered by the executioners of Khamenei, was very upsetting," wrote Gohar Eshqi, an Iranian activist and mother of Sattar Beheshti, a political prisoner who died in custody in 2012.

One user on X lamented Mohammadi's death and said he had fallen victim to "one of the regime's fire-at-will nightcrawlers." Another demanded that the authorities "bridle the fire-at-will crowd" and bring justice to Mohammadi.

Rising Anti-Afghan Sentiment

Mohammadi's killing also comes amid rising anti-Afghan sentiment in Iran. This has been promoted in recent weeks on social media by mostly anonymous accounts under a Persian hashtag that calls the "expulsion of Afghans" a "national demand."

The authorities say around 5 million undocumented Afghan citizens live in Iran "illegally" and have vowed to deport them. More than 400,000 Afghan migrants have been expelled since November 2023.

Afghan migrants have also been banned from living in, traveling to, and working in 16 of Iran's 31 provinces.

Iran enhanced restrictions particularly after a man identified as an Afghan citizen attacked a Shi'ite shrine in Shiraz, Fars Province, in August 2023, killing 13 people. The attack was claimed by the extremist Islamic State group.


Following the incident, Iran imposed a ban on "foreign nationals" living in the vicinity of the shrine. In the directive, however, the Persian term used for foreign nationals -- "atba'" -- is generally understood to be a euphemism for Afghans.

In recent months, Afghan migrants in Iran have complained to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi about rising harassment.

Iranian authorities say that despite hosting millions of Afghan refugees, the country is receiving little financial support from international groups.

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader

'Engineered Elections': Iran To Vote On Assembly That May Name Next Supreme Leader
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Iran is holding two sets of elections on March 1, for a new parliament and also for the Assembly of Experts -- the body that selects the country's supreme leader. Given that the current holder of that office, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is 84 years old, it is likely that the new assembly will name his successor during its eight-year term.

U.S. Says Iranian Operatives In Yemen Aiding Huthi Attacks

Huthi police ride on the back of a pick-up truck during the funeral of Huthi fighters killed in U.S.-led strikes in Sanaa on February 10.
Huthi police ride on the back of a pick-up truck during the funeral of Huthi fighters killed in U.S.-led strikes in Sanaa on February 10.

Operatives from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hizballah are working inside Yemen to support Huthi insurgents' attacks on international shipping, the U.S. special envoy for Yemen told a Senate subcommittee on February 27. Iran is "equipping and facilitating" the Huthi attacks, said Tim Lenderking. "Credible public reports suggest a significant number of Iranian and Lebanese Hizballah operatives are supporting Huthi attacks from inside Yemen," Lenderking said. "I can't imagine the Yemeni people want these Iranians in their country. This must stop," he added. The attacks on shipping have triggered retaliatory U.S. and British strikes on Yemen.

After 18 Months Of Detention, Jailed Iranian Rapper Asks To Be Executed

Jailed Iranian dissident rapper Saman Yasin has previously described a "mock execution" set up by prison officials that he endured before being moved to the prison in Karaj.
Jailed Iranian dissident rapper Saman Yasin has previously described a "mock execution" set up by prison officials that he endured before being moved to the prison in Karaj.

Jailed Iranian dissident rapper Saman Yasin, who was detained during the nationwide protests in 2022 and has since detailed harrowing accounts of physical and psychological torture he has endured, has made a plea from prison to Iran's judiciary to "issue my death sentence" rather than continue holding him indefinitely without a trial.

Yasin, who has been incarcerated for 18 months at Karaj's Ghezel Hesar prison amid allegations lacking clear evidence, posted a letter on his official Instagram account saying he does not "understand the reason for all this anger, harassment, and torment from the judicial authorities toward me."

"Please tell me what crime I have committed?" he wrote.

"I am asking you to execute me, I don't know how to endure prison and uncertainty for a crime that neither you nor I know. Please issue my death sentence, I have no objection and I consent in writing with my fingerprints and signature.... Take my life, get it over," he added.

Initial reports suggest Yasin was first taken to a local police station during nationwide protests in September 2022 before being transferred to Evin prison and subsequently to the Greater Tehran prison.

The judiciary's news agency has reported that Yasin was accused of "waging war against God," a charge that led to a death sentence from the Tehran Revolutionary Court. However, the Supreme Court accepted Yasin's appeal for a retrial and referred his case back to the Revolutionary Court. A retrial has yet to take place.

Yasin has previously described a "mock execution" set up by prison officials that he endured before being moved to the prison in Karaj.

Yasin has consistently maintained his innocence, releasing multiple audio files to publicize his claims. He has also reportedly launched at least one hunger strike in protest.

"My life fell apart, you took away my mental and physical health, you artificially executed me, you took me to a mental hospital, what is left to bring upon me that you have not brought? Take my life too! I've been living with your fake and false promises for 18 months, I'm tired, finish it!" he wrote in the February 26 social media post.

Since the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in custody after she was detained for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly, Iranians have flooded the streets across the country to protest a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls making unprecedented shows of support in the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

The judiciary, at the urging of lawmakers, has instituted harsh penalties, including the death sentence, for offenders.

Meanwhile, judges have also begun sending offenders to psychiatric centers as part of their punishment, a move prominent psychiatry boards in Iran have said is an abuse of judicial authority.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Ahead Of Iran's Elections, A Common Refrain: What's The Point?

A woman walks past election campaign posters for the March 1 parliamentary election in downtown Tehran on February 22.
A woman walks past election campaign posters for the March 1 parliamentary election in downtown Tehran on February 22.

As Iran heads to the polls on March 1, there is a common thread running through many messages from ordinary Iranians.

The elections will usher in a new parliament and Assembly of Experts, a body that picks the country's supreme leader.

But in dozens of audio and written messages sent to RFE/RL's Radio Farda from inside Iran, many people said they will not vote in what they said will be "meaningless" elections that are likely to consolidate the power of the country's hard-liners.

The sample -- although small -- underscores the challenge to the legitimacy of Iran's ruling clerical establishment, amid rising anti-regime sentiment seen most vividly in the unprecedented street protests that rocked the country in 2022.

"You are not people's representatives," an Iranian man said in an audio message. "You want people only for their votes and nothing else. Then you want nothing to do with the people and they are cast aside."

Another man urged people not to vote for a "corrupt regime that has no place in ancient and civilized Iran."

"Isn't it time to say no to executions, dictatorship, and the occupation of my homeland, Iran?" added the man in an audio message sent to Radio Farda.

A woman walks past a campaign billboard picturing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the holy Iranian city of Qom on February 20.
A woman walks past a campaign billboard picturing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the holy Iranian city of Qom on February 20.

The authorities in Iran do not tolerate any form of dissent and have jailed scores of reporters, activists, and lawyers in recent years.

Around 700 prisoners were executed in Iran in 2023, alone, including nine protesters, according to human rights groups.

During the state's brutal crackdown on the months of nationwide protests that erupted in September 2022, at least 500 protesters were killed and thousands were arrested.

The protests began as a rebuke against the brutal enforcement of the hijab, a key pillar of the Islamic republic. But they soon snowballed into one of the most sustained demonstrations against Iran's theocracy, with some protesters calling for an end to clerical rule.

"Today we see that whoever criticizes the clerical dictatorship...is killed, injured, tortured, or imprisoned," said another man in an audio message sent to Radio Farda.

Those who sent audio and written messages to Radio Farda from inside Iran did not reveal their names or locations for fear of retribution.

Calls For Boycott

Scores of prominent Iranians outside the country and political and civil activists in Iran have called for a boycott of the March 1 voting.

Almost 300 political, social, and cultural figures in Iran on February 25 publicly denounced the upcoming vote, calling for people to follow suit and not participate in the "engineered" and "staged" balloting.

A day earlier, imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi urged a boycott alongside "national sanctions and global condemnation" of the elections, calling the moves "a political necessity and a moral duty."

Iranian officials and state-run media have accused those calling for a boycott of doing the "enemy's" bidding.

Officials have repeatedly called on eligible voters to cast their ballots in the elections, calling it a religious duty.

The calls have come amid fears of a repeat of the record-low turnouts in the 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential vote. Given the widening gulf between the ruling clerics and Iran's young population as well as ongoing state repression and economic mismanagement, the authorities are bracing for another poor turnout, according to experts.

"The elections are meaningless," said a man in another audio message sent to Radio Farda, in reference to what is seen as the grossly unfair playing field in elections in Iran, where candidates are vetted by a hard-line body whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the supreme leader.

"Taking part in the elections, even if we're indifferent toward all the crimes that have been committed [by the state] in recent years, would only be a mockery of ourselves," the man added.

In another audio message, a man said he "hoped people's patience has run out" and they will not take part in the elections.

This is the only way, he said, to "end this miserable, sad, and poverty-stricken life."

Written by Kian Sharifi based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Scores Of Prominent Iranians Call For Boycott Of 'Staged' Elections

A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.
A man and a child walk past campaign posters of parliamentary candidates during the first day of the election campaign in Tehran on February 22.

Almost 300 political, social, and cultural figures in Iran have publicly denounced the country's parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections, calling for people to follow suit and not participate in the "engineered" and "staged" balloting.

"The half-hearted position and status of the institution of elections" in Iran has "reached a more deplorable situation, even compared to the previous elections," the group of 275 people, including Morteza Alviri, Abdolali Bazargan, Alireza Rajaei, Ali Babachahi, Alireza Alavitabar, and Abolfazl Ghadiani, said in a statement on February 25.

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

The statement highlighted the extent of the disqualifications of candidates for the 12th round of elections to the Majlis and said the "deadlock of reforms" points to a deepening crisis within the country's political landscape.

The signatories rejected justifications by some who say that Iranians should still participate even in what is seen as a flawed electoral process, saying that the previous policy of encouraging participation at any cost to push out the Islamic republic's leaders has not only been fruitless, but in fact contributed to the perpetuation of authoritarianism and political stagnation.


Emphasizing the dire state of Iran's current electoral institution, the activists outline a series of prerequisites for holding genuine, fair, and healthy elections.

These include the demand for freedom of speech, for the activities of opposition parties and associations, for the press and media, and the oversight of independent and impartial bodies on election procedures and outcomes.

The activists said those conditions aren't present in the upcoming elections, and therefore they "deem it necessary not to participate in the upcoming elections, which are clearly engineered against the public's sovereignty, and not to give in to this staging."

The statement also warns that without a genuine revival of the institution of elections, real participation in Iran's political process is "unattainable," drawing a bleak comparison to the fate of Lake Urmia, once the largest lake in the Middle East, that has now shrunk to one-10th of its original size.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iranian Labor Council Says State-Worker Wage Discussions Sidelined 'More Than Ever'

The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.
The Iranian Labor Council, according to the ILNA, said boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation.

Iran's Supreme Labor Council, meeting ahead of the end of the Persian calendar year, said efforts to boost the minimum wage for state workers in next year's budget have yet to be discussed in negotiations with the government. The state-affiliated ILNA news agency on February 25 quoted the labor body as saying that "wage negotiations are on the sidelines more than ever," even though boosting wages by 100 percent would "still not be enough" to address skyrocketing inflation. According to the Supreme Labor Council, Labor Minister Solet Mortazivi is set on a wage increase of 20 percent despite inflation hitting 44 percent. To read the original story by Radio Farda, click here.

Land Corridor And Deterrence Against Israel: Where Syria Fits Into Iran's Middle East Strategy

IRGC cadets attend the funeral of Razi Musavi, a senior commander in the Quds Force who was killed on December 25 in an Israeli strike in Syria, in Tehran on December 28.
IRGC cadets attend the funeral of Razi Musavi, a senior commander in the Quds Force who was killed on December 25 in an Israeli strike in Syria, in Tehran on December 28.

Iran is eager to build on its longstanding alliance with Syria, but Tehran's achievements in expanding its influence in the Arab country are threatening one of its primary objectives: staying out of the line of fire in its shadow wars in the Middle East.

As Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said earlier this month during a trip to Damascus on the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Tehran considers Syria to be on the front line of its "axis of resistance," its loose network of proxies and Tehran-backed militant groups against Israel and the United States.

After meeting on February 11 with top Syrian officials and President Bashar al-Assad, Amir-Abdollahian stressed the important role Damascus plays in opposing its enemies and in establishing "stability and security" in the increasingly volatile region.

But while Iran's top diplomat cited the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip as a position of strength for the axis and a stimulus of increased cooperation with Damascus, observers and media reports suggest that direct blowback against Iranian interests and personnel in Syria is prompting Tehran to recalculate its approach.

Generational Relationship

Iran has invested heavily into its relations with Syria for decades as part of the Shi'ite Islamic republic's effort to export its revolution across the Arab and Muslim world.

"The Iranians made big inroads with Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current leader of Syria, when they issued a religious ruling that Alawites -- the religion of the ruling family -- were deemed to be an orthodox, or acceptable, sect of Shi'ism," according to Thanassis Cambanis, director of the U.S.-based Century Foundation think tank.

The ruling was the first of many steps in "a really deep, generational, state-to-state relationship between Iran and Syria," Cambanis said.

Ties strengthened further during the early rule of Bashar al-Assad following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"Assad was a relatively young ruler, he feared a U.S. invasion, and he found that a growing partnership in coordination with Iran kept him more secure in his own domestic power base, and also kept him more secure vis-a-vis the threat of some kind of U.S, or U.S.-orchestrated, regime-change project," Cambanis said.

That bet appears to have paid off for both Iran and the Syrian government.

Assad remains securely in power despite the continuing Syrian civil war, in which Iran intervened militarily in 2013 in large part to prevent Assad's ouster by the U.S.-backed opposition.

Tehran, meanwhile, has managed to significantly boost its influence in Syria without maintaining a significant military presence by deploying hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) officers to recruit and train tens of thousands of local and foreign Shi'ite fighters.

"The actual number of IRGC forces is very limited," said Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, adding that the heavy lifting of the fighting in Syria is carried out by Afghans in the Fatemiyun Brigade and Pakistanis in the Zainabiyn Brigade, as well as by Iraqi militias.

Iran has also established a land corridor linking it to the Levant that Azizi described as the "logistical backbone of the axis of resistance."

Apart from Iran, Syria is the only other state actor in the axis.

The corridor "is used by Iran to send arms and equipment to [Lebanese] Hizballah," Azizi said, referring to the IRGC-created militant group that has rained missiles down on Israel since the start of the war in Gaza.

It is also used "to facilitate the back-and-forth deployment of troops on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border," which Azizi said has essentially become an arena of operations for pro-Iran militias.

Success In Syria

Beginning in 2018, victories in the Syrian civil war allowed Iran to reduce its IRGC presence, Azizi said, with foreign mercenaries and local fighters it trained increasingly integrated into the Syrian armed forces. In a major contrast to the beginning of the war that erupted in 2011, Azizi added, most of the recruitment and training of forces in Syria was handed off by the IRGC to Hizballah.

Successes in Syria also allowed Tehran to buttress its defenses against the possibility of an attack on Iranian soil by Israel.

"Once Iran achieved its strategic objectives of securing the survival of the Assad regime and the overland corridor, the IRGC defined the new objective of establishing a new dormant front against Israel along the Israel-Syria border," said Ali Alfoneh, senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. "The purpose of the dormant front is to complicate Israeli calculations should the Jewish state decide to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities."

All the while, Iran has put pressure on Israel and the United States while maintaining its key objective of avoiding direct war, with the proxy fighters it trained and equipped absorbing most retaliatory blows in Syria.

"Since neither Syria nor Iran [is] interested in a direct war against Israel, the three states, through their actions, negotiated the rules of the game: The IRGC’s expendable allies such as the Afghans dig deep trenches and tunnels along the Israel border, Israel bombs the positions; Iran does not retaliate against Israel; and the Assad regime remains a spectator," Alfoneh said in written comments.

"All three players still largely abide by these rules, which remain in place despite the Gaza war, and the U.S. neither is nor desires to get entangled in this game," Azizi wrote.

Rules Broken

That is not to say those unspoken rules are not being broken following the outbreak of the war in Gaza sparked by the deadly October 7 assault on Israel carried out by Palestinian extremist group Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

Israel's large-scale retaliation in Gaza has fueled attacks by the axis of resistance in solidarity with its partner Hamas and in the name of the Palestinian cause.

Hizballah has led the fight against Israel, while the Iranian-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen have launched attacks against Israel and U.S. naval forces in the Red Sea. And Iranian-backed forces have attacked U.S. forces in the Middle East, including a drone attack launched by an Iraqi militia that killed three U.S. troops in Jordan in January.

In Syria, U.S. forces stationed there to counter the Islamic State extremist group have been attacked regularly since the onset of the war in Gaza, including a February 5 drone attack that killed U.S.-allied Kurdish troops at the largest U.S. base in Syria, located in the eastern province of Deir al-Zur.

Huthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following U.S. and British strikes, in the Huthi-controlled Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on January 12.
Huthi fighters brandish their weapons during a protest following U.S. and British strikes, in the Huthi-controlled Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on January 12.

Amid the rising tensions, Tehran has not been able to avoid direct retaliation for its open support for its proxies and partners, and Iranian sites and personnel in Syria have been hit hard.

Since December, more than a dozen IRGC commanders and officers officially sent to Syria as advisers have been killed in strikes in and around Damascus blamed on Israel, including General Sayyed Razi Musavi, a senior adviser to the IRGC and one of Iran's most influential military figures in Syria.

And the United States, in retaliation for the attack on its base in Jordan, in early February directly attacked IRGC sites and Iranian-backed militias on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Both the United States and Iran have said they do not seek war. And in Syria, Cambanis said, there are "certain rules of the road that are essentially designed to create useful fictions so that the U.S. and Iran do not end up in direct conflict with each other."

But since the October 7 Hamas assault on Israel, Cambanis said, "there are so many forces attacking each other on Syrian territory that it’s really easy for just a mistake or a miscalculation that no one wanted."

Recalculation Time?

In the wake of the killings of Musavi and other top IRGC personnel, an exclusive report by Reuters earlier this month cited multiple sources as saying Iran had scaled down its deployment of senior officers and would rely more on allied Sh'ite militias to maintain Iranian influence in Syria.

Azizi said that while previously, if Iranians were killed as the result of Israeli strikes in Syria, it was essentially written off as collateral damage.

Relatives of Musavi mourn over his flag-draped coffin at the supreme leader's office compound in Tehran on December 28, 2023.
Relatives of Musavi mourn over his flag-draped coffin at the supreme leader's office compound in Tehran on December 28, 2023.

"But now they are the targets," Azizi said. "And that's what concerns Iran, especially since the killing of Musavi."

But while the deaths indicate a change in strategy by Israel that at the least "requires the Iranian side to change tactics," Azizi suggested the redeployment was more about trying to determine possible leaks that may have allowed Israel to take out its officers and rethinking how Iran would use its personnel in the future.

Cambanis expressed skepticism that Iran would ever withdraw its advisers in Syria and hand their responsibilities over to the militias they trained.

"They have officers who speak Arabic, who have spent decades cycling in and out of different positions in Syria and other Arab countries. They have local knowledge, long-term relationships with local commanders," Cambanis said. "They're going to continue that model."

Imprisoned Nobel Laureate Mohammadi Urges Boycott, Sanctions, Condemnation Of Iran Elections

Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)
Iranian activist Narges Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran. (file photo)

Imprisoned Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Narges Mohammadi has urged a boycott alongside "national sanctions and global condemnation" of next month's legislative elections there, calling the moves "a political necessity and a moral duty."

"Sanctioning elections under a despotic religious regime is not just a political move but also a moral obligation for freedom-loving and justice-seeking Iranians," Mohammadi said on social media on February 24.

Mohammadi has previously described the clerically led Iranian leadership "criminal" and has long been a vocal critic of conditions for political and other prisoners in Iran.

She pledged that "I, alongside the informed and proud people from all over Iran, from Sistan and Baluchestan to Kurdistan, from Khuzestan to Azerbaijan, will stand to declare the illegitimacy of the Islamic Republic and the divide within the oppressive regime and its people through the sanctioning of sham elections."

In January, an Iranian court extended the 51-year-old Mohammadi's prison sentence by 15 months for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic while in jail. It was her fifth conviction since March 2021 and the third for activities from prison, where she was sent for alleged actions against national security and propaganda against the state.

In her February 24 post, she criticized Iranian authorities' "ruthless and brutal suppression, the killing of young people on the streets, the executions, and the imprisonment and torture of men and women."

A number of prominent Iranians outside the country and some political and civil activists in Iran have already called for a boycott of the March 1 voting.

Officials routinely vet to exclude large numbers of candidates who are critical of the regime from elections to fill seats at all nearly all levels of government.

"Transition from the despotic religious regime is a national demand and the only way for the survival of Iran, Iranians, and our humanity," Mohammadi said.

Mustafa Tajzadeh, a jailed former reform-minded politician, said in a letter he published on February 29 from Tehran's Evin Prison that the leadership's strategic mistakes are "making elections meaningless and making elected institutions ineffective...especially the parliament."

Elections for the parliament, the Majlis, are scheduled for March 1 along with voting to fill the Assembly of Experts, with a majority of would-be candidates already disqualified.

Some government polls also indicate that there is waning interest in the votes.

The Iranian Students' Opinion Center (ISPA) said research in February suggested only 36 percent of Iranians were aware of the upcoming elections.

A brutal crackdown on dissent followed widespread protests and unrest that broke out after the death in custody in September 2022 of 22-year-old student Mahsa Amini after she was detained for a dress-code violation and, according to eyewitnesses, beaten by the morality police.

Iranian officials this week officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran Tries To Tighten Grip On Internet By Officially Outlawing VPN Use

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)
Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms. (file photo)

Iran has officially outlawed the use of tools such as virtual private networks (VPNs) designed to bypass Internet censorship following a directive from the country's Supreme Council of Cyberspace that was endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The secretary of the council, Mohammad Amin Aqamiri, announced the enforcement of the decree, which was initially approved by Khamenei, signaling a significant move to control Internet access within the country.

Under the new regulation, the use of VPN tools is banned unless explicitly authorized by authorities, further tightening the government's grip on Internet access.

Iran has long faced criticism for its extensive Internet restrictions, with many citizens relying on VPNs to access blocked content including social media and instant messaging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and WhatsApp, as well as many streaming websites such as HBO, YouTube, and Netflix.

Local media reports have also surfaced suggesting that elements within the government or its affiliates have profited from the VPN trade, raising questions about the motives behind the crackdown.

The specifics of how the government plans to enforce the ban or grant exceptions remain unclear, adding to the uncertainty surrounding digital usage in Iran.

Communications technology expert Mohammad Keshvari said that the prohibition of VPNs is "not new, but the latest decree fails to clarify the consequences for those who defy it.”

He added that, from a technical viewpoint, completely preventing VPN use is not feasible.

The criminalization of VPN use was notably absent from the decree, which analysts said reflects the legislative duties of the parliament, which had previously removed such provisions from proposed legislation.

Iran has come under international scrutiny over its digital repression, with a report from Freedom House marking the country as having the worst decline in Internet freedom globally in 2023.

Iran was home to 2023’s sharpest drop in online access and freedom, the report said, as authorities shut down Internet service, blocked the WhatsApp and Instagram social media apps, and increased surveillance during a crackdown on anti-government protests last year sparked by the death of a young woman -- 22-year-old Mahsa Amini -- while in police custody.

The situation underscores the ongoing tensions between government control and digital rights in Iran, posing significant challenges for access to information and freedom of expression within the country.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Four Charged In Deaths Of Two U.S. Navy SEALs Boarding Ship Carrying Iranian-Made Weapons To Yemen

A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer fires on Huthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea. (file photo)
A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer fires on Huthi missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles in the Red Sea. (file photo)

Four foreign nationals have been charged with transporting suspected Iranian-made weapons after U.S. naval forces interdicted a vessel in the Arabian Sea last month. Two Navy SEALs died during the mission. The criminal complaint released on February 22 alleges that the four defendants were transporting suspected Iranian-made missile components for the type of weapons used by Huthi rebel forces in recent attacks on ships in the Red Sea. The two Navy SEALS died when one of them slipped into the gap between the vessel and the SEALs' combatant craft and the other one jumped in to try to save him.

Hacktivist Group Publishes Leaked Documents Showing Iran's Judiciary Targeting Journalists

The hack was done "with the aim of exposing the crimes of the regime against the oppressed people of Iran and with the help of our dear compatriots," the group said.
The hack was done "with the aim of exposing the crimes of the regime against the oppressed people of Iran and with the help of our dear compatriots," the group said.

Documents leaked by the hacktivist group Edalat-e Ali (Ali's Justice) appear to show clandestine actions against journalists of Persian-language media operating outside of Iran, including those affiliated with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, by the Iranian judiciary.

The leaked documents list 44 journalists and media activists who have been targeted for allegedly undermining the regime.

The findings were part of a broader expose by the hacker group -- which released more than 3 million documents -- shedding light on the judicial proceedings conducted in secrecy within Branch 26 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran.

"In this hack, we infiltrated the court case management system and managed to access millions of documents and files," the group said in a post on Telegram where many of the documents were posted.

Edalat-e Ali says it is composed of Iranians living and working inside Iran and its intent is to expose alleged human rights abuses in the country while seeking the release of political prisoners.

It added that the documents "reveal the true face of the Islamic republic."

The hack was done "with the aim of exposing the crimes of the regime against the oppressed people of Iran and with the help of our dear compatriots," the group said.

With regard to the documents revealing the actions aimed at the media, the disclosure highlights the judiciary's secretive issuance of rulings against journalists accused of engaging in "propaganda against the Islamic republic."

The group said that under the stewardship of Judge Iman Afshari, Branch 26 has been pivotal in adjudicating cases against a broad spectrum of individuals, from political dissidents to cultural figures, especially in the aftermath of the 2022 protests triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab improperly.

The documents show the judiciary targeted personnel from Radio Farda and journalists associated with other prominent Persian-language outlets, including BBC Persian, Voice of America, Iran International, Manoto TV, and the GEM satellite network.

Analysts say the leak underscores the Iranian judiciary's long-standing practice of leveraging legal actions as a mechanism to silence opposition, a strategy that has seen mixed results in quelling dissent or curtailing the activities of journalists and civil society activists.

It also reveals the state's approach to various issues, from the enforcement of the mandatory hijab to the suppression of widespread protests in 2022, they said, adding the documents further corroborate the judiciary's susceptibility to influence from security and intelligence entities, casting a shadow over its independence and impartiality.

International human rights organizations have consistently ranked Iran as one of the world's top oppressors of journalists and free speech.

In December 2022, Iran's Foreign Ministry placed sanctions on several individuals and entities in the European Union, including RFE/RL's Persian-language Radio Farda.

The sanctions include visa bans, prohibiting the listed individuals from entering Iran, and the seizure of their assets within territories under the jurisdiction of the Islamic republic.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda
Updated

U.S. Says Growing Iran-Russia Military Ties 'Should Concern' World

Iran test-fires its home-built surface-to-surface Fateh 110 missile in 2010.
Iran test-fires its home-built surface-to-surface Fateh 110 missile in 2010.

The United States says increasing military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow is a "concern," amid reports that Iran has delivered multiple shipments of ballistic missiles to Russia.

Reuters reported on February 21 that Iran had supplied Russia with hundreds of missiles through four shipments since January, with an unnamed Iranian military official quoted as saying that there "would be more in the coming weeks."

While Ukrainian and Western officials have yet to publicly confirm the Reuters report, the development is consistent with U.S. warnings.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson told RFE/RL that while they were not able to comment directly on the report, the increasing military cooperation between Iran and Russia "is something that should concern the entire world."

"We have been warning for some time that Russia was in negotiations with Iran to acquire close-range ballistic missiles and that those negotiations were actively advancing," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson attributed Tehran and Moscow's improving relations to Russia becoming "more isolated" since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing on February 22 that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Iran in the coming days for its efforts to supply Russia with drones and other technology for the war against Ukraine.

"We have not seen any confirmation that missiles have actually moved from Iran to Russia," Kirby said, but said that at the same time, "we have no reason to believe that they will not follow through."

Kirby also issued a warning to Iran that providing ballistic missiles to Russia for use against Kyiv would be met with even more sanctions and actions at the United Nations.

On February 20, an Iranian Defense Ministry spokesman insisted that his country's military cooperation with Russia "has nothing to do with the Ukraine war" and predated the conflict.

Following its invasion of Ukraine, Russia was swiftly hit by a slew of Western sanctions, overtaking Iran as the most sanctioned country in the world in March 2022.

The two countries have grown close since the war started, expanding their economic and military cooperation.

Iran has been supplying Russia with its cheap but effective Shahed "kamikaze" drones, which Moscow has often used to target civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

Iran has denied providing drones to Russia to use against Ukraine and insists that it sold a "limited number" of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Moscow before the war. Russia has also rejected reports that it is using Iranian drones in the war.

However, the Russian Defense Ministry in July 2023 appeared to confirm in its monthly journal Armeisky sbornik that its Geran-2 drone is, in fact, the Iranian-made Shahed-136 UAV.

Reuters said Iranian shipments included the Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar short-range ballistic missiles.

This comes after UN curbs on Iran's imports and exports of missiles expired in October 2023, though Britain and the European Union said they would continue to impose the sanctions on Iran.

A month earlier, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was shown around an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) weapons exhibition in Tehran by IRGC Aerospace Force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

'Game Changer'

If confirmed, the delivery of Iranian missiles to Russia "would be a game changer, both militarily and politically," said John Krzyzaniak, a research associate at the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

Missiles are harder to defend against than drones, allowing Russia to carry out more devastating attacks at long range.

Krzyzaniak added that the trade would give cash-strapped Iran a windfall and a reputational boost, as well as "a bargaining chip in its other dealings with Russia."

There have been reports over the past year about Tehran finalizing an agreement with Moscow to obtain Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to upgrade its aging air force. Observers have in the past suggested that one of Iran's objectives in supplying arms to Russia is to be able to acquire advanced warplanes.

Russia has started using North Korean missiles in the war with mixed results. However, Iran's short-range ballistic missiles have been battle-tested, says Nicole Grajewski, a fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's Nuclear Policy Program.

While the purported missile deliveries would further cement the growing military cooperation between Tehran and Moscow, it would be viewed as an escalation by the West, according to Grajewski.

"It would also be another nail in the coffin for the [Iran nuclear deal] and certainly would complicate any kind of parallel agreement on Iran's nuclear program -- even if those chances are dismal already," she added.

With reporting by Reuters

Iran's Clerical Rulers Face 'Legitimacy Crisis' Ahead Of Elections

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to cast his vote during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran in 2021.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrives to cast his vote during the Iranian presidential election in Tehran in 2021.

For decades, Iran's clerical establishment has used voter turnout in elections as proof of its legitimacy, especially to the outside world.

But with anti-establishment sentiment among the public rising and unprecedented protests erupting against the authorities in recent years, the legitimacy of Iran's rulers has been severely undermined.

That has coincided with record-low turnouts in recent presidential and parliamentary elections. Now, as Iranians prepare to go to the polls on March 1, the authorities have been urging the public to vote amid fears of another poor turnout.

Sanam Vakil, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the clerical establishment is "facing a legitimacy crisis," adding that the authorities "can't hide it anymore without stuffing the ballots."

Given the widening gulf between the ruling clerics and Iran's young population as well as ongoing state repression and economic mismanagement, the authorities "cannot be surprised" by a record-low turnout next week, said Vakil.

Iranians will cast their ballots for parliamentary elections as well as vote for the Assembly of Experts, which picks and nominally oversees the work of the country's supreme leader.

Ali Vaez, the director of Iran Project at the International Crisis Group, argues that "the regime has reached a stage where it has given up on the majority of the Iranian people, who for their part have given up on the regime."

"The leadership only cares about one thing: a smooth succession of the supreme leader even if that comes at the cost of the system's legitimacy," he added.

Purging The System

Even as the authorities have pleaded with the public to vote in the upcoming elections, they have also severely limited the playing field, disqualifying many reformist and moderate candidates.

That trend started in 2021, when the ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi, a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was elected as president. Since then, Iran's hard-liners have dominated all three branches of the government: the presidency, parliament, and judiciary.

"There has clearly been a gradual shift under way to purge the system of critics as part of the slow-motion political transition we are watching," said Vakil.

This is particularly evident in the elections for the Assembly of Experts, whose 88 members are elected on eight-year terms. Media reports suggest 105 out of the 144 candidates are backed by hard-liners, while 39 are running as independents.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (center) visits the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps navy base in Bandar Abbas, southern Iran, on February 2.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (center) visits the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps navy base in Bandar Abbas, southern Iran, on February 2.

Former President Hassan Rohani, a moderate, was disqualified from running in the Assembly of Experts vote.

The main task of the assembly is to appoint the next supreme leader. Given Khamenei is 84, it is likely the next assembly will pick his successor.

"The system clearly doesn't want to leave anything to chance," said Vaez, although he added Khamenei's successor will likely be chosen "by the deep state" comprising Khamenei's office and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the elite branch of Iran's armed forces.

"The Assembly of Experts will just rubber-stamp that decision," said Vaez.

'Dismal Turnout'

The mass disqualification of moderate and reformist candidates ahead of the 2020 parliamentary elections and the 2021 presidential vote contributed to the poor turnouts, experts said.

But that was before the unprecedented unrest that engulfed Iran in 2022 during monthslong anti-establishment protests.

The demonstrations were triggered by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was arrested for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab improperly.

Protesters display placards reading "Women, Life, Freedom" at a rally in support of the demonstrations in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, in Berlin on October 22, 2022.
Protesters display placards reading "Women, Life, Freedom" at a rally in support of the demonstrations in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, in Berlin on October 22, 2022.

The nationwide protests began as a rebuke against the brutal enforcement of the hijab, a key pillar of the Islamic republic. But they soon snowballed into one of the most sustained demonstrations against Iran's theocracy, with some protesters calling for an end to clerical rule and demanding their social and political freedoms.

At least 500 protesters were killed and thousands were detained in the state's brutal crackdown on the protests. Nine protesters have so far been executed for their role in the rallies following trials described as unfair by rights groups.

Observers said the protests will likely have a significant influence on turnout in the upcoming elections.

"It defies logic for an unfree and unfair election that comes on the heels of a brutal suppression of dissent to witness a higher participation rate than the dismal turnout of the last parliamentary elections," Vaez said.

Iranians protests Amini's death, in Tehran on October 27, 2022.
Iranians protests Amini's death, in Tehran on October 27, 2022.

Even if moderates and reformists were allowed to run in this year's elections, it would not make a difference because "that is not the core issue for most Iranians anymore," said Holly Dagres, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

"It won't make much of a difference in the outcome of the election because reformists in the past have been unable to deliver on their promises," she said. "Many Iranians see them as an extension of the problem: the Islamic republic, which they are since they are part of the system."

But that has not stopped the authorities from calling on the public to vote.

"We must all take part in the elections…. The correct way to fix and resolve problems is through elections," Khamenei said on February 18, echoing remarks he had made in previous weeks.

Officials have also tried to encourage voting by suggesting that not doing so would play into the "enemy's" hand.

The calls are unlikely to convince nonvoters, said the pro-reform newspaper Hammihan, which suggested the authorities were pleading with "people whose voices were not heard" in the 2022 protests.

Iran Blames Israel For Explosions At Gas Pipelines That Disrupted Supplies

The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.
The explosion of a gas pipeline in Iran earlier this month.

Iranian Oil Minister Javad Owji has blamed Israel for a spate of recent explosions that disrupted gas transmission lines in two of Iran’s provinces, incidents that have heightened tensions further between the two rivals.

Speaking to reporters on February 21, Owji described the incidents as a deliberate act orchestrated by Israel, aimed at undermining Iran's domestic gas supply in major provinces. Owji provided no evidence to support his claims.

Israeli authorities have not made any public statements regarding the allegations.

The February 14 explosions targeted the country's national gas lines, leading to severe disruptions in the flow of gas to at least five Iranian provinces. The sound of the blasts was reported in Fars, Chaharmahal, and Bakhtiari provinces, with the national gas company characterizing the incidents as "sabotage and terrorist acts" targeting two main pipelines.

In a report on February 16, The New York Times cited two Western officials and a military expert linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as saying it was possible Israel was behind not only the pipeline explosions but also a separate incident at a chemical factory in west Tehran.

Israeli officials also have not commented on the factory incident.

Owji said the damaged gas lines have been repaired.

Iran and Israel have been engaged in a years-long shadow war. Tensions between Iran and Israel, its regional foe, have been exacerbated by the ongoing conflict in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas, which has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

The collapse of a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers has also added to regional tensions as Tehran reduces its commitments and expands its nuclear activities.

Talks to revive the deal that curbs Iran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions have been deadlocked.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Czechs Extradite Suspect In Iran-Backed Murder Plot To United States

Polad Omarov
Polad Omarov

The Czech Republic on February 21 extradited to the United States a Georgian wanted in connection with a plot to assassinate a dissident Iranian journalist in New York. The U.S. Department of Justice says Polad Omarov helped to organise the attempted assassination of Masih Alinejad at her New York home in 2022. He and suspected gang leader Rafat Amirov are accused of hiring U.S. citizen Khalid Mehdiyev and sending him $30,000 for her murder.
Czech police detained Omarov in January 2023 under an international arrest warrant and the Constitutional Court later rejected his appeal against extradition to the United States.

Rights Group Says Number Of Christians Arrested In Iran On The Rise

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)
Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. (file photo)

The number of Christians arrested in Iran jumped sharply in the last six months of 2023, according to a religious rights group, which called on the government to “immediately and unconditionally” release all Christians detained on charges relating to their faith and religious activities.

The report, released by Article 18, a rights organization focused on the protection of Christians, showed 166 Christians were detained last year, an increase from the 134 arrests recorded in 2022.

The group said that while the first half of the year saw only a "handful" of arrests, a worrying trend was that from June to August there were 100 arrests and then "a further rash" of detentions around the Christmas period.

"Very few of those arrested agreed to publicize their cases, leading to an increasing number of faceless victims,” Article 18 said.

Christians are recognized as one of three religious minorities in the Islamic republic's constitution. Despite this, the report notes, the Iranian government has harshly punished Muslims who convert to Christianity or those involved in promoting and teaching religions other than Islam.

The findings are part of a collaborative 40-page investigation by Article 18, in partnership with global Christian organizations Middle East Concern, Open Doors, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

The report showed that in 2023 at least 17 Christians arrested during the summer had been sentenced to prison terms of three to five years. Others faced penalties including fines, whipping, and community service, it added.

Authorities appeared to target distributors of the Bible, with more than one-third of those detained found in possession of multiple copies of the publication.

The report urges the government to "immediately and unconditionally" release the jailed Christians and to ensure the freedom of worship for the faith's followers without the threat of arrest or legal action.

In the face of such pressures, numerous Christians, particularly new converts, have been compelled to flee Iran, seeking asylum in other nations to escape the restrictions and persecution faced at home.

This situation underscores the ongoing challenges faced by religious minorities in Iran amid calls for greater religious freedom and international scrutiny of the country's human rights practices.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iran's 'Axis Of Resistance': Different Groups, Same Goals

Shi'ite Iraqis from the Iranian-backed group Kata’ib Hizballah march in Baghdad in 2014. Iran's regional network is a key element of its strategy of deterrence against perceived threats from the United States, regional rivals, and primarily Israel.
Shi'ite Iraqis from the Iranian-backed group Kata’ib Hizballah march in Baghdad in 2014. Iran's regional network is a key element of its strategy of deterrence against perceived threats from the United States, regional rivals, and primarily Israel.

Iran's so-called axis of resistance is a loose network of proxies, Tehran-backed militant groups, and an allied state actor.

The network is a key element of Tehran's strategy of deterrence against perceived threats from the United States, regional rivals, and primarily Israel.

Active in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, the axis gives Iran the ability to hit its enemies outside its own borders while allowing it to maintain a position of plausible deniability, experts say.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has played a key role in establishing some of the groups in the axis. Other members have been co-opted by Tehran over the years.

Iran has maintained that around dozen separate groups that comprise the axis act independently.

Tehran's level of influence over each member varies. But the goals pursued by each group broadly align with Iran's own strategic aims, which makes direct control unnecessary, according to experts.

Lebanon's Hizballah

Hizballah was established in 1982 in response to Israel's invasion that year of Lebanon, which was embroiled in a devastating civil war.

The Shi'ite political and military organization was created by the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the elite branch of the country's armed forces.

Danny Citrinowicz, a research fellow at the Iran Program at the Israel-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Tehran's aim was to unite Lebanon's various Shi'ite political organizations and militias under one organization.

Since it was formed, Hizballah has received significant financial and political assistance from Iran, a Shi'a-majority country. That backing has made the group a major political and military force in Lebanon.

A Hizballah supporter holds up portraits of Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Beirut in 2018.
A Hizballah supporter holds up portraits of Hizballah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Beirut in 2018.

"Iran sees the organization as the main factor that will deter Israel or the U.S. from going to war against Iran and works tirelessly to build the organization's power," Citrinowicz said.

Hizballah has around 40,000 fighters, according to the office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence. The State Department said Iran has armed and trained Hizballah fighters and injected hundreds of millions of dollars in the group.

The State Department in 2010 described Hizballah as "the most technically capable terrorist group in the world."

Citrinowicz said Iran may not dictate orders to the organization but Tehran "profoundly influences" its decision-making process.

He described Hizballah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, not as a proxy but "an Iranian partner managing Tehran's Middle East strategy."

Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah has developed close ties with other Iranian proxies and Tehran-backed militant groups, helping to train and arm their fighters.

Citrinowicz said Tehran "almost depends" on the Lebanese group to oversee its relations with other groups in the axis of resistance.

Hamas

Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, has had a complex relationship with Iran.

Founded in 1987 during the first Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, Hamas is an offshoot of the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist political organization established in Egypt in the 1920s.

Hamas's political chief is Ismail Haniyeh, who lives in Qatar. Its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, is commanded by Yahya Sinwar, who is believed to be based in the Gaza Strip. Hamas is estimated to have around 20,000 fighters.

For years, Iran provided limited material support to Hamas, a Sunni militant group. Tehran ramped up its financial and military support to the Palestinian group after it gained power in the Gaza Strip in 2007.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) greets the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, in Tehran on June 20, 2023.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) greets the leader of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, in Tehran on June 20, 2023.

But Tehran reduced its support to Hamas after a major disagreement over the civil war in Syria. When the conflict broke out in 2011, Iran backed the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Hamas, however, supported the rebels seeking to oust Assad.

Nevertheless, experts said the sides overcame their differences because, ultimately, they seek the same goal: Israel's destruction.

"[But] this does not mean that Iran is deeply aware of all the actions of Hamas," Citrinowicz said.

After Hamas militants launched a multipronged attack on Israel in October that killed around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, Iran denied it was involved in planning the assault. U.S. intelligence has indicated that Iranian leaders were surprised by Hamas's attack.

Seyed Ali Alavi, a lecturer in Middle Eastern and Iranian Studies at SOAS University of London, said Iran's support to Hamas is largely "confined to rhetorical and moral support and limited financial aid." He said Qatar and Turkey, Hamas's "organic" allies, have provided significantly more financial help to the Palestinian group.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

With around 1,000 members, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) is the smaller of the two main militant groups based in the Gaza Strip and the closest to Iran.

Founded in 1981, the Sunni militant group's creation was inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution two years earlier. Given Tehran's ambition of establishing a foothold in the Palestinian Occupied Territories, Iran has provided the group with substantial financial backing and arms, experts say.

The PIJ, led by Ziyad al-Nakhalah, is designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.

"Today, there is no Palestinian terrorist organization that is closer to Iran than this organization," Citrinowicz said. "In fact, it relies mainly on Iran."

Citrinowicz said there is no doubt that Tehran's "ability to influence [the PIJ] is very significant."

Iraqi Shi'ite Militias

Iran supports a host of Shi'ite militias in neighboring Iraq, some of which were founded by the IRGC and "defer to Iranian instructions," said Gregory Brew, a U.S.-based Iran analyst with the Eurasia Group.

But Tehran's influence over the militias has waned since the U.S. assassination in 2020 of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, who was seen as the architect of the axis of resistance and held great influence over its members.

"The dynamic within these militias, particularly regarding their relationship with Iran, underwent a notable shift following the assassination of Qassem Soleimani," said Hamidreza Azizi, a fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

The U.S. drone strike that targeted Soleimani also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella organization of mostly Shi'ite Iran-backed armed groups that has been a part of the Iraqi Army since 2016.

Muhandis was also the leader of Kata'ib Hizballah, which was established in 2007 and is one of the most powerful members of the PMF. Other prominent groups in the umbrella include Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, Harakat al-Nujaba, Kata'ib Seyyed al-Shuhada, and the Badr Organization. Kata'ib Hizballah has been designated as a terrorist entity by the United States.

Following the deaths of Soleimani and al-Muhandis, Kata'ib Hizballah and other militias "began to assert more autonomy, at times acting in ways that could potentially compromise Iran's interests," said Azizi.

Many of the Iran-backed groups that form the PMF are also part of the so-called Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which rose to prominence in November 2023. The group has been responsible for launching scores of attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria since Israel launched its war against Hamas in Gaza.

"It's important to note that while several militias within the PMF operate as Iran's proxies, this is not a universal trait across the board," Azizi said.

Azizi said the extent of Iran's control over the PMF can fluctuate based on the political conditions in Iraq and the individual dynamics within each militia.

The strength of each group within the PMF varies widely, with some containing as few as 100 members and others, such as Kata'ib Hizballah, boasting around 10,000 fighters.

Syrian State And Pro-Government Militias

Besides Iran, Syria is the only state that is a member of the axis of resistance.

"The relationship between Iran and the Assad regime in Syria is a strategic alliance where Iran's influence is substantial but not absolute, indicating a balance between dependency and partnership," said Azizi.

The decades-long alliance stems from Damascus's support for Tehran during the devastating 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

When Assad's rule was challenged during the Syrian civil war, the IRGC entered the fray in 2013 to ensure he held on to power.

Khamenei greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran in 2019.
Khamenei greets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Tehran in 2019.

Hundreds of IRGC commander and officers, who Iran refers to as "military advisers," are believed to be present in Syria. Tehran has also built up a large network of militias, consisting mostly of Afghans and Pakistanis, in Syria.

Azizi said these militias have given Iran "a profound influence on the country's affairs," although not outright control over Syria.

"The Assad regime maintains its strategic independence, making decisions that serve its national interests and those of its allies," he said.

The Fatemiyun Brigade, comprised of Afghan fighters, and the Zainabiyun Brigade, which is made up of Pakistani fighters, make up the bulk of Iran's proxies in Syria.

"They are essentially units in the IRGC, under direct control," said Brew.

The Afghan and Pakistani militias played a key role in fighting rebel groups opposed to Assad during the civil war. There have been reports that Iran has not only granted citizenship to Afghan fighters and their families but also facilitated Syrian citizenship for them.

The Fatemiyun Brigade, the larger of the two, is believed to have several thousand fighters in Syria. The Zainabiyun Brigade is estimated to have less than 1,000 fighters.

Yemen's Huthi Rebels

The Huthis first emerged as a movement in the 1980s in response to the growing religious influence of neighboring Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom.

In 2015, the Shi'ite militia toppled the internationally recognized, Saudi-backed government of Yemen. That triggered a brutal, yearslong Saudi-led war against the rebels.

With an estimated 200,000 fighters, the Huthis control most of the northwest of the country, including the capital, Sanaa, and are in charge of much of the Red Sea coast.

A Huthi militant stands by a poster of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a rally by Huthi supporters to denounce the U.S. killing of both commanders, in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2020.
A Huthi militant stands by a poster of Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani during a rally by Huthi supporters to denounce the U.S. killing of both commanders, in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2020.

The Huthis' disdain for Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional foe, and Israel made it a natural ally of Tehran, experts say. But it was only around 2015 that Iran began providing the group with training through the Quds Force and Hizballah. Tehran has also supplied weapons to the group, though shipments are regularly intercepted by the United States.

"The Huthis…appear to have considerable autonomy and Tehran exercises only limited control, though there does appear to be [a] clear alignment of interests," said Brew.

Since Israel launched its war in Gaza, the Huthis have attacked international commercial vessels in the Red Sea and fired ballistic missiles at several U.S. warships.

In response, the United States and its allies have launched air strikes against the Huthis' military infrastructure. Washington has also re-designated the Huthis as a terrorist organization.

Rise In Suicides Among Medical Students In Iran Highlights Growing Crisis In Sector

Doctors at a hospital in Iran. The rise in suicide rates among medical residents coincides with a mass exodus of medical staff from Iran.
Doctors at a hospital in Iran. The rise in suicide rates among medical residents coincides with a mass exodus of medical staff from Iran.

A rise in suicides among medical residents at Iranian schools, revealed in an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) with Vahid Shariat, has highlighted a growing crisis within Iran's medical community.

Shariat, head of the Iranian Psychiatric Association, said in the interview dated February 18 that the Iranian Medical Council recorded 16 deaths over the past year among medical residents, a figure that is likely higher, he said, as the Health Ministry withholds "more accurate and extensive statistics."

"The ministry has more and more accurate statistics, which they consider confidential and do not make public," he said.

"Whenever there is a problem, before doing anything they make the statistics confidential or quickly deny them."

The rise in suicide rates among medical residents coincides with a mass exodus of medical staff from Iran.

Thousands of Iranian health professionals have left their homeland in recent years, mainly due to the country’s deepening economic crisis, difficult working conditions, and the lack of social and political freedoms.

Iranian media outlets estimate some 16,000 doctors, including specialists, have left the Islamic republic since 2020, leading to warnings of a public health-care crisis.

The exodus accelerated after the coronavirus pandemic, which took a heavy toll on health-care workers. Iran was one of the worst affected countries in the world, recording over 146,000 deaths.

The suicide issue has been described as "worrying" and a "significant problem for the medical community" by Mahmoud Fazel, head of the Supreme Council of the Medical System. In response, a committee has been established within the council to investigate the matter.

The occurrence of student suicides, particularly within those studying in the medical field, is not new in Iran, with media reports in recent years shedding light on the pressures faced by those pursuing such careers.

A recent study by the Psychiatric Association has found that the suicide rate within the medical community has seen a sharp increase in recent years. The research further highlights that, within a resident population of approximately 14,000, there is an average of 13 suicides annually.

Moreover, the study reveals a gender disparity in the suicide rates among doctors, with a 40 percent increase among males and a 130 percent increase among females compared with the general population.

Factors such as "work pressure" and "income level" have been identified by the Medical System Organization as significant stress factors for medical students.

The head of the Iranian Medical Council has termed the "emptying" of the country of its doctors a "serious" crisis, signaling a dire need for immediate and effective measures to safeguard the wellbeing of Iran's future medical professionals.

Written by Ardeshir Tayebi based on an original story in Persian by RFE/RL's Radio Farda

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