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Iran: Nuclear Claim Brings Fallout

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during his Natanz speech on April 9 (Fars) April 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) --Tehran's announcement on April 9 of industrial-scale nuclear enrichment is regarded by critics as a further act of defiance by a government that has resisted international pressure to suspend sensitive nuclear work.


In late March, the UN Security Council tightened its sanctions against Iran for its refusal to halt uranium-enrichment activities. It is a process can be used in civil nuclear efforts as well as a military ones.


But instead of halting the program, officials including President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on April 9 reasserted Tehran's determination to continue and expand its nuclear activities, and touted its nuclear achievements.

Today, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said his country is seeking to install up to 50,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges at Natanz.

The president was speaking at a large ceremony at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in central Iran, where he also called on countries to accept Iran's right and stop "bullying" it.


In the United States, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the White House's National Security Council is "very concerned" at the Iranian announcement.


U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McComack predicted that Iran's decision to continue enrichment will have increasing "costs for the Iranian people."


The EU urged Iran to halt uranium enrichment, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also called on Tehran to comply fully with UN demands.


Spin Doctors?


Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki followed the April 9 announcement with a call today for the international community to accept the "new reality" of Iran's nuclear program.


"We think that the other side and other parties should act with the understanding of the new realities, and if they have something new to say, we have always said that we are ready to take part in complete and full negotiations, without preconditions, to find a solution to the nuclear issue," Mottaki said.


Iran's claim, if true, could mean significant progress in the country's nuclear program.


The centrifuges spin to enrich uranium hexafluoride (UF6), producing fuel for power stations or, at higher levels of enrichment, for bomb material.


Iran says it will only make fuel for energy. But many in the West are suspicious of Iran's nuclear intentions.


Some observers have cast doubt on the announcement, saying Iranian officials are exaggerating their nuclear achievements in order to generate public support and present the world with a fait accompli.


The Natanz enrichment facility (Fars file photo)

Reza Taghizadeh, a professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and an analyst on Iranian political affairs, told Radio Farda that Tehran has not provided evidence to support its claim.


"Iran wanted to announce that it has entered a stage where it can produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale because it has started operating more centrifuges that are used as tool for enriching uranium and had solved some technical problems," Taghizadeh said. "But since [Iranian officials] did not announce the number of centrifuges, it is very difficult to believe that Iran has really entered the industrial stage. By making [the announcement] Iran was emphasizing that it will continue its nuclear activities."


Some Iranian officials have suggested that 3,000 centrifuges have been installed at the Natanz facility. Today, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, said his country is seeking to install up to 50,000 uranium-enriching centrifuges there.


Questions Linger


News agencies have quoted David Albright, a former UN nuclear inspector, as saying that 3,000 centrifuges would be enough to build a nuclear warhead within a year. But he added that it would be very hard to believe that Tehran has been able to enlarge its centrifuge cascades so dramatically.


A nonproliferation expert with the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, Mark Fitzpatrick, described Iran's announcement as a "boast." He told the British daily "The Guardian" that he doesn't believe that Iran has 3,000 centrifuges running at Natanz, and he adding that there has been no evidence that Iranians can run test cascades in a continuous manner.


The April 9 event at Natanz was held as part of the Islamic republic's official "National Day of Nuclear Technology," which included an orchestral performance. The government had also called on schools to ring their bells and to hold special ceremonies.


Iran printed an "atomic banknote" in March to mark the country's achievement in accessing nuclear technology. The note depicts electrons in orbit around an atom on a map of Iran.


Officials in Tehran have in recent months stepped up their efforts to portray Iran's right to a nuclear program as one of their citizenry's most important and urgent rights.


Yet a number of activists in Iran have questioned the wisdom of the move. They argue that citizens have other rights that are equally important but have been ignored -- rights connected to democracy, freedom, and equal rights.

Talking Technical

Talking Technical

A control panel at the Bushehr nuclear power plant (Fars)

CASCADES AND CENTRIFUGES: Experts and pundits alike continue to debate the goals and status of Iran's nuclear program. It remains unclear whether the program is, as Tehran insists, a purely peaceful enegy project or, as the United States claims, part of an effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
On June 7, 2006, RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with nuclear expert Shannon Kile of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in Sweden to help sort through some of the technical issues involved. "[Natanz] will be quite a large plant," Kile said. "There will be about 50,000 centrifuges and how much enriched uranium that can produce [is] hard to say because the efficiency of the centrifuges is not really known yet. But it would clearly be enough to be able to produce enough [highly-enriched uranium] for a nuclear weapon in fairly short order, if that's the route that they chose to go...." (more)


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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear program.


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Pakistan Army Says 'Terrorists' From Iran Kill Four Soldiers In Second Such Attack In Three Months

Pakistan said four of its soldiers near the border with Iran in the nation’s southwestern Balochistan Province were killed by a “group of terrorists” coming from Iranian territory, the second such attack in under three months.

In an April 1 statement, the Pakistani military said it had informed Iran of the attack with the hope to “prevent such incidents in future.”

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah condemned the attack, saying in a tweet that “the nation is united in the war against terrorism” and that “this scourge will be eradicated.”

No group immediately announced responsibility for the April 1 attack.

In January, four Pakistani security soldiers were killed during a similar militant raid on a border post from across the Pakistan-Iran border in Balochistan, home to ethnic Baluchis.

The outlawed Balochistan Liberation Army, or BLA, routinely takes credit for attacks on Pakistani security forces. Officials in Islamabad say the group has set up sanctuaries in border areas of Iran, charges Tehran rejects.

The BLA claims to be fighting for the independence of Balochistan, a sparsely populated province rich in natural resources such as copper, gold, and oil. The insurgent group claims ethnic Baluchis face extortion and discrimination by Pakistani authorities. Islamabad rejects the charges. Ethnic Baluchis account for just under 4 percent of Pakistan’s population of 231 million.

The BLA was responsible for a significant portion of terror-related deaths in Pakistan last year. The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace called the BLA "the fastest-growing terrorist group in the world."

Pakistan, the United States, and Britain have designated the BLA as a terrorist organization.

Pakistan is working on fencing its 830-kilometer border with Iran in part to prevent cross-border movement of BLA members.

With reporting by VOA
Updated

Russia Announces Ban On Dairy Imports From Armenia Amid Souring Of Relations

Dairy products at a supermarket in Yerevan.

Russia has banned imports of dairy products from Armenia allegedly on health issues as relations between the two allied nations sour.

In a March 31 statement justifying its decision, Rosselkhoznadzor, Russia's agricultural oversight agency, saying Armenian dairy companies use Iranian milk and other raw materials that are banned in Russia.

A spokeswoman for Armenia’s Food Safety Inspectorate told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that the Iranian raw materials are safe for consumption. She said Rosselkhoznadzor inspected some Armenian dairy firms last week and did not detect “any problem threatening people’s lives and health.”

The agency’s decision comes amid fraying relations between the two countries and just days after Armenia took steps toward ratifying the International Criminal Court's (ICC) founding treaty.

Russian-Armenian relations have been on a downward trajectory ever since fighting reignited between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian’s administration has criticized ally Russian for a lack of support. Armenia is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, a military alliance consisting of several post-Soviet states.

Tension increased this week after the Constitutional Court of Armenia gave the green light for the country to join the ICC. Moscow immediately warned that recognition of The Hague tribunal’s jurisdiction would have “extremely negative” consequences for Russian-Armenian relations.

The ICC last month issued a warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s arrest. Were Armenia to become a signatory to the ICC, it would be expected to detain Putin should he travel to the country.

Russia has for years used Rosselkhoznadzor as a blunt foreign policy instrument against former Soviet states whose actions Moscow dislikes. Russia has banned food and drinks from Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Belarus during periods of increasing bilateral tension. Those countries have described Moscow’s actions as economic sanctions.

The milk ban won’t hurt Armenia’s economy as it accounts for a small portion of exports to Russia, but it could be a warning of what could come next should the country choose to become a signatory to the ICC.

Armenia exports a lot of fruit, vegetables, drinks, and alcohol to Russia and a ban on those items would have a greater impact.

U.S. Seeks To Keep Yemen-Bound Ammunition Seized From Iran

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland (file photo)

The United States is seeking to keep more than 1 million rounds of ammunition the U.S. Navy seized in December as it was in transit from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to militant groups in Yemen, the Justice Department said on March 31. "The United States disrupted a major operation by [the IRGC] to smuggle weapons of war into the hands of a militant group in Yemen," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "The Justice Department is now seeking the forfeiture of those weapons," the statement said. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran's IRGC Says Israeli Air Strike In Syria Kills One Of Its Officers

Milad Haydari was killed in Syria, the IRGC said.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) says an Israeli attack in Syria on March 31 killed one of its officers in a sign of Israel's increasing efforts to counter Tehran's foothold in the country. The IRGC "has announced the martyrdom of guardsman Milad Haydari, one of the IRGC's military advisers and officers," in the attack, a statement said. This was the second attack attributed to Israel in Syria in less than two days. There was no immediate comment from Israel, which usually declines to comment on reports of strikes in Syria. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Azerbaijan Denounces 'Slanderous' Comments By Top Iranian Commander

Iranian commander Kiumars Heydari (file photo)

Azerbaijan has denounced comments by a senior Iranian military commander who said members of the Islamic State militant group had fought for Azerbaijan and were still based in the country. The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry on March 30 said the comments made by Kiumars Heydari, head of Iran's regular army ground forces, were "vile, defamatory, and slanderous," adding, "Generally speaking, there are no foreign elements on the territory of Azerbaijan." The ministry's response came a day after security services said they were investigating "a terrorist act" on lawmaker Fazil Mustafa, who has strong anti-Iranian views. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Mideast Envoy Hopeful Saudi-Iran Detente Will Help Region

The Biden administration is hopeful that warming ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia will help de-escalate conflicts and crises across the Middle East, a senior U.S. diplomat said on March 30. The detente between the two regional heavyweights could help bring Yemen's civil war to an end, Barbara Leaf said. Earlier this month, Riyadh and Tehran agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations -- a move that stirred cautious optimism across the region. "The first order is to see whether Iran will live up to its commitments in terms of Yemen," Leaf said.

UN Court Rejects Iranian Bid To Unfreeze Funds But Faults U.S. For Seizing Other Assets

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has rejected Iran's bid to unblock nearly $2 billion in assets belonging to its central bank that were frozen by the United States over alleged terrorist attacks.

The Hague-based court said on March 30 it did not have jurisdiction over $1.75 billion in bonds, plus accumulated interest, that are held in a Citibank account in New York.

But the court simultaneously found that the United States had "violated" the rights of some Iranians and companies whose assets were also frozen. The ruling ordered the United States to pay compensation, but said the amount should be determined through negotiation.

The ruling comes amid strained relations between the United States and Iran over the use of Iranian drones by Russia against Ukraine, attempts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major world powers, and a deadly strike last week involving Iran-backed militias in Syria and U.S. personnel.

The case before the ICJ, also known as the World Court, was initially brought by Tehran in 2016 claiming a breach of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, which promised friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

The treaty was signed long before Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, which toppled the U.S.-backed shah, and the subsequent severing of U.S.-Iranian relations. Washington withdrew from the treaty in 2018.

The ICJ ruled that the treaty was in place at the time of the freezing of the assets of Iranian commercial companies and entities, and therefore Washington violated it.

The United States argued the asset seizures were the result of Tehran's alleged sponsorship of terrorism and said the whole case should be dismissed because Iran had "unclean hands."

The court dismissed this defense and ruled the treaty was valid. It said if the countries fail in the negotiation of compensation, they will have to return to the ICJ for a ruling.

In another decision on the assets held at Citibank, the court ruled it had no jurisdiction over the $1.75 billion in assets from Iran's central bank because that bank was not a commercial enterprise, and thus not protected by the treaty.

The United States has said the money is to be used to pay compensation to victims of a 1983 bombing in Lebanon and other attacks linked to Iran, which denies supporting international terrorism.

The rulings of the ICJ, the United Nations' top court, are binding, but it has no means of enforcing its rulings.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

Missing Iranian Cleric Warns Of His Possible Detention, Death

Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi

Four months after the disappearance of Molavi Abdul Ghaffar Naqshbandi, the Sunni imam from the Iranian city of Rask in Sistan-Baluchistan Province who disclosed the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander, a video has surfaced in which he warns of the possibility that he may be "assassinated" or "apprehended."

Naqshbandi disappeared after he was summoned to a court in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad late last year. Since attending a court session in December, his whereabouts have been unknown and his family says they have no information on where he might be detained.

The news of the alleged sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl by the Chabahar police commander sparked mass protests in the southeastern Iranian city of Zahedan. The protesters demanded accountability and were met with a violent and bloody response from security forces.

Almost 100 people were killed, and hundreds more injured by security forces in the unrest, which came on top of protests touched off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in the custody of Tehran's morality police for an alleged violation of the hijab law.

"If I am killed, those who did not tolerate my words, they are the cause of my murder," Naqshbandi says in the recording, released on his official Telegram social media channel.

He goes on in the video to mention the possibility he will be arrested and tortured.

"If they arrest and imprison me, because they have the power to arrest us again and again, they can also broadcast forced confessions from us in front of the television," he says, appearing to indicate any confession that may come out would not be of his own volition.

The date of the recording, which lasts about 4 minutes and 30 seconds, is not known. The post appeared on the site on March 28.

The disappearance of Naqshbandi came after an apparent attempt to discredit a top Sunni cleric by the local representative of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In December, a leaked document from the hard-line Fars news agency said Khamenei told security and military officials to try and disgrace Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran's Sunni Muslim population, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Another prominent Iranian Sunni cleric, Molavi Abdulmajid, is also among those to have been detained.

In a January 19 interview with RFE/RL, Abdulmajid criticized the government for generating an atmosphere of insecurity in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province and a hotbed of the protest movement, and said the protests in the city will continue.

The government has unleashed a brutal crackdown on the months of unrest -- one of the deepest challenges to the Islamic regime since the revolution in 1979 -- that erupted following the September 16 death of Amini.

Sunni Muslims make up a majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province and Kurdistan, but account for only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

Since Amini's death, more than 500 people have been killed in the police crackdown, according to rights groups. Several thousand more have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

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

Iranian Teachers Protest Conditions Amid Reports Of Unpaid Wages

Teachers protest over economic conditions in Fars Province in February.

Iranian teachers have protested in several different cities around the country over wages and poor living standards as unrest over social and economic issues that has plagued Iran for almost a year continues.

Reports published on social media showed teachers gathered in front of education departments on March 28 in the cities of Tabriz, Bojnurd, Zanjan, Malayer, Ardabil, Kermanshah, and Hamedan demanding better financial conditions. The demonstrations came after a teachers' union had warned the government to meet its demands or face protests.

The rallies also came amid reports from the semiofficial Tasnim news agency that said numerous teachers across Iran had yet to receive their salaries for the previous month.

In recent years, Iranian teachers have taken to the streets across the country to demand better pay and working conditions. In response, the authorities have summoned, detained, and jailed a growing number of protesters and activists, actions that have failed to stop the rallies.

The Coordinating Council of Teachers' Syndicates said on March 19 that imprisonment, dismissal, deportation, and court sentences have failed to deter teachers from their desire to accompany the people of Iran in the direction of fundamental changes in the Islamic republic.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System

The statement, published just ahead of the beginning of the Persian New Year on March 21, referred to the last year as "a year full of glory and complaints" and added that "the stance of teachers and students together will promise days full of awareness."

Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have since tried to quell with harsh measures.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.

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

The Farda Briefing: Iran's Hard-Liners Propose Tougher Measures To Enforce Hijab Law

Iranian women celebrate the first day of spring on March 22 without the compulsory hijab in Isfahan.

Welcome back to The Farda Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that tracks the key issues in Iran and explains why they matter. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari. Here's what I've been following during the past week and what I'm watching for in the days ahead.

The Big Issue

Hard-line lawmakers in Iran have proposed new tougher measures to enforce the country's hijab law.

The proposed measures would impose fines of up to $60,000 on women who violate the law as well as the confiscation of their passports and driver's licenses, according to lawmaker Hossein Jalali.

Another member of parliament, Bijan Nobaveh, said the proposed measures also include using surveillance cameras to monitor if women in public are wearing the compulsory hijab. As punishment, offenders would be denied mobile phone and Internet services, he said.

Separately, officials with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said members of the Basij paramilitary forces will be deployed in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom during the fasting month of Ramadan to promote and enforce "the culture of hijab."

Meanwhile, a video posted online appeared to show unveiled women being prevented from entering a historic garden in the southern city of Shiraz.

Why It Matters: A growing number of Iranian women are appearing in public with their hair uncovered, in a direct challenge to Iran's clerical regime.

Women have been emboldened by the nationwide anti-regime protests that erupted in September following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini soon after she was arrested by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the hijab law.

The authorities appear to be looking for new ways to enforce the hijab law, which women have resisted for the past four decades.

Mohsen Araki, a member of the Assembly of Experts, the 88-member chamber of theologians that oversees the work of the country's supreme leader, compared uncovered women in Iran to a "new COVID" pandemic.

What's Next: The authorities' doubling down on the enforcement of the hijab law could increase discontent in society and result in more defiance and acts of civil disobedience by women determined to challenge the discriminatory law.

Stories You Might Have Missed

Antiestablishment protests have largely died down across most of Iran amid a deadly state crackdown. But in the impoverished southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan, thousands of people continue to hold weekly protests against the clerical regime. The protests have been fueled by anger over the deadly state crackdown and historical grievances.

Prominent activist Masih Alinejad said the West's continued support for Iranians is vital both for achieving regime change in Iran and reaching the goals Western nations have in their relationship with Tehran. Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Alinejad said she has tried to persuade Western leaders that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the clerical regime.

What We're Watching

Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpur, commander of the IRGC's ground forces, appeared to warn anti-regime protesters in Sistan-Baluchistan against crossing the authorities' so-called red lines.

According to the IRGC-affiliated Tasnim news agency, Pakpur blamed the unrest on "enemies" and warned that "if someone attempts to undermine the security of the people, they will be severely dealt with."

Why It Matters: The continuing unrest in Sistan-Baluchistan poses a challenge to the authorities.

Pakpur's comments could suggest the authorities are losing patience with protesters and Molavi Abdolhamid, the outspoken Friday Prayers leader in Zahedan who has publicly criticized the authorities for the deadly crackdown in Sistan-Baluchistan and its alleged repression of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Golnaz Esfandiari

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Wednesday.

Azerbaijani PM Known For Criticism Of Iran Wounded In 'Terrorist Attack'

Fazil Mustafa (file photo)

Azerbaijan's State Security Service (DTX) said on March 29 that lawmaker Fazil Mustafa was hospitalized with gunshot wounds to his shoulder and leg the previous evening after an unknown assailant opened fire at him near his home. DTX called the attack "a terrorist act," adding that Mustafa's life was not in danger. Mustafa is the only representative in parliament of the Boyuk Qurulus (Great Creativeness) party loyal to the government. Investigations into the attack are under way, DTX said. Mustafa is a sharp critic of neighboring Iran's policies toward Azerbaijan. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Iranian Activist Alinejad Says International Support Vital For Both Iran And West

Masih Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Prominent activist Masih Alinejad says the West's continued support for Iranians is vital both for achieving regime change in Iran and reaching the goals Western nations have in their relationship with Tehran.

Speaking in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Farda, Alinejad said she has tried to persuade leaders such as Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that the months of unrest that have roiled Iran are an actual revolution that will ultimately lead to the toppling of the Islamic republic's government.

Alinejad said Iranians aren't looking for the West to replace the Islamic regime with democracy, but their support is key to the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people.

"This strategy also holds significant benefits for Western populations in the future. For example, Western governments have dedicated decades to securing a nuclear agreement with the Islamic republic, yet the Islamic republic has covertly advanced its nuclear activities," she added.

"To achieve an Iran without nuclear weapons, the West should assist the Iranian people in achieving an Iran without the Islamic republic."

Amid the unrest, Iranian opposition leaders and activists have begun to discuss the shape of Iran in the future.

In one recent discussion, a group of exiled opposition activists and celebrities met at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. to discuss the future of Iran's pro-democracy movement. The group pleaded for unity and an end to infighting to help replace Iran's theocratic system with a secular democracy.

Alinejad, who is a member of the newly formed Alliance for Democracy and Freedom in Iran, announced that the alliance's representatives will soon meet with members of the Canadian Parliament as well.

The group also includes the exiled former crown prince of Iran, Reza Pahlavi, the spokesman for the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims, Hamed Esmaeilion, and rights activist Nazanin Boniadi.

Alinejad spoke to Radio Farda amid nationwide protests in Iran sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini on September 16. The 22-year-old died while in custody after being arrested by the notorious "morality police" for allegedly improperly wearing a mandatory Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Officials, who have blamed the West for the demonstrations, have vowed to crack down even harder on protesters, with the judiciary leading the way after the unrest entered a fourth month.

The protests pose the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others.

Anti-government protests over poor living conditions, low wages, and a lack of freedoms have also been taking place.

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

Iranian IRGC Commander Warns Restive Province Of Red Lines

A "Protest Friday" in Zahedan after that followed Friday Prayers on February 17 called for the release of political prisoners.

A high-ranking commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) appeared to warn protesters in the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan against crossing the regime's red lines in anti-government rallies that have been taking place weekly after Friday Prayers.

According to the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the IRGC, Mohammad Pakpor, the commander of the IRGC's ground forces, blamed the unrest in the province on "malicious individuals and enemies" and warned that "if someone attempts to undermine the security of the people, they will face severe consequences." He gave no more details on what exactly would constitute a red line for the government.

The comments come at a time when religious leaders in Sistan-Baluchistan, particularly Molavi Abdolhamid, a spiritual leader for Iran’s Sunni Muslim population, have complained that the government's actions, including the violent dispersal of worshippers demonstrating in the region by security agents of the Islamic republic, as being a major factor adding to the feeling of insecurity among the general population.

Meanwhile, civil activists in Sistan-Baluchistan report that over the past six months of protests, particularly during the ongoing protests on Fridays in the city of Zahedan, "a significant number of citizens, including children under 18, have been arrested without justification and contrary to legal procedures."

Due to Internet disruptions in many areas of Sistan-Baluchistan and threats by security agencies to the families of protesters, there is limited accurate information available about the status of many detainees.

During the Bloody Friday massacre in Zahedan on September 30, 2022, almost 100 people were killed and hundreds injured by security forces amid unrest triggered by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl by a local police commander.

In December, a leaked audio recording from the Iranian pro-regime Coalition Council of Islamic Revolution Forces appeared to show the secretary of the council admitting to the accidental killing of women and children during Bloody Friday.

Earlier, another leaked document from the Fars agency, published by the Black Reward hacking group, shows Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei telling security and military officials to try and disgrace Abdolhamid, who is a vocal critic of the government, instead of arresting him.

Anger over Amini's death while in police custody on September 16 has prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets nationwide to demand more freedoms and women's rights. The widespread unrest represents the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

Her death, which officials blamed on a heart attack, touched off a wave of anti-government protests in cities across the country. The authorities have responded to the unrest with a harsh crackdown that rights groups say has killed more than 500 people, including 71 children.

Sunni Muslims make up the majority of the population in Sistan-Baluchistan Province in southeastern Iran where Abdolhamid is based but make up only about 10 percent of the population in Shi'a-dominated Iran overall.

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

Ramadan Iftar Meals From Our Region And Worldwide

Iftar is the fast-breaking meal eaten by Muslims during the month of Ramadan immediately after sunset. RFE/RL takes a look at the meals prepared for the faithful in our regions and worldwide.

Iranian Workers' Group Strikes Over Wages As Inflation Continues To Soar

The strike comes after several weeks of protests, dubbed Protest Sundays, in front of government agencies in Shush.

Employees and retirees in the southwestern Iranian city of Shush have gone on strike to protest living standards and to push the government to approve wage and social payment increases in the Iranian New Year.

Videos published on social media showed crowds gathering in front of the local governor's office while chanting, "Enough oppression! Our tablecloth is empty."

The strike comes after several weeks of protests, dubbed Protest Sundays, in front of government agencies in Shush.

On March 26, a rally took place in front of the Shush governor's building, where workers and retirees from the Haft Tapeh sugarcane company joined others to protest.

The Supreme Labor Council has resolved to raise the minimum wage for workers in the Iranian New Year, which commenced on March 21, by only 27 percent compared with the previous year. Annual inflation in Iran has been running at around 40 percent for the past two years.

During a gathering of workers over the weekend, labor activists highlighted the ongoing rise in the inflation rate and the increasing costs of food and other expenses. They argued that the wages set by the Supreme Labor Council are "oppressive" and called for a salary increase that corresponds with price growth and living expenses to better support working families.

Prices have grown as living standards have fallen in Iran due to crushing sanctions imposed on the country by the United States over Tehran's nuclear program.

Unrest has rattled Iran since last summer in response to declining living standards, wage arrears, and a lack of welfare support. Labor law in Iran does not recognize the right of workers to form independent unions.

Adding to the dissent, the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly breathed new life into demonstrations, which officials across the country have tried to quell with harsh measures.

The activist HRANA news agency said that more than 500 people have been killed during the unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Thousands have been arrested in the clampdown, with the judiciary handing down harsh sentences -- including the death penalty -- to protesters.

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

Iranian Lawmaker Says New Hijab Plan Prohibits Physical Punishment

Iranian parliament member Hossein Jalali (file photo)

An Iranian parliamentarian says the government's new strategy to enforce the compulsory wearing of the hijab will eliminate physical punishment for women and instead carry financial and administrative penalties that have been approved by the leader of the Islamic republic.

Iranian parliament member Hossein Jalali said on March 27 that the new plan includes a financial penalty of up to 30 billion Iranian Rials ($60,000) for those who breach the compulsory hijab law, while additional penalties consist of revoking a person's driver's license, canceling their passport, and prohibiting Internet access for those women who do not adhere to the hijab requirement.

Under the new proposals, physical punishment will not be allowed, Jalali said. Violators instead will be punished according to a predetermined table.

To help limit physical confrontations, surveillance cameras will be used to monitor public spaces for women not wearing the hijab and offenders will be tracked down and punished afterward. Police and judicial authorities will be tasked with collecting evidence and identifying violators, Jalali said.

SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System

The Cultural Commission of the Iranian parliament said earlier that shop owners and the operators of businesses such as shopping malls and accommodation centers will also be responsible for implementing the rules.

Officials have recently moved to seal off the businesses of some "violators," including this week when a hotel in the city of Kashan and a shopping center in the capital, Tehran, were closed because employers were not observing the mandatory hijab rule.

The hijab -- the head covering worn by Muslim women -- became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls over the age of 9 after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Many Iranian women have flouted the rule over the years in protest and pushed the boundaries of what officials say is acceptable clothing.

Long-simmering tensions boiled over after the death in custody in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was detained for allegedly wearing the hijab improperly, with Iranians flooding streets across the country in protest. Women and even schoolgirls have put up unprecedented shows of defiance in the unrest, one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters. Rights groups say more than 500 people have died in the protests.

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

Saudi, Iranian Foreign Ministers To Meet During Muslim Holy Month

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian (file photo)

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and his Iranian counterpart, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, have agreed to meet during the ongoing Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Saudi state news agency SPA said on March 27, under a deal to restore ties. Both ministers spoke by phone for the second time in a few days, SPA said. "The two ministers also agreed to hold a bilateral meeting between them during the ongoing month of Ramadan," SPA said. Ramadan is likely to end on April 20. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.K. Says Iran Resupplies To Russia Of Kamikaze Drones Fueling More March Attacks

The wreckage of an Iranian kamikaze drone (file photo)

The British Defense Ministry said on March 26 that Russia had "likely launched" at least 71 Iranian Shahed kamikaze drones against Ukraine after a two-week letup in late February. The resumption suggests that "Russia has started receiving regular resupplies of small numbers of Shahed" uncrewed aerial drones, the U.K. military added in its daily intelligence assessment. It said Russian forces were probably launching the Iranian drones from the Krasnodar region in the east and Bryansk region in the northeast, cutting down flight times in the north to further "stretch Ukrainian air defenses."

Tehran Condemns U.S. Strikes On Iran-Linked Groups In Syria

Washington said it launched the retaliatory raids after a strike by a drone "of Iranian origin" that struck a U.S.-led coalition base in Syria. 

Tehran has condemned U.S. air strikes on Iran-linked forces in Syria that reportedly killed 19 people, which Washington said it carried out following a deadly drone attack on U.S. forces. The Iranian Foreign Ministry late on March 25 condemned "the belligerent and terrorist attack of the American army on civilian targets" in the eastern Syrian region of Deir el-Zor. Washington said it launched the retaliatory raids after a U.S. contractor was killed -- and another contractor and five military personnel wounded -- by a drone "of Iranian origin" that struck a U.S.-led coalition base in Syria.

Iran-Backed Fighters On Alert In East Syria After U.S. Strikes, Activists Say

Iran-backed fighters were on alert in eastern Syria on March 25, a day after U.S. forces launched retaliatory air strikes on sites in the war-torn country, opposition activists said. The air strikes came after a suspected Iranian-made drone killed a U.S. contractor and wounded six other Americans on March 23. The situation was calm following a day in which rockets were fired at bases housing U.S. troops in eastern Syria. The rockets came after U.S. air strikes on three different areas in Syria's eastern province of Deir el-Zour, opposition activists said. To read the original story by AP, click here.

Biden: U.S. Does Not Seek Conflict With Iran But Will 'Forcefully' Protect Americans In Syria

U.S. President Joe Biden (file photo)

U.S. President Joe Biden has said the United States does not seek conflict with Iran but will respond to protect its personnel in Syria and elsewhere.

The United States is prepared "to act forcefully to protect our people. That's exactly what happened last night," Biden said after he ordered a retaliatory air strike on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Biden, who spoke to reporters during a visit to Ottawa, Canada, ordered the air strike after a U.S. contractor was killed and six other Americans were injured in an attack on March 23 blamed on groups affiliated with Iran in northeast Syria.

The deadly attack by a kamikaze drone struck a maintenance facility on a base of the U.S.-led coalition near Hasakeh in northeastern Syria, the Pentagon said.

The United States has maintained about 900 troops in posts across northeastern Syria to keep pressure on groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and to support the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in their fight against the Syrian government.

The Pentagon said two F-15 fighters launched the retaliatory attack early on March 24. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the attack killed 11 pro-Iranian fighters -- six at a weapons depot in Deir el-Zour city and five others at military posts near two towns.

Two Syrian opposition activist groups later on March 24 reported a new wave of air strikes in eastern Syria against positions of Iran-backed militias.

The new wave of air strikes came after rockets were fired at a Conoco gas plant that has a base housing U.S. troops. It was not immediately clear if U.S. warplanes carried out the attack.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in the Pentagon statement that the U.S. intelligence community had determined the drone that killed the U.S. contractor was of Iranian origin but offered no evidence to support the claim.

The statement said its retaliatory "precision" strikes were intended to protect and defend U.S. personnel and were "proportionate and deliberate" and intended to limit the risk of escalation and minimize casualties.

"As President Biden has made clear, we will take all necessary measures to defend our people and will always respond at a time and place of our choosing," Austin said. "No group will strike our troops with impunity."

With reporting by AP and AFP

Iranian Activist Sentenced To 18 Years After Calls For Khamenei's Resignation

Activist Fatemeh Sepehri

Iran's judiciary has confirmed an 18-year prison sentence for activist Fatemeh Sepehri, an outspoken critic of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after calling on him to resign.

In February, Asghar Sepehri, Sepehri's brother, wrote on Twitter that his sister had informed him during a phone call from prison that the Islamic Revolutionary Court had handed her the sentence.

He said the sentence includes 10 years for propaganda activities against the Islamic republic, five years for cooperation with hostile governments, two years for insulting the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei, and one year for gathering and conspiring against national security.

On March 23, Dostali Makki, Fateme Sepehari's lawyer, said the sentence had been confirmed by the court and that the sentence would be implemented.

Makki added that the court did not accept his representation of Sepehri, thus keeping them from appealing the initial verdict.

According to the laws of the Islamic republic, if a convict is sentenced to several prison sentences in one case, the longest prison sentence will be implemented. In this case, Sepehri must spend the next 10 years in prison.

Sepehri is one of 14 activists in Iran who have publicly called for Khamenei to step down. She has been arrested and interrogated several times in recent years.

She and the other activists have also called for a new political system within the framework of a new constitution that would secure dignity and equal rights for women.

Criticism of Khamenei, who has the last say on almost every decision in Iran, is considered a red line in Iran, and his critics often land in prison, where political prisoners are routinely held in solitary confinement and subjected to various forms of torture.

Sepehri was arrested by security forces on September 21, at the beginning of nationwide protests in Iran over the September 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was taken into custody by Iran's morality police for allegedly violating the country's hijab law. She died while in detention.

Since the unrest erupted, lawmakers and security officials have threatened harsher and harsher treatment for protesters and anyone expressing dissent.

Human rights groups say the crackdown has left more than 500 people dead and hundreds more injured. Several people have been executed.

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

Sky Hunters: Ukrainian Border Guards Gun Down Iranian-Made Drones

Sky Hunters: Ukrainian Border Guards Gun Down Iranian-Made Drones
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Ukrainian soldiers have been honing their skills to shoot down Iranian-made drones with machine guns. Russian forces have been using the drones to launch attacks across Ukraine, including on residential housing and civilian infrastructure. The Ukrainian military says it is having success gunning down the drones, even as Russia continues to change tactics.

Iranian Women Arrested After Altercation With Hijab Enforcer

The three women were visiting a tourist site in the city of Yazd on March 21. (file photo)

Three Iranian women have been arrested after arguing with another woman who was attempting to enforce rules on wearing a head scarf in the central city of Yazd.

According to a report published by the Asr Iran news website, the three women were visiting a tourist site in the city of Yazd on March 21, the first day of the Iranian New Year, when another woman warned them to observe the country's hijab law.

A physical fight ensued. Police intervened to break up the fight and arrested the three women, who were accused of not observing the hijab law. The woman who gave the warning and instigated the conflict was not arrested.

Such acts of civil disobedience have increased in Iran, where the country's Hijab and Chastity Law requires women and girls over the age of 9 to wear a head scarf in public.

In recent weeks, officials have warned women to respect the hijab law and have threatened to punish violators. The authorities have also shut down businesses, restaurants, cafes, and in some cases pharmacies due to the failure of owners or managers to observe Islamic laws and hijab rules.

Judiciary chief Gholamhossein Mohseni Ejei warned on March 6 that women who violate the hijab rule will be punished, saying that removing the head scarf shows “enmity towards the establishment and its values.”

Since the death in September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody after allegedly breaking the hijab law, Iranians have flooded into the streets across the country to protest against a lack of rights, with women and schoolgirls putting up unprecedented shows of support in what is considered one of the biggest threats to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution.

In response, the authorities have launched a brutal crackdown on dissent, detaining thousands and handing down stiff sentences, including the death penalty, to protesters.

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

'I Will Keep Protesting': Anti-Regime Demonstrations Continue To Rock Iran's Baluchistan, Even As Nationwide Rallies Subside

Photos of some of the Baluch protesters killed in Zahedan on a poster seen at a recent protest in Zahedan.

Thousands of people pour into the streets and stage anti-regime rallies in Iran’s southeastern city of Zahedan after Friday Prayers every week.

The weekly demonstrations have occurred since September 30, when government forces gunned down scores of people following antiestablishment protests in the provincial capital of Sistan-Baluchistan Province, which is home to Iran’s Baluch ethnic minority.

Among those participating in the weekly rallies in Zahedan is Ahmad, who was among the more than 300 people wounded in the deadly crackdown, referred to as “Bloody Friday.”

SPECIAL REPORT: The Protests That Shook Iran's Clerical System

At least 94 people were killed that day, according to the U.S.-based Iran Human Rights Documentation Center. Several members of the security forces also reportedly died.

“I still can’t move my arm properly,” said Ahmad, who did not reveal his full name for fear of retribution. “But I protest every Friday because our rights have been violated for the past 44 years,” he added, referring to the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that brought the current clerical regime to power.

The crackdown on September 30 was the single deadliest day of the nationwide anti-regime protests that erupted after Mahsa Amini, an Iranian-Kurdish woman, died on September 16 following her arrest by Iran’s morality police for allegedly violating the country’s hijab law.

While the protests have largely subsided across most of Iran, the demonstrations have continued in Sistan-Baluchistan, fueled by anger over the deadly state crackdown and historical grievances.

Sistan-Baluchistan is one of Iran’s poorest provinces. Members of the Baluch minority, many of whom are Sunni Muslims in Shi’a-majority Iran, have long faced disproportionate discrimination and violence at the hands of the authorities.

The authorities have yet to take action against Molavi Abdolhamid, whose popularity has soared.
The authorities have yet to take action against Molavi Abdolhamid, whose popularity has soared.

The sermons of Molavi Abdolhamid, the outspoken Friday Prayer’s leader in Zahedan, have also helped motivate protesters. In a rare show of dissent, Abdolhamid has publicly criticized the authorities for alleged human rights abuses and repression of Iran's ethnic and religious minorities.

The authorities blamed Jaish al-Adl, a Sunni militant group, for the September 30 killings, a claim rejected by local and independent sources.

But Abdolhamid said senior officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, were responsible, saying security forces shot “indiscriminately” at people after raiding the central mosque in Zahedan and the nearby Great Mosalla, a religious site.

The cleric has called on the authorities to bring those responsible for the deaths to justice. The failure to conduct a transparent investigation has added to public anger in Sistan-Baluchistan.

The authorities have yet to take action against Abdolhamid, whose popularity has soared. A document from the hard-line Fars news agency that was leaked in November suggested Khamenei had told security and military officials to try and discredit Abdolhamid instead of arresting him.

A protester in Zahedan holds a placard that reads: "Political prisoners must be released."
A protester in Zahedan holds a placard that reads: "Political prisoners must be released."

One of his aides, Molavi Abdolmajid Moradzehi, was arrested in January and charged with “disturbing public opinion and numerous communications with foreign individuals and media outlets.”

Days before his arrest, Moradzehi told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that protests would continue in Zahedan "until the issue of Bloody Friday and the people of Zahedan who were killed and injured is resolved.”

Shirahmad Shirani of Haalvsh, a Baluch rights group, told RFE/RL that Abolhamid has become a trusted and widely respected figure.

“Abdolhamid is based inside the country and people trust him. It’s not just because of the past six months, but due to his actions in recent years. People know him and they see him as someone they can rely on,” said Shirani.

“[The protesters] are demanding the rights of the Baluchis and the Sunnis that have been systematically violated during the past 40 years,” he added. “In the province, where 90 percent are Baluch, we don’t have any Baluch in senior positions, in the security bodies, or even in the education system.”

Iranian security forces seen in Zahedan earlier this month.
Iranian security forces seen in Zahedan earlier this month.

Shirani, a rights activist who was jailed in Iran after being convicted of acting against national security, said the protests in Zahedan have become “more organized” in recent weeks.

“If, during the first days of the protests, people were driven by anger and outrage, today it’s a mix of anger and ideals. They’re protesting knowing that they can get arrested or killed, yet they still come into the streets,” he said.

Human Rights Watch reported in December that since the Bloody Friday crackdown, security forces have killed at least eight people in Sistan-Baluchistan. Haalvsh has identified 121 people it said were killed between September 30 and March 20 in Zahedan and the nearby city of Khash.

Haalvsh has reported increased security measures in Zahedan as well as the arbitrary arrests of protesters in the city. Authorities have also routinely disrupted the Internet in Zahedan to prevent the weekly protests.

Videos posted online appeared to show protesters chanting “Death to Khamenei” and “Mullahs get lost” in Zahedan on March 24.

Despite the risks, Ahmad said he remains determined to continue making his voice heard.

“I will keep protesting, even though when I leave home I don’t know if I’ll return,” he said, adding that Sistan-Baluchistan has now become “the voice of all Iranian people."

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