As Iran struggles to contain one of the world's worst outbreaks of coronavirus, some are voicing concern that the regime could use the crisis as cover to advance its nuclear program or attempt to deflect attention away from the country's perceived dubious handling of the pandemic by ordering its proxies to wreak havoc across the Middle East.
The United States has allowed Russian, Chinese and European companies to continue their work at Iranian nuclear sites to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, the U.S. State Department said on Monday. Reuters earlier reported that the decision to renew waivers to sanctions that bar non-U.S. firms from dealing with Iran's Atomic Energy Organization was expected on Monday, citing four sources familiar with the matter including a U.S. official.
Iranian journalists have protested to the decision taken by a committee of Iran's Coronavirus Combat Taskforce which on Monday banned all print media. The ban will be in place as long as coronavirus-related restrictions are in effect. Continuation of publication of newspapers and other print media requires journalists, print workers and distribution agents to continue their activities which could potentially spread the disease, the committee said and suggested that the print media focus on online publication and social media in the absence of their printed versions.
UANI IN THE NEWS
...Now is not the time to relieve those sanctions, according to hawkish critics of the regime, who note that Iran has rejected humanitarian assistance that is allowed under the sanctions. Iran has even expelled a mission by Doctors Without Borders, a group that was positioned to alleviate the impact of the virus, baselessly accusing the group of espionage. "The Iranian government had the power to curtail the virus, but instead they ignored the situation, lied to their people and exacerbated the situation to weaken the resolve of the international community to robustly implement sanctions," David Ibsen, the president of United Against a Nuclear Iran, wrote in EuroNews. "Sanctions are not the villain in this regretful story."
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The US State Department said in a statement on Monday that Washington will renew its restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, describing Tehran's developments of its nuclear activity as "unacceptable." The waivers are renewed for 60 days, according to the statement. "As US President Trump said earlier this year, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon," said Morgan Ortagus, US State Department spokeswoman.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
European countries trying to keep Iran's nuclear deal with world powers alive said Tuesday that a system they set up to enable trade with Tehran has finally concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods. Britain, France and Germany conceived the complex barter-type system dubbed INSTEX, which aims to protect companies doing business with Iran from American sanctions, in January 2019. The move came months after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the nuclear deal that Tehran struck with world powers in 2015 and reimposed sanctions.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Last week, the family of Robert Levinson, an American citizen and retired FBI agent who has been missing in Iran since 2007, issued a statement saying they now believe that he died in Iranian custody. They based their statement on information provided by the U.S. government. After a relentless search for any clues to his whereabouts over the past 13 years, many questions still remain. The timing of the announcement - in the midst of a pandemic - raises even more.
Reza Khandan got the word from friends locked away in Iran's most feared prison, Evin. A prisoner and a guard in their cell block had been removed because they were suspected of having coronavirus, and two guards in the women's ward had shown symptoms. It was frightening news. Khandan's wife, Nasrin Sotoudeh, one of Iran's most prominent human rights lawyers, is imprisoned in that ward in close quarters with 20 other women.
Some of the 50,000 prisoners still incarcerated in Iran amid the coronavirus outbreak started a riot Monday, breaking cameras and causing other damage in two buildings that house violent criminals, state media reported. The chaos at the Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz is the latest in a series of violent prison disturbances across the country, which is battling the most severe coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
In the more than three months since it first was reported in China, the novel coronavirus has changed lives around the world dramatically. Its impact has stretched from micro-level social interactions to global functions, with many observers predicting it will effect lasting change on societies. Thus it is natural to question how it might influence the complicated rivalry between Iran and the United States. The conflict has been more or less static since the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani by the United States and the strike targeting Iraq's Ain al-Asad military base by Iran in response.
If we want to significantly reduce Iranian attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq, we will need to respond directly to Iran. And responding directly also offers another advantage: it mitigates new damage to our interests in Iraq. The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is preparing for an escalated campaign against an Iranian proxy group in Iraq, Kata'ib Hezbollah. That group is carrying out an escalating campaign of rocket attacks on U.S. military bases in Iraq. These Iranian-directed attacks have killed one American and wounded others.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran's death toll from coronavirus has reached 2,898, with 141 deaths in the past 24 hours, Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV on Tuesday, adding that the total number of infected cases has jumped to 44,606. "In the past 24 hours, there has been 3,111 new cases of infected people. Unfortunately, 3,703 of the infected people are in a critical condition," Jahanpur said
Iran is set to declare an "achievement" in fighting the novel coronavirus that will place it "at the top of the world rankings", the Islamic Republic Minister of Health claimed on Monday, March 30. Without any elaboration, Saeed Namaki reiterated that Iran had reached a "bright point" in containing the deadly virus and it will soon become the world's leading country in combatting Covid-19. A day earlier, the Islamic Republic President Hassan Rouhani had also boasted that, compared with the Covid-19 death toll in other countries, Iran has managed to limit its number of the coronavirus victims to an "admissible" level.
A video leaked from a meeting of the COVID-19 Control Task Force highlighted the power and influence of the economic conglomerate that operates under the aegis of the office of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. In the video President Hassan Rouhani tells state TV Chief Ali Asgari to air free of charge advertising for online retailers to encourage Iranians to stay home and do their shopping online.
More than 50 inmates are on the run in Iran following a prison break Sunday in which four guards were arrested, Iran's state news agency said. "Some prison guards were summoned and four of them were arrested and others released on bail," Mojtaba Shirouzbozorgi, a judicial official in Kurdistan province, told state-run IRNA. Of the 74 inmates who escaped the prison in the city of Saqqez on Friday, 20 have either turned themselves in or have been captured. The agency said the 54 escapees were nonviolent offenders serving one-year sentences.
TURKEY & IRAN
Iran said on Tuesday its natural gas exports to Turkey have stopped after an attack on a pipeline inside the neighbouring country, an Iranian official told state TV. "This morning, terrorists attacked a natural gas pipeline inside Turkey near Iran's Bazargan border with Turkey ...Flow of gas has been halted," said Mehdi Jamshidi-Dana, director of National Iranian Gas Co. "The pipeline has exploded several times in the past. It is also likely that the PKK group has carried out the blast," he told Iran's state news agency IRNA, referring to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party.