News Digest: Week of December 16

December 16

Human Rights: Amnesty International updated its death toll from the November fuel price protests. At least 304 people were killed and thousands more were injured in the harsh government crackdown, according to the watchdog. The report said that security forces “massacred” scores of unarmed protestors and detained at least 7,000 people, including children as young as 15.


Human Rights: Xiyue Wang, an American scholar freed from Iran in a prisoner swap on December 7, called his release “a victory of humanity and diplomacy across nations and political differences.” He urged the release of all other political prisoners. “We urge world leaders to come together and find the compassion and common ground to free all political prisoners as soon as possible,” he said. “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Diplomacy: Iranian officials said that meeting between President Hassan Rouhani and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, slated for December 20, was unrelated to U.S. negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. “Rouhani's visit to Japan is an intensive working visit. He will be in Japan less than 24 hours… The main topic of this visit is to pursue the expansion of bilateral relations and facilitate consultations between the two sides about regional conditions and international issues,” said Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.


December 17

Justice: An Iranian court sentenced three labor activists to five years in prison for participating in protests last year. Two of the activists, Esmail Bakhshi and Mohammad Khanifar, were sugar mill workers who protested wages at the Haft Tapeh mill in southern Khuzestan province. The third man, Sepideh Gholian, was detained in October 2018 after a workers’ strike in Khuzestan.

Military: Admiral Tony Radakin, Britain’s First Sea Lord, warned that the Iranian threat to shipping in the Persian Gulf “has not gone away.” Radakin called Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero, a British-flagged tanker, “aggressive” and “outrageous.” He added that Britain would maintain its increased naval presence in the Persian Gulf as part of the U.S.-led maritime coalition, Operation Sentinel.

Economics: The United States indicted an Indonesian man accused of transferring refurbished aircraft parts to Mahan Air, Iran’s national airline, in violation of U.S. sanctions. Sunakro Kuntjoro, the president-director of PT MS Aero Support, allegedly exported millions of dollars of U.S.-made equipment to the airline between 2011 and 2018. The U.S. Justice Department charged him with sanctions-breaking, money laundering, and false statements.


Military: Gholamreza Soleimani, the Basij paramilitary’s chief, said the organization will expand its presence in “every neighborhood” after widescale protests against fuel price hikes in November. Soleimani also announced plans to include more women in the group and to establish a “Basij University.”


December 18

Nuclear/Diplomacy: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif rejected the U.S. threat to invoke the dispute mechanism of the 2015 nuclear deal, which could trigger new sanctions against Tehran. Zarif accused the United States of walking away from its commitments of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action when President Trump left the deal in 2018.


Economics: The Majles Research Center, an influential parliamentary think tank, published a critical assessment of Iran’s 2020 budget. The report said that the government’s projected revenue was “unrealistic” and had been prepared “without implementing any structural reforms.” The think tank suggested that parliament amend the current bill to address the issues. President Rouhani had presented the budget proposal to lawmakers on December 8.


December 19

Human Rights/Economics: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran for wide-ranging human rights abuses, including the violent crackdown on protestors in November 2019. “If you seek to recover respect from your people and from the world, if you seek stability and prosperity for a once great nation, you must respect the commitments that you have made. You must respect human rights,” he said. Pompeo also announced new U.S. sanctions against two Iranian judges, Mohammad Moghisseh, and Abolghassem Salavati, who had sentenced political prisoners and human rights activists to lengthy prison terms or to death.


Diplomacy: At an Islamic summit in Malaysia, President Hassan Rouhani urged Muslim nations to unite against U.S. economic “hegemony.” He proposed an Islamic financial payment system and the creation of a Muslim cryptocurrency. “The Muslim world should be designing measures to save themselves from the domination of the United States dollar and the American financial regime,” Rouhani said.

Nuclear: President Rouhani said that Iran would begin to test a new type of advanced centrifuge. Use of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium would be a violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. Tehran had already breached the agreement five times since July 1. “We have had great achievements and today, Iranian new IR-6 centrifuges are working and models IR-9 are currently being tested.”

Diplomacy: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft made a surprise gesture by expressing her condolences to Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi after a U.N. Security Council meeting. Ravanchi had given a speech about the death of an Iranian toddler, who could not receive proper medication for a rare disease due to U.S. sanctions. Direct interactions between U.S. and Iranian officials had been rare under the Trump administration.  


Military: The United States released new evidence related to the September 14 attacks on Saudi oil facilities. The findings suggested that the strike came from the north, reinforcing an initial U.S. assessment that Iran was behind the attack, and not Yemen’s Houthis. The U.S. report added that the drones used in the attack shared several characteristics with an Iranian unmanned aircraft, the IRN-05 UAV.


December 20

Diplomacy: President Rouhani met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo to economic ties and a way forward on the nuclear issue. Rouhani asked Japan to help maintain the 2015 nuclear deal, which the United States withdrew from in May 2018. “The nuclear deal is an extremely important agreement, and we strongly condemn the U.S. withdrawal, which was one-sided and irrational,” Rouhani said. “We hope that Japan and other countries in the world will make efforts toward maintaining the agreement.” Abe expressed his concern with rising tensions in the Middle East and urged Iran to comply with the nuclear deal. “I strongly expect that Iran will fully comply with the nuclear agreement and play a constructive role for peace and stability in the region,” Abe said.

Nuclear:  Britain, France and Germany were considering to trigger a dispute mechanism clause of the 2015 nuclear deal to put further pressure on Iran to abide by the agreement, according to diplomats. But the European powers would not rush to reimpose U.N. sanctions on Iran, which would reduce any chance to salvage the deal.