News Digest: Week of February 17

February 18

Justice: Tehran released a German citizen who was sentenced to three years in prison for taking photographs of “sensitive places” in Iran. The move came two days after Ahmad Khalili, an Iranian national detained in Germany on charges of violating U.S. sanctions, was released by Berlin in an apparent prison swap. Khalili had faced extradition to the United States. “Mr. Ahmad Khalili, an Iranian citizen, who was arrested in Germany at the request of the (U.S. Justice Department) and subject to extradition to America under the excuse of violating the illegal and cruel sanctions of America was freed last night and returned to the homeland with the minister of foreign affairs,” said Iran’s foreign ministry.

Politics: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that voting in Iran’s parliamentary elections, slated for February 21, was “a religious duty.” Khamenei and other Iranian officials had urged high turnout from the country’s nearly 58 million eligible voters.  “Elections are a means to strengthen the country ... A weak parliament will have long-term affects ... a weak parliament will negatively affect our fight against enemies,” Khamenei said.

Human Rights/Espionage: Iran upheld the sentences of eight wildlife activists charged with espionage. The environmentalists from the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation were arrested in January 2018 and convicted of spying for the United States on November 2019. Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian who also holds U.S. and British citizenship, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Other activists received sentences ranging from four to 10 years.


Military: Israel announced that it would establish a command branch dedicated to combatting threats from Iran. The military said that it would appoint a major general to lead the command but offered little details on its exact mission.


February 19

Politics: President Hassan Rouhani called for high voter turnout in parliamentary elections. He said widespread public participation would “infuriate” the United States and show Iran’s resilience in the face of sanctions. “That day when the U.S. despairs, its maximum pressure will have no effect. It will surrender, come to the negotiation table, and accept the word of truth” he said.

Military: Gyroscopes found in drones used in the September attacks on Saudi oil facilities and by Yemen’s Houthi rebels were similar to those recovered in downed Iranian drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to a Conflict Armament Research report. “According to UAV experts familiar with this technology, such vertical gyroscopes have not been observed in any UAVs other than those manufactured by Iran,” the report said. Earlier in February, a U.N. panel had concluded that the Houthis had used sophisticated weapons similar to those manufactured in Iran.

Medicine: Two elderly people in Qom died from the coronavirus, according to Iran’s health ministry. It was the country’s first case of the acute respiratory virus, which had originated in Wuhan, China in late December. "We urge people to avoid shaking hands and kissing, to observe personal hygiene and preferably avoid crowded places," said Qasem Jan-Babaei, Iran's deputy health minister. "There have been no reports of coronavirus in other cities so far, but there is a possibility that cases may also arise in other cities."


February 20

Diplomacy: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss regional security issues and the threat of Iran. Pompeo also raised concerns about Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. “The Saudis share our strategic objectives. They are an important ally and partner,” Pompeo told reporters during the visit.


Sanctions: U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook announced sanctions on five key members of Iran’s Guardian Council, an unelected panel of twelve Islamic jurists and scholars. The council disqualified more than 9,000 out of the some 14,000 candidates who registered to run in parliamentary elections. “The Trump administration will not tolerate the manipulation of elections to favor the regime’s malign agenda, and this action exposes those senior regime officials responsible for preventing the Iranian people from freely choosing their leaders,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “The United States will continue to support the democratic aspirations of Iranians.”


Medicine: Iran’s health ministry announced three new cases of coronavirus a day after two Iranians infected with the virus died in Qom. “Two people have tested positive for COVID-19 in Qom and one person in Arak, bringing the total of confirmed cases to five in Iran,” said health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur. The government shut down all schools and universities in Qom. Health officials urged residents to avoid religious gatherings in the holy city.


February 21

Medicine: Iran’s health ministry confirmed 18 cases of coronavirus and four deaths.  Officials reported that the virus had spread to cities outside of Qom, including Tehran, Babol, Arak, Isfahan and Rasht. The World Health Organized called the sudden outbreak in Iran “very worrisome.”

Politics: Conservative and hardline factions, including candidates closely aligned with the Revolutionary Guards, won 221 of the 290 seats in the country’s parliamentary elections, more than doubling their presence in the Majles. Voter turnout was only 42.6 percent, the lowest since the 1979 revolution.  

Economics: The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global watchdog on money laundering and terrorism financing, returned Iran to its blacklist. The move further isolated Iran from the international financial system. “Given Iran’s failure to enact the Palermo and Terrorist Financing Conventions in line with the FATF Standards, the FATF fully lifts the suspension of counter-measures and calls on its members and urges all jurisdictions to apply effective counter-measures,” the organization said in a statement.


February 23

Medicine: Iran’s health ministry raised the number of coronavirus cases to 43, which included eight deaths. The new cases were recorded in the cities of Qom and Tehran and the provinces of Gilan, Markazi and Mazandaran. The government closed schools, universities and cultural centers in 14 of Iran’s 31 provinces as a preventative measure.