The United States on Wednesday identified seven companies that it has blacklisted for trade in Iranian petrochemicals - three based in mainland China, three in Hong Kong and one in South Africa - the State Department said in a statement. Separately, the department also named five Iranian nuclear scientists who the Commerce Department said it sanctioned on Tuesday for having taken part in Iran's pre-2004 nuclear weapons program and who continue to be employed by the Iranian state.
Iran has been hit hard by the novel coronavirus, and things may get far worse. On Tuesday, a state television reporter who is also a medical doctor warned that the death toll could be in the "millions" as worshipers forced their way into two Shiite shrines closed by the outbreak. That's not idle speculation. The death toll in Iran from covid-19 infections surged past 1,000 on Wednesday after the largest single-day rise in the number of deaths since Iran's outbreak began. Deutsche Welle reported this week that researchers at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran created a computer simulator to analyze scenarios.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will pardon 10,000 prisoners including political ones in honor of the Iranian new year on Friday, state TV reported. "Those who will be pardoned will not return to jail ... almost half of those security-related prisoners will be pardoned as well," judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told state TV on Wednesday. On Tuesday, Esmaili said Iran had temporarily freed about 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners, in response to the coronavirus epidemic.
UANI IN THE NEWS
...UANI Policy Director Jason Brodsky: Details on State Dept sanctions re: #Iran petrochemicals just released. See below. One of those sanctioned today, Reza Ebadzadeh Semnani, is a director of Main Street 1095 Ltd., which is reportedly a South African subsidiary of an Iranian investor. He's a part of this South African #Iran petrochemical network, which has past connections with #SouthAfrica's Sasol. Per a 2013 release, Main Street 1095 "completed & effected the acquisition of 100% of shares of SPI."
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The State Department on Wednesday announced it is slapping new sanctions on Iran as renewed rocket attacks have been launched at U.S. forces in Iraq by what are believed to be Tehran-backed militias. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that the sanctions will target nine entities and three individuals "who have engaged in activity that could enable the Iranian regime's violent behavior."
After nearly two years of stunning success imposing maximum pressure on Iran, U.S. President Donald Trump has been holding back on delivering a final blow and abolishing the ill-fated Iran nuclear deal. If he waits too long, he may inadvertently breathe new life into a deal he pledged to dismantle four years ago. Ever since last summer, when Iran first exceeded the nuclear limits established by the 2015 agreement, Trump supporters in Congress have urged the president to exercise the United States' right to respond to Iran's transgression by restoring all United Nations restrictions on its nuclear, missile, and conventional arms programs.
The Qiam was assessed as landing on average within 500 meters of a target-an improvement over some earlier missiles, but well short of a 'precision strike' weapon. For thirty intense minutes at 1:30 AM local time, the skies over Iraq were lit by streaks of fiery light as at least sixteen ballistic missiles streaked from launch sites in Iran (video here) to target two military bases in Iraq occupied by Iraqi, U.S. and other international forces. Tehran's promised violent retaliation for the U.S.'s killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani was on its way.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Responding to the announcement by the Iranian authorities that pardons will be granted to prisoners convicted of "security" offences who have a five-year prison sentence or less, and that those who have been granted leave in recent weeks will not be returned to prison, Philip Luther, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, said: "Amnesty International welcomes the release of anyone detained as a prisoner of conscience, although they should not have been in prison in the first place.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
We are facing a public health crisis that, in global terms, may be the worst for just over a century. No wonder then that the coronavirus pandemic has pushed many of the stories that make up our usual daily diet of international news to the sidelines. Nonetheless, many commentators are already speculating about how global affairs may or may not change in the wake of this drama.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government's response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have even covered up initial cases before infections rapidly spread across the country. In Israel, meanwhile, the government reported a 25% spike in the number of cases, while Iraqis in Baghdad hunkered down as a week-long government-imposed curfew went into effect.
A Revolutionary Court in Tehran has sentenced the son of former Chief Commander of the Iranian Army to ten years in jail for corruption, the Islamic Republic Judiciary spokesman announced at his weekly news conference on Tuesday, March 17. Ammar Salehi, the only son of the former army commander, Major General Ataollah Salehi (2005-17), has also been banned for life from serving in the public sector. Salehi was charged with receiving a more than $26 million "illegal loan" from Bank Sarmayeh (Capital) and "disrupting the economic order.
"A good year ahead can be seen in a good spring," goes a popular Persian proverb. The idea might ring true enough for Iranians looking back at the Persian year 1398, which comes to a close March 20. "Despite the problems that our enemy was determined to cause it, our nation managed to end the year in triumph," President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech among mask-wearing cabinet members in Tehran March 18. But to many Iranians, the year was a collage of fast-paced developments opening with country-wide floods that killed scores and marred the last new year holidays.
How serious is Iran about its coronavirus epidemic? That depends on whether we believe the Islamic Republic's words or actions - and, in some crucial aspects of crisis management, its inaction. On the one hand, the regime in Tehran is asking for $5 billion in financial aid from the International Monetary Fund, ostensibly to fight the virus crisis. On the other, its proxy militias in Iraq have stepped up rocket strikes on military bases housing American and other NATO troops. President Hassan Rouhani has indicated more are coming.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
Exile Iranian musicians critical of religious hardliners in Tehran converged this month to perform in the most unlikely locale: Saudi Arabia. Taking place amid heightened tensions between the regional enemies, the event was promoted as cultural dialogue but also allowed the kingdom a subtle dig at Tehran, with Saudi-owned MBC Persia airing the concerts for Iranian viewers. The concerts in the al-Ula desert site were among the last big public events in Saudi Arabia before authorities imposed a virtual lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.