In a leaked audiotape that offers a glimpse into the behind-the scenes power struggles of Iranian leaders, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the Revolutionary Guards Corps call the shots, overruling many government decisions and ignoring advice. In one extraordinary moment on the tape that surfaced Sunday, Mr. Zarif departed from the reverential official line on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Guards’ elite Quds Force, the foreign-facing arm of Iran’s security apparatus, who was killed by the United States in January 2020.
During his two years as judiciary chief in Iran, Ebrahim Raisi has fought hard to bring the corrupt children of the moneyed Iranian elite to justice, a battle that has made him popular with a population weary of graft. But in comments this month, he focused less on judicial reform and more on economic and foreign policies — a clear signal some say that he has his sights set on becoming president or supreme leader or even both. Talks with global powers to lift US sanctions on the Islamic republic are pointless, according to Raisi, 60.
An Iranian Revolutionary court has sentenced British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to a one-year jail term and she is banned from leaving the country for a year, her lawyer Hojjat Kermani told Emtedad news website on Monday.
UANI IN THE NEWS
… Numerous human rights groups have expressed concerns with women's rights in Iran. Amnesty International wrote how "Women, as well as ethnic and religious minorities, faced entrenched discrimination as well as violence." United Against Nuclear Iran has a web page on "Iran's War on Women." The Center for Human Rights in Iran has four reports on women's rights so far just this year. Their most recent one, from March 8, is titled "UN: Women and Girls in Iran Treated as Second Class Citizens, Reforms Urgently Needed." It looks 43 countries didn't get that memo.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The UN atomic agency on Thursday said Iran has slashed by half the number of centrifuges enriching uranium up to 60% purity at the Natanz nuclear plant, the site of a recent blast blamed on Israel. According to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, seen by Reuters, Iran reduced the two clusters of centrifuges enriching uranium at 60% to just one at an aboveground facility.
Iranian hardliners in the parliament have indicated that they will block a possible settlement in negotiations aimed at resuming the 2015 nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “The results of the nuclear negotiations in Vienna must be in line with Iranian law, otherwise they will be illegal,” warned MP Alireza Salimi. Tasnim News Agency reported that a settlement between the two sides would lead Washington to partially lift the sanctions, however it would not be legal unless approved by parliament.
National-security policy should be based on facts, not emotionally laden talking points, especially when the talking points bear little resemblance to reality. But this is precisely what we see in the unfolding effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Ignoring and, in some cases, distorting the facts, the Biden administration appears unwilling to change course and determined to repeat the mistakes of the past.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The U.S. must remove sanctions designations for some 1,500 individuals as part of efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear accord, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, said in an interview with the state-run ICANA news agency. Araghchi didn’t give more details but Sunday’s comments are in line with Iran’s demands that the U.S. lift both the sanctions it reimposed on the Islamic Republic after then President Donald Trump abandoned the landmark agreement and hundreds of more penalties added by his administration.
A top US official spoke to American Jewish leaders Friday on US efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, telling them that no sanctions would be removed from the Islamic Republic before Washington gets clear commitments on Iran’s return to the 2015 accord. “Until we get somewhere and until we have a firm commitment, and it’s very clear that Iran’s nuclear program is going to be capped, the problematic aspects reversed and back in a box, we are not going to take any of the pressure off,” the National Security Council’s Brett McGurk told leaders, according to quotes provided to the Forward by several individuals on the call.
Senior Israeli intelligence and military officials are expected to travel to Washington on Sunday for talks with US officials on the Iranian danger and the potential harm in returning to the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. An Israeli security official said Friday that the trip aims to limit tension between Israel and the administration of Joe Biden on Iran’s nuclear program. He said the Israeli delegation would request from Washington some amendments when discussing a deal with Iran, mainly not to lift all sanctions.
An Iranian ballistic missile based on the Zuljanah satellite launch vehicle could carry a one-ton warhead for up to 5,000 km and strike any target on the European continent, Israel's ambassador to the U.N. wrote in a letter to the Security Council. The letter said that such capabilities could turn the ballistic missile into the most powerful weapon in the Iranian arsenal because of its range. Currently, Iran's Khorramshahr missile has a range of 3,000km with a 750kg warhead. A missile with a range of 5,000 km would enable Iran to attack any country in Europe, including Iceland. The Janes website reported that the Zuljanah satellite launch vehicle, unveiled on February 1, 2020, was described as being capable of putting a 220kg payload into orbit 500km above the earth.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran’s election to the U.N.’s top women’s empowerment body this week despite having a poor record has drawn outrage from rights activists who criticized the Islamic republic’s treatment of women. The result of the secret ballot also has been met with silence from the U.S. In Tuesday’s vote, 43 of the 54 nations in the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) elected Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women for a four-year term beginning next year. The commission is the U.N.’s principal intergovernmental body dedicated to “the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based advocacy organization, joined a growing chorus of Iranians to urge the release of veteran journalist and documentary filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad. "He is ailing and deprived from the right to treatment. His life is in danger," read a post on the organization’s official Persian Twitter account. The statement accused Iranian authorities of "arbitrarily" imprisoning the 68-year-old activist following an "unfair" trial.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Nuclear talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the United States and Iran back into compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are said to be making progress, which is good news. But there have been predictable roadblocks. Israel, which is not a party to the talks, appeared to sabotage Iran’s centrifuges just as talks were gaining steam. Republicans in Congress are pushing a bill called the Maximum Pressure Act that would strip President Biden’s ability to lift sanctions on Iran without a vote from Congress, making it impossible for the United States to live up to its end of any bargain.
The outlines of a potential agreement between the U.S. and Iran are emerging from the indirect negotiations in Vienna. The two sides will probably succeed in their professed aim of resurrecting the nuclear deal secured by President Barack Obama and renounced by President Donald Trump. But how much that would practically accomplish is questionable. Washington and Tehran say they’re prepared to return, on a “compliance for compliance” basis, to the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action they agreed, with other world powers, in 2015.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Members of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard shot dead three militants and dismantled their cell in eastern Iran near the border with Afghanistan, Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency reported Saturday. An exchange of fire between Guard forces and a “terrorist team” resulted in the deaths of the three militants in Sistan and Baluchistan province, according to the report. Tasnim also said Guard troops confiscated explosives and weapons from the team, which it said was planning militant activities in the region. The report provided no details on the group.
Iranian forces seized a weapons shipment in southwest Iran yesterday. The area is home to some unrest and separatist activity. Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps seized a weapons shipment on Minoo Island in Khuzestan province. The cargo was entering the country, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported. The outlet did not report further details on the seizure, but noted that 21 Kalashnikov automatic rifles and 7,000 colt bullets were also seized on the Khuzestan border earlier this month.
Three rockets crashed into a base at the Baghdad airport housing US troops on Friday, wounding an Iraqi soldier, security sources told AFP. One of the sources said the projectiles hit the section of the airbase occupied by Iraqi troops, who share the base with soldiers deployed by Washington as part of the US-led anti-jihadist coalition. It is the second attack on US interests in Iraq in less than a week. On Sunday, five rockets targeted another airbase north of the capital, wounding three Iraqi soldiers and two foreign contractors.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Joe Biden’s Iran deal inbox has been quite full lately. On March 10, 70 Democrats and 70 Republicans in the House sent the president a letter in the hopes that “any agreement or set of agreements with Iran must be comprehensive in nature” — meaning any reentry into the 2015 nuclear agreement should also curb Iran’s non-nuclear misbehavior. Two weeks later, a bipartisan group of 43 senators sent something similar. Two weeks after that, 27 Senate Democrats sent one urging the president to return to the deal right away.
At least three people died when an Iranian fuel tanker was attacked off Syria’s coast on Saturday, in the first assault of its kind since the Syrian civil war started a decade ago, a war monitor said. “At least three Syrians were killed, including two members of the crew,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It was not clear who carried out the attack. “We don’t know if this was an Israeli attack,” Abdel Rahman told AFP, adding that “the Iranian tanker came from Iran and was not far from Banias port”.
Israel should expect more attacks on its interests in the future, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces warned, days after a rocket launched from Syria landed near an Israeli nuclear reactor. Mohammad Bagheri said on Sunday Israel believes it can hit targets on Syrian soil and launch attacks at sea without repercussions. “Certainly efforts undertaken in recent days and efforts in the future that will endanger their interests will bring them to their senses, and the future of the resistance front is bright,” he told reporters.
The disruption of global traffic in the Suez Canal in late March after the giant container ship Ever Given went aground prompted Russia and Iran to mention, once more, the International North-South Transport Corridor as an alternative option to the Suez Canal in the future. The Russian and Iranian proposals raised questions as to whether the corridor could affect the revenues generated from the Egyptian canal. Shipping was halted in the canal March 23 after the Ever Given was stuck sideways on a narrow section of the canal and required almost a week of efforts before being dislodged.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
Iran supplied Yemen's Houthi rebels with weapons technology that helped the militants to attack Saudi Arabia, according to Rostam Ghasemi, a senior official in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran's former economy minister. Mr Ghasemi's admission is the first time Iran has confirmed it is helping the Houthis militarily. Iran is providing "limited military advice", the Quds Force representative told Russia Today on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi condemned the “destructive” role played by Iran through its support of the Houthi militias in Yemen and their attacks against the Kingdom. He called on the UN Security Council to take a “firm stance” against these attacks and urged Tehran to “seriously engage” in the ongoing negotiations over its nuclear program. In remarks at the Security Council’s monthly meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including the Palestinian question, Al-Mouallimi highlighted the important initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia to resolve the Yemeni crisis.
IRAQ & IRAN
Iran’s foreign minister on Monday praised Baghdad’s efforts aimed at bolstering regional stability, saying he hopes they would lead to “more negotiations and understandings” in the region. Mohammad Javad Zarif spoke to reporters during a visit to the Iraqi capital, which earlier this month hosted the first round of direct talks between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. The talks signaled a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries and at least one still-raging war.