The United States imposed sanctions on Iran’s interior minister on Wednesday, accusing him of engaging in serious cases of human rights abuse. Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli gave orders authorizing the Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) of Iran to use lethal force in response to anti-government protests in November, leading to the killing of protesters, including at least 23 minors, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.
Venezuela’s defense minister said Wednesday that planes and ships from the nation’s armed forces will escort Iranian tankers arriving with fuel to the gasoline-starved country in case of any U.S. aggression. Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López said Venezuela’s navy and air force will welcome the five Iranian tankers, seeing them through the nation’s maritime territory and into port. He compared the fuel tankers to humanitarian aid that China and Russia have sent to help Venezuela combat the new coronavirus pandemic.
Iran has spent between $20 billion and $30 billion in Syria to prop up President Bashar al-Assad and fight Islamic State, a lawmaker told the semi-official Etemad newspaper, in a rare estimate by a government insider. Iran “must get this money back from Syria,” Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, an outgoing member of parliament who was on the chamber’s national security and foreign policy commission, said in an interview published Wednesday. By comparison, Iran’s entire defense budget last year came to some 700 trillion riyals, or $16.6 billion.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Even as the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, Iran remains determined to harm the interests of the US and its allies and exact revenge for the January 3 drone strike that killed Maj.-Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Iran has been one of the hardest-hit nations and is the epicenter for the coronavirus in the Middle East. The Iranian regime, already suffering a crisis of legitimacy after suppressing mass protests in November and January, was caught flat-footed by the situation and took various missteps that have contributed to the rapid spread of infection within Iran and beyond.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran dismissed on Thursday new U.S. sanctions on several Iranian officials, saying they were a sign of the complete inefficiency of Washington’s previous sanctions on the Islamic Republic, state television reported. “Washington’s fruitless and repetitive sanctions against Iranian officials is a sign of weakness, despair and confusion of the U.S. administration,” state TV quoted Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi as saying.
The Trump administration is weighing new sanctions and other legal steps to disrupt Iranian oil exports to Venezuela, U.S. officials said, in response to what the U.S. considers the Islamic Republic’s attempts to make inroads into Latin America. The possibility of new U.S. sanctions and legal action comes as five Iranian gasoline tankers make their way toward Venezuela, offering a potential lifeline to the embattled regime of President Nicolás Maduro, according to U.S. and Iranian officials and shipping website TankerTrackers.com. Iran has warned it will retaliate against the U.S. if it blocks its ships.
Iran’s fuel shipment to gasoline-starved Venezuela ought to “alarm” Latin America, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday, as five Iranian fuel tankers head towards the South American country. Both OPEC members are U.S. adversaries whose oil industries are under U.S. sanctions. Trump administration officials say Washington is considering a response to the shipment.
The depreciation of Iran’s currency against the U.S. dollar has continued in recent days, reaching near all-time lows as the country faces multiple economic challenges. Iran’s rial on Wednesday came close to 180,000 against one U.S. dollar, registering an 11 percent decline in the past two months. The rial has also lost value against the euro and other major currencies, as well as against gold. Before the 1979 revolution in Iran each US dollar traded for 70 rials. Today's exchange rate shows around a 2,500-fold fall for the currency in 41 years.
Iran’s economy is suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in oil prices. But that isn’t stopping Tehran from defying U.S. sanctions by rushing to aid Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro. A tanker that loaded gasoline at Iran’s Bandar Abbas port in March, bound for Venezuela, cleared the Suez Canal last week and could reach the Caribbean by the weekend. Sources tell us four other Iranian-flagged tankers, also carrying fuel for the Maduro regime, are not far behind—and there may be more.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
A British-Iranian woman who was granted temporary release from prison in Iran in March amid the coronavirus pandemic has had her furlough extended indefinitely, her family said on Wednesday, raising hopes that she could be granted clemency and return to Britain. A court in Iran sentenced the woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 41, to five years in prison in 2016, saying she had plotted to overthrow the country’s government, charges that she and her family have vigorously denied. She was freed from the Evin prison, north of Tehran, in mid-March, as the authorities released prisoners amid fears about the spread of the coronavirus among detainees.
An Iranian judge has ordered capital punishment for a man and his wife over multiple corruption charges, on top of them disrupting the country’s auto market. According to judiciary spokesman Gholam-Hossein Esmaili, the couple were found guilty of money laundering, sabotaging Iran’s forex, and hoarding 6,700 vehicles purchased from Saipa, one of the giant but crisis-hit domestic carmakers.
Iranian journalist Nejat Bahrami has started serving a one-year prison sentence this week, in what the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called another step by authorities to "muzzle" the press. Bahrami arrived at Tehran’s Evin Prison on May 18 to begin serving his sentence, according to the Persian service of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). It said Bahrami, a freelance columnist who has written for several publications in Iran, was convicted in August 2019 by the Revolutionary Court of Tehran of "spreading propaganda against the system" and "colluding to disturb the public order" over his writing critical of Iran's political establishment.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
The Iranian navy has rebuffed U.S. warnings from a day prior to stay away from U.S. warships, maintaining that it will continue its regular missions in the Gulf, an Iranian state-run news outlet reported Wednesday. “The naval units of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman will continue their regular missions in accordance with professional principles as in the past,” according to an Iranian military official quoted by the Iranian Students' News Agency.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Iran on Wednesday said it was close to "curbing" the new coronavirus outbreak even as it reported more than 2,000 fresh infections for the third day in a row. "We have been progressing at every step in the past three months... in fighting this dangerous virus and are nearly on the verge of curbing this disease," said President Hassan Rouhani. Iran would "even not have these problems" if health protocols "were more closely observed in some of the provinces that are currently in an unfavourable situation", he told a televised cabinet meeting.
Around 10,000 Iranian health workers have been infected with the new coronavirus, the semi-official ILNA news agency quoted the deputy health minister as saying on Thursday. “Around 10,000 health workers have been infected with the deadly disease in Iran and some of them have died,” Qassem Janbabai said, according to ILNA.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday, ahead of this week’s annual observance of Quds (Jerusalem) Day to express support for Palestinians. “We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime, and we do not hesitate to say this,” Khamenei said in a post on his official English-language Twitter account. Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, has been a key supporter, along with Russia, of President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s civil war, sending military advisers as well as material and regional Shi’ite militias.
More Iran-backed militia members entered eastern Syria from Iraq, according to a pro-Syrian opposition group. The report comes after statements by Israelis that Iran may be starting to withdraw somewhat from Syrian territory. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported today that buses carrying tens of fighers entered al-Bokamal in the eastern Syrian province of Deir ez-Zor, citing unnamed sources. The move followed an attack Saturday via an unknown aircraft on Iranian forces in the area. Earlier that week, the militias received reinforcements to one of their nearby bases, according to the observatory.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted the Islamic Republic of Iran on Wednesday for its genocidal antisemitism targeting Israel, Germany’s Foreign Ministry condemned Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in a statement to The Jerusalem Post. “The federal government sharply condemns all glorification and legitimizing of terror, [as well as] calls for the annihilation of Israel, inciting terrorist acts or spreading antisemitic content. Such hostile comments to Israel are in no way acceptable. Israel's right to exist is not negotiable. The federal republic regularly addresses critical points in all areas in an open way with Iran,” the ministry said.
The email from a prominent Israeli think tank offered some provocative suggestions on U.S. policy towards China. "We must understand that China is at war with the United States,” it declared, citing the covid-19 pandemic as evidence. Its authors recommended that the Trump administration set up a team of “top China experts” such as Stephen K. Bannon and former House speaker Newt Gingrich to confront “Red China” in the wake of the coronavirus crisis. But the five-page analysis that landed in my inbox wasn’t really from an Israeli think tank. It had been sent by Iranian hackers, part of a complex phishing attack targeting my work email account.