Iran has informed the U.N. nuclear watchdog it plans to install more of its advanced IR-2m centrifuges at an underground uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, a report by the agency on Wednesday said, which would deepen a breach of Iran’s nuclear deal. “Iran indicated it plans to install two additional cascades of 174 IR-2m centrifuges at FEP to enrich ... up to 5% U-235. This will bring the total number of cascades of IR-2m centrifuges either planned, being installed, or operating in FEP to six,” the International Atomic Energy Agency said in a report to member states obtained by Reuters.
The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog will travel to Iran this weekend in an effort to find a “mutually agreeable solution” that allows it to continue its inspections in the country, the organization said Wednesday. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel pressed Iran’s president for “positive signals” that would help resolve a diplomatic standoff over the future of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, her office said. The International Atomic Energy Agency said that Director General Rafael Grossi will visit Tehran on Saturday for discussions with senior Iranian officials, whom it did not identify.
President Joe Biden's administration is mulling retaliation after Tuesday's deadly rocket attack on a northern Iraqi air base hosting American troops, perpetrated by an Iranian-linked militia group that American and Iraqi officials reportedly believe received a green light from Tehran. One civilian contractor died in the rocket attack, while an American soldier and several American contractors were wounded. The strike destroyed an accommodation area near the Erbil International Airport, a major base in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has intensified contacts with his counterparts in the 15 member states of the Security Council, as part of extensive efforts to restore Iran’s “full compliance” with its obligations under the nuclear agreement. A Western diplomat told Asharq Al-Awsat that the US administration was racing against time with the approaching Feb. 21 deadline set by Iranian legislation, which allows Tehran to stop its voluntary implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
John Bolton, former US President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, said on Wednesday that while a return to the Iran nuclear deal appears to be a priority for the Biden administration, he doubts the sincerity of Tehran’s promises not to pursue the development of nuclear weapons. In an exclusive interview with Arab News he said he supports the inclusion of Arab Gulf states in any negotiations relating to Iran’s nuclear program, describing it as a “positive idea.”
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
A U.S. judge found no proof that federal prosecutors in Manhattan knowingly withheld key evidence from lawyers for a banker charged with Iran sanctions violations, even as she excoriated the government for mishandling the case. In an order on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan urged the Department of Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility to investigate any prosecutorial misconduct in the case against the banker, Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Amnesty International has denounced the “gruesome” treatment of people in Iran’s justice system after an inmate was sentenced to 60 lashes after a peaceful hunger strike, and had a sentence of amputation upheld despite confessing to a crime under torture. Hadi Rostami, who was convicted of robbery in 2019 after his confession, has attempted suicide twice while in Urumieh prison, according to Amnesty, leading to his sentence being extended by eight months and causing him to receive the lashes.
Activists on Wednesday expressed alarm that an Iranian “prisoner of conscience” jailed over a protest by a religious sect in 2018 had been hospitalized in a critical condition, alleging that his health had been weakened by torture. Behnam Mahjoubi, a member of the Gonabadi Dervishes, Iran’s largest Sufi order, was convicted after taking part in a demonstration they held in February 2018, and began serving his two-year sentence last June.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone Wednesday after a month of silence that raised concerns in Israel about a frostier relationship between the two allies. Netanyahu’s office was first to announce the conversation, releasing a photo of a smiling prime minister holding a phone to his ear. The statement said the conversation was “warm and friendly” and lasted about an hour. “We had a good conversation,” Biden said during a brief exchange with reporters before the start of an Oval Office meeting with labor leaders.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran says one of its Covid-19 vaccines has been found to give complete protection against the British variant of the virus in human trials. The COVIran Barakat vaccine, which has completed the first phase of clinical trials, is “100% effective” against the highly contagious strain, the Tasnim news agency reported, citing Mohammad Mokhber, head of the state-run foundation overseeing production of domestic shots. Officials have said the vaccine should be approved for public use by the summer.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israel is currently preparing for a widespread cyber attack by Iran, given the fear that the Islamic Republic will try to poison the drinking water, Ynet reported. In an emergency discussion held earlier this week, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz stated that the water system is still not properly protected from cyber attacks, according to Ynet. Following the meeting, Steinitz issued an urgent directive to the Water Authority to take immediate action to raise its level of preparedness, Ynet reported.
IRAQ & IRAN
More than a dozen rockets fell on Erbil and the international airport Monday, killing one person and injuring six US servicemen, in the most recent attack launched by Iran-backed factions against US forces. Half a dozen of the rockets targeted residential areas, wounding four civilians. The Sec-Gen of the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs Jabar Yawar said that the operation was carried out using 108 mm rockets with a range of no more than 8 kilometers.