Iran rejected a European Union offer to hold direct nuclear talks with the U.S. in the coming days, risking renewed tension between Tehran and Western capitals. Senior Western diplomats said Iran’s response doesn’t quash the Biden administration’s hopes of reviving diplomatic efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, struck between Iran and six world powers and abandoned by the Trump administration in 2018. But they said it seemed to set a deadlock: Iran wants a guarantee it wouldn’t walk away from a meeting with the U.S. without some sanctions relief, which Washington has so far ruled out.
Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday his “initial assessment” was that Iran was responsible for an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. The ship, a vehicle-carrier named MV Helios Ray, suffered an explosion between Thursday and Friday morning. A U.S. defence official in Washington said the blast left holes above the waterline in both sides of the hull. The cause was not immediately clear and no casualties were reported. “Iran is looking to hit Israeli infrastructure and Israeli citizens,” Gantz told the public broadcaster Kan.
Senior Republican senators called on President Joe Biden to keep the U.S. out of the nuclear deal with Iran, joining some Democrats who’ve voiced reservations about the agreement. The agreement, signed in 2015 by Iran and six world powers including the U.S., “remains riddled with problems” and sets timelines for restrictions on Iranian nuclear activities that “were far too short in the original deal and are unrealistic now,” five GOP lawmakers said in a letter to Biden released on Sunday.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran on Sunday rejected an offer to negotiate directly with the United States in an informal meeting proposed by Europeans to revive the nuclear deal that President Donald J. Trump exited nearly three years ago. A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said recent actions taken by Washington and Europeans had led Iran to conclude that the “time was not right” to hold such talks. His remarks came days after President Biden ordered retaliatory strikes against Iranian-backed militias in eastern Syria that were tied to recent attacks against American and allied personnel in Iraq.
Iran threatened to call off the deal it recently reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if the UN nuclear watchdog backs a US-sponsored initiative to condemn Tehran’s recent nuclear violations, Reuters reports. The United States and Iran are at odds over who should make the first move to restart diplomacy over the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). President Joe Biden says the United States will reenter the agreement only if Iran resumes full compliance under the deal.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Saturday that the Biden administration's moves to drop a sanctions push on Iran and revoke a terrorist declaration on Iran-backed Houthis were precursors to re-entering what he described as the "crazy, crappy" 2015 nuclear deal. Pompeo spoke to Fox News on the sidelines of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), and was asked about the recent announcement by the Biden administration that it will drop a Trump-era push to "snapback" U.N. sanctions -- including an expiring arms embargo -- on the regime in Tehran.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
State Department spokesman Ned Price has said the US and its allies could have a diplomatic framework that provides "limited sanctions relief" on Iran in return for verifiable and permanent restrictions on its nuclear program. He said that maximum pressure was supposed to result in a better deal with Iran, to cow Tehran and its proxies, in addition to isolate Tehran from the rest of the world and to leave America’s interests in a better position. “In fact, every single one of those, the opposite has been true,” Price said in a press briefing last Thursday.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran is investigating the fatal shootings of at least two Iranians this week at the border with Pakistan, and Islamabad has handed over the body of one of the victims, the Iranian foreign ministry said on Friday. Monday’s shooting of at least two people carrying fuel across the border led to protests that spread across the southeastern Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchestan. Iran said the shooting occurred in Pakistan, but Pakistani border officials said protests broke out after Iranian forces fired at people involved in the illegal Iranian fuel trade.
Iran's Alpine ski coach, Samira Zargari, couldn't join her team for the world championships in Italy last week. The reason? Her husband barred her from leaving the country. The reaction on social media was swift, and many Iranians vented their fury by demanding the government change the law to give women back their right to travel internationally, along with other rights stripped away after they're married.
After almost a decade in the making, Iran may finally be on track to pass legislation that, while far from perfect, would signal progress in addressing a wide range of issues relating to violence against women. A draft bill called Protection, Dignity, and Security of Women Against Violence, which has been in the works since the administration of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was approved by the government in early January. While the administration of President Hassan Rouhani hopes to turn the bill into law before he finishes his second tenure in June, the bill must first clear the parliament and the constitutional vetting body called the Guardian Council, which consists of jurists and religious experts.
Iran’s crackdown on the country’s persecuted Baha’i community continues unabated, with the incarceration of eight Baha’is for allegedly speaking to Western news organizations. The US government media outlet Voice of America on Thursday first reported on the impending imprisonment of the Baha’is. “According to the apparent court notice seen by VOA, the eight Baha’is were convicted of the national security charge in part for allegedly sharing information with Persian-language US and Britain-based news outlets deemed hostile by Iran’s Islamist rulers, including VOA, BBC Persian and Human Rights Activist News Agency, or HRANA,” Voice of America reporters Michael Lipin and Ramin Haghjoo wrote.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Since President Biden entered the White House, Iranian-backed militants across the Middle East have struck an airport in Saudi Arabia with an exploding drone, and are accused of assassinating a critic in Lebanon and of targeting American military personnel at an airport in northern Iraq, killing a Filipino contractor and wounding six others. On Thursday, the world got its first glimpse of how Mr. Biden is likely to approach one of the greatest security concerns of American partners in the region: the network of militias that are backed by Iran and committed to subverting the interests of the United States and its allies.
Iran on Saturday condemned U.S. air strikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria, and denied responsibility for rocket attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq that prompted Friday’s strikes. Washington said its strikes on positions of the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah paramilitary group along the Iraq border were in response to the rocket attacks on U.S. targets in Iraq. Western officials and some Iraqi officials have blamed those attacks on Iran-backed groups.
The story of America’s relations with Iran needs a reexamination. Why have these two nations nurtured such obsessive antagonism toward each other? Former journalist John Ghazvinian steps into the charged arena with a doorstop of a book that promises to answer the question. But after some brassy assertions in the preface, Ghazvinian’s uneven and often tendentious account only compounds the confusion. The relationship started well. There was mutual fascination. In “America and Iran: A History, 1720 to the Present,” Ghazvinian describes some enchanting early encounters.
On Sunday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was asked if the United States needed to begin hostage negotiations with Iran, noting that the regime currently has detained at least six Americans. “We intend to very directly communicate with the Iranians about the complete and utter outrage… We will not accept a long term proposition where they continue to hold Americans in an unjust and unlawful matter,” he responded. Sullivan went on to say that President Biden believes that “hard-headed, clear-eyed diplomacy” is the best way to engage with Iran.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
When Mahdis, an American teacher from Southern California, applied for a U.S. visa for her Iranian husband four years ago, she had no idea that his mandatory military service would stand in their way. But a Trump administration decision two years ago to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization has meant that everyone associated with the group, including those like her husband, Arash, who were forced to join it as part of their compulsory service, would no longer be eligible for residency in the United States.
CONGRESS & IRAN
Just days after U.S. forces in Iraq suffered casualties from a rocket attack likely launched by an Iran-backed militia, the Biden administration appeared to turn the other cheek by signaling openness last week to talks with Iran to reenter the flawed nuclear deal that President Donald Trump rightly quit in 2018. It is becoming clear that with the Biden administration, the American people can expect a strategy of appeasement in the Middle East and a foreign policy mashup of President Barack Obama’s worst hits: reentering the failed Iran nuclear deal, rolling back America’s restored alliances, and sapping momentum from the Abraham Accords.
TURKEY & IRAN
Turkey and Iran called in each other’s ambassadors as Turkey threatens to attack Kurdish separatists on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, an area used by Iranian militants to cross into Syria. The diplomatic row follows a botched Turkish operation that resulted in the deaths of 13 hostages on Mount Gara in northern Iraq in February. Turkey said the captives were executed by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Iran’s ambassador to Iraq called on Turkey to withdraw its forces from Iraq and avoid targeting Mount Sinjar, where PKK fighters settled after helping drive Islamic State out of the area.