A shadowy Iranian general [Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani] responsible for the deaths of nearly 500 Americans traveled to Moscow Wednesday to meet with high-ranking Russian officials -- a trip that violated multiple United Nations resolutions forbidding him from leaving his country, multiple western intelligence officials with direct knowledge of the visit told Fox News... Soleimani is visiting Moscow to express his displeasure with the Russian government over their relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, mainly regarding weapons deals and strengthening economic ties, sources told Fox News. "These are two countries that want to cause trouble for the United States, and they're talking together which means even more trouble for the United States," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, [said]... This is Soleimani's third trip to Moscow following visits in April and July 2015.
Iran's president must do more to improve the economy, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday in a rare public criticism from the supreme leader three months before Hassan Rouhani runs for re-election. Unemployment, recession and inflation - issues that could win or lose an election - all remain major problems in the final month's of Rouhani's first four-year term, Khamenei said in a speech, according to the state broadcaster's website. Rouhani, who secured relief from economic sanctions in exchange for checks on Iran's nuclear program, may face a hardline candidate in May's election who could swing the Islamic Republic back away from such international engagement for which Khamenei has never expressed huge enthusiasm... Khamenei's comments could give hardliners, who have not yet named an election candidate, a green light to more harshly criticize Rouhani.
Iran's deputy minister for petroleum says the hawkish stance taken by U.S. President Donald Trump on the Iranian nuclear deal is a "passing hiccup" that should not affect foreign investment in the country's energy sector. Amir Hossein Zamaninia made the remarks Wednesday at the CWC Iran LNG and Gas Partnerships Summit in Frankfurt, Germany. "As far as the oil and gas industry and the credibility of JCPOA is concerned, this may be a passing issue and we can overcome the uncertainties created by this dynamic in Washington," Zamaninia told reporters. He said that $70 billion worth of contracts were available. "Before the end of March 21st, a number of these tenders will be issued and conducted," he said... This month, French energy giant Total said it would hold off on finalizing its investments in Iran until the United States renewed its waiver on Iranian sanctions in April or May. Yet other European and Asian oil companies are leading the charge into Iran. British-Dutch oil giant Shell inked an initial deal with Tehran in December. The company's vice president in Iran, Hans Nijkamp, underlined that commitment Wednesday, telling the conference,"When Shell gets involved in a country, it wants to be there for the long term." Such investments have been strongly endorsed by European governments... Tehran's Zamaninia said the recent visit to Washington by the European Union's foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, would hearten investors. "She came out and said that she's been reassured that the United States government fully complies with JCPOA," he said.
IRAN NUCLEAR DEAL
Senior Iranian officials are warning the Trump administration about disclosing secret deals related to the nuclear deal that have long been hidden from the public by the Obama administration, according to recent comments that prompted pushback from senior sources on Capitol Hill... Secret side deals related to the nuclear agreement remain unclassified but have been stashed in a secure location on Capitol Hill, making it difficult for staffers and lawmakers to view them. Individuals seeking to view these documents must have security clearance and are barred from taking notes or speaking about what they see.
Rex Tillerson arrived in Bonn on Wednesday on his maiden foreign trip as U.S. secretary of state to attend a summit of G20 top economies at a time when many are wondering how far President Donald Trump's "America First" message will reshape U.S. foreign policy... U.S. allies worry about Trump's unpredictability. They wonder how far he will go in warning China and Iran about their behavior, whether he will back out of long-standing treaties and trade deals, tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, build a border wall with Mexico, or cozy up to Moscow.
During his teenage years, [retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Robert S.] Harward lived in an Iranian neighborhood, attended school with Iranian-American students and played sports against Iranian teams. Those experiences gave him an unusual familiarity with Iran's culture and people in the years before the 1979 Islamic revolution that ousted the pro-American Shah. The Trump administration has offered Harward the job of national security adviser, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter said on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if Harward had accepted, the sources said... Harward would carry his experience into the Trump White House, charged with coordinating national security policy and responding to threats including Iran's ballistic missile program and support for militant groups in the Middle East... In 2012, as deputy head of the U.S. Central Command, he told a conference that "Iran's well-established past pattern of deceit and reckless behavior have progressively increased the potential for miscalculation that could spark a regional, if not a global conflict."
IranAir has finalised a deal to buy 20 turboprop aircraft from Franco-Italian ATR, the minister overseeing Iran's post-sanctions fleet renewal was quoted on Wednesday as saying... Such a deal would be worth 540 million euros ($571 million)at list prices. ATR, co-owned by Airbus and Italy's Leonardo, declined to comment. The company's chief executive told Reuters last month it had completed commercial negotiations with IranAir and expected to be able to sign a contract very soon... IranAir and ATR have spent months negotiating a firm order for 20 ATR 72-600 aircraft, with options for another 20. But officials said last month a final deal has been held up due to uncertainty over some export licences for spare engines made by a Canadian subsidiary of Pratt & Whitney. The engine maker has said it is working closely with ATR to ensure all necessary approvals are in place.
Iran aims to export 20 to 25 million tonnes of steel annually by 2025, it said in an official statement on Wednesday, up from a previous goal of 10 million tonnes. Tehran has sought to boost the steel sector as it targeted economic expansion following the 2015 deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme and has worked to attract foreign investment. However, while it has succeeded in adding steel capacity, political and logistical hurdles are high and the lifting of international sanctions has not opened up the country as quickly as first expected... The European steelmakers' association Eurofer says Iran has increased exports of hot rolled flat steel rapidly to the European Union (EU) market and has accused Iran of "trade distorting measures". A European Commission source, who asked not to be named, said the EU executive has until April 7 to decide whether to impose anti-dumping penalties on Iran following an investigation into whether the country has been selling steel at below market prices.
Although they acknowledge Iran has expanded its steel industry, shipping sources say many firms are wary of trading with Iranian counterparts and Western banks are unwilling to finance any trade for fear of U.S. penalties. Iran could also run short of iron ore given the complexity of trade with the nation and is considering export duties on iron ore to help maximise availability for its domestic steel mills, industry sources say.
When [Hezbollah]'s fighters first poured into Syria to fight the mostly Sunni rebels, many observers expected Hizbollah to be worn down and its reputation as the pre-eminent anti-Israel force to be tarnished as it was dragged into a sectarian conflict. Instead, Hizbollah, closely allied to Iran, looks set to emerge more powerful than before - one of the big winners of Syria's war. "They set an unpopular policy in Syria, even for their own constituents, and steamrollered it through; they set off on military expeditions far outside their borders and were successful," says an Israeli security consultant who asked not to be named. "They did a 180-degree shift from a guerrilla force to an invading force"... Fighting alongside Syria's regime as well as with its powerful allies - Russia's air force and military advisers, as well as Iran's Revolutionary Guard forces - also means Hizbollah militants have a much better understanding of conventional armies, intelligence gathering and the use of air power, regional diplomats and analysts say... Hizbollah, Iran and other Tehran-backed Shia militias have created a regional axis with increasing influence across the Middle East since the Syria war erupted in 2011. Starting a new conflict could derail those strategic objectives. That may explain why Hizbollah has not retaliated against continued Israeli strikes on its suspected weapons convoys and military sites in Syria, analysts say. Wael Alzayat, a former adviser to Samantha Power when she was US ambassador to the UN, says that calculation could shift if President Donald Trump ramps up pressure on Iran... "If it gets too heated, you could see Iran or Hizbollah instigating down there [Israel] to kind of shift attention..." Mr Alzayat says. The threat Hizbollah poses to US interests could stretch beyond Israel. Growing ties between Hizbollah and Iranian-backed paramilitaries in Iraq, known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), has in effect created a roving force that may seek to continue wielding power in the region. That could have ramifications for Sunni states and US allies, such as Saudi Arabia, seeking to curb Iran's influence. "Will they continue to operate outside of Lebanon in tandem with pro-Iranian forces that may be used to pressure other governments in the region? Whether it is Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Jordan," Mr Alzayat says. "Because that's where I think we're heading: the PMF, Hizbollah and the Syrian regime continue to try to work with the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard] to maintain their influence, all the way from really the Iranian border to Lebanon."
[Iranian President] Hassan Rouhani... on Wednesday called for a truce in Yemen in a sign that the Islamic republic is seeking to defuse tensions with Saudi Arabia, its regional rival. Mr Rouhani said establishing a ceasefire and "holding Yemeni-Yemeni political talks" were necessary to "help resolve the problems of the Yemeni people." He made the comments on a one-day visit to Oman and Kuwait - his first trip to the Gulf since he took office in 2013... [Saudi Arabia] accuses Iran of supplying weapons to the Houthis, which control the capital, Sana'a, including missiles that have targeted Saudi and Emirati vessels. Tehran denies the allegations.
Houthi rebels in Yemen said they fired a missile at airport in southern Saudi Arabia on Wednesday night in retaliation for air strikes near the Yemen capital that killed eight women and a child. Saba, Yemen's official news agency, said a long-range ballistic missile was fired at Abha airport and described "balls of fires" at the scene of the strike... One of Riyadh's main concerns about the Houthi rise to power in Yemen has been the militia's ability to target the Saudi mainland with ballistic missiles. It is hoping that US president Donald Trump will ratchet up action against Iran, including tighter sanctions.
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister [al-Jubeir] says his country expects to have a productive relationship with the Trump administration and is optimistic that U.S.-Saudi cooperation can overcome challenges in the Middle East. Jubeir did not elaborate but Saudi Arabia has deep concerns about Iran's increasing assertiveness in the region and he and Tillerson were to attend larger meetings on the crises in Yemen and Syria on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 world powers in nearby Bonn. In Bonn, Tillerson will also meet privately and in small groups with the top diplomats of Britain, Turkey, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. One meeting focuses on the worsening situation in Yemen, where a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition is battling Shiite rebels believed to be supported by Iran. Another concerns Syria's violence.
Iranian media say authorities have allowed female spectators at a beach volleyball tournament after... the international volleyball federation, known as FIVB, threatened to suspend the event in protest. Female fans are traditionally barred from attending male sporting events in the Islamic Republic.
Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday rejected the possibility of reconciliation with a "minority" that is opposed to the regime. The idea of reconciliation emerged in newspapers this week after former reformist president Mohammad Khatami mentioned it in a statement calling on people to join a march marking the 1979 Islamic revolution. "Some are speaking about the idea of national reconciliation," Khamenei told a public gathering in Tehran, without mentioning any names. "I think such talks are meaningless. People are united where Islam, Iran and fighting the enemy are concerned. Yes, some may have political differences (but) why do you speak of reconciliation? Are people sulking?" he added. However, he dismissed any reconciliation "with those who took to the streets on the day of Ashura and ruthlessly and shamelessly undressed a young Basiji (Islamist militiaman) and beat him". The nation was angry with them "and we will not reconciliate with them," said Khamenei. He was referring to demonstrations in late 2009 following the election of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
OPINION & ANALYSIS
Neda Soltan was not really politically active, not the way most of last week's protestors would claim to be... Her protest did not fit in any ideological box, but was a reaction to the injustice in her life and the reality of oppression forced her to act on instinct. Hers was a true cry for freedom, the self-proclaimed "feminist government" of Sweden should protect and defend through words and action women like Soltan - not the regime that took her life. Having seen it for myself, I love Iran, and I love its people. It is because of that love that I urge the Swedish government and Swedish businesses to not do business with the totalitarian Iranian regime that systematically oppresses its people. Being a humanitarian superpower comes with a responsibility to do the right thing, even when it is not politically or financially expedient, and to consistently be a voice for those who have none of their own. Soltan died because she had the audacity to ask for freedom. It is my hope that Sweden now honors her memory by refusing to do business with her killers. Anything else would be hypocrisy by the Swedish "feminist government." Anything else would be accessory to murder and abuse.
Iran and Russia aren't often on the same page in the Middle East. But if President Donald Trump's administration attempts to drive a wedge between the two, there is precious little incentive it can offer Moscow to abandon its crucial partner. Confronting Iran while also improving relations with Russia and turning it into an ally against "radical Islam" have emerged as two early foreign-policy priorities for the new U.S. administration. Those goals are difficult to reconcile for the simple reason that Russia and Iran increasingly need each other. Over the past year and a half, Moscow and Tehran have put their strategic differences aside as they took advantage of the shrinking American influence in the Middle East. Their joint effort reversed the tide of the Syrian conflict, shoring up President Bashar al-Assad's regime, and gave Moscow new sway across the region, from Libya to Iraq. In any case, unless the Trump administration dramatically increases its commitment to the region both politically and militarily, it won't be able to exploit these potential disagreements and drive Russia and Iran apart, cautioned Imad Salamey, a political scientist at the Lebanese American University. "Now, Iran and Russia have a strong united front," Mr. Salamey said. "It is Russia and Iran that have split the U.S. from its allies, brought about a rift between the U.S., Turkey and Saudi Arabia over Iraq and Syria, and managed to divide the West."
While both [President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu] have previously called for renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - there is a growing consensus both in Israel and in Washington that re-opening the deal would cause more damage than good... In a new study published by the Washington Institute, we look at the role of sanctions in restraining Iran's regional aggression and disrupting its global terrorism, money laundering and procurement networks. We suggest a multipronged approach that starts with taking back control of the narrative about the deal so as to expose Iran's false claims that we now live in a "post-sanctions era." Likewise, sanctions are most effective when they are adopted by an international coalition. The challenge for Netanyahu and Trump is how to persuade the broader international community to work together against Iran's destabilizing activities. European partners in particular have little interest in either renegotiating the deal or taking action in response to Iran's regional activities. Most European states hope to see their companies benefit from renewed financial and commercial ties with Iran, yet they retain EU sanctions on Hezbollah's military wing and Iranians involved in human rights abuses, to include the IRGC. In line with the reality of these ongoing restrictions, Jerusalem and Washington are likely to agree on the need to emphasize to their European partners in particular that Iran's ongoing illicit conduct is the reason for continued sanctions. Iran helps that effort by engaging in provocative steps such as missile tests and supporting Houthi attacks on ships. Indeed, Iran made no commitment to cease non-nuclear malevolent activity and has not, in fact, halted it... Focusing on Iranian conduct that violates international norms will be the most likely to draw multilateral support. And demonstrating international resolve on holding Iran to account for its non-nuclear malevolent activities is more likely to win Iran's begrudged respect for the constraints of the deal itself.
[B] efore the White House translates its rhetoric [on Iran] into reality, it needs to carefully consider the wisdom and practicality of rolling back Iran's regional influence based first on American, not just Israeli interests, and carefully weigh the benefits of a more confrontational policy toward Iran against the potential costs, risks and consequences. More than likely, a tougher policy against Iranian assertiveness in the region isn't going to work. Here's why. The Options [s]uck... [D]oes Washington have the will, the capacity and the allies to effectively challenge and roll back Iran's regional behavior and influence? Chest thumping might make the Trump administration feel good and look tough, but the options it has to contain, let alone roll back, Iran's influence are severely limited because of Iran's superior geographic, demographic and political advantages, and the support of committed and capable local allies... Getting tough with Tehran without thinking through the consequences of such a policy, and whether it can achieve its objectives without compromising other important U.S. interests and priorities, would be extremely rash and dangerous. And picking fights that cannot be won will undermine American leadership and credibility, not to mention the Trump administration's reputation for competence, all of which have already taken a beating. Israel may have grandiose ambitions of forming an anti-Iranian axis with moderate Arab states, but Iran is a major power in the region and its influence will be difficult to contain, let alone roll back, at a price that Washington and the American public are prepared to pay. Instead of uncritically endorsing Israeli interests, a wise and realistic policy would avoid anti-Iranian adventures and focus on containing Iran when its ambitions for regional hegemony threaten vital U.S. interests-defeating ISIL, maintaining access to oil and preventing WMD proliferation-and cooperating with Tehran when it advances those interests, such as countering Sunni jihadi terror, stabilizing Iraq and maintaining the Iranian nuclear accord so long as Tehran stays in compliance. A judicious policy would also avoid getting sucked further into messy regional conflicts, as well as steer clear of actively supporting the agendas of its allies (such as Saudi Arabia in Yemen) when they damage U.S. interests. Thus, an effective U.S. approach toward Iran will mean defending allies and partners against Iranian attacks, using force to protect freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf, preventing and responding to Iranian or Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities and personnel, and using force to prevent Tehran from breaking out of the nuclear agreement in violation of its commitments. Perhaps more importantly, the Trump administration needs to think hard about what it wants to achieve in the region and the point of toughening U.S. policy toward Iran. What's the endgame in the face of a regime that isn't going to change its repressive policies at home or roll back its efforts to maintain its regional influence? Is it to provoke Iran into a wider conflict so that the administration can take off the gloves? Or to moderate Iranian behavior in the region outside the four corners of the nuclear agreement? Perhaps it's to improve America's leverage so that it can renegotiate better terms on the nuclear agreement.
The abrupt Obama administration pre-election pullout from Iraq in 2011, along with the administration's failed reset with Russia and the Iran deal, created a three-headed hydra in the Middle East. What makes the Middle East monster deadly is the interplay between the Iranian terrorist regime and its surrogates Hezbollah and the Assad regime; Russian president Vladimir Putin's deployment of bombers into Syria and Iraq after a 40-year Russian hiatus in the region; and the medieval beheaders of the Islamic State... Given that there is now no political support for surging thousands more U.S. troops into Iraq to reverse the disastrous Obama-administration pullout, there are three strategic choices in dealing with the Middle East hydra, all of them bad: One, hold our nose, and for now ally with Russia and Iran to destroy ISIS first. Then deal with the other rivalries later on... Two, work with the least awful of the three, which is probably Russia... Three, simply keep out of the mess and let them all diminish one another, despite the collateral damage to the innocent.