Iran Digest: Week of January 15-22, 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.

US Visa Waiver Program

United States Begins Implementation of Changes to the Visa Waiver Program

The United States today began implementing changes under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 (the Act). U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) welcomes more than a million passengers arriving to the United States every day and is committed to facilitating legitimate travel while maintaining the highest standards of security and border protection. Under the Act, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):

  • Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).       

  • Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

These individuals will still be able to apply for a visa using the regular immigration process at our embassies or consulates. For those who need a U.S. visa for urgent business, medical, or humanitarian travel to the United States, U.S. embassies and consulates stand ready to process applications on an expedited basis.

Beginning January 21, 2016, travelers who currently have valid Electronic System for Travel Authorizations (ESTAs) and who have previously indicated holding dual nationality with one of the four countries listed above on their ESTA applications will have their current ESTAs revoked. (U.S. Department of State)

BBC journalist stopped from flying to US over UK-Iranian nationality

A BBC journalist has been stopped boarding a plane from London to the US because of her dual British-Iranian nationality.

Rana Rahimpour, a presenter at the BBC’s Persian service based in London, was stopped at Heathrow airport on Tuesday before catching a flight to New Jersey. US authorities told her she could no longer fly to the US under the visa waiver programme because of her Iranian citizenship.

It is an embarrassing episode for the US authorities that highlights the consequences of new legislation passed by the US Congress which means some dual nationals who could previously visit the US for 90 days without a visa must now obtain one. The measure punishes all Iranian dual nationals regardless of their affiliation to the Iranian government as well as British people or other European citizens who have travelled to Iran in the past five years. (The Guardian)

Nuclear Accord

UAE, Saudi markets tumble as Iran nuclear accord takes effect

The value of project contracts awarded in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries is set to drop by 15 per cent in 2016 as low oil prices hit government spending plans, according to a report by MEED Projects.

The forecast is based on more than 2,100 planned and un-awarded projects in the region. It predicts that the total value of contracts will fall to $140bn this year, compared with $165bn for 2015. Saudi Arabia will be the worst hit with contract awards predicted to drop by almost $10bn to reach $40.7bn in 2016.

The kingdom has been hit hard by low oil prices, with 2016 revenues forecast to reach SAR 513bn, almost SAR 100bn lower than last year. It has also cut budgeted spending to SAR 840bn, compared with the estimated expenditure of SAR 975bn in 2015. Meanwhile the United Arab Emirates is only anticipated to see a 2.5 per cent drop in the value of contract awards this year to reach $36.5bn, the report said. (Gulf Business)

US-Iran Relations

14 Testy Months Behind U.S. Prisoner Swap With Iran

For a year, Obama administration officials had been meeting in secret with Iranian counterparts, seeking to free Americans imprisoned in the Islamic republic. Finally last fall, a deal for a prisoner release seemed all but sealed.

But the Iranians arrived at the latest clandestine session in a Geneva hotel suite with a whole new proposal that insisted on the release of dozens of Iranians held in American prisons, essentially returning to initial demands that had long since been rejected.

The Americans were flabbergasted. “We’ve already talked about this,” said Brett McGurk, the lead negotiator. But the Iranians were adamant, according to American officials informed about the meeting. Something back home had changed, part of the continuing battle inside Iran over how to deal with the United States. Someone in power in Tehran, it seemed, did not want a deal after all. (The New York Times)

Regional Politics

Iran: We can work with Saudi Arabia

Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif said his country has "always been open to a dialogue" with the Saudis. "It takes two to tango, as they say," he said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

"I believe our Saudi neighbors should come to their senses and understand that they have a much better future in cooperation and collaboration with Iran," Zarif said.

The two countries have been engaged in a diplomatic spat over Saudi Arabia's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric and the subsequent torching of the Saudi embassy in Iran.

Speaking in Davos, Zarif said the nuclear deal between Iran and the international community showed that diplomacy works -- and should be used to overcome regional problems in the Middle East.

"If we can resolve something... with countries that were hostile for at least 37 years, then there is no impediment in resolving regional issues between countries and peoples who call each other brothers and sisters and who are bound by the same religion," he said. (CNN Money)

Germany sees Iran as key to stabilizing Middle East

Germany wants to work with Iran to help calm regional conflicts now that the Islamic Republic is emerging from international isolation and also prevent tension escalating with regional rival Saudi Arabia, Germany's foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Iran emerged from years of being considered a pariah state at the weekend after the United States, European Union and United Nations lifted sanctions linked to its nuclear program under an international deal which involved Germany.

Iran was the key to stabilizing the Middle East, referring to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said. "We need Iran to calm the conflicts and re-establish stability in this crisis-hit region. And I hope Iran is ready for this," Steinmeier told foreign journalists. (Reuters)


End of sanctions may help Iran face an accelerating environmental crisis

A trickle of water has returned this winter to Zayandeh Rud (the Zayandeh River) through Isfahan, but it won’t last long. When the winter rainfall ends and the snow in the mountains has melted in spring, high demand for water will see the river bed return to the dusty, cracked state to which Isfahanis have become accustomed.

Simultaneously, desertification downstream of Isfahan threatens to spread as farmers struggle to irrigate their crops. In Kerman province, to the east, 15% of around 150,000 acres of pistachio trees in the main producing area have died in the last decade or so.

In Tehran, a different environmental crisis unfolds. School closures due to air pollution are now part of the winter routine, but there have been more this year than ever before. The smog results from a combination of exhaust fumes and dust blown in from dried-up river basins in the west of the country, with the Alborz Mountains to the north trapping the thick haze over the city’s millions of suffocating inhabitants. (The Guardian)

Women of Iran

Video show Iranian women laughing in face of oppressive driving hijab laws

Women in Iran are protesting laws that require them to wear full hijab while driving by filming themselves laughing as they throw off the “visible symbol of oppression”.

The Independent reported in December on a state crackdown on women failing to wear “proper” Islamic dress while at the wheel, which saw 40,000 vehicles impounded in 10 months.

Since May 2014, Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad has been encouraging women to share pictures of themselves flouting strict rules requiring women to remain covered up in public.

Her Facebook page “My Stealthy Freedom” has since ballooned to near a million followers, and from her exile in New York she told The Independent the use of new laws to impound cars exposed just how big the issue of the hijab remains. (Independent)

Fed-up Iranian women organize to take more seats in parliament

Nine women and 281 men. Such is the composition of the Iranian parliament. Rights activists believe this lopsided gender imbalance is one reason why so many discriminatory laws against women have been passed by the current legislature, in office since 2012. Ahead of the upcoming Feb. 26 parliamentary elections, a group of women's rights activists organized Changing the Male-Dominated Face of the Parliament, a campaign to address the dearth of women in the legislature.

The campaign criticizes incumbent female members of parliament's failure to pursue women’s rights and also encourages Iranian women to participate in the next elections as candidates as well as voters. The goal, stated on the group's website, is to win “at least 50 seats for egalitarian women.” To achieve this objective, members of the campaign have also formed committees such as Red Cards for Anti-Women Candidates, I Will Be a Candidate and 50 Seats for Egalitarian Women. (Al Monitor)

Inside Iran

'Reality is even worse': reformist hopefuls banned from Iran's parliamentary poll

Iran’s Guardian Council, which vets candidates for elections, has failed to qualify 40% of more than 12,000 candidates for parliamentary elections on 26 February, ILNA news agency has reported.

Reformists told Tehran Bureau that those blocked included the vast majority of their hopefuls. “I predicted that the Guardian Council would massively disqualify the reformists,” said Sadegh Zibakalam, professor of political science at Tehran University. “But the reality is even worse.”

According to Hossein Marashi, a member of the Reformists’ Policy Council, which was set up in October to coordinate efforts for the parliamentary poll, out of the total 3,000 reformist candidates, only 30, or 1%, have been qualified. Their criterion of ‘reformist’ appears unclear, and may include pragmatic conservatives, or ‘moderates’, like supporters of president Hassan Rouhani or former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. (The Guardian)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Condemns Mob Attack on Saudi Embassy

Iran’s highest leader strongly denounced on Wednesday a mob attack on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran this month, saying the event was “very bad” and “detrimental to the country and Islam.”

The embassy attack followed the execution of a prominent Shiite cleric in Saudi Arabia, and it seemingly played into the Saudis’ hands by shifting the focus of global outrage to Shiite Iran from the Sunni kingdom. The attack led Saudi Arabia and several of its allies to cut ties with Iran.

Analysts said the comments from the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, could be tied to a meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, where the embassy attack is high on the agenda. (The New York Times)


Delicacy and compromise were key to the Iran deal, not bluster and prayer

By Ali Gharib

Saturday turned out to be a momentous day in US-Iran relations. American Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took to the dais in Vienna to announce Iran’s compliance with the terms of last July’s nuclear accord and, therefore, the lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

“This evening, we are really reminded once again of diplomacy’s power to tackle significant challenges” Kerry said, citing all the curbs Iran had – according to the International Atomic Energy Agency – verifiably placed on its nuclear program.

But Implementation Day, as it came to be called, wasn’t the only thing Kerry was talking about it, and it wasn’t even the biggest news to come out of US-Iran diplomacy.

Instead, the world’s attention turned to the release of five American prisoners held in Iran. Four of the prisoners – for all of whom, so far as I can tell, one day in prison was one day too many – were released as part of a prisoner swap for Iranian-Americans held in the US on charges of non-violent offenses, including sanctions relief.

Read the full article.