Trump administration officials have concluded that Robert A. Levinson, the retired F.B.I. agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007 on an unauthorized mission for the C.I.A., died while in Iranian custody, his family announced on Wednesday. Newly revealed intelligence pointed to Mr. Levinson's death, top national security officials told his relatives inside the White House Situation Room in recent weeks, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The officials provided strong evidence that Mr. Levinson had died sometime in the past several years, the person said, but did not detail the proof.
Shut out of international capital markets and facing a further hit to its finances with the collapse in oil prices coming on top of U.S. sanctions, Iran is struggling to shield its economy from the coronavirus pandemic. While Iran has the worst reported outbreak in the Middle East with a death toll that lags only Italy, China and Spain, it is spending only a fraction of the amounts its wealthier neighbors are throwing at their economies.
Iranian proxy forces in Iraq continue to lob rockets into U.S. bases with deadly results. But amid the coronavirus, Iranian leaders want the U.S. to ease sanctions on the country in the name of compassion. President Trump should resist the plea. "The US government has failed to abandon its malicious policy of maximum pressure," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wrote in a March 20 letter to the American public. "The sanctions have drastically undermined the ability of the Iranian people to fight the coronavirus and some among them are losing their lives as a result."
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting March 25 that "good steps" have been taken to unblock Iranian cash withheld in different countries due to US sanctions. Iran hopes the relief will help it overcome the ongoing coronavirus epidemic that has mounted an exponential hike over the past five weeks. Rouhani quoted an unnamed nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council as saying that a proposed resolution on Iran sanctions removal was in the works before being presented to the body.
Speaking on the side-lines of a meeting of cabinet ministers and President Rouhani on Wednesday Iran's Central Bank (CBI) Governor said that part of Iran's frozen assets may be released soon to enable the country to deal with the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) epidemic. "We have information that part of our assets that were frozen in other countries due to the pressure from the government of the United States may be released," Abdolnasser Hemmati declared without elaboration and said the government hopes to be able to use these assets to buy essential goods, medicine, and medical equipment.
Shut out of international capital markets and facing a further hit to its finances with the collapse in oil prices coming on top of US sanctions, Iran is struggling to shield its economy from the coronavirus pandemic. While Iran has the worst reported outbreak in the Middle East with a death toll that lags only Italy, China and Spain, it is spending only a fraction of the amounts its wealthier neighbors are throwing at their economies.
In the current straitened sanctions period, Iran's focus in its oil sector is broadly to increase the capacity of its fields in West Karoun and from the huge fields that it shares with Iraq. This strategy allows it firstly to generate income even in the low price oil environment - its US$1-2 per barrel lifting cost is the same as Saudi Arabia's - and secondly to position itself to take up any slack in supply caused by dint of the oil price war.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
As coronavirus spreads in Iran, authorities have moved swiftly and aggressively to contain independent reporting about it by harassing, detaining and censoring journalists and social media users. Tehran has questioned or detained journalists who contradicted or questioned official reports, warned that those publishing statistics other than government figures would be arrested, and issued censorship orders to news outlets. In at least one case, a journalist was forced to retract comments made on social media.
Iran's mullah regime refused on Tuesday to grant a temporary release to four imprisoned Christians amid a release of some 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, in an effort to stop the spread of the Middle East's worst outbreak of the coronavirus. The religious freedom organization Article18 wrote on its website: "Four Iranian Christians serving 10-year sentences in Tehran's Evin prison are being denied temporary release, even though their requests for retrials have been accepted."
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Tehran has no knowledge about the whereabouts of a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in March 2007, a spokesman for the Iranian mission at the United Nations said on Thursday. The family of the man, Robert Levinson, said earlier that he had died in Iranian custody. "Iran has always maintained that its officials have no knowledge of Mr. Levinson's whereabouts, and that he is not in Iranian custody. Those facts have not changed," Iranian mission spokesman Alireza Miryousefi said in a Tweet.
A Navy veteran released from an Iranian prison last week on a medical furlough says he is sick with symptoms of the coronavirus and is requesting a humanitarian evacuation to the United States for medical treatment. Michael White was hospitalized Wednesday in a ward for coronavirus patients in Iran and has experienced fever, fatigue, a cough and shortness of breath since his furlough last week, according to a statement from Jon Franks, a family spokesman, to The Associated Press.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today used a teleconference of foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations to urge tougher international action on Iran and its regional proxies in line with the US maximum pressure campaign. "I thank the countries for holding the regime accountable through actions like banning Mahan Air and designating all of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed terror groups as terrorist organizations," Pompeo told a small group of reporters after the conference.
Iran, like the United States, is fighting a so-far failing war against the novel coronavirus, which according to expert studies could kill millions in both countries if it is not contained. Yet neither the Trump administration nor the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has let this unprecedented emergency distract them from their war against each other. Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have repeatedly launched rockets against U.S. targets this month, even as tens of thousands of covid-19 cases swamped medical facilities inside Iran.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran reported 157 new coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, Iranian Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV on Thursday, taking the death toll to 2,234 in the Islamic Republic with 29,406 infected people. "The number of new infected cases was 2,389 in the past 24 hours," Jahanpur said, calling on Iranians to stay at home.
Iran has started an intercity travel ban, an Iranian official said in a televised news conference on Thursday, a day after Iran's government spokesman warned the country might face a second outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Officials have complained that many Iranians ignored appeals to stay at home and cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on March 20. "Those who have travelled for the Iranian New Year holidays should immediately return to their cities without making any stop in the cities on their way back home," said Hossein Zolfaghari, a member of Iran's national headquarters for fighting the coronavirus.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
The UN special envoy for Syria has called for "a complete, immediate nationwide ceasefire to enable an all-out effort to suppress COVID-19," warning that Syrians are "acutely vulnerable" to the global pandemic. Geir Pedersen's call on Tuesday followed the Syrian government's announcement of its first case of novel coronavirus, a 20-year-old woman, who flew in from the UK and is currently undergoing treatment. But the greatest menace to Syria comes from Iran, which -alongside Italy, China and Spain - is among the worst hit by the disease and where the death toll stood at 2,077 as of Wednesday, according to Iranian officials.
AFGHANISTAN & IRAN
Afghanistan has already imported its epidemic. And each day it adds to it, as thousands more displaced Afghans continue to flow across the border from Iran, which has reported among the world's highest numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths. The returnees, some surely infected with the coronavirus when in Iran, cluster shoulder to shoulder in massive crowds on both sides of the crossing, where toilet facilities are primitive and soap and potable water are scarce.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Iran said it would after all accept help from international medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres to fight the coronavirus, a day after officials blocked the group's work in the country. "We thank Doctors Without Borders for their help," government spokesman Ali Rabiei said, according to IRNA news service, using the organization's other name. "Their donated equipment will be used by the Ministry of Health in the areas where it is required," he said, adding Iran was grateful for all offers of help. He made no mention of the nine personnel the group had sent to the Islamic Republic.
Denmark's state prosecutor said on Wednesday it had charged a Norwegian citizen with assisting an Iranian intelligence service plan an assassination on Danish soil. The Norwegian, who has Iranian heritage, was arrested in October 2018 over a suspected plot to kill an Iranian Arab opposition figure in Denmark. Prosecutor Lise-Lotte Nilas said the man, who was not identified, is suspected of gathering information which, according to the investigation, was to be used to carry out a murder in Denmark.