The United States on Tuesday imposed counter terrorism sanctions on five people it tied to Iran, designating them each as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT), according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s website. Reuters reported on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to use newly declassified U.S. intelligence to publicly accuse Iran of ties to al Qaeda in a speech on Tuesday, two people familiar with the matter said, as part of his last-minute offensive against Tehran before handing over to the incoming Biden administration.
Iran’s navy began a short-range missile drill in the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday, state TV reported, amid heightened regional tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a U.S. pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. The two-day missile drill was being held in the gulf’s southeastern waters and two new Iranian-made warships joined the exercise: The missile-launching Zereh, or “armor,” and the Makran, a logistics vessel with a helicopter pad named for a coastal region in southern Iran.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo argued that the Iranian government has provided far more support to al-Qaeda than Americans realize, citing what he said was new evidence of a burgeoning alliance and publicly confirming for the first time that the group’s No. 2 was killed in Tehran last year. Pompeo didn’t say who was responsible for the Aug. 7 assassination of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, also known as Abu Muhammad al-Masri, though the New York Times reported in November that Israeli agents carried out the job at the behest of the U.S.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran must reverse its decision to enrich uranium at higher levels and give international diplomacy a chance to save the 2015 nuclear accord, the European Union said in a statement. “The initiation of uranium enrichment to up to 20% by Iran at the underground Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant ... is a very serious development and a matter of deep concern,” the EU’s 27 governments said in a statement released late on Monday. “At this critical juncture, Iran’s action also risks undermining efforts aimed at building upon the existing diplomatic process. We urge Iran to refrain from further escalation and reverse this course of action without delay.”
Add one more voice of reason to the long list urging President-elect Joe Biden to rethink his plan to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal: Henry Kissinger warns that it could kick off a disastrous nuclear arms race in the Middle East. At a conference for the Jewish People Policy Institute on Monday, Kissinger argued that Biden should by no means reverse President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the accord. Biden has said he means to return to it as long as Iran agrees to comply with the restrictions on its actions.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran and Cuba have begun trials of a joint Covid-19 vaccine, as Tehran fights the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East while pledging not to use vaccines from the U.S. and U.K. The Cuban vaccine, called Soberana 02, is the most advanced of Cuba’s four vaccine candidates and will be developed in cooperation between Cuba’s Finlay Vaccine Institute and Iran’s Pasteur Institute, authorities from both countries said Monday. The cooperation between two staunch opponents of the U.S., which are both under U.S. sanctions, reflects a shared drive for self-sufficiency and less reliance on imports from the West.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran has sentenced an activist from its Azerbaijani Turk ethnic minority to an effective three-year prison term for joining a public protest last year in support of Azerbaijan while it engaged in a brief conflict with neighboring Armenia, according to a knowledgeable source. In a January 8 interview with VOA Persian from Iran, the source said a Revolutionary Court in the northwestern city of Urmia issued a verbal notification of the sentence to the lawyer of activist Salar Taher Afshar on January 2.
Mounting pressure from British and American officials along with Iranian human rights groups on the International Olympic Committee and United World Wrestling has on Tuesday sparked a reaction from the powerful sports organizations after days of silence about the pending execution of a second decorated Iranian wrestler. "The Iranian regime must be held to account for their vile human rights abuses and their attempt to cling to power through execution," Ellie Cohanim, the State Department’s deputy special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, told The Jerusalem Post.
He has been dead for a month. On Dec. 12 Iranians woke up to bleak news: Their government had executed Ruhollah Zam, a 42-year-old journalist. The sentencing judge described Mr. Zam as a spy, as someone who incited violence and had “sown corruption on earth,” a vague charge which is often used to describe attempts to overthrow the Iranian government. Mr. Zam, who had been imprisoned in Iran after the disputed presidential election in 2009, fled to France in 2011, where he was granted political asylum.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said that late Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani had succeeded in establishing 82 fighting brigades in each of Syria and Iraq. The taskforces, according to Safavi, include fighters from multiple nationalities. Making his remarks at a press conference on the one-year anniversary since Soleimani’s killing in a US drone strike near Baghdad, Safavi confirmed that 60 brigades that are 70,000 fighters strong were established in Syria.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Despite a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 56,000 Iranians, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has banned Western coronavirus vaccines, claiming they’re untrustworthy. “The import of American and British vaccines is banned,” Khamenei said on January 8. The surprise announcement was met with anger by Iranians who have in past weeks called on their government to purchase safe vaccines as soon as possible.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
The Israeli airstrikes against Iranian weapons and targets along the Syrian-Iraq border were based on intelligence provided by the United States, an American intelligence source told the Associated Press on Wednesday morning. According to Syrian news reports, Israeli planes struck targets in the Deir Ezzor region of eastern Syria and in Albukamal near the Syria-Iraq border on Tuesday night. According to the reports, approximately 30 people were killed in the strikes. Pictures that were circulated by Hezbollah showed extensive damage to warehouses.
IRAQ & IRAN
Only a few years ago, Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) were considered an ally of the US-led international coalition fighting the terrorists of Daesh, who were at that time close to toppling the Iraqi government after occupying almost a third of the country. Today, however, the US is one step closer to designating the umbrella organization — under which a handful of mainly pro-Iran militias function — as a terrorist entity.
Facebook has deleted Iran’s state media Press TV page off its platform Tuesday without any warning or explanation, according to the broadcaster. Facebook told the outlet that Iran’s international English news network is not eligible to be on its site, Press TV said in an article. Press TV had 4 million followers before the page was taken down. “Facebook deletes Press TV's main page without any warning or explanation,” the news outlet tweeted.