News Digest: Week of November 4

November 4

Foreign Policy/Society: More than 1,000 rallies were held across Iran to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the seizure of the U.S. embassy. Outside of the former U.S. mission, thousands of Iranians chanted “Death to America,” as army chief Major General Abdolrahim Mousavi condemned four decades of U.S. policy in the region. “Our fight with America is over our independence, over not submitting to bullying, over values, beliefs and our religion,” he told the crowd “They (Americans) will continue their hostilities, like the proverbial poisonous scorpion whose nature it is to sting and cannot be stopped unless it is crushed.”

Nuclear: Iran announced that it had doubled the number of advanced centrifuges operating in the country. Tehran also said that it had developed a prototype centrifuge that works 50 times faster than models allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that Iran had stockpiled more than 500 kilograms of enriched uranium; the nuclear deal had limited Tehran to 300 kilograms.


Sanctions: The United States marked 40 years since the seizure of its embassy in Tehran by announcing new sanctions on Iran. The Treasury Department blacklisted nine members of the supreme leader’s inner circle. “The designation seeks to block funds from flowing to a shadow network of Khamenei’s military and foreign affairs advisors who have for decades oppressed the Iranian people, supported terrorism, and advanced destabilizing policies around the world,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

Justice: The United States announced a new reward of up to $20 million for any information about Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared in Iran in 2007. “This is the 40th anniversary of the day in 1979 when 52 Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days,” Levinson’s family said in a statement. “Bob Levinson has been held more than 10 times longer — for 4,624 days. Bob Levinson must come home, and Iran’s hostage-taking as government policy must end.”


November 5

Nuclear: President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran will start injecting gas into 1,044 centrifuges at Fordo on November 6. The heavily fortified facility, built inside a mountain, was converted from a secret enrichment site to a research facility under the JCPOA. The IR-1 centrifuges at Fordo had been spinning but were not enriching uranium. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said Iran would begin enriching uranium to five percent at Fordo. 

Human Rights: In 2018 and 2019, internet freedom in Iran remained highly restricted, according to a new report by Freedom House. Authorities “handed down harsh prison sentences to online journalists and other users, and continued to block access to independent news sites and a number of social media and communication platforms.” Iran was designated “not free” because it received a score of 15 out of 100 for its level of internet and digital freedom.

Justice/Espionage: Majid Ghorbani, an Iranian citizen and U.S. permanent resident, pleaded guilty to one count of violating U.S. sanctions for his role in an Iranian espionage plot to collect information about Americans involved with the Mujahideen-e Khalq, an Iranian dissident group that seeks regime change.  Ahmadreza Mohammadi-Doostdar, a dual Iranian-U.S. citizen, reportedly traveled from Iran to provide Ghorbani with instructions from Iranian intelligence. Doostdar was arrested on October 8 and charged with  one count of conspiracy and one count of acting as an undeclared agent of the Iranian government.


November 6

Justice/Espionage: Sweden charged an Iraqi man with espionage for Iran for collecting information on Iranian refugees in Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands. The unidentified man, an Iraqi-Swedish dual citizen, allegedly gathered personal information about the Ahwazi community, an Arab minority living mostly in Iran’s Khusestan province that has been historically marginalized by the government. Human rights groups have long accused Tehran of discriminating against the group. Prosecutors said the Iraqi man photographed Ahvazi conference delegates and demonstration participants and infiltrated online opposition forums to gain login information for routers.

Nuclear: Iran reportedly held an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector and confiscated her travel documents while she was at the Natanz nuclear facility. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is in charge of monitoring Iran’s nuclear program. The 2015 nuclear deal allowed for periodic IAEA inspections to ensure Iran was adhering to regulations. The IAEA’s Board of Governors announced plans to hold an emergency meeting on November 7 to discuss the issue and other matters.


November 7

Nuclear: Iran began injecting uranium gas into the centrifuges at the underground Fordo nuclear facility, according to the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran. The centrifuges were to begin enriching uranium to 4.5 percent, beyond the 3.7 percent allowed in the 2015 nuclear deal but far from 90 percent, the purity required to produce a nuclear weapon. “Iran’s expansion of proliferation-sensitive activities raises concerns that Iran is positioning itself to have the option of a rapid nuclear breakout,” warned U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Nuclear: Iran claimed that an IAEA inspector briefly held at the Natanz site on October 28 tested positive for traces of explosive nitrates. “The detector’s alarm went off and it was signaling to a specific person,” Iranian representative Kazem Gharib Abadi said. “They have repeated this procedure again and again, and unfortunately, the results were the same all the way for only that specific inspector.” He added that further tests by Iran and the IAEA would provide further explanation of the incident.

Economics: Britain lowered the threat level for its flagged ships traveling through the Strat of Hormuz. “UK-flagged ships will soon be able to transit the Strait of Hormuz without close Royal Naval accompaniment, following a decrease in the specific risk of detention of these vessels,” said a government spokeswoman.

Justice/Espionage: Amin Hasanzadeh, an Iranian national and U.S. permanent resident, was arrested in the United States on charges of fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property. Federal prosecutors accused Hasanzadeh of stealing sensitive technical data from his employer. He then sent the information to his brother, who worked for multiple companies linked to Iran’s military programs, including cruise missile research and nuclear proliferation activities.


November 8

Military: Iran shot down a drone over the port city of Mahshahr in the country’s southwest, according to IRNA state news agency. “The downed drone definitely belonged to a foreign country. Its wreckage has been recovered and is being investigated,” according to Khuzestan Province Governor Gholamreza Shariati. Military officials said the drone was destroyed before it could reach “sensitive” centers of the country.

Justice: Iran acknowledged that the disappearance of former FBI agent, Robert Levinson, in Iran in 2007 is an open case. The U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said Iran responded to an inquiry by Levinson’s family made in 2016. “According to the statement of Tehran’s Justice Department, Mr. Robert Alan Levinson has an on going case in the Public Prosecution and Revolutionary Court of Tehran,” the U.N. body reported.


November 10

Economics: Iran discovered a new oil field in the country’s southern Khuzestan province that contains over 50 billion barrels of untapped crude. “I am telling the White House that in the days when you sanctioned the sale of Iranian oil and pressured our nation, the country’s dear workers and engineers were able to discover 53 billion barrels of oil in a big field,” Rouhani said. The new oil field would be the second largest in the country.

Justice: Iran clarified that an open case on Robert Levinson, a U.S. citizen, “was a missing person” matter and not a sign that Levinson was detained by Tehran. Levinson “has no judicial or criminal case in any Islamic Republic of Iran court whatsoever,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi. “It is normal that a case is opened like it’s done for any missing people anywhere in Iran.”

Diplomacy: The United Arab Emirates called for Iran to come to the negotiating table with Gulf countries and world powers. “I believe there could be a path to a deal with Iran that all parties might soon be ready to embark on. It will be long, and patience and courage will be required,” said UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash. He added that the talks should deal with Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program and support of regional proxies.

Nuclear: Iran’s foreign ministry rejected an IAEA report on November 6 that found traces of uranium at an unnamed nuclear site in the country. “The Zionist regime and Israel are attempting to re-open ... this file,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi. “We have announced that this is a trap.” The IAEA told member states that the samples taken contained uranium that was processed but not yet enriched.