Americans will be expelled from Iraq and Syria, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday, renewing Iran’s demand for U.S. troops to be withdrawn from the Middle East. Iran almost got into a full-blown conflict with the United States when a U.S. drone strike killed top Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Jan. 3, prompting Tehran to retaliate with a missile barrage against a U.S. base in Iraq days later.
Five Iranian tankers likely carrying at least $45.5 million worth of gasoline and similar products are now sailing to Venezuela, part of a wider deal between the two U.S.-sanctioned nations amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington. The tankers’ voyage came after Venezuela’s socialist leader Nicolás Maduro already turned to Iran for help in flying in chemicals needed at an aging refinery amid a gasoline shortage, a symptom of the wider economic and political chaos gripping Latin America’s one-time largest oil producer.
The Iranian cartoon shows two traditional healers, including a turbaned cleric, preparing to treat a coronavirus patient on all fours with beakers of camel urine and violet leaf oil, remedies hailed by some clergymen as surefire cures for covid-19. On the wall hangs a picture of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, donning a nurse's cap and putting a finger to his lips, signaling critics to remain silent. The sketch was posted last month on the Telegram channel of a mainstream news outlet, the Iranian Labor News Agency, before being swiftly taken down.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran complained to the United Nations on Sunday and summoned the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, who represents U.S. interests in the Islamic Republic, over possible measures Washington could take against an Iranian fuel shipment to Venezuela. A senior official in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration told Reuters on Thursday the United States was considering measures it could take in response to Iran’s shipment of fuel to crisis-stricken Venezuela.
Even as U.S. sanctions, unemployment, inflation and low oil prices batter the Iranian economy, there seems to be at least one refuge for investors. The Tehran Stock Exchange has seen gains of 225% in the last year, with sharp increases even as the country struggled with one of the first serious coronavirus outbreaks outside of China. Encouraged by a government eager to privatize state-owned firms, average people now have access to the market and can trade shares, earning returns they’d never see in a savings account or a certificate of deposit.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
France on Saturday condemned the sentencing of French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah in Iran and demanded her immediate release. “This sentencing is not based on any serious element or fact and is thus a political decision,” the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “We are urging Iranian authorities to immediately release Mrs Adelkhah.” Iran has sentenced Adelkhah to six years in prison on national security charges, her lawyer said earlier on Saturday.
A London-based Human Rights Organization in a report published on Saturday says Iranian authorities have pressured the families of those killed during the November 2019 protests to settle for proposals of money and "martyrdom". The statement published by Justice for Iran maintains that in line with the Supreme Leader's approved policy, the authorities have refused to initiate judicial investigations or criminal proceeding regarding the killing of protesters.
A jailed Iranian activist’s child is under investigation by Iran’s judiciary for speaking out about the plight of the ailing activist whose request for medical leave from a coronavirus-infested prison has been denied. An informed Iran-based source told VOA Persian in a Thursday phone interview that the chief of prisons in the northwestern province of Razavi Khorasan has filed a formal complaint against the adult child of detained Iranian dissident Abbas Vahedian Shahroudi.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Iran is warning the United States against threatening its tankers carrying fuel to Venezuela, where gasoline and oil are in desperately short supply despite Venezuela being a major oil production center. As many as five Iranian ships loaded with gasoline are believed to be on their way to the South American country. U.S. sanctions forbid Iran from selling oil and the U.S. is also pressuring all countries against supplying fuel to Venezuela, as part of Washington's efforts to drive President Nicolas Maduro from power.
Iranian naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman devolved into disaster Sunday afternoon when a missile from one Iranian ship accidentally struck another, killing 19 and injuring 15 more. The friendly-fire incident is the second large-scale, deadly error the Iranian military has made this year after it mistakenly shot down a passenger jet departing Tehran. Now, as then, the situation is tragic but also instructive for U.S. foreign policy: “Firing at your own targets, whether military or civil, in such a short space of time, is not human error.
Key developments across the Middle East in recent days have helped to renew a sense of optimism among some about a turnaround in US-Iran relations. But this could yet amount to wishful thinking on their part, as both Washington and Tehran prepare to host meetings over the coming week to decide how to more effectively deal with their adversary.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Rallies next week in Tehran to mark the annual Quds Day against Israel will involve Iranians driving in vehicles not marching through the streets, to avoid spreading the coronavirus, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on state television on Saturday. The elite Revolutionary Guards would be in charge of organising the rallies, Rouhani said, adding that those joining in could still chant slogans from their vehicles and wave flags. Rallies to mark Quds Day, which uses the Arabic name for Jerusalem, are held in towns and cities across the country and aim to show of support for the Palestinians.
Iran may use its military for a second year to help fight locusts that have invaded the south of the country, an Agricultural Ministry official was quoted as saying on Friday, as the swarms threaten to destroy crops worth more than $7 billion. The locust invasion, seen as the worst in decades, compounds problems facing Iran, already hard-hit by the coronavirus outbreak at home and seeing its oil exports sink to a record low as the virus crisis sharpens the impact of U.S. sanctions which further limit shipments.
The Research Center of the Iranian parliament (Majles) has estimated that about 190 trillion rials have been spent on setting up the National Information Network (NIN) by last year. The amount quoted is hard to estimate in U.S. dollars since the rial has steadily declined over the years. But if the current official exchange rate is applied the expenditure comes to at least 4.5 billion dollars. The Shi'ite clergy-dominated Iran has been restricting access to the World Wide Web for two decades, but the idea of an Iran-only intranet, which the government calls a NIN, was first proposed by the hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration in 2005.
One night last December, the chief resident physician at a hospital in the Iranian city of Gorgan was asked to consult on a baffling case: a patient was racked with a mysterious virus, which was advancing rapidly through his body. The doctor, who asked to be identified only as Azad, for fear of retribution by authorities, performed a CT scan and a series of chest X-rays, but the virus overwhelmed the patient before he could decide on a treatment.
Large swaths of Iran faced a lethal “second wave” of coronavirus infections on Sunday as the official death toll surged toward 7,000. The southwestern province of Khuzestan is the new focal point, with the most critical “red” ranking on the country’s color-coded risk scale. “Khuzestan is in a critical situation,” Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. Iran stopped publishing provincial figures for the coronavirus last month, but the Health Ministry’s latest report on Sunday said there was a “rising trend, or the beginning of a peak” in eight provinces, including Khuzestan.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Unknown warplanes attacked Iran-backed fighters in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border, killing several of the Iraqi militiamen, Syrian opposition activists said Sunday. The strikes late Saturday targeted a base near the border town of Boukamal, killing seven fighters, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor. Omar Abu Laila, a Europe-based activist from Syria’s eastern Deir el-Zour province, confirmed a strike hit Iran-backed Iraqi fighters in the area but had no exact word on casualties.
US sanctions on Iran and the Trump administration’s maximum pressure policy are forcing Tehran to tactically shift its policy toward its staunchest ally, Syria. The Iranian regime has reined in some of its forces in the Arab state and reduced its financial assistance to the Syrian government. As James Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria and the fight against Daesh, pointed out last week: “We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria... in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration’s sanctions policies against Iran. It’s having a real effect in Syria.”