Iran’s army (Artesh) conducted a 24-hour drill involving its ground forces in Western Azerbaijan Province, northwest Iran, bordering Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan, Fars news agency reported on Sunday, October 25.
Iran’s armed forces are composed mainly of the traditional Army (Artesh) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) or the Revolutionary Guards.
The Fars report does not say when exactly the military exercise took place or how long ago it was pre-planned. Iran has announced the deployment of IRGC units near the battlefield between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces on southern banks of the Aras river, which separates Iran from its two neighbors to the north.
Iranian officials have also warned the two countries not to harm civilians in Iran. More than 100 mortars and rockets have hit Iranian towns and villages since the fighting broke out in late September.
General Kiumars Heydari, commander of the army’s ground forces was quotes by Fars as saying that following orders by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei who is also commander in chief of the armed forces, major restructuring, turning mechanized infantry units into mobile attack forces. He added the exercise had both nighttime and daytime phases.
It is not clear to what extent the army drills are related to the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but Heydari himself was reported to be inspecting the border region four day ago.
Iran has good relations with both of its northern neighbors and is generally neutral in the current conflict, calling for talks and offering mediation. But any significant change in the balance of forces in the Caucasus could be cause for concern for Tehran.
Iran's UN Envoy Denies Contacts With Biden Team, Says Sanctions Should Be Lifted First
Iran’s envoy to the United Nations in New York has denied any contacts with the new US administration, in an interview with NBC on Monday, saying Tehran is waiting for President Joe Biden to take the first step to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement.
Majid Takht-Ravanchi’s denial came a day after the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida quoted a source in the Iranian government saying that contacts have been in progress with the Biden administration and Iran has submitted seven conditions for the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In fact, the paper said that Takht-Ravanchi himself was the bearer of the diplomatic message to the US after spending two weeks in Tehran and returning to New York last week.
Takht-Ravanchi specifically answered a direct question that there has not been “any conversation” with the new administration “after Biden came into office” and added that Iran is not “planning to initiate anything.”
Echoing a policy set by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei earlier this month, the Iranian envoy said Iran is not in a hurry to start anything and it is up to the US to return to the JCPOA that President Donald Trump abandoned in 2018 making demanding more concessions from Tehran.
Although Biden has indicated his intention to return to the agreement his national security team has said it will not be an easy and quick process. Biden is also concerned about Iran’s ballistic missile program and aggressive expansion of its influence in the region. Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for the State Department told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that “We are a long way from there”.
Tehran Coronavirus Taskforce Director Warns Of New "Alarming" Signals
The director of the Coronavirus Taskforce for the Greater Tehran Alireza Zali reported a new “alarming” rise in the spread of coronavirus in Tehran and said: “We have received these signals from quickly released and hospitalized patients.”
According to ISNA, Zali said in a provincial coronavirus taskforce meeting: “In the fourth week of this months, compared to the third week, the drop in the rate of spread has slowed down, and the spread rate has even increased in some areas.”
According to Zali, in 30 to 40 days the death toll of coronavirus in Tehran will increase.
He also mentioned that the tracking and testing programs in Tehran have slowed down compared to previous weeks and said: “Currently the rate of social distancing in Tehran is 74 percent and it is dropping compared to previous weeks.”
“In the past week we have had 24 percent increase in city commutes which is very concerning,” Zali added.
The director of Tehran’s coronavirus taskforce emphasized “avoiding strategic mistakes” and the necessity of “implementing stricter protocols in the next two weeks in Tehran’s airports” and criticized the “private school for mandating student attendance”.
He continued: “We suggested the Azad University national entrance exam to be held from home or be postponed due to the current conditions in Tehran.”
Signal Responds To Filtering In Iran: We Haven’t Given Up
After the filtering of the Signal messenger app in Iran, the social media app tweeted in response: “Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven't given up.”
In a tweet on Monday, Signal announced: “Ever since Signal simultaneously hit number one on the Iranian Play Store and number one on the Iranian government’s block list, we have been working around Islamic Republic’s censorship.”
“Unable to stop registration, the Islamic Republic censors are now dropping all Signal traffic,” the statement added. “Iranian people deserve privacy. We haven't given up.”
Signal recently became the number one downloaded app in Iran after WhatsApp’s policy-change announcement regarding privacy.
The Internet filtering authority in Iran declared "criminal content" as the reason for removing the app. After the app was removed from Iranian markets, Iranian users who tried to download the app received a message telling them the app was “removed by the order of the Criminal Content Designation Taskforce”.
Despite the removal of Signal from Iranian app markets, many users say they were able to download the app from Google Play. Some Iranian users believe the reason for the app’s removal is to “prevent the popularity of Signal so it doesn’t turn into another Telegram.”
Despite the filtering of Twitter and Facebook for Iranians, most regime officials and their families use these apps constantly for propaganda purposes.
One member of parliament, Mohammad Raghi Naqd Ali, in response to this criticism said: “There are different limitations on members of a family. The father does not give his debit card code to his infant child, but the wife or the older child might have the code.”
Biden Administration Suspends Some Sanctions On Iran-Backed Houthis
Biden administration on Monday suspended sanctions on certain transactions involving the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen that were imposed by the previous administration.
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo designated Houthis (Ansarallah) as a “foreign terrorist organization” on January 10, with the sanctions going into effect a day before President Biden’s inauguration.
Biden administration had previously mentioned the possibility of revisiting President Trump’s decision to designate the Iran-backed Houthis as a terrorist organization.
The Treasury Department announced that if foreign banks announce their transactions with Houthis in a transparent way, they will not face sanctions.
The move appeared designed to allay fears of companies and banks involved in commercial trade to Yemen, which relies almost solely on imports.
The Trump administration exempted aid groups, the United Nations, the Red Cross, and the export of agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices from its designation, but the critics said the sanctions would exacerbate what is already a humanitarian crisis by barring aid deliveries to civilians in the war-torn nation.
The exemption will expire in a month, on February 25, pending more review of the situation.
“It essentially wipes out the entire effect of the designation while giving the Biden administration a chance to make the decision on its own rather than getting stuck with Mike Pompeo’s decision,” said Brian O’Toole, a former Treasury official under the Obama Administration.
Wrestler Executed in Khuzestan Province Of Iran
Mahdi Ali Hosseini, 30 years old wrestler from Andimeshk city in Iran’s southwestern province of Khuzestan was executed on Monday morning in Dezful prison.
Ali Hosseini was arrested in 2015 for committing murder during a fight and was later sentenced to death. His execution was delayed for seven days on January 10.
Several famous Iranian wrestlers such as Hamid Sourian and Habib Akhlaghi had tried to prevent the execution by persuading the family of the victim to forgive Ali Hosseini.
However, the chairman of Andimeshk’s wrestling board says Ali Hosseini was never a wrestler.
Iran has the highest rate of executions in the world. According to the Human Rights Activists, last year at least 236 citizens were executed in Iran and 95 more are on death row awaiting execution.
Among those executed are at least two children, and many were sentenced to death when they were minors, and executed after they reached legal age. At least one execution was held in public.
According to the same reports, over 72 percent of executions in Iran are not reported.
A few months ago, the Islamic Republic’s judiciary executed another wrestler, Navid Afkari, despite the international backlash. Two months later, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning “blatant violations of human rights in Iran”.
Report Confirms Iran Facing Natural Gas Shortage
Natural gas pressure is falling in Iran’s South Pars field shared with Qatar in the Persian Gulf, potentially leading to an energy crisis, Mehr news agency has reported Monday, January 25.
Iran has been suffering from widespread power outages in January as winter cold has driven up demand for natural gas that power station need to supply electricity. New warnings of more outages were issued Monday for the next few days in northern Iran, including the capital Tehran.
Iran has huge oil and natural gas reserves, but years of economic isolation and various foreign sanctions have prevented investment and technology transfers to expand extraction operations.
Iran International reported last week about the falling gas pressure and shortages of supplies.
Qatar, which shares the Pars gas field has been increasing its gas extraction there and has produced 2.5 times more natural gas than Iran since the 1990s. But Tehran which needs to use bigger platforms to reach the underground deposits has no production partner with capital and technology.
The French oil giant Total pulled out of a $4.8 billion contract with Iran in 2018 for joint development of the South Pars field, after Washington withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and began reimposing sanctions.
Mehr news agency says the general manager of operation in the gas field denied pressure is gradually falling, but an unnamed source confirmed that a slow decline has begun which will accelerate in the coming years.
Meanwhile, cheap, subsidized fuel prices helps keep consumption high without any new wells being added to extract gas, forcing power stations to burn dirty, heavy oil products that is polluting major cities.
Freed British-Australian Academic Calls For Release Of Others Jailed In Iran
Two months after her release from an Iranian prison, British-Australian academic Kylie Moore-Gilbert has urged support for “countless innocent others” held in Iranian prisons. “I may be free, but there are countless innocent others still imprisoned in Iran who deserve your support,” Moore-Gilbert said in a tweet on Monday [January 25].
Moore-Gilbert named dual nationals detained in Iran, including French-Iranian academic Fariba Adelkhah (Roland), British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Austrian-Iranian academic Massud Mossaheb, British-Iranian businessman Anoosheh Ashoori, British Council art curator Aras Amiri, Swedish-Iranian medical doctor and researcher Ahmadreza Djalali, American-Iranian businessman Siamak Namazi and his elderly father Bagher Namazi, and Austrian businessman Kamran Ghaderi.
Moore-Gilbert said she hoped all these dual nationals, as well as “many unnamed Iranians” were freed. “I can never regain the 2+ years which were stolen from me, but I am looking to the future with strength, positivity and an [sic] renewed appreciation for what I’d long taken for granted - justice and freedom,” she added in another tweet on Monday.
The British-Australian academic was exchanged on November 25 with three Iranians in prison in Thailand after complicated negotiations between Australia, Thailand and Iran. Thai officials two days later confirmed that the three Iranians had been involved in a plot to assassinate an Israeli diplomat in 2012.
Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies, was sentenced to ten years in prison after charges of espionage for Israel. No evidence of her alleged crimes has ever been made public, although Iranian news agencies have now said she was affiliated with foreign intelligence services including Britain’s MI6 and Mossad and was trained by Israeli Army intelligence.
US Commander Sees Opportunities With Iran Under Biden Administration
General Frank McKenzie, the head of United States Central Command (Centcom), said on Monday [January 25] that Iran had largely managed its “proxies” during the final days of the presidency of Donald Trump. McKenzie was speaking en route to the Middle East for his first visit under the new administration of President Joe Biden.
McKenzie told reporters there had been “heightened threat streams” from Iran in the past few months but that Iran had not attacked US targets and had restrained its allies in Iraq and elsewhere from provoking wider hostilities in Trump’s twilight days.
“Largely they have been able to tell them this is not the time to provoke a war,” McKenzie said, adding this was not primarily a military matter: “I’m sure there’s a political calculation in Iran to get to a new administration and see if things change.”
McKenzie suggested the onset of the Biden administration brought “opportunities” for a new relationship with Iran. Biden has pledged to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), which Trump abandoned in 2018 before imposition draconian sanctions that have sent the Iranian economy into three years’ stagflation. In January 2020, Trump ordered a missile attack in Baghdad that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and eight others. Further sanctions levied by Trump were designed to complicate Biden’s challenge with Iran.
McKenzie will visit Israel later this week for talks with military and security officials focused on Iran. Centcom covers the Middle East, Central Asia and Pakistan.
Iran's Zarif Repeats Demand For US Sanctions Compensation
Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has repeated a previous demand that the United States should compensate Iran for damages it sustains during the period of sanctions.
Earlier, Ali Akbar Velayati, top foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had mentioned compensation as one of the conditions for restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.
Former US President Donald Trump imposed tough sanction on Iran in 2018 after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement and demanding new negotiations. The sanctions have cost Iran’s economy billions of dollars, but not all sanctions are related to the dispute over its nuclear program.
Zarif, who was speaking Monday [Jan. 25] with Tasnim news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards said once the US returns to the agreement the issue of compensation can be presented to the JCPOA Joint Commission that meets every three months.
“The (JCPOA) Joint Commission holds meetings every three months at the level of deputy ministers. Talks are held in the meeting, and one of the topics that will definitely be discussed is the issue of compensation,” Zarif told Tasnim.
The demand for compensation can be used as a lever by Iran if the new US administration returns to JCPOA and then makes other demands from Iran, such as limitations on its ballistic missile program.
President Joe Biden has indicated his intention to return to the nuclear deal but his aides have said they need to consult with regional countries such as Israel and the issue is a complicated one.
Macron & Biden Agree To Cooperate on China, Russia, & Iran Nuclear Deal
New US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron held a phone discussion for the first time on Sunday and agreed to work closely on coronavirus, world economy, and the Iran nuclear issue.
In their phone call, the two presidents discussed “their willingness to act together for peace in the Near and Middle East, in particular on the Iranian nuclear issue.”
According to a White House statement, Biden “stressed his commitment to bolstering the transatlantic relationship, including through NATO and the United States’ partnership with the European Union.”
The White House said Biden and Macron also discussed cooperation on China and Russia, and that Macron said he would cooperate with Washington on the Iranian nuclear deal and the situation in Lebanon.
Macron had initially attempted to forge a close relationship with Trump, but the two later were frequently at odds over Syria, US tariffs, and Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord — which Biden moved to re-enter on his first day in office.
In 2017, President Trump unilaterally left the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and began the policy of “maximum pressure” by imposing consistent heavy sanctions on Iran’s oil and main industries.
President Biden had previously promised to return to the nuclear deal if Iran would fully comply with its commitments under JCPOA.
Iranian Security Forces Shoot At Citizens In Iranshahr
Baluch Activists Campaign reported that security forces opened fire on people in Kolahdouz district of Iranshahr county in Sistan and Baluchistan province in Iran.
According to the campaign’s Telegram channel, the reason given for the attack on Sunday was “fighting fuel smuggling”. Sistan and Baluchistan is a mainly Sunni populated region where tensions exist with the Shiite government.
One informed source told the campaign that the people defended themselves with rocks and forced the security forces to escape. The report states that the security forces threatened the citizens and said they will attack again.
The campaign claims the attack and shooting were done in order to distract people from the destruction of a Sunni mosque in the city.
It was reported on Saturday that the Sunni mosque in Iranshahr was destroyed in the presence of security forces and police. Baluch activists in response called for a protest in the evening on Sunday, but the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence called Baluch clerics and threatened them to ask the people to remain silent. According to the report, the security forces also asked the mayor of Iranshahr to announce that the destruction of the mosque was a municipality issue.
Last April the campaign also reported the killing of three boys ages 17, 18, and 20 during a police attack in their homes.
But the city prosecutor said these individuals were armed and were killed in a clash with the police while stealing a car.
French FM Says Situation With Iran Nuclear Program 'Very Dangerous'
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has again called the situation with Iran’s nuclear program “very dangerous” in an interview with France Inter radio on Sunday [Jan. 24].
“Iran's access to nuclear weapons would have considerable geostrategic consequences” Le Drian said adding that “We must find the way back to the Vienna accords. We are in the opposite situation to what we wanted. Trump wanted maximum pressure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the reality is that he is not far from acquiring them”.
Iran has been accelerating its breaches of the 2015 nuclear agreement and earlier this month started pressing ahead with plans to enrich uranium to 20% fissile strength. That is the level Tehran achieved before striking the deal with world powers to contain its disputed nuclear ambitions.
Le Drian had warned on January 17 that Iran is in the process of building up its nuclear weapons capacity and it is urgent that Tehran and Washington return to the 2015 nuclear agreement.
However, Le Drian said at the time that even if both sides were to return to the deal, it would not be enough.
"Tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran's destabilization of its neighbors in the region," Le Drian said.
President Joe Biden has indicated he is willing to return to the agreement but he has also emphasized the need to address the issues of Iran’s ballistic missiles and it is regional activities.
Iran Not To Accept Qatar Mediation To Release Impounded Korean Tanker
The Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on Sunday said Iran will not accept Qatar's mediation to release a South Korean tanker which the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) impounded on January 4 in the Persian Gulf.
Responding to a question in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) on South Korea's appeal to Qatar to mediate for the release of the vessel, Khatibzadeh said Iran has already told the Koreans that Iran will not accept "political mediation" in a "technical matter."
According to a Yonhap news agency report on January 14, Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister Choi Jong-Kung in a meeting with Soltan bin Saad Al-Muraikhi, the Qatari Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, asked for Doha's "maximum possible support" following his talks in Tehran.
Iran insists that the seizure of the Korean-flagged tanker MT Hankuk Chemi is a "technical matter" related to marine environment pollution, but there are strong suspicions the seizure is related to $7 billion frozen by South Korean banks due to US sanctions.
Khatibzadeh denied that Iran is holding the tanker to put pressure on Seoul to unfreeze the funds. "We have tried different paths for unblocking these funds which were illegally blocked by Korean banks," he said and reiterated that the recent visit of South Korea's First Vice Foreign Minister to Tehran was made to resolve the issue of the frozen assets, not the seized vessel.
A senior South Korean official on Thursday [January 21] said the country expected the new United States administration of President Joe Biden help resolve the issue of the seized tanker.