News Digest: Week of December 9

December 9

Diplomacy: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe confirmed that Tokyo was planning a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to discuss nuclear tensions between Tehran and Washington. Abe did not provide a timeline, but media reports suggested that the proposed meeting would occur before the end of December.  

Diplomacy: Tehran said that it was willing to conduct additional prisoner swaps with the United States but would not engage in any other negotiations. “We are ready to cooperate to return all Iranians unlawfully imprisoned in the U.S.,” said government spokesman Ali Rabiei. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted that Iran was prepared to conduct “comprensive” prisoner swap with the United States. “The ball is in the US’ court,” he said.

Human Rights: BBC Persian filed a complaint with the United Nations after its journalists’ family members were harassed in Iran. BBC said that the relatives had been subjected to interrogations and arbitrary arrests. “Over the last few weeks, family members of BBC staff have been called in for questioning, had their passports confiscated and told that they must ask their relatives to stop working for the BBC or face the consequences. At the same time, the Iranian media has cited BBC Persian television as allegedly encouraging unrest and violence in Iran," said BBC World Service Director Jamie Angus.


December 10

Diplomacy: Iran’s Navy Commander Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi met with Pakistani military officials to discuss increased naval cooperation between the two countries. Pakistan reportedly asked Iran to partake in joint naval drills next month. “Our main approach is to broaden cooperation between Iran and Pakistan at sea and we are pursuing it seriously in various operational, technical and educational areas besides information exchanges,” Khanzadi said.

Economics: More than 15 million debit cards were published on social media after a security breach revealed the personal data of customer accounts. The banks affected—Mellat, Tejarat and Sarmayeh—were all on the U.S. sanctions list. Iran’s information and telecommunications minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, blamed a disgruntled employee for the data leak, but cybersecurity experts pointed to a state actor for the sophisticated cyberattack.

Society: Iran issued a travel warning for citizens to avoid visiting the United States. “Iranian citizens, particularly elites and scientists, are requested to seriously avoid traveling to America, even to take part in scientific conferences and even having an invitation,” the foreign ministry said. The advisory warned of “America’s cruel and one-sided laws toward Iranians, especially Iranian elites, and arbitrary and lengthy detention in completely inhuman conditions.”

Diplomacy/Justice: Iran said that around 20 Iranian nationals were detained in the United States. Mohsen Baharvand, a foreign ministry aid, added that Iranian officials had not yet been given “any orders” to negotiate an additional prisoner swap. U.S. officials said that Iran was holding one American national and five dual U.S.-Iranian nationals.

Military: The United Nations was unable to conclude that the weapons used in an attack on Saudi oil facilities in September were from Iran. But it noted that Yemen’s Houthis “have not shown to be in possession” of the drone models in question. “At this time, it is unable to independently corroborate that the cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles used in these attacks are of Iranian origin,” said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.


December 11

Economics: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced sanctions on three Iranian transportation companies that “helped Iran import items for its weapons of mass destruction programs.” The United States also blacklisted a shipping network that smuggles weapons from Iran to Yemen to support the Qods Force, an elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Diplomacy/Economics: President Hassan Rouhani said that Tehran was “determined” to circumvent U.S. sanctions by any means possible. “The government is determined to defeat (the enemy) by bypassing America’s sanctions...or through various means including talks, but we will not cross our red lines,” Rouhani said.

Justice: The United States dropped all charges against two former students of Iranian scientist Masoud Soleimani, who was released in a prisoner exchange on December 7. The Iranian researchers, Mahboobe Ghaedi and Maryam Jazayeri, were accused of violating sanctions by helping Soleimani transport biological material from the United States to Iran.

Military: Iran-backed attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq risk unintentional escalation, warned a senior U.S. military official. “There is a point at which their actions change things on the ground and make it more likely that some other actions, some other choices made – by somebody, whether it’s them or us – will escalate unintentionally,” he said. The official added that the U.S. coalition would respond with force if the militias conducted additional attacks.

Diplomacy: A Swiss channel to provide food and medicine to Iran without triggering U.S. sanctions could be operational within months, according to Swiss and U.S. officials. Humanitarian goods are exempt from sanctions, but foreign banks have been hesitant to conduct transactions for fear of international backlash. “Our role is really to be able to provide food and health goods to the Iranian people. And therefore we are working hard on establishing that humanitarian channel,” said Swiss State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Pascale Baeriswyl.

Justice: French President Emmanuel Macron called for the release of two French nationals, Fariba Adelkhah and Roland Marchal, who were detained in Iran on espionage charges. “Their imprisonment is intolerable. They must be freed without delay. I told President Rouhani, I repeat it here,” he said on Twitter. Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyyed Abbas Mousavi dismissed Macron’s comments and warned France against interfering in Iran’s domestic matters.


December 12

Justice: Iran's security chief Ali Shamkhani said that "85 percent of protesters shot to death in the Tehran County during the mid-November anti-government protest had nothing to do with protest gatherings." He claimed that the victims "shot each other at point blank” and the weapons used did not belong to Iranian security forces. He did not explain a motive for the killings. His version of events contradicted that of human rights groups.

Diplomacy: Saudi Arabian officials said that they hoped to ease tensions with Tehran after a September attack on oil facilities that was blamed on Iran. On December 11, Saudi officials accused the Iran-backed Houthis of firing a projectile at a Saudi hospital near the border city of Jizan. Saudi Arabia and Iran had exchanged messages and communicated through intermediaries in recent months, according to Saudi, European and U.S. officials. Bahram Ghasemi, Iran’s ambassador to Paris, said that Tehran had already presented a peace plan to Riyadh, which included a joint pledge of nonaggression and cooperation.


December 13

Diplomacy/Military: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of sponsoring a series of rocket attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops. He warned that the United States would answer with “decisive” action if any attacks by Iranian proxies harmed Americans of allied forces. Pompeo referenced two rocket attacks that targeted an Iraqi military compound at Baghdad’s airport on December 9.


December 14

Economics: Demonstrators gathered in Baghdad’s Firdous Square to protest U.S. sanctions on Iran-backed Iraqi militia leaders, announced on December 6. The protestors burned American and Israeli flags and stomped on an emblem of the U.S. Treasury Department.   


December 15

Cyber: Iranian officials announced that they defused a second cyber attack that “aimed at spying on government intelligence.” On December 11, the telecommunications minister, Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said that the government had diffused another “massive” cyberattack carried out by a foreign government that targeted Iran’s electronic infrastructure.  

Diplomacy: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that discussions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar were good for regional stability. Doha and Riyadh had cut diplomatic ties and trade links in June 2017, following allegations that Qatar backed regional terrorist groups. On December 14, Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al Thani reported that there had been “small progress” in talks aimed to resolve the dispute.