Iran's Ministry of Defense unit responsible for developing nuclear weapons is poised to restart work and is using front companies to buy materials from Russia and China that could be used to reactivate its banned bomb program, U.S. officials alleged Friday. The Trump administration leveled the charges as the Treasury and State Departments sanctioned more than two dozen Iranian officials, scientists and alleged front companies connected to the Tehran-based Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research, or SPND, as it is known by its Farsi initials.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday urged Lebanon to pick a side as he visited the country on a regional tour to build a united front against Iran. He especially expressed concern over the role of Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shiite movement that is targeted by US sanctions but holds three cabinet posts in Lebanon. Pompeo flew in from Israel a day after he became the first high-ranking American official to visit the Western Wall with an Israeli prime minister.
The United States clinched a strategic port deal with Oman on Sunday which U.S. officials say will allow the U.S. military better access the Gulf region and reduce the need to send ships through the Strait of Hormuz, a maritime choke point off Iran. The U.S. embassy in Oman said in a statement that the agreement governed U.S. access to facilities and ports in Duqm as well as in Salalah and "reaffirms the commitment of both countries to promoting mutual security goals."
UANI IN THE NEWS
As US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo finished visits to Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon, full alignment with Israel raised questions about the US strategies in the Middle East, including uncertainties about its ability to mobilise a solid Arab alliance against Iran. "There are a lot of dynamics at play for this particular trip and this juncture but we're seeing some incredible precedent-setting here," said Jason Brodsky, policy director for United Against Nuclear Iran, a Washington think-tank.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Israel's Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, on Sunday castigated those calling for the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal after several Democratic 2020 candidates promised to do so if elected. Such a move, he said, would mean giving "hundreds of billions of dollars to people who are committed to Israel's destruction."
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Since the announcement of its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal in May last year, the United States has sought to tighten the grip on Tehran's sources of income to prevent it from spending on its hostile activities and financing terrorism in the region. The administration is currently considering listing Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and its Quds Force as terrorist organizations, but there are fears that such a move would affect US forces in Iraq.
France has banned flights in and out of the country by Iran's Mahan Air, accusing it of transporting military equipment and personnel to Syria and other Middle East war zones, diplomats said on Monday, after heavy U.S. pressure on Paris to act. The decision to revoke Mahan's license to operate in France was made after Germany banned the airline in January.
Turkey plans to increase imports of Iran's natural gas, a senior Iranian official told the country's state news agency IRNA on Monday. "Turkey has requested to purchase more Iranian natural gas from Iran," the head of Iran's National Gas Company (IGC), Hassan Montazer Torbati, told IRNA. "Based on previous agreements, Iran is currently increasing gas exports to a number of countries including Turkey, Iraq, Armenia and Azerbaijan," he said.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has extended the mandate of its special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran for another year. During a session on March 22, the representatives of 22 governments voted for and seven (Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Eritrea, India, Iraq, and Pakistan) voted against a resolution for the extension of Javaid Rehman's mandate, while 18 abstained.
Two days after the renewal of U.N, Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Iran, the Islamic Republic has harshly criticized the decision and announced Iran as the "largest and the most developed democracy in West Asia and the world". In a statement issued by Human Rights Staff of The Islamic Republic on March 24 said the renewal of the Special Rapporteur's mandate was "unjustified and illegal action and a result of political trickery".
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The U.S. signed an agreement with Oman that gives its navy access to two Arabian Sea ports, allowing American warships and aircraft carriers greater control over a strategic international waterway threatened by nearby Iran. The Omani ports of Duqm and Salalah are located just outside the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow outlet through which about a fifth of the world's oil trade exits the Persian Gulf. Tehran has often said it would block the channel in retaliation for U.S. sanctions that are hurting its economy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview with MTV news channel Saturday that his country was prepared to use all the "peaceful tools" available, including imposing more sanctions, to curb the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Trump administration is divided over how far to pressure Iran with its sanctions campaign, as it weighs options that could bolster imports of medicine to Iran and permit some foreign governments to keep buying Iranian oil, according to former officials, congressional aides and sources close to the White House. Republican hard-liners in Congress, including Sens. Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, are pushing the White House to make good on President Donald Trump's vows to place "maximum pressure" on Iran's economy.
Quite suddenly, Iran is emerging as a 2020 election issue. In an already-crowded field of contenders for the Democratic nomination for president, the question of Iran - and specifically, how best to address the country's persistent nuclear ambitions - is steadily rising in prominence. With more and more candidates dipping their toes into the Democratic presidential race, advocacy groups supportive of President Obama's 2015 nuclear deal with Iran - and hostile to the Trump administration's decision to reimpose economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic - are ramping up their lobbying efforts.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon to counter Iranian influence in the region but Washington's move to pressure Tehran faces many challenges. In Kuwait, Pompeo called for an end to the rift between Arab Gulf countries so they could forge a united front against threats of the region. "We all have the same set of threats, the threats from al-Qaeda and from [the Islamic State], the threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran," said Pompeo at a news conference with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Four Iranian border guards rescued by Pakistani security forces after they were abducted by militants have returned to Tehran, state media report. State television showed a video of the border guards on March 22 stepping off a transport plane to a hero's welcome. Their commander, Brigadier-General Mohammad Pakpour, who heads Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), greeted the guards.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
A former political prisoner and a reformist politician has suggested to combine the positions of Supreme Leader and the president of the Islamic republic into one executive power, elected by the people and subject to term limits. Mostafa Tajzadeh in a video released on Twitter March 22, proposed the idea as a response to some Iranian conservatives who have been suggesting in recent weeks to replace the presidency with a parliamentary system.
Iran's Deputy Attorney General has announced that raising funds by celebrities to help victims of floods in Iran "is banned" and he warned that any bank account opened for this purpose will be closed. Javid Javidnia told the Judiciary's online news service March 24 that so far 60 accounts have been opened and some of them have already been closed. He also told another news site that any crowd funding by individuals and organizations must be done through the Red Crescent Society or the official Aid Committee.
IRANIAN REGIONAL AGGRESSION
A rare meeting took place in Damascus when the military chiefs of Syria, Iraq and Iran convened there. The meeting and an announcement that a border crossing between Iraq and Syria would be reopened are signs of Iran's continued influence in the region. Iranian Chief of Staff General Mohammad Bagheri said "terrorism poses a threat to all of us," stressing the need to coordinate efforts to combat it.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Iran said on Sunday it would expand its ties with Lebanon in spite of the "provocative and interventionist" call by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for Beirut to choose sides, Iranian state television reported. On a regional tour to drum up support for Washington's harder line against Tehran, Pompeo said on Friday that Lebanon faced a choice - "Bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future".
The top foreign affairs adviser to Iran's supreme leader on Sunday slammed the Trump administration's recognition of Israeli claims to the Golan Heights as an election ploy intended to support the reelection campaign of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump tweeted Thursday that it was "time for the United States to fully recognize Israel's Sovereignty over the Golan Heights," reversing decades of US policy on the matter.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed on Saturday the imposition by Washington of new sanctions on Iran, announced a day prior. In a press statement, Netanyahu congratulated US President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton on the move, which imposes punitive measures on the heads of Iran's military nuclear program.
An Iranian cleric has confirmed rumours that the country's government hacked the phones of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's family. Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, who is custodian of the shrine in Mashhad, said Iran had 'accessed all information' on Netanyahu's wife Sara and 27-year-old son Yair's mobiles. 'In the past few days, Iran's cyber-attacks have resulted in hacking the mobile telephone of a candidate in Israeli elections and access to all the information,' said Alamolhoda, according to the Jerusalem Post.
The rocket came down at 05:25 local time (03:25 GMT) in Mishmeret, 20km (12 miles) north of the city of Tel Aviv. This is the furthest a Palestinian rocket has reached in Israel since the 2014 conflict with militants in Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is cutting short a trip to the US over the incident, has vowed to respond with force.
The young tea and coffee vendor from northern Gaza said he was not asking for much. He just wanted to get by. So the vendor, Amir Abu Oun, 19, joined the peaceful protests in the Jabaliya refugee camp this month against the daily hardships in the impoverished Palestinian coastal enclave.
GULF STATES, YEMEN & IRAN
Representatives from the Iran-backed Houthi militias have once again paralyzed a meeting for the UN Redeployment Coordination Committee (RCC) tasked with observing and supporting the implementation of the Stockholm Agreement on the Yemeni Red Sea port city of Hodeidah.
The Global Union of Yemeni Communities and other rights groups protested in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva against Houthi atrocities being committed against civilians in the district of Hajour. Protesters on Saturday said they wanted to draw international attention to the situation across Yemen and called on the international community to apply further pressure on the Houthis by imposing sanctions to deter the Iranian-backed militant group.