Iran responded Wednesday to the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by enacting a law ordering an immediate ramping up of its enrichment of uranium to levels closer to weapons-grade fuel. The measure also requires the expulsion of international nuclear inspectors if American sanctions are not lifted by early February, posing a direct challenge to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. It was not clear whether the action was the totality of the Iranian response to the killing of the scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, whom American and Israeli intelligence agencies regarded as the guiding force of past efforts by Tehran to design a nuclear weapon, or whether more was to come. Iranian officials have vowed to avenge his killing.
Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah plans to move to Iran and may have already made the move, an informed source told the Kuwaiti Al-Jarida newspaper on Wednesday. The source told the paper that intelligence services in Lebanon and neighboring countries have monitored extensive, encrypted communications between the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah concerning the move. Nasrallah is meant to stay in Tehran for an indefinite amount of time and it is unclear when exactly he will return to Lebanon.
Iran has sent arms and dispatched paramilitary operatives to help Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro maintain his hold on power, the top U.S. military commander for Central and South America said Wednesday. “We see a growing Iranian influence in there,” Adm. Craig Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters, citing the “alarming and concerning” presence of military personnel from the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran has used the force to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other foreign allies and proxies.
UANI IN THE NEWS
…Kredo reported that Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, a watchdog group that tracks Tehran’s nuclear progress, said the nuclear deal has not deescalated tension in the region. “The argument that the JCPOA deescalates tensions in the region is fundamentally untrue,” Brodsky told the Washington Free Beacon. “The experience of the JCPOA has shown that nuclear-related sanctions relief today risks non-nuclear destabilization tomorrow.” Since the deal was inked, Iran has sent troops to several Middle Eastern nations and armed the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
As the dust settles following the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last Friday, the international community is once again forced to confront the troubling question of where does Iran currently stand when it comes to nuclear ambitions. After its program was officially shuttered due to international pressure in 2003, Tehran has repeatedly denied that its atomic aspirations have been covertly revived.
TERRORISM & EXTREMISM
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could designate the Houthi militia as a terrorist organization this week, Al-Arabiya TV reported, citing the Washington Post. US National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien said earlier that the US had options to deal with the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. O’Brien added that Washington has been constantly studying this decision, calling on the militia to stay away from Iran and stop attacking neighboring countries.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
A Swedish-Iranian scientist facing execution in Iran for espionage on Wednesday has been granted a reprieve, his lawyer has said. Ahmadreza Djalali was not been transferred out of Evin prison in Tehran to Raja’i Shahr jail as expected on Tuesday night, his lawyer said, which would have been a prelude to his killing. It was not immediately clear if the reprieve was temporary or arose from the intense public and diplomatic pressure placed on the Iranian authorities to re-examine his case.
Iran has launched a media misinformation campaign to justify its claim that the freed academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert was a spy, accusing her of coordinating with a former Bahraini MP to steal secrets for Israel. A state-run TV outlet this week ran a nearly 10-minute segment on the Australian-British academic that featured several images purporting to show Moore-Gilbert travelling, on her wedding day and with friends and family, in the fullest airing so far of Tehran’s justification for imprisoning her on espionage charges.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The US is temporarily withdrawing some staff from the US Embassy in Baghdad amid concerns of retaliation around the anniversary of the death of a powerful Iranian military commander, according to three sources familiar with the decision. One US official said the drawdown would take place in the lead-up to the January 3 anniversary of the US' killing of Iranian Gen. Qasem Soleimani due to concerns about retaliation. A source familiar echoed this and said the decision to have a partial, temporary withdrawal was determined at a Tuesday meeting of the National Security Council's Policy Coordination Committee.
In one of its final attempts at Middle East diplomacy, the Trump administration is pushing for an agreement that would ease a blockade against Qatar. But the mission may be more about delivering a last blow to Iran’s economy before President Trump leaves office. Meeting on Wednesday with Qatari leaders, Jared Kushner, a senior presidential adviser, and other White House officials raised the prospect of rerouting commercial flights from the Persian Gulf country through Saudi Arabia’s airspace instead of over Iran, according to a diplomat with knowledge of the discussions.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Just days after the high-profile killing of Iranian nuclear general Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, another Iranian officer was killed in the far-off desert sands between Iraq and Syria. He was supposedly killed sometime in the evening between Saturday and Sunday, November 28-29. The report appeared at Reuters and other media outlets. He was alleged to have been involved in procurement of weapons. Several others may have also been killed.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israel received its most advanced warship on Wednesday, describing the German-made vessel dubbed “Shield” as a bulwark for vulnerable Mediterranean gas rigs as tensions with Tehran soar over the assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist. The Saar-6 corvette that docked in Haifa port, and three of the same model to follow next year, will bring to 15 the number of missile boats deployed by an Israeli navy which, while small, carries out missions as far away as the Red Sea and the Gulf. Israel also wants to protect off-shore natural gas fields close to Lebanon, an old foe with which it has held so far fruitless U.S.-mediated maritime border talks.
IRAQ & IRAN
In a quest to root out Islamic State group hideouts over the summer, Iraqi forces on the ground cleared nearly 90 villages across a notoriously unruly northern province. But the much-touted operation still relied heavily on U.S. intelligence, coalition flights and planning assistance. While the planned U.S. troop drawdown in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500 by mid-January is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the campaign against IS remnants, there are concerns that further withdrawals could set the stage for another resurgence of the extremist group.