Iran and the United States have recently engaged in a spiraling escalation of threats and warnings, even as they are progressing in diplomatic talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. On Saturday, Iran’s Parliament placed largely symbolic sanctions on 51 Americans, many of them prominent political and military officials, for “terrorism” and “human rights violations,” in retaliation for the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, two years ago. Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, then warned that Iran would “face severe consequences” if it attacked any Americans, including any of the 51 people hit with the sanctions.
Franco-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah, whom Tehran has sentenced to five years in prison but was recently living under house arrest, has once again been incarcerated, France's foreign ministry said on Wednesday, demanding her immediate release. The new move against the Adelkhah, a researcher affiliated to Paris's prestigious Sciences Po university whose detention had triggered a rift between the two countries in the past, comes as France and other western powers are negotiating with Iran to revive a nuclear accord.
The Pentagon’s cybersecurity arm on Wednesday said it has tied a hacking group known as MuddyWater to Iranian intelligence. In doing so, U.S. Cyber Command also identified several open-source software tools being used by the hacking group and disclosed them in an effort to thwart further attacks. MuddyWater allegedly used the tools to gain access to global computer networks. A U.S. Cyber Command spokeswoman said disclosure of the hacking group provides a “holistic picture” of how Iranian hackers might be collecting information through the use of malware. The cyber agency described MuddyWater as operating under the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran and the United States are displaying little flexibility on core issues in indirect nuclear talks, raising questions about whether a compromise can be found soon to renew a 2015 deal that could dispel fears of a wider Middle East war, diplomats say. After eight rounds of talks the thorniest points remain the speed and scope of lifting sanctions on Tehran, including Iran's demand for a U.S. guarantee of no further punitive steps, and how and when to restore curbs on Iran's atomic work. The nuclear deal limited Iran’s uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for it to develop nuclear arms - an ambition Tehran denies - in return for lifting international sanctions.
More than 100 House Republicans are calling on the Biden administration to withdraw from ongoing negotiations in Vienna to return to the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal. In a letter dated Tuesday, roughly 110 lawmakers are asking Secretary of State Antony Blinken to instead enforce existing sanctions against Tehran that were imposed after the U.S. withdrew from the deal in 2018 under then-President Trump. “Administration officials’ recent statements about the Vienna talks have made it clear that there is no productive diplomatic path forward at this time,” lawmakers wrote.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The U.S. has allowed South Korea to send at least $63 million in overdue damages to an Iranian company, according to reports and officials in Seoul, a significant decision that may ease Tehran’s access to billions trapped in the Asian country by American sanctions. The announcement appears to be a concrete achievement to emerge from talks in Vienna to rebuild trust between Iran and world powers and restore the 2015 nuclear deal. It comes a week after South Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun visited the Austrian capital to meet with the U.S. Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley.
The U.S. and most allied governments have long accused Iran of using bitcoin to get around sanctions imposed to punish Iran for its nuclear program. Now the Central Bank of Iran is getting in on the action, formally creating a system to allow businesses to make payments in cryptocurrencies. Along with dark market drugs and ransomware, sanctions-busting by Iran, North Korea and other sanctioned regimes has been one of the big arguments by crypto opponents that bitcoin is a tool designed for illicit activities.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iranian intelligence and judicial authorities continued their crackdown on dissent in 2021, while lawmakers passed and debated laws that further violate human rights, Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2022. Over the past three years, security forces have responded to widespread protests stemming largely from economic rights issues with excessive and unlawful force, including lethal force, and arrested thousands of protestors while using prosecution and imprisonment as the main tool to silence the voices of prominent dissidents and human rights defenders. Authorities have shown no willingness to investigate serious human rights violations committed under their control.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The president of the Iran Wrestling Federation, who used his position to call for the destruction of America, might not be permitted to travel to the United States for a slated dual meet between the two countries’ national teams in February following a Fox News Digital exposé. Alireza Dabir, holder of a U.S. Green Card, urged "Death to America" in a television interview last week. "We always chant ‘Death to America’ but importantly is showing it in action," said Dabir, who won a gold medal in freestyle wrestling at the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. He added that "A doctor [in Iran], he might even be wearing a tie, but he is doing his job well. He is saying ‘Death to America.’
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israel uncovered an attempt by Iran to recruit Israeli citizens as spies, the Israeli Security Agency said in a statement on Wednesday. Israel indicted five people suspected of carrying out orders, such as photographing Israeli government offices and the U.S. consulate in Tel Aviv, sent from an Iranian handler through Facebook and Whatsapp. The plot was part of “never-ending efforts” by Iran to recruit Israeli citizens, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday. “These attempts go beyond security and intelligence,” Bennett said. “They are expanding to efforts to influence the citizens of Israel and Israeli society, sow discord and polarization, undermine political stability in Israel and damage the public’s trust in the government.”
A senior diplomatic official reportedly said Tuesday that Israel was taking a positive view of reconciliation between Syria and Gulf states, predicting it could help curb Iranian influence in the country. The unnamed source, quoted by the Ynet news site, said that by drawing closer to Sunni countries, Syria may be indicating it wants to oust Iranian and other Shiite entities from within its borders. Iran, along with Russia, has helped the Damascus regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad quell a civil war that has dragged on for nearly ten years. Although the government has regained control of most of the country, rebels still hold some territory.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The Houthi offensive in Marib is fueled by “the illegal flow of weapons” to the group from Iran, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, said on Wednesday. She told fellow members of the Security Council that “while we encourage peace, we must not be afraid to call out actions that obstruct it,” and that the escalation of violence by the Houthis “undermines the cause of peace.” She added: “Just last month, the US Navy seized upwards of 1,400 assault rifles (and) 226,000 rounds of ammunition from a vessel originating from Iran.
IRAQ & IRAN
Iran-linked Shiite armed groups operating in Iraq have recently stepped up their messaging against, and possibly attacks on, forces operating in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) amid accusations of their enjoying overly close relations with the United States. The Iran-linked "muqawama" (resistance) factions are also unhappy about the close ties between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Turkey, in part linked to these factions’ increasingly close relations with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Sinjar region in northwestern Iraq.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Eight countries that include Iran, Venezuela and Sudan have lost their right to vote at the United Nations because of unpaid dues. A total of 11 countries are behind in their payments, Secretary General Antonio Guterres said Tuesday in a letter to the General Assembly. AFP obtained it on Wednesday. Under the UN charter, a member country's right to vote is suspended when its arrears equal or exceed the amount of dues it should have paid over the preceding two years. If the outstanding debt is deemed to be "due to conditions beyond the control of the member," the assembly may let that country continue to vote.
The head of Iran’s border guard visited Pakistan today. Brig. Gen. Ahmad Ali Goudarzi arrived in the Pakistani port city of Karachi to meet with defense officials and partake in a maritime training exercise. He met with Rear Admiral Mirza Fawad Amin Beg, who heads Pakistan’s Maritime Security Agency. Goudarzi called for “increased cooperation” between Iran and Pakistan on their maritime border in the Arabia Sea. He specifically mentioned rescue operations, fighting crime and deterring illegal immigration, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.