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Families of murdered prisoners protest in Iran following international calls to action

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On Thursday (13 May), a group of Iranian activists gathered at a cemetery in Tehran to seek renewed attention to a more than thirty-year-old crime against humanity for which no one has been held accountable to date. The protest was led by the families of persons who were killed during the massacre of Iranian political prisoners in the summer of 1988. Its location was selected on the basis of recent reports that a pending development project will may destroy a section of Khavaran Cemetery that is believed to include a mass grave where many of the victims of that massacre were secretly buried. The 1988 massacre has once come under scrutiny since one of its main culprits has become a main candidate in the upcoming presidential election in Iran scheduled for 18 June.

The Iranian authorities have attempted to cover up evidence regarding the scale of the 1988 massacre. Persons who are familiar with the incident have estimated that the overall death toll was around 30,000, mainly activists of the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (MEK), the main Iranian opposition movement.  The identities and final resting places may never be known for some of these victims, as the Iranian regime has already completed plans at other sites much like those which are now pending in Khavaran. The activists involved in the Thursday gathering were relatives of the MEK victims in the 1988 massacre.

Roughly two weeks prior to Thursday’s gathering, a number of victims’ families wrote a letter to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres in which they noted that the regime has “destroyed or damaged the mass graves of the 1988 victims in Ahvaz, Tabriz, Mashhad, and elsewhere.”

In their latest public demonstration, the families carried signs with messages that described Khavaran as “the enduring document of a crime against humanity” and declared that they “will neither forgive nor forget” the massacre until its perpetrators have been prosecuted or otherwise held accountable. The protesters also identified some of those perpetrators by name, focusing particular attention upon Ebrahim Raisi, whose name was chanted along with the label, “Henchman of 1988.”

Raisi currently serves as the head of Iran’s judiciary, having been appointed to that post by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2019. He is also reportedly Khamenei’s favored candidate to replace the outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, a fact which makes his victory in next month’s tightly controlled election a near-certainty. Iran’s Guardian Council has already exercised its authority to bar most so-called reformist candidates from the race, while “hardliners” have overwhelmingly signaled their willingness to drop out and back Raisi’s prospective run.

During his two years as judiciary chief, Raisi has overseen more than 500 executions, as well as countless other instances of corporal punishment including floggings and amputations. His time in that role has coincided with particularly severe crackdowns on dissent, including the shooting deaths of around 1,500 participants in a nationwide uprising in November 2019. Also Raisi would have certainly had authority over the treatment of more roughly 12,000 activists who were imprisoned in the aftermath.

Last September, Amnesty International issued a report titled “Trampling Humanity” which detailed much of the torture that those arrestees were subjected to for months after the uprising. Coincidentally, the report coincided very closely with the delivery of a letter by seven UN human rights experts which called upon Iranian authorities to release all available information about the 1988 massacre and to halt their cover-up and their harassment of survivors and victims’ families.

That letter was released to the general public in December after receiving no reply from the authorities to whom it was addressed. Its publication was greeted as a “momentous breakthrough” by Amnesty International on the basis that it acknowledged the responsibility of the international community to investigate and respond to the massacre if Tehran still refuses to do so. Toward that end, the UN experts indicated that an opportunity for such a response was missed in the immediate aftermath of the killings, and that the consequences of that oversight persist to the present day.

“In December 1988, the UN General Assembly passed resolution A/RES/43/137 on the situation of human rights in Iran, which expressed ‘grave concern’ about ‘a renewed wave of executions in the period July-September 1988’ targeting prisoners ‘because of their political convictions’,” the letter noted. “However, the situation was not referred to the Security Council, the UN General Assembly did not follow up on the resolution and the UN Commission on Human Rights did not take any action. The failure of these bodies to act had a devastating impact on the survivors and families as well as on the general situation of human rights in Iran and emboldened Iran to continue to conceal the fate of the victims and to maintain a strategy of deflection and denial that continue to date.”

This deflection and denial is reflected not only in the destruction of gravesites and other evidence, but also in the fact that figures like Ebrahim Raisi have been promoted to increasingly influential positions within the Iranian regime despite – or perhaps because of – their role in the 1988 massacre.

Prior to the start of that massacre, Raisi was serving as deputy public prosecutor in Iran. This led to him being one of four individuals who were tasked with implementing the fatwa that created the legal justification for the killings in the capital. That year, the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ruhollah Khomeini, issued a religious edict declaring that anyone still opposing the theocratic system should be considered an enemy of God and therefore subject to summary execution. The fatwa took particular aim at the MEK members of which would soon comprise the overwhelming majority of the massacre’s victims.

As a contributor to Tehran’s 1988 “death commission,” Raisi bears responsibility for a great many of those killings. And far from concealing that legacy in recent years, he has actually embraced it, saying in a June 2, 2020 television interview that MEK members “should not be given a chance” and that “the Imam [Khomeini] said we shouldn't have shown [them] any mercy.”

Advocates for victims of the massacre have framed such public statements as consequences of a climate of impunity that has developed with regard to the 1988 massacre and other human rights abuses. This point was reiterated in a recent letter prepared by the organization Justice for the Victims of the 1988 Massacre in Iran (JVMI), which urged the international community to challenge that impunity. The letter, signed by more than 150 legal and human rights experts including 45 former UN officials, said, “We appeal to the UN Human Rights Council to end the culture of impunity that exists in Iran by establishing a Commission of Inquiry into the 1988 mass extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances. We urge High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to support the establishment of such a Commission.”

The JVMI has also referenced the prospective destruction of the mass grave at Khavaran Cemetery in order to underscore the urgency of its appeal. It has demanded “immediate measures to prevent further destruction of martyrs' graves and the elimination of the traces of crimes which amount to the psychological torture of thousands of bereaved families across Iran.”

In a separate statement, Maryam Rajavi, president -elect of the MEK-led National Council of Resistance of Iran urged the UN Security Council and all UN member states to formally condemn Khomeini's fatwa for the 1988 massacre of political prisoners as genocide and a crime against humanity.

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Iran fails to explain uranium traces found at several sites - IAEA report

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Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Iran has failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites, a report by the UN nuclear watchdog showed on Monday (31 May), possibly setting up a fresh diplomatic clash between Tehran and the West that could derail wider nuclear talks, writes Francois Murphy.

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a US-backed plan for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles; the three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

"After many months, Iran has not provided the necessary explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the three locations where the Agency has conducted complementary accesses (inspections)," a report by Grossi to member states seen by Reuters said.

It will now be up to the three European powers to decide whether to revive their push for a resolution criticising Iran, which could undermine wider negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at talks currently under way in Vienna. Grossi had hoped to report progress before the board meets again next week.

"The Director General is concerned that the technical discussions between the Agency and Iran have not yielded the expected results," the report said.

"The lack of progress in clarifying the Agency's questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran's safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme," it added.

In a separate quarterly report also sent to member states on Monday and seen by Reuters, the agency gave an indication of the damage done to Iran’s production of enriched uranium by an explosion and power cut at its Natanz site last month that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Iran's quarterly increase in its stock of enriched uranium was the lowest since August 2019 at just 273 kg, bringing the total to 3,241 kg, according to an IAEA estimate. It was not able to fully verify the stock because Iran has downgraded cooperation.

That total is many times the 202.8 kg limit set by the nuclear deal, but still well below the more than six tonnes Iran possessed before the deal.

At Iran's main enrichment plant, which is underground at Natanz, the agency verified on May 24 that 20 cascades, or clusters, of different types of centrifuges were being fed with uranium hexafluoride feedstock for enrichment. A senior diplomat said that before the explosion that figure was 35-37.

After Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018 under President Donald Trump and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions against Tehran, Iran began breaching the deal's restrictions on its nuclear activities as of 2019.

One of its more recent breaches, enriching uranium to 60%, a big step towards weapons-grade from the 20% it had previously reached and the deal's 3.67% limit, continued. The IAEA estimated that Iran had produced 2.4 kg of uranium enriched to that level and 62.8 kg of uranium enriched to up to 20%.

Iran’s production of experimental quantities of uranium metal, which is prohibited under the deal and has prompted protests by Western powers because of its potential use in the core of nuclear weapons, also continued. Iran produced 2.42 kg, the IAEA reported, up from 3.6 grams three months ago.

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Mohsen Rezaee emerges as the West's man on the ground

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As nuclear talks in Vienna stall, negotiators are keeping a close eye on Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, the outcome of which could be key to breaking the current deadlock, writes Yanis Radulović.

With a fourth round of talks set to resume in Vienna this week, pressure is mounting on high-ranking European negotiators to reach an accord that bridges the geopolitical chasm between Washington and Tehran and brings Iran back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

A historic non-proliferation agreement and widely regarded as one of the Obama administration’s premier foreign policy achievements, the JCPOA set out a framework to curtail Iran’s nuclear breakout time and established formal steps for capping the enrichment of fissile material, scheduling transparent atomic facility inspections, and dismantling excess centrifuge installations. In return for sustained compliance with this framework, the U.S. and other major world powers agreed to a gradual lifting of nuclear-related sanctions on Iran.

When the US withdrew from this landmark agreement in 2018, the European co-signatories of Germany, France, and the UK stepped up to keep the deal alive. However, European relations in the region quickly became strained by the revival of Washington’s “maximum pressure campaign” on Iran, a campaign which aimed to strangle the Iranian economy via unilateral sanctions and escalatory retaliatory actions.

Unsurprisingly, Washington’s pivot to maximum pressure has placed major European powers in a foreign policy double bind. While the recent uptick in U.S.-Iran tensions has trended downwards since the election of President Joe Biden, his predecessor’s approach in the region has had a lasting effect upon Iranian goodwill towards multilateral agreements like the JCPOA.

For the European co-signatories, the nuclear talks in Vienna are embedded within a broader strategy of strategic détente and diplomatic reintegration between Europe and Iran. Beyond the obvious advantages of nuclear non-proliferation, Europe is also eyeing a future where Iran can step up as a fully-fledged, sanction-free actor on the international stage. Despite having an estimated 9 percent share of the world’s oil reserves, the sanction-sapped Iranian economy is woefully underdeveloped. Throw in the simulative potential of Iran’s frozen assets — estimated to be worth between $100 and $120 billion — and it’s easy to see why Europe views Iran as such a promising partner for foreign direct investment.

On a condition of anonymity, a senior official from the US State Department spoke with Reuters and shed some light on the likelihood of a deal being inked during the fourth round of talks, saying: "Is it possible that we'll see a mutual return to compliance in the next few weeks, or an understanding of a mutual compliance? It's possible yes.”

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s top negotiator, is slightly more pessimistic at the chances of a deal in the immediate future. Speaking on state TV, Araqchi emphasized that Iran would not rush into a new deal without a stable framework of safeguards.

"When it will happen is unpredictable and a timeframe cannot be set. Iran is trying (for) it to happen as soon as possible, but we will not do anything in a rush," Araqchi said.

As formal talks stall, European negotiators are looking at Mohsen Rezaee, one of three front-runners in the upcoming Iranian presidential elections, to cut through the diplomatic red tape and promote mutually beneficial collaboration with the US and EU.

Unlike his fellow presidential candidates, Rezaee is not a lifelong politician. Nevertheless, with a career spanning the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to the Expediency Discernment Council, Rezaee is a seasoned diplomat and pragmatic negotiator. Perhaps Rezaee’s most impressive achievement is the fact that in all his years of civil, military, and political service, he has never once been subject to a corruption scandal or criminal probe.

While established politicians like Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may be a more conventionally attractive partner with the West, there is growing conviction in Europe that Rezaee, a well-rounded, well-respected, and reliable candidate, is the man best suited to represent Iran and its position on international nuclear negotiations.

A proven leader who is unafraid to express his opinions, Rezaee has repeatedly shown that he is capable of adjusting his opinions and uniting coalitions. Despite his role as a representative of the “Revolution Generation”, Rezaee has made it clear that he is no radical. After years of civil service, Rezaee has broken ranks with many of the hardline views that are commonplace in the IRGC. In fact, in an interview with the Tehran Times, he went as far as to dismiss a nuclear arms race as unwise, remarking: “Political wisdom requires not to chase weapons that can destroy the entire humanity.”

With impediments to progress rearing at every turn in Vienna, it has become abundantly clear that the West needs a man on the ground in Iran. Mohsen Rezaee, and the emerging movement he represents, may be the key to breaking the deadlock in negotiations and bringing Iran back as a major player in the global economy.

The opinions expressed in the above article are thoseof the author alone, and do not reflect any opinion on the part of EU Reporter.

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European powers warn Iran over 'dangerous' uranium enrichment move

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The European countries party to the Iran nuclear deal told Tehran on Wednesday (14 April) its decision to enrich uranium at 60% purity, bringing the fissile material closer to bomb-grade, was contrary to efforts to revive the 2015 accord, writes John Irish.

But in an apparent signal to Iran’s arch-adversary Israel, which Tehran blamed for an explosion at its key nuclear site on Sunday, European powers Germany, France and Britain added that they rejected “all escalatory measures by any actor”.

Israel, which the Islamic Republic does not recognise, has not formally commented on the incident at Iran’s Natanz site, which appeared the latest twist in a long-running covert war.

Last week, Iran and its fellow signatories held what they described as “constructive” talks to revive the deal, which the Trump administration quit in 2018 saying its terms favoured Tehran, and re-imposed sanctions - moves welcomed by Israel.

But Britain, France and Germany said Tehran’s new decision to enrich at 60 percent, and activate 1,000 advanced centrifuge machines at its underground Natanz plant, was not based on credible civilian reasons and constituted an important step towards the production of a nuclear weapon.

“Iran’s announcements are particularly regrettable given they come at a time when all JCPoA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) participants and the United States have started substantive discussions, with the objective of finding a rapid diplomatic solution to revitalise and restore the JCPoA,” the three countries said in a statement, referring to the 2015 deal.

“Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions,” it said of the talks, which resume between Iran and global powers in Vienna on Thursday, aimed at salvaging the accord.

In an apparent rebuff later on Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the United States was trying to impose its terms for rescuing the deal and European powers were doing Washington’s bidding.

“America does not seek to accept the truth in negotiations ... Its goal in talks is to impose its own wrong wishes ... European parties to the deal follow America’s policies in talks despite acknowledging Iran’s rights,” Khamenei, who has the last word on Iranian matters of state, was quoted as saying by state television.

“The nuclear talks in Vienna must not become talks of attrition ... This is harmful for our country.”

U.S. President Joe Biden took office in January with a commitment to rejoin the deal if Tehran returns to full compliance with its restrictions on enrichment. Tehran has repeatedly said that all sanctions must be rescinded first.

“We have already declared Iran’s policy. Sanctions must be removed first. Once we are certain that has been done, we will carry out our commitments,” Khamenei said, according to semi-official Tasnim news agency.

“The offers they provide are usually arrogant and humiliating and are not worth looking at.”

Iran's Khamenei says nuclear talks to revive 2015 deal must not become 'attritional'With Biden seeking nuclear detente, Israel ratchets up pressure on Iran

The Biden administration called Iran’s 60% enrichment announcement “provocative” and said Washington was concerned.

The nuclear deal has frayed as Iran has breached its limits on uranium enrichment in a graduated response to the Trump administration reinstating harsh economic sanctions on Tehran.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the decision to raise the enrichment level was a response to Sunday’s sabotage, adding Tehran had no intention of building a nuclear weapon.

“Of course, the security and intelligence officials must give the final reports, but apparently it is the crime of the Zionists, and if the Zionists act against our nation, we will answer it,” Rouhani said in a televised cabinet meeting.

In an allusion to the incident and Iran’s response, the European statement said: “In light of recent developments, we reject all escalatory measures by any actor, and we call upon Iran not to further complicate the diplomatic process.”

Iran’s leading Gulf foe Saudi Arabia also weighed in on Wednesday, saying it believed any revival of the nuclear deal should be a starting point for further talks that include regional states to expand the accord.

Rayd Krimly, head of policy planning at the Saudi foreign ministry, told Reuters any deal that fails to effectively address the security concerns of countries in the region would not work, and Riyadh was consulting with the global powers.

“We want to make sure at a minimum that any financial resources made available to Iran via the nuclear deal are not used...to destabilise the region,” he said.

Iran’s deal with the six powers caps the fissile purity to which it can refine uranium at 3.67%. That is well under the 20% achieved before the agreement, and far below the 90% suitable for a nuclear weapon.

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