The United States plans to designate Yemen’s Houthi movement as a foreign terrorist organization, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, a move that diplomats and aid groups worry could threaten peace talks and complicate efforts to combat the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The decision to blacklist the Iran-aligned group, first reported by Reuters hours earlier, comes as the administration of President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take over from the Trump administration on Jan. 20.
Iran will expel United Nations nuclear watchdog inspectors unless U.S. sanctions are lifted by a Feb. 21 deadline set by the hardline-dominated parliament, a lawmaker said on Saturday. Parliament passed a law in November that obliges the government to halt inspections of its nuclear sites by the International Atomic Energy Agency and step up uranium enrichment beyond the limit set under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal if sanctions are not eased.
A top U.S. State Department official came out swinging Sunday against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s plan to execute another wrestler, after Tehran’s rulers publicly hanged the champion wrestler Navid Afkari in September on widely criticized, trumped-up charges. "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 anti-Semitism, told Fox News. The execution of the decorated wrestler Mehdi Ali Hosseini is imminent.
UANI IN THE NEWS
…In a Friday message to VOA Persian, Jason Brodsky, policy director of U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran, said: “Twitter accounts of Khamenei, other autocrats and their representatives include deeply hateful and dangerous content that incites violence against groups. We've seen Khamenei’s call for the elimination of Israel, which is incitement. So if Twitter has a policy against incitement of violence, it needs to be applied uniformly.” A Twitter spokesperson responded to the accusations of double standards in enforcing incitement prohibitions by telling VOA Persian that the platform has taken enforcement action against world leaders prior to Friday.
The first great conflict of Joseph Biden’s presidency could erupt on the field of national security. In his most significant foreign-policy achievement, President Donald Trump withdrew from Barack Obama’s 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which traded limits on Iran’s nuclear program for immediate financial relief (an estimated $120–$150 billion) and the lifting of Western economic sanctions. Signaling a knee-jerk return to failed Obama policies, the president-elect has promised he will immediately rejoin the JCPOA in a hopeless quest for a peaceful settlement with Tehran’s mullahs.
NUCLEAR DEAL & NUCLEAR PROGRAM
Iran appears intent on generating a nuclear crisis early in Joe Biden's presidency. On Monday, the Iranian government said it began enriching uranium to the 20% level, which is close to the purity used in a nuclear weapon. It is preparing further steps in the coming months, according to a timeline passed by parliament. Iran aims to compel Biden to immediately and unconditionally remove the sanctions that President Trump began to impose three years ago after he pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal.
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
The U.S. imposed sanctions Friday on a senior Iraqi official for his link to human-rights abuses by Iran-backed militias, as the Trump administration continues its campaign to isolate Tehran during the president’s final weeks in office. The official, Faleh al-Fayyadh, is chairman of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella for several dozen Iraqi paramilitary groups including powerful factions with close ideological and operational ties to Tehran. He is the most senior Iraqi official to be blacklisted by Washington, which has deployed sanctions in its efforts to curb Iran’s influence in Iraq and the region.
A South Korean diplomatic delegation arrived in Iran on Sunday to negotiate the release of a vessel and its crew seized by Iranian forces amid an escalating financial dispute between the countries, Iranian state-run media reported. The South Korean-flagged tanker seizure by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard in the crucial Strait of Hormuz came as Iranian officials have been pressing South Korea to release some $7 billion in assets tied up in the country’s banks due to American sanctions. It appeared the Islamic Republic was seeking to increase its leverage over Seoul ahead of South Korea’s pre-scheduled regional trip, which included a stop in Qatar.
The Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, is rarely far from the center of global tensions. A major shipping route that handles around one-third of the world’s waterborne oil, it’s closely watched for signs of disruption. Iranian forces have targeted merchant ships traversing the chokepoint several times since early 2019 amid rising tensions with the U.S. and its allies. In January 2021, Iran seized a South Korean tanker sailing through the area. While Iran has threatened to block transit in the past, the strait has always remained open.
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Iran has granted a three-day medical release for internationally renowned human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, her husband said Friday. "Nasrin came on medical leave for three days a few hours ago to continue her treatment," Reza Khandan tweeted, along with a picture of him and Sotoudeh. The 57-year-old Iranian attorney is serving a more than 30-year prison sentence after her March 2019 conviction on seven charges related to her legal work, which included defending Iranian women arrested for taking off their hijabs. She must serve 12 years before she is eligible for parole.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
With the Biden team pledging to rush back to the Iran deal without preconditions, most would expect Tehran to be on its best behavior. That, however, misjudges the Iranian perspective. In the regime’s view, accommodation is weakness – and something to be exploited. And so we see Tehran acting tough, rather than playing nice. On Monday, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Just a few days earlier, maritime security firms spotted what could be a limpet mine attached to the hull of another oil tanker – something the Iranians have done in the past.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Saturday held a naval parade in the Gulf, state TV reported, amid heightened regional tensions over Tehran's nuclear program. The naval rally was performed near Iran's Farsi Island where Iranian forces seized two US navy boats and 10 crew members for less than one day in January 2016. Footage showed scores of vessels took part in the maneuver. Iranian state TV said hundreds of boats participated. Last week, Iran seized a South Korean oil tanker and its crew members in the Gulf, which it has continued to hold at an Iranian port.
GULF STATES, YEMEN, & IRAN
The Saudi-led members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Egypt took steps during the 41st GCC summit to lower tensions with Qatar that began in mid-2017, a move seen by experts as an important measure to enhance security in the Persian Gulf and curtail Iran’s influence in the region. The summit, held Tuesday in al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia, was noticeably attended by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in his first visit to Saudi Arabia since 2017.
OTHER FOREIGN AFFAIRS
Canadian relatives of those killed when a Ukrainian airliner was shot down by Iranian Revolutionary Guards one year ago on Friday held a vigil in Toronto and pledged to “protest and persevere” in their quest to know what happened that day. The families of the 176 victims - 138 of whom had ties to Canada - were still grieving when the country went into lockdown for COVID-19 in mid-March. The vigil was held virtually and in person outdoors, with attendees holding photos of those killed.
Communist-run Cuba said late on Friday it had signed an accord with Iran to transfer the technology for its most advanced coronavirus vaccine candidate and carry out last-stage clinical trials of the shot in the Islamic Republic. The allies are both under fierce U.S. sanctions that exempt medicine yet often put foreign pharmaceutical companies off trading with them and as such they seek to be self-reliant. Both are also strapped for cash.