In what could be an ill omen for the resumption of talks next week on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said on Wednesday that he had failed to convince Iran to replace key equipment needed to monitor its nuclear program. The agency is charged by the United Nations with monitoring nuclear activity among member states. Its inspectors and cameras have been the prime source of information about Iran’s atomic program, which many in the West believe is coming ever closer to having the know-how and material to fashion a nuclear weapon, despite Iran’s repeated insistence of peaceful intent.
Israeli officials are urging the White House not to strike a partial nuclear deal with Iran, warning it would be a gift to the new hard-line government in Tehran and stoking a growing public rift with the Biden administration over Iran’s nuclear program. Senior Israeli officials say they fear that Washington is setting the stage for a “less-for-less” deal that would offer Tehran partial sanctions relief in exchange for freezing or winding back parts of their nuclear work. The tension comes as nuclear talks are set to resume on Monday, with expectations low that the 2015 nuclear deal—which the Trump administration withdrew from—can be fully revived.
Iran and world powers will meet in Vienna on Monday to try to salvage their 2015 nuclear deal, but with Tehran sticking to its tough stance and Western powers increasingly frustrated, hopes of a breakthrough appear slim. Diplomats say time is running low to resurrect the pact, which then-U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018, angering Iran and dismaying the other powers involved - Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia. Six rounds of indirect talks were held between April and June. The new round begins after a hiatus triggered by the election of hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi in June as Iran's president.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Arms-control talks between Iran and the great powers resume Monday with a notable absence. At Tehran’s insistence, the U.S. delegation won’t have a seat at the table—its members must wait in an antechamber to be briefed by the Europeans. The mullahs have always relished humiliating Americans, particularly those eager to prove their benevolent intentions. These negotiations will yield little, no matter how much money Washington releases or how ardently Biden administration officials describe any follow-on talks as important steps toward a diplomatic solution.
Iranian security forces appear to have fired tear gas and pellet guns at protesters in the central city of Isfahan in what activists say is the most violent government crackdown on dissent in the Islamic republic since July. Video clips posted to social media and vetted by VOA Persian appear to show Iran's security forces using violent tactics to disperse hundreds of people who gathered Friday on the dry bed of Isfahan's Zayandehrud River to protest the government's handling of a water shortage crisis in the region … Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, the director of the Oslo, Norway-based group Iran Human Rights, and Jason Brodsky, the policy director of the U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, told VOA it was the most violent crackdown they had seen on protests in Iran since July.
… The group that tracks, warns and reports on these issues is a nonprofit called United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a U.S. organization with an international presence. Its directors and members include former ambassadors, senators and senior CIA officials. For some reason, Israel has only one representative on the board of directors: ex-Mossad chief Tamir Pardo. For years, the organization has been calling for a tightening of the economic and diplomatic siege against Iran while it continues its pursuit of achieving nuclear capability.
… By revealing details of the drone bases, Israel aimed to send a message that Iran is not just a nuclear issue, and that the Islamic Republic’s drone program presents a growing threat to regional security, according to Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI). “For months now, Gantz has been presenting a roadmap for the international community to more aggressively target Tehran’s drone infrastructure — specifically highlighting UAV bases in Kashan, Chabahar, and Qeshm Island,” Brodsky told The Algemeiner.
… Hamodia spoke with Daniel Roth, research director for United Against a Nuclear Iran, which has taken a skeptical view of the JCPOA since its inception. Iran has been seemingly stalling a return to the negotiating table in Vienna for several months. What motivated their delay? Firstly, they needed time for the pieces of the new government to fall into place. Ebrahim Raisi, who is now President, is an extreme hard-liner and is a potential successor to the Ayatollah. They’ve been taking their time to develop their own strategy and to determine under what conditions they want to go back to the JCPOA or if they want to go back at all.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The head of the United Nations atomic watchdog agency left Iran late Tuesday after failing to reach a deal to allow inspectors access to a factory making equipment for Tehran’s nuclear program, diplomats said Wednesday, casting a fresh shadow over international nuclear talks set for next week. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the factory, in Karaj, Iran, had resumed producing key parts for centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium, without any monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The diplomats said talks between the IAEA and Iran were continuing.
China is drawing a link between nuclear non-proliferation talks and a western submarine pact in the Pacific that it opposes, potentially adding another obstacle to the tortured process of reaching a deal with Iran. Beijing had already emerged as a linchpin to the success or failure of talks resuming Monday in Vienna on how to restore the 2015 nuclear accord between Tehran and world powers. The decision by China’s envoy at the International Atomic Energy Agency this week to elevate Beijing’s concerns over the so-called Aukus atomic submarine deal between the U.S., U.K. and Australia alongside international worries about Iran’s nuclear program suggests Chinese ambitions are growing.
The United States and its partners are likely to exert pressure on Iran if it uses talks scheduled to resume in Vienna on Monday as pretext to accelerate its nuclear programme, the U.S. special envoy to Iran said in an interview broadcast on Saturday. "If Iran thinks it can use this time to build more leverage and then come back and say they want something better it simply won't work. We and our partners won't go for it," envoy Robert Malley told BBC Sounds. Monday’s indirect talks between the United States and Iran, with the participation of major powers, resume after a five-month hiatus.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran wants the verifiable lifting of economic sanctions it is under, Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said on Friday, three days before nuclear talks resume in Vienna. Monday’s indirect talks between the United States and Iran, with the participation of major powers, aim at bringing the two countries into full compliance with a 2015 deal. Washington abandoned the accord in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran. “If the opposing sides are prepared to return to their full obligations and the lifting of sanctions, a good and even immediate agreement can be reached,” Amirabdollahian said in a telephone conversation with the European Union's foreign policy chief, Joseph Borrell.
An arbitration panel has ruled in favor of two Iranian banks in a financial dispute over the 2015 closing of a Bahraini financial institution accused of helping Iran skirt U.S. and U.N. economic sanctions. The Hague-based tribunal’s three arbitrators ordered the government of Bahrain to pay more than $270 million in compensation for losses and legal fees stemming from its decision to close Future Bank, an institution co-founded by Iranians and linked by Bahraini officials to money-laundering and other illicit practices.
Lebanon's Hezbollah leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said on Friday the group had spent more than $10 million on free and subsidized fuel sourced from Iran for the Lebanese people since September. In a televised address, Nasrallah said $2.6 million worth of fuel had been provided for free to Lebanese NGOs, municipalities, government hospitals and other organizations, while more than $7.5 million had been sold at subsidized rates. He said the program would go on for one more month and then end, and that those living above 500 meters altitude would be prioritized as the cold winter months approach.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
For two weeks the Iranian government tolerated growing protests over scarce water supplies in the central Iranian city of Isfahan, watching them grow as restaurants served demonstrators free soup and barbers offered free haircuts. State television even aired interviews with farmers discussing their grievances. But after the protests spilled over to at least one other city, the predictable happened on Friday: The government violently cracked down. Security forces wielding batons, shields and guns swarmed the city’s riverbed around 4 a.m. Thursday as a group of farmers were sipping tea and chatting about protest strategy around a campfire.
Police fired tear gas and birdshot while fighting protesters with batons on Friday in a central Iranian city that has seen days of demonstrations demanding government action over a drought, online videos show. The social media videos and others from activists show police and protesters clashing in the dry bed of the Zayandehrud River in the city of Isfahan. The videos correspond to reporting by The Associated Press and satellite images of the area, as well as some semiofficial Iranian news agency accounts of the unrest.
Iran executed a man who was charged with murder when he was 17 years old, state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported, ignoring a UN-backed campaign by rights groups calling on authorities to abide by international law and commute his death sentence. Arman Abdolali was a juvenile when he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to death for killing his girlfriend, Ghazaleh Shakoor, in 2014. According to IRNA, a retrial and numerous other efforts to secure support for a pardon from Shakoor’s family failed and Abdolali was hanged early Wednesday.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was among top U.S. officials who spoke at the Manama Dialogue last weekend about the U.S. commitment to stand up to Iran, but their words were met with skepticism. Why it matters: In the public sessions and in private conversations, many of the Arab and Israeli participants discussed the perception that the U.S. is leaving the region and not projecting sufficient power to deter Iran. Driving the news: Austin, Iran envoy Rob Malley and White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk sought to dispel that notion, stressing that the U.S. is willing to use other means if diplomacy with Iran fails, and it's not pulling away from the Middle East or abandoning its allies.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Little more than a month prior to the official end to the US “combat mission” in Iraq, an Iran-linked armed group has called for “volunteers” to fight any forces remaining post-midnight Dec. 31. A man known as Abu Ala al-Walai, commander of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), on Nov. 19 announced a call for volunteers to fight the “US occupation” should troops fail to leave. US President Joe Biden had in July announced after meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that US forces in Iraq would “continue to train, to assist, to help and to deal with” the Islamic State (IS), but that they would no longer be “by the end of the year in a combat mission.”
The spokesman for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s armed forces, Brig.-Gen. Abolfazl Shekarchi, on Saturday urged the total elimination of the Jewish state during an interview with an Iranian regime-controlled media outlet. "We will not back off from the annihilation of Israel, even one millimeter. We want to destroy Zionism in the world,” Shekarchi told the Iranian Students News Agency. Shekarchi’s genocidal antisemitic remarks come just days before the nuclear talks are set to restart in Vienna Monday on curbing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s illicit nuclear program. The United States and other world powers are seeking to provide Tehran with economic sanctions relief in exchange for temporary restrictions on its atomic program. Israel and other countries believe Iran's regime seeks to build a nuclear weapons device.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Iran is increasingly using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in its war with Middle East rivals. The threat is prompting grave concern among senior Israeli defense officials, which they have recently taken to airing in public quite often. Defense Minister Benny Gantz devoted his speech to the drone menace at a Reichman University security conference Nov. 23, revealing that Iran tried to deliver explosives in February 2018 from Syria to West Bank terrorists using a drone. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also referred to the issue in his September address to the UN General Assembly.
Millions of ordinary people in Iran and Israel recently found themselves caught in the crossfire of a cyberwar between their countries. In Tehran, a dentist drove around for hours in search of gasoline, waiting in long lines at four gas stations only to come away empty. In Tel Aviv, a well-known broadcaster panicked as the intimate details of his sex life, and those of hundreds of thousands of others stolen from an L.G.B.T.Q. dating site, were uploaded on social media. For years, Israel and Iran have engaged in a covert war, by land, sea, air and computer, but the targets have usually been military or government related.