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Pompeo Warns Iran Over Attacks By 'Proxies' In Iraq

U.S. and Iraqi Army officers walk inside a base at Qayyara, west of Mosul.
U.S. and Iraqi Army officers walk inside a base at Qayyara, west of Mosul.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has warned Iran of a "decisive" response if U.S. interests are harmed in Iraq following rocket attacks on bases used by U.S. troops.

In a statement on December 13, Pompeo accused Iran's "proxies" of conducting "several attacks against bases where Iraqi Security Forces are co-located with U.S. and International Coalition personnel" involved in the fight against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

The statement cited a December 9 attack against an Iraqi facility located on the Baghdad International Airport compound, which it said wounded five Iraqi soldiers, including two critically.

It was followed by another rocket attack on the airport on December 11, it added, without providing further details.

Iran has gained growing influence in neighboring Iraq, with which it shares a Shi'ite majority, following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that brought down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdel-Mahdi resigned two weeks ago following two months of demonstrations directed mainly at Iraq's political leaders, but many of those taking part have also expressed anger at Iran's influence over Iraq's internal affairs.

Pompeo warned Iran's leaders that "any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity, that harm Americans, our allies, or our interests will be answered with a decisive U.S. response."

"Iran must respect the sovereignty of its neighbors and immediately cease its provision of lethal aid and support to third parties in Iraq and throughout the region," he said.

In a study released by the Pentagon last month, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency accused Iran of using a network of "militant partners and proxies," including Shi'ite militias in Iraq, to enable it to advance its interests in the Middle East.

The study noted that Iran remained "implacably opposed to the United States and its presence in the Middle East."

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, along with its regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, has been trying to counter Tehran's influence across the region, including through sanctions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calls For Boycott

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generational Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success In Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules Broken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recalculation Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Game Changer'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With reporting by Reuters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Purging The System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

'Dismal Turnout'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran Blames Israel For Explosions At Gas Pipelines That Disrupted Supplies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli officials also have not commented on the factory incident.

Owji said the damaged gas lines have been repaired.

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

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

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

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

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

Polad Omarov
Polad Omarov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lebanon's Hizballah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palestinian Islamic Jihad

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

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

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

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

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

Iraqi Shi'ite Militias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian State And Pro-Government Militias

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yemen's Huthi Rebels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jailed Iranian Reformist Tajzadeh Issues Scathing Criticism Of Supreme Leader

The letter by jailed reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh highlights Iran's deep-seated political divisions and the challenges facing the country's reformist movement. 
The letter by jailed reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh highlights Iran's deep-seated political divisions and the challenges facing the country's reformist movement. 

Prominent Iranian reformist politician Mostafa Tajzadeh, who is currently imprisoned at Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, has issued a scathing criticism of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, saying he is responsible for the current "flawed structure of the political system in Iran."

In a letter published from prison, where he is serving a five-year sentence after being found guilty in late 2022 of "collusion against national security" and "propaganda against the regime," he says he will abstain from voting in the forthcoming parliamentary and Assembly of Experts elections because of the "strategic failures" of the Islamic republic's leadership.

He also highlighted the devaluation of elections under Khamenei's leadership, saying holding such events was "pointless" given the current conditions of the country, which has seen months of unrest over living conditions, a lack of rights, and restricted freedoms, especially with regard to women.

Khamenei has "closed his eyes" to the "disastrous facts of Iran" and does not listen to the protests of millions of citizens, said Tajzadeh, who served as deputy interior minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, who held office from 1997 to 2005.

"On the other hand, most Iranians have also decided to ignore the leader and his radio and television addresses to protest the miserable state of the country. Don't vote," Tajzadeh added.

The publication of the letter came after another call from the Islamic republic's leader for voters to head to the polls en masse for March 1 elections he framed as "a solution for the country's ongoing issues."

Tajzadeh's letter highlights the deep-seated political divisions and the challenges facing Iran's reformist movement.

He criticized Khamenei for setting "red lines" that include maintaining hostile relations with Washington, enforcing the mandatory hijab law, supervision over the vetting of election candidates, and the continued illegal detention of political dissidents.

Such policies, Tajzadeh said, hinder any potential for international engagement or economic improvement for Iran in the foreseeable future.

Tajzadeh accused Khamenei of ignoring the "disastrous realities of Iran" and the voices of millions of dissenting citizens, highlighting a widespread resolve among Iranians to protest the dire state of the nation by boycotting the polls.

Tajzadeh was first arrested in 2009 during mass protests disputing the reelection of then President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who ran against opposition reformist candidates Mehdi Karrubi and Mir Hossein Musavi.

In 2010, Tajzadeh was convicted of harming national security and propaganda against the state. He was released in 2016 after serving most of his seven-year sentence.

After his release, Tajzadeh often called on authorities to free Karrubi and Musavi, who have been under house arrest for more than a decade.

In October 2022, a branch of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court sentenced Tajzadeh to the current five-year term he is serving. Tajzadeh declined to speak in court during the hearing after a request he made to talk one-on-one with his lawyer was rejected.

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

U.S. Conducts Five Strikes In Huthi-Controlled Areas Of Yemen, Military Says

A missile is launched from a warship during the U.S.-led coalition operation against military targets in Yemen aimed at the Iran-backed Huthi militia that has been targeting international shipping in the Red Sea. (file photo)
A missile is launched from a warship during the U.S.-led coalition operation against military targets in Yemen aimed at the Iran-backed Huthi militia that has been targeting international shipping in the Red Sea. (file photo)

The United States conducted five self-defense strikes in areas of Yemen controlled by the Iranian-backed Huthi militias, U.S. Central Command said on February 18. It said it struck three mobile, anti-ship cruise missiles, one unmanned underwater vessel, and one unmanned surface vessel on February 17. Huthi attacks in the Red Sea area have been one sign of spreading conflict in the Middle East since war erupted between Israel and Hamas -- deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union -- after the extremist Palestinian group's deadly assault on Israel on October 7.

Several More Baha'is Jailed In Iran As Crackdown Continues

Mina Karami and Keyvan Rahimian (combo photo)
Mina Karami and Keyvan Rahimian (combo photo)

Iran's judiciary has handed down lengthy sentences to several members of the Baha'i community, the country's largest non-Muslim group, the latest in a series of acts by the government against the faith's followers.

Keyvan Rahimian, a psychologist and Baha'i follower, was sentenced to a total of nine years in prison by Branch 15 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, according to an Instagram page associated with Rahimian.

It added that the sentence was split between five years for alleged "educational and/or promotional activities contrary to or undermining the sacred Shari'a of Islam," and an additional four years for "assembly and collusion."

Rahimian was arrested in July 2023 and he has been detained in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since then.

Meanwhile, Mina Karami, another Baha'i follower, was arrested on February 14 by security agencies on the streets of the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.

She was subsequently transferred to Adel-Abad prison in Shiraz to commence a five-year sentence previously handed down in September 2022 for similar charges of undermining Islamic Shari'a through educational activities.

Karami had been temporarily released on bail in early 2022 but now faces additional penalties, including a cash fine and a decade-long deprivation of social rights.

Another Baha'i follower, Noushin Misbah, voluntarily presented herself to the local prosecutor's office this week to begin serving a one-year prison term. She was then taken to Vakilabad prison in Mashhad.

Baha'i leaders have accused Iranian authorities of attempting to "systematically marginalize" its followers and deprive its members of their basic rights.

Since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979, hundreds of Baha'is have been arrested and jailed for their beliefs. At least 200 have been executed or were arrested and never heard from again. Thousands more have been banned from receiving higher education or had their property confiscated, while vandals often desecrate Baha'i cemeteries.

Baha'i officials also point to the arrests and reports of ongoing detentions and the unclear status of other Baha'i followers, such as Iman Rashidi and Yekta Fahandezh, whose situations remain unresolved after more than two months in custody.

The Islamic Republic of Iran does not recognize the Baha'i faith, and authorities have frequently targeted its followers, labeling them as "spies and enemies." This has led to a series of harsh penalties, including death sentences, arrests, and prohibitions on education and employment, highlighting a continuing trend of religious persecution in the country.

International human rights organizations have repeatedly condemned Iran's treatment of Baha'is, calling for an end to the discrimination and for the upholding of religious freedoms as per international standards.

There are some 300,000 Baha'i adherents in Iran and an estimated 5 million worldwide.

In a religious fatwa issued in 2018, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei forbade contact, including business dealings, with the followers of the faith.

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

Man Kills 12 Relatives In Southeastern Iran

The man reportedly opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his father, brother, and other relatives. (illustrative photo)
The man reportedly opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle on his father, brother, and other relatives. (illustrative photo)

A man shot dead 12 of his relatives on February 17 in a remote rural area in southeast Iran, in one of the deadliest such incidents in the country. Ebrahim Hamidi, the chief judiciary official in the south-central province of Kerman, told Iranian media the man, armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, opened fire on his father, brother, and other relatives. Hamidi said the shooting spree appeared to have been caused by family disputes. Reports say several children were among the victims. IRNA news agency said "attempts are under way" to arrest the 30-year-old suspect, who has not been named. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Farda, click here.

Women's Activist Rashno Says She's Been Summoned To Serve Sentence At Tehran's Evin Prison

Iranian women's rights activist Sepideh Rashno (file photo)
Iranian women's rights activist Sepideh Rashno (file photo)

Iranian women's rights activist Sepideh Rashno, a vocal critic of the country's compulsory head scarf law, said she has been ordered to begin a prison sentence of three years and 11 months.

The activist, who was arrested in June 2022 after a video of her arguing with another woman who was enforcing rules on wearing a head scarf on a bus in Tehran went viral, shared the news with her social media followers on February 15, noting that she also faces a travel ban.

The other woman in the altercation with Rashno threatened to send the video -- which showed Rashno riding the bus without a hijab, or Islamic head scarf -- to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

In July 2022, several days after she disappeared, Iranian state television aired a video "confession" by Rashno in which she appeared to be in a poor physical state. She was reportedly rushed to the hospital after the video was recorded.

Rashno's sentence encompasses three years and seven months in prison for the initial altercation on the bus and an additional four months related to charges of "announcing her suspension from university," and a financial penalty for "attending court in her choice of attire" as she refused to wear a hijab.

Just weeks after Rashno's arrest, mass protests erupted around the country after 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in September 2022 while in police custody after being arrested by morality police in Tehran for allegedly "improperly" wearing a hijab.

Rashno, 28, said she has been instructed to report to Evin Prison in the coming days to commence her sentence.

In her social media posts, she commented on the travel ban being imposed on her, saying “it holds little weight for someone with no plans to leave the country.”

The hijab became compulsory in public for Iranian women and girls above the age of 9 after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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

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

Jailed Iranian Activist Bakhtiari Handed Additional Sentence

Iranian activist Manuchehr Bakhtiari (file photo)
Iranian activist Manuchehr Bakhtiari (file photo)

Jailed Iranian activist Manuchehr Bakhtiari, a vocal critic of the government whose son was killed in 2019 protests, has been handed an additional six months in prison for "insulting the leader of the Islamic Republic."

The human rights website HRANA said a verdict on the new charges was disclosed by Branch 6 of the Appeal Court in Qazvin on February 14. It did not say when the hearing was held.

The new charges against Bakhtiari follow another sentence handed down to him on January 9 by Branch 1 of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Karaj, which condemned him to 18 years in prison and 74 lashes for "assembly and collusion with the intent to commit crimes against the security of the country," forming and managing a group in cyberspace with the purpose of "disrupting the country's security," spreading "lies," "propaganda against the system," and "disturbing public opinion."

Bakhtiari was violently arrested in April 2021 when security forces apprehended him at his Tehran home.

Following his arrest, he was convicted for his activism and sentenced to three years and six months in prison.

The November 2019 demonstrations in which Bakhtiari's son was killed brought thousands of citizens out on to the streets of more than 100 Iranian cities and towns to protest against the government's sudden decision to raise gas prices.

The protests quickly turned political, with many chanting slogans against the Iranian regime and its leaders.

The Iranian Human Rights Organization has confirmed the death of 324 citizens, including 14 children, in the 2019 protests, but Reuters estimated that the actual number of people killed was around 1,500.

The Islamic republic's leadership has a long history of harassing, arresting, and imprisoning the families of executed political prisoners and protesters who were killed. Officials fear that statements and actions by families of those killed will spark an outpouring of sympathy and further protests.

In recent months, pressure has intensified on the families seeking justice for those killed in the November 2019 protests and during the current wave of nationwide protests triggered by the death in September 2022 of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while in police custody following her arrest for allegedly wearing her Islamic head scarf improperly.

The Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA) says more than 500 people have been killed during the recent unrest, including 71 minors, as security forces try to stifle widespread dissent.

Nine protesters have been executed.

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

U.S. Slaps Sanctions On Subsidiary Of Central Bank of Iran, Other Entities And Individuals

The U.S. Treasury Department said the Central Bank of Iran has played a critical role in providing financial support to o the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force and Hizballah. 
The U.S. Treasury Department said the Central Bank of Iran has played a critical role in providing financial support to o the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force and Hizballah. 

The United States on February 14 said it had imposed sanctions on an Iranian subsidiary of the Central Bank of Iran (CBI), two entities based in the United Arab Emirates, one based in Turkey, and three individuals for smuggling U.S. technology. The Treasury Department named the entities as CBI subsidiary Informatics Services Corporation, the U.A.E.-based Advance Banking Solution Trading DMCC, the U.A.E.-based Freedom Star General Trading, and the Turkish-based Ted Teknoloji Gelistirme Hizmetleri Sanayi Ticaret Anonim Sirketi. The Treasury Department said the CBI has played a critical role in providing financial support to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force and Hizballah.

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