President Trump has sought to put the brakes on a brewing confrontation with Iran in recent days, telling the acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, that he does not want to go to war with Iran, administration officials said, while his senior diplomats began searching for ways to defuse the tensions. Mr. Trump's statement, during a Wednesday morning meeting in the Situation Room, sent a message to his hawkish aides that he does not want the intensifying American pressure campaign against the Iranians to explode into open conflict.
Iran's most prominent military leader has recently met Iraqi militias in Baghdad and told them to "prepare for proxy war", the Guardian has learned. Two senior intelligence sources said that Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran's powerful Quds force, summoned the militias under Tehran's influence three weeks ago, amid a heightened state of tension in the region. The move to mobilise Iran's regional allies is understood to have triggered fears in the US that Washington's interests in the Middle East are facing a pressing threat. The UK raised its threat levels for British troops in Iraq on Thursday.
A U.S. official said Thursday that Iranian missiles loaded on small boats in the Persian Gulf were among the "threats" that have triggered a beefed-up military deployment in the region. "The missiles on civilian boats are a concern," said the official, who asked not to be named. The person was confirming reports in The New York Times saying that Washington reacted to aerial photos from U.S. intelligence agencies showing traditional boats carrying Iranian missiles in the Gulf, one of the world's most strategic waterways.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Imagine an executive of a respected French or German multinational corporation attending a conference organised by officials from Islamic State in 2016 because it controlled oil wells worth billions of euros. Imagine also that there is a very high likelihood of being surveilled, scouted for intelligence value or even recruited by one of the most active terror organisations in the world at this conference. You would assume that no executive would take such a risk, right?
...According to David Daoud, a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran, while the video suggests that the IRGC base was discovered this past February, it "could be much older." "I also doubt APCs would be of any use to Iran or its proxies in confronting the United States or regional allies like the Israelis. They'd be easy targets for superior stand-off firepower," Daoud told The Jerusalem Post. Nevertheless, the fact that the base is in close proximity to Rayak Air Base shows two things, Daoud said.
During a recent speech, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani declared that "Obama, the president of the United States, asked me nineteen times for a meeting. But the government did not have the authorization to respond." Most likely, President Barack Obama did not ask 19 times for such a meeting, but another U.S. president has made it publicly clear that he wants to have talks with Iran.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The remaining signatories of Iran's nuclear deal should act to save the accord as "supportive statements" are not enough, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Iranian state media before leaving Japan on his way to China. Last week, Iran notified the five remaining signatories that it would scale back some commitments under its 2015 nuclear deal, a year after Washington left the pact and reimposed sanctions on Tehran. Tehran has asked the other signatories to help protect its economy from U.S. sanctions.
Iran's foreign minister traveled Friday to China on his Asian tour aimed at keeping world markets open to Tehran amid an intense sanctions campaign from the U.S. as tensions across the Persian Gulf remain high. Concerns about a possible conflict have flared since the White House ordered warships and bombers to the region to counter an alleged, unexplained threat from Iran that has seen America order nonessential diplomatic staff out of Iraq.
Iran could consider talks with the Trump administration if it first returns to the 2015 nuclear deal and ends its sanctions, the vice president said, as fears grow that the two countries are heading for armed conflict. "If they go back to the original position that they had at the beginning of their government then yes, it can be considered," Masoumeh Ebtekar said in an interview at her office in Tehran on Wednesday.
President Hassan Rouhani announced earlier this month that Iran would suspend implementation of some of its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one year after the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal. Rouhani also signaled that unless the remaining JCPOA signatories stepped up to fulfill the promised economic dividends of the accord, then there would be subsequent phases of Iranian action ahead.
Israel's acquisition in early 2018 of a significant portion of Iran's nuclear archive, which details an effort to build five nuclear weapons and prepare an underground nuclear test site in the early 2000s, has revealed an unpleasant truth: Iran has been in violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the 2015 nuclear deal, and other non-proliferation commitments.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Oil prices increased for a third straight day Thursday, driven by stock market gains on Wall Street and escalating skirmishes between Iran and U.S. allies that threaten to disrupt oil supplies and shipments in the Middle East. West Texas Intermediate futures, the U.S. oil benchmark, ended 1.4% higher at $62.87 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, marking the biggest one-day gain in three weeks and the highest close since May 1.
Iraq has contingency plans for any stoppage of Iranian gas imports for its power grid but hopes no such disruption will take place, Oil Minister Thamer Ghadhban said on Thursday. He also said a meeting of OPEC's ministerial monitoring committee in Saudi Arabia this weekend would assess member states' commitment to a deal reducing oil production and that oil prices and markets were now stable.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Iran's Writers Association (IWA), a civil society union, has protested the sentencing of three Iranian writers, who received a total of 18 years in prison IWA condemned the verdict as one "against all writers and everyone struggling for freedom of expression." Iran's Judiciary on Wednesday sentenced Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Baktash Abtin, and Kayvan Bajan to a total of 18 years in jail, the writers' defense lawyers told the press.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
A senior Iranian military official has accused U.S. President Donald Trump of dishonesty, saying Washington is calling for talks while "holding a gun" at Tehran, the semi-official news agency Mehr reported on Friday. Trump has said publicly he wants to pursue a diplomatic route with Iran after withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, moving to cut off all Iranian oil exports this month while beefing up the U.S. Navy and Air Force presence in the Gulf.
Intelligence collected by the U.S. government shows Iran's leaders believe the U.S. planned to attack them, prompting preparation by Tehran for possible counterstrikes, according to one interpretation of the information, people familiar with the matter said. That view of the intelligence could help explain why Iranian forces and their allies took action that was seen as threatening to U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere, prompting a U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf region and a drawdown of U.S. diplomats in Iraq.
The Pentagon is working with its Defense Intelligence Agency to declassify and release images -- including two traditional sailing vessels carrying land-attack missiles -- to back up the Trump administration's claims of a growing threat from Iran, according to four defense officials. The evidence may be released within a day, according to one of the officials, because the White House recognizes it needs to disclose more documentation to skeptical allies, U.S. lawmakers and the public.
The prospect of U.S. military action against Iran has notably little international support. U.S. allies have publicly balked at the idea, and major powers such as Russia and the European Union have called for restraint. There is little support for conflict with Iran among U.S. lawmakers, some of whom have expressed exasperation about a lack of information. Even the tough-talking U.S. president, ever fond of trashing Tehran, is reported to have pushed back on White House national security adviser John Bolton's calls for a more hawkish Iran policy.
To listen to most Democrats or television pundits, one could believe Trump administration officials are intentionally and recklessly trying to provoke a war with Iran, trapping a reluctant president in a costly conflict that would imperil U.S. security and his own political future. In fact, that's not their aim. But their strategy to combine "maximum pressure" and "deterrence" is difficult and risky. To be sure, the Trump administration is partially responsible for the widespread confusion over its Iran policy.
Iran's foreign minister said Thursday there is "no possibility" of negotiations with the United States to reduce spiraling tensions, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported. "No, there is no possibility for negotiations," the news agency cited Mohammad Javad Zarif as telling reporters in Tokyo, where he is meeting with Japanese officials. Kyodo said the comment was in response to a question on whether he would be open to bilateral talks with Washington aimed at easing tensions.
During a trip to Japan, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to journalists regarding the latest status of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the increasing tension with the United States. Zarif said that any military action by the group he dubbed the B-team (national security adviser John Bolton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed) would be "political suicide."
The top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee says he is "convinced" there is cause for concern around Iran's activists following a pair of briefings on the Gulf nation. "I am convinced that the information and warnings that we have collected are of greater concern than the normal Iranian harassment activity that we've seen in the Persian Gulf and the surrounding area," Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
A senior Iranian lawmaker said on Thursday he was gathering signatures in the parliament to support a motion to oust Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh for his inability to counter U.S. sanctions on Iran's oil sales. Hedayatollah Khademi was quoted as saying by Fars news agency that "we have prepared the motion for impeachment of Zanganeh because we believe he is not a man for difficult days in the oil ministry."
IRANIAN REGIONAL AGGRESSION
The drums of war are sounding across the Middle East, driven by the Trump administration as well as by disputed attacks on Saudi Arabian tankers and an oil pipeline. But Rohile Gharaibeh, a prominent Jordanian politician and newspaper columnist, has watched it all with a mixture of disdain and weary exasperation. "A circus," Mr. Gharaibeh said in a phone interview, describing recent events as little more than a spectacle with multiple foreign actors on the stage. "It's no more than shenanigans to apply more pressure on Iran."
In the event of war with the United States, Iran "will not be alone." That message was delivered by the leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group to a mass rally in Beirut in February marking the 40th anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution. "If America launches war on Iran, it will not be alone in the confrontation, because the fate of our region is tied to the Islamic Republic," Hassan Nasrallah said.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
A former Uggs salesman with a rocky marriage has been found guilty of working as a "sleeper" agent for an arm of Hezbollah while living in the Bronx - helping the terror group prepare for attacks on New York City. After less than a day of deliberations, a Manhattan federal jury found Bronx resident Ali Kourani, 34, guilty on eight counts that included providing support to Hezbollah, which carries up to life in prison.
Israel has been providing Washington with intelligence about potential Iranian attacks. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made Iran's strategic ambitions an obsession. And as recently as February he floated the idea of war with Iran. But analysts and former Israeli military and intelligence officials say the Israeli government is not angling for a full-blown war between the United States and Iran. Such a war, Israeli officials fear, could plunge Israel into a mutually destructive conflagration with Iran's ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
GULF STATES, YEMEN & IRAN
Yemen's Houthis are an indivisible part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and are subject to the IRGC's orders, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, said on Thursday. He added that this is confirmed by the Houthi targeting of facilities in the Kingdom.
CHINA & IRAN
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is set to visit China on Friday for talks on "regional and international issues", state news agency IRNA reported. Coming amid soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran, the visit would be an opportunity to discuss the 2015 nuclear deal from which the United States unilaterally withdrew a year ago, IRNA said.
IRAQ & IRAN
A top Iranian general has told Iran-backed militias in Iraq to "prepare for proxy war" in the wake of heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S., which accused the militias of moving missiles toward American forces. Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iran's extraterritorial military operations Quds Force, called for a meeting with the militias three weeks ago, but the exact timing of the gathering remains unclear, the Guardian reported Thursday.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Britain agrees with the United States that Iran poses a heightened threat and will work closely with its ally, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday. Hunt said he had discussed Iran with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week in London, and again in Brussels on Monday. "We share the same assessment of the heightened threat posed by Iran," Hunt said on Twitter. "As always we work closely with the USA."