Iranian Women Reveal How They Entered Male-only Stadium

Female Iranian soccer fans are becoming more emboldened in their defiance of Iranian regulations that bar them from attending football matches.

In recent days, Iranian social media users have been sharing a photo of five young women who disguised themselves as men to attend last Friday’s domestic football league match at Tehran’s Azadi stadium. The five fans used makeup to give themselves beards and male haircuts as they watched their home team, Persepolis, defeat visiting rivals Sepidrood of the northern city of Rasht.

An Iranian state news site loyal to Parliament speaker Ali Larijani, Khabar Online, later published what it said was an interview with one of the five women who appeared in the photo. In the interview, the woman who gave her name as Zahra said it was the third time she had sneaked into Azadi stadium for a male-fan-only football match. She also said she had done her own makeup at home.

Another female Persepolis fan who goes by the name of Zeinab on Instagram and has 124,000 followers has been posting a series of photos and video clips in recent weeks, showing herself in similar male disguises, both inside a stadium and outside.

​Iran has been barring women from attending some men’s sporting events, especially football, since the first few years after its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In an interview with VOA Persian on Monday, Brussels-based Iranian activist Darya Safai, founder of the social media movement “Let Iranian women enter their stadiums,” said the women who recently revealed their disguises publicly have been encouraged by seeing other women join their campaign of civil disobedience. “You feel strong, you feel that you are able to change things,” she said.

But Safai said the female football fans’ campaign also has put them at risk of government prosecution. “They are afraid. It cost them a lot of stress,” Safai said.

The head of world football governing body FIFA, Gianni Infantino, said on a visit to Iran in March that he secured a pledge from Iranian leaders that they will “soon” allow women to attend men’s football matches — something advocated by FIFA. Iran has not announced any such moves since then, while Safai said she has not seen any FIFA action to press Tehran to follow up on that commitment.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Persian Service. 

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US Annual Inflation Measures Jump; Consumer Spending Rises

U.S. consumer prices accelerated in the year to March, with a measure of underlying inflation surging to near the Federal Reserve’s 2 percent target as weak readings from last year dropped out of the calculation.

The rise in the annual inflation gauges reported by the Commerce Department on Monday was anticipated by economists and Fed officials and is not expected to alter the U.S. central bank’s gradual pace of interest rate increases.

Annual inflation readings in March of last year were held down by large declines in the price of cell phone service plans, and decelerated through much of 2017.

“The Fed has been talking about today’s inflation increase since last March,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial in New York. “There is no reason to think the Fed will accelerate the pace of rate hikes as a result.”

Price index jumps

Consumer prices as measured by the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index jumped 2.0 percent on a year-on-year basis last month. That was the biggest gain since February 2017 and followed a 1.7 percent rise in February. The PCE price index was unchanged on a monthly basis largely because of cheaper gasoline after advancing 0.2 percent in February. 

Excluding the volatile food and energy components, the PCE price index soared 1.9 percent in the 12 months through March, also the biggest increase since February 2017, after increasing 1.6 percent in February.

The so-called core PCE price index rose 0.2 percent on a month-on-month basis in March after a similar gain in February.

The core PCE index is the Fed’s preferred inflation measure.Last month’s increase was in line with economists’ expectations.

Minutes of the Fed’s March 20-21 policy meeting published this month showed officials expected the annual PCE price indexes to accelerate in March partly because of “the arithmetic effect of the soft readings on inflation in early 2017 dropping out of the calculation.”

Two additional rate hikes expected

The minutes also noted that the rise in inflation emanating from the so-called base effects “by itself, would not justify a change in the projected path” for the central bank’s benchmark overnight interest rate.

Fed officials are scheduled to convene on Tuesday and Wednesday for a regular policy meeting. The Fed raised rates last month and forecast at least two more rate hikes for 2018.

The dollar rose to near a three-month high against the euro on Monday on the back of weaker-than-expected German data.

Prices for longer-dated U.S. Treasuries rose marginally while U.S. stocks were mixed.

Tightening labor market

Economists expect the core PCE price index to hit 2.0 percent in May because of favorable base effects. Inflation is also rising as the labor market tightens. The government reported last Friday that wages and salaries recorded their biggest increase in 11 years in the first quarter.

In addition, regional factory surveys have shown increases in prices paid and received by manufacturers. Inflation is also likely to be fanned by an anticipated pickup in economic growth, driven by a $1.5 trillion tax cut package and increased government spending.

“We think that will convince the Fed to raise rates a total of four times this year, with the next hike coming in June,” said Michael Pearce, a senior economist at Capital Economics in New York.

Small increase for consumer spending

The Commerce Department’s report on Monday also showed consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, increased 0.4 percent in March after being unchanged in February.

The data was included in last Friday’s advance first-quarter gross domestic product report, which showed the economy growing at a 2.3 percent annualized rate during that period.

When adjusted for inflation, consumer spending increased 0.4 percent in March. The so-called real consumer spending fell 0.2 percent in February. The rebound in real consumer spending last month supports expectations that consumption was held back by temporary factors in the January-March period and will gain momentum in the second quarter.

Personal income rose 0.3 percent in March after increasing by the same margin in February. With spending outpacing income, savings fell to $460.6 billion last month from $483.1 billion in February.

Manufacturing data on Monday also offered an upbeat assessment of the economy. The MNI Chicago Business Barometer rose 0.2 points to a reading of 57.6 in April, ending three straight monthly declines.

Factory activity in Texas accelerated sharply in April, with the Dallas Fed Texas Manufacturing Outlook Survey’s production index surging 11 points to a reading of 25.3.

But the housing market continues to be hobbled by an inventory squeeze that is restraining sales growth. The National Association of Realtors said contracts to buy previously owned homes rose 0.4 percent in March, slowing from February’s 2.8 percent increase.

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US Risks Trade Fight with Europe as Sanctions Delay Expires

The Trump administration risks igniting a trade battle with Europe just as it’s preparing for tense trade talks in China this week.

Facing a self-imposed deadline, Trump is considering whether to permanently exempt the European Union and five other countries from tariffs that his administration imposed last month on imported steel and aluminum. The White House provided temporary exemptions in March and has until the end of Monday to decide whether to extend them.

If it loses its exemption, the EU has said it will retaliate with its own tariffs on U.S. goods imported to Europe.

The confrontation stems from the president’s decision in March to slap tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum. Trump justified the action by saying it was needed to protect American metal producers from unfair competition and bolster national security. But the announcement, which followed an intense internal White House debate, triggered harsh criticism from Democrats and some Republicans and roiled financial markets.

At the time, Trump excluded several vital trading partners — the European Union, Mexico, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil — from the tariffs.

Two people familiar with the process said the Trump administration has been considering whether to provide a short-term extension of the exemptions to allow for more time to review the countries’ efforts to secure permanent exemptions.

One of the officials said the U.S. trade representative has been overseeing the process for all of the countries except the European Union, whose tariffs are being evaluated by the Commerce Department.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

The EU and other countries have been asked to spell out what limits they could accept on the amount of steel they export to the United States, how they would address the issue of excess production of steel and aluminum and how they would support the U.S. before international bodies like the World Trade Organization. Security relationships with the U.S. have also been part of the criteria.

South Korea agreed to limit its exports to the United States as part of broader discussions involved in updating its bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. and was granted a permanent exemption.

China, Japan and Russia haven’t received exemptions from the duties. That will likely reduce steel shipments from those countries over time. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said late Friday that quotas on imports from Europe and other countries are necessary so imports from those countries don’t simply replace Chinese imports. The goal of the tariffs is to reduce total steel imports and boost U.S. production, Ross said.

“If you let everybody back out of the tariff, and you let them out of any kind of quota, how would you ever reduce the imports here?” Ross asked at a conference of business journalists. Ross is set to discuss the issue Monday with EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.

Germany, the EU’s largest steel exporter to the U.S., accounted for about 5 percent of U.S. steel imports last year. South Korea made up the largest share, shipping about 13 percent of U.S. imports, according to an American Iron and Steel Institute analysis of government data.

The EU has compiled a list of retaliatory tariffs worth about $3.5 billion it will impose if its steel and aluminum isn’t exempted.

European leaders have resisted the idea of a quota. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement Sunday that she discussed the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May after returning from a White House visit Friday.

The three European leaders “agreed that the U.S. ought not to take any trade measures against the European Union,” which is “resolved to defend its interests within the multilateral trade framework,” Merkel’s statement said.

In her meeting with Trump, Merkel said, she saw little progress in obtaining permanent exemptions. “The decision lies with the president,” she said Friday.

Battle with China

In a separate trade battle with China, the United States has threatened to impose tariffs on $150 billion of Chinese goods in retaliation for what it argues are Beijing’s unfair trade practices and its requirement that U.S. companies turn over technology in exchange for access to its market. The White House also wants China to agree to reduce its $375 billion goods trade surplus with the U.S.

China has said it would subject $50 billion of U.S. goods to tariffs if the U.S. taxes its products. Trump has announced that an administration delegation led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and trade adviser Peter Navarro will visit Beijing for negotiations on Thursday and Friday this week.

In addition to Mnuchin, Lighthizer, Ross and Navarro, the group will include economic adviser Larry Kudlow, U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad and Everett Eissenstat, deputy assistant to the president for International Economic Affairs.

“We’re going to have very frank discussions,” Mnuchin in an interview broadcast Monday on Fox Business.

Most analysts, however, think it’s unlikely the talks will reach permanent agreements and will more likely mark the start of longer-term negotiations.

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Paper Plane Protesters Urge Russia to Unblock Telegram App

Thousands of people marched through Moscow, throwing paper planes and calling for authorities to unblock the popular Telegram instant messaging app on Monday.

Protesters chanted slogans against President Vladimir Putin as they launched the planes – a reference to the app’s logo.

“Putin’s regime has declared war on the internet, has declared war on free society… so we have to be here in support of Telegram,” one protester told Reuters.

Russia began blocking Telegram on April 16 after the app refused to comply with a court order to grant state security services access to its users’ encrypted messages.

Russia’s FSB Federal Security service has said it needs access to some of those messages for its work, that includes guarding against militant attacks.

In the process of blocking the app, state watchdog Roskomnadzor also cut off access to a slew of other websites.

Telegram’s founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, called for “digital resistance” in response to the decision and promised to fund anyone developing proxies and VPNs to dodge the block.

More than 12,000 people joined the march on Monday, said White Counter, a volunteer group that counts people at protests.

“Thousands of young and progressive people are currently protesting in Moscow in defense of internet freedom,” Telegram’s Durov wrote on his social media page.

“This is unprecedented. I am proud to have been born in the same country as you. Your energy changes the world,” Durov wrote.

Telegram has more than 200 million global users and is ranked as the world’s ninth most popular mobile messaging service.

Iran’s judiciary has also banned the app to protect national security, Iranian state TV reported on Monday.

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Comoros to Hold Referendum on Presidential Term Limits in July

The Indian Ocean state of Comoros will hold a constitutional referendum in July on presidential term limits that could result in the next vote behind held two years ahead of schedule, its president has said.

The move could allow the President Azali Assoumani, who won the last election in 2016, to run the country for two fresh five year-terms instead of the one five-year term allowed in the constitution. The next vote is scheduled for 2021.

The referendum if passed would do away with a constitution meant to rotate power every five years between the archipelago’s islands.

That system was intended to promote stability and power-sharing in a coup-prone country. Comoros has had more than 20 coups or coup attempts since it declared independence from France in 1975.

“In a case where the referendum will win the support of the population, the presidential election will be held in 2019, not in 2021,” Assoumani said on Sunday during a visit to the island nation of Anjouan.

Under the constitution, the presidency of the Union of Comoros rotates between the three islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Moheli every five years.

Assoumani hails from Grande Comore.

Although details of the referendum are yet to be released, a recently completed national dialogue recommended that a president could be re-elected. This would open the door for a leader to run the country for two five-year terms.

Assoumani, a former military officer, first seized power in a coup in 1999 and ruled until 2006 after winning the country’s first multi-party poll in 2002. He won re-election in 2016.

The president said that, like anyone else holding public office, he would resign ahead of seeking re-election. He did not say when this would happen.

The president also said that he would bring together legal teams to tackle the scandal over the sale of Comoros citizenship, which a parliamentary investigation said had led to millions of dollars in government revenues going missing.

“The economic citizenship affair is very delicate. The credibility and pride of our country have been damaged .. It must be used as an example because those who run states must always know that they can, at any moment, be held accountable for the way they manage public office.”

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Armenian Opposition Leader Becomes Sole Candidate for Interim PM Job

Armenian opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan became the sole candidate for the post of interim prime minister on Monday after a key deadline passed without other candidates registering.

Whether or not he gets the job, left open by the resignation of long-time leader Serzh Sarksyan after two weeks of anti-government protests, depends on a parliamentary vote to be held Tuesday.

Pashinyan has received the support of all opposition parties in parliament, who hold 47 seats in the 105-seat legislature, but he will require a majority to win.

Anti-government demonstrations, driven by public anger over perceived political cronyism and corruption in the South Caucasian former Soviet republic, led to Sarksyan’s resignation a week ago.

At a meeting with the governing Republican party on Monday, as well as with the opposition bloc Way Out, Pashinyan said that a vote for him on Tuesday would be a vote for an end to the crisis.

“I think this is a unique and great opportunity to resolve the domestic political crisis and to register the victory of the people, the kind of victory in which there are no losers,” said Pashinyan, a former journalist turned lawmaker.

After a break during the day, protests restarted in Yerevan toward the evening, with a column of demonstrators marching to the capital city’s main square.

Speaking with journalists Monday, Pashinyan said his main project as interim prime minister would be to organize new free and fair parliamentary elections for the post of prime minister.

Although demonstrations have been peaceful, the upheaval has threatened to destabilize Armenia, an ally of Russia, in a volatile region riven by Armenia’s decades-long, low-level conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan.

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State TV: Iran’s Judiciary Bans Using Telegram App

Iran’s judiciary has banned the popular Telegram instant messaging app to protect national security, Iran’s state TV reported Monday.

“Considering various complaints against Telegram social networking app by Iranian citizens, and based on the demand of security organizations for confronting the illegal activities of Telegram, the judiciary has banned its usage in Iran,” TV reported.

The order was issued days after Iran banned government bodies from using Telegram, which is widely used by Iranian state media, politicians, companies and ordinary Iranians.

A widespread government internet filter prevents Iranians from accessing many sites on the official grounds that they are offensive or criminal.

But many Iranians evade the filter through use of VPN software, which provides encrypted links directly to private networks based abroad, and can allow a computer to behave as if it is based in another country.

“The blocking of Telegram app should be in a way to prevent users from accessing it with VPN or any other software,” Fars said. The app had over 40 million users in Iran.

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Syrian Government, Rebels Reach Evacuation Agreement for S. Damascus

An agreement brokered by Russia to evacuate neighborhoods in southern Damascus was reached Monday between the Syrian government and rebel groups controlling the enclave of southern Damascus.

The parties agreed to evacuate trapped civilians and fighters in southern Damascus in exchange for sending away civilians and fighters in the two towns of Fua’a and Kafriyeh, predominately-Shiite towns under the regime’s control in rebel-held Idlib province.

Local sources said the agreement excluded IS militants in Yarmouk Camp. 

Mattar Ismael, a journalist based in southern Damascus, told VOA that people started preparations to leave southern Damascus, and the first convoy of civilians is expected to be bused out Tuesday morning.

“The majority of civilians will go to Idlib and Jarablus in northern Syria, a small group chose to go to Deraa in the south, and there are a number of civilians who refused to leave,” Ismael said.

He added that thousands of civilians live in areas under the control of Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the towns of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahm, and about 400 civilians are still in Yarmouk Camp under IS.

The FSA started handing over a number of its locations to the Russian Military Police, according to Syrian opposition news sources.

An estimated 3,500 civilians fled Yarmouk Camp in one week, many of whom are sleeping in the streets of neighboring areas.

“Those stark figures tell their own tragic story, of the destruction of a once-thriving refugee community, now reduced to abject, untold suffering,” Chris Gunness, spokesperson for United Nations Agency to help Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), told Al Jazeera.

Yarmouk Camp was established for the Palestinian refugees who fled the 1948 war with Israel. According to UNRWA, the camp was home to about 160,000 Palestinians before Syria’s conflict began in 2011.

Monday’s agreement will also evacuate 1,500 civilians and militants in the towns of Fua’a and Kafriyeh in Idlib province, and release 80 civilians kidnapped in 2015 by former the al-Qaida-affiliated group, Tahrir.

The towns of Fua’a and Kafriyeh have been under siege since 2015, when rebel groups launched the Operation to Free Idlib Province against the Syrian government.

Despite the agreement, airstrikes and clashes did not stop in southern Damascus, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

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