European powers will take the first step towards re-imposing international sanctions on Iran in the coming weeks if Tehran further violates the 2015 nuclear deal, diplomats said. The warning, an escalation of European pressure on Iran, puts the two sides on a collision course. A conflict is likely in early January, when Iran is set to announce fresh steps to breach the deal. Iranian officials say their moves respond to Europe's failure to protect them from the impact of withering sanctions the U.S. imposed after President Trump withdrew from the nuclear accord last year.
The United Nations said Friday that it has video evidence appearing to show Iranian security forces "shooting to kill" protesters during Iran's latest wave of demonstrations. In a statement on Friday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was alarmed by "the continuing lack of transparency about casualties and the treatment of thousands of detainees" during the recent protests in Iran.
Iran on Saturday freed an American graduate student who had been imprisoned in Tehran for more than three years on suspicion of being a spy, in an exchange of prisoners at a moment of high tensions with Washington. The American, Xiyue Wang, was flown in a Swiss government airplane from Tehran to Zurich, where he was met by Brian H. Hook, the State Department's special representative for Iran, according to two senior United States officials. Mr. Wang, 38, was a fourth-year Princeton University graduate student conducting research in Iran when he was arrested there in August 2016.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran will unveil a new generation of uranium enrichment centrifuges, the deputy head of Iran's nuclear agency Ali Asghar Zarean told State TV on Saturday. "In the near future we will unveil a new generation of centrifuges that are domestically made," said Zarean, without elaborating. In September, Iran said it had started developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium as part of steps to reduce compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal following the withdrawal of the United States.
European parties to the Iran nuclear deal did not trigger a mechanism that could lead to the renewal of U.N. sanctions at talks in Vienna on Friday, China's envoy said. "All countries need to refrain from taking actions that further complicate the situation," Fu Cong, director general of the Department of Arms Control of the Chinese Foreign Ministry told reporters after the talks. "In our view there is an element of automaticity into this and we can't be sure that countries can keep this process under control. It could aggravate tensions."
European parties to the 2015 nuclear deal have demanded that Iran stop taking steps away from the accord but stopped short of triggering a mechanism that could renew United Nations sanctions, during a rare meeting between the pact's remaining signatories. Friday's three-hour meeting in Vienna, the first with all parties since July, came as tensions continue to rise with Tehran systematically rolling back its commitments under the deal following Washington's withdrawal last year and imposition of "maximum pressure" sanctions.
Five world powers trying to save their 2015 nuclear deal with Iran from U.S. efforts to overturn it are grappling with a new setback as they meet with Iranian officials in Vienna Friday. A day before Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia were to hold talks with Iran in the Austrian capital, Moscow said it was suspending its work to reconfigure Iran's underground Fordow nuclear facility for civilian medical research. The Trump administration had warned last month that it would revoke a waiver shielding Moscow from U.S. sanctions against the Fordow project starting Dec. 15.
European powers demanded at talks on Friday that Iran stop violating their nuclear deal, but stopped short of triggering a mechanism that could renew U.N. sanctions and kill the 2015 accord, officials said. The meeting came amid heightened friction between Iran and the West. Tehran has rolled back its commitments under the 2015 deal in response to Washington's withdrawal last year and reimposition of sanctions that have crippled its economy. With Tehran angry over a lack of European protection from U.S. sanctions, there appears scant scope for compromise.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The Trump administration issued economic sanctions on Friday against three Iraqi militia leaders whose fighters American officials said were under Iran's orders when they attacked protesters in Iraq. The penalties, which restrict travel to the United States and freeze American-held assets, will likely have little direct impact on the militiamen. But the move could force Iraq to choose between either shunning its Iranian benefactors or defying American demands to protect demonstrators as the Shiite-led government faces a deepening political crisis.
Iran's president said on Sunday his country will depend less on oil revenue next year, in a new budget that is designed to resist crippling U.S. trade embargoes. Iran is in the grip of an economic crisis. The U.S. re-imposed sanctions that block Iran from selling its crude oil abroad, following President Trump's decision to withdraw from Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. "The budget sends a message to the world that despite the sanctions, we will manage the country," President Hassan Rouhani told the opening session of Parliament.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday presented to parliament what he called a "budget of resistance" against crippling sanctions imposed by the United States. "Next year, similar to the current year, our budget is a budget of resistance and perseverance against sanctions," Rouhani told parliament in remarks broadcast on state radio. "This budget announces to the world that despite sanctions we will manage the country, especially in terms of oil," he added.
Iran said on Saturday that "50 new achievements will be unveiled on April 9, including new centrifuge systems," referring to the date of National Nuclear Technology Day. Is this the final nail in the coffin of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal? Will Iran continue racing toward a nuclear weapon in the hope it will achieve that point before anyone can stop it?
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iranian security forces have shot at protesters from helicopters and a rooftop and have aimed at peoples' heads in using "severe violence" to quell anti-government unrest last month, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Friday. They have also fired at protesters as they were running away, Bachelet said in a statement, citing verified video footage. The U.N. Human Rights Office has received information indicating that at least 208 people have been killed, including 13 women and 12 children, during the demonstrations and at least 7,000 people arrested, the statement said.
Iranian security forces were "shooting to kill" in their deadly crackdown against protesters in recent weeks, according to credible video footage, the U.N. human rights chief said Friday. The unrest left at least 208 people dead nationwide, the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, echoing a count also tallied by Amnesty International. Iran disputes death toll figures released by foreign organizations but has so far refused to any countrywide casualty or arrest figures.
Iraq's top Shi'ite Muslim cleric said a new prime minister must be chosen without foreign interference in an apparent nod to Iranian influence, as armed men killed at least 19 people, including three police, near a Baghdad protest site on Friday. More than 70 others were wounded by gunfire and stabbings near Tahrir Square, the main protest camp in the Iraqi capital, police and medics said. It was the most violent flare-up in the capital for weeks and came a week after Iraqi's prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, said he would resign following two months of anti-government protests.
The U.S.'s special representative for Iran Brian Hook has said that more than 1,000 Iranian citizens may have been killed in recent protests. On Thursday, Hook told reporters that the U.S. assessment, which was higher than previous reports by news organizations and rights groups, was based on crowd sourcing and intelligence reports. "We know for certain it is many, many hundreds," he said. Iran has disputed any figures on the death toll at this stage as "purely speculative" and "highly inaccurate."
Blacking out the Internet has become a popular tactic for governments hoping to quell internal rebellion and protest. In the past year alone, there have been more than 100 shutdowns in 29 countries, including Zimbabwe, Kazakhstan, Sudan and Ethiopia, according to the digital rights group Access Now. In August, the Indian government shut off Internet and phone service to Kashmir after revoking the region's autonomy. Last month, Iran, too, imposed a blackout after protests erupted over a significant hike in gas prices.
The Trump administration has been citing a massive wave of protests in Iran as evidence that its "maximum pressure" strategy against the Islamic republic is working. In one sense, that's probably true. Sanctions against Iranian oil exports helped force the regime to raise gasoline prices by 50 percent or more on Nov. 15, which in turn triggered, by the government's own account, demonstrations by up to 200,000 people in 29 of the country's 31 provinces, including attacks on 50 military bases.
Forty years after the revolution, the Tehran regime seems to have achieved one of its most ambitious goals: creation of a "Shiite crescent" stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with Iran dominant all the way to the Mediterranean. But the would-be hegemons neglected one crucial element: the millions of people they mean to rule. Protests against Iranian influence these last two months forced out the prime ministers of Lebanon and Iraq.
A fresh wave of political uprisings hit the Middle East this year, as if to complete the work that the 2011 Arab Spring left unfinished. They have stretched so far across the region that it has shattered even Iran's illusion that, by wielding unprecedented power abroad and intimidating authority at home, it was immune. But the events of the last few months have left the Islamic Republic exposed to the same political forces buffeting the rest of the creaky regimes nearby.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft warned Iran on Friday that the Trump administration will keep up its maximum pressure campaign and use "other tools" if Tehran continues its "malicious behavior." Craft also told her first press conference since arriving at the United Nations in September that all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council are united in their concern about any more ballistic missile launches by North Korea, saying there have been 13 launches since May and Pyongyang's actions are a serious global issue.
The United States and Iran each freed a prisoner on Saturday in a rare act of cooperation between twolongtime foes whose ties have worsened since President Donald Trump took office. Iran released Xiyue Wang, a U.S. citizen who had been held for three years on spying charges, while the United States freed Iranian Massoud Soleimani. He had been facing charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Tehran. A senior U.S. official said Washington was hopeful that Wang's release would lead to the freeing of other Americans held in Iran and that it was a sign Tehran was willing to discuss other issues.
In a year of heightened tensions between Iran and the United States that brought the longtime foes to the brink of military conflict, a swap of prisoners on Saturday was a rare act of cooperation. The two countries have been enemies for 40 years, ever since hardline Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran soon after the fall of the U.S.-backed shah, and 52 Americans were held hostage there for 444 days. Here is how Iran-U.S. ties hit a new low point in 2019.
The United States and Iran swapped prisoners - an American detained for three years on spying charges and an imprisoned Iranian - on Saturday in a rare act of cooperation between two longtime foes. Following are reactions to the swap: "After more than three years of being held prisoner in Iran, Xiyue Wang is returning to the United States. A Princeton University graduate student, Mr. Wang had been held under the pretense of espionage since August 2016."
A day after the United States and Iran traded prisoners on an airport tarmac in Zurich, Switzerland, US national security adviser Robert C. O'Brien said President Donald Trump would like to hold unconditional talks with Iran, both to secure the release of the other Americans still held by Iran and to address US concerns about Iran's nuclear program and destabilizing regional behavior. "The president has offered to talk to the Iranians without preconditions about a whole range of issues," O'Brien, who previously served as Trump's hostage envoy, told CBS' Margaret Brennan in an interview today on "Face the Nation."
President Donald Trump has called for the United Nations Security Council to deal with the "behavior of the Iranian regime, which has killed hundreds and hundreds of people in a very short period of time". Trump made the remarks while speaking at a luncheon with the five permanent members of the UN security Council on December 5. He also called on the media to "get involved...and go in and see what's happening because it is not a good situation".
The United States has indicated its approval with Japan's plan to host a visit by Iran's President Hassan Rouhani to Tokyo, Kyodo news agency quoted "diplomatic sources" as saying. Apparently, Rouhani is seeking Japanese mediation in breaking a deadlock with Washington over the 2015 nuclear deal also known as the JCPOA. According to the sources quoted, the Trump administration is looking forward to learning about talks between Rouhani and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Brian Hook, the State Department special representative for Iran, boarded a military plane at Andrews Air Force Base Friday night and flew to Zurich, where Saturday he swapped an Iranian scientist for an American student who'd been captive in Iran. The latest: Iranian officials handed over Chinese-American graduate student Xiyue Wang, 38, detained in Tehran since 2016 on what the U.S. says are false charges, for scientist Massoud Soleimani, who faced a federal trial in Georgia. A senior administration official told me how it went down.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The U.S. State Department released Thursday photos of advanced missile parts believed to be linked to Iran from a boat stopped by the Navy in the Arabian Sea last month. At a press briefing, U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook said the parts seized on November 25 are likely further proof of Tehran's efforts to inflame conflict in the region.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran's official IRNA news agency reports that nearly 14,000 people have registered to run for office in the country's parliamentary elections in February. The Saturday report said the exact number would be announced Sunday but already the number of potential candidates was 15% more than in the 2016 parliamentary election, when some 12,000 registered to run. Only 4% have served as a lawmaker in parliament in the past and some 9% are female hopefuls.
Iran's semiofficial Fars news agency is reporting that a soldier has shot three policemen to death in the country's south. The Saturday report said the incident took place at a police station near the port city of Bandar Lengeh, some 1,000 kilometers , or 620 miles, south of the capital Tehran. It said the soldier was immediately arrested. The report did not elaborate on a motive or the rank of the policemen saying only that the case is under investigation.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israel would be ready to bomb Iran to stop its nuclear weapon capabilities, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz said in a Saturday interview. "Is bombing Iran an option that Israel is considering?" Katz was asked by Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper. "Yes, it is an option. We will not allow Iran to produce or obtain nuclear weapons. If it were the last possible way to stop this, we would act militarily," Katz replied.
Israeli leaders stepped up aggressive rhetoric against Iran and a Palestinian proxy as a crucial domestic deadline looms. Israel and the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers are attempting to reach a long-term truce, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that continued rocket fire from the Palestinian territory would provoke a military campaign. As frictions intensify in the Persian Gulf, Israel's defense and foreign ministers said military action was possible to contain Iran's military ambitions.
More than six weeks since the start of the Lebanese uprising, the entrenched power in control of Lebanon seems to have only one option left to reproduce itself - seek foreign help and bring in influential regional and international powers. The option does not exist to appeal to the Lebanese people, who have been exposing the corruption and fragility of the authority in the country by insisting on an independent interim government to prepare for an early parliamentary election.
Guatemala is going to formally recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, the Central American country's president-elect announced this week during his first-ever visit to Israel. Alejandro Giammattei also said that he not only intends to keep the Guatemalan embassy in Jerusalem, but that he will urge other nations to transfer their Israel embassies to the city as well.
IRAQ & IRAN
Iran may have been behind Thursday's attack on Iraq's Balad air base, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Friday, but added that Washington was awaiting further evidence. Iraqi military on Thursday said that two Katyusha rockets landed inside Balad air base, which hosts U.S. forces and contractors and is located about 50 miles (80 kilometres) north of Baghdad. No casualties or damages were reported in the attack for which there was no immediate claim of responsibility.