Rockets struck Baghdad's international airport compound Thursday, as the country tries to contain anti-government protests which have shaken the foundation of the Iraqi government. The attack appears to be the latest in what a senior U.S. military official described as a dangerously escalating campaign by Iran-backed militias. The protests, which have swept cities from Baghdad to Basra over the last two-and-a-half months, have laid bare the Iraqi government's limited ability to control Iran-backed paramilitary forces that are now part of the country's official security forces.
A senior U.S. official says Washington's sanctions against Iran have sharply curbed Tehran's access to foreign currency, leaving it only $10 billion of accessible reserves to "foment violence and suffering" at home and abroad. U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook shared what he said were newly declassified details of Iran's foreign exchange reserves in a speech Thursday to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington.
Iran's government has acknowledged that it faced a "very big" cyberattack, following a report in The New York Times this week that information from 15 million Iranian bank accounts was stolen and published online after widespread street protests were crushed in November. Iran's telecommunication minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi - who had previously dismissed the bank-account theft as an insider extortion plot - said the attack had been state sponsored, but he offered no evidence to back up the claim.
UANI IN THE NEWS
Some experts also say the recent seizure is yet more evidence that Iran acts as a "spoiler" in Yemen, especially since Saudi Arabia reportedly has been engaged in informal talks with the Houthis about a potential cease-fire. "Riyadh is seeking border security as a part of this process, and the continued Iranian arming of the Houthis - in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions - is Tehran's way of putting its thumb on the scale," said Jason Brodsky, an Iran expert based in Washington.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
The European powers appear to be changing their position toward the Islamic Republic, as they last week warned that Iran is developing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The UK, France and Germany (E3) - all signatories to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal - stated in a letter to the UN that Iran had in April tested a Shahab-3 missile variant that is "equipped with a new maneuverable re-entry vehicle" and could deliver a nuclear weapon. Tehran sees the potential change in the E3's stance as a threat to its national security and the survival of the theocratic establishment.
Iran is back in the nuclear game. In May 2019, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country would no longer be bound by the nuclear limits under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known simply as the Iran nuclear deal. Rouhani's remarks marked the end of a year-long period in which Iran continued implementing the agreement after Washington withdrew from it in May 2018.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran is being convulsed by its worst unrest for 40 years, with cities across the country paralyzed by thousands of anti-government protesters. Though sparked by a spike in fuel prices, the explosion of anger has been a long time coming. Iranians are living under an authoritarian regime while battling falling living standards and a faltering economy, exacerbated by crippling American sanctions levied to stifle Tehran's nuclear program and regional influence.
Attacks on bases hosting US-led coalition forces by Iranian-armed militias are heading towards a red line for the coalition, who would respond with such force that "no one would like the outcome," a senior US official warned on Wednesday. Just hours later a further two rockets hit near the military section of Baghdad airport. The attack is the tenth of its type since October, targeting joint US-Iraqi military facilities that host forces from the US-led coalition to defeat Isil.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Senior Iranian officials have begun making statements aimed at somehow explaining away the killing of hundreds of protesters in November and detaining thousands. The secretary of the top security council on December 12 claimed without evidence that 85 percent of those killed were not involved in the protests and might have been shot by protesters. On the same day, the general prosecutor said there could be some "innocent" people among those arrested and killed.
Branch 28 of Tehran's Revolutionary Court has sentenced a civic activist and a labor activist to five-year prison terms each. Revolutionary courts do not abide by Iran's civil code and often issue arbitrary decisions. The court is headed by notorious hardliner judge Mohammad Maghiseh who often handles cases related to dissent or activism in Iran's capital. Rezvaneh Mohammadi is a civic activist defending the LGBTQ community members. However, the charges against her were accusations routinely made against civic and political activists.
Use of a single word deemed offensive by Iranian religious officials resulted in a six-year jail sentence for journalist Pouyan Khoshhal. In an article published in October 2018 in the daily Ebtekar, Khoshhal used the word "death" instead of "martyrdom" in a reference to Imam Husayn, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who is revered under Iran's official religion, Shi'ite Islam. Khoshhal decided six years was too harsh of a penalty and he fled Iran.
Ever since her marriage in 2014 to the son of a powerful Iranian hard-liner, Mahnaz Afshar, an actress with an uncanny resemblance to 1970s mini-skirted idol Googoosh, has been a figure of controversy in Iran. The recent debate is related to her appearance in November as one of the judges on the show "Persia's Got Talent," broadcast on a Saudi-funded TV channel - right at the height of political tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Afshar played her first role in a TV series in 1998 and appeared in commercial popular films for a decade.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley testified about the Department of Defense activities in Syria and the Middle East. While the hearing chaired by Representative Adam Hill closely focused on the recent pullout of U.S. troops from Syria and the Turkish incursion, questions about the DoD's activities about Iran were also raised. In response to threats emanating from Iran the Secretary of defense Esper testified in his opening statement that "since May of this year nearly 14,000 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the region to serve as a tangiblecommitment to our allies and our partners."
U.S. President Donald Trump this week brought back into discussion an idea that had almost completely disappeared in recent months: negotiations with Iran. The option of direct talks between Iran and the U.S., which made headlines around the world over the summer, became less relevant as the U.S., Israel and Iran all experienced internal political dramas. Over the weekend, however, things changed, after Iran released from prison an American scientist who had been held in the country since 2016. In return, the U.S. released from jail an Iranian citizen who had been indicted on charges of violating the sanctions placed on the Islamic Republic.
Iran is likely to attack more Western targets in the Middle East soon, and the United States will need to respond, Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Thursday. "I expect Iran will take further provocative actions in the coming weeks," Thornberry said on a C-SPAN "Newsmakers" program set to air Friday night.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
Fresh off a week-long internet blackout that left the nation reeling, President Hassan Rouhani triggered a new wave of anxiety among Iranians fearing they soon may be all but shut off from the global community. While in parliament on December 8 to officially hand over the budget bill for the upcoming Iranian calendar year (March 2020), the president said internet bandwidth speed has multiplied twenty times compared to when he first assumed office in 2013.
Iran's post office has used a drone to test fly a box to the country's telecommunications minister. Officials say using drones might one day reduce air pollution and traffic in the capital Tehran. Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, in video posted on his Twitter account, shows Thursday how he received the box. Jahromi said with the post office's "post +" program, there will be no unreachable point in the country.
Iranians facing a crackdown on protests are going for a break, or permanently, to Istanbul, where they're a little more free to talk about the situation back home. The situation in Iran is leading many people to flee that country. A hike in gas prices last month led to strikes that paralyzed Iran. The government responded with a violent crackdown. NPR's Peter Kenyon met with Iranians who had come to Istanbul and can now speak a bit more freely about the situation at home.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
Spokesman of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC), Brigadier General Ramazan Sharif, has accused the media of misquoting recent remarks made by a veteran IRGC General, threatening to reduce Tel Aviv to ashes from the Lebanese territory. Earlier on Tuesday, December 10, Mizan, a conservative website in Iran had cited the IRGC General Morteza Qorbani as saying, "If the Zionist regime (Israel) makes the smallest mistake toward Iran, we will reduce Tel Aviv to ashes from Lebanon."
Iran has been constructing a new base near Albukamal in Syria, near the Iraqi border, according to satellite images published by Image Sat International over the last several months, which also has shown the bases' continued expansion. The base is now clearly part of a much larger nexus of Iranian influence across Iraq and Syria that is in the spotlight as Iran moves ballistic missiles to Iraq, and as Iranian-backed militias fire rockets at bases housing US forces. An examination of the area shows that the new base has 30km of internal roads and is linked to the strategic T-4 base 290 km to the West via desert roads.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
Saudi Arabia is quietly trying to mend fences with Iran and other regional foes as officials in the kingdom have grown more worried about the risks conflict poses to its oil-dependent economy. Riyadh's newfound interest in better relations with regional rivals comes as Saudi officials question how much backing it has from the U.S. and other allies. Saudi calculations changed after a cruise-missile and drone strike-blamed on Tehran-temporarily disabled a large portion of the country's crude production earlier this year.
IRAQ & IRAN
Outside the charred walls of a shrine complex here is ample evidence of the ferocity of a dayslong battle mounted by Iraqi protesters, convinced they were targeting a symbol of Iranian power in Iraq. Molotov cocktails that failed to explode - their blackened fuses stuffed into bottles of gasoline or spirits - lie scattered amid a carpet of stones, bricks, and broken glass.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
At least 13 people were killed in a fiery collision between a passenger bus and a pickup truck carrying smuggled Iranian gasoline early Friday in southwestern Pakistan, officials said. The deadly collision happened around 4 a.m. Friday in Killa Saifullah, a remote district in Baluchistan Province. "Thirteen people were burned to death in the collision. One person miraculously survived without any injuries," Atiqur Rehman, the deputy commissioner of the district, said in a telephone interview.
When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani travels to Japan on Dec. 19-20, he will be looking to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to try to advance possible US-Iran mediation efforts, as French efforts appear to have stalled amid rising European concern about Iran's steps away from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran "is asking Abe to pick up where [French President Emmanuel] Macron left off," Ali Vaez, Iran director at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor.