United States Institute of Peace

The Iran Primer

U.S. Repatriates 73 Artifacts to Iran

In another sign of a gradual diplomatic thaw, the United States has returned 73 ancient artifacts to Iran. The artifacts are all terracotta sealings dating from 224 to 641 A.D., during the Sasanian Empire, the last great Persian Empire before the advent of Islam.
 
Bullae are small clay or bitumen sealings, and were commonly attached to documents or parcels to show identity of the author or owner of merchandise, and were likely used to seal goods like ceramic vessels or even doors in houses during the period between the third and seventh centuries.  
 
U.S. law enforcement seized the artifacts, which had been illegally imported, in 2005. In March 2016, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations handed the items over to the Iran’s Mission in New York, during Nowruz (Persian New Year). They were then turned over to the National Museum in Tehran.
 
“U.S. experts assessed the artifacts were of Iranian origin and of significant cultural value to Iran,” said an official familiar with the repatriation. “There were no negotiations between the two countries about the items, and it is unclear if Iran was aware that the items were in U.S. possession.” 
 
This is not the first time that the United States has returned items of cultural heritage to Iran. In September 2013, the United States repatriated a silver griffin-shaped cup from the seventh-century B.C. to Iran. It had been seized in 2003 from an art dealer attempting to smuggle it into the United States. The State Department said that the return of that item reflected “the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.” 
 

US Report: Iran's Religious Freedom Abuses

Religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in Iran in 2015 and 2016, according to a new report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. President Hassan Rouhani has fallen short on his campaign promises to improve the status religious minorities. The commission found that government actions “continued to result in physical attacks, harassment, detention, arrests, and imprisonment.”
 
The commission also recommended Iran’s re-designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. The State Department first designated Iran as a CPC on religious freedom in 1999. The United States has imposed restrictions on imports and exports to Iran under the International Religious Freedom Act since 2011. The following are excerpts from the report, followed by a link to the full text.

Key Findings
 
Religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate over the past year, particularly for religious minorities, especially Baha’is, Christian converts, and Sunni Muslims. Sufi Muslims and dissenting Shi’a Muslims also faced harassment, arrests, and imprisonment. Since President Hassan Rouhani was elected president in 2013, the number of individuals from religious minority communities who are in prison because of their beliefs has increased, despite the government releasing some prisoners during the reporting period, including Iranian-American pastor Saeed Abedini. The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused. While Iran’s clerical establishment continued to express anti-Semitic sentiments, the level of anti-Semitic rhetoric from government officials has diminished in recent years. …
 
Religious Freedom Conditions 2015–2016

Muslims
 
Over the past few years, the Iranian government has imposed harsh prison sentences on prominent reformers from the Shi’a majority community. Authorities charged many of these reformers with “insulting Islam,” criticizing the Islamic Republic, and publishing materials that allegedly deviate from Islamic standards. Dissident Shi’a cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Kazemeni Boroujerdi continued to serve an 11-year prison sentence, and the government has banned him from practicing his clerical duties and confiscated his home and belongings. He has suffered physical and mental abuse while in prison. According to human rights groups and the United Nations, some 150 Sunni Muslims are in prison on charges related to their beliefs and religious activities. In October 2015, an Iranian court sentenced to death a Sunni cleric, Shahram Ahadi, who was arrested in 2009 on unfounded security related charges. More than 30 Sunnis are on death row after having been convicted of “enmity against God” in unfair judicial proceedings. Leaders from the Sunni community have been unable to build a mosque in Tehran and have reported widespread abuses and restrictions on their religious practice, including detentions and harassment of clerics and bans on Sunni teachings in public schools. Additionally, Iranian authorities have destroyed Sunni religious literature and mosques in eastern Iran.
 
Iran’s government also continued to harass and arrest members of the Sufi Muslim community, including prominent leaders from the Nematollahi Gonabadi Order, while increasing restrictions on places of worship and destroying Sufi prayer centers and hussainiyas (meeting halls). Over the past year, authorities have detained dozens of Sufis, sentencing many to imprisonment, fines, and floggings. In June 2015, a criminal court sentenced Abbas Salehian to 74 lashes for “committing a haram act through advocating Gonabadi Dervish beliefs.” In May 2014, approximately 35 Sufis were convicted on trumped-up charges related to their religious activities and given sentences ranging from three months to four years in prison. Another 10 Sufi activists were either serving prison terms or had cases pending against them. Iranian state television regularly airs programs demonizing Sufism.
 
Baha’is
 
The Baha’i community, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, long has been subject to particularly severe religious freedom violations. The government views Baha’is, who number at least 300,000, as “heretics” and consequently they face repression on the grounds of apostasy. Since 1979, authorities have killed or executed more than 200 Baha’i leaders, and more than 10,000 have been dismissed from government and university jobs. Although the Iranian government maintains publicly that Baha’is are free to attend university, the de facto policy of preventing Baha’is from obtaining higher education remains in effect. Over the past 10 years, approximately 850 Baha’is have been arbitrarily arrested.
 
As of February 2016, at least 80 Baha’is were being held in prison solely because of their religious beliefs. These include seven Baha’i leaders – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naemi, Saeid Rezaie, Mahvash Sabet, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – as well as Baha’i educators and administrators affiliated with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, some of whom were released during the reporting period. During the past year, dozens of Baha’is were arrested throughout the country. In January 2016, in the Golestan province, 24 Baha’is were sentenced to prison terms ranging from six to 11 years after being convicted for membership in the Baha’i community and engaging in religious activities. …
 
Christians
 
Over the past year, there were numerous incidents of Iranian authorities raiding church services, threatening church members, and arresting and imprisoning worshipers and church leaders, particularly Evangelical Christian converts. Since 2010, authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained more than 550 Christians throughout the country. As of February 2016, approximately 90 Christians were either in prison, detained, or awaiting trial because of their religious beliefs and activities.
 
Some Christians were released from jail during the year, including two long-serving prisoners of conscience, Saeed Abedini (released in January 2016) and Farshid Fathi (released in December 2015). Abedini’s early release was part of a prisoner swap between the United States and Iran. He had been serving an eightyear prison sentence for “threatening the national security of Iran” for his activity in the Christian house church movement. Fathi had been serving an extended prison term on trumped-up security charges related to his religious activities. …
 
Jews and Zoroastrians
 
Although not as pronounced as in previous years, the government continued to propagate anti-Semitism and target members of the Jewish community on the basis of real or perceived “ties to Israel.” In 2015, high-level clerics continued to make anti-Semitic remarks in mosques. Numerous programs broadcast on state-run television advance anti-Semitic messages. Official discrimination against Jews continues to be pervasive, fostering a threatening atmosphere for the Jewish community. In a positive development, the government no longer requires Jewish students to attend classes on the Sabbath. In recent years, members of the Zoroastrian community have come under increasing repression and discrimination. At least four Zoroastrians were convicted in 2011 for propaganda of their faith, blasphemy, and other trumped-up charges remain in prison.
 
Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, and Others
 
Iranian authorities regularly detain and harass journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders who say or write anything critical of the Islamic revolution or the Iranian government. Over the past couple of years, a number of human rights lawyers who defended Baha’is and Christians in court were imprisoned or fled the country. In addition, in August 2015, a revolutionary court sentenced to death Mohammad Ali Taheri, a university professor and founder of a spiritual movement (Erfan Halgheh or Spiritual Circle), for the capital crime of “corruption on earth.” In October 2011, Taheri had been convicted and sentenced to five years in prison and 74 lashes for “insulting religious sanctities” for publishing several books on spirituality; reportedly, he has been held in solitary confinement since his conviction. Some of Taheri’s followers also have been convicted on similar charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to five years. In December, the Iranian Supreme Court overturned Taheri’s death sentence. At the end of the reporting period, he and some of his followers remained in prison.
 

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South Korea, Iran Boost Ties

On May 2, Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first president to visit Iran. Ministers, economic officials and businessmen joined her for the three-day trip to Tehran. One of South Korea’s key interests in Iran is oil. South Korea, the world’s fifth largest oil importer, is one of the largest buyers of Iranian oil, though sanctions led to a decline in imports in recent years. Since the nuclear deal was implemented in January and sanctions were lifted, however, Iranian oil exports to South Korea have more than quadrupled to 400,000 barrels a day.
 
During the visit, officials signed 19 memoranda of understanding and cooperation documents to strengthen bilateral ties in fields ranging from energy to science, culture and more. In a joint press conference with his South Korean counterpart, President Hassan Rouhani said they intended to triple bilateral trade to some $18 billion. The trade volume last reached that level in 2011, before international sanctions were imposed on Iran for its nuclear activities.
 
The two leaders also discussed the tense security situation on the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s controversial nuclear program. “We seek peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and categorically oppose building any weapons of mass destruction,” said Rouhani. Iran and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1962, but their heads of state had not previously held bilateral talks, according to Park’s office. The following are excerpted remarks from the visit.
 
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
 
“Ties between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of South Korea, as two key countries in the Middle East and Eastern Asia, is very important and the two countries have enjoyed positive and constructive relations in the past 54 years.”
 
“One of these agreements were to turn the relations between the two countries strategic and deep-rooted, establishment of which requires South Korean companies to invest and set up joint economic activities with Iran, coupled with transfer of advanced technology to Iran.”
 
“Today 19 documents were signed by the officials of the two countries and many more are going to be signed between Iranian and South Korean private sectors.”
 
“Tourism and establishment of Tehran-Seoul direct flights and also South Korean sectors’ investment in tourism-related infrastructures were also stressed.”
 
“Iran wishes for peace and stability in the Korean peninsula and we are in principle against producing any kind of Weapons of Mass Destruction. We wish for a world without WMDs and nuclear weapons, especially in the Korean peninsula and the Middle East.”
 
“We also discussed ending of war in Yemen and starting of Yemeni-Yemeni negotiations to establish security in the country and we also discussed and exchanged views on the Iraqi government’s fight against terrorism, as well as the future of Syria.”
—May 2, 2016, during a press conference
 
“Long, historical and amicable relations between the two nations is one of the chief bases for developing ties.
 
“This visit will further deepen ties in all areas between Tehran and Seoul.”
 
“We should try to turn the two countries’ bonds into strategic ones with regional cooperation.”
 
“The Islamic Republic of Iran is ready to draft a framework for long-term and strategic Tehran-Seoul relations in order to develop investment and joint economic activities.”
 
“We should make attempts to achieve developed relations and increase cooperation…and remove the obstacles.”
 
“Iran and South Korea can have good cooperation with each other in several fields such as the environment, industry and agriculture.”
 
“In the field of tourism and creating the right conditions for development of tourism, such as building hotels and establishing direct Tehran-Seoul ties, we should plan and make efforts.”
“We should facilitate this through further academic, cultural and artistic cooperation between the two nations and governments.”
 
“This creates a good atmosphere for strengthening cooperation between the two countries.”
 
“The two countries can have joint activities in different sectors such as energy, petrochemicals and steel.”
 
“Trying to maintain and strengthen regional and international peace and stability is a political and human task for all countries.”
 
“We believe that the world should become free from any kind of WMD.”
—May 2, 2016, to high-ranking officials
 
South Korean President Park Geun-hye
 
“At a time when a new chapter in Iran’s cooperation with the global community has started, this important and historic trip is being made and the two sides are willing to further develop ties and cooperation in various sectors.”
—May 2, 2016, during a press conference
 
“Iran enjoys experienced and young human resources and manpower and South Korea possesses financial and technological capabilities which can be used to develop and advance ties between the two countries.”
 
“Development of economic partnership brings sustainable security and turn the region into a centre for peace.”
 
“South Korea agrees with this view of the Islamic Republic of Iran and can be a good partner for Tehran in doing so.”
—May 2, 2016, to high-ranking officials

  

Iran’s Runoff Election for Parliament

Garrett Nada 

Allies and supporters of President Hassan Rouhani made gains in the Parliamentary runoff election on April 29. They will form the largest faction in Parliament, but not a majority.  In 55 constituencies, 136 candidates competed for 68  seats that were undecided in the first round, on February 26, where a candidate did not meet the threshold of 25 percent. Rouhani’s supporters— a loose group of reformists, centrists and moderate conservatives— now hold roughly 41 percent of the 290 seats.
 
Rouhani welcomed the election results in a speech marking May Day. “People chose the best people in the election, and we are happy that the next Majles (Parliament) will be more coordinated with the government,” he said. Some 59 percent of eligible voters went to the polls.
 
The new Parliament will have fewer clerics than at any time since the founding of the Islamic Republic. Since the first Parliament in 1980, the proportion of clerics in the legislative body has steadily decreased, from more than half of lawmakers in 1980, to nine percent in 2012. Some 27 clerics held seats in the outgoing Parliament, compared with just 16 who were elected this round, according to Agence France-Presse. Three are considered reformists and the rest are more conservative. For the first time, women will outnumber clerics.
 
 
Women won a record number of seats. The new Parliament will have 17 women, eight more than in the outgoing Parliament and three more than the previous high in 1996, during the era of President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. They are all reformists or independents, another departure from past parliaments. In the previous parliament, the female Members were virtually all conservative.
 
Rouhani highlighted the increase in female representation in his May Day speech. “This is a record and we are happy that our dear women are taking part in all stages, especially in politics,” Rouhani said.
 
Media and monitoring groups, however, differed over the distribution of seats, in part, due to the fluid nature of Iranian politics. Iran’s system does not have formal parties. Candidates run either as independents or on lists with others. In this election, some candidates ran on multiple lists, so their affiliations are not clearly defined. And some newcomers’ leanings are unknown. The chart above is from the Islamic Student News Agency:
 
Independents may play a decisive role in the new Parliament because neither the president’s supporters nor the hardliners have enough seats to push legislation through on their own. Hardliners won 29 percent of the seats. And independents won 28 percent of seats. The new balance of power may help Rouhani push forward long-stalled promises of reform opposed by hardliners, who have dominated the last three parliaments, since 2004.
 
Gains by Rouhani’s supporters have raised the possibility that Mohammad Reza Aref, a leading reformer, may challenge the current Speaker of Parliament, Ali Larijani. Larijani is a conservative who ran from the holy city of Qom. He is considered a principlist but chose not to join the main list of hardliners for the election. “I feel our friends in the [conservative coalition] have not provided the necessary mechanisms for the creation of unity… Therefore we seek to act independently,” he said. He won the backing of Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Force, who cited Larijani’s long support of “revolutionary movements.” Larijani was largely supportive of the nuclear deal between Iran and the world’s six major powers.
 
Aref could be a formidable contender for the speakership. A former presidential candidate and a vice president under former President Mohammad Khatami, he garnered 1.6 million votes for a parliamentary seat from Tehran, more than any other candidate. He headed the “List of Hope,” which included reformists and centrists who support Rouhani. The list associated itself with the success of the nuclear deal, the lifting of international sanctions, and normalizing political and economic relations with the outside world. The slate also supported greater personal and political freedoms. If Aref were to dislodge Larijani, he could potentially shift the direction and priorities of the legislature. The new Parliament is scheduled to convene on May 27. 
 
Two seats are still undecided. One is for Isfahan, which was initially won by a female reformist candidate, Minoo Khaleghi. She was disqualified by the Guardian Council one month after the election. The Council did not give an official reason for her disqualification, although some have speculated that a photo of her shaking hands with a man and not wearing a hijab might have triggered the decision. It has not yet been announced how her seat will be filled.
 
The other unfilled seat is for the rural town of Mamasani in southern Fars province. During voting, shooting broke out between supporters of different candidates, and four people were wounded.
  
Garrett Nada is the assistant editor of The Iran Primer. Katayoun Kishi, a research assistant at the U.S. Institute of Peace, also contributed to this article.
 

Photo credit: Photo credit: Harald Dettenborn [CC BY 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons 

World Bank: Iran’s Economic Outlook

The World Bank expects Iran’s economy to grow by 4.2 percent in 2016 and 4.6 percent in 2017, “as a result of the lifting of the sanctions and a more business-oriented environment.” The following is the Iran portion of the Spring 2016 Middle East and North Africa Economic Monitor Report.
 
The lifting of the nuclear-related sanctions in January 2016 and the strong electoral wins from moderates and reformers in Parliament and Assembly of Experts are supporting the reform-oriented Rouhani administration. The successful implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany), that was signed in July 2015, meant Iran reached Implementation Day on January 16, 2016, at which point materially all nuclear-related sanctions were lifted. The February 2016 Parliamentary and Assembly of Experts (whose main task is the selection of the Supreme Leader) elections, saw major gains from moderates and reformers as well as losses from prominent conservatives. These developments along with a reform-minded government provide a favorable environment for economic reforms. These also arise in the context of the new five-year development plan starting March 21, 2016, which targets a rate of annual real GDP growth of 8 %.
 
The dynamism created by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) between Iran and the P5+1 in November 2013 led to an economic recovery in 2014[1], but this recovery was paused in 2015 by the uncertainty regarding the timing of the lifting of sanctions and the viability of the JCPOA. Following a severe sanction-related recession in 2012 and 2013, real GDP increased by 3 % in 2014; this recovery was driven by the rise in consumer and business confidence supported by the partial lifting of sanctions under the interim JPOA.  In 2015, the Iranian economy is estimated to have advanced at a growth rate of 0.5 %. Inflationary pressures on the economy continued to abate under the less accommodative monetary policy stance, with the Consumer Price Index falling to 12.6 % per annum in January 2016, from a peak of 45.1 % in October 2012. Yet, the pace of job creation has remained weak and the unemployment rate rose to 11.7 % in 2015, up from 10.6 % in 2014. The fiscal deficit also widened due to low oil prices, from 1.2 % of GDP in 2014 to 2.7 % of GDP in 2015. Similarly, the current account surplus is estimated to have dropped from 3.8 % of GDP in 2014 to 0.6 % of GDP in 2015.
 
The lifting of the sanctions and a more business-oriented environment are projected to increase real GDP growth to 4.2 % and 4.6 % in 2016 and 2017, respectively. On the production side, growth will be mainly driven by higher hydrocarbon production. On the expenditure side, consumption, investment and exports are expected to be the main drivers. Inflation is forecast to remain moderate, by Iran’s standards. The lifting of sanctions, and in particular the positive impact these will have on the banking system will significantly reduce international transaction costs. Strong capital inflows, including FDI and the repatriation of part of the frozen assets, could put upward pressure on the Iranian rial, which will help contain imported inflation. The fiscal deficit is projected to narrow to 1.8 and 1 % in 2016 and 2017, respectively, mostly on account of improved oil revenues. The current account balance is projected to turn into a surplus in 2017, also primarily driven by rising oil exports. Risks to the outlook include lower oil prices, slower global growth, and the possibility that the country idiosyncratic risk stays elevated because of the residual uncertainty that non-nuclear-related sanctions create for foreign businesses. A key challenge relates to the prospect of undertaking structural reforms that can move the country toward the sustained and inclusive growth envisaged in its sixth five-year plan.

Key Economic Indicators
 
2014
2015e
2016p
2017p
Real GDP Growth (using factor prices, %)
3.0
.5
4.2
4.6
Inflation Rate (%)
15.6
14.2
13.1
11.6
Fiscal Balance (% of GDP)
-1.2
-2.7
-1.8
-1.0
Current Account Balance (% of GDP)
3.8
.6
-0.4
1.2
 
 

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