Rohani or no Rohani, we must increase the pressure on Iran

Before the election of President Hassan Rouhani , Iran’s centrifuges were spinning at an unprecedented pace.  After his election, they continue to not only spin, but multiply.  In response, the United States must once again deliver a firm message to Tehran: Halt your illicit nuclear program or face isolation and financial ruin.  Although international sanctions over its illicit nuclear program have sent its economy into a tailspin, the ruling elite — from President Rouhani to Supreme Leader Khameni — remain undeterred

The May report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showcases Iran’s failure to abide by its obligations as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran continues to grow its stockpiles of near-20 percent enriched uranium, approaching levels where it could rapidly seek a military breakout, developing a nuclear weapon.  It is now installing advanced centrifuges that could quadruple the pace of nuclear enrichment.  Moreover, a heavy water reactor facility at Arak, which could provide an easier alternative to a plutonium-based nuclear weapon, is nearing completion. And Iran has taken great pains to sanitize the Parchin military site where suspected nuclear testing took place, stonewalling IAEA efforts to gain access along the way.  Action-by-action, Iran is becoming a greater-and-greater threat to the United States and our allies, including Israel. 

[More on Iran: House overwhelmingly votes to add new sanctions]

In Rouhani, we find a man who is intimately familiar with the secret construction of Iran's illicit nuclear facilities in Arak, Natanz and Isfahan, which weren't publicly exposed until 2002.  In 2003, Rouhani took charge as Iran's lead nuclear negotiator — negotiations which gave Iran time to complete its uranium conversion plant and to rapidly increase its number of centrifuges.  During his presidential campaign, Rouhani boasted that during his tenure as negotiator, Iran didn't suspend enrichment — on the contrary, he said, “we completed the program.”

As the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I have worked closely with Ranking Member Eliot Engel of New York in securing House of Representatives passage this week of bipartisan legislation that will significantly strengthen the impact of existing sanctions on Iran for its continued resistance.  The objective is to prevent Iran from “completing the program.” 

The Iranian mullahs have consistently demonstrated that they place a higher premium on their nuclear quest than the economic well-being of their people. Enactment of our legislation, the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act of 2013, along with robust implementation and enforcement, is needed to greatly increase the costs to Iran for its ongoing nuclear pursuits.  We have no time to spare.  An Iranian nuclear weapon would trigger a regional arms race in the Middle East and beyond, jeopardizing American security and economic interests. Iran already engages in heavy-handed repression at home and exports terror abroad.  Imagine its behavior if emboldened by nuclear weapons.  It is clear that preventing an Iranian bomb, not containing it, is the only viable option.

Our legislation  is intended to strike a crippling economic blow to the Iranian regime, eliminating sources of foreign funding, restricting access to international commerce, and reducing oil exports by an additional million barrels per day. The bill will apply stiffer penalties to Iranian human rights violators and weapons proliferators; it also targets those who support their wrongdoing.  By bringing the full weight of U.S. pressure to bear, Congress can both deny the regime the ability to continue its destructive polices, and compel the Iranians to abandon their nuclear goals. 

However, the window for a solution is rapidly shrinking.  We cannot afford to let the Iranian regime stall the international community with open-ended negotiations.  Regardless of who is president in Iran, enactment of the Nuclear Iran Prevention Act is a necessary step in compelling Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and reducing the threat to the U.S. and our allies. 

Royce is the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.  He represents California’s 39th congressional district, consisting of Orange County, Los Angeles County, and San Bernardino County.

A Jew murdered in Iran

In the wake of the gruesome murder of a 57-year-old Jewish woman living in the Iranian city of Isfahan nearly three weeks ago, a group of Iranian-Jewish activists in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C., have banded together in an informal group hoping to raise public awareness of the murder and to help bring the murderers to justice. This new group, known as the Jewbareh Committee — named for the ancient Jewish ghetto in Isfahan where the victim, Toobah Nehdaran, was murdered — released a statement last week calling upon Iranians and the international community to push for a real investigation of the case.

“The Jewbareh Committee has appealed to all the kindhearted Muslims and neighbors in Isfahan and around the Jewbareh district, as well as to honest police officials to observe the situation, report any suspicious findings and push authorities to launch a fair investigation into this matter,” the statement said.

Following online news reports of the murder, committee members reached out to contacts in Iran, including an alleged eyewitness, who said that on Nov. 26, Nehdaran, a married Jewish woman, was strangled, then repeatedly stabbed to death, and her body was mutilated in a ritual manner by thugs who had broken into her home.

“People who have seen the body talk of mutilation as a result of multiple stabbings following the strangulation of the victim,” said George Haroonian, a Los Angeles-based Iranian-Jewish community activist and committee member. “Our investigation indicates that the victim’s body was surrendered to the family and the local rabbis, who had requested it on Nov. 29.”

Conflicting stories have emerged from Iran in relation to the murder, but committee members have confirmed that the victim’s two sisters — one of whom is blind — were living with her at the time of the murder and were tied up but not killed by the intruders. 

Committee members said Jewish leaders in Tehran have been spreading rumors that Nehdaran’s murder was as a result of a botched robbery in hopes of absolving local authorities before any investigation, out of fear of reprisals from the regime against the Iranian-Jewish community.

But Haroonian said that the burglary explanation was unlikely. “One witness overwhelmed by the scene believes that it is highly improbable that burglars would have killed someone in this manner,” Haroonian said.

According to the committee’s statement, a more plausible motive may stem from an official legal complaint, filed with local authorities in recent years, by the Nehdaran family against the nearby Kareem Saaghi mosque. The dispute began when the mosque’s “religious radicals” allegedly took over a portion of the family’s land when the family refused demands to sell its property to the mosque.

The committee said the motive of robbery did not make sense, because the victim’s family was poor and living in a dilapidated home in one of the poorest areas of Isfahan. 

Committee members say they believe Nehdaran’s murder may have been premeditated because it took place during the Islamic month of Muharram, a holy time for religious Shiite Muslims, when they publicly mourn the killing of their prophet Hussein through large public rallies, as well as a time when religious fanatics have, for centuries, killed non-Muslims in Iran.

In recent years, Iranian-Jewish community leaders in the United States have avoided commenting on the status of Jews in Iran and do not openly criticize the Iranian regime for fear of reprisals against the Jewish community still remaining in Iran. Despite this, the Los Angeles-based Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) issued a statement to the Journal, calling on Iranian officials to bring Nehdaran’s killers to justice.

“We strongly request the local authorities in Isfahan to launch a prompt, credible and thorough investigation of this murder, overseen by the highest authorities in the country and to provide for immediate, adequate and effective security for all residents of this terrified community,” the IAJF statement reads.

The L.A.-based  30 Years After (30YA), a nonprofit Iranian-Jewish group, also condemned the murder and called for help from international human rights organizations.

“Our community is saddened and outraged by this heinous, targeted murder of a Jewish woman in Isfahan,” 30YA President Sam Yebri said. “This tragedy brings to light the precarious situation of all religious minorities in Iran who face discriminatory laws and random acts of violence, condoned by the Iranian authorities.”

Currently, an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 Jews still live in Iran, most of them based in Tehran. Frank Nikbakht, an Iranian-Jewish activist who heads the L.A.-based Committee for Minority Rights in Iran, said that despite discriminatory laws and constant threats to their lives, Jews remain in Iran for a variety of reasons.

“First of all, it is very difficult for more traditional people in Iran, whether they are Jewish or non-Jewish, to leave the country because it’s their homeland,” Nikbakht said. “It is also very difficult for elderly Jews to leave, because they are sick or just set in their ways — and a lot of Jews believe that they can just outlast the regime. After all, Jews have been living in the Jewbareh in Isfahan since the time of Cyrus the Great, for more than 2,500 years, and believe they can continue living there.”

Nikbakht said official Shiite Islamic laws in Iran are discriminatory against non-Muslims. While a non-Muslim who murders a Muslim will face the death penalty, a Muslim who murders a non-Muslim will not be charged with the death penalty or imprisonment and can typically get off by merely paying the non-Muslim victim’s family “blood money,” he said.

The life of a Jew, a Christian or a Zoroastrian — all of whom are viewed as dhimmis (second-class citizens), according to Iran’s Islamic laws — is worth one-twelfth  the life of a Muslim in blood money, Nikbakht said. At the same time, nonrecognized dhimmi “infidels” in Iran are not so fortunate.

“A Muslim who murders an ‘infidel,’ such as a person who is a communist or from the Baha’i faith — can get away with the crime by simply stating that the victim ‘deserved to be killed’ because he was an infidel according to the Islamic laws of the land,” Nikbakht said.

According to a 2004 report by Nikbakht, at least 14 Jews have been murdered or assassinated since 1979 by the regime’s agents, at least two Jews have died while in custody, and 11 Jews have been officially executed by the regime.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American-Jewish groups, the Iranian-Jewish community in the United States, and particularly in Los Angeles, worked to  publicize the case of 13 Iranian Jews from Shiraz who were imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately, the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, and the so-called “Shiraz 13” were released.

In Iran, the state-run media has not yet reported on Nehdaran’s murder, and Iranian officials have not released any official statement concerning the murder.

Three alleged suspects have been arrested and are currently in custody, but no official investigation has been launched, according to committee members in contact with the Jewish community in Isfahan.

Committee members said they have just begun efforts to reach out to American-Jewish community organizations such as the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles for help and have not yet developed a formal plan to approach elected officials or human rights groups.

Representatives at the Iranian Permanent Mission to the United Nations did not return calls for comment.

To read Karmel Melamed’s blog, Iranian American Jews, go to

[UPDATE] Sound of blast reported in Iran’s Isfahan City, home to key nuclear facility

The sound of an apparent explosion was heard from Iran’s Isfahan city on Monday afternoon, the head of the judiciary in the province said, but the province’s deputy governor denied that there had been a big blast.

“In the afternoon, there was a noise like an explosion, but we don’t have any information from security forces on the source of the noise,” provincial judiciary head Gholamreza Ansari was quoted as saying by ISNA news agency.

However, Mehr news agency quoted Deputy Governor Mohammad Mehdi Ismaili as saying: “So far no report of a major explosion has been heard from any government body in Isfahan.”

State run Press TV, also citing Ismaili, said the report of an explosion was “completely baseless and fabricated.”

An important Iranian nuclear facility involved in processing uranium is located near Isfahan city, although Iranian media reports of the incident did not refer to it.

International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said the U.N. watchdog was aware of the media reports but had no further information.

Iranian media provided contradictory information about the incident, which came less that three weeks after a massive explosion at a military base near Tehran that killed more than a dozen members of the Revolutionary Guard including the head of its missile forces.

The Fars news agency reported a large blast in the province but later removed the report from its website. Fars was not immediately available to comment on the withdrawn report.

The Mehr news agency cited other Iranian news media, which it did not identify, as reporting that a blast had taken place at a petrol station at a town near Isfahan city.

Several residents of the city contacted by Reuters by telephone said they heard nothing.

On November 12, Iran said a massive explosion at a military base 45 km west of Tehran killed 17 Revolutionary Guards, including the head of the elite force’s missile program. Iran said that explosion, which could be heard as far away as the capital, was caused by an accident while weapons were being moved.

Monday’s report of the apparent blast near Isfahan was the lead story on evening TV news broadcasts in Israel, although these did not include comment from Israeli officials or provide details beyond those given by Iranian agencies. An Israeli military spokeswoman reached by telephone declined to comment.

Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization operates several nuclear facilities east of Isfahan, according to the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), a leading Washington-based think tank.

They include the Uranium Conversion Facility (UCF), which began operating in 2006 and is able to produce uranium hexafluoride gas, the feed material that Iran uses to make refined uranium at its Natanz nuclear enrichment site.

“These things are well protected, some of them underground. Basically they have stocked all the raw material for quite some time. I think most of the material is stored in Isfahan,” said Olli Heinonen, former head of IAEA safeguards inspections worldwide and now a senior fellow at Harvard University.

Israel and the West are concerned about Iranian processing of uranium, because they believe that it could be used to make a nuclear weapon. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Peter Graff and Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Boyle