News Digest: Week of December 2

December 2

Human Rights: At least 208 people had been killed by security forces since protests began on November 15, according to Amnesty International. The watchdog reported that families of victims were warned not to hold funeral ceremonies or talk to the media. Amnesty also reported that some families were forced to pay the government a fee to receive the bodies of their loved ones. After a sudden increase in fuel prices, announced late at night on November 15, demonstrators took to the streets in towns and cities across Iran. The protests turned violent in some cases, and security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Nuclear: Rafael Mariano Grossi, the incoming chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said that he would take a “firm and fair” approach to Iran’s nuclear program. “An inspector is not a friend. He’s someone who comes and needs to ascertain the facts without bias, without agenda, in an objective and impartial way,” Grossi said. “This has to be done in firmness, but in fairness as well.”

Economics: Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri claimed that Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign had failed to stop Tehran from selling its oil. “Despite America’s pressure ... and its imposed sanctions on our oil exports, we still continue to sell our oil by using other means ... when even friendly countries have stopped purchasing our crude fearing America’s penalties,” Jahangiri said on state television.


December 3

Justice/Human Rights: Iranian state television said that security forces killed “rioters who have attacked sensitive or military centers with firearms or knives or have taken hostages in some areas.” It was the first time that the government admitted to shooting protesters since the unrest began on November 15. Mahshahr police chief Colonel Reza Papi acknowledged that “hostiles groups” with “semi-heavy weapons” were killed in a marsh outside the city after firing at police. The New York Times had reported that 40 to 100 protestors, mostly unarmed young men, fled to the marsh and were shot.

Justice: The Intelligence Ministry arrested leaders of an activist group planning protests at universities in Tehran, according to IRIB news agency. The group allegedly intended to incite unrest at multiple campuses on December 7—the country’s annual students’ day.

Diplomacy: President Donald Trump urged the world to recognize the violence committed against protesters by the Iranian government. “Iran is killing perhaps thousands and thousands of people right now as we speak, that it why they cut off the internet so people can’t see what is going on,” he said during a visit to a NATO summit in London.

Nuclear: Tehran proposed a meeting between President Hassan Rouhani and Japanese officials over the nuclear standoff with the United States. Iran’s deputy foreign minister for political affairs Abbas Araghchi relayed the message during a visit to Tokyo earlier this week, according to Kyodo news agency. In mid-2019, Japan offered to mediate between the United States and Iran. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tehran in June 2019. But tensions between Tehran and Washington continued to escalate.

Nuclear: Rafael Mariano Grossi, the incoming chief of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said the agency was still awaiting an explanation from Tehran after detecting uranium at an undeclared site. Israel and the United States had urged the International Atomic Energy Agency  to investigate a “secret atomic warehouse,” which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed during his 2018 U.N. address. “The process continues,” Grossi said. “We have so far not received an entirely satisfactory reply from them, but the exchanges continue.”


December 4

Justice: President Hassan Rouhani urged the judiciary to free any unarmed protesters arrested during demonstrations, which began on November 15. “Religious and Islamic clemency should be shown and those innocent people who protested against petrol price hikes and were not armed ... should be released,” he said. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on the government to quickly process cases. “The faster these cases are considered, the better and those who are suspected of being close to any group should be dealt with in a way that is closer to Islamic mercy,” he said.

Diplomacy: President Rouhani said that Iran was still open to nuclear negotiations with the United States. He stipulated that Washington must first remove all sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. “If America lifts the sanctions, we are ready to talk and negotiate, even at the level of heads of the 5+1 countries (major powers that were party to the 2015 nuclear deal),” Rouhani said. 


Military: The Pentagon warned that Iran could be preparing to attack U.S. forces and interests in the Middle East. “We also continue to see indications ... potential Iranian aggression could occur,” said Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood. “In private … we’ve sent very clear and blunt signals to the Iranian government about the potential consequences of aggression.”

Diplomacy: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu applauded harsh U.S. sanctions against Iran and claimed the “maximum pressure” campaign by the Trump administration sparked the recent anti-government protests. “We’re seeing the Iranian empire totter. We see demonstrations in Tehran, demonstrations in Baghdad, demonstrations in Beirut,” Netanyahu said before a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo . “It’s important to increase this pressure against Iranian aggression.”


Justice: The family of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007, testified in court as part of a $1.5 billion lawsuit against the Islamic Republic. The family accused Iran of kidnapping Levinson and subjecting him to torture. Iran did not provide a representative in the U.S. court case. It was unclear how the family would receive compensation if Iran was found liable.  

Military: U.S. officials said that Washington was considering sending 14,000 additional troops to the Middle East to counter growing threats from Iran. Such a move would double the number of troops sent to the region since the buildup began in May. But two days later, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper clarified that Pentagon was “not currently considering sending additional troops” to the region.

Intelligence reports revealed that Iran had built up a secret arsenal of short-range missiles in Iraq that could danger U.S. interests and forces in the region. Iran reportedly used Iraqi Shiite militias to hide the missiles in the country.

Military: Japan planned to send around 270 sailors to protect Japanese ships transiting the Persian Gulf, according to Nikkei business daily. Tokyo will reportedly deploy one escort ship and one patrol aircraft in a one-year mission that could be renewed annually. Japan’s constitution prevents a standing military but allows for self-defense operations.


December 5

Military: Britain, France and Germany accused Iran of developing missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. They argued that Iran’s activities were inconsistent with the 2015 U.N. resolution that enshrined the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, they cited video footage of a test flight of a new Shahab-3 missile variant "equipped with a maneuverable re-entry vehicle" that is “technically capable of delivering a nuclear weapon.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif ridiculed the Europeans’ letter to the United Nations on Iran’s missile program and criticized the European powers for not upholding their commitments to the 2015 nuclear deal. He said that Iran would continue developing its ballistic missile program.


Military: U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, revealed that a U.S. warship had seized a significant cache of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen’s Houthi rebels. He told reporters that components of anti-ship cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, air defense missiles, and anti-tank missiles were found. “The weapon components comprise the most sophisticated weapons seized by the U.S. Navy to date during the Yemen conflict,” he said.

Human Rights: U.S. Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, alleged that Iranian security forces may have killed more than 1,000 people, including at least a dozen children, in response to demonstrations that were sparked by a gas price hike on November 15. He added that “many thousands of Iranians” and an estimated 7,000 were detained.

Nuclear: Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear company, suspended a research project at Iran’s Fordow nuclear complex due to Tehran’s decision to restart uranium enrichment at the facility. Russian officials said the move was necessary after the United States revoked a sanctions waiver that had previously permitted the project. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said that Moscow would “analyze the possibilities and potential negative consequences of the American measures.”


December 6

Human Rights: U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet accused Iran of “shooting to kill” protesters during government crackdowns on protestors. She said that her office received video evidence of security forces shooting unarmed demonstrators “directly in the face and vital organs.” She added that the government forced confessions from many of the protesters it arrested.

Nuclear: European countries condemned Iran’s violations of the 2015 nuclear deal but said the JCPOA was “still alive.” During the nuclear discussions, Tehran told European powers that it would continue to breach the deal until it served Iran’s interests. Iran had breached the JCPOA at least four times since July.

Military: David Schenker, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, said that Iran may have directed the attacks on Iraq’s Balad air base on December 5. Two rockets landed inside the base but did not cause any casualties or damage. “We’re waiting for full evidence, but if past is prologue then there’s a good chance that Iran was behind it,” Schenker said.

Sanctions: The U.S. Treasury sanctioned three Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders for their alleged role in the killing of innocent protestors. Protests erupted on October 1 over government corruption and growing Iranian influence in Iraq. The Treasury designated Qais al Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al Haq, and Laith al Khazali, his brother and another senior leader of the Iran-backed group. The sanctions also targeted Hussein Falih al Lami, security chief for the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization that includes many Iran-backed militias.


December 7

Justice: An American graduate student, Xiyue Wang, was released in Switzerland in exchange for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian national held in an Atlanta prison for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions.  Wang was arrested in Iran in August 2016 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for allegedly spying. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif thanked the Swiss for their help in arranging the swap. Trump told reporters that the exchange might be “a precursor as to what can be done.”

Politics: Nearly 14,000 candidates had registered for the country’s February 2020 parliamentary elections since registration began on December 1, according to IRNA news agency. Some 15 percent more candidates registered than in the 2016 elections, which tallied around 12,000 candidates.  


December 8

Economics: President Hassan Rouhani submitted a proposed budget to Parliament for the new fiscal year beginning in March 2020. The budget, about $40 billion, was 10 percent more than the previous year. Rouhani’s plan, backed by a $5 billion Russian loan, would raise taxes, sell some government property, add more government bonds, and increase subsidies for food and medical needs. “The budget sends a message to the world that despite the sanctions, we will manage the country,” Rouhani said.