Iran Digest: Week of December 25-January 1, 2016

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.

The US Visa Waiver Program

Iran threatens response to new U.S. visa restrictions

Iran will take reciprocal measures in response to any breach of this year's nuclear deal, the Foreign Ministry warned on Monday, after Tehran said new U.S. visa restrictions contravened the historic agreement.

Iran has started to restrict its nuclear program under the terms of the July 14 deal with six world powers, including the United States. When the restrictions are completed, international sanctions on Tehran will be lifted.

But decades-old mistrust between Tehran and Washington is as high as ever, and each side has accused the other of undermining the pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

Earlier this month, the U.S. Congress passed a law restricting visa-free travel rights for people who have visited Iran or hold dual Iranian nationality, a measure that Iran's foreign minister called a breach of the deal. (Reuters)

Nuclear Accord

Iran hands over stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia

A Russian ship left Iran on Monday carrying almost all of Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium, fulfilling a major step in the nuclear deal struck last summer and, for the first time in nearly a decade, apparently leaving Iran with too little fuel to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

The shipment was announced by Secretary of State John Kerry and confirmed by a spokesman for Russia’s civilian nuclear company, Rosatom. Mr. Kerry called it “one of the most significant steps Iran has taken toward fulfilling its commitment,” and American officials say that it may be only weeks before the deal reached in July takes effect.

On “implementation day,” roughly $100 billion in Iranian assets will be unfrozen, and the country will be free to sell oil on world markets and operate in the world financial system. (The New York Times)

Rouhani expands Iran's missile program despite U.S. sanctions threat

President Hassan Rouhani ordered his defense minister on Thursday to expand Iran's missile program, in defiance of a U.S. threat to impose sanctions over a ballistic missile test Iran carried out in October.

Under a landmark agreement it clinched with world powers in July, Iran is scaling back a nuclear program that the West feared was aimed at acquiring atomic weapons, in return for an easing of international sanctions. It hopes to see these lifted early in the new year.

But sources familiar with the situation said on Wednesday that Washington is preparing new sanctions against international companies and individuals over Iran's testing of a medium-range Emad rocket on Oct. 10. The escalating dispute centers on the types of missile that the Islamic Republic is allowed to develop and whether they are capable of, or designed to, carry nuclear warheads. (Reuters)

Regional Politics

Iran MP rejects as 'psywar' claims of cutback in Syria military advisors

A senior Iranian lawmaker has dismissed allegations of a decline in the number of Iranian military advisors in Syria, saying the claims are aimed at undermining the anti-Daesh campaign in Syria.

Alaeddin Boroujerdi, who chairs the Foreign Policy and National Security Committee of Iran's parliament (Majlis), said on Thursday that a "psychological war" was initiated as soon as Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq joined hands to fight Takfiri terrorism. 

He said that this psychological war stems from the failure of the US and its allies in their so-called fight on terrorism while the "four-nation alliance [of Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq] has managed to achieve massive and effective victories in a short period of time." (PressTV)

Iran appoints new commander in Syria

The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is appointing a new commander for its operations in Syria, replacing a senior general who died in October, according to a report from inside Iran by an opposition group.

Following the “large number of IRGC casualties in Syria, especially the death of General Hossein Hamedani, commander of the Iranian regime's forces in Syria, and injury to Commander of the IRGC Quds Force (QF) Qassem Soleimani, Ayatollah Khamenei appointed IRGC Brigadier General Mohammad Jafar Assadi the IRGC commander in Syria,” the opposition group National Council of Resistance of Iran said.

The opposition council said that the guards's elite “Quds Force” continues “its extensive dispatch of mercenaries to Syria and that Khamenei.. who considers defeat in the war against Syrian people a lethal blow to the entirety of the velayat-e faqih regime [governance by jurists] is getting the Iranian regime and its Revolutionary Guards exceedingly bogged down in the Syrian quagmire.” (Al Arabiya)

Women of Iran

How Many Women Will Iran Allow to Run for Office?

An unusually large number of women have organized and registered to run in Iran’s February elections. The record turnout among would-be candidates for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a body that selects the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader, is causing unease among the conservative clerical hierarchy. The question for now is whether a significant number of women will be allowed to compete.

Iranian women have been able to vote and to run for parliament since 1963. Myriad restrictions were imposed after the monarchy fell in 1979, but women continued to be allowed to vote and to run for parliament and local council seats. Today, however, there are only nine women in Iran’s parliament—fewer than before the Islamic revolution.

One reason is the vetting process. The 12-member Council of Guardians, a group of senior clerics and specialists in Islamic law, can bar any candidate it considers unqualified. It has been adamant in not allowing women to run for president–women have challenged its interpretation of the constitution–and has not looked kindly on women wishing to run for president. (Wall Street Journal)

Iran opens its first marathon to tourists - but women can't compete

Iran has launched its first marathon open to international runners – but women will be banned from taking part “because of local regulations”. 

 The “I run Iran” race, on April 9 next year, will finish at the mighty Gate of all Nations at Persepolis, the 2,500-year-old seat of the First Persian Empire.

Organisers said the marathon, endorsed by Iranian authorities, will build relationships between Westerners and the Islamic Republic, allowing foreigners to experience “Persian culture, history and food”.

But in an interview with Iranian outlet Mehr News, race founder Sebastian Straten, originally from Holland, admitted women would not be allowed to participate. “Unfortunately, women are not allowed to run this first limited edition”, said Mr Straten. “There are many (Iranian) women who like to run and we hope in the next edition we get the permission for women to run the marathon.” (Telegraph)


Rouhani faces pressure to address crippling smog in Tehran

After political pressure over air pollution that shut down the capital for multiple days in the month of December, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced short-term measures to combat smog.

At a Cabinet meeting Dec. 30, Rouhani said that air pollution impacts Iran every year and short-term solutions will not completely end the problem. However, due to the fact the impact of pollution has been more tangible in recent days, short-term measures are necessary in order for people to sense that there is progress on the issue.

Severe air pollution in Tehran has caused schools and government buildings to close a number of times since Dec. 19. The Air Quality Index has read as high as 162, whereas according to the World Health Organization the recommended level is zero to 50. Mohammad Rastegari, deputy head of Iran’s Environmental Protection Organization for Monitoring and Supervision, said Dec. 29 that Tehran’s air was “unhealthy for all individuals.” Typically during heavy smog days Iranian officials recommend that children, the elderly and the ill stay indoors. (Al-Monitor)

Inside Iran

Rouhani says it's up to Muslims to correct Islam's image

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Sunday that Muslims must improve the image of their religion, which has been tarnished by the violence of hardline groups such as Islamic State,

"It is our greatest duty today to correct the image of Islam in world public opinion," Rouhani told a conference on Islamic unity in Tehran in a speech broadcast by state television.

His remarks were rare for a leader of Iran, which considers itself an authority in the Islamic world and often blames the "enemies" of the religion for problems in the Middle East.

"Did we ever think that, instead of enemies, an albeit small group from within the Islamic world using the language of Islam, would present it as the religion of killing, violence, whips, extortion and injustice?" Rouhani said. (Reuters)

Will South Pars help bring Iran's economy back to life?

The Persian Gulf is home to one of the largest independent gas reservoirs in the world. Shared between Iran and Qatar, the Iranian section of this giant field is called South Pars, while the Qatari section is named North Dome. South Pars holds some 14 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 18 billion barrels of gas condensates. This is equivalent to 7.5% of the world’s natural gas, and half of Iran’s total reserves. In this vein, the International Energy Agency ranks Iran as the fourth-largest gas producer in the world, producing 4.6% of the global total. Yet Iran is not even among the world’s top 10 gas exporters.

To remedy this situation, Iran is prioritizing development of South Pars while simultaneously increasing gas exports. Thus, for Iran, phases 15 and 16 of its giant South Pars gas field are perhaps its most important. The head of South Pars phases 15 and 16 Consortium, Hassan Sharifabadi, recently announced the inauguration of the project at an official ceremony attended by President Hassan Rouhani. These phases will have a significant impact on Iran’s economy and political environment. At present, the output from South Pars satisfies 55% of Iran’s domestic gas consumption, which is normally 430 million cubic meters a day. However, Madjid Boujarzadeh, the National Iranian Gas Company’s spokesman, has said that consumption recently increased to 500 million cubic meters a day due to seasonal growth during the cold months. (Al-Monitor)


Is Iran already preparing for the fall of Bashar al-Assad?

By Max Fisher

Vladimir Putin may get all of the attention when it comes to Syria, but the biggest backer of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — and thus the biggest obstacle to removing Assad and striking a Syrian peace deal — is in fact Iran. The Iranians are Assad's most important ally, providing Assad with tremendous military and financial support to make sure he stays in power. Without Iran, there is probably no Assad regime.

The conventional wisdom says that Iran will never abandon Assad. Not because the Iranians have some special love for their buddy Bashar, but because they see Assad's regime as the only way they can protect their interests in Syria.

But what if Iran thinks it can go without Assad — and might be getting ready to see him go? If you'll forgive a bit of old-school aggregation, I would urge you to read this fascinating piece in the National Interest, written by Joyce Karam, who is the DC bureau chief of the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat. Karam points out signs that Iran is already preparing for Assad's exit, and might thus be willing to accept his removal.

Read the full article.