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Iran’s referendum, and the transformation to an Islamic Republic

Qom, Iran – The year is 1979. An Islamic revolution has just overthrown Iran’s powerful US-backed king. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is now in charge of what was for centuries an ancient empire. In the months after Khomeini seized power, Iran’s revolutionaries began the difficult work of rebuilding government institutions using Islam as a roadmap. The…

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Iran’s referendum, and the transformation to an Islamic Republic

Qom, Iran – The year is 1979. An Islamic revolution has just overthrown Iran’s powerful US-backed king. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is now in charge of what was for centuries an ancient empire.

In the months after Khomeini seized power, Iran’s revolutionaries began the difficult work of rebuilding government institutions using Islam as a roadmap.

The first major act of the new leaders was to hold a referendum. On March 30 and 31, the shaky leadership asked all Iranians over the age of 16 a simple yes or no question: should Iran be an Islamic Republic?

Looking back, it may seem strange to ask that of a country that had just experienced a successful Islamic revolution. But even though Mohammad Raza Pahlavi – the shah of Iran – was gone, Iranians remained divided about what they wanted the future to look like. At the time, the Islamic Republic of Iran was far from a foregone conclusion.

In one of his first speeches after returning from exile, before the revolution had taken hold, Khomeini seemed to know he would have to put his leadership claim to some kind of vote.

“I must tell you that Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, that evil traitor, has gone. He fled and plundered everything. He destroyed our country and filled our cemeteries. He ruined our country’s economy,” Khomeini said.

“I shall appoint my own government. I shall slap this government in the mouth. I shall determine the government with the backing of this nation, because this nation accepts me.”

But even after Pahlavi’s removal, revolutionaries were hit by infighting, the new government was still suppressing anti-revolution dissent in parts of the country, and just weeks before the referendum tens of thousands of women marched in the streets of Tehran to protest against a new mandatory veil law.

For Khomeini and his supporters, the referendum was a way to legitimise their rule. Nearly 99 percent of Iranians voted in favour of abandoning Iran’s old constitution and using Islam as the blueprint to write a new one. The vote and its results were scrutinised by critics all over the world. But in December, Iranians voted again in favour of ratifying their new Islamic constitution.

Today, defenders of the Islamic system of government point to the referendum as a democratic mandate for Iran’s current theocratic system.

It’s one of the lesser known events of 1979, but the referendum was a pivotal moment that fused religion and politics, and transformed Iran’s legislative landscape.

Iran marks 40th anniversary of Islamic revolution (15:54)

Khomeini’s road to Tehran

Iran’s transformation from empire to Islamic Republic began in Khomeini’s hometown of Qom in the 1960s. One too many fiery speeches admonishing the royal family forced him into exile in 1964. He spent 15 years away from home, much of it in another city of religious scholars – Najaf in Iraq. But that didn’t stop him from criticising the shah of Iran for making concessions to Western powers that he saw as a violation of Iranian sovereignty.

He smuggled letters and bootleg cassette tapes into Iran, using an underground network of mosques and seminaries. His speeches, played in homes around the country, became the bedrock of the revolution to come.

Mahmoud Mohammadi Yazdi is the caretaker of Khomeini’s family home in Qom. He was one of Khomeini’s students and a young man at the time of the revolution. He was with him during his exile in Najaf and says Khomeini’s primary motivation was to improve the lives of ordinary people.

“He was perfect in every way,” Yazdi said. “Everyone liked him.”

Khomeini’s followers remain fiercely loyal. At his request, Yazdi risked his own life to return to Iran as part of a first wave of the revolution.

“We all accepted whatever he said,” Yazdi said. “Two years before the revolution, he wanted someone to come to Iran [and] he said it is dangerous but there is no one to go but me. I told him if he is OK with it, I would go.

“I came here and I faced hardships, but it was not a big problem. I was arrested here in Qom and later I was released. But if [the authorities] knew why I was there, they would never have let me go. We believed what we were doing was the right thing. We all thought the same way; it was just for God and Imam [Khomeini].”

Khomeini was becoming much more than a champion for common people. His revolution changed him as much as it changed Iran, transforming him from dutiful cleric to monumental political figure. He may have considered his actions at the time to be a spiritual calling. But the wheels he set in motion decades ago made religion a right of passage for modern-day Iranian political life.

Iran 1979: Anatomy of a Revolution (43:42)

Qom, city of Iran’s future leaders

Getting anything done in the capital, Tehran, often means getting the blessing of clerics who oversee elected officials. In place for 40 years, this system has made Qom, Iran’s religious heartland, one of the most important cities in the country.

“If before the revolution, very few young people were interested in entering [Islamic seminaries], today many youths that would have been educated in universities in the past are entering [Islamic seminaries],” said Seyyed Ali Mousavi, a professor in one of Qom’s many religious institutions.

Before the Islamic Revolution, Mousavi said, religious scholars were primarily concerned with how Iranians conducted their spiritual lives. After 1979, their public role changed drastically.

“After the [1979 Islamic Revolution], other than their social role, clergies took on political roles,” he said, adding, “not just in parliament, they even entered other branches of government. So, they became more influential.

“Today, the impact of seminaries and clergies on the social space of Iran, as well as politics, is greater than in the past. It has meant clergies have dual roles, and that both have been expanded. Firstly, in society and secondly in the ruling class.”

For Iran’s younger generations, religious study has become a precursor to any ambitions of government work. The city is filled with young men and women in their 20s, hoping to someday climb the political ladder in the capital.

One seminary student running between classes was clear in his assessment about the value of a religious education in modern-day Iranian politics.

“The most important issue in any society is its ideology,” he said. “The ideology of Islam is the best and the clerics of Qom have the right ideology. So, because it is where the clerics are, Qom is Iran’s most important city.”

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York. “Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s…

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New Daesh leader was informant for US, says counter terrorism report

NEW YORK: The man widely believed to be the new leader of Daesh was once an informant for the US, according to a new report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), a research body at the US military academy of West Point in New York.

“Stepping Out from the Shadows: The Interrogation of the Islamic State’s Future Caliph” is based on Tactical Interrogation Reports (TIRs) — the paper trail the US military creates when enemy fighters are detained and interrogated — from Al-Mawla’s time in captivity in the late 2000s.

Before his release in 2009, Al-Mawla named 88 extremists involved in terrorist activities, and the information he divulged during his interrogations led US forces in the region to successfully capture or kill dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, the report claims.

The CTC said it is “highly confident” Al-Mawla became the new leader of Daesh after the previous leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was killed in a US air raid in Syria in October 2019.

Although Daesh announced that a man called Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi was Baghdadi’s successor, US officials have also stated that Al-Qurashi’s true identity is actually Al-Mawla — also known as Hajj Abdullah.

Before joining Daesh, Al-Mawla is believed to have been the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda.

While details about the operation resulting in his capture are scarce, the TRIs reveal that he was captured on January 6, 2008.

The following day, US Central Command announced the capture of a wanted individual who “previously served as a judge of an illegal court system involved in ordering and approving abductions and executions.”

In his interrogations, Al-Mawla offered up details of terrorist plots to his interrogators, while minimizing his own involvement. He identified many jihadists by name and offered descriptions of their roles in the terrorist organization and details of their involvement in attacks on US-led coalition forces during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Al-Mawla — a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army and once Baghdadi’s speechwriter — emerges from the TIRs as a mysterious personality with a vague past, whose ethnicity could not be determined with certainty. The statements in the reports are rife with contradictory elements and open to a wide range of interpretations. As the authors point out in their introduction: “It is incredibly difficult to ascertain whether what Al-Mawla divulges regarding himself or ISI (the forerunner of Daesh) as an organization is true.”

Details of the specific demographics of Al Mawla’s birthplace of Al-Muhalabiyyah in Iraq’s Tal Afar district are sketchy, but it is generally accepted to have a predominantly Turkmen population. The authors of the report point out that some sources have suggested “this could pose legitimacy problems for him because (Daesh) mostly has Arabs in its senior leadership echelons,” but add that at least two other senior members of the group were reported to have been Turkmen.

Al-Mawla also claimed to have avoided pledging allegiance to ISI because he was a Sufi. The report’s authors cast doubt on that claim, given his quick rise to prominence in the terrorist group and the fact that ISI and Daesh branded Sufism as heresy.

But the authors do believe the TRIs give some valuable insights into Al-Mawla’s personality.

“The fact that he detailed activities and gave testimony against (fellow jihadists) suggests a willingness to offer up fellow members of the group to suit his own ends,” they wrote. “The amount of detail and seeming willingness to share information about fellow organization members suggests either a degree of nonchalance, strategic calculation, or resignation on the part of Al-Mawla regarding operational security.

“He appears to have named individuals in some capacity across all levels of the organization, while describing some individuals in some detail,” they continued.

The US Department of Justice has offered a $10million reward for information about Al-Mawla’s identification or location.

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill? On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13.  He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a…

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The poisoning of Alexey Navalny: Five key things to know

What happened on the day Navalny fell ill?
On August 20, a Thursday, Alexey Navalny, Russia’s leading Kremlin critic, had finished up campaigning for opposition politicians in Siberia for local elections, which were taking place from September 11 to 13. 
He left Xander Hotel and headed for the Tomsk Bogashevo airport. There, he drank a cup of tea. He was on the way to Moscow.
In the first half-hour of the flight, he fell ill and witnesses said he screamed in pain. He was later in a coma.
He was airlifted to Germany’s capital, a six-hour flight, to the Berlin Charite hospital.The plane made an emergency landing at Omsk. He received treatment in the Russian city, where doctors said he was too unwell to be moved, but two days later on August 22, a Saturday, they said his life was not in danger.
Was he poisoned? 
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent, a claim several European countries support.
A laboratory in Germany said it had confirmation on September 2, followed by laboratories in France and Sweden on September 14.
Samples from Navalny have also been sent to the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague for testing.
Russia says there is no evidence to prove Navalny was poisoned, while its ally Belarus has also doubted the claim. The doctors in Omsk said they had not detected poisonous substances in Navalny’s body. 
US President Donald Trump has been criticised for towing Russia’s line, saying on September 4 – two days after Germany’s claim to have “unequivocal evidence” – that “we have not had any proof yet”.
How is Navalny’s condition now?
On September 7, more than two weeks after falling ill on the plane, Navalny’s doctors in Germany said he was out of a coma and that his condition was improving. His spokeswoman said, “Gradually, he will be switched off from a ventilator.”
On September 15, Navalny posted on Instagram that he was breathing alone. He has said he plans to return to Russia. 
If he was poisoned, who may have poisoned him and where?
Navalny’s team believes he was poisoned at the orders of Russian President Vladimir Putin – a claim the Kremlin has strongly denied. 
Navalny’s spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh had initially said she believed Navalny’s tea at the airport was poisoned, but on September 17, his team said the nerve agent was detected on an empty water bottle from his hotel room in the Tomsk, suggesting he was poisoned there and not at the airport. 
What effect has the alleged poisoning had?
The alleged attack has widened a rift between Europe and Russia, with Germany and France leading calls for a full investigation but stopping short of outrightly blaming the Russian government. 
MEPs have called for sanctions against Russia, saying on September 17, “The poison used, belonging to the ‘Novichok group’, can only be developed in state-owned military laboratories and cannot be acquired by private individuals, which strongly implies that Russian authorities were behind the attack.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned Germany’s ambassador to Moscow, while the United Kingdom has summoned the Russian envoy over the incident.
For its part, Moscow rejects what it called the politicisation of the issue.
Significantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is under pressure to halt the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which transfers Russian gas to Germany. Once again, the Kremlin has warned not to involve the Navalny case in any discussion about the pipeline, with Dmitry Peskov saying on September 16, “It should stop being mentioned in the context of any politicisation.”
 
A timeline of events surrounding the alleged poisoning attack on Navalny: 
August 20 – Navalny falls ill on flight; plane makes emergency landing in Omsk; his spokeswoman says he was poisoned, perhaps by the tea he drank at the airport
August 22 – Navalny airlifted to Berlin Charite hospital 
September 2 – Germany says it has ‘unequivocal evidence’ Navalny was poisoned, Russia responds by saying the claim is not backed by evidence
September 4 – US President Donald Trump says ‘we do not have any proof yet’
September 6 – Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, threatens action over gas pipeline project, saying, ‘I hope the Russians don’t force us to change our position on Nord Stream 2’
September 7 – German doctors say Navalny is out of an artificial coma
September 11-13 – Russia holds local elections; Navalny’s allies make gains in Siberian cities
September 15 – Navalny posts on Instagram that he is breathing alone
September 16 – Kremlin spokesman warns against politicising Navalny issue in discussions over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project with Germany
September 17 – Navalny’s team now suspects he was poisoned in his hotel room, not the airport, citing traces of nerve agent on an empty water bottle
September 17 – MEPs call for sanctions against Russia 

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable…

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Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan to lend voice to Amazon’s Alexa

Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan will be the first Indian celebrity to lend his voice to Amazon’s Alexa digital assistant starting next year, as the Silicon Valley giant expands its presence in the significant market.The 77-year-old actor has been a household name in India for nearly half a century, and his deep baritone is instantly recognisable to listeners in the country of 1.3 billion.Foreign firms such as Amazon have spent tens of billions of dollars in India in recent years as they fight for a piece of the Asian giant’s burgeoning digital economy.In a blog post on Monday, Amazon India said Bachchan’s “voice experience” feature will become available for purchase on Alexa next year.”It will include popular offerings like jokes, weather, shayaris (poetry), motivational quotes, advice and more,” the firm said.Alexa first rolled out celebrity voice option last year with actor Samuel L Jackson, following a similar move by Google the year before, which gave users the option of hearing singer John Legend on the Google Assistant.”I am excited to create this voice experience,” the Bollywood megastar said on Amazon’s blog.”With voice technology, we are building something to engage more effectively with my audience and well-wishers.”His earlier foray into vocal blogging in 2010, Bachchan Bol-Bachchan Speak, allowed fans to listen to pre-recorded messages by the star at the push of a button.In addition to competing with voice-activated devices such as Apple’s Siri and Google Assistant for consumers, Amazon is battling Walmart-backed Flipkart and JioMart, owned by Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, for a share of the online retail market.The tech giant, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, is also trying to win eyeballs with its streaming service that competes with Netflix and Disney+ Hotstar.Bachchan and his family have been among India’s highest-profile coronavirus patients. The superstar, his actor son Abhishek, actress daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, and granddaughter Aaradhya were all admitted to hospital in July. All four have since been released.The veteran star returned to work last month filming India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? after authorities eased coronavirus curbs on movie and TV shoots.Nevertheless, with cases in India nearing five million, authorities in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – have asked production houses to ensure that common facilities are regularly sanitised, masks worn and social distancing “followed as far as possible”.Bachchan’s last film, comedy-drama Gulabo Sitabo, went straight to Amazon’s streaming service in June, after theatres in India shut down in March due to pandemic fears.

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