The United States and Iran may have pulled back from the brink of war, but they have refused to stand down since the American drone strike in January that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Tehran's elite Quds Force. Instead, the two adversaries have needled each other with increasing pressure. The Trump administration has imposed new sanctions against Iran, while Tehran has flouted Washington's warnings by shipping weapons to Shiite allies in the Middle East. Iranian-backed militias continue to attack bases in Iraq where Americans are deployed. The stalemate could last for another year at least, officials and experts say.
The U.S. and Switzerland formally launched a humanitarian trade channel for Iran on Thursday, a move meant to counter criticism of Washington's economic pressure campaign while opening the way for the release of Americans detained by Tehran. The humanitarian link allows international firms to trade in goods such as medical supplies, agricultural commodities and basic necessities without risk of U.S. sanctions-enforcement penalties.
A senior figure in Iran's government, who sits just a few seats away from President Hassan Rouhani at cabinet meetings, has fallen ill with coronavirus, making her Iran's seventh official to test positive, including one prominent cleric who has died. Vice President Masoumeh Ebtekar, Mr. Rouhani's deputy for women's affairs and the highest-ranking woman in the government, has a confirmed coronavirus infection and is quarantined at home, her deputy said Thursday.
UANI IN THE NEWS
This year has not started well for Iran. In a single US drone strike, Iran lost two of its most powerful terrorist operatives: IRGC-Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran then tragically downed a civilian airliner over Tehran airspace, killing everyone on board, and lied about it for several days. The Iranian economy is in crisis and ordinary Iranians have courageously taken to the streets demanding that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei step down. Yet, rather than acknowledge that the continuation of his policies will bring about more isolation and economic ruin, Khamenei is doubling down, ordering loyalists to go on the offensive.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The United States on Thursday granted a license to allow for certain humanitarian trade transactions with Iran's sanctioned central bank, a move it said was in step with the formalization of a Swiss humanitarian aid channel. The newly created channel, which the U.S. Treasury Department said became fully operational on Thursday as it granted the license, would allow for companies to send food, medicine and other critical supplies to Iran.
Saeed Muhammad, commander of Khatam-al Anbiya Construction - a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces - has suggested Iran use cryptocurrencies to circumvent sanctions. According to a report from the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA), Saeed Muhammad began a speech by stating that "today we are in the economic war". He went on to say that Iran was "demanding a more sophisticated mechanism to circumvent sanctions" that have been imposed on the nation by the United States.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Spy agencies in the U.S. are observing the global spread of the coronavirus and are concerned about how countries -- specifically India and Iran -- could respond to a major outbreak, according to a report on Thursday. Worries in Iran stem from the country's lack of response to the outbreak, which has already infected at least 254 people and killed 26 -- the most deaths outside China. The country reported its first infected case just nine days ago.
US officers deployed at a base in Saudi Arabia have spoken about the new threat posed from Iran to the Kingdom and the region as a whole. About 2,500 troops are now based at the Prince Sultan Air Base after the US decided to return a large military presence to the Kingdom last summer after almost 17 years. The base, south east of Riyadh, stations F-15 fighter jets that fly missions against Daesh over Iraq and Syria and Patriot missile batteries, to help defend from Tehran's attacks, the Wall Street Journal reported.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Religious pilgrimages and ceremonies in the Middle East have emerged as a dangerous new risk in the spread of the coronavirus in the region, as Iran fights to contain the deadly epidemic and Saudi Arabia restricted access to two of Islam's holiest sites. Iran, the hardest-hit country in the region, has halted an Islamic festival, sought to curb mass congregations and canceled Friday prayers in 23 cities across the country, including Qom, which officials believe to be the center of the outbreak.
Describing the latest exercise in voting in Iran's "elections" may require a high degree of indulgence. When all candidates are pre-approved by the authorities and no one is declared a winner without the stamp of the "Supreme Guide", to speak of elections would mean stretching lexical flexibility to breaking point. And, yet, the rigmarole in question merits attention for a number of reasons. To start with, the lowest percentage of eligible voters chose to go to the polls.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett signed an order Thursday to seize some $4 million in funds which Israel said were transferred from Iran to Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. The funds were intended to develop Hamas' infrastructure in Gaza, including the production of weapons as well as payments to the organization's operatives, the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement. The order signed by Bennett targets al-Mutahidoun currency-exchange company owned by Zuheir Shamlakh and his family, it said.
CHINA & IRAN
Iran has banned Chinese citizens from entering the country, Iranian state news agency IRNA reported on Thursday, amid the spread of the new coronavirus across the Islamic Republic that had killed 26 Iranians. Iran, which has the highest number of deaths from the virus outside China, said on Thursday that total number of infected people had increased to 245.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The war in Yemen isn't over just yet... Add surface-to-air missiles to the growing list of advanced weapons-such as cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and armed drones-that Iran is smuggling to its proxy, the Houthi rebels, in Yemen. Clearly, Iran has no interest in ending the nearly 5-year-old Yemeni civil war, stopping its proxy conflict with the Saudi-led coalition-or shortening its long list of malign, destabilizing behaviors in the Middle East.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
In the Middle East, even virus outbreaks are political. The coronavirus has killed 26 people in Iran -- the highest toll outside of China where it originated. Many of the over 240 confirmed cases in the region have links to Iran, including dozens in Kuwait and Bahrain, six in Iraq and two in Lebanon. That spread has put renewed scrutiny on Tehran, with many of its regional foes blaming it for mishandling the outbreak.