Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Thursday that the United States would step up financial and political pressure on Iran's theocratic regime as it seeks to "extend its reach" across the Middle East. "You've seen us now designate [Iran-backed] militias inside of Iraq [as terror groups]," Pompeo told "Fox News at Night" host Shannon Bream. "You've seen us designate senior leaders inside the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]."
Iran is determined to boost its defense capabilities despite mounting pressure from the United States and its allies to curb its ballistic missile program, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday. "We need to take Iran to a point that enemy understand that they cannot threaten Iran ... America's sanctions will make Iran self-sufficient," Khamenei said in a speech broadcast live on state TV. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States last May from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers, saying it gave too much away to Iran, and reimposed far-reaching U.S. sanctions.
Iran's supreme leader branded a European initiative to protect trade from U.S. sanctions "a joke," saying the country would have to rely on its own efforts to revive the economy. "Europeans failed to stand against the U.S." to protect the 2015 nuclear deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a live televised address from the northeastern city of Mashhad to mark the Persian new year. "They stabbed us in the back and we can't expect them to do much."
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
France told Iran on Thursday that European efforts to keep a nuclear deal alive did not mean Tehran had a blank check to violate the human rights of its citizens, after lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh received a long prison sentence. An internationally renowned human rights lawyer jailed in Iran, Sotoudeh was handed a new sentence on Monday that her husband said was 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Finnish telecom equipment maker Nokia does not plan to take on any new business in Iran in 2019, it said in its annual report on Thursday, citing difficulties in dealing with conflicting U.S. and European trade policies. "The diverging EU and U.S. regulatory framework governing business activities in Iran will be far more complex in the future," Nokia said in its annual 20-F report.
Iran's oil exports have dropped in March to their lowest daily level this year, according to tanker data and industry sources, even before Washington formally requires importing countries to reduce purchases to avoid infringing U.S. sanctions. Shipments are averaging between 1.0 and 1.1 million barrels per day (bpd) so far this month, according to Refinitiv Eikon data and three other companies that track Iranian exports. That's lower than February, when shipments were at least 1.3 million bpd.
The Trump administration told The National that it is seeing an impact from its sanctions on Iran in constraining its estimated annual $700 million budget for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo making his first visit to Lebanon on Friday, the US Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, told The National in an exclusive interview from the State Department, that Washington is determined to keep up the pressure on Hezbollah.
An Australian man was sentenced to two years in prison in Washington Thursday for exporting restricted aviation equipment to Iranian buyers in violation of US restrictions. Seven years after he was charged, David Levick, 57, from Cherrybrook, Australia, was ordered to prison after pleading guilty to four counts of violating the US International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which places tight restrictions on sales of sensitive equipment to Iran.
Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has returned home victorious from a three-day visit to Iraq, having secured a memorandum of understanding with Baghdad that will serve as an economic lifeline for a country besieged by United States economic sanctions. Rouhani's visit had coincided with a serious economic crisis in Iran resulting from sanctions, in addition to the fall of the local currency and growing unemployment rates.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
France on Thursday called for Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to be released and warned Tehran that its adherence to a nuclear accord does not give it a blank cheque on human rights. "We will do all we can to secure the release of Mrs. Sotoudeh," French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the upper chamber Senate. "She was condemned under astonishing conditions," for "defending the rights of women, in particular those who contest the obligation to wear the Islamic veil," he added.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. President Donald Trump's statement in favor of recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights is unacceptable, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said on Friday, cited by state TV. "This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria," spokesman Bahram Qasemi said.
What is the Trump administration trying to achieve in Iran? More than two-and-a-half years after candidate Trump made Iran a centerpiece of his foreign-policy platform on the presidential campaign trail, and over a year after Iran emerged as one of his administration's core international priorities, there is still a great deal of confusion about what, exactly, the White House is seeking to accomplish vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The Pakistan military said in a statement on Thursday that it had rescued four Iranian soldiers being held captive by a militant group in the country's restive southwest. The rescue took place in Chaghi district of Balochistan province, near the Afghan border, the statement said. "Terrorists of a proscribed organization were reported to have entered Pakistan from Afghanistan side along with abducted Iranian soldiers," it said.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei says Europe has practically pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and he expects only "backstabbing and treason" from Western European countries. Criticizing Western countries in his annual speech in Mashad, north-eastern Iran, on the first day of the Iranian New Year March 21, Khamenei said, "The Europeans have practically left the JCPOA, because they have not met their commitments."
When US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in May 2018 and reinstated harsh sanctions on Iran, many feared that Iran's tourism sector, which has been continuously growing in recent years, would take a hit. But while the number of tourists, mainly from Europe, has declined, the devaluation of the Iranian rial - triggered by sanctions and exacerbated due to poor management - lured many more foreign tourists to Iran, especially from neighboring countries.
At the end of the Iranian year on March 20, inflation figures heralded a tough time ahead for ordinary Iranians, as price rises neared 50 percent in the last 12 months. From March 2018 to March 2019, goods and services became 47.5 percent more expensive, in what is the worse inflation number in the past five years, Iran Statistical Center reported on March 21. But what is even more alarming, inflation for food and drinks is reported to be 73.2 percent in the same 12-month period.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has declared the upcoming Iranian New Year "Pickup in Production." This means at the very least that future speeches and slogans will have a heightened focus on the state of the economy, which is currently struggling in part due to US sanctions that were reimposed after the Donald Trump administration's withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal signed between Iran and six world powers in 2015.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
President Trump made new U.S. policy on Thursday, as he often does these days, with a tweet recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights on the border with Syria. This time his tweet was based on more than personal impulse and makes sense for American and Israeli interests.
French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner has proposed a clampdown on Zahra Centre France, Anti-Zionist Party, Shia Federation of France and France Marianne TV in a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron. Interior Ministry said the groups sympathise with Hamas through the internet and "the armed wing of Hezbollah, all listed on the list of terrorist organisations of of the EU". French police last year seized weapons and detained 11 people in a raid on Zahra Centre France, one of the largest Shiite centres in Europe, near the northern town of Dunkirk.
US President Donald Trump's recognition of the Golan Heights appears to have been initially greeted with more anger in Washington than in the capitals of the Middle East. That is because the region is recovering from years of conflict and instability, and Trump's decision regarding the Golan is likely seen within the context of the rest of his unilateral action, from leaving the Iran Deal to moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Iran provides not only resources but also missiles to Houthis, adding that he hopes pressure on Iran will convince Houthis to return to the political table, in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya on Thursday. During his time in Jerusalem, Pompeo told Al Arabiya: "We're very hopeful that this pressure will convince the Houthis that they need to return to the political table, they need to have a discussion, they cannot win this militarily, and we're determined to ensure that order is restored in Yemen."
The decades-old rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has re-emerged at a difficult time, with Tehran in economic crisis due to US sanctions. The recent friction started with a tussle over oil pricing. Riyadh offered the world cheaper oil to attract consumers facing any disruption in the Iranian oil supply. The second phase of US sanctions have had a devastating impact on Iran's oil exports, shipping and banks, hitting the core of the Iranian economy.
IRAQ & IRAN
As more factions within Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) are being designated as terrorist by the US administration on account of their close ties with the Iranian side, Tehran is moving toward pulling the Iraqi file from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and leaving it with the Foreign Ministry, local reports say.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Iran has expressed support for the change at top leadership in Kazakhstan, praising the outgoing president Nursultan Nazarbayev. "The current changes in the Republic of Kazakhstan and transfer of power was in the framework of the constitution and for that reason we support it", the spokesperson of Iran's foreign ministry Bahram Ghasemi was quoted as saying, by IRNA.