IranSource | Understanding and Analyzing a Multifaceted Iran

In the wake of record floods in Iran that have killed more than two dozen people, new attention has focused on the environmental challenges facing the Middle East.

The issues facing the region are complex and reflect a number of factors, according to experts who spoke on March 27 at the Atlantic Council. Among them are climate change, water scarcity, mismanagement, and poor governance. These challenges have become politicized in both the region and in the United States, and have undermined international cooperation to address them.

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On March 13, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed a young cleric, Habibollah ShabanI Mowathaqi, as the Friday Prayer leader of Hamadan, west-central Iran. Mowathaqi, 41, replaces prominent Ayatollah Ghiyath al-Din Taha Muhammadi, who is 73. 

The change was the latest in a series that started about two years ago. The most important so far has been the appointment of Muhammad Javad Haj Ali Akbari as the Friday imam of Tehran in December 2018. Haj Ali Akbari had been chosen as the chief of the “Imams of Friday Prayer Policy Council” a year earlier. The organization is an umbrella body that manages Friday prayers in Iran and nominates prayer leaders to the Supreme Leader, who makes the appointments. Under the auspices of this body, 273 Friday Prayer imams have been replaced over the past two years. Most of the new prayer leaders are young clerics and often pupils of Khamenei, rather than independent traditional clerics of the Qom Seminary.

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The Israeli elections are well underway and the Iranian issue is taking a central part in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s electoral campaign. Putting Iran on the agenda helps the prime minister maintain a never-ending security tension. Thus, the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has become a regular feature in Netanyahu’s speeches against his political rivals.  

Moreover, Netanyahu’s role as defense minister also promotes his security agenda while he makes regular appearances at military bases as part of his electoral campaign. Netanyahu’s March 6 speech at the graduation ceremony of the Haifa naval cadets, contrary to what Hebrew language press reported, was not without controversy.

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There’s not much good news to share in Iran as Nowruz, the Iranian new year, approaches. The economic situation that played a role in nationwide protests during December 2017 and January 2018 is still difficult as millions of Iranians struggle to live a decent life. Inflation and perceptions of widespread corruption further fuel popular frustration, prompting dozens of labor groups—including truck drivers, steel workers, and teachers—to lead protests against the Iranian government’s economic policies over the past year.

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As far as photographs go, it’s a rather inartful moment. Three aging men dressed in dark clothes sit in a spartan room with small glasses of heavily-brewed tea and a tissue box resting before them, as they engage in conversation.  

But to Iranians and Iran-watchers the March 13 meeting marked a historical moment. The image of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani seated with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif graced the front pages of almost every Iranian newspaper the next day.

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Iran’s 1989 amended constitution states that “in order to fulfill the responsibilities of the judiciary power in all the matters concerning judiciary, administrative and executive areas, the [Supreme] Leader shall appoint a just, honorable man well versed in judiciary affairs and possessing prudence and administrative abilities as the head of the judiciary power for a period of five years who shall be the highest judicial authority.” 

Based on this authority, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, appointed Ebrahim Raisi as the new chief justice on March 7. 

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Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah once dubbed dividing his group into distinct political and military wings an “English innovation.” Yet, last week, the United Kingdom decided to end this mainstay of British policy. Shortly after Home Secretary Sajid Javid announced a total ban on Hezbollah, Parliament amended the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000 to proscribe the group “in its entirety.” London’s acknowledgment of Hezbollah’s unity aligns British law and policy with the United States. In doing so, the UK is signaling a partial departure from Europe’s approach to the group’s patron, Iran, but more importantly, a third way between American confrontation and European conciliation.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s much-publicized resignation was largely attributed to the existence of parallel power structures in Iran that adversely affect many areas of policymaking and governance, including foreign policy.

One policy issue that has caused a great deal of controversy among Iran’s ruling elite is whether to implement requirements of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering, terrorism financing and transnational organized crime.

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The resignation of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif came as a shock, and not just due to the delivery system. He made the announcement on an Instagram post addressed to his followers instead of official channels. 

The timing was suspect as well. Zarif decided to leave office just as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a completely unexpected visit to Tehran which was quite unbeknownst to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to sources in Tehran. To reporters who asked him about the news, Zarif responded, “After the pictures of today meetings, Javad Zarif has no more credibility in the world as the foreign minister.” 

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For years, the Pakistani government has avoided taking sides between rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, but now it may be forced to choose. Pakistan is in dire need of financial support and the Saudis have the means to help. Will Pakistan accept the strings attached to Saudi generosity?

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has viewed Asia as part of “Saudi Arabia’s visionfor the future.” His trip across Asia this month had a short-term goal as well: repairing a public image badly damaged by the Yemen war and the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

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