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Iran’s Principlists tipped to win parliament vote amid discontent

On February 9, Iranians will head to the polls to choose members for the country’s 290-seat parliament. The vote could not come at a more sensitive time for Iran. The country is still grappling with the chaotic fallout from the United States’ assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3. The killing, which…

Iran’s Principlists tipped to win parliament vote amid discontent

On February 9, Iranians will head to the polls to choose members for the country’s 290-seat parliament. The vote could not come at a more sensitive time for Iran.
The country is still grappling with the chaotic fallout from the United States’ assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3. The killing, which pushed the longtime foes to the precipice of an all-out-war, came as Washington tightened sanctions against Tehran as part of a years-long “maximum pressure” campaign that has crippled Iran’s economy and driven down its oil exports. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s (IRGC) actions to avenge Soleimani’s killing, however, only increased the turmoil in Iran.
On January 8, the paramilitary force fired a volley of missiles at US targets in Iraq, and while the retaliatory attacks did not cause any fatalities, the IRGC shot down a Ukrainian airliner hours later, killing all 176 people on board. 
Amid fears the plane disaster could trigger a new bout of protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in a rare Friday sermon on January 17, defending the IRGC and urging his countrymen to take part in the legislative elections. “The presence of the people insures the country and disappoints the enemy,” he said.
For the Islamic Republic of Iran, high electoral participation is heralded as a sign of public legitimacy.
But observers say they expect a reduced turnout in February’s polls, as public discontent at perceived government mismanagement and corruption rises amid the US pressure and worsening economic conditions. The worries over voter participation have intensified in the past week, after the Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog that vets legislation and electoral candidates, announced it had disqualified more than a third of the 14,500 parliamentary hopefuls, including a record 90 incumbent legislators.

Among them is Mahmoud Sadeghi, a member of the reformist bloc affiliated with President Hassan Rouhani in parliament. The outspoken legislator said most of those deemed ineligible to run were reformist and moderate candidates, who advocate for more democracy and greater Iranian engagement with the global community.
“At the moment, only 18 to 20 reformist candidates have been approved in Tehran,” he told Al Jazeera, a decision that he said deprived the reformists of the ability to come up with a complete list for the capital, which is allocated 30 seats. He contended that the rival bloc, known as the principlists and who favour rule based on the values of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, had hundreds of candidates on their lists for the capital.
“Elections will not be competitive and fair when they are not participated by candidates from various parties,” said Sadeghi. “This will result in a low turnout, especially in major cities.”
This could result in a parliamentary majority for the principlist bloc, observers said – a win that could strengthen their hand ahead of the presidential election of 2021, and provide fresh impetus to launch impeachment proceedings against Rouhani before the end of his term. 
On January 15, a day after the Guardian Council announced the disqualifications, Rouhani sharply criticised the decision. “Please do not tell people that there are 17, 170 or 1,700 candidates for a single parliamentary seat. 17 candidates from what faction? Only one? This is not an election,” he said in a televised address. “Allow all parties and groups to run for the elections. The country cannot be run by a single faction. The country belongs to everyone.”

There are two main factions in Iran’s 290-member parliament – the reformists and the principlists [Vahid Salemi/AP]

But Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei, a spokesman for the Guardian Council, slammed Rouhani’s comments as “anti-national” on Twitter. He later told reporters the council was reviewing petitions from some 3,700 of the disqualified candidates and would release the final list in the coming days.
Bijan Nobaveh, a principlist who was allowed to run, also dismissed the reformists’ claims, insisting candidates from both camps had been disqualified – most of them because of corruption-related issues. Nobaveh described the reformists’ complaints as a bid to divert attention from what he called a weak performance by the reformist and moderate-dominated legislature.
“Even if all of their candidates are approved, the reformists will not get more than 5 percent of the vote,” he told Al Jazeera, citing popular frustration at the country’s deepening economic woes. 
Indeed, the tide of public opinion has appeared to turn against the reformists and moderates since they unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority in the 2016 elections – a win that came on the back of a nuclear accord that Rouhani’s government negotiated with world powers. The landmark agreement, which offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear programme, is now in danger of unravelling after the US unilaterally pulled out from the pact in 2018 and reimposed punishing economic measures against Tehran.
While Rouhani’s promise to improve life for common Iranians has been severely weakened by the US sanctions – which depleted the country’s coffers and caused the rial to lose more than 50 percent of its value against the US dollar – some experts contend Washington’s pressure campaign alone could not be blamed for the loss of support for the reformist and moderate forces.
“The reformist or moderate forces of the establishment do not enjoy credibility any more because they have been unwilling and unable to push through the reforms they were promising the people,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. 
“And they have constantly opposed the protests of the last few years and even supported the crackdown against the protesters,” he added, referring to a series of crackdowns on protesters, including in 2017 and 2018, and most recently in November, when security forces’ killed hundreds of demonstrators protesting a surprise increase in fuel prices. 

Iranian protesters clash in the streets following fuel price increase in the city of Isfahan, central Iran, on November 16, 2019 [File: EPA]

At least 304 people were reportedly killed in the nationwide protests, where banks and shops in some cities were set on fire. The violence was the deadliest political unrest in Iran in decades, with Rouhani warning that “anarchy and rioting” would not be tolerated.
Many reformist politicians and groups, including an organisation led by former president Mohammad Khatami, had also criticised the 2017-18 upheaval, when protesters rallied against economic hardship and political repression.
“The expectation is that the hardliners will win the upcoming elections,” said Fathollah-Nejad “First, because important contenders are disqualified, and second, because the moderate forces have lost a lot of legitimacy and credibility in the past few years. That does not mean they [the principlists] have popular support. It will be interesting to see the percentage of participation.”
In this context, Emad Bahavar, a disqualified reformist candidate, said there was “still a possibility that the Guardian Council approves 10 to 20 percent of the disqualified reformists to prevent a consensus within the bloc to boycott the elections”, and allow it to come with a candidates’ list. 
Regardless of what happened next, Raha, a young voter in Tehran, said she would not vote in the upcoming election. 
“The process of disqualifying candidates is a kind of playing games which occurs in every election. First, they are rejected. But, it’s not clear how some of them are approved in the next stages and even get elected,” the young woman who asked to be identified only by her first name said in a telephone interview. “It makes no difference whether we take part in the elections or not, because nothing will be done to improve our lives. So, I prefer not to vote.”
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Iran’s Zarif in Iraq in his first visit since Soleimani’s killing |NationalTribune.com

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is visiting Iraq, for the first time since the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January. Zarif and his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein stressed the necessity for a stable Iraq for the “good of the region” as the two top diplomats discussed their ties and regional developments in…

Iran’s Zarif in Iraq in his first visit since Soleimani’s killing |NationalTribune.com

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is visiting Iraq, for the first time since the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qassem Soleimani in January.
Zarif and his Iraqi counterpart Fuad Hussein stressed the necessity for a stable Iraq for the “good of the region” as the two top diplomats discussed their ties and regional developments in Baghdad on Sunday.
Zarif is also expected to meet Iraq’s president, the speaker of parliament and the prime minister during the visit as regional security, bilateral relations and business investments feature on the agenda.
Zarif’s visit to Iraq comes amid tensions between the United States and Iran, which escalated following Soleimani’s killing in an air attack in the Iraqi capital.
In a joint news conference with Hussein, Zarif said a “stable and powerful” Iraq was in the interest of both the countries.

“That is why we look forward to continued constructive bilateral negotiations. The stability, security and peace in Iraq is the stability of the entire region,” he said.
“Again, we reiterate that we are keen on maintaining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq.”
Fuad Hussein said his country looked forward to continuing its “balanced relations” with all the countries in the region. 
“[The relations are] based on first our national interest, then on mutual interest with our neighbours without any interfering in our domestic affairs.”
Zarif visits Soleimani memorial
During his visit, Zarif visited a memorial to Soleimani at the site where he and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were killed near Baghdad’s international airport.
Tehran had retaliated by firing a volley of ballistic missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq. 

While the attack on the western Iraqi base of Ain al-Assad killed no US soldiers, dozens were reported to have suffered brain trauma.
Zarif said the assassination of Soleimani was “a criminal act”.
“It is a loss to our country and to the entire region, and it undermines the international efforts for combating ISIL (ISIL) and terrorism in the region,” he said.
This was Zarif’s first visit to Iraq since the killing of Soleimani and formation of the new Iraqi government.
Al Jazeera’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from Baghdad, said the recent months have been turbulent for relations between Iran and Iraq.
“New Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been stressing the importance of Iraq’s sovereignty,” she said.
“He also recently moved against armed groups present in Iraq, such as Kataib Hezbollah, which is considered close to Iran,” she said, referring to the Iraqi armed group backed by Tehran.
“This visit is aimed at recalibrating mutual relations and making sure Iran’s security, economic and political interests are represented in Iraq.”
Zarif’s visit comes a day before al-Kadhimi travels to Saudi Arabia and Iran next week in apparent attempt to balance his country’s ties with regional rivals in his first foreign trip as Iraq’s prime minister.
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Fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage |NationalTribune.com

A fire that broke out at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility last week caused significant damage that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges, an Iranian nuclear official said on Sunday. No one was hurt in the mysterious blaze last Thursday at the site, said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation.  Iran’s top security body…

Fire at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility caused significant damage |NationalTribune.com

A fire that broke out at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility last week caused significant damage that could slow the development of advanced centrifuges, an Iranian nuclear official said on Sunday.
No one was hurt in the mysterious blaze last Thursday at the site, said Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation. 
Iran’s top security body said on Friday the cause of the fire at the facility had been determined and would be announced later, however, specific details have yet to be released.
Some Iranian officials reportedly said it may have been caused by cyber-sabotage and one warned Tehran would retaliate against any country carrying out such attacks.
“The incident could slow down the development and production of advanced centrifuges in the medium term,” Kamalvandi was quoted as saying by Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
“Iran will replace the damaged building with a bigger one that has more advanced equipment. The incident has caused significant damage, but there were no casualties.”

An article by IRNA last week addressed what it called the possibility of sabotage by enemies such as Israel and the United States, although it stopped short of accusing either directly.
In 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the US and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz.
Israel’s defence minister said on Sunday it was not “necessarily” behind every mysterious incident in Iran.
The Natanz uranium-enrichment site, much of which is underground, is one of several Iranian facilities monitored by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations nuclear watchdog. 

The IAEA said on Friday the location of the fire did not contain nuclear materials and none of its inspectors was present at the time.
Intensified sanctions
Natanz is the centrepiece of Iran’s enrichment programme, which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes. Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe it had a coordinated, clandestine nuclear arms programme that it halted in 2003.
Tehran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons.
Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions in a deal reached between Tehran and six world powers in 2015.
But Tehran has gradually reduced its commitments to the accord since US President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed and intensified sanctions that have battered Iran’s economy.
The deal only allows Iran to enrich uranium at Natanz facility with more than 5,000 of first-generation IR-1 centrifuges.

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Iran’s Zarif says ending arms ban ‘inseparable’ from nuclear deal |NationalTribune.com

Iran has said the preservation of its nuclear accord with world powers depends on the scheduled end in October of a UN arms embargo as the United States seeks to extend it.”The timetable for the removal of arms restrictions embodied in Resolution 2231 is an inseparable part of the hard-won compromise,” Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister…

Iran’s Zarif says ending arms ban ‘inseparable’ from nuclear deal |NationalTribune.com

Iran has said the preservation of its nuclear accord with world powers depends on the scheduled end in October of a UN arms embargo as the United States seeks to extend it.”The timetable for the removal of arms restrictions embodied in Resolution 2231 is an inseparable part of the hard-won compromise,” Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) session, referring to the resolution that blessed the 2015 deal signed to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear activities in exchange for sanctions relief.
“Any attempt to change or amend the agreed timetable is thus tantamount to undermining Resolution 2231 in its entirety,” he said.His comments were made after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the UN body to extend the embargo on Iran.

Washington has circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member council that would indefinitely extend the embargo but Russia and China have already signalled their opposition to such a move.
“If Iran isn’t a threat to peace and security I do not know what it is,” Pompeo said, warning that the embargo’s expiration would risk the stability of the Middle East.”Iran will hold a sword of Damocles over the economic stability of the Middle East, endangering nations like Russia and China that rely on stable energy prices,” he added, referencing two opponents of prolonging the embargo.
Pompeo described Iran as “the world’s most heinous terrorist regime,” and urged the UNSC to reject “extortion diplomacy.”
If the US is unsuccessful in extending the arms embargo, it has threatened to trigger a return of all UN sanctions on Iran under the nuclear deal, from which Washington unilaterally withdrew in 2018.
Zarif countered calling President Donald Trump’s administration “an outlaw bully” that is waging “economic terrorism” on his country to satisfy domestic constituencies and “personal aggrandizement.”
He called for the US to compensate the Iranian people for the damage and vehemently opposed any extension of the arms embargo, warning that Iran’s options “will be firm” if it is maintained and the US will bear full responsibility.
Pompeo’s threat to trigger a new set of sanctions was met with criticism during the meeting by other members who signalled their opposition to the move, while also stressing the importance of respecting the deal.
While Russian diplomat Vassily Nebenzia denounced the US’s attempt to extend the embargo as a “utopia”, China’s UN ambassador, Zhang Jun, stressed that the five-year arms embargo should end as scheduled under the 2015 resolution.”Having quit the JCPOA, the US is no longer a participant and has no right to trigger snapback at the Security Council,” Zhang said, using the official name of the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.European allies of the US have voiced support for extending the embargo but also oppose new sanctions, saying the bigger issue is Iran’s nuclear programme.

“Unilateral attempts to trigger UN sanctions snapback are incompatible with our current efforts to preserve the JCPOA,” said the British envoy, Jonathan Allen, referring to the nuclear agreement.
Olof Skoog, the European Union representative to the UN, noted that the US has not participated in any meetings on the nuclear deal since announcing its withdrawal in May 2018.
The UNSC was meeting to discuss a report by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres who said the cruise missiles used in several attacks on oil facilities and an international airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of “Iranian origin”.
Guterres said “these items may have been transferred in a manner inconsistent” with a 2015 Security Council resolution that enshrines Tehran’s deal with world powers to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.
Iran rejected the report saying it had been drawn up under US and Saudi influence.
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