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Saudi Arabia Cuts Ties Amid Iranian Anger Over Cleric’s Execution

Iranian riot police block a street leading to the Saudi Embassy as protesters hold portraits of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration in Tehran on January 3 against his execution by Saudi authorities.

Saudi Arabia has said it's cutting diplomatic ties with Iran, in the latest fallout to erupt after Riyadh’s execution of an opposition Shi'ite cleric prompted outraged protesters to storm the Saudi Embassy in Tehran.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the decision to sever ties with Tehran on January 3, saying that all Iranian diplomats must leave Saudi Arabia within 48 hours.

The move came amid increasingly harsh rhetoric between Riyadh and Tehran, with Iran's supreme leader warning of "divine vengeance” for the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. It also came almost a day after protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, setting fires and throwing papers from the roof.

Saudi Arabia, ruled by a Sunni-led royal dynasty, is engaged in a tug of war with Shi’ite-led Iran throughout the Middle East. Both sides have used proxy forces to struggle for or maintain influence in places like Yemen, as well as Bahrain, Iraq, and Syria.

The execution of Nimr, announced on January 2 by Saudi Arabia, was expected to fuel further outbreaks of proxy violence.

Nimr was a central figure in protests by Saudi Arabia's marginalized Shi'ite minority until his arrest in 2012 and later conviction on terrorism charges. His execution drew condemnation from Shi'a across the region.

In addition to Nimr, 46 others, including three Shi'ite dissidents and several Al-Qaeda militants, were put to death.

In Washington, a U.S. State Department spokesman warned that Nimr's execution could worsen sectarian strife at a time when tensions needed to be reduced.

A day after protesters stormed and looted part of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, Iranian authorities said on January 3 that 44 demonstrators had been arrested, but hard-liners also called for another demonstration later in the day.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a statement on January 3 that Nimr "neither invited people to take up arms nor hatched covert plots. The only thing he did was public criticism."

In a sign that Iranian authorities may be seeking to keep the reaction from spiraling out of control, Iranian President Hassan Rohani on January 3 condemned Nimr's execution but also denounced attacks on the Saudi Embassy and Consulate as "totally unjustifiable."

Rohani said that "the buildings should be legally and religiously protected in the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Sectarian Tensions

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Ministry said that by condemning the execution, Iran had "revealed its true face represented in support for terrorism."

It accused Tehran of "blind sectarianism" and said that "by its defense of terrorist acts" Iran was a "partner in their crimes in the entire region."

Earlier, Iran's hard-line Revolutionary Guards had promised "harsh revenge" against the Saudi Sunni royal dynasty for his execution.

Iran previously warned that executing the cleric would "cost Saudi Arabia dearly."

Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, a member of the Assembly of Experts and a Friday Prayer leader, denounced the execution as a "crime" by Saudi Arabia's "infamous regime."

"This...blood will stain the collar of the House of Saud and wipe them from the pages of history," Khatami was quoted as saying on January 2.

Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) said in a statement that the Saudi government would pay a "heavy price" for “this shameful act,” which it said was a sign of the “decay” of the Saudi rulers.

“The criminal act of execution of Sheikh Nimr the leader of Shia in Saudi Arabia is part of a Zionist conspiracy to sow discord among the world Muslims which will be aborted by the Heavenly blessings coming down to us by the pure blood of these martyrs,” the statement published by Iranian media said.

Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.
Iranian protesters gather outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran during a demonstration against the execution of prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities on January 2.

In Iraq, whose Shi'ite-led government is close to Iran, prominent religious and political figures demanded that ties with Riyadh be severed.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi warned that Nimr’s execution would have repercussions on regional security.

He wrote on his verified Facebook account that muffling voices and executing opponents "would lead to nothing but more destruction," expressing "intense shock" upon hearing the news of the execution.

Former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Nimr's execution would "topple the Saudi regime".

Iraqi lawmaker Muhammad al-Sayhud warned that Nimr's execution was intended to fuel sectarian strife in the region.

"This measure taken by the ruling family [of Saudi Arabia] aims at reigniting the region, provoking sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shi'a," he told Al-Sumaria TV.

Prominent Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for demonstrations in Persian Gulf countries and in Iraq to protest the execution of Nimr by Saudi Arabia.

"I ask that the Shi'a of Saudi Arabia...show courage in responding even through peaceful demonstrations, and the same for the Shi' in the Gulf, so as to deter injustice and government terrorism in the future," Sadr said on his website.

In Bahrain, police used tear gas against several dozen people protesting Nimr’s execution while carrying his pictures.

'Foreign Meddling'

Meanwhile, Nimr's brother said the family was shocked by news of the execution but hoped that any reaction would be peaceful:

"We hope that any reactions would be confined to a peaceful framework. No one should have any reaction outside this peaceful framework. Enough bloodshed," Muhammad al-Nimr told Reuters.

He said the cleric was found guilty of seeking "foreign meddling" in the kingdom, "disobeying" the country's rulers, and taking up arms against the security forces.

Nimr’s brother was later quoted as saying that Saudi authorities told the family that the cleric had already been buried without informing them at which cemetery.

Hundreds of members of its Shi'ite minority were arrested after the protests during which several policemen were killed in shooting and firebomb attacks.

The kingdom also detained thousands of militant Islamists after a series of Al-Qaeda attacks from 2003-06 that killed hundreds, and has convicted hundreds of them.

The ministry said the executions were carried out on January 2 in 12 different areas of the kingdom.

The executions are Saudi Arabia's first in 2016. At least 157 people were put to death last year, a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014.

With reporting by Reuters, dpa, AFP, AP, the BBC, IRNA, Fars, and Mehr

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Khomeini's Close Aide Met Secretly With U.S. Officials Before Iranian Revolution, Declassified Document Says

Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Sadegh Lavasani (left) remained close to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini until the latter's death in 1989.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, was publicly opposed to the United States, which he branded the "Great Satan."

But Khomeini and his close aides secretly engaged with Washington before and after he came to power following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, according to U.S. documents that have been declassified in recent years.

A declassified U.S. Embassy cable recently obtained by RFE/RL's Radio Farda provides further evidence of the covert contacts between Iranian clerics and U.S. representatives.

Dated February 26, 1964, the confidential document reveals that Khomeini's longtime friend and associate, Ayatollah Seyed Mohammad Sadegh Lavasani, met with two U.S. Embassy officials at his residence in Tehran.

The embassy cable said Lavasani's "position as Tehran representative of Ayatollah Khomeini contributes to his importance and influence in the Iranian clerical community, particularly in its political role."

Lavasani was a comptroller, according to the U.S. document, suggesting that he oversaw the expenditure of funds and donations that Khomeini received "from all over the Shi'a world."

The document said Lavasani was one of only 18 people who had access to Khomeini, who by 1964 had become a key critic of the U.S.-backed shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, whom he accused of being a Western "puppet."

After publicly denouncing the shah in June 1963, Khomeini was detained for around three months. In November 1964, Khomeini was detained again and immediately sent into exile to neighboring Turkey. He spent more than 14 years abroad, including in Iraq and France, before returning to Iran.

The declassified U.S. document said Iran's clergy opposed the shah's policies, including on women's rights and "the influence of Baha'is and Jews in the Imperial Court."

The document added that the shah's policies were "in flat violation of Islamic law and are calculated to upset the divinity."

Khomeini and Lavasani are believed to have been close friendsfrom the 1920s.
Khomeini and Lavasani are believed to have been close friendsfrom the 1920s.

Khomeini and Lavasani are believed to have been close friends after studying together in the holy Shi'ite city of Qom in the 1920s. Their friendship remained intact after the revolution, although Lavasani did not appear to play a role in the new clerical government. Iranian media have reported that Lavasani stood with the supreme leader until the end and visited him regularly until Khomeini's death in 1989. Lavasani died a year later.

The revelation that Lavasani reached out to the United States is likely to cause embarrassment for the clerical establishment and supporters of Khomeini, who often praise his anti-American stance.

Relations between the United States and Iran deteriorated sharply in the wake of the Islamic Revolution, particularly after the Iran hostage crisis, or the "conquest of the American spy den," as it is known in Iran.

In November 1979, Islamic students stormed the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in the Iranian capital. Fifty-two U.S. citizens and diplomats were held hostage in Tehran from November 1979 to January 1981.

'Not Honest'

Lavasani is among several of Khomeini's aides who had secret contacts with U.S. officials before 1979.

Declassified CIA documents have revealed contacts between Khomeini and the administration of then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter just weeks before the revolution. The documents suggest that Khomeini was open to dialogue with Washington and would not undermine U.S. interests if he came to power.

Khomeini and his aides also reached out to the administration of then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1963, according to a CIA analysis written in 1980 that was partially released to the public in 2008. The analysis said that Khomeini did not oppose U.S. interests in Iran.

Iranian officials have dismissed the declassified documents as fabricated.

U.S. documents declassified in recent years have also revealed that U.S. representatives met with key Iranian officials after the revolution, including Ayatollah Mohammad Beheshti, who was considered Khomeini's second in command; former Foreign Minister Ebrahim Yazdi; and Mehdi Bazargan, the first prime minister after the revolution.

Paris-based Iranian scholar Mohammad Javad Akbarein told Radio Farda that the disclosure of secret contacts between Khomeini's aides and U.S. representatives highlighted the hypocrisy of Iran's clerical establishment.

"It shows that the leaders of the revolution were in general not honest in their comments about their ties with [Western countries]," Akbarein said

He added that the revelation of Lavasani's meetings with U.S. representatives was significant.

"The important feature of the newly released document is that the person who communicated with the Americans was in close contact with Ayatollah Khomeini," he said. "His ties with Khomeini were not political, his relationship with Khomeini was spiritual."

"Khomeini and other founders of the Islamic republic were allowed to have contacts with the U.S. and other Western officials. But now, [the authorities] reproach others and say such contacts are not allowed," Akbarein said.

Written by Golnaz Esfandiari based on reporting by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, including Elahe Ravanshad

Iranian Activist Says Authorities Trying To Push Him Out Of The Country

Hossein Ronaghi (file photo)

Prominent Iranian civil activist Hossein Ronaghi says he won't leave the country despite moves by the government to ratchet up pressure on him, including the freezing of his bank accounts and the violation of his civil rights.

Ronaghi said in a tweet on June 8 that the Information Ministry had requested he be forced into exile.

"Attacks and sending messages containing death threats are a sign of being pressured to leave the country," he wrote.

"But as I clearly stated before, I will not leave Iran, and if you think I have committed a crime, you can arrest me. But you cannot force me to leave my homeland."

Ronaghi was arrested during recent protests that are rocking the country over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was taken into custody by morality police for allegedly improperly wearing a head scarf, or hijab.

Security agents stormed Ronaghi's house and arrested him in September as he was giving an interview to London-based Iran International TV. He was released on bail in November after going on a weekslong hunger strike.

Several other political and civil activists have reported similar experiences after being released from custody, stating that they were repeatedly urged to leave Iran by their interrogators.

Since September 2022, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights, with the judiciary, backed by lawmakers, responding to the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution with a brutal crackdown.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others. At least seven protesters have been executed after what rights groups and several Western governments have called "sham" trials.

Several more remain on death row and senior judiciary officials have said they are determined to ensure those convicted and sentenced have their punishments meted out.

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

Families, Rights Groups Accuse Iranian Government Of Intimidation Tactics By Desecrating Graves

The grave of Majid Kazemi, who was killed during an anti-government protest in Isfahan, was defiled.

A series of attack on the graves of protesters killed during nationwide protests in Iran have sparked accusations from activists and families of the dead that the government is engaging in a broad pattern of intimidation and disrespect to quell any further unrest following the death of a woman while in police custody in September 2022.

According to reports from the families of the deceased, the gravesites of Majid Kazemi in Isfahan, Abolfazl Adinehzadeh in Mashhad, and Milad Saeedianjou in Izeh have been andalized in recent days.

These come amid other recent reports of the graves of protesters killed during demonstrations beng desecrated, reportedly by Iranian government forces and security personnel.

The government has not commented on the accusations.

Mohammad Hashemi, a relative of Kazemi, said security forces contacted his family on June 7 and said the family had "no right to go to Majid's grave for his [31st] birthday."

Later that night, he added, agents went to the cemetery and set Majid's grave on fire.

The graves of Adinehzadeh and Saeedianjou were also vandalized under the cover of darkness, while in another case, the grave of Majidreza Rahnavard in Mashhad's Behesht Reza cemetery was subjected to multiple attacks, according to family members.

Mahsa Amini's family has also accused security forces of vandalizing the grave of their daughter, whose death ignited nationwide protests that have turned into one of the biggest threats to the Islamic republic's leadership since it took power in 1979.

Rights groups say officials, by concealing burial sites, inhibiting mourning ceremonies, and preventing families from installing tombstones or decorating their relatives' graves with flowers, pictures, badges, or memorial messages, are violating their rights under the International Covenant On Economic, Social, And Cultural Rights.

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

U.S. Concerned That Iran Building Drone Factory Inside Russia

Ukrainian air defenses intercept an Iranian-made Shahed drone in midair during a Russian attack on Kyiv on May 30.

The United States says it has information that Iran intends to build a drone-manufacturing facility inside Russia that could become operational next year as Moscow and Tehran step up their military cooperation, posing an increased danger to Ukraine, the Middle East, and to the international community.

White House National Security Council (NSC) spokesman John Kirby said on June 9 that while Iran continued to supply Russia with drones that Moscow uses against Ukrainian civilians in its illegal war in Ukraine, the two countries now were taking steps to bring the drone production closer to the war zone by building a drone factory some 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow.

"We have information that Russia is receiving materials from Iran needed to build a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) manufacturing plant inside Russia. This plant could be fully operational early next year," Kirby said as the NSC released a satellite image of what it said was the location of the factory in Russia's Alabuga Special Economic Zone.

Kirby said that as of last month, Iran had shipped hundreds of suicide drones as well as drone-production-related equipment to Russia using a route across the Caspian Sea.

"The drones are built in Iran, shipped across the Caspian Sea, from Amirabad, Iran, to Makhachkala, Russia, and then used operationally by Russian forces against Ukraine," Kirby said, as the NSC also released a graphic of the route.

Moscow in turn has been providing Iran -- a country that, like Russia, has been under biting international sanctions -- with military equipment on a level that Kirby said was more complex and more expensive than ever.

"Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense," Kirby said, adding that Tehran announced a deal this year to buy Su-35 fighter jets from Russia.

"Iran is seeking to purchase additional military equipment from Russia, including attack helicopters, radars, and YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft. In total, Iran is seeking billions of dollars' worth of military equipment from Russia," Kirby said.

As the drone transfers put both Moscow and Tehran in violation of the arms embargo stated in UN Resolution 2231, the United States and its allies will continue to use all available means to discontinue a partnership that was damaging for the rest of the world," Kirby said.

"This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors, and to the international community. We are continuing to use all the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities including by sharing this with the public -- and we are prepared to do more," he said.

"We will continue to impose sanctions on the actors involved in the transfer of Iranian military equipment to Russia for use in Ukraine," Kirby said, adding that the United States, Britain, and the European Union have imposed new restrictions "to prevent electronic components found in Iranian drones from being able to make their way onto the battlefield in Ukraine."

The U.S. government later on June 9 issued a new advisory to help businesses and other governments better understand the risks posed by the Iranian drones and the illegal means that Iran uses to obtain components for the manufacturing of drones.

"And, critically, we are working with allies and partners to ensure Ukraine has what it needs to defend and rebuild itself, including by providing Ukraine with air defense systems to help Ukraine protect its people," Kirby concluded.

Iran Hands Labor Activist Razavi 5-Year Sentence For Organizing Protests

Iranian labor activist Davood Razavi. (file photo)

Iran's judiciary has handed down a five-year discretionary imprisonment sentence to labor activist Davood Razavi for organizing protests demanding better wages and working conditions.

The Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company Workers' Union announced the sentence -- which also came with a two-year ban on online activities and participation in political groups and parties -- on June 7, saying it was immediately calling for its suspension.

Razavi, a member of the union, was arrested last October.

The charges against him included "assembly and collusion against national security" for his membership of the union's board of directors, as well as organizing labor protests and having contact with union colleagues.

The union says Razavi's sentence shows the public should be concerned about the perspective held by the judiciary and ruling powers given they are punishing someone for pursuing legitimate demands such as housing, wages, and the creation of a workers' union.

The union called on authorities to respect such rights, which are fundamental conventions of the International Labor Organization.

In addition to condemning the verdict, the union said it was also calling for the cancellation of what they say are "baseless accusations" against Razavi and other imprisoned union members, including Hassan Saeedi and Reza Shahabi.

Shahabi and Saeedi were arrested in May 2022 by Intelligence Ministry officers after they attended a rally marking May Day where there were protests against high living costs and rising inflation.

The news comes as security forces across the country suppressed anti-government protests in cities triggered by the death last September of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

The protests over Amini's death came after a summer of unrest across Iran over poor living conditions, water shortages, and economic difficulties resulting from crippling sanctions, which the United States has imposed on Iran over its nuclear program.

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

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

Iran's Relations With Azerbaijan Get Heated Over Attacks, Baku's Ties To Israel

Israeli President Isaac Herzog (left) and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev hold talks in Baku on May 30, ringing alarm bells in Tehran.

For the second time in just months, Baku has warned its citizens against traveling to Iran in the wake of a deadly attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran in January that it blamed on the "unstable situation in the Islamic republic."

In what has become a habit in recent weeks, Iranian officials have been angered over the perceived obstinacy of its northwestern neighbor and the encroachment of regional adversaries on what Tehran believes to be its backyard.

Azerbaijan's increasingly cozy relations with Iran's archfoe, Israel -- highlighted by defense deals, the opening of an embassy in Tel Aviv in March, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog's first visit to Azerbaijan last month -- has become a reliable trigger for Tehran as its own ties with Baku hit new lows.

Tehran does not officially recognize Israel, which it refers to disparagingly as a Palestinian-killing "Zionist regime" and accuses of having designs on sabotage and unrest within Iran's borders.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan has warned against the travel of its citizens to Iran! This is the same policy that the president of the fake, child-killing, and occupying Zionist regime took during his recent trip to Baku," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani tweeted on June 5. "What should scare the people of Azerbaijan is the Zionist regime, not civilized and Islamic Iran."

Complicated Relationship

Herzog's visit, during which he said he and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev discussed in depth "the regional security structure that is threatened by Iran," appeared to have struck a nerve in Tehran.

"From the standpoint of the Islamic republic, the close relations of Azerbaijan with Israel is a major problem, [as is] the active presence of Israel in the military sphere [of Azerbaijan] and providing it with weaponry and the tight economic and security ties between the two countries," Iran analyst Touraj Atabaki, professor emeritus and chairman of the social history of the Middle East and Central Asia at Leiden University, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda.

But Baku's budding ties with Israel are just one among many factors straining Iran's relationship with Azerbaijan, a fellow Shi'a-majority country.

Observers say the relationship has been complicated ever since Azerbaijan became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. But things became even more problematic when Baku retook territory along Iran's border during its 2020 war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

While Tehran supported Azerbaijan's claim to territory occupied by Iranian ally Armenia, it has strongly opposed Baku's intention to use the retaken lands to build the east-west Zangezur Corridor, which would connect mainland Azerbaijan to its Naxcivan exclave and open a long-sought trade route to Tehran's rival, Turkey, and beyond.

The plan was boosted by the Russian-brokered cease-fire that ended the war over Nagorno-Karabakh and called for "all economic and transport connections in the region to be unblocked."

While Iran launched large-scale military exercises dubbed "Mighty Iran" along its border with Naxcivan in October 2022 -- a show of force to underscore that it would not "permit the blockage" of its trade and transport links to Armenia -- the initiative has moved forward.

As talk of a possible peace deal between Armenia and Azerbaijan pick up steam, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksei Overchuk announced on May 31 that the two sides were close to an agreement that would pave the way for the route through Armenia and Azerbaijani territory previously occupied by Yerevan, and "open the road to Russia, the countries of the European Union, and Iran."

As Iran seeks to boost its sanctions-circumventing trade with Russia, including with the completion of a second north-south route that would also pass through Azerbaijan, the prospect of seeing a trade route crossing its passage to Armenia remains a serious bone of contention.

"Iran doesn't like this corridor because in the larger competition and struggle between Tehran and Baku it weakens Iran if this corridor is created, because right now Azerbaijan has to use Iranian airspace or territory to resupply Naxcivan," said Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank.

The Zangezur Corridor, if completed, would mean that "Iran will become less important in the eyes of policymakers in Baku, and perhaps Azerbaijan would feel emboldened to take a more hard line against Iran," Coffey told RFE/RL.

'Mighty Iran' And Shi'ite Brotherhood

Such a scenario does not sit well with Iran, which has worked to exert its influence in Azerbaijan.

"A significant segment of the Azerbaijani population is Shi'a and since the creation of the independent Republic of Azerbaijan, the Islamic republic has considered Azerbaijan as the backyard for the [expansion] of the influence of its brand of Shi'ism," Atabaki said.

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps take part in a military drill in Iran's East Azerbaijan Province in October 2022.
Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps take part in a military drill in Iran's East Azerbaijan Province in October 2022.

Tehran is also wary of the effects the loss of influence on Baku will have on Iran's large ethnic Azeri population, separated from Azerbaijan by the Aras River and located primarily in Iran's East and West Azerbaijan provinces.

During the 2020 war over Nagorno-Karabakh, Coffey said, images emerged on social media of ethnic Azeris in Iran "waving Azerbaijani flags on the other side of the river, literally cheering on, like a spectator event, the advancements of the Azerbaijani armed forces."

In November 2022, Baku stoked tensions with Iran by staging its own military exercises along the Iranian border, with Aliyev saying they were necessary to show Tehran that "we are not afraid of them."

"We will do our best to protect the secular lifestyle of Azerbaijan and Azeris around the world, including in Iran," Aliyev added. "They are part of our people."

A Turning Point

Amid the continuing back and forth, the January attack on the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tehran was seen by some observers as a turning point in bilateral relations.

Azerbaijan evacuated its embassy staff following the January 27 attack, in which a security guard was killed and two others injured when a gunman stormed the complex and opened fire. Baku blamed the attack on the Iranian secret service and called it an "act of terrorism."

In February, the Azerbaijani authorities said that they had detained nearly 40 people on suspicion of spying for Iran.

Honor guards carry a portrait and a coffin with the body of Orkhan Askerov, a security officer at Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran shot dead by a gunman, during a procession prior to his funeral in Baku on January 30.
Honor guards carry a portrait and a coffin with the body of Orkhan Askerov, a security officer at Azerbaijan's embassy in Iran shot dead by a gunman, during a procession prior to his funeral in Baku on January 30.

The fray worsened in March with the alleged assassination attempt on Fazil Mustafa, an Azerbaijani lawmaker who had been critical of Iran. Following the arrest in April of four people in connection with the incident, Baku accused Tehran of orchestrating the plot.

Two weeks later, Azerbaijani media reported the arrest of 20 people allegedly affiliated with Iran's Intelligence Ministry who were accused of promoting "the Islamic republic's propaganda, spreading religious superstitions, [and] attempting to overthrow the secular government of Baku."

In a tit-for-tat move, Tehran and Baku expelled four of each other's diplomats in April. And while diplomatic relations continued, the strains were evident as the two countries' foreign ministers held a series of phone calls that month in which Iran made clear that Tehran did not approve of Baku's relations with Israel.

"Only enemies benefit from the existence of differences" between the two countries, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was quoted as saying by Iran's Shargh daily.

Iran's vice president in charge of economic affairs, Mohsen Rezaei, went a step further while addressing members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in the western Lorestan Province.

"The incitement of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the signing of arms contracts between Israel and the Republic of Azerbaijan was aimed at creating riots in the north of Iran, and to shift the thinking and focus of the army, the IRGC and the government of Iran to the north so that Israel can bomb Iran's nuclear sites," Shargh quoted Rezaei as saying.

On May 16, the Azerbaijani authorities announced another haul of individuals it said were recruited by Iran to disrupt Azerbaijan's constitutional order and establish Islamic law. This time, Baku claimed, the seven men detained had allegedly planned to assassinate Azerbaijani public figures.

The Feud Continues

That set the scene for the visit to Baku by Herzog in late May, held under strict security out of fear of Iranian retaliation.

After meeting Herzog, Aliyev lauded the boost that Israeli weaponry had given his country "to modernize our defense capability and allow us to defend our statehood, our national interests, and our territorial integrity."

Nearly 70 percent of Azerbaijan's arms imports between 2016 and 2020 were from Israel, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Herzog, in his comments after meeting Aliyev, said that "we expect to develop cooperation between us in many fields."

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Kanaani again took to Twitter to air Tehran's views on the development, writing on March 31 that "none of the regional moves of the Zionist regime remain hidden from the penetrating eyes of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

Explosions are seen during Iran's Might Iran drill in October 2022.
Explosions are seen during Iran's Might Iran drill in October 2022.

The next day, an Iranian opposition hacking group released alleged classified Iranian government documents that appeared to shed light on the January embassy attack and indicated the need to reevaluate Tehran's diplomatic ties with Azerbaijan.

The documents, purportedly distributed among top Iranian officials, included advice on how to distance Azerbaijani society from its government and attributed Baku's policies to "Zionist" influence.

That potential bombshell was followed by Azerbaijan's announcement on June 2 that it had closed Iran's cultural attache office in Baku, citing "recent disagreements" between the two countries.

And on June 3 came the spark for Kanaani's latest Twitter outburst: Azerbaijan's renewed travel warning advising its citizens not to travel to Iran and for those who are already there to be vigilant.

Within seconds of blasting Azerbaijan and its ties with Israel in his first tweet on June 5, Kanaani took a softer line, writing that Iran would still "open our arms to our Azerbaijani brothers and sisters," with the goal of continued "mutual respect and respect for neighborhood customs."

But in his comments to Radio Farda on June 7, Iran expert Atabaki expressed skepticism, saying that "the Islamic republic is not planning to see its ties with Azerbaijan as an equal relationship."

And that mindset, Atabaki said, had allowed relations to reach their current low.

The Farda Briefing: Experts Raise Questions Over Iran's First 'Hypersonic' Missile

Iran unveiled what it described as its first domestically made hypersonic ballistic missile on June 6, claiming it can travel up to 15 times the speed of sound.

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

Iran unveiled what it described as its first domestically made hypersonic ballistic missile on June 6, claiming it can travel up to 15 times the speed of sound.

Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, posted images of the new Fattah missile. The weapons system was unveiled at a ceremony attended by President Ebrahim Raisi and commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Amirali Hajizadeh, head of the IRGC's aerospace force, claimed the missile has a range of 1,400 kilometers and can reach a speed of 15,500 kilometers per hour. He boasted that the missile is capable of evading any anti-missile defense system.

Western military experts say Iran sometimes exaggerates figures for the capabilities of its weapons.

Why It Matters: Iran has been expanding its missile program in recent years, with Tehran believed to have the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.

The United States and Israel see Iran’s missile program as a threat to the region, warning the missiles could be used to carry nuclear weapons. Iran has said its arsenal is for defense and deterrence purposes only.

Experts say the speed and maneuvering capabilities of hypersonic ballistic missiles make them difficult to track and intercept.

But they have raised questions about the capabilities of the Fattah missile.

Fabian Hinz, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, told me it does not appear to be as sophisticated as the hypersonic missiles that the United States and China have developed.

Hinz said the Fattah missile "can do some basic maneuvers, but not for the same amount of time and not as dramatic" as systems developed by other countries.

Jeremie Binnie, a Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes, told me there are "questions as to whether it is really capable of accurately hitting its target at the very high speed that has been claimed."

What's Next: The unveiling of the Fattah missile is likely to increase the West's concerns about Iran's missile program.

Only several countries, including the United States, China, and Russia, have developed hypersonic ballistic missiles. Russia is believed to be the only country to have deployed them in combat. North Korea has also claimed it has successfully tested a hypersonic missile.

Hinz said despite its limits the Fattah missile is "another technologically sophisticated element in Iran's strategy of overcoming the ballistic missile defenses" of its regional adversaries.

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The former head of Tehran's notorious Evin prison has expressed "shame" over the mass execution of political prisoners at the facility in 1988, in unprecedented comments on Clubhouse. Hossein Mortazavi Zanjani claimed he was not involved in the executions. While some Iranians praised his comments, others questioned his motives.

An Iranian cultural official has been sacked after a viral video showed a man proposing to a woman without a head scarf at the tomb of a celebrated Persian poet. The video shows violations of Iran's harsh morality laws, such as women with their heads uncovered and the man publicly embracing the woman, while a crowd applauds.

What We're Watching

The authorities in Iran appear to be increasing pressure on female university students to adhere to the country’s Islamic dress code.

A local students group reported on June 5 that a significant number of students from Tehran's University of Science and Technology as well as at least 11 professors were summoned during the past week.

The reasons cited were an alleged refusal to comply with mandatory hijab rules and what university authorities termed "inappropriate dress."

Why It Matters: Iran's universities turned into a battleground between the authorities and protesters during the monthslong antiestablishment demonstrations that erupted in September.

The rallies were triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died shortly after she was arrested for allegedly violating the hijab law.

Campuses were often the sites of demonstrations led by students and bloody government crackdowns.

The authorities' ongoing pressure on students could trigger new protests at universities, which have often been at the forefront of the struggle for greater rights and freedoms in the Islamic republic.

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

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Richard Branson Calls For Release From Prison Of Iranian Rapper Salehi

Imprisoned Iranian rapper Toomaj Salehi (file photo)

Billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Branson has called for Iranian authorities to release popular rapper Toomaj Salehi, whose health has reportedly deteriorated since he was arrested during Tehran’s clampdown on nationwide anti-government protests in October. "As his life hangs in the balance after 8 months+ of imprisonment and torture, we all must give our voice to him and call for his release," Branson said in a tweet. In November, Iran’s judiciary charged Salehi with spreading “corruption on earth,” a charge that could see him sentenced to death. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Iranian Students Say Authorities Ratcheting Up Pressure On Campus Over Dress Code

Iranian universities have become a hotbed for unrest since the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran in September. (file photo)

Iranian student organizations have reported a significant wave of summonses at the University of Science and Technology in Tehran in a continued tightening of supervision of the dress code after months of unrest sparked by the death of a young woman for allegedly wearing a head scarf improperly.

The country's Student Guild Councils reported on June 5 that, during the past week, a significant number of students from the University of Science and Technology were summoned to the Disciplinary Committee, as well as at least 11 professors. The reasons cited for these summonses ranged from a refusal to comply with mandatory hijab rules to what university authorities have termed "inappropriate dress".

In addition to the summoning of students to the Disciplinary Committee, patrolling security forces have reportedly harassed students under the pretext of the dress code while they are walking on the university campus.

The Student Guild Councils said the intrusion into the lives of students has even extended to the dormitories, where curfew infractions have been cited.

In addition to students, at least 11 professors at the University of Science and Technology have also been summoned by the Faculty Disciplinary Board in recent days. They said they were summoned for signing a statement protesting against "the attacks carried out on schools and female students."

Iranian universities have become a hotbed for unrest since the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran in September. The 22-year-old died while in police custody for an alleged violation of the country's mandatory head-scarf law.

Police have tried to shift the blame onto Amini's health, but supporters say witnesses saw her being beaten when taken into custody. Her family says she had no history of any medical issues and was in good health.

There have been clashes at universities and schools between protesters and the authorities, prompting security forces to launch a series of raids on education facilities across the country, violently arresting students, especially female students, who have defiantly taken off their head scarves, or hijabs, in protest.

According to a report by the "Committee for Following Up on the Situation of Detainees," since the beginning of the nationwide protests in September 2022, more than 720 students have been arrested, some of whom are still under arrest.

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

Iranian Embassy Reopens In Saudi Capital

A man stands outside the Iranian Embassy in Riyadh, which reopened on June 6. (file photo)

Iran reopened its embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on June 6, Saudi media reported, months after the two regional rivals agreed to end a diplomatic rift under a China-mediated deal. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed in March to reestablish relations following years of hostility that has endangered stability in the Middle East and fueled regional conflicts including in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon. The deal was struck seven years after Sunni Saudi Arabia severed relations with Shi'ite Iran following the storming of its embassy in Tehran during a dispute over the execution of a Shi'ite Muslim cleric. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Updated

U.S. Levies Sanctions On Iranian, Chinese Companies Over Ballistic Missile Programs

The U.S. Treasury Department said the network of more than a dozen people and entitites conducted transactions and facilitated the procurement of sensitive and critical parts and technology for key actors in Iran’s ballistic missile development. (file photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The United States has sanctioned seven individuals and six entities from Iran, China, and Hong Kong who the U.S. Treasury Department says have helped Tehran get key technology for ballistic missile development.

In a statement on June 6, the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), accused the individuals and entities of conducting financial transactions facilitating the network to procure parts needed for missile development.

The statement said the six companies sold sensitive centrifuges, metals, and radar materials to key actors in the previously sanctioned Iranian Defense Ministry and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) agency.

The sanctions come as Washington steadily increases pressure on Iran to stop expanding its missile program.

“The United States will continue to target illicit transnational procurement networks that covertly support Iran’s ballistic missile production and other military programs,” said Brian Nelson, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller has called Iran’s development and proliferation of these missiles “a serious threat to regional and international security.”

He told reporters at a briefing late last month that the United States will continue to use a variety of tools, including sanctions, “to counter the further advancement of Iran’s ballistic missile program and its ability to proliferate missiles and related technology to others."

Included in the sanctions are Chinese companies Zhejiang Qingji and Lingoe Process Engineering. Additionally, the director of Zhejiang Qingji and an employee of the company have been personally designated for financial dealings and acting as transport for MODAFL in Iran.

Two other companies, Hong Kong Ke.Do International Trade and the Chinese based Qingdao Zhongrongtong Trade Development, which the Treasury Department said collaborated to sell tens of millions of dollars’ worth of metals for Iranian missile system development.

The Chinese based Beijing Shiny Nights Technology Development Company was also hit with sanctions for acting as a front company for MODAFL to procure electronics for Iranian end-users. The same accusation is levied against Iran’s defense attache in Beijing, Davoud Damghani.

The sanctions freeze all U.S. assets held in any entity’s possession, including U.S. dollar bank accounts at foreign institutions, and bar people in the United States from dealing with the individuals and companies.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

Speculation Rises Over Death Of Iranian Ex-Policewoman After Her Release From Custody

Mansureh Sagvand is said to have died of "cardiac and respiratory arrest," although her friends say they doubt the official report.

A former member of Iran's police force who resigned in protest against the suppression of demonstrators, is said to have died under what colleagues say were suspicious circumstances.

Medical officials in the southwestern Iranian province of Ilam confirmed the death of Mansureh Sagvand, a law student from Abadan who had previously resigned from her collaboration with the Law Enforcement Force.

The official news agency IRNA quoted Seydnour Alimoradi, the head of the pre-hospital emergency department of Ilam University, as saying the cause of Sagvand's death was "cardiac and respiratory arrest".

But friends of Sagvand said they doubted the official report.

Issa Baziar, a civil activist from Abadan living abroad, revealed on his Twitter page that Sagvand, died after being released from detention.

Meanwhile, Sagvand herself had reported a death threat on her Instagram account just hours before she perished, writing: "They scare us with death, as if we are alive. Forever and ever, my life is a sacrifice for the homeland. Long live Iran."

This incident follows numerous reports of "suspicious deaths" during recent nationwide protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody for a dress-code offense last September.

The Twitter account "Voice of Shahrivar," which covers protest news, noted that Sagvand was formerly a member of the Law Enforcement Force and that she cut off cooperation with this entity during the recent nationwide protests. She had been in custody for a while, it said, without giving a specific time period.

An Instagram account under the name "Mansoreh Sagvand" featured a picture of her in the uniform of women working in the Law Enforcement Force.

"I am Mansureh Sagvand from Lorestan, I used to work in the honorary police of the Law Enforcement Force of Khorramabad. From now on, I will not have any cooperation with the armed forces and I will proudly stay with my compatriots," the caption read.

Following widespread reactions among Iranian social network users regarding the suspicious death of Sagvand, IRNA dismissed the speculation as "baseless" and attributed the rumors to "opposition media."

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

Iran Showcases What It Says Is First Hypersonic Missile

Aerospace forces' chief Amirali Hajizadeh was quoted as saying the missile had a range of 1,400 kilometers and could reach a speed of 15,500 kilometers per hour.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) on June 6 unveiled what it said was the first domestically produced hypersonic ballistic missile amid growing concerns in the West over the country's missile program.

The missile, named Fattah, or Conqueror in Persian, is capable of "penetrating through all missile defense systems," the IRGC's aerospace forces said on June 6, without offering evidence for the claim.

The missile was unveiled during a ceremony attended by IRGC commanders and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who also chose the name for the new weapon, state media reported.

"We feel today that a deterrent power has been established," Raisi said at the event. "This power is an anchor of lasting security and peace for the regional countries," he said in footage presented by state media.

Aerospace forces' chief Amirali Hajizadeh, was quoted as saying the missile had a range of 1,400 kilometers and could reach a speed of 15,500 kilometers per hour.

Western military experts say that Iran sometimes give exaggerated figures for the capabilities of its weapons.

Iran has continued to develop ballistic missiles despite U.S. sanctions, arguing that they are for purely defensive and deterrence purposes.

Last month, Iran presented what it said was the fourth generation of its Khorramshahr ballistic missile, called Khaibar, with a range of 2,000 kilometers and a warhead weighing 1,500 kilograms.

Over the past several days, Iran's Ministry of Defense said it was building yet another ballistic missile named "Khyber," which belongs to the Khorramshahr class of ballistic missiles.

In March 2022, Washington imposed sanctions on an Iran-based procurement network of companies for providing assistance to Iran's ballistic-missile program.

Iran's missile program is perceived as a serious threat by Tehran's arch-enemy, Israel, and other U.S.-allied countries in the Persian Gulf region.

With reporting by Reuters and AP

IAEA Chief Calls On Iran To Follow All Nuclear Commitments

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi attends a news conference during an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna on June 5.

Iran has not sufficiently implemented commitments to more transparency regarding its nuclear program, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, said in Vienna on June 5. In March, Grossi and the leadership in Tehran had agreed on increased surveillance of nuclear facilities and investigations into formerly secret nuclear sites. Since then only "a fraction of what we envisaged" has been implemented, Grossi said during an IAEA board meeting. The IAEA chief conceded that some surveillance cameras and devices had been installed. "Some progress has been made, but not as much as I had hoped," he said.

In Rare Display Of Defiance, Iranians Dance To Mark Death Of Ruhollah Khomeini

Iranians dance ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, in Tehran on March 14. Dancing, a form of expression often suppressed by the government, has emerged as a symbolic act of civil disobedience.

A wave of public demonstrations has swept across Iran on the anniversary of the death of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic, with Iranians dancing in the streets in a display of defiance of authority amid a crackdown on unrest that has swept the country.

Videos posted online showed many Iranians demonstrating on June 3, the day Khomeni died in 1989, with some showing footage of the burning of the flag, as well as images of Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, amid chants of "Death to the dictator" and "Death to Khamenei, curse on Khomeini."

The public demonstrations follow a series of recent protests in Iran. Dancing, a form of expression often suppressed by the government, has emerged as a symbolic act of civil disobedience, challenging the values and rules put in place by the regime.

In recent months, the anger has focused on the mandatory hijab rule, which forces women to cover their heads while in public. Unrest erupted in September 2022 when a young woman in Tehran died while in police custody for an alleged hijab violation.

Since then, thousands of Iranians have taken to the streets to demand more freedoms and women's rights, with the judiciary, backed by lawmakers, responding to the biggest threat to the Islamic government since the 1979 revolution with a brutal crackdown.

Several thousand people have been arrested, including many protesters, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, digital rights defenders, and others. At least seven protesters have been executed after what rights groups and several Western governments have called "sham" trials.

Several more remain on death row and senior judiciary officials have said they are determined to ensure those convicted and sentenced have their punishments meted out.

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

Iran Won't Be Allowed To Obtain Nukes, Blinken Tells Israeli Lobby Group

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers a statement upon arriving in Tel Aviv on January 30.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on June 5 reiterated the U.S. administration's firm stance that Iran is Israel's top threat and will never be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon. "If Iran rejects the path of diplomacy, then, as President [Joe] Biden has repeatedly made clear, all options are on the table to ensure that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons," Blinken told the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington. Blinken also said Saudi-Israeli normalization is deeply important for Washington. "The United States has a real national-security interest in promoting normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia," he said.

Iranian Labor Groups Call On ILO To Kick Iran Out Of Organization

The logo of the International Labor Organization

Eight independent labor organizations in Iran have called for the expulsion of the country from the International Labor Organization (ILO) and its session in Switzerland that starts on June 5.

The organizations, including the Organizing Council of Oil Contract Workers' Protests and the Iran Retirees Council, urged representative delegations from countries around the world to kick Iran out of the conference being held in the Swiss city of Geneva, as well as from the ILO, to protest against the suppression of dissent in Iran, especially with regard to workers, teachers, and protesters who have been jailed for speaking out.

The authors of the letter, which includes the names of 22 imprisoned labor activists and 19 imprisoned teachers, criticize the Iranian government's economic policies, saying they have led to widespread poverty and hardship, particularly for workers. They also highlighted "the government-sanctioned killing" of Mahsa Amini last September, which sparked public anger and spurred a movement against poverty, misery, and human rights suppression in Iran.

The letter says workers' and teachers' rights, particularly the right to form independent organizations and the right to hold gatherings and protests, are fundamental rights in any society.

The Iranian government delegation at the annual ILO conference "does not truly represent the workers, teachers, and people of Iran," it says, adding the ILO conference should make the "release of all imprisoned workers, teachers, and social activists and detainees of the movement of 'Women, Life, Freedom' and all political prisoners" and the immediate cancelation of executions in Iran as a "special agenda" for the meeting in Geneva.

The labor organizations have also demanded the "expulsion of the Islamic republic from the ILO and not allowing the delegation of this government to participate in the ILO conference in Geneva."

Iran's economy has been ravaged by U.S. sanctions, leading to a surge of protests in several cities. A report from the Labor Ministry indicated a significant increase in Iran's poverty rate, growing 50 percent in 2021 compared to the previous year.

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

The Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) group said on June 1 at least 307 people -- including at least 142 people in May alone -- have been executed in 2023, a 76 percent rise compared with the same period last year.

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

Iran To Reopen Its Embassy In Riyadh In Sign Of Further Thawing Of Relations

Women walk past the Iranian embassy in Riyadh, which will reopen on June 6. (file photo)

Iran will reopen its embassy in Saudi Arabia’s capital on June 6, Iranian sources told the semiofficial Fars news agency, months after Tehran and Riyadh agreed to end years of hostility. In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish relations after years of hostility between the regional rivals that had threatened stability and security in the Middle East and helped fuel regional conflicts from Yemen to Syria. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

U.S. Navy Says Iranian Fast-Attack Boats 'Harassed' Ship In Strait Of Hormuz

The U.S. Navy's guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul was one of two Western vessels that responded to the incident. (file photo)

The U.S. Navy said on June 5 that its sailors and the U.K. Royal Navy came to the aid of a ship in the crucial Strait of Hormuz after Iran's Revolutionary Guards “harassed” it. Three fast-attack vessels with armed troops aboard approached the merchant ship at a close distance in the afternoon on June 4, the U.S. Navy said in a statement. The U.S. Navy's guided-missile destroyer USS McFaul and the Royal Navy's frigate HMS Lancaster responded to the incident, with the Lancaster launching a helicopter. To read the original story by AP, click here.

German Jailed In Iran's Life 'In Danger,' Fellow Prisoner Says

Nahid Taghavi was sentenced to 10 years and eight months in jail in August 2021 after being arrested at her Tehran apartment in October 2020.

The life of a German-Iranian detained in Iran is in danger and she is in such pain she can barely move, a fellow prisoner who is a prominent rights activist said on June 4. Nahid Taghavi, 68, was sentenced to 10 years and eight months in jail in August 2021 after being arrested at her Tehran apartment in October 2020, and is being held in solitary confinement at Tehran's Evin prison. "The life of Nahid Taghavi, a political prisoner, is in danger," her fellow inmate, the prize-winning campaigner Narges Mohammadi, wrote on an Instagram account run by family in France.

Defying Taboos: Beloved Iranian Cleric Rescues Animals

It's rare for a cleric in Iran to attract a large following of adoring young fans on Instagram, but Sayed Mahdi Tabatabaei has done so by rescuing street dogs and cats in defiance of local taboos.

Three Europeans Return Home After Release By Iran In Prisoner Swap

Iranian opposition activists protest with a poster depicting Iranian official Asadollah Assadi in Brussels in October 2018.

Three Europeans returned home on June 3, a day after being released by Iran in a prisoner swap, and Tehran said there was no reason for Europeans to be arrested if they were not "exploited" by foreign security services. The three men -- two with dual Austrian-Iranian nationality and one Dane -- were released on June 2 by Iran in return for Iranian diplomat Asadollah Assadi as part of a swap in which Iran freed Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele last week, a Belgian government spokesperson said. Assadi was convicted in Belgium in 2021 in connection with a foiled bomb plot in France and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Iran said the charges against him were fabricated. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iran Says To Form Naval Alliance With Persian Gulf States To Ensure Regional Stability

Shahram Irani, commander of the Iranian Navy (file photo)

Iran's navy commander said his country and Saudi Arabia, as well as three other Persian Gulf states, plan to form a naval alliance that will also include India and Pakistan, Iranian media reported on June 3. "The countries of the region have today realized that only cooperation with each other brings security to the area," Iranian naval commander Shahram Irani was quoted as saying. He did not elaborate on the shape of the alliance that he said would be formed soon. Iran has recently been trying to mend its strained ties with several Persian Gulf Arab states. In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran ended seven years of hostility under a China-mediated deal, stressing the need for regional stability and economic cooperation. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Iranian Student Beaten Amid Fears That Growing Wave Of Attacks Is Related To Protests

The incident took place at Chamran University in the city of Ahvaz. (file photo)

Security personnel at a university in southwestern Iran appear to have severely assaulted a student, the latest in a series of violent attacks on school campuses amid anti-government protests led by young Iranians angered at the regime's intrusions on their rights.

The incident took place on May 30 at Chamran University in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz, where a video shows several security personnel cornering and severely assaulting a student near the university dormitory.

The Union Council of Iranian Students reported the incident, sharing a video of the attack on June 2.

"According to numerous reports, on May 30, security agents for Chamran University in Ahvaz attacked a male student after a football match, beat him, and then took him away in a car," the council said.

As of June 2, no information has been made available about the condition of the student who was assaulted.

The incident comes days after a a video was released showing a female student being injured when someone pulled a knife on her at Tehran’s Soore University and another on the campus of Kerman University in central Iran where a female student was stabbed.

The Union Council said that in the Kerman University attack, security forces failed to intervene to aid the student, who was rescued instead by other students. The woman who was attacked was seriously injured and is currently in the intensive care unit at a local hospital.

It added that security forces have since tried to "cover up" the incident and "have not accepted any responsibility for it."

Iranian universities have become a hotbed for unrest since the death of Mahsa Amini in Tehran. The 22-year-old died while in police custody for an alleged violation of the country's mandatory head-scarf law.

Police have tried to shift the blame onto Amini's health, but supporters say witnesses saw her being beaten when taken into custody. Her family says she had no history of any medical issues and was in good health.

There have been clashes at universities and schools between protesters and the authorities, prompting security forces to launch a series of raids on education facilities across the country, violently arresting students, especially female students, who have defiantly taken off their head scarves, or hijabs, in protest.

The Union Council blasted campus authorities for pushing security officers to focus on enforcing dress codes "lest a strand of hair disgrace the university," instead of ensuring safety.

Another group, the Student Guild Council, noted that since the student protests started, "increasing the budget, increasing power, and an extensive recruitment for the university’s security office" have become the main focus of school administrators.

Meanwhile, it says there has also been an influx of people, thought to be security agents, "in civilian clothes roaming universities, taking pictures of students, and engaging with them" as officials try to enforce the hijab law.

The situation has prompted some to say these attacks are intentional and a scare tactic being used to intimidate students so they will end their protests.

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

New U.S. Sanctions Take Aim At Company Responsible For Internet Censorship In Iran

The U.S. Treasury Department announced the sanctions on June 2. (file photo)

The United States has issued fresh sanctions targeting Iranian technology company Arvan Cloud, two employees of the company, and an affiliated firm for their roles in helping Tehran censor the Internet in the country, the Treasury Department said.

Arvan Cloud, a web-hosting service and content delivery network, has played a prominent role in the Iranian government’s development of the National Information Network (NIN) infrastructure, a censored version of the Internet under the control of Iranian authorities, the department said in a statement on June 2.

"The Iranian government has regularly used Internet restrictions and the throttling of Internet speeds to suppress dissent, surveil and punish Iranians for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly both online and offline," the statement said.

The department said Iranian authorities have sought to move domestic Internet traffic to the NIN in an effort to mitigate lost economic activity incurred when it imposes Internet restrictions to suppress dissent.

These restrictions have increased amid widespread protests over deteriorating living conditions and other grievances that erupted after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini last year in police custody for an alleged infraction of the country's mandatory head-scarf law.

Arvan Cloud helped lay the groundwork for the NIN’s integrated cloud network infrastructure and in contracts with the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, it has “explicitly agreed to provide interception for the government, allowing Iranian authorities to control and censor incoming and outgoing traffic and surveil data on the servers,” the Treasury Department said.

It also said Arvan Cloud has a close relationship with Iran's intelligence services and its executives are either current or former affiliates of Iranian intelligence.

Brian Nelson, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said free and unrestricted access to information is a fundamental right of all peoples, including in Iran.

“The United States is committed to holding accountable those who seek to undermine freedom of expression and suppress dissent, and to call out regimes who deny their citizens this right,” Nelson said in the Treasury's statement.

The individuals designated for sanctions are Pouya Pirhosseinloo and Farhad Fatemi, co-founders of Arvan Cloud. The sanctions also target ArvanCloud Global Technologies LLC, an affiliate based in the United Arab Emirates.

The sanctions freeze any property in U.S. jurisdiction owned by the individuals and entities designated. They also bar U.S. citizens from any dealings with the individuals and entities.

With reporting by Reuters

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