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World: Nuclear-Power Push Eroding Nonproliferation Efforts, Expert Says

An October 2006 demonstration in Seoul against North Korea's nuclear program (epa) PRAGUE, June 18, 2007 -- North Korea and Iran continue to grab the headlines over their nuclear programs, keeping the world focused on the broader issue of nuclear proliferation. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington-based think-tank, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten about the issues during a visit to Prague today.

RFE/RL: You've referred to the case of Iran and North Korea as "nuclear spilled milk." Could you elaborate on this? Do you mean it's futile to try to get Pyongyang to relinquish its nuclear bomb or to have Tehran stop trying to obtain one?

Henry Sokolski: You're going to probably, in both cases, have to engage in a much longer-term competition to get the current set of rulers to understand it's not in their interest to persist in the nuclear programs that they have. And it may well require that they leave the scene. We may have to wait them out. By the way, in this regard it's not unique. Most of the successes we've had with regard to countries giving up their nuclear-weapons programs -- in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, and Ukraine -- came with a change of the regime or who was ruling it.

"It would be better if someone emphasized something the United States and others are doing that is regrettable, which is that they're hyping the value of nuclear power for civil purposes."

So I think it's gotten to that point. And in the cases of South Africa and Ukraine, they had nuclear weapons. So I meant that these cases are all of the same type: they've passed a number of nuclear Rubicons such that just talking to them about nuclear matters probably isn't going to bear the kind of fruit that you want.

RFE/RL: So how do you deal with North Korea, assuming it's not about to undergo a change of regime?

Sokolski: Generally, it would make more sense to engage North Korea in a number of -- if you will -- competitions that are not just diplomatic. It is a diplomatic competition [in the sense that] we are vying for what we want and they are vying for what they want. But it seems to me we shouldn't limit the competitions to just the nuclear-diplomatic realm.

RFE/RL: What do you mean exactly?

Sokolski: It's a country that's violated any number of UN resolutions with regard to human rights. They have real, genuine gulags there. People die in there. They're killed in there. There are people who are forced not only to want to leave but are not allowed to come back. All of this is in violation of things signed, sealed, and delivered by North Korea and their neighbor, China. And you have to hold them to account if you care about these treaties.

RFE/RL: How can you hold them to account if China isn't on board?

Sokolski: During the Cold War, we didn't have Russia on board for a lot of things. Thank God we didn't listen to people who said that "without Russia we won't have unanimity on the Security Council, so you shouldn't bother about any of the things you're concerned about." That isn't the way we did it, thank God. And as a result, things are better.

RFE/RL: And how would you approach Iran? Are there any steps the international community isn't taking that could encourage Tehran to give up its nuclear ambitions?

Sokolski: I think Iran may rightly believe that all we care about is trying to stall their nuclear program and that we'll do anything to get them to do just a little in that direction and as long as that's the case that they have leverage over us. They also seem to believe that they hold us hostage to control of the Straits of Hormuz -- that they have us over an oil barrel there and we have to be careful, lest they close the strait. And they've threatened to do that several times.

I think you want to disabuse them of all those ideas. That's not a very fulsome picture of how the world really is. [You can] do that by making it clear that you can get most of the oil out of the region without going through the strait, by working some pipelines that are near the point where you could do this, by making it very clear to them that it's an international waterway and that there are lots of countries that are interested in enforcing international conventions that even Iran enforces, and [those countries] are willing to send naval combatants to that region to do so.

RFE/RL: You've noted with concern that 31 countries around the world have large nuclear reactors and that in 2006 alone, 13 more expressed an interest in acquiring one. What countries are you worried about?

Sokolski: Egypt comes to mind. Turkey, Libya, Algeria. I think unless there's a much more compelling economic case to proceed with these programs now, they can wait. These countries have oil and gas or other ways of developing electrical savings that should be exhausted before they go into this. And the reason why isn't just economics; it's because of the security implications.

RFE/RL: Do you see a problem with the work of the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) whose mandate is to promote the use of civilian nuclear technology around the world?

Sokolski: There is a problem now because I think the agency isn't strict enough on what kind technology is being shared. It's gotten a lot better, but I think it could be tougher still.

And I think there is a problem with putting large reactors in the Middle East or other places where the [power] grids are very small and where they have tremendous difficulty absorbing large chunks of electricity of any sort. And the economics of building these plants.... They're very, very, very expensive. I mean, you're talking two to four times what it would cost to use nonnuclear alternatives in some cases.

The case for the benefits is pretty weak and the case for these things being peaceful may not be as great as it needs to be. So the agency needs to do a much better job of distinguishing between just any kind of civil application and ones that are really economically beneficial for people and that can be properly safeguarded.

RFE/RL: Under the terms of the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the United States and the other original nuclear states agreed to work for nuclear disarmament. In exchange, other signatories agreed not to seek nuclear arms. Well, the original nuclear powers have not given up their nuclear arsenals. Do they bear some responsibility for giving nuclear weapons their prestige? Aren't they sending a message that nuclear weapons still offer the ultimate protection and are the ultimate attribute of being a leading global power?

Sokolski: It would be churlish to say that states which have nuclear weapons don't bear some responsibility for having nuclear weapons. I mean that's tautological. But as for relying on these weapons for their national security, I have a couple of observations, which the press has consistently ignored or gummed over. If you take a look at Great Britain and France, the number of weapons they have has dropped dramatically in the last few years. The number of weapons the United States has deployed has dropped from a high of over 30,000 to somewhere in the next five years where it will be around 2,000. It's certainly worth noting that 2,000 is a big number and that the number should be smaller. But to ignore the jump from 30,000 to 2,000 and say it doesn't count strikes me as insane as well. The Russians have come down in large numbers.

Henry Sokolski in Prague on June 18 (RFE/RL)

The only numbers that are going up are in countries that haven't signed up to restraints under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. India and Pakistan are building more. China, we worry is building more and they are a signatory to the NPT. So they're very coy about whether they are or they are not. There's a lot of controversy about what the numbers are. Some people say they only have 200 [weapons], while others say they have more but we just don't know about them.

But the point here is I don't think there's an overall trend of modernizing in a big way. The fact is the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China haven't tested a nuclear device for over a decade and promise not to. They've stopped making fissile material to make bombs. Their arsenals in absolute numbers are going down. So I guess my problem with that argument is that it would be better if someone emphasized something the United States and others are doing that is regrettable, and clear and sustainable, which is that they're hyping the value of nuclear power for civil purposes. I don't hear too much of criticism of that. But that is rebuttable. And it is demonstrable that we're doing this.

RFE/RL: Public-opinion polls in Iran show that across the political spectrum, most people favor their country acquiring nuclear weapons. They believe it will make them more secure and guarantee their independence. What would you say to dissuade them?

Sokolski: Every country that we know that has openly declared that they have nuclear weapons -- Great Britain, France, Pakistan, and India -- have found themselves having to turn to some other country for help to maintain the quality of their forces, to make sure they weren't hijacked by unauthorized people, or targeted by other countries successfully.

So Great Britain turned to the United States; France turned to Great Britain and the United States for help; India is struggling to get assistance -- probably from the United States. The Pakistanis are flummoxed, because it's not clear where they're going to turn. They may have to turn for financial assistance to increase their arsenal to China. So, there's that problem.

I think the other problem with acquiring these weapons is that it seems like a great idea if you have to do it. We thought we had to do it at the end of the Second World War, because we couldn't figure out how to end our war with Japan. And so we not only acquired them, we used them. But there were consequences. As a result of having them and using them, the Russians got them. And we got locked into a major competition with them, which was very expensive. Other countries learn that when they get these things, they have knock-on effects that are not so pleasant.

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Iran's Revolutionary Guards Intercept UAE-Managed Tanker

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intercepted a UAE-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intercepted a UAE-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. (file photo)

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have intercepted a Togo-flagged, UAE-managed tanker carrying 1,500 tons of marine gas oil, British security firm Ambrey said on July 22. The vessel was intercepted 113 kilometers southwest of Iran's port of Bushehr en route to the U.A.E. from Iraq, Ambrey said. The owner lost contact with the tanker as it was arrested, but Ambrey said the incident was likely a counter-smuggling operation by the IRGC. Iran has some of the world's cheapest fuel prices due to heavy subsidies and the plunge in the value of its currency, making smuggling for resale on world markets very profitable.

Iran Hangs 8 In 2 Days Amid Concerns Over Rise In Executions After Election

Iran executed at least 853 people last year, according to rights groups, most of whom were convicted of narcotics-related crimes.
Iran executed at least 853 people last year, according to rights groups, most of whom were convicted of narcotics-related crimes.

Rights groups say Iranian authorities executed eight people over the weekend, bolstering concerns that the regime may accelerate the carrying out of death sentences after a lull ahead a snap presidential election held earlier this month.

The human rights-focused news agency HRANA reported that four people, including an Afghan national, were hanged on July 21 in Qezel Hesar prison in Karaj. The news agency said they were convicted of drug-related charges.

Rights groups have documented a sharp rise in the number of Afghans executed in Iran, with activists saying they do not get fair trials.

Separately, the Oslo-based organization Iran Human Rights said four people, including a woman, were hanged on July 20 in a prison in Shiraz. Three of them were convicted of murder and one was found guilty of rape.

Earlier this month, Iran Human Rights said executions had dropped by 30 percent in the first six months of 2024 but warned that it could pick up following the snap presidential election.

Reformist lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian beat ultraconservative rival Saeed Jalili in a runoff vote on July 5.

Human Rights Watch on July 15 urged Pezeshkian to fight the rising number of executions in Iran.

As of July 22, at least 268 people have been executed in Iranian prisons this year, more than half of whom were convicted on drug-related charges, according to Iran Human Rights.

Amnesty International says Iran carried out 853 executions in 2023, with at least 481 executions for narcotics convictions.

Because the Iranian government does not publish official statistics on the number of executions, international and Iranian rights groups document cases using open-source data such as state media and human rights organizations.

Iran Says It Has Salvaged Capsized Warship

The Iranian destroyer Sahand is seen capsized in the port of Bandar Abbas.
The Iranian destroyer Sahand is seen capsized in the port of Bandar Abbas.

An Iranian warship that keeled over while under repair almost two weeks ago has been salvaged, according to the Fars news agency. Experts from the Iranian Navy managed to lift the vessel, the agency reported. Despite the damage sustained, naval experts were confident that the ship, the Sahand, could be repaired. The warship capsized in early July during repairs in the port of Bandar Abbas on the Strait of Hormuz, injuring many workers. Equipped with modern radar and missile systems, the destroyer was one of the country's most important warships and the pride of the Iranian Navy.

Iran Can Produce Fissile Material For Bomb In 'Weeks,' U.S. Says

A photo released in 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.
A photo released in 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility.

Iran is capable of producing fissile material for use in a nuclear weapon within "one or two weeks," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on July 19. Despite comments by Iran's new president, Masud Pezeshkian, who has said he favors reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers, Blinken said the United States had seen indications in recent weeks that Iran has moved forward with its nuclear program. Blinken blamed the collapse of the nuclear deal in 2018 for the acceleration in Iran's capabilities. "Instead of being at least a year away from having the breakout capacity of producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon, [Iran] is now probably one or two weeks away from doing that," Blinken said at a security forum in Colorado.

Homes Of Afghan Migrants Reportedly Attacked After Killing Of Iranian

Hundreds of Afghans are deported from Iran every day. (file photo)
Hundreds of Afghans are deported from Iran every day. (file photo)

The homes of several Afghan migrants in the southern Iranian city of Khur have reportedly been set on fire in apparent retaliation for the killing of an Iranian man allegedly by an Afghan national.

Hosna, an Afghan who lives in Khur, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi on July 19 that he moved his family from Khur to Shiraz in Fars Province out of fear for their safety.

"People in the region are very angry and set homes of several Afghans on fire," he claimed.

Hosna and others who spoke to Radio Azadi attributed the anger to the July 3 killing of a 62-year-old restaurant owner in the town of Khenj by his 17-year-old apprentice. Iranian media have not identified the nationality of the suspected killer, but Hosna said the suspect was an Afghan citizen.

"The people of the region have sworn not to sell 1 kilogram of meat, or even a piece of bread, to Afghan nationals," Hosna said. "So, many were forced to flee to Shiraz."

Anti-Afghan sentiment in Iran has been on the rise in recent years, especially after a mass influx of migrants following the Taliban's return to power in August 2021.

Occasionally, a hashtag that describes the expulsion of Afghan migrants as a "national demand" becomes a top trend on X, formerly Twitter, often boosted by anonymous accounts.

Last week, an unsubstantiated claim on social media blamed Afghan migrants for an alleged rise in leprosy cases in Iran.

The UN’s refugee agency says Iran hosts around 780,000 Afghan refugees, in addition to some 2.6 million undocumented Afghan migrants. But Iran claimed last year that the number of illegal Afghan immigrants was closer to 5 million.

The authorities have vowed to deport illegal refugees and hundreds of Afghan migrants are sent back to Afghanistan every day. They are also banned from living or working in half of Iran's 31 provinces.

Afghans living in Iran have complained to Radio Azadi about rising harassment, even during deportation.

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans
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Tehran has for years maintained that it does not receive sufficient financial aid from international organizations to handle the number of refugees on its soil.

Iran Intensifies Pressure On Iraq To Extradite Iranian-Kurdish Leaders

A Peshmerga member affiliated with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan holds a Kurdish flag ahead of the Kurdistan region's independence referendum in 2017.
A Peshmerga member affiliated with the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan holds a Kurdish flag ahead of the Kurdistan region's independence referendum in 2017.

Tehran is upping the ante in its effort to go after Iranian Kurds abroad it deems "terrorists," demanding that Baghdad extradite leaders and members of Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

"A list of nearly 120 terrorists who identify themselves as noble Kurds has been sent to Iraq for extradition and their trial will be held soon," Iranian judiciary official Kazem Gharibabadi said on July 13.

Gharibabadi did not reveal the names on the list. But he said that preparations had been made for the trial of "leaders and members" of a "terrorist group."

Kurdish and Iraqi media have reported that the list contains the names of some 120 leaders and members of Iranian-Kurdish groups opposed to Tehran.

Many of these groups were armed, with some demanding autonomy within Iran and others fighting for secession from the Islamic republic. Kurds make up around 10 percent of Iran's population of some 88 million and primarily live in the country's west along the border with Iraq.

Gharibabadi cast the move as part of a broader effort to fight terrorism, saying that similar extradition requests would be sent to "relevant foreign countries."

But the move follows backlash to Iran's strong-armed approach in Iraqi Kurdistan, including deadly air strikes that have targeted Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups as well as alleged Israeli targets.

Members of Kurdish opposition parties cast the pressure by Iran, which follows the signing last year of a security pact between Tehran and Baghdad, as misguided cover for undermining the Kurdish independence movement.

Many Iranian-Kurdish political parties and factions opposed to the Islamic Republic of Iran are based in Iraq's Kurdistan region. That includes the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), the most prominent exile opposition faction; Komala, a leftist group; and Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), the Iranian offshoot of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and designated by Washington as a terrorist group.

Tehran has long accused unspecified Kurdish opposition groups, without providing evidence, of coordinating with Israel, its archfoe, to stage attacks on Iran from Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdish opposition groups deny the allegation.

Cross-Border Strikes

In a security pact agreed between Tehran and Iraq's central government in March 2023, Baghdad agreed to secure Iraqi Kurdistan's lengthy eastern border with Iran, as well as to disarm and relocate Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in the region.

Many offices of Kurdish parties that oppose Tehran have since been shut down.

Baghdad's dealings with Iran have been fraught with controversy. Multiple strikes have been carried out by Iran in the Kurdistan region, including a missile attack on the headquarters of the PDKI in the Kuisanjaq district in 2018 that killed 15 members of the party's leadership as well as Peshmerga forces.

In 2022, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps again targeted the PDKI, as well as Komala, with missile and drone strikes in the regional capital, Irbil, and the city of Sulaymaniyah in the east of the Kurdistan region.

Last year, protests broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan over the construction of a security fence along the region's border with Iran. And tensions rose significantly between Iraq's central government and Tehran after Iran carried out missile strikes in January against what it said were Israeli targets, killing four people in Irbil.

After Tehran reached out to resolve its differences with Baghdad, the head of the semiautonomous region, Nechirvan Barzani, visited Iran in May and met with top officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Barzani gave a commitment in writing that Irbil would work to disarm "terrorist groups" and ensure their removal from the Kurdistan region.

While Iran claims the alleged anti-Iranian activities of such groups to be a key security challenge, representatives of Iranian-Kurdish factions who spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Farda denied that assertion and suggested that Tehran had ulterior motives.

Reza Kaabi, secretary-general of Komala, said that Iran had focused its pressure on Kurdish parties by targeting them with "missiles, drones, and long-range weapons."

But in reality, he said, "the Islamic republic has actually targeted the Kurdish people's liberation movement."

Fears Of Kurdish Independence

Iraq's Kurdistan region held an independence referendum in 2017 that was overwhelmingly approved by voters with more than 92 percent in favor.

Kurdish leaders suggested the vote, which was opposed by Baghdad, would not lead immediately to independence. But neighboring states like Iran, Syria, and Turkey -- which have large ethnic Kurdish populations -- saw the referendum as a troubling sign of possible secession.

After the referendum, the Iraqi military took control of Irbil and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk from Peshmerga forces, prompting the government in Iraqi Kurdistan to renounce the referendum and to negotiate with Baghdad.

The regional government later announced that it was "committed to responsible behavior in order to prevent further violence and conflicts."

Sami Rikani, an independent political activist who resides in the Kurdistan region, says that in the aftermath, pressure from Iran and Turkey increased.

"Especially after the referendum on the independence of the Kurdistan region of Iraq in 2017, Iran and Turkey came to the conclusion that they should start the process of confronting the Kurdish groups," Rikani said.

The recent demand by Tehran for Baghdad to expel leaders and members of Iranian-Kurdish groups is in keeping with this strategy as well as a security agreement signed between Iraq and Turkey in 2016, Rikani adds.

Turkey has also recently increased its military measures and operations in the Kurdistan region of Iraq with the aim of "combating the Kurdish groups opposed to the Ankara government," according to Ankara.

The question now, considering Iraq's subsequent security pact inked with Iran last year, is whether Baghdad will acquiesce to Tehran's demand.

Neither Iraq's central government nor the government of the Kurdistan region immediately responded to the extradition request.

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Iliya Jazaeri of RFE/RL's Radio Farda

Iran Talks A Big Talk, But Could It Target Trump On U.S. Soil?

Donald Trump narrowly survived an assassination attempt on July 13, with a bullet grazing his right ear.
Donald Trump narrowly survived an assassination attempt on July 13, with a bullet grazing his right ear.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump has been in Tehran's crosshairs ever since he ordered the killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in neighboring Iraq in 2020.

Tehran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Soleimani, and many officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have alluded to killing Trump and other senior members of his administration on U.S. soil.

“We will prepare the ground to exact vengeance on the Americans from within their homes, using their companions,” Esmail Qaani, who succeeded Soleimani as the commander of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), said in January 2022.

WATCH: An animated video posted on Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's website that envisions a drone strike on Donald Trump:

Animation On Khamenei’s Website Showcasing Trump Drone Strike
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Animation On Khamenei’s Website Showcasing Trump Drone Strike

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U.S. media reported on July 16 that the Secret Service had enhanced Trump’s security detail after receiving intelligence in recent weeks that Iran was plotting to assassinate him. Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee in the November 5 presidential election.

The alleged plot appeared to be unrelated to the failed attempt on Trump’s life on July 13, the reports said.

“Plotting to kill a foreign leader, particularly an American presidential candidate, marks a significant leap in the crassness and risk-tolerance of the clerical regime,” said Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank.

Iran has long been accused of carrying out assassinations, including of Iranian dissidents, on foreign soil, although it has always denied responsibility.

One of the most high-profile incidents was the 1991 killing of Shapur Bakhtiar, the last prime minister of Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Bakhtiar was shot dead in his home in France, in a killing that was widely blamed on Tehran.

“Iran has not been successful in such endeavors in recent years, and its activities tend to aim at disruption rather than assassinating former or potential heads of state,” said Gregory Brew, an Iran analyst at the U.S.-based Eurasia Group.

He said while it was “unclear whether Iran's intelligence services are up to the task,” Trump’s close call on July 13 brings “into question any confidence that the Secret Service can keep him totally safe from harm.”

Taleblu said it would therefore be a mistake to dismiss Iran’s threats.

The Secret Service has been criticized since a 20-year-old gunman shot at Trump at a rally in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania, grazing the former president’s ear and killing a member of the crowd.

'Legal Route' To Avenge Soleimani

Despite public declarations by senior Iranian figures about the desire to avenge Soleimani by killing Trump, Iranian diplomats have dismissed reports linking Tehran to plots to assassinate the former president.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said on July 16 thatTehran was “determined to prosecute Trump” while the Iranian mission to the UN insisted that the Islamic republic had “chosen the legal route” to hold him accountable.

Separately, Acting Foreign Minister Ali Baqeri Kani said Iran “will resort to legal and judicial procedures…at the domestic and international level.”

Demonstrators in Tehran burn an effigy of Trump during an annual anti-US rally on November 11, 2017.
Demonstrators in Tehran burn an effigy of Trump during an annual anti-US rally on November 11, 2017.

Taleblu said the comments by Iranian officials were in line with the “standard division of labor” in Tehran’s security policy.

“The Foreign Ministry tries to nullify threats through changes in style, while the IRGC and others are able to press ahead with the same sort of terror and destabilization in substance,” he added.

In December, a Tehran court ordered the U.S. government to pay nearly $50 billion in damages for assassinating Soleimani. The court convicted Trump and 41 other U.S. officials over the assassination.

Said Mahmoudi, professor of international law at Stockholm University, told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda that Iranian court cases against Trump were only for show and lacked credibility.

“It is very, very unusual for a [foreign] country…to prosecute Trump. Only international courts are equipped to do this,” he said, adding that international law does not allow domestic courts to prosecute current and former heads of state based on local laws.

Potential Impact on Tehran-Washington Ties

Trump is currently leading President Joe Biden in most opinion polls ahead of the November election and some argue the assassination attempt could, at least temporarily, provide a boost to his chances.

Reports of an alleged Iranian plot against Trump’s life could torpedo attempts by reformist President-elect Masud Pezeshkian to tone down Iran’s anti-West rhetoric, Damon Golriz, a lecturer at The Hague University of Applied Sciences, told Radio Farda.

Brew said Trump might be “even more hostile towards Iran” if elected but noted that the hostility is mutual.

“It should temper any expectations of forward progress, on the nuclear issue or any other policy area, in the event Trump wins November's election,” he added.

With reporting by Reza Jamali and Hooman Askary of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Police Summon Women Who Appeared In Video Without Hijabs During Ashura Procession In Iranian City

Iranian Police Question Women Who Marched In Religious Festival Without Head Scarves
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The chief of police in Iran's Alborz Province said on July 17 that women who took part in an Ashura procession in the city of Karaj without hijabs have been "identified and summoned."

A video posted on Instagram shows a number of young women, most wearing dark clothing but no head scarves, walking in the street in observance of Ashura, a commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, which is marked mainly by Shi'ite Muslims.

To mourn his death, Shi’a wear black during Ashura processions in which many participants beat their backs with chains in a symbolic expression of regret for not being able to help Hussein before his death.

The video of the procession in Karaj on July 16 has been met with widespread reactions on social media.

Hamid Hadavand, the chief of police in Alborz Province, claimed that the publication of the video and others like it had led to "hurting the feelings of Hossein's mourners" throughout the country.

Hadavand accused the individuals seen in the videos of "desecration," adding that all of them "have been summoned to the Alborz Province police after being identified."

He did not say how many people were summoned or how they were identified.

In addition, the head of the Organization of Religious Boards and Organizations revoked the permission granted to the organization that held the Ashura procession in which the young women took part without hijabs.

Majid Babakhani also announced that the head of the organization had been "summoned" with the help of the police and said that he would be dealt with legally.

Ashura is marked on the 10th day of Muharram, the first month of the Muslim calendar. Last year Muharram was also marked by reports of the identification and detention of women without compulsory hijabs across Iran.

Authorities have stepped up confrontations with people who oppose the mandatory hijab law since protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of Iran's morality police in September 2022 for allegedly improperly wearing her hijab, and there have been frequent reports of violence against detainees.

In recent months, the police again started a security crackdown on women flaunting the compulsory hijab law by reimplementing the Plan Noor initiative under which the morality police strictly enforce dress codes. This has led to several incidents of violence against women challenging the mandatory head scarf.

Before the reimplementation of the Plan Noor initiative the city of Tehran and the Interior Ministry prior employed hijab guards in some subway stations. The interior minister and the mayor of Tehran denied playing any role in this.

Despite these measures, the presence of women and girls without compulsory hijabs in public in Iran has not stopped over the past two years.

Iran is set to swear in moderate reformist Masud Pezeshkian as president early next month. Pezeshkian has said that while the hijab law should be observed, "there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behavior toward women."

Iranian Police Question Women Who Marched In Religious Festival Without Head Scarves

Iranian Police Question Women Who Marched In Religious Festival Without Head Scarves
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A video widely shared on social media on July 16 shows women in the Iranian city of Karaj appearing without hijabs, or Islamic head scarves, at a procession marking Ashura, the holiest day on the Shi'ite religious calendar. Police officials said that they had identified some of the women and called them in for questioning. Their appearance at the religious festival is part of a broader movement of Iranian women rejecting the Islamic dress code and risking a sometimes brutal response from the authorities.

Iran Denies Involvement In Plot To Assassinate U.S. Ex-President Trump

Donald Trump pumps his fist after a failed attempt on his life during a rally in Pennsylvania on July 13.
Donald Trump pumps his fist after a failed attempt on his life during a rally in Pennsylvania on July 13.

Iran has denied plotting to assassinate Donald Trump after reports emerged that U.S. authorities had obtained intelligence suggesting that Tehran was planning to kill the Republican presidential nominee.

News outlets CNN and Politico on July 16, citing unnamed sources, reported that U.S. authorities had been informed of an Iranian plot to kill Trump weeks ahead of a July 13 attempt on the former president's life.

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They said, however, that the assassination attempt did not appear to be linked to the Iranian threat.

In a statement late on July 16, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani insisted that Tehran was not involved in the July 13 attempt and charged that claims that Iran was plotting to kill Trump were "politically motivated."

"The Islamic Republic of Iran is determined to prosecute Trump for his direct role in the crime of assassinating General Qasem Soleimani," Kanani said.

Soleimani, a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, was assassinated in January 2020 in an air strike by U.S. forces at Trump's command. Iran has repeatedly vowed revenge for the high-profile killing.

Prior to Kanani's statement, Iran's mission to the United Nations said the claims against Tehran were "baseless and biased" and maintained that the Islamic republic "has chosen the legal route to hold Trump accountable."

Iranian authorities have long warned that senior U.S. figures they believe were involved in the killing of Soleimani will pay a price. Among those threatened are Trump's former national security adviser, John Bolton, and ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

In August 2022, the Justice Department charged an Iranian operative it said was a member of the IRGC for allegedly plotting to kill Bolton.

Earlier this year, the U.S. government extended protection for Pompeo amid persistent threats from Iran.

U.S. Recently Informed About Iranian Plot To Kill Trump: CNN

Former U.S. President Donald Trump
Former U.S. President Donald Trump

An informant told U.S. authorities recently that Iran was plotting to assassinate Donald Trump, CNN reported, citing multiple people familiar with the matter. In response, the U.S. Secret Service boosted security around the former president, the network reported. Thomas Matthew Crooks, who tried to assassinate Trump on July 13, does not appear to be connected to the Iranian plot, CNN reported. Former Trump administration officials, including his national-security adviser, John Bolton, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had reportedly received threats from Iran. Qasem Soleimani, a former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force, was assassinated in January 2020 in an air strike by U.S. forces at Trump’s command. Iran had vowed revenge for the high-profile killing.

'Overwhelming Sorrow': Imprisoned Iranian Nobel Laureate Marks 9 Years Since Seeing Her Children

Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.
Kiana (left) and Ali Rahmani accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of their imprisoned mother in December 2023.

Kiana and Ali Rahmani were only 8 years old when they left Iran to reunite with their father, Taqi Rahmani, who had fled the country as the Iranian authorities sought to arrest him.

Their mother, activist Narges Mohammadi, could only imagine the scene from her jail cell as her children would be taken from her for an "unknown" period of time and endure a "separation that would make me a stranger to my children and them unfamiliar to me."

“I haven’t seen my mom in nine years. I have become used to growing up without a mother,” Kiana, now 17, told Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda as she marked another anniversary of separation from her mother on July 16.

“My father is a good dad; he has been both a father and a mother,” she added.

In a statement posted on her website on July 16, Mohammadi recalled staying awake through the night in her prison cell on July 16, 2015, knowing her children would be on a plane to France soon.

The separation, she said, “felt like vanishing into a misty void of lost connections, tearing a mother and her children apart, leaving us in an indescribable abyss of heartache and longing.”

"A separation that would turn me into an unfamiliar woman to my children, bearing the name ‘mother’ in a ‘misplaced’ manner," she added.

Mohammadi, 52, has been campaigning for human rights in Iran for decades and has been in and out of prison in the last 20 years. She has been convicted five times since March 2021 and is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence.

She is currently in jail for “spreading propaganda” against the Islamic republic.

Kiana recalls that it was “difficult” going through adolescence as a young girl without her mother, forcing her to turn to her friends and other women for advice.

“I had to learn things that a mother should teach her daughter. I had to ask my friends or their mothers whenever I had a question because I did not have a mother,” she said.

Despite remaining behind bars for so long, Mohammadi has remained at the forefront of Iran's women's rights movement.

Her efforts were honored last October when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her children accepted the award on her behalf in December.

Kiana said the award raised her mother’s spirits but worsened her conditions in prison because it led to further restrictions, such as limited visiting privileges and phone calls.

Despite not seeing their mother for half of their lives, Ali said they had learned from their mother to “defend our brothers and sisters” from the Middle East.

“We come from a place where there is little freedom and war is constant,” he added.

In her statement, Mohammadi bemoaned that not seeing her children for so long would make her a “stranger” to them.

“I hope my children understand that I, like all imprisoned mothers…was a loving mother whose heart still aches with overwhelming sorrow for her children,” she wrote.

Written by Kian Sharifi based on an interview by Roya Maleki of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda.

Health Fears Over Leprosy Fuel Anti-Afghan Sentiment In Iran

Iranian authorities said last year that 5 million Afghans lived in the country illegally and vowed to deport them. (file photo)
Iranian authorities said last year that 5 million Afghans lived in the country illegally and vowed to deport them. (file photo)

An unsubstantiated claim on social media linking an alleged rise in leprosy cases in Iran to the country’s Afghan community has resulted in renewed calls for the expulsion of Afghan migrants.

Iranian media have cited the Health Ministry as reporting nine new cases of leprosy over the past year. The reports said three of those afflicted were Afghans.

The same day, a freelance Iranian journalist who advocates for the expulsion of Afghan refugees alleged without evidence that “Afghan migrants” were responsible for spreading leprosy in Iran.

He incorrectly charged that “no cases of leprosy had been seen in Iran in years” -- a claim that is easily debunked by data available on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website.

On July 9, another journalist who often writes in support of expelling Afghan migrants went as far as calling the alleged rise in leprosy cases “bioterrorism” and demanded that the incoming government of President-elect Masud Pezeshkian “start deporting Afghans.”

“Afghans are bringing and spreading the leprosy virus,” he wrote without offering evidence, falsely claiming that leprosy, which is caused by bacteria, is a viral disease.

Both posts on the social media platform X have received nearly half a million views, been shared more than 1,000 times, and liked by over 7,000 accounts.

What Does The Data Say?

Leprosy in Iran has never been eliminated, but it has declined sharply since 2005, dropping from 79 to six in 2022, according to WHO data. No certified health authority has ever declared leprosy an epidemic in Iran or Afghanistan.

Leprosy is a chronic bacterial infectious disease that mainly affects the skin and peripheral nerves. It is curable but leaving it untreated may cause permanent disabilities.

The disease spreads via droplets from the nose and mouth through close and frequent contact with untreated individuals.

Rising Anti-Afghan Sentiment

Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion in the 1980s were welcomed in Iran, thanks in large part to the anti-Soviet views of the recently established Islamic republic. But animosity toward the growing Afghan community has only worsened since.

In recent years -- especially after an influx of migrants following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021 -- there have been more frequent displays of anti-Afghan sentiment.

Over the past several months, a Persian hashtag that calls the “expulsion of Afghans” a “national demand” has been trending, often boosted by anonymous accounts.

The UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, says Iran hosts 780,000 Afghan refugees, in addition to 2.6 million undocumented Afghan nationals.

But the authorities in Tehran claimed last year that 5 million Afghans were living in Iran illegally, and vowed to deport them. Afghan migrants were later banned from living or working in half of the country’s 31 provinces.

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

Iran has long said that it does not receive enough financial assistance from international bodies to deal with the number of refugees on its soil.

Cyberexperts Predict Pro-Russia Hackers Will 'Almost Certainly' Target Paris Olympics

Paris is hosting this year's Summer Olympics, which run from July 26 to August 11. (file photo)
Paris is hosting this year's Summer Olympics, which run from July 26 to August 11. (file photo)

Finland-based cybersecurity firm WithSecure has warned that the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics "faces a greater risk of malicious cyber activity than previous Olympics." In a report on July 15, the company's director of threat intelligence called the threat "moderate" and predicted that “Hacktivists aligned with states that are pro-Russia will almost certainly try to disrupt the Olympics in some way." The report lists "threat actors" in four categories: Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean, and speculates as to their intentions and capabilities.

Azerbaijan Reopens Embassy In Iranian Capital Following Deadly Attack

The former building of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran (file photo)
The former building of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran (file photo)

Azerbaijan's Foreign Ministry said on July 15 that its ambassador and embassy staff have returned to Tehran, a year and a half after a deadly attack on its diplomatic facility there. The diplomatic mission will work from new premises and Iran “will implement adequate steps to ensure diplomatic protection in front of the new building," it said. Baku closed its embassy and evacuated its staff at the end of January 2023, after an armed attack on the building. The attacker killed the mission security chief and wounded two other security officials. The suspect was detained, tried in court for a year, and, according to Iran’s Justice Ministry, sentenced to death. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, click here.

Note: This article has been amended to clarify that it is Azerbaijan which is reopening its embassy in Iran.

Rights Watchdog Calls On Incoming Iranian President, Other Officials To Curb 'Excessive' Force At Border

HRW has urged Iran to end its use of "excessive and lethal force" at the country's border with Iraq. (file photo)
HRW has urged Iran to end its use of "excessive and lethal force" at the country's border with Iraq. (file photo)

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged President-elect Masud Pezeshkian and other Iranian authorities to end their use of "excessive and lethal force" against mostly Kurdish border couriers at the frontier with Iraq, saying such low-level smugglers frequently "come from marginalized communities." In a July 15 statement, the rights organization quoted Pezeshkian saying before his July 5 election that it was "shameful" that young people are forced into such roles "for a piece of bread." HRW has recently cited "serious violations against border couriers" and highlighted socioeconomic and other factors that contribute to the practice. Pezeshkian will be sworn in on July 30.

The Push To Recognize 'Gender Apartheid' As A Crime

Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.
Afghan women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul.

The world has long been aware of the scourge of apartheid -- the systemic segregation or discrimination of people based on their race. But what about the institutionalized practice of singling people out for ill-treatment due to their gender?

The push to recognize "gender apartheid" under international law is gaining steam, with oppression against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran fueling calls for immediate action, but tremendous obstacles remain.

What Do They Want?

Advocates want to clearly define gender apartheid as a crime under international law. Currently, only "persecution" on the basis of gender is recognized as a crime against humanity. But rights groups and activists say the concept of persecution does not fully capture the scope of the abuses committed under a system of institutionalized gender apartheid.

The goal is for the United Nations to make up for this gap by legally shielding women and girls from systemic abuse and violence.

Afghan women's rights defenders are credited with being the first to articulate the concept of gender apartheid in the 1990s, during the Taliban's first regime.

Since the Taliban returned to power in 2021, the hard-line Islamist group has reimposed its oppressive policies against women and girls, including severe restrictions on their appearances, freedom of movement, and right to work and study.

Hoda Khamosh, an Afghan women's rights activist, says the recognition of gender apartheid would greatly benefit women's rights in the country.

"We would be able to hold accountable the authorities and perpetrators of gender-based violence and discrimination against women," Khamosh told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Meanwhile, Iranian women’s rights activists have said the institutionalized discrimination against women in the Islamic republic amounts to gender apartheid.

UN experts have said the violent enforcement of the hijab law and punishments on women and girls who fail to wear the head scarf could be described as a form of gender apartheid.

Security forces in Iran warn women to wear their hijabs properly.
Security forces in Iran warn women to wear their hijabs properly.

When Do They Want It?

Today. The United Nations has been considering the adoption of a major treaty that would unite signatories against crimes against humanity.

Dozens of rights groups and hundreds of individuals signed a statement in March calling for gender apartheid to be included on the draft list of such crimes.

The hope is that the UN General Assembly will adopt procedures to begin negotiations on the treaty when it next meets in September.

Tough Going

While the concept of gender apartheid has increasingly been used by the United Nations and international organizations, particularly in connection with abuses against women and girls in Afghanistan and Iran, there have also been missed opportunities.

During UN-hosted talks in Doha with the Taliban in early July, for example, women did not have a seat at the table.

Where Are The Women? All-Male UN Talks With Taliban Spark Controversy
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Rights activists calling for the recognition of gender apartheid and for sanctions to be imposed on those responsible accused the UN of giving legitimacy to the Taliban's rule and of betraying its commitment to women's rights.

"The international community has a moral obligation to ensure the protection of Afghan women’s rights and uphold the principles of justice and equality in any engagement with the Taliban," Sima Samar, former chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), told CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations.

Imprisonment And Death In Iran

Like the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran's clerical regime has been labeled a "gender apartheid regime" by rights watchdogs.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian human rights activist who lives in exile, is among the key signatories of a global effort to End Gender Apartheid Today.

The movement, highlighting the international community's successful effort to end apartheid in South Africa decades ago, noted that women in Iran are banned from many fields of study, sporting events, and from obtaining a passport or traveling outside the country without their husband's consent.

The Iranian authorities' goal is to maintain women's subjugation to men and the state through a system of laws, the movement said. Violations can lead to "violence, imprisonment, and death."

"The situations in the Islamic Republic of Iran and under the Taliban in Afghanistan are not simply cases of gender discrimination," the movement concluded in its call for support.

"Rather, these systems are perpetuating a more extreme, systematic, and structural war against women designed to dehumanize and repress them for purposes of entrenching power.”

Written by Michael Scollon with reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

Oil Tanker Seized By Iran Moving To International Waters, Tracking Data Shows

Iranian marines rappel onto the Advantage Sweet in April 2023.
Iranian marines rappel onto the Advantage Sweet in April 2023.

A Chevron-chartered oil tanker that was seized by Iran more than a year ago was heading for international waters on July 11, LSEG ship tracking data showed. The Marshall Islands-flagged Advantage Sweet was boarded by Iran's military in the Gulf of Oman in April 2023 after an alleged collision with an Iranian boat. There was no immediate comment from Chevron or Iranian officials on July 11 on whether the vessel had been released or what discussions may have been involved. The U.S. State Department called in March for the immediate release of the tanker.

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans
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An Iranian writing-directing duo has filmed the story of millions of Afghans living for decades in Iran without fundamental rights. Alireza Ghasemi and Raha Amirfazli cast real Afghan refugees as their characters, secretly shooting in locations where their cast cannot legally go. In the Land Of Brothers screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July, shedding light on a population of permanent refugees that began streaming into Iran in the 1980s during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Many are still eking out a living, taking on unofficial manual labor jobs while facing constant discrimination.

Iran Cracks Down On Social Media Accounts For 'Discouraging' Voting

A man holds up a ballot during the first round of Iran's presidential election on June 28.
A man holds up a ballot during the first round of Iran's presidential election on June 28.

Iran has opened court cases against two Telegram accounts and summoned 100 people for allegedly calling for a boycott of the recent presidential election.

Some 500 Instagram accounts were also found to have committed “election violations,” Iranian judiciary spokesman Asghar Jahangiri told reporters on July 10.

Without naming the Telegram and Instagram accounts, Jahangiri said they had all “tried to discourage people from voting.”

Ahead of the first round of voting on June 28, the Iranian government issued strict guidelines criminalizing efforts to boycott the election or discourage high turnout.

Jahangiri said that throughout the election period, 3,980 people suspected of violating the guidelines had been “offered guidance.”

Some 113 people were detained on July 5 when the runoff vote was held, but “most were released on the same day” after posting bail and giving a written statement vowing not to repeat their offense.

Reformist lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian won the presidential election after beating his hard-line rival, Saeed Jalili, in the runoff.

The election was called following the death of hard-line President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May.

In the lead-up to first round of the election, Tehran’s prosecutor filed charges against media outlets Hashieh News and Bamdad-e No for allegedly publishing fake stories about the election.

Iranian dissidents have for years demanded a boycott of elections, arguing that voting has failed to result in reforms in the Islamic republic.

The first round of voting on June 28 saw a record-low turnout of 39.9 percent for a presidential election. Voter participation increased to 49.8 percent in the second round.

In its most recent report, Reporters Without Borders described Iran as “one of the most repressive countries in terms of press freedom” and said it was “one of the world’s biggest jailers of journalists.”


Iranian Female Prisoners Call Activist's 'Disgraceful' Death Sentence An Ominous Sign

Labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi has been sentenced to death in Iran.
Labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi has been sentenced to death in Iran.

A group of female Iranian prisoners has warned of a possible wave of executions, pointing to the recent "shameless and disgraceful" death sentence handed down to labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi.

The group of 16 women said in a letter that prior to last week's presidential election, authorities had slowed down the pace of executions "to the maximum extent possible before the electoral show."

"However, it will now accelerate the issuance and execution of death sentences and will suppress the families of the victims more than before," the letter, which demands the canceling of Mohammadi's punishment, added.

Earlier this month, the Revolutionary Court in the northern city of Rasht said Mohammadi had been convicted on charges of "armed rebellion against the state" and included as evidence her membership in an independent labor organization.

She was also accused of being a member of the banned Komala Kurdish separatist party, which her family denied.

"[The authorities] want to suppress the voice of protest and demands...of women who are louder now than before in the arena of justice," the letter says.

Mohammadi’s cousin, Vida Mohammadi, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that her niece was tortured in prison following her arrest on December 5 and that she had spent several months in solitary confinement.*

Vida Mohammadi said Sharifeh Mohammadi was not affiliated with any political organization inside or outside the country.

The Hengaw rights watchdog has said Mohammadi "endured mental and physical torture at the hands of Iranian Intelligence interrogators...who sought to extract a forced confession from her."

The U.S.-based Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, which focuses on Iranian issues, said the death sentence was linked to "her involvement with an independent labor union."

"This extreme ruling highlights the harsh crackdown on dissent within Iran, particularly against labor activists amid economic turmoil," it said.

Major protests erupted in Gilan Province and throughout the country in 2022 following the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman who had been detained for allegedly flouting Iran's strict dress code for women.

More than 500 protesters were killed nationwide and thousands arrested during months of unrest.

Domestic and international rights activists have accused Tehran of using the death penalty to intimidate protesters and others following the mass demonstrations.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story identified Vida Mohammadi as Sharifeh Mohammadi's aunt. She is a cousin.

White House Warns Iran Against Meddling In Gaza Protests In U.S.

The White House warned Iran against meddling in Gaza protests in the United States. (file photo)
The White House warned Iran against meddling in Gaza protests in the United States. (file photo)

The White House accused Tehran on July 9 of trying to take advantage of Gaza-related protests in the United States and described such behavior as unacceptable, following a warning by a top U.S. intelligence official that Iran was trying to stoke discord in American society. The warning, issued by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, said actors tied to Iran's government had posed as activists online, sought to encourage protests regarding Gaza, and even provided demonstrators with financial support. White House spokesperson Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters: "Americans across the political spectrum, acting in good faith, have sought to express their own independent views on the conflict in Gaza. The freedom to express diverse views when done peacefully is essential to our democracy."

Face Of Iran's Bloody 1999 Student Protests Says Repression Even Worse Today

The iconic image of Ahmad Batebi holding a bloody shirt during Iran's student protests in 1999 still shows up in demonstrations, such as this one in 2002.
The iconic image of Ahmad Batebi holding a bloody shirt during Iran's student protests in 1999 still shows up in demonstrations, such as this one in 2002.

In the early morning of July 9, 1999, students at Tehran University were sleeping off a long day of demonstrating for reforms in Iran when they were awakened to brutal reality.

Plainclothes police and paramilitary volunteers stormed into dormitories, kicking in doors and beating students in their rooms. Some were thrown from windows and at least one student was killed, while hundreds were injured.

What had begun as relatively low-level demonstrations against the closure days earlier of a reformist newspaper would quickly spread from the capital to other major cities.

Over the course of a few days, at least five protesters would be left dead, hundreds injured, and thousands more detained in what would stand for a decade as the largest antiestablishment protests in Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

Looking back at the events 25 years later, a former student who unwittingly became the face of the demonstrations against the clerical establishment says the protesters truly believed they could help usher in societal and structural reforms promoted by the reformist political camp.

"We thought reforms represented a new paradigm, driven by individuals genuinely different and committed to change," Ahmad Batebi told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

That the violent crackdown came during the presidency of the country's last reformist president, Mohammad Khatami -- who was elected in 1997 on promises of strengthening the rule of law and greater social freedoms -- no longer comes as a surprise.

"Time has shown that the reformists were not fundamentally different from those entrenched in power, [they were] just simply another facet of the Islamic republic," he said.

Batebi was one of thousands of reform-minded Iranian students who took to the streets after the dormitory raid in open defiance of the establishment.

When the cover of the British magazine The Economist showed him holding up the blood-stained shirt of a fellow protester who had been shot by security forces in Tehran, it awakened the outside world to the demonstrations.

This photo made Batebi the face of the 1999 student protests.
This photo made Batebi the face of the 1999 student protests.

But the now-iconic photo also attracted the attention of the Iranian authorities. Batebi was arrested and sentenced to death for his alleged involvement in "street unrest."

Named a prisoner of conscience by rights groups, Batebi's sentence was eventually reduced to 15 years due to international pressure. He served nine years before fleeing to neighboring Iraq while on medical leave to treat the many ailments he suffered in prison and eventually moved to the United States.

Batebi said that the Islamic republic relied on violent repression from its beginning, pointing to the mass executions of political prisoners in the 1980s and deadly crackdowns against protests in the cities of Mashhad, Qazvin, and Eslamshahr in the 1990s.

"The Islamic republic habitually employed such methods of suppression, recognizing no other approach," Batebi said.

The harsh response to the student protests of 1999 was "not unusual," Batebi added, because "the government was accustomed to and prepared for such actions, and knew no other way to operate."

Those events simply foreshadowed the establishment's method of dealing with subsequent antiestablishment protests, including student demonstrations in 2003, mass demonstrations against the results of the disputed 2009 presidential election and the suppression of the Green Movement.

"This is the inherent nature of the Islamic republic and it will continue to operate in this manner," Batebi said.

He also addressed more recent protests, including the 2019-20 protests fueled by water shortages and economic woes, and the Women, Life, Freedom protests of 2022.

As many as 1,500 demonstrators were reportedly killed during the nationwide protests that broke out in 2019. More than 550 demonstrators were killed in the crackdown against the 2022 protests, which followed the death in police custody of Mahsa Amini and lasted for months.

Human rights watchdogs say the response was marked by a litany of atrocities carried out by the state, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape.

Batebi said the level of suppression to which the state will go has "surpassed what was experienced at the university dormitories" in 1999, which was by far eclipsed in scale and in violence by the 2009, 2019, and 2022 protests.

But so too has the involvement of the general population, he added.

"Initially, the student movement was at the forefront of social protests, making their suppression highly visible," Batebi said. "However, over the past decade, every segment of society, from teachers to workers and nurses, has been involved."

The former student protester said he saw a "significant maturity and sophistication among today's activists" in Iran. But he laments that the reforms the students of his era fought for, including greater political and social freedoms, are essentially dead.

"From the reform movement that once sought structural changes, only a name remains," he said. "The reforms we see today are vastly different from those initial aspirations and are, in fact, part of the government, deviating slightly from its authoritarian segment while attempting to realign with the long-standing governmental ideals."

The recent victory of Masud Pezeshkian -- who cast himself as a reformist during Iran's snap presidential election after ultraconservative Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash in May -- will make no real difference, according to Batebi.

Batebi expressed doubt over Pezeshkian's "reformist" credentials, but pondered for argument's sake what could happen if he deviated from his alignment with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or from Raisi's policies.

Even if he Pezeshkian was a "true democrat, genuinely modern, and eager to implement changes in Iran, how would he achieve this?" Batebi asked. "The tools for change are lacking in Iran. There are no institutions outside the supreme leader's control."

This includes the judiciary, media, security forces and military, the Intelligence Ministry, and all influential government bodies "that could obstruct presidential initiatives" in domestic and foreign policy.

"The situation is clear," Batebi concluded. "Regardless of an individual's democratic intentions or transformative aspirations, without the necessary instruments for change, substantial reform is unattainable. Therefore, in my view, the potential for change is virtually nonexistent."

Written by Michael Scollon based on an interview by Nasrin Afshar of RFE/RL's Radio Farda

No Change From Iran's New President?

No Change From Iran's New President?
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Masud Pezeshkian is Iran’s new president and will take office in August. He did not make lofty promises on the campaign trail, conceding that presidential powers in Iran are limited. With the supreme leader calling the shots, analysts say there will not be major policy shifts.

Iranian Warship Capsizes During Repairs In Bandar Abbas

The Iranian frigate Sahand capsized during repairs in Bandar Abbas, state media said on July 7. (file photo).
The Iranian frigate Sahand capsized during repairs in Bandar Abbas, state media said on July 7. (file photo).

The Iranian Navy frigate Sahand capsized during repairs in the southern port of Bandar Abbas, Iranian state media reported on July 7. "As Sahand was being repaired at the wharf, it lost its balance due to water ingress. Fortunately...the vessel is being returned to balance quickly," the official news agency IRNA reported, citing a Iranian Navy statement. It did not specify when the accident occurred. State media carried a picture of a capsized ship and said several people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

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