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Saudi Crown Prince Rules Out Opening Dialogue With Rival Iran

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (file photo)
Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (file photo)

In a rare televised interview, Saudi Arabia's deputy crown prince has said there is no possibility that he would open a dialogue with rival Iran because of its Shi'ite ambitions "to control the Islamic world."

"How can I come to an understanding with someone, or a regime, that has an anchoring belief built on an extremist ideology?" Muhammad bin Salman said in an interview aired on multiple Saudi TV channels on May 2.

"What are the interests between us? How can I come to an understanding with this?" he asked.

The 31-year-old prince was named an eventual heir to the throne in 2015 by his father, King Salman, and is also Saudi Arabia's defense minister, overseeing the war in Yemen against a rebel group aligned with Iran.

In ruling out rapprochement with Iran, he asserted it was Tehran's goal "to control the Islamic world" and to spread its Shi'ite doctrine in preparation for the arrival of a revered imam named Mohammad al-Mahdi.

Shi'ite Muslims believe Mahdi, the 12th and last Shi'ite imam who went into hiding 1,000 years ago, will return to establish global Islamic rule before the end of the world.

Iranians believe that "the Imam Mahdi will come and they must prepare the fertile environment for [his] arrival...and they must control the Muslim world," the prince said.

"We know that the aim of the Iranian regime is to reach the focal point of Muslims [Mecca], and we will not wait until the fight is inside Saudi Arabia. We will work so that the battle is on their side, inside Iran, not in Saudi Arabia."

Ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strained since Iran's 1979 revolution, with each side competing to be the more powerful force in the Muslim world.

The rivalry has played out in proxy wars across the Middle East. Besides backing opposing sides in the wars in Syria and Yemen, they support political rivals in Lebanon, Bahrain, and Iraq.

Tensions escalated last year after Saudi Arabia's execution of a local Shi'ite cleric sparked the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Iran by protesters. The two countries severed diplomatic and trade ties.

On Yemen, the prince defended the kingdom's decision to go to war there, which is costing Saudi Arabia tens of millions of dollars a day, according to some estimates.

The conflict has worsened an already dire humanitarian crisis verging on mass starvation in Yemen and killed thousands of civilians, most of whom were the victims of Saudi-led coalition air strikes.

Experts say the two-year war has reached a stalemate. Saudi Arabia and its allies have not been able to dislodge the Iranian-allied rebels, known as Huthis, from the capital of Sanaa and other major cities.

When asked about this, Prince Muhammad said the Huthis could be uprooted "in a matter of days." But, he said, Saudi Arabia had not sent ground troops to retake the capital and other major cities because it would lead to thousands of deaths among Saudi soldiers and Yemeni civilians.

"Time is on our side. Patience is on our side," he said, and the better choice is to exhaust the other side by choking off their supplies.

With reporting by AP, AFP, and Reuters

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The Push To Recognize 'Gender Apartheid' As A Crime

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

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

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

What Do They Want?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Do They Want It?

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

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

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

Tough Going

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

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

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

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

Imprisonment And Death In Iran

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Iranian Film Casts Real Refugees To Show Plight Of Displaced Afghans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Change From Iran's New President?

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

Iranian Warship Capsizes During Repairs In Bandar Abbas

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

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

Pezeshkian To Be Sworn In As Iran's President Early Next Month

President-elect Masud Pezeshkian speaks to supporters at the shrine of Iran's late leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on July 6.
President-elect Masud Pezeshkian speaks to supporters at the shrine of Iran's late leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, on July 6.

Moderate reformist Masud Pezeshkian, the winner of Iran's runoff presidential vote, will be sworn in before lawmakers early next month, Mojtaba Yosefi, a member of the Iranian parliament's presiding board, told state media.

Pezeshkian defeated ultraconservative hard-liner Saeed Jalili in the July 5 runoff, garnering 53.7 percent of the vote, or 16,384,403 votes, while Jalili received 44.3 percent, or 13,538,179 votes, according to final results announced by the Interior Ministry.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in Iran, first has to give his approval to Pezeshkian's win in a ceremony known as "tanfiz."

Following that ceremonial step, "the swearing-in ceremony of the president will be held on August 4 or 5," Yosefi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA on July 7.

"The president will then have 15 days to present his proposed ministers to the parliament for a vote of confidence," he said, adding that, according to parliamentary rules, Pezeshkian will officially renounce his lawmaker mandate on July 31.

Pezeshkian has been a member of parliament since 2008 and served as deputy speaker between 2016 and 2020, when moderates and reformists had a majority in the legislature.

Pezeshkian's victory came amid a turnout of 49.8 percent, considerably higher than the record-low 40 percent in the first round of the election, which was triggered by the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May.

Pezeshkian, who finished the first round with 10.5 million votes -- 1 million more than Jalili -- appears to have been the one who benefited from the larger turnout in the second round, finishing the runoff with nearly 3 million votes more than his opponent after voting was extended three times until midnight.

His campaign had sought to increase turnout by convincing young and disappointed people who boycotted the first round to vote in the runoff.

Following his surprise victory, Pezeshkian thanked young Iranians for helping him win.

"I am especially grateful to the dedicated and capable young people who came to work lovingly and sincerely on my team and together with the rest of the people shone a ray of hope and confidence in the future," the 69-year-old former heart surgeon wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

However, he warned that a "difficult path" lies ahead for the Islamic republic and appealed to Iranians not to leave him "alone" as he begins his presidency in a country beset by economic hardships compounded by international sanctions and dominated by a repressive theocracy.

Khamenei called the runoff vote "very important" and urged everyone "to work together.

Iran's theocracy, installed after the Islamic Revolution of 1979, has long maintained that it derives its legitimacy from strong popular support that translates into high voter turnout, but poor participation in recent elections and deadly antiestablishment protests have challenged the legitimacy of the current leadership.

Iran's New Reformist President Unlikely To Bring Major Policy Shifts
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Pezeshkian questioned Iran's methods of enforcing the Islamic head scarf for women following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022 while in the custody of Iran's dreaded morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

He has also said that while the hijab law should be observed, "there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behavior toward women."

Pezeshkian has called for "constructive relations" with Western countries and favors reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, but he also supports the principles of the Islamic republic and said he would follow Khamenei's policies if elected.

Iran's acute economic doldrums worsened after U.S. President Donald Trump's administration withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers in 2018, reimposing harsh sanctions.

Following Pezeshkian's victory, the European Union said it was prepared to talk.

"We take note of the results of the presidential elections in Iran and congratulate President-elect Masud Pezeshkian," Nabila Massrali, EU spokeswoman for foreign affairs and security policy, said on X. "We are ready to engage with the new government in line with EU policy of critical engagement."

Washington, however, dismissed the impact of Pezeshkian's election.

"The election will not have a significant impact on [Washington's] approach to Iran," a U.S. State Department spokesman told RFE/RL's Radio Farda. "Our concerns about Iran’s behavior are unchanged. At the same time, we remain committed to diplomacy when it advances American interests."

In a separate development, Iranian authorities on July 7 said they had arrested eight people in connection with the killing of two security force members who were carrying election boxes in the eastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province after the first round of voting on June 28.

The identities of those arrested were not revealed.

EU Says It's 'Ready To Engage' With Iran's Incoming President

Masud Pezeshkian (file photo)
Masud Pezeshkian (file photo)

The European Union has said it is ready to get involved in talks with the winner of Iran's presidential election, Masud Pezeshkian, following his July 6 victory. "We take note of the results of the presidential elections in Iran and congratulate President-elect Masud Pezeshkian," Nabila Massrali, the EU's spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, said on X. "We are ready to engage with the new government in line with EU policy of critical engagement," Massrali wrote. Pezeshkian has called for "constructive relations" with Western countries and favors reviving the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers.

Iran's New Reformist President Unlikely To Bring Major Policy Shifts

Iran's New Reformist President Unlikely To Bring Major Policy Shifts
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Moderate reformist Masud Pezeshkian, the winner of Iran's runoff presidential vote on July 5, defeated ultraconservative hard-liner Saeed Jalili. Pezeshkian's victory came amid a turnout of 49.8 percent, following the record-low 40 percent in the first round of the election. Experts say Pezeshkian is coming into a system dominated by conservatives and that the president-elect has been careful not to overpromise on reforms.

'Reformist Loyalist' Masud Pezeshkian Is Iran's New President. Here's What To Expect.

Masud Pezeshkian has said he wants to reach out to the West, though he has his his work cut out for him.
Masud Pezeshkian has said he wants to reach out to the West, though he has his his work cut out for him.

Elections in Iran are neither free nor fair, but they can still surprise. The election of reformist veteran lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian as Iran’s new president is one of those surprises.

Pezeshkian beat his ultraconservative rival Saeed Jalili in a runoff vote on July 5, winning more than 16.3 million votes in an election that saw a 49.8 percent turnout.

“Pezeshkian’s victory was a total surprise; he was really the unexpected candidate to come through this election,” said Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based Chatham House.

She said the political establishment, and even many in society, anticipated conservative parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf’s victory, but he did not even make it to the second round of voting.

The sentiment is shared among some in Pezeshkian’s camp. Mohammad Mohammad-Rezaei, a former lawmaker who campaigned for Pezeshkian in Kurdistan Province, said the former health minister did not even expect to be allowed to run in the election.

“I think [the authorities] wanted to engineer the election, and so they put a reformist on the ballot, as they did with [Abdolnasser] Hemmati [in 2021] to make it seem competitive,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda. “But they lost control and someone like Pezeshkian won.”

The first round of voting on June 28 saw a record-low turnout of 39.9 percent, in which Pezeshkian benefited from a split conservative vote to finish first, since Jalili and Qalibaf could not reach an agreement for one of them to drop out of the race.

Going into the second round, Pezeshkian sought to rally voters to his cause by playing on people’s fears of a hard-line candidate like Jalili winning the election. While that may have helped him win votes, analysts say it is not the only reason why people voted for him.

Farzan Sabet, a senior research associate at the Geneva Graduate Institute, described Pezeshkian as a “conservative reformist” who “did not make bold promises of changes and reforms” and so managed to draw on votes from traditional conservatives who do not back Jalili’s hard-line views.

No Major Policy Shifts

Pezeshkian is inheriting an economy hammered by mismanagement and sanctions and a society that has shown it will take to the streets to demand basic freedoms.

But consequential policies in Iran are set by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.

The president serves as the head of the Supreme National Security Council, but he ultimately only has one vote. So, while the president has a say, he does not have a lot of sway.

“Pezeshkian has given the impression that he will be a weak or pliable president, or at the very least he will adhere very strictly to the policy framework set by the supreme leader,” Sabet said.

Pezeshkian himself acknowledged the limits of presidential power throughout his campaign, noted Vakil, who described the president-elect as a “reformist loyalist who is, above all else, subservient to the supreme leader.”

She argued that being “compliant and pliant” could work in Pezeshkian’s favor, potentially affording him “some latitude to pursue openness with the West or engage on incremental issues” -- assuming Iran’s top brass wants to lift sanctions and boost the faltering economy.

Ultimate power in Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.
Ultimate power in Iran lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters.

Pezeshkian is unlikely to bring major reforms, but he might be able to exert some influence on policies thanks to his more conservative leanings compared to other reformists, said Sabet.

He speculated that Pezeshkian’s government might include reformists and moderates but also traditional conservatives, giving him some leverage to work with conservatives in parliament to “outmaneuver” hard-liners, who saw their numbers increase in the legislature following the election in March.

So, while there will not be major policy shifts, how existing policies are carried out could have a “meaningful impact” on domestic politics, foreign relations, and the economy.

Succession To Khamenei

One reason why Qalibaf was initially seen as the establishment’s preferred choice was because his executive experience, ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and conservative views made him an ideal candidate to maintain order and ensure a smooth transition of power in the event of Khamenei’s death.

Pezeshkian is a former health minister with years of experience in parliament, but the jury is out on whether he will be able to steady the boat if the 85-year-old supreme leader dies during his tenure.

“Pezeshkian was truly a second-tier reformist candidate,” Sabet said, but added, “That being said, he could grow into the role, despite not having held particularly senior positions in the past.”

With reporting by Hannah Kaviani of RFE/RL’s Radio Farda
Updated

Who Is Masud Pezeshkian, Iran's President-Elect?

Masud Pezeshkian has criticized Iran's hijab-enforcement methods but also spoken in support of Khamenei's policies.
Masud Pezeshkian has criticized Iran's hijab-enforcement methods but also spoken in support of Khamenei's policies.

Reformist lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian has won Iran's July 5 runoff presidential election against ultraconservative candidate Saeed Jalili and will become the ninth president of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

A former health minister, Pezeshkian has been representing the ethnic Azeri majority province of East Azerbaijan in the Iranian parliament for the past 16 years.*

Pezeshkian led the field of four candidates in the first round of Iran's presidential election on June 28, taking 42.5 percent of the vote. On July 5, he secured 53.6 percent of the ballots.

Despite more than 20 years in politics, Pezeshkian has not faced any corruption allegations and has not been implicated in any political scandals.

Pezeshkian was born in the Kurdish-majority city of Mahabad in West Azerbaijan Province and speaks fluent Kurdish and Azeri.

A physician by training, Pezeshkian went to the front lines during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War to fight and serve as a medic. He specialized in cardiac surgery after the war.

The 70-year-old also worked in academia, serving as the head of Tabriz University of Medical Sciences from 1994 to 1999.

Pezeshkian entered politics shortly after leaving the university, moving to Tehran in 2000 to serve as deputy health minister in the government of then-President Mohammad Khatami.

In 2001, Khatami named Pezeshkian as his health minister. Two years later, the parliament unsuccessfully tried to impeach Pezeshkian over what his critics said were bad appointments and poor use of a World Bank loan, among other alleged failures.

In 2008, three years after leaving government, Pezeshkian ran for parliament and finished first in the Tabriz constituency. He has been elected to parliament for five consecutive four-year terms.

From 2016 to 2020 -- when moderates and reformists controlled the legislature -- Pezeshkian served as one of two deputy speakers of parliament.

Pezeshkian ran for president in 2013 but dropped out without endorsing anyone. He tried his luck again in 2021 but he was disqualified from running by the Guardians Council, a constitutional watchdog that also vets candidates running in major elections.

Pezeshkian often recites the Koran and is an expert on Nahjul Balagha, a compilation of sermons and sayings attributed to the first Shi’ite imam, Ali. The book holds a special place among Shi'a in Iran.

The former health minister has been critical of the Islamic republic’s hijab-enforcement policies, warning in 2023 that it was only encouraging people to hate religion.

He has expressed an openness to negotiations with the West and has in the past criticized chanting against other countries, including the United States.

But Pezeshkian has also spoken in support of the Islamic republic’s principles and insisted that policies set out by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei should be followed.

Earlier this year, Pezeshkian said Khamenei’s intervention had ensured that he was not disqualified from running in parliamentary elections in March.

He has spoken in defense of minority rights, but his critics have accused him of pandering to nationalist sentiments among Iran’s ethnic Azeris. He has denied the allegations.

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified the province that Pezeshkian has been representing in parliament. It is East Azerbaijan, not West Azerbaijan.
Updated

Pezeshkian 'Grateful' To Iran's Youth For Helping Him Win Presidency; U.S. Dismisses Impact Of Vote

"The difficult path ahead will only become smoother with your companionship, empathy, and trust," Masud Pezeshkian, Iran's president-elect, told the country on July 6. (file photo)
"The difficult path ahead will only become smoother with your companionship, empathy, and trust," Masud Pezeshkian, Iran's president-elect, told the country on July 6. (file photo)

Moderate reformist Masud Pezeshkian, the winner of Iran's runoff presidential vote, has thanked young Iranians for helping him win as foreign leaders and members of the Iranian establishment congratulated him on his victory, while Washington dismissed the impact of the results.

Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old former heart surgeon, defeated ultraconservative hard-liner Saeed Jalili in the July 5 runoff, garnering 53.7 percent of the vote, or 16,384,403 votes, while Jalili received 44.3 percent, or 13,538,179 votes, according to results announced by Mohsen Eslami, the spokesman of Iran's election headquarters.

"I am especially grateful to the dedicated and capable young people who came to work lovingly and sincerely on my team and together with the rest of the people shone a ray of hope and confidence in the future," the 69-year-old former heart surgeon wrote on X.

Pezeshkian's victory came amid a turnout of 49.8 percent, considerably higher than the record-low 40 percent in the first round of the election, which was triggered by the death of President Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May.

Social media videos purported to show Pezeshkian's supporters, mostly young people, taking to the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities to celebrate, even before the final results were announced.

Pezeshkian, however, warned that a "difficult path" lies ahead for the Islamic republic and appealed to Iranians not to leave him "alone" as he begins his presidency in a country beset by economic hardships compounded by international sanctions and dominated by a repressive theocracy.

"The difficult path ahead will only become smoother with your companionship, empathy, and trust. I extend my hand to you, and I swear on my honor that I, in turn, will not leave you alone on this path," Pezeshkian wrote in a separate message.

Voting on July 5 had been scheduled to end at 6 p.m., but it was extended three times until midnight as authorities sought to encourage as many people as possible to go to the polls.

The first round failed to generate widespread participation, despite calls by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who wields ultimate power in Iran, for a high turnout to project an image of a strong Iran where its people back the political establishment.

Khamenei, who has final say in Iran's politics, congratulated Pezeshkian, calling for unity.

"I call on everyone to work together," said Khamenei, who had called the runoff vote "very important."

Hossein Salami, the chief of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), also welcomed Pezeshkian's victory, offering his "cooperation" to the incoming president.

"We are fully prepared to continue and strengthen the cooperation and interaction between the IRGC and the government," Salami said in a statement.

Iran's theocracy, installed after the Islamic revolution of 1979, has long maintained that it derives its legitimacy from strong popular support that translates into high voter turnout, but poor participation in recent elections and deadly antiestablishment protests have challenged the legitimacy of the current leadership.

Pezeshkian has been a member of parliament since 2008 and served as deputy speaker between 2016 and 2020, when moderates and reformists had a majority in the legislature.

Pezeshkian questioned Iran's methods of enforcing the Islamic head scarf for women following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022 while in the custody of Iran's dreaded morality police for allegedly wearing her hijab improperly.

After Amini's death, which sparked months of unrest across the country, Pezeshkian demanded clarification from authorities about her case.

After casting his vote during the first round last week, Pezeshkian said, "We will respect the hijab law, but there should never be any intrusive or inhumane behavior toward women."

Pezeshkian has also spoken in favor of negotiating with the West, but he also supports the principles of the Islamic republic and said he would follow Khamenei's policies if elected.

While Pezeshkian's victory is unlikely to result in major policy shifts, it could have an impact on the succession to the 85-year-old Khamenei, who has been Iran's supreme leader since 1989.

Khamenei now has to give his approval to Pezeshkian's win in a ceremony known as "tanfiz."

Following that ceremonial step, the new president's inauguration is expected to take place sometime between July 22 and August 5.

An electoral staff member empties a ballot box at a polling station on July 6 after voting ended in Iran's runoff presidential election. Pezeshkian's victory came amid a turnout of 49.8 percent, considerably higher than the record-low 40 percent in the first round of the election.
An electoral staff member empties a ballot box at a polling station on July 6 after voting ended in Iran's runoff presidential election. Pezeshkian's victory came amid a turnout of 49.8 percent, considerably higher than the record-low 40 percent in the first round of the election.

Pezeshkian, who finished the first round with 10.5 million votes -- 1 million more than Jalili -- appears to have been the one who benefited from the larger turnout in the second round, finishing the runoff with nearly 3 million votes more than his opponent.

His campaign had sought to increase turnout by convincing people who boycotted the first round to vote in the runoff.

Mohammad Mohammad-Rezaei, a former lawmaker from Iran's Kurdistan Province who worked for Pezeshkian's campaign, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that Pezeshkian's main advantage has been his galvanizing power among all walks of life.

"One of the merits of Pezeshkian is that he is a patriot and his character transcends party politics. He is above political parties, fronts, and groups," Mohammad-Rezaei said.

His supporters attempted to highlight what they saw as the dangers of a hard-line figure like Jalili coming to power, arguing that his administration would enact repressive policies and further isolate Iran.

Iran's New Reformist President Unlikely To Bring Major Policy Shifts
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Jalili's supporters portrayed Pezeshkian as a man who is soft on the West and who would make Iranian progress dependent on good relations with Western nations.

The U.S. State Department, in comments to RFE/RL's Radio Farda, noted the results but said that elections in Iran are neither free or fair.

"As a result, a significant number of Iranians chose not to participate at all," a spokesman said. "We have no expectation these elections will lead to fundamental change in Iran’s direction or more respect for the human rights of its citizens. As the candidates themselves have said, Iranian policy is set by the supreme leader.

"The election will not have a significant impact on [Washington's] approach to Iran either. Our concerns about Iran’s behavior are unchanged. At the same time, we remain committed to diplomacy when it advances American interests."

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes during the presidential election in Tehran on July 5.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes during the presidential election in Tehran on July 5.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping both congratulated Pezeshkian on his victory.

"I hope that your tenure as president will contribute to a reinforcement of constructive bilateral cooperation between our friendly peoples," Putin said.

Russia and Iran, both under harsh Western sanctions, can "coordinate efforts to resolve international issues in a constructive manner," Putin added.

Iran has been supplying Russia with drones that Moscow has been using to attack mainly civilian targets in Ukraine since the Kremlin started the invasion of its neighbor in February 2022.

"I attach great importance to the development of China-Iran relations and am willing to work with the president to lead the China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership towards deeper advancement," state news agency Xinhua quoted Xi as saying.

China is Iran's largest trade partner and a main destination for Tehran's sanctioned oil.

King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional rival, in a message to Pezeshkian, expressed hope for the "continued development of relations which link our two countries and our two brotherly peoples," according to the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA).

The powerful Saudi crown prince also congratulated Pezeshkian on his election.

"I affirm my keenness on developing and deepening the relations between our countries and people and serve our mutual interests," SPA quoted Muhammad Bin Salman as saying.

Last year, Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed in a China-brokered deal to restore diplomatic ties after years on interruption.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also congratulated Pezeshkian.

"Looking forward to working closely with you to further strengthen our warm and long-standing bilateral relationship for the benefit of our peoples and the region," Modi wrote on X.

Swedish-Iranian Drops Hunger Strike Over Exclusion From Swap Deal

Amnesty International is among the groups protesting for Ahmadreza Djalali's release.
Amnesty International is among the groups protesting for Ahmadreza Djalali's release.

The wife of an Iranian-Swedish academic condemned to death in Iran says he has ended a hunger strike eight days after launching the protest at his being left out of a prisoner swap between Tehran and Stockholm.

Vida Mehrannia told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on July 5 that her husband, Ahmadreza Djalali, accepted calls to end his hunger strike as he was suffering from "severe" weakness, heart and blood-pressure issues, and "severe stomach problems" made worse by previous hunger strikes.

Last month, Sweden released former Iranian prison official Hamid Nouri in exchange for Swedish citizens Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi.

Djalali, who was detained in 2016 and subsequently sentenced to death for allegedly spying for Israel, was not part of the exchange.

He has denied all the charges against him.

Mehrannia has said the Swedish government's explanations for not including him are not "convincing."

Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said on June 25 that his government’s only options were to bring Floderus and Azizi back or walk away from the talks.

Djalali appears to be the longest-held dual citizen held in Iranian custody.

His wife accuses Tehran of holding him to “pressure” European states to release Iranian prisoners.

Last month's prisoner swap deal has been widely condemned by rights groups and activists because Nouri was sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

At least eight other European citizens are currently held in Iran, including Jamshid Sharmahd, a German citizen of Iranian descent sentenced to death.

Updated

Polls Close After Voting Extended To Midnight In Iran's Presidential Runoff Amid Concerns Over Turnout

Iranian women prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station in Tehran on July 5.
Iranian women prepare to cast their ballots at a polling station in Tehran on July 5.

Voting hours were extended three times before closing at midnight in Iran on July 5 in a runoff presidential election being held after no candidate secured enough votes to be declared the outright winner of the June 28 vote, which saw a record-low turnout

Polling stations were scheduled to close at 6 p.m. local time. However, voting was initially extended to 8 p.m., then to 10 p.m., then a third time to midnight. Voting hours are often extended in Iranian elections.

At midnight, state TV said polling stations had officially closed but that voters inside would still be able to drop off ballots.

Initial results are likely to come out shortly after voting ends, with final results scheduled to be announced on July 6.

The election, which was triggered by the death of Ebrahim Raisi in a helicopter crash in May, has come down to a choice between the reformist veteran lawmaker Masud Pezeshkian and hard-line former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili.

It comes at a time when Iranians are contending with a lack of freedoms, declining living standards, and a faltering economy.

Reformist And Hard-Liner In Iranian Presidential Election Runoff Amid Record-Low Voter Turnout
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Jalili serves as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal representative on the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC). He was the SNSC’s secretary between 2007 and 2013, during which time he led the Iranian delegation in failed talks with the West on Tehran’s nuclear program.

He represents the hard-line part of the conservative camp and has never held elected office.

Pezeshkian has been a member of parliament since 2008 and served as deputy speaker between 2016 and 2020, when moderates and reformists had a majority in the legislature.

He has questioned Iran’s methods of enforcing the hijab, or Islamic head scarf, for women, and spoken in favor of negotiating with the West. But he also supports the principles of the Islamic republic and says he will follow Khamenei’s policies if elected.

The outcome of the election is unlikely to result in major policy shifts, but it could have an impact on the succession to the 85-year-old Khamenei, who has been Iran’s supreme leader since 1989.

The first round of voting saw a record-low turnout of 39.9 percent, despite calls by Khamenei for a high voter participation to project an image of a strong Iran where its people back the political establishment.

Khamenei reiterated that message on July 3, when he acknowledged that first-round turnout was "not as expected" but denied the lack of voter interest reflected unpopularity for Iran's leadership.

He called the vote "very important," adding, "Those who love Islam and the Islamic republic and the progress of the country must show it by taking part in the election."

Khamenei, who has the final say on all official matters in Iran, cast his vote at a mobile polling station at Imam Khomeini Hospital in Tehran in the first minutes after voting started on July 5.

"I've heard that people's enthusiasm and interest are higher than in the first round," Khamenei said. "May God make it this way as this will be gratifying news."

One man who asked not to be identified told RFE/RL he did not participate in the first round of voting but that he cast a ballot for Pezeshkian in this round.

Sepideh, a 19-year-old university student in Tehran, told Reuters: "I will not vote. This is a big NO to the Islamic Republic because of Mahsa [Amini]. I want a free country, I want a free life."

The 2022 death in custody of Amini, a young Kurdish-Iranian woman, sparked massive street protests throughout Iran, leading to a brutal crackdown by authorities.

The Islamic republic has long maintained it derives its legitimacy from strong voter turnout, but poor participation in recent elections and deadly antiestablishment protests have challenged the legitimacy of the current leadership.

Pezeshkian finished the first round with 10.5 million votes, above Jalili’s 9.5 million. But he also benefited from the splitting of the conservative vote, with 3.4 million votes going to parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf who has since endorsed Jalili.

However, there is no guarantee that all of Qalibaf’s votes will swing to Jalili since they represent vastly different groups in the highly factionalized conservative camp.

Pezeshkian’s campaign has been trying to increase turnout by convincing people who boycotted the first round to vote in the runoff. His supporters have sought to highlight what they see as the dangers of a hard-line figure like Jalili coming to power, arguing that his administration will enact repressive policies and further isolate Iran.

Jalili's supporters have portrayed Pezeshkian as a man who is soft on the West and will make Iranian progress dependent on good relations with Western nations.

Dissidents have urged the public to continue their boycott of the vote, insisting that elections in Iran are neither free nor fair and that past votes have failed to instigate change since ultimate power lies with Khamenei.

Raisi, who many Iranians refer to as the "Butcher of Tehran" for his alleged role in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 when he was Tehran's deputy prosecutor, died along with Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and several other officials when their helicopter crashed on May 19.

Updated

Iran Sentences Labor Activist To Death Amid Rights Groups' Outcry

Iranian labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi (file photo)
Iranian labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi (file photo)

Labor activist Sharifeh Mohammadi has been sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court in the northern city of Rasht, rights groups told RFE/RL’s Radio Farda on July 4, a move her supporters have labeled "medieval and criminal."

The court said the woman been convicted on charges of "armed rebellion against the state" and included as evidence her membership in an independent labor organization.

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

The Norway-based Hengaw and U.S.-based Human Rights Activists News Agency also reported on Mohammadi’s death sentence.

The Campaign for the Defense of Sharifeh Mohammadi described the labor organization -- the Coordination Committee for Helping to Establish Labor Organizations -- as legal but said that, in any case, she had not been a member for 10 years.

The Defense Campaign called the court verdict against her "medieval and criminal."

“Many believe that this ridiculous and baseless verdict was issued solely to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation among Gilan [Province] activists,” the group said.

Mohammadi’s cousin, Vida Mohammadi, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that the woman has been tortured in prison following her arrest on December 5, 2023, and that she had spent several months in solitary confinement.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Iran “remains one of the world’s top practitioners of the death penalty, applying it to individuals convicted of crimes committed as children and under vague national security charges; occasionally, it is also used for nonviolent offenses.”

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

Campaigning Over Ahead Of Iran's Presidential Vote, With Turnout A Concern

Reformist Masud Pezeshkian (left) and ultraconservative Saeed Jalili in a televised debate ahead of the second-round vote in a presidential election where turnout has been a cause of concern for Iran's most senior leaders.
Reformist Masud Pezeshkian (left) and ultraconservative Saeed Jalili in a televised debate ahead of the second-round vote in a presidential election where turnout has been a cause of concern for Iran's most senior leaders.

Iranian state media said on July 4 that campaigning had ended one day ahead of a runoff vote between a reformist and a hard-liner to replace the country's late president in an election beset so far by record-low turnout.

The tightly vetted race has narrowed to ultraconservative Saeed Jalili and veteran reformist lawmaker and ethnic Azeri Masud Pezeshkian, who surprised many by earning the most of four candidates in voting on June 28.

Voter turnout in the first round was just 40 percent, a record low that has prompted concern at the highest levels of the country's religiously dominated leadership.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged on July 3 that the turnout was "not as expected" but denied the lack of voter interest reflected unpopularity for Iran's leadership and called the vote "very important."

“Those who love Islam and the Islamic republic and the progress of the country must show it by taking part in the election,” said Khamenei, 85, who has the final say on all state matters.

While some of the regime's harshest critics have urged a boycott of round two, it was unclear how widespread those calls were and whether Iranians would heed them.

Iran's unelected, hard-line institutions routinely vet candidate applications to weed out perceived threats, including by disqualifying relative moderates.

This election is seen as especially important because of Khamenei's advanced age and the eventual winner's potential role in influencing the choice of the next supreme leader.

Pezeshkian won around 42.5 percent of the ballots in the first round, according to official results, while Jalili finished with 38.6 percent.

Neither of the other two candidates -- parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf and former Justice Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi -- got more than 14 percent.

Critics and dissidents urged a boycott of the election, saying past votes have failed to bring change.

'Not Free At All': Iranians Voice Need For Change Amid Snap Presidential Election
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Voter turnout in Iran has been slumping since 2020, seemingly driven by frustration over a lack of freedoms and reforms, a beleaguered economy that is still subject to U.S. and other sanctions, and falling living standards.

Rights groups have alleged that Iran's authorities have cranked up suppression of critical voices on social media since ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash while returning from a visit to Azerbaijan on May 19.

Raisi was an intensely divisive figure who was relentless in his criticism of the West and accused of serving as a prosecutor for an "execution committee" that sent thousands of political prisoners and regime opponents to their deaths in the late 1980s.

He was also seen as a potential successor to Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian and other officials also died in the crash.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with interim Iranian President Mohammad Mokhber on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Kazakhstan in July 4 amid an "unprecedented upswing" in bilateral ties, Russia's Foreign Ministry said, according to Reuters.

Updated

Iranian-Born Norwegian Man Convicted Of Oslo LGBT Festival Attack Gets 30 Years

Zaniar Matapour (center) attends court in Oslo earlier this year.
Zaniar Matapour (center) attends court in Oslo earlier this year.

An Iranian-born Norwegian man was found guilty of terrorism on July 4 in a 2022 attack on an LGBT festival in Oslo and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Two people were killed and nine were seriously wounded in the shooting at three locations, chiefly outside the London Pub, a popular gay bar, on June 25, 2022. The Oslo District Court said Zaniar Matapour, 45, shot 10 rounds with a machine gun and eight shots with a handgun into the crowd. It said Matapour had sworn allegiance to the Islamic State group and “has been radicalized for several years.” His 30-year sentence was the highest penalty in Norway since terror legislation was changed in 2015. Matapour can request parole after 20 years but can only be released if he is deemed no longer dangerous.

Putin Holds Talks With Iran's Interim President

Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (file photo)

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Mohammad Mokhber, the interim president of Iran, on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on July 4. Moscow and Tehran have been negotiating a comprehensive bilateral cooperation agreement reflecting the "unprecedented upswing" in their bilateral ties, according to Russia's Foreign Ministry.

Updated

Turkmenistan, Iran Sign Natural Gas Deal That Includes Plan To Build Pipeline

A handout picture showing an inauguration ceremony for a new gas pipeline link between Iran and Turkmenistan. (file photo)
A handout picture showing an inauguration ceremony for a new gas pipeline link between Iran and Turkmenistan. (file photo)

Turkmenistan and Iran signed a contract on July 3 for the delivery of 10 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas per year, which Iran will then ship to Iraq.

Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry announced the deal but did not say what price Iran would pay for the gas.

The ministry's statement said Iranian companies will construct a new 125-kilometer pipeline between Iran and Turkmenistan to expand the Central Asian country's delivery capacity.

The ministry said Turkmenistan, whose economy is heavily dependent on the export of natural gas, also plans to increase its gas supplies to Iran to 40 billion cubic meters a year. However, no time frame was given.

Iran has the world's second-largest natural gas reserves and is the world's third-largest producer of the fossil fuel, but rising domestic demand is curtailing its ability to export. Iran has faced natural gas shortages during the wintertime.

A gas swap with Turkmenistan will allow Iran to meet its export commitments.

Turkmenistan has been carrying out gas swaps with Iran for several years, but the volume has been relatively low at just a few billion cubic meters annually.

Revenue from natural gas exports account for the lion's share of Turkmenistan's budget.

Turkmenistan holds the world’s fourth-largest proven natural gas reserves, estimated at nearly 14 trillion cubic meters, according to statistics compiled by British Petroleum.

Turkmenistan currently produces about 80 billion cubic meters, meaning its production to proven reserve life is 166 years, an extraordinarily high number by global standards and one that implies Turkmenistan has the potential to produce significantly more.

However, Turkmenistan has had trouble finding markets for its massive natural gas reserves. Bordered by Russia, Uzbekistan, Iran and the land-locked Caspian Sea, Turkmenistan has no ability to directly ship liquefied natural gas (LNG) to world markets.

China is the country's main customer for natural gas, accounting for about half of Turkmenistan’s annual production.

Turkmenistan is working on a pipeline to supply gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, where natural gas demand is expected to rise significantly in the coming decades.

Turkmenistan has for decades been considering shipping natural gas via a pipeline across the Caspian Sea to Azerbaijan and further on to Europe, but opposition by littoral states Iran and Russia, previously the largest natural gas supplier to Europe, has left the idea in limbo.

Europe's attempt to cut its natural gas demand has also raised questions about the viability of the pipeline.

With reporting by AP

Iran's Khamenei Insists Voters Who Shunned Presidential Vote Not Opposed To Islamic Republic

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes in the first round of Iran's presidential election on June 28.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei votes in the first round of Iran's presidential election on June 28.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has lamented the record-low turnout in the first round of Iran’s presidential election last week, but insisted that it is not reflective of the popularity of the Islamic republic.

In comments on July 3, Khamenei said the runoff vote on July 5 between reformist hopeful Masud Pezeshkian and hard-line candidate Saeed Jalili was “very important” and urged the public to participate.

“Those who love Islam and the Islamic republic and the progress of the country must show it by taking part in the election,” said the 85-year-old, who has the final say on all state matters.

Khamenei said the 40-percent turnout in the first round of the vote on June 28 was “not as expected,” but added that it was "completely wrong to think that those who did not vote in the first round are against the system.”

However, in a speech in 2001, Khamenei had ridiculed 40-percent voter participation in Western nations, saying it was "shameful" and a sign that "people do not trust, care, hope for the political system."

Pezeshkian received around 42.5 percent of the ballots in the first round of voting, while his rival Jalili finished second with 38.6 percent.

The conservative vote was split between Jalili and parliament speaker Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, who came in third with around 13.8 percent of the vote. Mostafa Purmohammadi, a former justice minister, finished last with just under 1 percent.

With no candidate securing enough votes to win the election outright, a runoff has been scheduled for July 5.

The first round of voting was held amid calls by dissidents and activists to boycott the election, arguing that past votes had failed to instigate change.

Iran has seen a trend of sliding voter turnout since 2020 that is driven in part by a growing frustration over a lack of freedoms, a faltering economy, and declining living standards.

Analysts say the declining voter participation reflects a growing despondency in society and casts doubt over the legitimacy of Iran’s clerical establishment, which has been in power since 1979.

Elections in the Islamic republic are tightly controlled with candidates being preselected by an unelected body dominated by hard-liners.

Updated

Xi, Putin Kick Off SCO Summit In Kazakhstan With Belarus Set To Join

Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met on July 3 in Kazakhstan as part of a two-day summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is poised to admit Belarus as a member.

The expected expansion of the club of Eurasian countries is part of another push from Beijing and Moscow to use the regional security bloc as a counterweight to promote alternatives to the Western institutions that make up the U.S.-led world order.

Putin told Xi ahead of their bilateral meeting that Russia's ties with China were stronger than ever and touted the SCO as a powerful instrument to advance their foreign policy agendas.

"Russian-Chinese relations, our comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation, are experiencing their best period in history," Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian state TV. He hailed the SCO for "strengthening its role as one of the key pillars of a fair multipolar world order."

Moscow and Beijing have deepened their political, military and economic links since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In his opening remarks, Xi told Putin that China and Russia should "uphold the original aspiration of friendship for generations" in response to an "ever-changing international situation."

Calling Putin an "old friend," Xi alluded to the progress the two countries had made in putting in place "plans and arrangements for the next development of bilateral relations."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also met with Putin at the SCO, offering to help end the Ukraine-Russia war. Erdogan said he believed a fair peace suiting both sides was possible, according to the Turkish presidency. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan could not play the role of an intermediary.

"No, it's not possible," Peskov said when asked whether Erdogan could assume such a role, according to TASS. There was no explanation for why the Kremlin was opposed to Erdogan's participation.

The SCO summit, which ends of July 4, was also set to focus on better coordination for counterterrorism in the region, which remains high on the agenda for members following Moscow's Crocus City Hall attack in April. The security situation in Afghanistan and a new mechanism for an investment fund proposed by Kazakhstan will also be discussed by leaders.

"The mandate for the SCO can be quite vague and far-reaching," Eva Seiwert, an analyst at the Berlin-based MERICS think tank, told RFE/RL. "Officially speaking, this is a security organization that focuses on improving collaboration among its member states and building mutual trust throughout the region."

The bloc was founded in 2001 with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members with a focus on settling territorial disputes and has grown to tackle issues like regional security and economic development. The SCO added India and Pakistan in 2017, Iran in 2023, and is set to grow again with the addition of Belarus this year.

The SCO's evolution over its 23-year history has largely been shaped by China and Russia's evolving relationship.

At times, Moscow has looked to water down or block Chinese-led plans for the bloc, including proposals for a regional development bank and a free-trade zone. But as Xi and Putin have built stronger ties between their countries in recent years -- especially since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- the two leaders have more actively made the SCO a part of their broader cooperation together and a centerpiece of their shared anti-U.S. worldview.

"For a long time, China wanted to make sure that the SCO is not portrayed as an anti-Western organization, but this has changed, especially since Iran joined," Seiwert said. "It's becoming clear that the SCO doesn't care so much about what the West thinks anymore."

At a meeting of senior Russian officials in June, Putin spoke about the creation of "a new system of bilateral and multilateral guarantees of collective security in Eurasia," with the help of existing organizations like the SCO, to work toward gradually "phasing out the military presence of external powers in the Eurasian region."

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, told RFE/RL that while the SCO is increasing its international visibility and geopolitical weight, it still remains an organization that is heavy on symbolism but light on substance.

"It's still trying to figure out what it is now and what it can be," he said. "At the end of the day, its main advantage is just the sheer size and its collective GDP, but there are still almost no substantial results."

In the absence of a clear mandate, the SCO is largely serving as a diplomatic forum for regional leaders to get sought-after face time with Xi and Putin.

Leaders and representatives from nonmember states like Azerbaijan, Qatar, Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan, and Turkey are also expected to attend, as is United Nation Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Notably absent from this year's summit is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attending in his place.

Niva Yau, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, says that India appears to be losing interest in the SCO, in part due to New Delhi's tense rivalry with Pakistan, but also over ongoing tensions with China amid a multiyear border dispute.

She says that this growing reticence from India may hamstring the bloc's potential and Beijing's future plans for it.

"It reduces the SCO's global profile and limits some of China's bigger plans," she told RFE/RL.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Wife Of Swedish-Iranian On Death Row 'Devastated' After Meeting Sweden's Foreign Minister

Ahmadreza Djalali has been held in Iran since 2016. (file photo)
Ahmadreza Djalali has been held in Iran since 2016. (file photo)

The wife of Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish-Iranian physician sentenced to death in Iran, said on July 2 that she was “devastated” after meeting Sweden’s foreign minister to discuss her husband’s case.

Vida Mehrannia has strongly criticized the Swedish government for not including Djalali in a controversial prisoner swap deal with Iran last month.

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As part of the deal, Stockholm released Hamid Nouri, an Iranian former prison official sentenced to life in prison for his role in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988 in exchange for Swedish citizens Johan Floderus and Saeed Azizi.

“They told me, as always, that they’re pursuing the case. They say the same thing at every meeting. But after eight years and three months, still nothing has happened,” Mehrannia said after her meeting with Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom. “I am devastated.”

Djalali has been on a hunger strike since June 26 to protest against being left out of the prisoner exchange deal.

“He has a weak pulse and has stomach problems,” Mehrannia told a gathering of supporters after the meeting.

Djalali was detained in 2016 and subsequently sentenced to death for allegedly spying for Israel. He has denied all charges. Stockholm granted Djalali Swedish citizenship in 2018, though Billstrom says the authorities in Tehran consider him only to be an Iranian citizen.

The Swedish government has been under pressure by rights groups and activists for freeing Nouri and for failing to at least secure the release of the only Swedish citizen in Iran who is facing the death penalty.

Western governments and rights groups have long accused Iran of detaining dual citizens to use them as bargaining chips against the West.

At least eight other European citizens are currently held in Iran, including Jamshid Sharmahd, a German citizen of Iranian descent who has also been sentenced to death.

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