The German intelligence agency for the state of Bavaria said last week in its new report that the Islamic Republic of Iran has not ceased its drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction during 2020. “Proliferation-relevant states like Iran, North Korea, Syria and Pakistan are making efforts to expand their conventional arsenal of weapons through the production or constant modernization of weapons of mass destruction,” wrote the Bavarian Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the formal name for the domestic intelligence agency.
Two lawmakers have written to President Biden urging him to place human rights, and holding human rights abusers accountable, at the center of his Iran policy -- just as a resolution backing a secular and democratic Iran has picked up majority support in the House. The resolution, introduced by Reps. Tom McClintock, R-Calif., and Brad Sherman, D-Calif., backs "the Iranian people’s desire for a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran" and condemns "violations of human rights and state-sponsored terrorism by the Iranian Government."
Iran's president has replaced the head of a think tank that recorded an interview with the country's foreign minister that leaked out this week, a tape that provided a rare glimpse into the theocracy's power struggles and set off a firestorm in Iran. In the recording of the conversation between Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and an economist at the Strategic Studies Center, the think tank associated with Iran's presidency, Zarif offers a blunt appraisal of diplomacy and his constricted role in the Islamic Republic.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the leaking of an audio recording that has triggered calls for the impeachment of his top diplomat was intended to derail nuclear talks with world powers as they near a breakthrough. A dissident Iranian news channel on Sunday aired parts of an interview in which Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif complains that some unilateral decisions by a widely revered general, Qassem Soleimani, had undermined his diplomatic efforts, including forging a critical 2015 international agreement.
Rushing back into the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also called the Iran nuclear deal, would be a singularly seismic event leading to chaos and instability in the Middle East. U.S. President Joe Biden has inherited a relatively peaceful Middle East—not without its challenges—but one marked by historic peace agreements between several Arab countries and Israel after decades without movement on the recognition of Israel. Conversely, through U.S. sanctions and Iran’s own ineptitude and mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran’s economy has been left paralyzed and vulnerable.
Israel and the U.S. want to fence their disagreements over the 2015 nuclear deal off from cooperation on other Iran-related issues, a senior Israeli official told me following talks on Tuesday in Washington between White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. Why it matters: The Israelis see a U.S. return to the deal as a matter of when and not if, Israeli officials say. So while Ben Shabbat arrived in Washington with a prepared message on Iran — stating Israel's objections to the deal and stressing Israel's freedom of operation against Iran — he was keen to move the discussion onto other issues.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The Biden administration is considering a near wholesale rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions imposed on Iran in a bid to get the Islamic Republic to return to compliance with a landmark 2015 nuclear accord, according to current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the matter. As indirect talks continue this week in Vienna to explore the possibility of reviving the nuclear deal, American officials have become increasingly expansive about what they might be prepared to offer Iran, which has been driving a hard line on sanctions relief, demanding that all U.S. penalties be removed, according to these people.)
The Biden administration and Israeli officials agreed this week to set up an interagency working group to coordinate on ways to counter Iranian drones and precision-guided missiles that have proliferated across the Middle East in recent years. The agreement came as part of broader discussions with senior Israeli officials in Washington. The meetings focused on Israel’s security and Iran’s activities in the region as the Biden administration pursues talks with Iran in Vienna to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord, a move the Israeli government objects to.
In the typically anodyne White House read-out of the April 27 conversation between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat appears this sentence: The United States and Israel agreed to establish an inter-agency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Precision Guided Missiles produced by Iran and provided to its proxies in the Middle East Region. On the same day, the web site Breaking Defense carried an article entitled “Russian Fleet Protects Iranian Ships Smuggling Arms, Israelis Say.”
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
An Iranian court held the first hearing in the process against 66-year-old Nahid Taghavi on Wednesday, her daughter said, adding that her mother was facing a "security charge." Taghavi holds both German and Iranian passports. However, Iran's authorities do not officially recognize dual nationalities, meaning that Taghavi is barred from receiving consular assistance from Germany.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The Biden administration is sending a team of senior officials to the Middle East this week as the president seeks to ease allies’ concerns over Iranian nuclear talks and address issues involving the United Arab Emirates’ planned purchase of the F-35 joint strike fighter. The team of officials from the State Department, National Security Council and Defense Department will be led by NSC Middle East policy coordinator Brett McGurk and State Department counselor Derek Chollet, according to several people familiar with the plans.
Three Republican lawmakers on Wednesday called on the acting inspector general for the State Department to investigate John Kerry, the special envoy for climate and former secretary of state, disclosed Israeli secrets to Iran. In a letter to Acting Inspector General Diana Shaw, Reps. Ann Wagner, R-Mo., Andy Barr, R-Ky. and Lee Zeldin, R-NY urged a full investigation into Kerry's "relationship with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and determine whether his security clearance should be revoked or not."
A team of U.S. envoys is traveling to the Middle East this week for talks with key allies, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, amid simmering concerns in the region about President Joe Biden’s attempt to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal. “A senior interagency delegation will be traveling over the coming week to discuss a number of important matters related to U.S. national security and ongoing efforts toward a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East region,” the official said.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Ater the U.S. Navy released footage of yet another recent encounter with Iranian naval forces, the speaker of Iran's parliament said that his country had successfully blocked the U.S. from accessing the waters near the country's Persian Gulf coast. Addressing the state of the Persian Gulf during a virtual conference Wednesday, Islamic Consultative Assembly Speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf railed against the presence of foreign forces, which, he said, "led by the United States, has eroded economic opportunities in the region and beyond."
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran’s top diplomat expressed regret Wednesday that a recording leaked out of him making frank comments about the limits of his power in the Islamic Republic, with the country’s president describing the incident as a means to derail ongoing talks with world powers over Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal. Posting to his Instagram account, Mohammad Javad Zarif offered his first public comments about the recording, which caused a political firestorm across Iran ahead of the country's June 18 presidential election.
A blindfolded man is being driven in a car and asks where he is. “Show him,” the passenger in the front seat says. The man’s blindfold is taken off, and he sees Tehran’s Azadi Tower. He is Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian opposition activist, portrayed here in a fictional TV drama but who in real life was lured to Baghdad in 2019 and captured by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Zam was brought to Iran, where he faced a closed-door trial on charges of espionage and stoking violence. Last December, he was executed.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
The leaked audiotape of remarks made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not just reveal friction within the Iranian political establishment over the nuclear accord, it also disclosed that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander, Qasem Soleimani—who was killed in a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020—collaborated with Russia “to sabotage the nuclear deal.” According to Zarif, “Russia did not want the agreement to succeed… because it was not in Moscow’s interests for Iran to normalize relations with the West.”
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has taken a more conciliatory public stance towards Iran, trying to balance long-held animosity with economic considerations and bridge differences with Washington over how to tackle Tehran’s regional behaviour. Tensions between Riyadh and Tehran have festered over the Yemen war, where an Iran-aligned group has increased attacks on Saudi Arabia even as the kingdom tried to lure foreign investment. Strains between the two Gulf powerhouses also grew after a 2019 assault on Saudi oil plants that Riyadh blamed on Iran, a charge Tehran denies.
Iran's foreign minister met the Yemeni rebel spokesman in Oman on Wednesday, reiterating Tehran's support for a ceasefire and a return to talks to end the country's long conflict. Mohammad Javad Zarif's comments came a day after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country leads a military coalition supporting the Yemeni government, called on the Huthis to stop fighting and enter peace negotiations.
AFGHANISTAN & IRAN
In recent weeks, the long-awaited outline of the Biden administration’s Central Asian policies has come into focus. At its core are two signature initiatives: renewed outreach to Iran and measured withdrawal from Afghanistan. In their own ways, each is fitted to the moment faced by President Biden and his team. At the same time, the dilemmas of Middle East policy rarely present linear and uncomplicated solutions. To successfully execute on his campaign pledges and leave the region in better condition than he found it, the administration would do well to lay the groundwork by coordinating a coalition of America’s staunchest allies.
The National Cyber Directorate warned Wednesday that coordinated attacks against Israel are expected next month to mark Iran’s annual Quds Day, and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The actions, expected to come around May 7 and to be coordinated by anti-Israel hackers around the world under the banner “#OPJerusalem,” will seek to spread propaganda messages by way of website corruption, text messages and attacks aimed at grabbing public attention, the directorate said in a statement.