A senior US arms control official said on Tuesday that Iran's missile program is detribalizing the Middle East and raising the risk of a "regional arms race" through the provision of such weapons to armed groups in Lebanon and Yemen. US President Donald Trump said when he quit a landmark 2015 deal that lifted international sanctions against Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities that it failed to rein in Iran's missile program or curb its regional meddling.
A senior U.S. official says Washington is monitoring ships involved in clandestine transfers of Iranian oil and will hold anyone involved in such transfers responsible for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran. "We are closely tracking ship-to-ship transfers of [Iranian] oil to evade our oil sanctions," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Counter Threat Finance and Sanctions David Peyman in an exclusive interview with VOA Persian recently at the State Department.
Iran's Mahan Air has been forced to cancel its Paris flights over "sanctions", its customer services team said Tuesday weeks after Germany banned the airline. "We have been told that (flights to France) have been cancelled... as of the first of April," an operator at the airline's office in Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport told AFP.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Leading Republican senators are uniting against what they describe as a bid by some elements of the Trump administration to keep the Iran nuclear deal on life support via a package of waivers exempting Tehran and its allies from new sanctions spearheaded by President Donald Trump, according to multiple conversations with top congressional officials both on and off the record.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The United States is extending a waiver to let energy-hungry Iraq keep buying power from Iran, despite Washington's campaign of sanctions aimed at curbing Tehran, an official said. The State Department issued a second three-month exemption from Iran sanctions for Iraq, mindful not to destabilize the war-torn country increasingly reliant on Iranian gas and electricity to cope with chronic blackouts that have triggered unrest.
There has been yet another signal from Islamic Republic officials that Tehran does not pin high hopes on the trade mechanism offered by European powers to help Iran continue trade, despite U.S. sanctions. The spokesperson of Iran's foreign ministry, Bahram Ghasemi (Qassemi) told the local Young Journalists' Club website on March 19 "You should not have hopes for the trade mechanism to do miracles".
At least two tankers have ferried Iranian fuel oil to Asia in recent months despite U.S. sanctions against such shipments, according to a Reuters analysis of ship-tracking data and port information, as well as interviews with brokers and traders. The shipments were loaded onto tankers with documents showing the fuel oil was Iraqi. But three Iraqi oil industry sources and Prakash Vakkayil, a manager at United Arab Emirates (UAE) shipping services firm Yacht International Co, said the papers were forged.
Iran has sent 300,000 barrels of gas condensate for export from a new phase of South Pars, the world's largest gas field, Payam Motamed, operator of the South Pars phase 13 project, said on Tuesday, according to the ISNA news agency. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani formally inaugurated four new phases of South Pars on Sunday.
TERRORISM & EXTREMISM
An Iranian billionaire football club investor on trial for financial corruption is using the opportunity of the public proceeding to criticize the government. Business tycoon Hossein Hedayati insinuated in court March 18 that he had information relating to Iran's financing of militant groups in the region. "They have branded me as an economic troublemaker for receiving secured loans. I wish I could have talked about the Resistance Front and ISIS," Hedayati said during the hearing.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
An Iranian dissident has been sentenced to read three books and re-write them word by word after calling the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei a despot and demanding a national protest to end this rule. Abulfazl Ghadiani, 74, a founding member of the banned reformist Mujahedin of Islamic Revolution Organisation has already served several years behind bars for his fierce criticism of Iran's Supreme Leader, accusing him of "betraying the Islamic Revolution's ideals of freedom and justice through his thirst for power and dictatorial rule".
More than a dozen supporters of jailed Iranian rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh have gathered outside Iran's Embassy in Yerevan to call for her release. The protesters held placards reading slogans such as "We are standing for Nasrin" and "Nasrin, you are not alone," as they held their silent demonstration on March 19. Human rights activist Arman Gharibian, who was among the protesters, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service: "We cannot remain indifferent when this kind of repression against a human rights activist takes place in the neighboring country."
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Re-entry into the nuclear deal with Iran is fast becoming a litmus test for Democrats hoping to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. No fewer than five declared candidates have told Al-Monitor over the past few weeks that they would rejoin the deal without preconditions should they win the presidency - as long as Iran continues to live up to its end of the 2015 pact.
Top US diplomat Mike Pompeo sought Wednesday to bolster a united front against Iran during a Middle East tour that will include talks with key ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The US secretary of state kicked off his regional tour in Kuwait where he met Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah on the first stop of a trip that will also take him to Israel and Lebanon.
The US Central Command is hosting a two-day meeting for defence chiefs of GCC nations, and Egypt and Jordan, to try to improve defence co-ordination and counter Iran. The meetings in Tampa, Florida, brought together eight chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff from the attending states and the US, and a defence representative from the GCC.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
A right-wing student group in Iran has called on the country's new Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raeesi (Raeisi) to indict his predecessor and another senior politician for being involved in a "land grab" case in the lavish Lavasan area north of Tehran. The group has asked the Judiciary to hand Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani and former Parliament Speaker and ex-Chief Inspector of Khamenei's office, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Nateq Nouri, maximum sentence in case they are convicted.
Iran's many woes briefly went up in smoke as Iranians observed a nearly 4,000-year-old Persian tradition known as the Festival of Fire. The celebration is held on the last Tuesday night before Nowruz, or the Iranian New Year, which will be celebrated Thursday. The annual ritual dates back to at least 1700 B.C. and is linked to the Zoroastrian religion. To celebrate, people light bonfires, set off fireworks and send wish lanterns floating off into the night sky.
"[Chaharshanbeh Soori] not only lacks a religious basis, it also brings about harm and misdeed. It is advised that [the rituals] be refrained from." That's the text of a fatwa published by the official website of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in response to a religious query about Chaharshanbeh Soori, the ancient Iranian Festival of Fire held on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz, the start of the Iranian New Year."
Millions of Iranian viewers had to spend a Monday night without "90," a wildly popular soccer show hosted by Adel Ferdowsipour, who is widely believed to have kept Iranians tuned to a national broadcaster that has been grappling with a serious audience crisis. Ferdowsipour's debate-oriented program was starkly different from conventional Iranian TV shows, breaking away from common clichés and formalities.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
The Israeli elections are well underway and the Iranian issue is taking a central part in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's electoral campaign. Putting Iran on the agenda helps the prime minister maintain a never-ending security tension. Thus, the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has become a regular feature in Netanyahu's speeches against his political rivals.
At least two Lebanese assistants to a Syrian businessman with close ties to Syrian President Bashar Assad were arrested late Monday in Kuwait over alleged ties to Hezbollah.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed hope that President Michael Aoun will distance himself from his ally, Hezbollah, according to a statement from the State Department Tuesday.
GULF STATES, YEMEN & IRAN
A senior Houthi rebel leader in Yemen said Tuesday that his group will not give up the key port city of Hodeida, the focus of months of U.N.-brokered talks with the government. Mohammed Ali al-Houthi, the head of the rebels' Supreme Revolutionary Committees, accused his rivals from the internationally-recognized government of misinterpreting the deal. He says the Houthis have agreed to withdraw their forces but will remain in control. He said the Saudi-backed government "couldn't get (the port) by force and they won't seize it by tricks."
The Yemeni Army has revealed that Houthi militias managed this week to smuggle ballistic missiles and heavy artillery to Hodeidah from the northern side of the Red Sea city. "The missiles and artillery, which have been sent by Iran, have entered through the ports of Saleef and Ras Issa," the Army said. It said the militias disassembled the weapons before transferring them to the two ports.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Morocco's parliament Speaker Habib el-Malki revealed that Iran's disregard of the regulations of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) led to its failure to attend the 14th session of Parliamentary Union of OIC Member States (PUIC), which was held in Rabat on March 10-14. Speaking at a press conference to present the outcomes of the meeting, Malki, who was elected the President of the PUIC, explained: "Iran did not respect the rules in force in order to take part in the meeting."