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Iran News Digest- May 22, 2014

Happy

A wide variety of media outlets have been reporting on the arrest of seven young Iranians whose crime was nothing more than making a video of themselves dancing to the internationally popular song, “Happy” by American music artist Pharrell Williams. Frida Ghitis wrote an opinion piece about this story for CNN.com in which she calls the arrest “one of the most ridiculous stories” she’s ever heard.

 It is illegal for men and women to dance together in Iran, and also for women to show themselves in public without wearing a hijab, as the three young women did in the offending video. In addition, most creative pursuits, including would-be YouTube videos, must be officially licensed by the government.

 The Tehran chief of police described the video as “obscene,” and state media called it “vulgar.” However, three days after the arrest, international backlash apparently prompted authorities to release the six individuals who actually appear in the video. However, the seventh, its director, reportedly remains in custody.

 All seven may still face charges and the Washington Post indicates that one of the conditions of the release of the six dancers was that they not speak to the media about their treatment or about the condition of Iranian prisons.

 Pastor Beaten in Hospital

Fox News and Breitbart have reported on new developments in the ongoing saga of Saeed Abedini, an American Christian pastor who was arrested in Iran in 2012 while on a charitable mission to build an orphanage. The pastor was charged with promoting Christianity, and has reportedly suffered severe beatings during his imprisonment, to the extent that he had to be hospitalized in March.

 Now, Abedini’s family has given eyewitnesses accounts of him being beaten while still in the hospital, and then transferred back to prison without receiving treatment. The injuries that led to his hospitalization in the first place were incurred partly in Rajai Shahr Prison and partly in Evin Prison, where dozens of other prisoners of conscience were attacked and beaten in a large-scale raid on the facility’s Ward 350 last month. Many of them have also been beaten and denied access to medical treatment, in a long list of individual stories that parallel Abedini’s.

 Praise for Lack of Nuclear Progress

The Brookings Institution also quotes two Iranian officials as having added their voices to the chorus of obstructionism and dismissal that has increasingly characterized the Iranian side of negotiations over its nuclear program.

 The latest round of talks ended in Vienna last week without having made any progress, due in large part to a rising tide of stubbornness among both the clerical and political leaders of the country. President Rouhani has preemptively rejected all attempts to limit Iran’s nuclear enrichment capability, and Supreme Leader Khamenei has encouraged the military to continue increasing its supply of ballistic missiles.

 This refusal to compromise was reflected at the actual negotiating table, and that fact has drawn praise from high levels of Iranian government. Ultra-conservative MP Hamid Rosaei issued a public statement in which he said that the nation will be on the sides of the negotiators if they continue to follow the same line they did in the most recent round of talks.

 Meanwhile, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi said that “if the negotiations fail, nothing will happen,” and that “pressure from our enemies has only made us stronger.” Similar remarks have been made by the president and supreme leader, effectively calling into question the seriousness of Iranian regime desire for a deal with the international community.

 Agreement on a List of Issues

On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal has reported that Iran reached an agreement with the United Nations regarding the issues to be addressed in future dealings with the International Atomic Energy Authority. Dealings with the IAEA have been concurrent with talks with the P5+1, and have mostly focused on transparency about Iran’s past work on nuclear weapons-related technology. It’s failure to provide full information was widely cited as a reason for Western hesitancy at the latest round of talks.

 Iran and the IAEA have both announced that they have outlined five more points for Iran to report on by the end of August. This deadline, however, is about a month past the tentative deadline for a final deal with P5+1 negotiators. What’s more, agreement on a set of issues is by no means the same thing as agreement to resolve those issues. Earlier this month, Iran reportedly missed an agreed-upon deadline for providing the IAEA with an explanation of work on apparent nuclear detonators. It has also barred IAEA inspectors from suspicious sites that the regime identified as military facilities, and thus as off-limits.

 Nuclear Negotiator Leaves

Reuters reports that Jacques Audibert, the chief French negotiator at talks with Iran, has been promoted out of his position and will be replaced by an as-yet-unnamed alternative. Audibert is credited with contributing to France’s reputation for a tough stance on the nuclear issue, in contrast to the relatively soft positions taken by US negotiators, and of course by China and Russia, both of which are at least loosely allied with the Tehran regime.

 Amidst a lack of Iranian regime cooperation, the US position has strengthened at least somewhat, but France has remained the key defender of the points of view of strict opponents of the Iranian regime. It remains to be seen whether that situation will change with the departure of Audibert. Furthermore, it is currently unknown whether there were any specific motives behind the timing of his promotion, which takes him away from discussions just two months before they were scheduled to conclude.

 Russia to Build Reactors

At the same time that the hard line against Iranian regime may be threatened by a change of personnel, the pro-Tehran powers at the negotiating table are becoming ever more personally invested in the country’s affairs, including its nuclear affairs. Reuters reports that Russia intends to sign a contract that would commit it to building two additional nuclear reactors at Iran’s nuclear energy site at Bushehr.

 The only nuclear power reactor that is currently operating in Iran was built by Russia. A broader deal between the two countries may lead to Russia building a total of eight of these installations. It is possible for waste material from such power reactors to be applied to production of a nuclear weapon. Together with Iran’s plans to dramatically increase its supply of nuclear enrichment centrifuges, this has the potential to reduce Iran’s nuclear weapon breakout period to a matter of just a few weeks.

 The news of the agreement between Iranian regime and Russia may be even more alarming, however, because of what it says about increasingly close diplomatic and military relations between the two nations, both of which are simultaneously political rivals and important trade partners for the United States and western Europe.

 A Meeting of the Asian Bloc?

As potentially problematic as expanded relations between Iran and Russia may be, they are nothing compared to the possibly creation of a large-scale alliance of nations from East Asia and Central Asia. This is precisely what China may be seeking, based on reports surrounding the meeting of the Fourth Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA).

 Fox News indicates that China used the event as an opportunity to call for increased military and national security cooperation among some of the 24 countries represented at the event. Naturally, Iran and Russia were both among these. Earlier this month, China’s defense minister reached out for closer military ties with Iran specifically, and Chinese companies have been known to supply Iran with military equipment including missile components.

 Iran is an observer nation at another, specifically Chinese-led group of Asian nations, called the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It has been denied permanent membership on the basis of international sanctions, but if these are removed as a result of nuclear negotiations, Iran may be on the fast track to inclusion, This in turn may signify greater incentive for China to see that Iran gets as favorable a deal as possible.

 The SCO and the CICA have apparent potential to rival similar cooperative organizations centered in other parts of the world. And this may be China’s intention. On May 2, US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave a speech in which he called upon other members of NATO to recommit themselves to the organization in order to stand up to threats from Russia and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia, discussed using the NATO model to shore up mutual defenses against threats including Iran. The SCO may be making similar efforts on the opposite side of the conflict.

 There are also indications that Iranian regime is responding favorably to political and military overtures form China. The regime-affiliated news site PressTV reported on China’s call for the establishment of an Asian bloc by proudly describing it as “a nightmare for the United States.”

 Another pro-Tehran news source, Tasnim News Agency, reported that the Iranian regime Foreign Ministry had condemned terrorist bombings in western China. This selective denunciation is presumably political, since many other acts of terrorism are either ignored or actively supported by the Iranian regime, which the US State Department has identified as still being a world-leading supporter of international terrorism.

 Afghans React to Refugee Recruitment

In one example of Iranian regime support for cross-border violence, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Iran was recruiting Afghan refugees and paying them with money, food rations, and Iranian citizenship in exchange for an agreement to fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian Civil War.

 Now, the Wall Street Journal has updated the story by pointing out that some Afghan legislators have expressed outrage at the news and begun pushing for an investigation. The new article also provides a list of sources confirming the original story. For instance, a cleric serving an Afghan-Iranian community in Qom acknowledged the recruitment initially, before recanting his story. But other, more objective observers have upheld it.

 Kurds Cut Off at Border

Iranian participation in the Syrian Civil War is only one example of Tehran’s aggressive activities. And even without surveying the broader Middle East, one can see that Iran is building up its arsenals and making its borders increasingly militarized.

 Apart from signaling possible dangers to come, these actions have consequences for people in the path of the buildup. Rudaw.net claims that Iranian regime establishment of military outposts along its border in the Kurdistan region is interfering with the long-established lifestyles and livelihoods of the local Kurdish people.

 Villagers have reportedly lost farm land and been increasingly restricted when letting their livestock graze. Worse still, several villagers have reportedly been shot for trespassing in recent years. At the same time, the more heavily defended border restricts the travel of Kurdish villages who had formerly passed among mountain towns on a regular basis in order to visit family. These people may be permanently separated now, amidst ongoing efforts by Iran to exert strict control over its portion of the Kurdistan region, and over that region as a whole.

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