Iran Digest: Week of February 19-26, 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.

Elections in Iran

 The Iran Election: What's at Stake

On Friday, Iranians will go to the polls to elect members of Parliament and the Assembly of Experts. Here’s why this matters.

Q. What’s at stake?

A. Iranians will elect a Parliament that passes laws and a clerical council that is technically in charge of naming a successor to the supreme leader when he dies. But analysts say that the choice of a successor to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 76, will in all likelihood be deemed too important to be left to the assembly — it will instead confirm preselected candidates. The assembly also monitors the supreme leader, but that function has minimal effect.

Q. Is Iran a democracy?

A. It’s a hybrid country with religious and civil institutions. It has an elected president and Parliament, with limited powers. It also has a Supreme Leader who wields civil and religious authority and a Guardian Council, which comprises six religious experts and six legal experts to interpret the Constitution.

Q. Doesn’t the supreme leader control everything?

A. Yes, and no. The supreme leader has final say on all matters of religion and state. But he also needs to balance the demands and interests of competing power centers like the Revolutionary Guards and the judiciary. Ayatollah Khamenei, according to the Constitution, cannot annul Friday’s vote. Parliament and the Assembly of Experts are officially independent powers, but parliaments — particularly the departing one — take their cues from him. (The New York Times

Iran elections test U.S. gamble on nuke deal

As Iranians head to the polls this week, President Barack Obama and his aides are keenly paying attention. The results of the elections — for parliament and another government body — could signal whether moderate forces are rising in the Islamist country as it adheres to a controversial nuclear deal and continues to engage with the U.S.

But while the Obama administration is careful to keep its interest low-key, fearing that any overt U.S. role could embolden Iranian hardliners, three Republican congressman are demanding that Tehran give them visas so that they can be on the ground as Iranians cast ballots.

After all, the three argue, what better way for the Islamic Republic to prove that its elections are free and fair than to allow skeptical Americans to watch them up close? (Politico)

U.S. Visa Waiver Program

Silicon Valley Wants Changes in Visa-Waiver Crackdown

Silicon Valley executives, stung by a law intended to make it harder for terrorists to enter the U.S., are publicly calling for a key provision on so-called visa waivers to be rescinded.

It marks the most high-profile pushback against a measure that many were initially reluctant to criticize in the days after the Paris and San Bernardino terrorist attacks. The provision at issue blocks anyone from the 38 friendly nations that are part of a visa-waiver program from enjoying visa-free travel to the U.S. if they are also citizens of Iran, Syria, Iraq or Sudan. The new travel restrictions have impacted populations heavily represented in the technology industry.

“Discriminating based on national heritage is inconsistent with American values,” wrote a group that includes Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey and Sequoia Capital Chairman Mike Moritz in a letter to lawmakers. “We protest this just as vigorously as if Congress had mandated special travel papers for citizens based on their faith or the color of their skin.” (The Wall Street Journal)

Regional Politics

Plunging oil price brings Saudi Arabia and Iran together in alliance of enemies

The Iranian endorsement of a plan by its arch regional rival, Saudi Arabia, to stabilise global oil prices could be seen as a diplomatic coup for Riyadh.

However, Tehran’s support for a production freeze has not been driven by a new desire for political rapprochement as much as acceptance of a greater enemy: collapsed commodity prices. The markets are flooded in crude at a time when demand is faltering due to the slowdown in expected growth from key importers such as China. Desperate times require desperate measures.

Iran and Saudi Arabia are rival oil producers but also bitter adversaries in regional politics. Short of a shooting war, tensions could hardly get any worse at this particular moment.

Despite this unpromising geopolitical backdrop, last week there were positive moves towards an oil production deal. The price of Brent blend crude soared 7.5% on Wednesday after Bijan Zanganeh, Iran’s oil minister, came out of a two-hour meeting with some of his Opec counterparts to approve a deal hatched by Saudi with non-Opec member Russia the day before. (Guardian)

Iraq's Abadi keeps Iran at arm's length in war on Islamic State

As fighting in Iraq raged last summer, Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani came across unexpected opposition to his plans to defeat Islamic State.

Soleimani is the commander of Iran's al-Quds brigade and has been a key figure in the fight against the Sunni Islamist group in Iraq. That fight has been led not by Iraq's army but by Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias.

But in August, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told Soleimani that a planned assault on the Sunni city of Ramadi should be left to the Iraqi army, according to a government official and two diplomats. Abadi, a 64-year-old Shi'ite, wanted the militias to stay away to avoid inflaming ethnic tensions, the sources said.

Abadi's office declined to comment on the story, which has been repeated in Baghdad's diplomatic circles for months. Three Iraqi politicians denied it ever happened. But the government official and the diplomats said the incident was one of a series of moves by Abadi to assert his authority as leader and to distance himself from Tehran and the militias that came to Baghdad's rescue in 2014 and early 2015. (Reuters)

Women of Iran

More than an ornament: Iran's 'female statesmen' and elections

Traditionalist clerics often invoke a masculine term to discourage women from running for political office in Iran. While the question of gender isn’t addressed in Iran’s electoral laws, candidates wishing to participate in the Iranian political scene must be considered “Rajol-e-siasi,” or statesmen. If the political arena is legally defined as the purview of statesmen, women have no business entering it, conservatives argue.

This paradox helps explain the status of female politicians in a system where only 49 women have served in parliament since 1979, accounting for only 3% of all parliamentary seats. To maintain any presence at all, female lawmakers must reconcile conservative Islamic values with the social advancement of their gender.

Even if they possess an immaculate political and theological pedigree, female politicians struggle to advance their agendas without altering traditional women’s roles as defined by male Islamic jurists. When addressing basic issues such as workforce participation, successful female lawmakers like conservative MP Soheila Jelodarzadeh take care to only support part-time employment, prioritizing women’s roles as mothers and homemaker. (Guardian)


How Iran's elections are going green

Alongside his campaign ads, a candidate in Buin Zahra, Qazvin province, has offered voters seeds of native floral species to encourage stewardship and conservation. In the south-western city of Ahwaz, the cutting of two trees to make room for election banners provoked a backlash from activists and residents that prompted the campaign office to condemn those who had slashed the trees.

With the country in the home stretch for the election of Iran’s tenth post-Revolutionary parliament on Friday 26 February, the campaign is confounding any scepticism that concern for the environment is the preserve of an enlightened elite. As polling day draws close, public expectation is mounting over candidates’ plans to address issues like dwindling water supplies and deteriorating air quality, so marking a break from previous parliamentary elections.

Evidence of degradation is widespread. In north-west Iran, Lake Urmia, the Middle East’s largest saltwater lake, has nearly disappeared during the last decade. The forests of the Zagros Mountains in the west are thinning out as the land degrades with the loss of fertile top soil. (Guardian)

Finland, Iran to explore co-op in forest, water management, agriculture

“This will be the minister’s first visit to Tehran and he will be coming with a delegation of 35 members,” the Finnish ambassador to Iran Harry Kamarainen told the Tehran Times on Wednesday. 

During the visit, the Finnish minister will meet with Iranian Agriculture Minister Mahmoud Hojjati and Iran's Department of Environment chief Masoumeh Ebtekar.

“One of the contracts will probably be an MOU between the minister of environment (of Finland) and the Department of Environment (of Iran). I would not exclude that maybe we will also see some contracts in the field of agriculture during the upcoming visit,” Ambassador Kamarainen said.

Also, according to the ambassador, the Finish minister will be attending the Fifteenth International Environment Exhibition (IRAN ENVIRO), which will kick off from February 27 to March 1, in which Finish companies will be participating.

The ambassador listed possible areas of cooperation between the two countries ranging from forest and water resources management to agriculture, agricultural machinery, pollution control, and food industry. (Tehran Times)


Iran is holding major elections. Here's what you should know about them.

By Ishaan Tharoor

Iran will hold national elections this Friday, with the country's voters set to cast their ballots for representatives in two important political bodies: the Majles -- or the 290-seat Iranian parliament -- and the Assembly of Experts, the chamber of clerics which technically supervises the country's supreme leader, the 77-year-old Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

There's a justified temptation to view elections in the Islamic Republic with a huge amount of skepticism.

Iran's theocratic regime, which has now been in place for close to four decades, is nowhere near a model democracy. Its closed political system has in recent years kept out real reformist candidates from contesting seats. A repressive state continues to jail dissidents and stifle dissent. In the eyes of some observers, any vote is an exercise in rubber-stamping or window-washing.

Yet these elections still reveal genuine political divides within the country and a modicum of pluralism. More than 6200 candidates, including almost 600 women, are running for parliament, while 161 mostly elderly clerics are running for the 86 available spots on the all-male Assembly of Experts.

Read the full article.