Iran Digest: Week of December 11-18, 2015

Iran Digest

AIC’s Iran digest project covers the latest developments and news stories published in Iranian and international media outlets. This weekly digest is compiled by Communications Associate Alexander Benthem de Grave and Research Associate Bradford Van Arnum.

HR 158 Bill: The US Visa Waiver Program

No improvement just absurdity in kneejerked Visa Waiver Program Bill

Only a few crickets chirped after our 2014 HuffPost warning of gaps in the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Our second post, however, came out at the same time the President and Congress had suddenly clicked into gear to tighten the program, obviously in reaction to the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino.

Very likely their new-found concern is also due to officials having discovered the worrisome answer to our all-important question asking how many of the dozens of citizens from waiver participating countries--who now, in hindsight, have been identified as participants in recent terrorist incidents--were NOT ever listed on the key "terrorist watch lists." Thus making them eligible to easily enter the U.S. It's been revealed that at least one of the Paris attackers would not have been flagged if he had sought to enter the U.S. through the VWP. Nor was San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik who entered the U.S. on a "fiancé visa" reportedly on any of key databases. How many more are like that? We'll only know if investigative reporters pry such embarrassing facts out of Homeland Security officials. (Huffington Post)

Can U.S. visa reform foil Rouhani's PMD victory?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s address to the nation Dec. 16 on the closure of the PMD (possible military dimension) conveyed a special message to his voters and critics.

Rouhani wanted to say he fulfilled his electoral promise on the country’s nuclear program as the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors adopted a resolution closing the PMD (possible military dimensions to Tehran’s nuclear program) file – a move that ends a 12-year probe into Tehran’s nuclear program, confirming that Iran’s nuclear activity is peaceful.

Saying the international sanctions on Tehran, imposed by the West over Iran’s nuclear program, will be lifted within a couple of weeks, he urged international companies, Iranians residing abroad, and both domestic and foreign entrepreneurs to engage in projects to revive Iran’s economy. (Trend News Agency)

Iran to check possible breach of JCPOA in U.S. Visa Waiver Bill

A senior Iranian foreign ministry official said Tehran would take “action” against Washington if a new bill passed by the US House of Representatives tightening visa-free travel to the US is proved to have breached the July comprehensive nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi said Iran is negotiating with the Group 5+1 (Russia, China, the US, Britain, France and Germany) and with the European Union’s foreign policy coordinator on the recent legislation passed by the US House of Representatives.

According to the bill, which was passed by 407 to 19 on Tuesday, visitors from the 38 “visa waiver” countries will need to obtain a visa to travel to the US if they have been to Syria, Iraq, Iran or Sudan in the past five years. (Tasnim News Agency)

Nuclear Accord

U.N. watchdog decides to close nuclear weapons probe of Iran

The U.N. nuclear watchdog's 35-nation board decided on Tuesday to close its investigation into whether Iran once had a secret nuclear weapons programme, opting to support Tehran's deal with world powers rather than dwell on its past actions.

In a symbolic victory for Iran, the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Board of Governors passed a resolution ending its long-running inquiry but allowing inspectors to continue to police the country's nuclear programme.

"The decision by the Board of Governors today ... will open a new chapter for cooperation between Iran and the agency," Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, told reporters after the resolution was passed by consensus unopposed. (Reuters)

Iran threatened with new sanctions over missile test

Iran violated a United Nations Security Council resolution in October by test-firing a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, a team of sanctions monitors said, leading to calls in the United States for more sanctions on Tehran.

The White House said it would not rule out additional steps against Iran over the test of the medium-range Emad rocket, on the same day that the global nuclear watchdog concluded its 12-year investigation into Iran's nuclear activities.

The Security Council's Panel of Experts on Iran said in a confidential report, that the launch showed the rocket met its requirements for considering that a missile could deliver a nuclear weapon. (Al Jazeera)

Regional Politics

Saudia Arabia anti-terror coalition of 34 nations won't include Iran, Iraq, Syria

Saudi Arabia said Tuesday that 34 nations have agreed to form a new "Islamic military alliance'' to fight terrorism with a joint operations centre based in the kingdom, but the coalition does not include Shiite-majority Iran or Iraq, and it's not clear how exactly it would function.

The announcement, published by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, said the Saudi-led alliance is being established because terrorism "should be fought by all means and collaboration should be made to eliminate it.''

However, the absence of Iran, Iraq and Syria, three countries battling the Islamic State group, raised questions about whether the alliance was intended to present a unified front against the extremists or Saudi Arabia's main regional rival, Iran. (Huffington Post)

'Coalition of coalitions' needed in ISIS fight

On July 14, after 12 years of crisis and negotiations, Iran and six major world powers agreed on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which marked a peaceful settlement of the Iranian nuclear dispute. The JCPOA is the most comprehensive agreement ever achieved on non-proliferation; containing the most intrusive transparency and verification mechanisms ever implemented in the history of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). It shuts down all possible "pathways" to a nuclear weapon and prevents any potential covert weapons programs as well. There is no doubt that this agreement represents the most important diplomatic and non-proliferation achievement in several decades and that the global nonproliferation regime is stronger as a result of this deal.

However, this deal is only a step toward a goal that should be imperative: a Middle East without nuclear weapons. This is an idea which in fact was first advanced by Iran in 1974 as part of the country's Middle East Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone initiative. The JCPOA is a template that could serve as a shortcut toward realizing a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. (Defense News)

Four more Iranians killed in Syria clashes

Four more Iranians and one Afghan citizen were killed in Syrian conflict in the recent days, the official IRNA news agency reported.

Reportedly, all those killed, were buried in various cities in Iran. It hasn’t been revealed in what region of Syria they were killed. Meanwhile, in recent months, Iran’s IRGC has lost about 50 of its servicemen in Syria.

Tehran has always expressed support for the Syrian government since it views the Assad regime as its main strategic ally in the region and as part of an "axis of resistance" against Israel.

Western countries accuse Iran of running military operations in Syria, but Tehran denies these accusations. Iranian officials have repeatedly stressed that they only provide military consultations to Syrian forces. (Trend News Agency)


Tehran is in the midst of an "Airopocalypse'

On Monday, air pollution levels in Tehran hit record levels as authorities issued a call for all of the city's 14 million residents to stay indoors.

The Air Quality Index, which monitors the levels of particulate matter in the city, has held a "red status" for the past day, indicating that the air quality is unsafe for everyone, not just sensitive populations such as the elderly and children.

"Today's air quality index was at 162 and Tehran's air conditions reached status red," an official at the Air Quality Control Company said to the media. "Breathing in such conditions is considered inadequate for all people."

The state affiliated Tasnim News Agency reported that the levels were seven times the maximum levels recommended by the World Health Organization — the second highest from the country since the year began in March. (Vice News)

Inside Iran

A realignment of Iran's political factions underway as elections loom

Every so often Iran’s political factions change shape, and there are signs that a realignment is currently underway. July’s agreement with world powers, including the United States, has driven a wedge in the political class that is dominating the run-in to February’s elections for parliament and Majles-e Khobregan (‘Assembly of Experts’), the body that elects the supreme leader.

Broad support for President Hassan Rouhani’s government is not just over its foreign policy but also its desire to revive the economy and private sector. From this follows all the speculation in Tehran that principle-ists like Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, and Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, a seasoned strategist, will help organise an electoral list for parliament broadly backing the president. (The Guardian)

Khomeini grandson gets cautious election blessing from the top

A grandson of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is expected to seek election early next year to the body that chooses Iran's supreme leader and is said to have the cautious blessing of the incumbent, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Registration opens on Thursday for the election that is likely to see the first member of the family of Iran's revolutionary founder test his popularity at the ballot box.

Hassan Khomeini's expected candidacy in February's vote is already causing a heated row between hardliners and moderates, since membership of the assembly would place him at the top of Iran's political establishment. Some say he has his eyes eventually on the top job.

Hassan Khomeini, 43, a politically moderate cleric, intends to nominate himself in coming days, family friends and sources close to him told Reuters.

With powerful backers he is well-placed to win a seat on the 88-member assembly. (Rueters)


Is Iran really pulling out of Syria?

By Samer Abboud

The Russian military intervention in the Syrian conflict has added yet another complicated layer to this ever-metastasising conflict. The intervention has changed the calculations of many of the domestic and regional players and has given greater impetus towards a political process.

Such was evident this week as competing and parallel opposition meetings occurred in Riyadh, Damascus, and Malikiya, with the former bringing together more than 100 delegates from the political and armed opposition.

In a context of increased political activity, one would be excused to have missed reports about an Iranian retreat from Syria. This argument rests on the assumption that Iranian military personnel losses on the battlefield, as well as growing Russian influence in Syria, are forcing an Iranian retreat from the conflict. Yet, both realities do not fundamentally alter either the Iranian influence in Syria or its short- and long-term strategic interests.

Read the full article.