The Trump administration on Thursday sanctioned the brother of Iran's top spy master and military strategist for alleged human-rights violations, amid growing calls by Congress for the White House to confront Tehran and bring home U.S. citizens still imprisoned in the country. Successive U.S. administrations have fixated on curtailing the activities of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of international operations of Iran's elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. U.S. intelligence agencies believe Gen. Soleimani is overseeing Iran's military operations in Syria, which are designed to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. and its Middle East allies also said they have seen Gen. Soleimani's hand in Revolutionary Guard military activities in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Gen. Soleimani's brother, Sohrab Soleimani, who has been accused of committing human-rights violations as head of the Tehran Prisons Organization.
Foreign ministers from Russia, Syria and Iran presented a unified front in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday, saying the U.S. and international accusations of a chemical strike by the regime in Damascus were fabrications. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an international investigation into the April 4 chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria, an incident that Washington has blamed on Mr. Assad's forces. "The amount of evidence is multiplying that it was staged," Mr. Lavrov said following a meeting with his counterparts from Syria and Iran, adding that U.S. actions were aimed at "finding a pretext to initiate regime change." The U.S. military last week launched a cruise-missile strike on the Shayrat air base in Syria, saying it was used for the attack on Khan Sheikhoun.
Iranian media say more than 600 candidates have registered to run in next month's presidential election. At least 638 have registered in the first three days of the process through Thursday, more than twice the number that had registered during the same period in 2013. Registration closes on Saturday. More people tend to run when a moderate is in office because the political sphere is more open. More than 1,000 people registered in 2005, under reformist President Mohammad Khatami. The Guardian Council, a clerical body that oversees elections, is expected to bar most candidates and will announce an approved list by April 27.
Iran said Friday that new U.S. sanctions imposed against the brother of the high-profile commander of the Revolutionary Guards' foreign operations arm, Qassem Soleimani, were "illegal". The U.S. Treasury added Sohrab Soleimani, along with the Tehran Prisons Organisation which he recently oversaw, to its list of individuals and entities facing sanctions Thursday for alleged human rights violations. "The U.S. government with its failed domestic and international record is not in a position to comment or act on the human rights situation in other countries," foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said.
The United States on Thursday sanctioned Sohrab Soleimani, the brother of the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, for his role in abuses in Iranian prisons. The action freezes any assets Soleimani might have in the United States and bars U.S. citizens from conducting transactions with him. Soleimani is the "supervisor of the office of the deputy for security and law enforcement of the state prisons organization," the U.S. Treasury Department said. He is also the former director general of the Tehran Prisons Organization, which was also sanctioned on Thursday. Soleimani's brother Qassem Soleimani leads Iran's Quds Force, the elite special forces arm of the Revolutionary Guards. Qassem Soleimani had previously been sanctioned, the White House said. "The sanctions against human rights abusers in Iran's prisons comes at a time when Iran continues to unjustly detain ... various foreigners, including U.S. citizens," White House spokesman Sean Spicer told a press briefing.
An executive at the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank on Thursday pleaded not guilty to charges he violated U.S. sanctions against Iran in a politically charged case that has drawn the ire of Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager at Halkbank, entered his plea through his lawyer at a hearing in Manhattan federal court. The lawyer, Victor Rocco, said his firm also counts the Republic of Turkey as a client, adding another potential conflict of interest to be vetted by the court. U.S. prosecutors arrested Atilla last month, accusing him of conspiring with Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal transactions through U.S. banks on behalf of Iran's government and other entities in Iran. Zarrab, also present in court, submitted a not guilty plea to a superseding indictment. The dual national of Iran and Turkey had been arrested in 2013 in a corruption probe of people close to Erdogan, who was prime minister at the time.
Iran secured a contract with a third Western aircraft supplier on Thursday since the easing of sanctions by completing a deal to buy 20 regional turboprops from Europe's ATR, part of an effort to modernise the nation's creaking fleet. After months of talks that required navigating a way through separate U.S. sanctions and regulations still in place, ATR and Iranian officials said the contract with national carrier IranAir was signed in Tehran. Iran initially announced the signing on Monday, but ATR said at the time elements were still being finalised. The first plane in the deal may be dispatched in days from the ATR factory in Toulouse, France, where it has been sitting for months. It will be joined in coming weeks by three further aircraft already painted in IranAir colours. Jointly owned by Airbus and Italian company Leonardo, ATR said the deal was worth $536 million at list prices and included options for a further 20 aircraft. Commercial aircraft are typically sold at a discount.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the U.S. cruise missile strike on a Syrian airfield last week signaled to Iran that the United States is prepared to use force to protect American interests. In his first public remarks since taking over the intelligence agency, Pompeo also criticized the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, labeling the group a "hostile, non-government, intelligence service" and calling its founder, Julian Assange, a celebrity-seeking narcissist. On Iran, Pompeo linked last week's 59 Tomahawk missile salvo fired from a U.S. warship against an airfield in Syria where jets carrying chemical weapons took off prior to a recent nerve agent attack to Iran's compliance with an international nuclear accord.
A month before Iranians head to the polls for the presidential and council elections, a heated exchange between the judiciary and the Intelligence Ministry has highlighted the growing tension over social media between different political factions in the Islamic Republic. Several administrators of 12 reformist channels on the popular Telegram application who were arrested in March 2017 have found themselves at the center of the exchange. With an estimated 20 million users in Iran, Telegram is the country's leading social media app, according to a survey published by the Iranian Students Polling Agency in December 2015. Weeks passed with no one taking responsibility for the arrests of the admins, which were either carried out by the Intelligence Ministry, operating under President Hassan Rouhani, or the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which answers only to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
OPINION & ANALYSIS
The horrific pictures we have seen from the recent chemical weapons attack carried out by the Syrian regime on its own citizens speak thousands of words. Yet, we have been witness to these heartbreaking images for the past six years. This fact also raises thousands of questions. Maybe the most important one is this: Why has the enlightened world been silent on Syria? Whereas the US military strike on a Syrian air force base sent an important message to the Assad regime, that message will soon be forgotten unless it is reinforced with a clear demonstration of outrage in the west. Why are there no demonstrations in the streets of Europe or on American college campuses? Where are those who are so quick to organize protests against Israel (e.g. the BDS movement) when it comes to the war crimes of the Syrian regime?
When dealing with Iran, President Donald Trump aspires to make it clear that he does not adhere to the policy of his predecessor. On February 2, 2017 then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn put Iran "on notice" in reaction to an Iranian missile test and an attack on a Saudi warship by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. On the following day Trump tweeted, "Iran is playing with fire - they don't appreciate how 'kind' President Obama was to them. Not me!" "It's one of the worst deals ever made." This is how Trump repeatedly described President Barack Obama's hallmark foreign policy achievement - the nuclear deal with Iran. These statements indeed signal a major departure from Obama's approach to Iran. The Obama administration's chief objective was to reach a deal with Iran that would restrict its nuclear program and protect the deal after implementation starts.