Corruption and Poverty Lead to Rage and Despair in Iran

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF GLOBAL VOICES)

 

Corruption and Poverty Lead to Rage and Despair in Iran

Screenshot from video of protests in Tehran from January 4, 2018. Available on YouTube: https://youtu.be/hNNVlONyNGs

This piece was cross-posted on the website of Arseh Sevom website, a non-governmental organization that promotes peace, democracy, and human rights for Persian-speaking communities.

“Where’s my money?” That’s what many in Iran have been asking over the past few years as they’ve watched inflation and corruption decimate their earnings.

Inflation has hit the poor and working class the hardest. The costs of food, utilities, and healthcare have risen dramatically over the past five years. In 2013, the cost of food increased by just over 57%; in 2017, it rose by a further 13.9%. Meanwhile, the youth unemployment rate hovers at about 25%.

Simply put, there is plenty of economic despair to go around. But it doesn’t end there. Desperate people have invested in pyramid schemes that enriched a few at the cost of the many. Workers all over Iran have waited up to a year to be paid for completed work. This traps them in inescapable debt and many land up in prison for using bad checks, placing even more stress on already struggling households.

In the last half of 2017, there were near-daily protests in front of Iran’s parliament. Teachers, laborers, and bus drivers demonstrated to demand higher pay and better working conditions. This is not new: these protests are more than a decade old now.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been unable to deliver the freedoms and financial stability that its citizens long for. Some of this is the result of sanctions imposed by the United States; much of it, however, is due to corruption and bad governance.

US-imposed financial sanctions have actually provided excuses for bad planning and rampant corruption. As long as they are in place, the Iranian government can hide behind them, blaming everything from milk shortages to poor aircraft maintenance on sanctions.

Meanwhile, those who learned to game the system have raked in the big bucks. A perfect example is Iran’s Babak Zanjani who became a billionaire many times over thanks to international sanctions against Iran and his clever manipulation of his position as the Islamic Republic’s money launderer. In late 2013, he was arrested

We’re not all in this together

Paykans in Northern Tehran. Photo by Wikipaykan – Own workCC BY-SA 3.0Link

In 2003, Iran’s streets were filled with the boxy white Paykan sedans and the occasional foreign-made compact car. Cafes were rare; any public signs of wealth, subtle. Many people lived on salaries that wouldn’t pay even a month’s rent — $1,000 a month seemed like an extravagant amount of money.

By the time I left Tehran in 2007, consumerism was on the rise. International companies and luxury products were finding a market in Iran. Soon after, couples would be eating gold-flaked ice cream in tower-top restaurants and flaunting their wealth in Jaguars and Porsches. Soon, there would be a rise in evictions of long-term tenants in order to build apartment towers. Soon, all pretense of shared struggle would be gone.

Wealth can’t protect you from environmental collapse

Screenshot from Al Jazeera Earthrise documentary: Iran’s Water Crisis by Gelareh Darabi

Tehran is being smothered in smog. Bad air days are increasing. People are suffering. In 2011, the Iranian government reported that nearly 3,000 people died every month because of complications resulting from pollution. That number may be higher, as research begins to show that many deaths from cardiovascular disease are actually the result of pollution, not lifestyle or diet.

Poor water management worsened during the Ahmadinejad administration from 2005 to 2013. During that time, newly constructed damns led to dry rivers, lakes, and aquifers. Once-fertile areas have been destroyed.

Private industry, with connections to the state, warned people against “exaggerating” the magnitude of the environmental crisis in Iran. An investigative report by environmental researchers found that scientific research on the crisis is often stifled.

Meanwhile, analysts predict millions of internal climate refugees. That’s something to prepare for, not ignore.

Protests are growing and waning

Many people in Iran have looked at the conflict in the surrounding region and felt lucky to have been somewhat insulated from it. They feel threatened by Daesh (also known as ISIL or ISIS, the brutal militant group that has taken over areas of Iraq and Syria) and by Saudi Arabia. They are afraid of the possibility of national disintegration and the type of government violence seen in Syria. This fear has put a damper on public protest.

The director of non-governmental organization Arseh Sevom (and also my life partner) Kamran Ashtary stated:

Iranians again show us that they are unpredictable. Those who had claimed that people were so afraid of a Syria-type scenario that they would not come to the streets, were wrong. As we say again and again, Iranians are always full of surprises. Violence and suppression won’t work forever.

This current wave of protests was apparently sparked by hardliners who initiated demonstrations in the eastern city of Mashhad against the moderate administration of Hassan Rouhani. The hardliners soon lost control, though, and people took to the streets in anger and desperation.

Ashtary added:

The Islamic Republic of Iran and the administration of President Rouhani have seen this coming. Over the past few months, there have been many protests from all sides: from teachers, bus drivers, and the working class. People all over Iran have become frustrated with Rouhani’s government. They see that the lifting of sanctions has pumped money into the country, but regular people, people who have been working very hard in Iran, have not seen the benefits.The level of corruption is high. The national budget shows money flowing into religious organizations without any accountability. The moderates and reformists have been quiet and have not taken the side of people suffering in Iran. Iranians have been quite patient with the Islamic Republic. That won’t last. This may be the last chance for non-violent change.

For the first time in decades, many people on the streets of Iran have been openly calling for an end to clerical rule. Some chanted for reinstatement of the Shah, while others have railed against the president and supreme leader.

This is in stark contrast to demonstrations in the aftermath of the 2009 elections, which was the last time masses of people took to the streets in Iran. Those protests called for a recount of the vote, for “small changes”. People sang nursery rhymes, not political slogans. One of the most chanted was:

Don’t fear, don’t fear, we are all together here

Revolution?

The people of Iran have been struggling for just governance since their 1905 constitutional revolution. The country’s democratic hopes have been dashed again and again. This is most notable in the case of the 1953 US- and British-led coup against Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh (see this Twitter essay by @_chloi for a good overview). In recent years many inside Iran have spoken of evolution, not revolution. These protesters are different though. Many feel that there is nothing left to lose.

The Iranian government is calling the protesters “counter-revolutionary.” Others are calling them revolutionary. In an unprecedented move, more than 40 students were preemptively arrested because of fears what they might do if they became involved in the protests. The Center for Human Rights in Iran has more information on this: Iranian Security Forces Have Arrested More Than 40 University Students.

Is this a revolution? Probably not. In a post on Facebook, Iran analyst Peyman Jafari noted:

History shows that protests have their own dynamics. They can grow, radicalize, and lead to revolution. But the same history shows that they can end in repression and concessions. What we know of Iranian society and government point to the second outcome.

What can civil society do?

IranWire’s Maziar Bahari suggested some changes to US policy to better support demonstrators:

Three simple suggestions for the US government and others:
1- impose sanctions on Iranian state TV, IRIB 2- lift travel ban for Iranians 3- condemn violence from all sides, both violence by the government and those who promote violence against mosques and banks in Iran.

Journalist Mostafa Khosravi told Global Voices:

This is a very critical time for reformists in Iran. If they don’t find a way to support those demonstrating in the streets, they will lose all of the backing they’ve gained over the past six years. By this I mean, the seats gained by Reformists in Parliament and on city councils. Protesters are asking them for support. So far, their only response has been to tell them to calm down. If that’s the best they can do, there is no hope for them as a party.

With reports of nearly 1,000 arrested, the crackdown seems more effective than the “calm down”.  Journalist Golnaz Esfandiari reported that hardline news outlets are using Twitter to crowdsource the identification of protesters:

Iranian hardline news outlets endanger anti-establishment protesters by calling for their identification https://www.rferl.org/a/iran-revolutionary-guards-crowdsource-protester-crackdown/28955120.html 

Iran’s IRGC, Allies Enlist Public, And Twitter, To Chase Suspected Protesters

Some Iranians are calling out local media and Twitter over apparent vigilantism on behalf of the feared Revolutionary Guards.

rferl.org

In a letter from prison, the vice president of the Defenders of Human Rights, Narges Mohammadi, published recommendations for supporting the demonstrations without violence. She asks that civil society put pressure on government to reevaluate the budget, and feels that this is the best way to support peaceful protests and bring about change:

Instead of talking, the government needs to take concrete steps to support and protect the rights of the people by making fundamental reforms.

In this critical situation, the members of parliament need to listen to the concerns of the people. They need to ensure that the proposed budget is not ratified.

We, the people, with determination and without violence, must stand firm in demanding our rights. The protest will be costly but it must also pay off. For now, the most urgent matter in the struggle against corruption and poverty is the 2018 budget proposal. We need to engage in peaceful protest in order to prevent its passage.

If I were not in prison, I would be in front of Parliament every day that the budget bill was under discussion. The members of parliament need to know that they are accountable to the people, that they represent the people, and that the eyes of the people are upon them.

Mostafa Khosravi contributed research for this article.

Iran After Khamenei: The Debate Starts

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

Opinion

Iran after Khamenei: the Debate Starts

Is Tehran preparing the ground for the succession of “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Rife for many years, speculation attained a new degree of intensity earlier this month with a number of declarations by various officials, among them the revelation at a press conference by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami that the Assembly of Experts, the organ supposed to choose the next “Supreme Guide”, had appointed a committee to pick candidates.

Khatami claimed that the committee had been in place for years, and had already “noted” 10 potential candidates whose names could only be supplied to Khamenei.

Both claims are open to question.

Khatami wants us to believe that there is neither immediacy nor urgency and that no single candidate could start building a profile as the successor.

Nevertheless, the fact that the issue is raised in public may be a sign that urgency is involved. The bit about “10 potential candidates” is designed to prevent the focalization of attention on any one of the mullahs regarded by Tehran political circles as possible successors to Khamenei.

The claim that the Assembly of Experts chooses the “Supreme Guide” is equally open to doubt.

The first “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini wasn’t elected but simply declared himself as a new Imam and acted as if he had divine mandate. Khamenei wasn’t elected either, but merely acclaimed by the Assembly after the late Hashemi Rafsanjani, flanked by Khomeini’s son Ahmad, claimed that the late “Imam” had designated “Ali Agha” as successor.

Khatami’s statement as spokesman for the Assembly of Experts, includes a hint that the next “Supreme Guide” may be named by Khamenei who will be given “the chosen names” with the implicit notion that he could strike any of them off, retaining the assembly’s position as nothing but a rubber stamp.

In regimes where one man holds absolute or semi-absolute power the temptation to dictate the future is always present.

In other words, the constitutional mechanism for electing the “Supreme Guide” has never been tested.

Foreign commentators often describe the Islamic Republic as a theocracy ruled by the “top mullah”. The truth is that the Islamic Republic is a secular regime that uses a religious narrative; in it, the mosque has been annexed by the state not the other way round. Nor is the “Supreme Guide” the “top mullah” by any stretch of imagination.

Khomeini was one of some 200 Ayatollahs and never considered by others as “supreme “ in anything. His limited knowledge of theology and history and his inability to master Persian and Arabic at a high level meant he would never attain the summit within the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy. Khomeini was a politician and owed his place in the Iranian panorama to the success of his political movement against various rivals and adversaries.

Khamenei’s knowledge of theology and history is certainly superior to that of Khomeini.
He also has a better command of both Persian and Arabic. Had Khamenei built a career within the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy he would have had a good chance of reaching higher rungs of the ladder than Khomeini.

Nevertheless, Khamenei has never been on that ladder.

From the start he has been a political figure, serving as Deputy Defense Minister and, later, President of the Republic.

The fact that the “Supreme Guide” dresses up as a mullah does not mean that he is head of the clergy, and even less that the clergy govern Iran. When Archbishop Makarios was President that didn’t mean that the Orthodox Christian priesthood ruled Cyprus. Nor did Archbishop Abel Muzorewa’s presidency symbolize rule by the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe.

Even Mullah Hassan, who briefly ruled Somalia, never claimed he was ruling on behalf of Islam; he called himself Shah. In old Yemen where Imam Yahya could claim he exercised on behalf of the Zaidi faith, he emphasized his political rather than any religious function as a member of the ulema.

Thus, the post of the “Supreme Guide” in Iran’s Islamic Republic is a political one and choosing its occupant is a political process.

And in any domain that is political what matters is to mobilize energies needed for winning power.

Propelling Khamenei as Khomeini’s successor was relatively easy.

The traditional clergy was anxious not to get involved in politics and had no desire to advance any of its leaders as candidate for the post. More importantly, Rafsanjani’s scheme was to enlarge the powers of the President of the Republic, a post he soon captured for himself, by reducing that of the “Supreme Guide”.

Rafsanjani’s calculation didn’t work. Khamenei did not turn out to be the quiet and obedient little mullah more interested in committing poetry than exercising power. He acted the opposite of the role that Rafsanjani has scripted for him by enlarging the powers of the “Supreme Guide”.

Moreover, while Rafsanjani applied his energies to enriching his family and entourage, Khamenei surrounded himself with a new generation of the military, men who now occupy all key positions of command in the army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the Baseej (Mobilization) and the regime’s security services.

If Khamenei, soon to be 78, lives as long as Khomeini he may be around for another decade. But even if he stumbles his successor won’t be chosen by the “Assembly of Experts” but by military-security networks that provide the backbone of the system.

Rafsanjani and his associates have talked of constitutional reform for years. In his last speech, Rafsanjani suggested that the constitution be amended without spelling out what he meant. A similar call has come from Ayatollah Nateq Nuri former Speaker of the Islamic Majlis, Iran’s ersatz parliament.

One idea is to officialize the political nature of the “Supreme Guide” by merging it with the post of the President. Another idea is to de-emphasize its political aspect by creating a five-mullah council charged with nothing more than deciding whether legislation conforms to Islamic tenets. That means promoting the President, which currently has little real power, as head of state, commander of the armed forces and ultimate decision-maker on executive matters.

Radical critics of the regime, argue that Khamenei’s demise should signal the end of the Islamic Republic itself, allowing Iranians to choose a different path for their nation.

Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the debate has already started on the future of Iran after Khamenei.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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Iran’s President Warns The Iranian People Of ‘Consequences’ For Questioning Economic Policy

 

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

London- Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has warned against questioning Iran’s ability to overcome its economic crises, saying the criticism directed at his government will lead to a defeat in the battle for a better economy.

“We are defiantly victorious in implementing the economy of resistance,” Rouhani said Wednesday, noting that Iran – with a great nation, an effective government and an intelligent leader – is the winner of the economy of resistance.

Addressing an international conference in commemoration of the martyrs of the World of Islam underway in Mashhad, Rouhani said the Iranian nation has for 38 years been able to resist against all pressures.

“In today’s difficult conditions for oil producers … Iran has remained steadfast,” the president noted.

He revealed that Iran was able to reduce the inflation rate and preserve the value of the national currency.

“Today’s war is a war of determination,” Rouhani stated.

The president underlined the need to possess advanced weapons to resist the enemies in case of a war, saying “we should develop missiles and aircrafts and we are doing so.”

However, he said the enemy “fears the nation’s faith and determination, more than weapons.”

The comments came a day after Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Assembly of Experts, a body that selects Iran’s supreme leader, cast doubt over the government’s performance and starkly criticized Rouhani’s economy of resistance policy.

Rouhani should apologize to the Iranian people if he cannot show that the economy has improved, one of Iran’s most prominent hardliners said on Tuesday.

“If the resistance economy has not been followed in the way that it should have, then he must apologize and tell Iranians the reasons,” Jannati told a meeting of the Assembly where Rouhani was present.

Rouhani on Wednesday rejected as “irrelevant” the question whether his government is successful in the economy of resistance and said his administration would present a full economic report by the end of the Iranian calendar year, in late March.

The President said the Islamic Republic has managed to “push up economic growth, bring down inflation and maintain the value of national currency” despite difficulties it has been facing like other major crude exporters.

ARAB NATIONS FACE STARK CHOICE: ISRAEL OR IRAN

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF NEWSWEEK)

ARAB NATIONS FACE STARK CHOICE: ISRAEL OR IRAN

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

Two very different dialogue proposals are on the table for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, one from a historic enemy, Israel, proposed in conjunction with a crucial partner, the United States. The other is from a historic rival, Iran, which shares the same neighborhood and faith.

The choice the Arab countries ultimately make could determine the future peace and prosperity of the region.

On February 15, President Donald Trump met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House and during a press conference, both leaders hinted at an approaching Arab-Israeli cooperation.

A few days later, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterated Iran’s previously proposed regional platform for dialogue between the Islamic Republic and its Persian Gulf neighbors during a speech at the Munich Security Conference.

The U.S.-Israel proposal encompasses almost all Arab States, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, as well as Egypt, Jordan and possibly Lebanon and Tunisia.

This proposal’s principal objective is a wider Arab-Israeli peace agreement and an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, the key selling point behind this initiative is mutual concerns regarding Iran, and the proposal has a goal to present a unified front against the Islamic Republic.

Netanyahu stated during the press conference that “for the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally.” He further stated that “the great opportunity for peace comes from a regional approach involving our newfound Arab partners in the pursuit of a broader peace with the Palestinians.”

Related: Michael Dorf: Trump’s Deal-Making Skills Won’t Help Israel

While there has been no official confirmation of back channel talks between Israel and the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, Trump and Netanyahu’s statements indicate that previous reports alleging secret direct interactions between high-level Israeli and GCC officials have indeed taken place in the past six years if not longer.

The perception left by the Barack Obama administration, that the United States is leaving the region and that an increasingly emboldened Iran is exerting power across the Middle East after the implementation of the 2015 nuclear agreement, has revived longstanding hostilities between Arabs and Persians, and presented an opening to realize mutual interests and foster cooperation between Arabs and Israelis.

Israel has long seen Iran as its major adversary because of Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah as well as Iran’s ballistic missile program and nuclear advances.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia along with its GCC partners were alarmed when Iran took advantage of the US invasion of Iraq to become influential in Baghdad. The GCC states also grew intolerant of Iran’s perceived links to the uprisings in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province as well as Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and for the Houthis in Yemen.

03_03_Iran_Israel_01Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Muhammad bin Salman Al Saud of Saudi arrive at the Hangzhou Exhibition Center to participate in the G20 Summit on September 4, 2016, in Hangzhou, China. Mehran Haghirian writes that if the United States goes forward with plans to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or gives a carte blanche for further Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while abandoning the goal of a two-state solution, there will be no domestic support for Arab rapprochement with Israel.ETIENNE OLIVEAU/GETTY

At the Munich conference, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman quoted without naming him an old remark by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis that “in the Middle East we are facing three challenges: Iran, Iran and Iran…and I can only repeat and confirm this approach.” Lieberman reiterated that Israel would continue efforts to hinder the Islamic Republic’s reintegration into the international community in the aftermath of the nuclear agreement.

Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir also reaffirmed his country’s objections to Iranian actions across the region. “The Iranians do not believe in the principle of good neighborliness or non-interference in the affairs of others,” Jubeir told the Munich conference. “This is manifested in their interference in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan.”

While the prospect for Iran-Saudi détente looks dim at present, it is crucial to remember that the future of Palestine is an issue that not only unites Iran and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, but all people in the Muslim world. The outlook for the US-Israeli proposal to solve the Palestinian issue is unclear and most likely not possible to be implemented.

If the United States goes forward with plans to move the US Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, or gives a carte blanche for further Israeli settlements in the West Bank, while abandoning the goal of a two-state solution, there will be no domestic support for Arab rapprochement with Israel.

Countering the US-Israeli proposal, Zarif reiterated the Islamic Republic’s proposition for creation of a regional platform for dialogue between Iran and its Persian Gulf neighbors, or as he called them “brothers.”

“Countries in the Persian Gulf region need to surmount the current state of division and tension and instead move in the direction erecting realistic regional arrangements,” Zarif told the Munich conference. To implement this proposal, he said it must start with a regional dialogue forum that encompasses the littoral neighbors of the Persian Gulf, and under the framework of shared principles and objectives.

The primary goal of Iran’s proposal is to decrease tensions and increase cooperation between neighbors.

“The forum can promote understanding under a broad spectrum of issues, including confidence and security building measures, and combating terrorism, extremism, and sectarianism,” Zarif said. “It could also encourage practical cooperation in areas ranging from the protection of the environment to join investments and tourism. Such a forum could eventually develop into a more formal non-aggression and security cooperation arrangements.”

This proposal is not new. Zarif put it forward shortly after finalizing the nuclear deal in an article on Al-Monitor titled “Choose your neighbors before your house,” and traveledto Qatar and Kuwait shortly afterward.

More recently, on January 24, the foreign minister of Kuwait met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to deliver a letter on behalf of the GCC. While the details of the letter have not been made public, Rouhani followed with state visits to Oman and Kuwait on February 15, coincidentally the same day Trump and Netanyahu held talks.

Oman and Kuwait, which historically have had less troubled relations with Iran than other GCC members, have indicated a desire to take part in the dialogue forum with Iran, and have repeatedly attempted to mediate tensions between the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia.

The disagreements between rival powers should not preclude comprehensive and inclusive arrangements that address mutual concerns, and that benefit all participating countries. The Iranian proposal will ensure a sustainable relationship between neighboring states based on mutual respect, and eventually, the cooperation could facilitate an end to the civil wars in Yemen and Syria.

The Israeli proposal might lead to a wider peace agreement between Arab states and Israel. However, it will most definitely exacerbate tensions with Iran and increase the chances of a wider military conflict.

There has been no substantial conflict between the Arab States of the Persian Gulf and Israel in the past decade or more, and while a wider Arab-Israeli peace would undoubtedly have a positive impact in the region, it is contingent on a Palestinian-Israeli agreement.

Meanwhile, the rise in contention between some GCC states and Iran in the past decade has arguably had more dire consequences for the region than the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Agreeing to sit at the same table with Iran for dialogue based on a mutually acceptable and beneficial outlook will lead to greater peace in the region and beyond. It is crucial for the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to weigh the rewards and consequences of each proposal before going forward with either approach.

Mehran Haghirian is an Iranian Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service in Washington D.C., and he is currently a Project Assistant at Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative.

Iran to work on nuclear-powered marine vessels after U.S. ‘violation’ of deal

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF REUTERS NEWS)

Iran to work on nuclear-powered marine vessels after U.S. ‘violation’ of deal

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Shadia Nasralla | BEIRUT/VIENNA

Iran ordered its scientists on Tuesday to start developing systems for nuclear-powered marine vessels in response to what it calls a U.S. violation of its landmark 2015 atomic deal with world powers.

Nuclear experts however said that President Hassan Rouhani’s move, if carried out, would probably require Iran to enrich uranium to a fissile purity above the maximum level set by the nuclear deal to allay fears of Tehran building an atomic bomb.

Rouhani’s announcement marked Tehran’s first concrete reaction to a decision by the U.S. Congress last month to extend some sanctions on Tehran that would also make it easier to reimpose others lifted under the nuclear pact.

Rouhani described the technology as a “nuclear propeller to be used in marine transportation,” but did not say whether that meant just ships or possibly also submarines. Iran said in 2012 that it was working on its first nuclear-powered sub. reut.rs/2gVr80g

Rouhani’s words will stoke tensions with Washington, already heightened by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to scrap the deal, under which Iran curbed its nuclear fuel production activities in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Rouhani also ordered planning for production of fuel for nuclear-powered marine vessels “in line with the development of a peaceful nuclear program of Iran”.

But under the nuclear settlement Iran reached with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China, it is not allowed to enrich uranium above a 3.67 percent purity for 15 years, a level unlikely to be enough to run such vessels.

“On the basis of international experience, were Iran to go ahead with such a (nuclear propulsion) project, it would have to increase its enrichment level,” said Mark Hibbs, nuclear expert and senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

CIVILIAN VERSUS MILITARY ENRICHMENT

“That’s the point, because Iran would be looking for a non-weapons rationale to provocatively increase its enrichment level in the case that the deal with the powers comes unstuck.”

He pointed out that countries with more advanced navies and nuclear programs have been working on propulsion reactors for decades. Such technology might need uranium enriched to around 20 percent purity.

A Russian Foreign Ministry source told RIA news agency that a careful reading of Rouhani’s order showed he was talking only about developing power-supply units for nuclear-powered marine vessels, but not higher-enriched uranium itself, so “strictly speaking” this would not contravene the nuclear deal.

But the source acknowledged that such vessels typically ran on higher-enriched uranium prohibited by the accord.

Edwin Lyman, a nuclear expert at the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said developing a reactor suited for higher-grade nuclear vessel fuel would take at least a decade.

“(But) these are unfortunate developments. We are very concerned about the future of the (nuclear deal) under the Trump administration and any signs of erosion … must be taken very seriously and immediately addressed by the international community,” Lyman told Reuters.

Rouhani accused the United States in a letter published by state news agency IRNA of not fully meeting its commitments under the nuclear deal.

“With regard to recent (U.S. congressional) legislation to extend the Iran Sanctions Act … I order the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to … plan the design and construction of a nuclear propeller to be used in marine transportation.”

Members of the U.S. Congress have said the extension of the bill does not violate the nuclear deal that was struck last year to assuage Western fears that Iran was working to develop a nuclear bomb. The act, Congress added, only gave Washington the power to reimpose sanctions on Iran if it violated the pact.

Washington says it has lifted all the sanctions it needs to under the July 2015 deal between major powers and Iran.

Rouhani’s move followed recent remarks by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his hardline allies harshly criticizing the deal’s failure to yield any swift economic improvements in Iran. Khamenei said last month the U.S. Congress’s prolongation of some sanctions was a clear breach and the Islamic Republic would “definitely react to it”.

There was no immediate comment from the Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors Iran’s nuclear program.

(Additional reporting by Alexander Winning in Moscow and Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; editing by Mark Heinrich)

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