The United States is unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to save the 2015 Iran nuclear deal unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage, the lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday. The official, U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, repeated the long-held U.S. position that the issue of the four people held in Iran is separate from the nuclear negotiations. He moved a step closer, however, to saying that their release was a precondition for a nuclear agreement. "They're separate and we're pursuing both of them. But I will say it is very hard for us to imagine getting back into the nuclear deal while four innocent Americans are being held hostage by Iran," Malley told Reuters in an interview.
South Korea said it paid $18 million of Iran’s dues to the United Nations with won funds frozen due to U.S. sanctions. The payment was made on Friday in cooperation with the U.S. and the U.N. after Iran earlier this month urgently asked South Korea to pay the dues, the finance ministry said in a statement Sunday. South Korea expects Iran to immediately regain its voting rights in the U.N. General Assembly.
The Biden administration on Friday issued sanctions targeting an international financial network benefiting Hezbollah, the Lebanese-based political and military group designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. The sanctions target three individuals and 10 companies that the administration says took part in actions to evade primary sanctions on Hezbollah to raise funds for the terrorist group through the international financial system. “These financial facilitators have helped Hizballah obtain funds through networks of companies that disguise themselves as legitimate businesses,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
UANI IN THE NEWS
… "Classification societies are faced with the challenge of keeping up with Iran's tactics in order to avoid facing sanctions themselves," Claire Jungman, chief of staff at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), said. Classification societies provide services such as checking that ships are seaworthy. UANI, the U.S. group, which monitors Iran-related tanker traffic through ship and satellite tracking, alerted ABS in December to what it said were transfers of Iranian oil involving several vessels, including the Panama-flagged Karo and the Belize-flagged Elsa, correspondence between the two groups seen by Reuters shows.
Advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) has released a satellite photo of two oil tankers during ship-to-ship transfer of Iranian crude reiterating calls for sanctioning them. UANI Chief of Staff Claire Jungman said on Saturday that after clouds cleared in the South China Sea they managed to spot the vessels that were transferring Iran’s crude oil east of Singapore. “TIFANI and VORAS, two vessels we've repeatedly called for sanctions on, are feeding vessels that are spoofing their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders”, she said in a tweet with the image. TIFANI is currently sailing under the flag of Tanzania and VORAS is Guyana-flagged and owned by Malaysia International Shipping Corporation Berhad.
… Advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) that tracks Iran-related tanker traffic through ship and satellite data, informed the American Bureau of Shipping about the breach of US sanctions in December. According to correspondence between the UANI and ABS seen by Reuters, several vessels were involved in the transfers of Iranian oil, including the Panama-flagged Karo owned by Hong Kong-based Delta Lines and the Belize-flagged Elsa owned by India-based Karo Shipping Services. The ABS, the only US firm among the top 12 ship classification societies that are mainly based in Europe and Asia, withdrew the cover for Elsa on December 17 and the Karo on January 13 because of their illicit transshipment operations with Iranian tankers. "Classification societies are faced with the challenge of keeping up with Iran's tactics in order to avoid facing sanctions themselves," said UANI Claire Jungman.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
As part of an effort to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran, Russia has discussed a possible interim agreement with Iran in recent weeks that would involve limited sanctions relief in return for reimposing some restrictions on Tehran’s nuclear program, according to two U.S. officials, one congressional official, one former U.S. official and four other people familiar with the discussions. The sources said the U.S. is aware of Russia’s proposal to Iran, which comes as concern grows within the Biden administration that time is running out on negotiations between Iran and world powers over a full return to the 2015 nuclear deal, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018, and Iran is reportedly closer than ever to attaining the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons.
Iran on Monday ruled out any U.S. preconditions for reviving a 2015 nuclear deal, including the release of American prisoners held by the Islamic Republic. "Iran has never accepted any preconditions by the United States... The U.S. official's comments on the release of U.S. prisoners in Iran is for domestic use," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a weekly news conference. The lead U.S. nuclear negotiator told Reuters on Sunday the United States was unlikely to strike an agreement with Iran to revive the nuclear pact unless Tehran released four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
A British-Iranian man imprisoned in Iran is to start a hunger strike on Sunday in support of a 77-year-old American who is protesting outside nuclear talks in Vienna against Iranian hostage taking. Anoosheh Ashoori, who is being held in Evin prison in Tehran, is staging the strike in an act of solidarity with Barry Rosen, who started his own four days ago. He told the Guardian he was humbled by the support, as well as other messages being sent to him by Iranians in jail. Anoosheh, who was arrested in August 2017, has been sentenced to 10 years in jail for espionage. Rosen is protesting in Vienna outside the talks about the Iran nuclear programme, where discussions resumed earlier this month.
In a five-minute trial a court in Iran has sentenced prominent political prisoner Narges Mohammadi to eight years in jail and 70 lashes, her husband announced. Mohammadi was arrested in Novemberlast year at the death anniversary ceremony of a victim shot dead by security forces during the November 2019 protests, reportedly while shopping. She has been to jail several times over the past two decades. She was freed from Evin Prison in September 2020 after serving more than five years when she had no contact with her husband and children for long periods of time. Persecution of human rights and political activists and execution have increased since hardliner president Ebrahim Raisi took office last August. Keyvan Samimi, another activist-turned-prisoner, was transferred from Evin late last week, and is being kept in quarantine in Karaj Central Prison.
Iranian demonstrators held rallies in front of the Steel Pension Fund in multiple cities amid deteriorating economic conditions in the country of over 83 million people. The London-based Iranian news organization Kayhan Life reported on the demonstrations unfolding in major cities such as Tehran, Isfahan and Rasht. The website posted videos of the protestors in the various cities under the headline: “Oppression is enough, steam & smoke has replaced food on our table." The retirees are seeking payments for their work service.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi defended his country’s nuclear activities as legal and renewed strong criticism against the American sanctions regime that has battered the Iranian economy. “We are not seeking a nuclear bomb, and it has no place in our defense strategy,” Raisi declared in a speech at Russia’s lower parliament Jan. 20, as he refenced a 2003 fatwa, or religious decree, issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in prohibition of atomic weapons. While expressing readiness for “maximum engagement” with the world, Raisi vowed “not to back off” in his fight against the US, which “seeks to violate our nation’s rights.” The Iranian president announced his government is serious about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, but only “if the other parties are also serious for a genuine and effective relief of sanctions.”
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
The United Arab Emirates intercepted two ballistic missiles targeting Abu Dhabi early Monday, its state-run news agency reported, the latest attack to target the Emirati capital. Defense officials said the missiles were fired by Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The attack on Abu Dhabi, after another last week killed three people and wounded six, further escalates tensions across the Persian Gulf as Yemen’s years-long civil war grinds on. That war, pitting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels against a Saudi-led coalition, has become a regional conflict as negotiations continue over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers. The collapse of the accord has sparked years of attacks across the region
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran’s oil minister urged people to reduce gas use as daily consumption hit a record high of 692 million cubic meters over the weekend, the ministry’s official newswire, Shana, reported. Domestic, commercial and non-essential industries hit the peak figure on Friday, Shana said, citing Oil Minister Javad Owji who advised consumers to wear warmer clothes and switch off heaters when not at home.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
An Iranian diplomat accused Israel of exploiting the suffering of Jews through a United Nations resolution condemning Holocaust denialism. Iran was the only nation to dissociate from the 193-member U.N. General Assembly's voteless adoption of the resolution Thursday, which was drafted jointly by Germany and Israel. The diplomat, whom Iran's office did not identify, said Israel was exploiting "the sufferings of the Jewish people in the past as a cover for the crimes it has perpetrated" and alleged that the resolution adopted "an awkward approach toward historical studies."
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers on Sunday tried to distance themselves from a protest staged by a pro-Iranian militant group that harshly attacked Saudi Arabia over its role in Yemen’s civil war. During Saturday’s demonstration by Islamic Jihad, dozens of protesters chanted “Death to the House of Saud” and waved posters of the leader of Yemen’s Houthi militia. Although Hamas did not participate in the protest, it tightly controls Gaza and authorizes all public gatherings. The protest threatened to embarrass Hamas, which already is largely isolated in the Arab world, and draw attention to its own ties to Iran. On Sunday, Hamas tried to contain the damage. “The shouts against Arab and Gulf states from our Palestinian arena don’t represent our position and policy,” it said.
The U.S. Navy has announced that it seized a ship carrying fertilizer used to make explosives as it traveled from Iran along a route previously used to smuggle weapons to Yemen's Huthi rebels. The navy said on January 23 it boarded and searched the ship, which last year was caught carrying thousands of weapons and handed to Yemen's coast guard, after intercepting it in international waters in the Gulf of Oman on January 18. A U.S. guided-missile destroyer and patrol ship "interdicted the stateless vessel transiting from Iran...along a route historically used to traffic weapons to the Huthis in Yemen," the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet said.
Iran on Saturday condemned recent airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Yemen, warning they make achieving peace in the war-torn country “more difficult.” The Saudi-led coalition has denied as “groundless” reports it carried out an airstrike on a prison in Yemen’s rebel-held north that aid groups said killed at least 70 people, including migrants, women and children. Saudi Arabia accuses regional rival Iran of providing military support to Yemen’s Houthi rebels, especially missiles and rockets, claims that Tehran denies.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Flights by a sanctioned Iranian airline affiliated to the Revolutionary Guard to Myanmar have raised speculation of secretive military-to-military cooperation. In an article published by Asia Times on Thursday, diplomatic sources based in Southeast Asia said the recent landings by planes owned by the Iranian cargo airline Qeshm Fars Air may have taken place to deliver weapons including guided missiles. The sources said an Iranian delegation that landed in Myanmar on January 13 was either the second or third to visit since the military seized power in a coup on February 1, 2021. According to data by flight tracker Flightradar24, a plane flew from Mashhad, Iran’s second-biggest city, to Myanmar last week and returned to Iran the following day.