NOTE: Eye On Iran will be suspended on Monday, January 20 in observance of Martin Luther King Day. It will resume Tuesday, January 21.
Iran's supreme leader struck a defiant tone in a rare public sermon on Friday, calling the United States an "arrogant power" and telling tens of thousands of chanting worshipers that God's backing had allowed his country to "slap the face" of the United States. In his first such address in eight years, the leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sought to rally supporters and undermine critics after weeks of turbulence in the Middle East that brought Iran and the United States to the brink of war and prompted street protests in Iran over the accidental downing of a civilian jetliner by Iranian forces.
Two men have been sentenced to prison on charges in connection with working on behalf of the government of Iran to monitor a Jewish center in Chicago and Americans who are members of an exiled Iranian opposition group. Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, 39, a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, was sentenced to 38 months in prison on Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman in Washington after pleading guilty Oct. 8 to one count of conspiracy and one count of acting as an undeclared agent of the Iranian government.
Iran is relying on its neighboring countries to sell a surplus of gasoil it has created at home due to U.S. sanctions, trade documents and industry data showed. Iranian oil products, like its crude, fall under U.S. sanctions, but Tehran has significantly increased exports of gasoil in recent months, to some countries in the region including Iraq and Syria, by offering massive discounts.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Qassem Soleimani, former head of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, was feared at home and abroad. He held both symbolic and substantive authority. Iran's supreme leader dubbed him a "living martyr." Also, while technically serving under the commander-in-chief of the IRGC, he often eclipsed those at the highest ranks of Iran's Praetorian Guard. While after Soleimani's death the supreme leader said the Quds Force's mission "is the same as it was under" his commandership, three areas to watch will be the status of the Quds Force within the IRGC's top brass, the Ayatollah's decision-making circle and Iran's Foreign Ministry's attempts to assert more control over regional foreign policy.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Friday that three European states who were party to a nuclear pact from which the United States has already withdrawn could not be trusted, and their actions to put pressure on Iran would not work. In a Friday prayers sermon, Khamenei told thousands of worshippers that the European states "cannot be trusted", after Britain, France and Germany triggered a formal dispute mechanism in the agreement, which could lead to U.N. sanctions being reimposed.
There are signs that cracks are beginning to appear in European unity over its backing of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, or JCPOA, as allies come under growing pressure from the United States to abandon the agreement in the wake of Tehran's downing of a passenger jet January 8. The 2015 deal, signed by Iran, the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China, lifted most sanctions on Iran in return for strict limits on nuclear fuel enrichment. U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal and reimposed sanctions in 2018, citing concerns about Iran's missile program.
If the administration of President Donald Trump did indeed try to bully Europe into doing the right thing on Iran's dangerous brinkmanship, this reflects poorly on both sides. Threatening Germany, France and Britain with a tariff on automobile exports to the U.S. is the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear option - the more egregious for being invoked against close allies. But while the Europeans certainly didn't deserve to be blackmailed by Washington, their invertebrate response to blackmail by Tehran dilutes sympathy for their predicament.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The U.S. Treasury Department said on Thursday it will allow for a 90-day period to wind down transactions in certain sectors of Iran's economy hit with fresh U.S. sanctions last week. The period, good through April 9, allows transactions in the construction, mining, manufacturing or textiles sectors of Iran's economy that could be targeted under last week's action to be wound down without exposure to sanctions, the Treasury Department said in an update to its frequently asked questions, or FAQs, on Iran sanctions on its website.
Since 2017, the Trump administration has placed layers of tough sanctions on Iran in an effort to deprive the regime of financial resources and to force it to negotiate a new nuclear deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent speech that the administration's strategy of "maximum pressure" aims to cut off 80% of Iran's oil revenues and that "President Rouhani himself said that we have denied the Iranian regime some $200 billion in lost foreign income and investment as a result of our activities." Yet Iran's economy has not collapsed.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran's supreme leader called on Friday for national unity and a high turnout in a February election, after protests erupted following the military's admission that it had shot down an airliner by mistake during a confrontation with the United States. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking during his first Friday prayers sermon for eight years, at a time when Iran is under pressure at home and abroad, also said steps should be taken to prevent incidents like the "tragic" downing of the Ukraine International Airlines plane on Jan. 11, in which 176 people died.
Australia's foreign minister said on Friday she had raised with her Iranian counterpart the fate of an imprisoned Australian-British academic after a report that the woman had urged the Australian government to help free her. Foreign Minister Marise Payne declined to detail her conversation with Mohammad Javad Zarif about convicted academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert on the sidelines of a global leadership conference in India. "This is not a detention that we support. We don't accept the charges," Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in New Delhi.
Protests erupted in Iran over the weekend as vigils to mourn the 176 victims of the Ukrainian jet crash transformed into anti-government demonstrations. The Iranian government had tried to conceal that its military accidentally shot down the plane, killing all on board. When it finally admitted its culpability, protesters reacted with rage and fury. It shattered the perception of national unity that seemed to exist last week, when thousands of Iranians turned out to mourn the death of Qassem Soleimani, the powerful general killed in a US targeted strike.
In the past two weeks, Iran, a country of 80 million people, has moved from the shock and grieving over Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani's assassination and the fear of imminent war with the United States to the outrage over Iranian missiles mistakenly shooting down a Ukraine jetliner and killing the 176 people on board. Vigils for the passengers killed in the crash turned into massive anti-government protests in Tehran and other parts of the country.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a Friday sermon that Iran's missile strikes on U.S. targets in Iraq this month delivered a "slap on the face" to the United States, showing the Islamic Republic had divine support. During a spike in tension, Iran launched missiles at U.S. targets on Jan. 8 in response to a U.S. drone strike on Jan. 3 that killed Qassem Soleimeni, a powerful Iranian general who was close to Khamenei.
In a very rare move on Friday the Spokesman of Iran's constitutional and elections watchdog, the Guardian Council, addressed the U.S. Secretary of Mike Pompeo and told him to focus on Trump administration's legitimacy rather than interfering in Iran's domestic affairs. The watchdog dominated with hardliner supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei usually does not comment on foreign affairs and does not tweet in English.
"Make your way by unexpected routes and attack unguarded spots," Sun Tzu, the Chinese master strategist, wrote in "The Art of War." President Trump - by deciding to attack Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani at a relatively unguarded moment during the general's trip to Iraq to plan terrorist operations against U.S. interests - successfully managed to find and exploit such an "unexpected route." The future of U.S.-Iranian interaction is, at this point, unknown, but as Sun Tzu also noted, "Good warriors ... do not overlook conditions that make an opponent prone to defeat."
The Revolutionary Guards can take their fight beyond Iran's borders, the supreme leader said on Friday, responding to the U.S. killing of a top general and to unrest at home over the accidental downing of an airliner. In his first Friday prayers sermon in eight years, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also told thousands of Iranians who chanted "Death to America" that European states could not be trusted after they launched a nuclear agreement dispute mechanism.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Whether eventually it proves a strategic triumph, disaster or just another bloody chapter in Middle East history, U.S. President Donald Trump's order to kill one of the most senior figures in Iran is exposing the strengths and weaknesses that make the Islamic Republic fight the way it does. The pinpoint accuracy of Iran's immediate response to the Jan. 3 killing of Al Quds commander Qassem Soleimani, striking two U.S. bases in Iraq while avoiding causing casualties that could have led to war, has clearly signaled Iran's capacity to harm American assets and personnel if it chooses -- as well as the limitations on Iran's freedom to openly do so.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
An ambitious hard-line cleric who is seen as close to Iran's supreme leader will lead the judiciary as it investigates one of the country's most revered and feared institutions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and its role in the downing of a passenger airliner last week. Ebrahim Raisi, 59 years old, one of Iran's most popular conservative figures, is considered a leading candidate to one day succeed the supreme leader. After losing the presidential election in 2017, he was appointed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to head the judiciary, one of the country's most powerful positions.
All countries involved in the Ukrainian airliner crash in Iran should avoid turning it into a political issue, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Friday. "We request all sides not to make human issues, particularly this tragic accident, into an excuse for political gestures," Abbas Mousavi was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency. Five countries whose citizens died when Iran shot down the airliner last week said on Thursday that Tehran should pay compensation to families of the victims, and that the world was watching for its response.
The shooting down last week of a Ukrainian passenger over Tehran is at the center of rising tensions between Iran's clerics and the country's elected politicians. Amid public fury with the belated admission by authorities that a missile battery operator "mistakenly" shot down the aircraft, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani has called for a "special court" to be set up for any trial of those held responsible. This would in effect take the trial out of the hands of the judiciary, which is controlled by the clerical regime's enforcers, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp, say analysts.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Britain's Treasury said it has designated the entire Hezbollah organisation as a terrorist group under its Terrorism and Terrorist Financing rules, and as such its assets will be frozen. Previously it was only Hezbollah's Military Wing which was subject to asset freezing under UK government rules.
Off the back of making threats toward Europe, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday leveled a new nuclear threat at the world. Iran's enrichment of uranium, Rouhani said, now exceeds rates prior to the 2015 nuclear accord. This follows Iran's recent announcement that it will no longer observe enrichment limits under the nuclear deal. It's a specific challenge to Israel because Iran is well aware of Israel's red line.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
An Iranian representative will travel to Ukraine next week following the shooting down of a Ukrainian passenger plane near Tehran last week, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko told parliament on Friday. He said Iran was willing to pass on to Ukraine the data and voice recorders from the flight after they had been examined by a joint investigation team comprising experts from Iran, Canada and Ukraine.
Iran is widely expected to ramp up cyberattacks against the United States in response to the US killing of a top Iranian leader this month even as fears have receded about a military confrontation between the two countries. The simmering tensions since the US drone attack that killed Qasem Soleimani, who was by some measures the second most influential person in Iran, make it likely that Iran will seek retaliation.