Iran has used the continuing chaos in Iraq to build up a hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq, part of a widening effort to try to intimidate the Middle East and assert its power, according to American intelligence and military officials. The buildup comes as the United States has rebuilt its military presence in the Middle East to counter emerging threats to American interests, including attacks on oil tankers and facilities that intelligence officials have blamed on Iran.
France, Germany and the United Kingdom say "Iran's developments of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles" go against a U.N. Security Council resolution calling on Tehran not to undertake any activity related to such missiles. Ambassadors from the three European nations urged U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in a letter circulated Wednesday to inform the council in his next report that Iran's ballistic missile activity is "inconsistent" with the call in a council resolution endorsing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Protests in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to hold hastily planned talks on Wednesday, aimed at ramping up pressure on Tehran and reducing its sprawling influence in the region. But before the 90-minute meeting, the Israeli leader signaled he had other goals in mind as well: securing the Trump administration's support for a defense treaty and, potentially, Mr. Netanyahu's plans to annex the Jordan Valley.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have accused Iran of developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, alleging the move goes against UN Security Council resolutions. Ambassadors from the three European nations urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, in a letter circulated on Wednesday, to inform the council in his next report that Iran's ballistic missile activity is "inconsistent" with the 2015 nuclear deal.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran would support a majority decision by members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut oil production, the country's OPEC envoy said on Thursday, according to Iranian oil ministry website SHANA. "Iran supports (a) majority decision about dropping oil production," said Hossein Kazempour Ardebili, Iran's representative to OPEC.
The government of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani approved a substantially smaller budget for the next fiscal year as it cuts spending under the weight of crippling U.S. sanctions, especially on its oil exports. The proposed budget was set at the rial equivalent of about $37 billion at the dollar's widely used unofficial rate, state television said on Wednesday. That's less than a third of what was allocated for the 12 months ending March 20. In July, officials said they would plan the country's next budget without including income from oil, the nation's single-largest source of income over the last few decades.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has once again expressed his preparedness for talks on an internationally negotiated solution involving the United States to salvage the key achievement of his administration: the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). "As soon as the United States agrees to put aside its wrong, illegal, unjust and terrorist-style sanctions, we will have no problem to immediately sit down with the leaders of the P5+1 groups of countries," Rouhani told a conference in Tehran Dec. 4.
A U.S. Navy warship seized advanced missile parts believed to be linked to Iran from a boat it had stopped in the Arabian Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, as Trump's administration pressures Tehran to curb its activities in the region. In a statement, the Pentagon confirmed that on Nov. 25 a U.S. warship found "advanced missile components" on a stateless vessel and an initial investigation indicated the parts were of Iranian origin. "A more thorough investigation is underway," the statement said.
US intelligence agencies and the Pentagon in recent weeks have tracked the movement of a number of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles into Iraq, a US official with direct knowledge of the situation said. While some of the missiles may be categorized as ballistic, the official emphasized that they are very short range, without offering more details.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Faced with a simmering fury in the country, Iran's leaders on Wednesday abruptly softened their stance toward street protests that are believed to have left hundreds of civilians dead last month, the most lethal crackdown since the 1979 revolution. The change, led by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani, signaled that the hierarchy was scrambling to manage resentment worsened by a brutal suppression of protests throughout the country after gasoline prices were increased by at least 50 percent without warning on Nov. 15.
Iran's supreme leader called Wednesday for those detained in recent gasoline price protests to be treated with "Islamic mercy" even after authorities acknowledged government forces shot and killed demonstrators nationwide in unrest that reportedly killed over 200 people. The comments by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say over all state matters in the Islamic Republic, appear to signal how much the mid-November protests shook the pillars of power in the theocracy. Amnesty International believes at least 208 people were killed in the protests and security force crackdown that followed.
Protests in Iran are a sign of "real popular dissatisfaction" with the country's leaders, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday. Disturbances in Iran began in mid-November over gasoline price hikes but quickly turned political, with demonstrators demanding the removal of the country's leaders in the bloodiest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution. "My own feeling is that this is not just about fuel prices, this is a sign of real popular dissatisfaction with the regime and frankly I am by no means surprised," Johnson told reporters at a news conference following a NATO summit.
Radio Farda's investigations confirm that the number of underage victims of recent protests in Iran has risen to eighteen. However, more than two weeks after the demonstrations the Islamic Republic authorities have not yet declared the exact number of those killed during the four-day rallies that shook the clergy-dominated country. Reports received by human rights watchdogs and civil rights activists maintain that the security forces killed more than twenty under-eighteen-year old persons in bloody attacks on protesters.
Iran's president Hassan Rouhani claimed in a speech on Wednesday that some of the protesters who took to the streets across Iran in November had been "organized" by forces outside the country and promised Iranians that their "confessions will be aired" soon. Speaking at a seminar at Tehran's Milad Tower the Iranian President alleged that these groups had been planning "for more than two years" to incite unrest during parliamentary elections (February 21) but took action sooner "by the order of their masters abroad" when protests against gasoline price hike gave them the opportunity.
Sparked by the sudden end of subsidies on fuel prices in mid-November, protesters took to the streets in Iran. But the government quickly responded, shutting off the Internet to the entire Islamic Republic and using brutal force against protesters - killing an estimated 143 people. Within a week, the demonstrations stopped and the government declared victory. The scale and speed of Iran's crackdown was significant - and different from the reaction to public discontent in 2017 and 2018. Why?
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu here Wednesday, holding talks on collaborative efforts to counter Iranian aggression. "The first subject that I will raise is Iran, the second subject is Iran, and so is the third, and many more," Mr. Netanyahu said ahead of the meeting. Both officials cited the continuing protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran as evidence of popular frustration with the regime in Tehran, with the prime minister criticizing some European countries for "trying to sidestep" U.S. sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Tehran hasn't closed the window on talks with the U.S. but reiterated his government's standing condition that the Trump administration lift sanctions imposed on Iran before any negotiations can take place. Rouhani's statement was posted on the Iranian presidency's website Wednesday. It quoted him as saying there's no barrier from the Iranian side for meeting with the heads of 5+1 nations. That's a reference to the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members, including the U.S.
The wife and children of the longest-held American hostage in Iran testified to the ongoing, nearly 13-year-long ordeal of Robert A. Levinson, asking a federal judge on Wednesday to impose $1.5 billion in damages on the government of Iran to deter future hostage-taking. The opening of a two-day hearing in federal court in the District provided wrenching details about the disappearance of Levinson, a retired FBI agent who vanished in 2007 under murky circumstances in Iran while on an unauthorized mission for the CIA.
Iran has ordered the U.S. to pay $130 billion in damages after the U.N.'s highest court ruled that the Trump administration must ease sanctions against the country. Iran's top court announced the ruling after receiving up to 360 complaints from Iranian citizens since President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), popularly known as the Iran nuclear deal, Newsweek reported Tuesday.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The Trump administration is considering a significant expansion of the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East to counter Iran, including dozens more ships, other military hardware and as many as 14,000 additional troops, U.S. officials said. The deployment could double the number of U.S. military personnel who have been sent to the region since the start of a troop buildup in May.
IRANIAN REGIONAL AGGRESSION
A senior Pentagon official said on Wednesday there were indications that Iran could potentially carry out aggressive actions in the future, amid simmering tensions between Tehran and Washington. Tensions in the Gulf have risen since attacks on oil tankers during the summer, including off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, and a major assault on energy facilities in Saudi Arabia. The United States has blamed Iran, which has denied being behind the attacks on global energy infrastructure.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describes the Iranian empire as "tottering" and says Israeli is "actively engaged" in countering Iranian aggression. Netanyahu spoke Wednesday alongside U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while both were in Lisbon for separate talks with Portuguese leaders. Netanyahu said, "Iran is increasing its aggression as we speak" in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Gaza. He thanked President Donald Trump for keeping up the pressure on Iran, while Pompeo expressed support for the Iranian protesters.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards weapons warehouse in eastern Syria was struck, Saudi news channel Al Arabiya reported Wednesday night. The warehouse is located within an airport near Al-Bukamal, on the Iraqi border. When asked if he authorized the strike on Wednesday during a press briefing ahead of his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "I never talk about that."
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Every hunter and hiker knows that one of the first rules of the wild is to beware a wounded animal. It's also pretty good lesson to remember in foreign relations. These days, the world would be hard-pressed to find a more dangerous wounded animal than Iran. The Islamist regime has spent most of this year ramping up its violent attacks on its neighbors in the Middle East and on oil tanker traffic along the Persian Gulf.
Iran's state-sponsored hackers have deployed a new strain of malicious malware, warns IBM, which has been aimed at the "industrial and energy sectors" in the Middle East. No specific companies have been identified, but there's no surprise in the nature of the attack. For Iran, its ongoing hybrid conflict with the U.S. and its allies has made these sectors a target. IBM has attributed the latest "destructive attacks" to Iran's hyperactive APT34 "and at least one other group, [also] likely based out of Iran."