The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Iran on Tuesday, keeping up its economic pressure campaign even as it offered to help Tehran cope with the coronavirus pandemic and called on the Islamic Republic to release detained Americans. Iran is considering freeing some U.S. citizens, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a news conference where he made clear Washington will maintain its maximum-pressure campaign to choke off Tehran's ability to export its oil.
The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday that an Iranian man will face federal charges in connection with an alleged scheme to obtain military parts that could be used in nuclear and other weapons systems. The law enforcement agency said Merdad Ansari was extradited from the U.S. state of Georgia to San Antonio in the U.S. state of Texas to face the charges. "As alleged, the defendant helped Iran to develop its weapons programs by obtaining military parts in violation of the Iranian trade embargo," said John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security.
Iran issued its most dire warning yet Tuesday about the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting "millions" could die in the Islamic Republic if people keep traveling and ignore health guidance. A state TV journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shiite faithful on Monday night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that were finally closed due to the virus. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a religious ruling prohibiting "unnecessary" travel.
UANI IN THE NEWS
...However, leading experts and analysts have insisted that the real number is likely much higher - potentially tens of thousands of cases and more than 5,500 deaths nationwide. The disease, which originated out of Wuhan, China, late last year, has claimed the lives not only of Iran's poorest, oldest and most vulnerable but has struck down many from its top echelon and political ranks. "The rationale for a cover-up is regime survival. The coronavirus is only the latest in a series of crises enveloping the Islamic Republic," added Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against a Nuclear Iran (UANI). "Iran's elected and deep states have a vested interest in maintaining the illusion of control."
SANCTIONS, BUSINESS RISKS, & OTHER ECONOMIC NEWS
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has asked the international community to reject U.S. economic sanctions against his country amid a deadly coronavirus epidemic that has killed hundreds. In a tweet on March 17, Zarif said Washington's punitive measures have "drained" Iran's economic resources and asked other countries to "Join the growing global campaign to disregard US sanctions on Iran."
PROTESTS & HUMAN RIGHTS
Jailed British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been temporarily released in Iran for two weeks, her husband said on Tuesday. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 40, a project manager with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 at a Tehran airport as she headed back to Britain with her daughter after a family visit. She was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran's clerical establishment.
U.S.-IRAN RELATIONS & NEGOTIATIONS
Iran is considering releasing some Americans it has detained, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday, as he urged the Islamic Republic to free them as a humanitarian gesture because of the coronavirus pandemic. "We are aware that they are thinking about whether to release them or not," Pompeo told reporters at the State Department.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the nation's top diplomat, called out the Iranian regime on Tuesday for a lack of transparency amid the deadly coronavirus outbreak. "Instead of focusing on the needs of the Iranian people and accepting genuine offers of support, senior Iranians lied about the Wuhan virus outbreak for weeks," Pompeo said during a press briefing at the Department of State.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani needs to find a feather to put in his cap after failures to confront the coronavirus have left millions of Iranians vulnerable. His response: We've done everything right and we have responded to the US over the killing of Qasem Soleimani and we defeated the US over oil sanctions. There is one problem. Rouhani hasn't accomplished any of the things he claims to have done over the last year.
MILITARY/INTELLIGENCE MATTERS & PROXY WARS
President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday Iran has responded, and will respond, to America's assassination of Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the Revolutionary Guards commander killed in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January. Rouhani was speaking following a Cabinet meeting that was broadcast on state television. Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, was instrumental in expanding Iran's military influence in the Middle East as the operative who handles clandestine operations outside Iran.
IRANIAN INTERNAL DEVELOPMENTS
More senior government figures have caught the coronavirus in Iran than anywhere else. Field hospitals have been erected in parking lots, stadiums and wedding halls to handle the overflow of patients. A top health official implored Iranians on Tuesday to avoid spreading the contagion by not traveling during the upcoming Persian New Year, saying anyone who ignored the advice was "inviting death." Iran has one of the world's worst outbreaks, which kills at least 100 people and infects more 1,000 each day, yet with so much at stake, nobody knows who's in charge.
Iranian worshippers have attempted to break into holy shrines and mosques, defying Iran's leaders who are trying to bar access to religious sites as they struggle to stem a soaring death rate caused by the new coronavirus. Police in the central city of Qom on Tuesday apprehended 11 rioters who the night before clashed with mosque guards as they tried to enter one of Iran's holiest sites, the Masoumeh shrine, the Qom prosecutor told state television.
IRAQ & IRAN
Iraq's president designated a former provincial governor with American citizenship as prime minister, drawing criticism from Iran's allies in the country amid new tensions between Washington and Tehran. President Barham Salih on Tuesday tasked Adnan al-Zurfi with forming a government in a bid to break a political deadlock undermining the country's ability to respond to the coronavirus outbreak and recent attacks on U.S. troops.
TURKEY & IRAN
Iran has done much to buttress President Bashar al-Assad's government throughout the Syrian civil war. Since the eruption of the Syrian crisis in 2011, Tehran has spent substantial blood and treasure to support its long-time strategic ally in the Middle East. Yet, although the Iranian military and its proxies have mostly stayed out of Idlib province, Tehran has become more focused on this part of Syria, located along Turkey's southern border, since the start of this year. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani on January 3, Iran's hand in Idlib became increasingly visible.