Iran’s capital and major cities plunged into darkness in recent weeks as rolling outages left millions without electricity for hours. Traffic lights died. Offices went dark. Online classes stopped. With toxic smog blanketing Tehran skies and the country buckling under the pandemic and other mounting crises, social media has been rife with speculation. Soon, fingers pointed at an unlikely culprit: Bitcoin. Within days, as frustration spread among residents, the government launched a wide-ranging crackdown on Bitcoin processing centers, which require immense amounts of electricity to power their specialized computers and to keep them cool — a burden on Iran’s power grid.
The Twitter account of Iran’s Supreme Leader on Friday carried the image of a golfer resembling former President Donald Trump apparently being targeted by a drone, vowing revenge over the killing of a top Iranian general in a U.S. drone attack. The post carried the text of remarks by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in December, in which he said “Revenge is certain”, renewing a vow of vengeance ahead of the first anniversary of the killing of top military commander General Qassem Soleimani in the attack in Iraq. “Those who ordered the murder of General Soleimani as well as those who carried this out should be punished.
Iran has started ramping up its oil production and expects to reach pre-sanctions levels in one to two months, said Deputy Oil Minister Amir Hossein Zamaninia. The oil market will be able to accommodate Iran’s maximum oil output of around 3.9 million to 4 million barrels a day, Zamaninia told reporters on the sidelines of an oil conference in Tehran on Friday. He declined to specify the current level of Iran’s oil exports, but said the numbers were “much better than many assume.”
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The French foreign minister on Thursday called for Iran to immediately return to its commitments under an international deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear program. Jean-Yves Le Drian’s comments came as European powers are waiting to see what steps Joe Biden, the new US president, would take to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehension Plan of Action (JCPOA) after Donald Trump withdrew the US from the accord. Europe wants to save the deal but many in the Arabian Gulf and the West say it empowered Iran to pursue its aggressive foreign policy in the region unchecked.
Proponents of the Iran nuclear agreement are sounding the alarm. In 2018, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and since then, Iran has increased the quality and quantity of its uranium enrichment well beyond what the deal allows. Recently, it has even begun enriching uranium to 20 percent, a short distance away from weapons-grade. Iran, JCPOA advocates say, is closer today to producing a bomb than it was in 2015, when the deal was concluded. Only the deal’s renewal, they insist, can prevent the nightmare of a nuclear Iran.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The new U.S. administration’s plans for large fiscal spending and little urgency to lift sanctions on Iran are constructive for oil and gas prices, Goldman Sachs said on Thursday. “On our estimates, a $2 trillion stimulus over 2021-22 would... boost U.S. demand by about 200,000 barrels per day,” the bank said in a note. U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package aims to jump-start the economy and accelerate vaccines distribution to control COVID-19, which has hammered global oil demand.
Leaders in the Middle East threw their weight behind the “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, just days before U.S. President Joe Biden took office this week. The United Arab Emirates said it was “absolutely” in favor of continuing to pressure Iran — a policy by the Trump administration aimed at forcing the regime to halt its nuclear activities and cut off support for militants in the Middle East. Israel’s energy minister said the campaign has been “very productive,” while the deputy mayor of Jerusalem said it is the “only thing” that will work.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei surprisingly ordered all factions of Iraqi armed groups to stop attacking US interests in Iraq late last year. A senior commander of an Iranian-backed armed group involved in such attacks told Middle East Eye: “Khamenei’s orders were straightforward and clear. All attacks targeting US interests in Iraq must stop.” This was not a strategic shift but a tactical one. The regime was fearful that the Trump administration would attack Iran if US entities were targeted.
President Joe Biden has done a good job so far of calming the anxieties of allies that the U.S. will rush into negotiations to re-enter the flawed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. Appointing Robert Malley as special envoy to Iran could change that. On Iran, other Biden advisers have been reassuring. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that it was “really up to Iran” whether the U.S. would re-enter the deal, meaning Iran must be in compliance with it before the U.S. lifts sanctions.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Alireza Zali, the head of Tehran’s anti-coronavirus task force, warned Thursday that the country was heading toward a fourth wave of the coronavirus. According to Zali, a number of alarming trends have occurred over the last week, including new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Zali warned that if these trends continue, Iran would experience its fourth wave by early February. Iran recently experienced a third wave that saw daily deaths rise into the mid 300s; that number has since dropped. In the last 24 hours, there have been 93 deaths.
Perhaps to divert attention from here and now problems. such as the ravages caused by the Civid-19 pandemic, economic meltdown, hyperinflation and rampant corruption, Tehran’s ruling elite have decided to give an early start to a presidential election expected to be held next June. The main tune played by the official media is that the election this time is going to be the final showdown between the “reformist” and “principalist” factions that have provided an Islamist version of the Punch-and-Judy show as a sign of democracy in the Islamic Republic.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Military sources in Tel Aviv revealed that the Israeli army sent a number of submarines, warships and forces from the Naval Commando unit to the Red Sea, raising alert level over possible Iranian move to avenge the assassinations of Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The Walla Hebrew-language News Agency reported on Wednesday that the Israeli army has placed a number of military units on high alert, including forces from the submarine fleet and the 13th Squadron.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
A Colombian businessman was carrying a letter from Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro accrediting him to Iran’s supreme leader when he was arrested on a U.S. warrant last year, according to a new court filing in a politically charged corruption case ratcheting up tensions with the South American nation. Attorneys for Alex Saab made the filing in Miami federal court Thursday just hours after prosecutors in the African nation of Cape Verde said they granted the 49-year-old Colombian house arrest as he fights extradition to the U.S. to face money laundering charges.
In the wake of the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Twitter and Facebook suspended President Donald Trump from their platforms — only temporarily, at first. Facebook subsequently said its ban would apply “indefinitely,” while Twitter made Trump’s exile permanent. As the reason for its action, Twitter cited “the risk of further incitement of violence.” Many Iranian human rights activists have often wondered why Twitter and other social media organizations take so little action against the Islamic republic’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other government officials.