U.S. and Iraqi officials believe that an Iran-backed group with a history of targeting Americans in Iraq was responsible for Wednesday's attack on an Iraqi air base that hosts U.S. troops. While the investigation into the attack on Ain al-Asad air base in the western province of Anbar is still ongoing, officials believe that Kataib Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed paramilitary force, or an affiliated group was responsible, according to two defense officials familiar with early intelligence. The two defense officials requested anonymity to discuss intelligence. A spokesperson for U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, declined to offer immediate comment.
Iran has agreed to sit down with international technical experts investigating the discovery of uranium particles at three former undeclared sites in the country, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog said Thursday, after months of frustration at Tehran's lack of a credible explanation. The agreement came as three of the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — France, Germany and Britain — backed off the idea of a resolution criticizing Iran for its decision to start limiting access by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to current facilities.
At least a dozen people and possibly up to 23 have been killed in Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province where Revolutionary Guards and security forces have used lethal force against fuel couriers from ethnic minorities and protesters, the United Nations said on Friday. Iran is investigating an incident in which at least two Iranians were shot dead this week at the border with Pakistan, and Islamabad has handed over the body of one of the victims, the Iranian foreign ministry said a week ago.
UANI IN THE NEWS
…According to the website of United Against a Nuclear Iran, Iran’s judiciary charged Kahkesh with “collaboration with foreign governments” and imposed a seven prison sentence on the athlete. The formal Iranian regime charges listed on UANI’s website against Kahkesh are: Insulting the prophet / Insulting Islamic sanctities; propaganda against the state; insulting the leader or the founder of the Islamic Republic. Wang said Kahkesh appeared to be naïve about the Islamic Republic’s opposition to normal diplomatic relations with Israel.
…Iran-watchers on Twitter took issue with Kirby's remarks and suggested they may be signaling a policy pivot from the administration. Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of the Gulf State Analytics geopolitical risk company, said Kirby's phrasing was "rather weird." Jason Brodsky, the policy director of the United Against Nuclear Iran group, said the exchange with Kirby was "bizarre."
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Indian merchants have almost entirely stopped signing new export contracts with Iranian buyers for commodities such as rice, sugar and tea, due to caution about Tehran’s dwindling rupee reserves with Indian banks, six industry officials told Reuters. “Exporters are avoiding dealing with Iran since payments are getting delayed for months,” said a Mumbai-based dealer with a global trading house. Iran’s rupee reserves in India’s UCO and IDBI Bank, the two lenders authorised to facilitate rupee trade, have depleted significantly and exporters are not sure whether they would be paid on time for new shipments, the dealer said.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband has said he is “sceptical” she will be able to return to the United Kingdom soon, despite her prison sentence in Iran entering its final few days. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman, was arrested in March 2016 at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport while travelling back to the UK, accompanied by her young daughter at the end of a visit to her parents’ home in Iran. The 43-year-old was later convicted of espionage and plotting to overthrow the Iranian government – charges she has consistently denied – and was imprisoned in the capital’s Evin Prison.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
U.S. President Joe Biden’s refusal to offer upfront sanctions relief to Iran may have angered Tehran’s clerical rulers but it has won some praise at home despite his failure so far to draw Iran into nuclear talks or deter attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. “Sensible,” said Elliott Abrams, former President Donald Trump’s special envoy for Iran, of Biden’s unwillingness to give Tehran sanctions relief before any talks on both sides resuming compliance with the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. “Negotiation is always a give and take but we should not pay them just for the pleasure of their company at the negotiating table,” Abrams said.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
A court in Iran has ordered the dissolution of a prominent Iranian NGO that fights poverty. Imam Ali's Popular Students Relief Society (IAPSRS) announced the court decision on Twitter on March 3 without providing details, including whether it plans on appealing the ruling. The decision came after Iran's Interior Ministry filed a complaint against the NGO and called on the judiciary to order its dissolution, a move that Human Rights Watch (HRW) said "fits a broader pattern of repression faced by civil society, but with the targeting of IAPSRS, authorities are now even shuttering groups that have been officially registered with the government."
CONGRESS & IRAN
President Joe Biden’s nominee to become the Pentagon’s top policy adviser faced relentless Republican criticism on Thursday over his support for the Iran nuclear deal, in a confirmation hearing that could foreshadow bigger fights over Biden’s national security agenda. Colin Kahl, who was a top aide to Biden during the Obama administration, reaffirmed his views on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, strong defense ties with Israel and the U.S. military’s so-called “triad” of nuclear missiles, submarines and bombers.
Republicans are pressing the State Department to back an arms embargo on Iran amid strikes on coalition forces in Iraq that are believed to be from militias with ties to Tehran. GOP Sens. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) urged Secretary of State Antony Blinken this week to work with U.S. allies to impose the embargo, noting that a similar ban from the United Nations implemented in 2016 expired in October. “We must impose a meaningful and effective arms embargo, complete with secondary sanctions, to prevent countries and businesses from selling weapons and arms to Iran as well as preventing Iran from selling its weapons abroad,” they wrote.
RUSSIA, SYRIA, ISRAEL, HEZBOLLAH, LEBANON & IRAN
The Israeli military is updating plans to strike Iranian nuclear sites and is prepared to act independently, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz told Fox News. Israel has identified numerous targets inside Iran that would hurt its ability to develop a nuclear bomb. "If the world stops them before, it's very much good. But if not, we must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves," Gantz said in his first sit-down interview with an American outlet.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday spoke to US Vice President Kamala Harris, with the conversation focusing on the pandemic, the Iranian nuclear program, and the International Criminal Court’s decision to open an investigation into Israel over alleged war crimes, his office said. The call, the first between them since the inauguration, came a day after the ICC announced it would investigate Israel and Palestinian terror groups over alleged war crimes and as the Biden administration seeks to reenter the Iran nuclear deal.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States will provide $191 million in additional aid to the Yemeni people, who suffer from what he called “the largest and most urgent” humanitarian crisis in the world. Blinken said the United States has now given more than $3.4 billion in humanitarian assistance to Yemen since the conflict began in 2015. This assistance will save many lives, but the sad truth is that no amount of aid will dramatically or durably improve conditions until Yemen’s conflict ends.
TURKEY & IRAN
The name Reza Zarrab probably does not ring a bell with most people. But he was at the center of a money laundering and sanctions-evading scheme set up by the Iranian regime with the alleged help of Turkey. He became a key witness for the US prosecutor and is perhaps the reason why sanctions hurt Iran so deeply during the Trump administration. Zarrab’s case is symbolic of Turkey and Iran’s pragmatic approach to geopolitical issues and their vision of the Arab region. Beyond such illegal business activities, theirs is also a political deal, whereby influence and territories are divided in a transactional way.