Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Eye on Iran: U.S. Fines ZTE of China $1.19 Billion for Breaching Sanctions

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As one of China's few truly international technology companies, ZTE is often held up by Beijing as part of a new generation of firms that is able to compete beyond Chinese borders. On Tuesday, the United States government made an example of ZTE in a different way. As part of a settlement for breaking sanctions and selling electronics to Iran and North Korea, ZTE agreed to plead guilty and pay $1.19 billion in fines, the United States Department of Commerce said in an announcement. The penalty is the largest criminal fine in a United States sanctions case. The action is the latest in a series of skirmishes between the United States and China over technology policy. It also offered a chance for President Trump's young administration to make a statement about the seriousness of United States sanctions. In addition to ZTE, the Commerce Department is also investigating the company's larger Chinese rival, Huawei, for violating United States sanctions.

More than 2,000 fighters sent from Iran have been killed in Iraq and Syria, the head of Iran's veterans' affairs office said on Tuesday. "Some 2,100 martyrs have been martyred so far in Iraq or other places defending the holy mausoleums," Mohammad Ali Shahidi told the state-run IRNA news agency. Shahidi, who is head of Iran's Foundation of Martyrs and Veterans Affairs, was speaking at a conference on martyrdom culture in Tehran. The figure was more than double the number he gave in November, which referred only to Syria. Iran is, with Russia, the main military backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and also organises militias fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq. Shahidi did not provide details on the nationalities of those killed. Iran oversees "volunteer" fighters recruited from among its own nationals as well as Shiite communities in neighbouring Afghanistan and Pakistan. The families of those killed in battle are given Iranian citizenship under a law passed last May.

U.S. President Donald Trump's administration pledged on Tuesday to show "great strictness" over restrictions on Iran's nuclear activities imposed by a deal with major powers, but gave little indication of what that might mean for the agreement. The 2015 deal between Iran and six major powers restricts Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of international economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic. Trump has called the agreement "the worst deal ever negotiated". His administration is now carrying out a review of the accord which could take months, but it has said little about where it stands on specific issues. The Trump administration also gave few clues about any potential policy shift on Tuesday in a statement to a quarterly meeting of the U.N. nuclear watchdog's Board of Governors. "The United States will approach questions of JCPOA interpretation, implementation, and enforcement with great strictness indeed," the statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) 35-nation board said, citing the deal's full name: The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. But the U.S. statement, the first to the Board of Governors since Trump took office in January, also repeated language used by the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama, for whom the deal was a legacy achievement.

U.S.-Iran Relations

Ten years after a former FBI agent working on an unauthorized CIA mission disappeared in Iran, his family hopes U.S. President Donald Trump will do something America's last two presidents have been unable to achieve: Finally bring him home. Robert Levinson's family told The Associated Press this week that Trump's background as a deal-making businessman and his harder line on Iran could be an asset in finally determining what happened to the investigator, whose 69th birthday is Friday. They described the heartbreak of seeing other American prisoners in Iran freed while the mystery surrounding his disappearance remains. They also acknowledged the challenge of keeping his case in the public eye, as he now has been held captive longer than any American in history, if he remains alive. "We believe people can survive 10 years under any circumstances. In the worst places, people survive. We know Bob is alive," his wife, Christine Levinson, told the AP. "Everyone else has gotten out of Iran, but Bob has been left behind every single time. It's now time for him to be returned home to his family." Levinson disappeared from Iran's Kish Island on March 9, 2007. For years, U.S. officials would only say that Levinson, a meticulous FBI investigator credited with busting Russian and Italian mobsters, was working for a private firm on his trip In December 2013, the AP revealed Levinson in fact had been on a mission for CIA analysts who had no authority to run spy operations. Levinson's family had received a $2.5 million annuity from the CIA in order to stop a lawsuit revealing details of his work, while the agency forced out three veteran analysts and disciplined seven others.

A U.S. Navy ship changed course toward Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday, a guard commander was quoted as saying on Wednesday while issuing a warning. A U.S. official told Reuters on Monday that multiple fast-attack vessels from the Revolutionary Guard had come within 600 yards (550 meters) of the USNS Invincible, a tracking ship, forcing it to change direction. But guard commander Mehdi Hashemi said the incident, the first of note between the countries' navies in those waters since January, was the fault of the U.S. ship, telling the Fars news agency: "The unprofessional actions of the Americans can have irreversible consequences," Years of mutual animosity eased when Washington lifted sanctions on Tehran last year after a deal to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. But major differences remain over Iran's ballistic missile program and conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, without referring to the Hormuz incident, also gave a warning on Wednesday. "If Iran's ignorant enemies think about invading Iran they should know that our armed forces are much stronger than 1980 when Iraq attacked," he said in a speech broadcast live on state TV.

Iran said Tuesday it was "completely unfair" for US lawyers to try to seize its overseas assets as compensation for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In 2012, a New York judge ordered Iran to pay $7 billion in damages to the families and estates of victims from the attacks, arguing that the country had aided Al-Qaeda by allowing the group's members to travel through its territory. Since Iran rejects the accusation and refuses to pay the money, the lawyers are now trying to access $1.6 billion of Iranian money frozen in a Luxembourg bank, according to a report in The New York Times on Monday. "Some opponents of the Islamic republic of Iran... have tried to broaden a US domestic law -- which is completely unfair and baseless -- to apply outside America," said deputy foreign minister Majid Takht Ravanchi, according to the IRNA news agency. The Iranian central bank's legal affairs director Ardeshir Fereydouni said Tehran's assets cannot be touched before a verdict. Quoted by IRNA, he also called the US efforts "against international law" and "unenforceable". Billions of dollars in Iranian assets were frozen in the US and Europe as part of efforts to push Tehran into a nuclear deal with world powers, which was finally signed in July 2015.

For more than a year, 80-year-old Baquer Namazi has been imprisoned in Iran, held in solitary confinement with a worsening heart condition that has twice required hospitalization. In another part of Tehran's Evin Prison, Namazi's son, Siamak, is also behind bars, sleeping on the floor because his jailers haven't given him a bed, family members say. U.S. and Iranian officials had been negotiating a possible release of American Iranian dual nationals imprisoned in Iran - including the Namazis - until talks broke down in the final days of the Obama administration, according to family lawyers. Now their hopes for freedom lie with President Trump, who prides himself on being a deal-maker but has rapidly escalated tensions with the Islamic Republic. In the six weeks since Trump took office, officials in Washington and Tehran say there has been no official contact between negotiators. Trump has slapped fresh sanctions on Iran and threatened to renegotiate the deal under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear program.

Congressional Action

The Trump administration is under increasing criticism from Republican lawmakers for continuing Obama-era policies to provide material support to the Iranian regime, including airplanes, which many have warned could be used to illegally ferry weapons across the Middle East on behalf of the Islamic Republic's war effort, according to lawmakers and veteran congressional insiders who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon. The Trump administration's Treasury Department informed the Free Beacon on Monday that it would continue to grant licenses to companies such as Boeing so that they can pursue multi-billion dollar deals with Iran. This policy, started by the Obama administration as part of the nuclear deal with Iran, is opposed by many on Capitol Hill and runs counter to campaign trail promises by President Donald Trump to end such agreements. Iran announced in February that it had found a "foreign company" to finance the country's purchase of at least 77 new planes from Boeing and Airbus.

Business Risk

Just after the European Union lifted sanctions on several of Iran's biggest banks last year, Bank Sepah International PLC creaked back to life. The Iranian-owned, British-licensed bank, located on a prime street in London's financial district, was all but mothballed for nearly a decade due to sanctions designed to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Then in 2015, Iran reached a landmark agreement on the program with the U.S. and other world powers, paving the way for Iranian banks to reconnect to the global financial system. Bank Sepah, which once processed more than 2,000 transactions a month and had a $1.5 billion balance sheet, was eager to get back to business. Yet, more than a year after the nuclear deal, Bank Sepah still hasn't processed a single commercial transaction, other than paying 28 employees and some vendors, because it is still effectively frozen out of the financial system, especially in the U.K., by big banks unwilling to risk dealing with Iranian entities.

Sanctions Relief

Iran's crude oil exports hit a record 3 million barrels per day in the Iranian month of Esfand (late February to late March), the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on Tuesday, citing the oil minister. Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh credited Iran's nuclear agreement with Western powers in 2015, which removed a number of sanctions in exchange for curbs on the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, for the boost in exports. "Before the [nuclear agreement] we struggled to export one million barrels per day," IRNA quoted Zanganeh as saying. Iran's oil exports have, on average, more than doubled since that time, Zanganeh said.

In a significant deal, a Long Range I tanker has been chartered for delivering a parcel of 55,000 mt of Iranian naphtha to Japan next month, several brokers, owners and charterers said Monday. A 2009-built, Bahamas-flagged tanker, the 75,000 dwt Gulf Cobalt has been placed on subjects by Mitsui and loading is scheduled in the next two weeks at one of the Iranian ports, shipping industry sources tracking the developments told S&P Global Platts. Mitsui officials could not be immediately reached for comment but shipping sources tracking the deal said that there is also an option to take the cargo to other parts of North Asia. The deal is important because if the option to discharge the cargo at one of the Japanese ports is exercised, it will be one of the first LR1 tankers to deliver Iranian naphtha into the country after the sanctions were eased on the Persian Gulf nation last year.

Foreign Affairs

A 31-year-old Pakistani man is going on trial in Berlin on allegations he spied for Iran on Israeli and Jewish institutions in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Syed Mustufa H., whose full name was not giving for privacy reasons, is due in court Wednesday on espionage charges. H., who came to Germany in 2012 to go to university, is accused of having collected information on a professor at a university in Paris, the former president of the German-Israel Society and others in Western European countries. Prosecutors say he then passed the information to a contact person with the Iranian intelligence agency. He's alleged to have received at least 2,052 euros ($2,170) for his spying activities. H., who was arrested in July 2016, faces a possible five years in prison.

Nigerian carpenter Bashir Muhammad has never been to Iran, but he would fight to the death for the country. "If Iran wants our help, we are ready to go and help it, even with our blood," he said. "Donald Trump needs to know that Iran has followers all over the world ready to help defend it against America." Touring the narrow unpaved streets of Zaria in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, Muhammad shows Iran's success in building enclaves of fervent support way beyond the Middle East and the limits of any harsher foreign policy planned by the U.S. president to contain it. The 30-year-old is among an increasing number of converts to the Shiite brand of Islam that Iran has been exporting since its 1979 revolution. As the world adjusts to the Trump era, the message for Washington and its allies is that Iran wields growing influence in unexpected places. The Islamic power has been able to expand its reach regardless of the economic sanctions that excluded it from much of the global oil market until last year.

Domestic Politics

President Hassan Rouhani should apologize to the Iranian people if he cannot show that the economy has improved, one of Iran's most prominent hardliners said on Tuesday, setting a battle line for a presidential election in May. Rouhani is opposed by hardliners who resent the nuclear deal he struck with world powers including the United States which lifted economic sanctions and was supposed to boost the economy. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the head of the Assembly of Experts, a body that selects Iran's supreme leader, starkly criticized that policy and what he said was Rouhani's failure to improve the economy over his four years in office. "If the resistance economy has not been followed in the way that it should and must have been, then he must apologize and tell them (Iranians) the reasons," Jannati told a meeting of the Assembly where Rouhani was present, Fars News reported. Rouhani said that his administration would present a full economic report by the end of the Iranian calendar year, in late March, according to the state TV's website. While hardliners, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have criticized Rouhani's economic record in recent weeks, the president has sought to move the political discourse to other matters that might appeal to moderate voters.

The Iranian journalist and human rights activist Narges Mohammadi was a thorn in her government's side. Now she is in prison. Her husband and children still hope she will be released. A portrait of an incomplete family. "The ministry official told me we had to go," Narges Mohammadi wrote from her prison cell in an August 2015 letter addressed to her children, Kiana and Ali. "I tried to get Kiana off me. She was hanging on with all her strength, her arms wrapped around my neck. She was wailing." Mohammadi was writing about the day that "broke her heart." It was the first time that her children had to watch as their mother was taken from her home and thrown in prison. They had just started kindergarten at the time. Over the next couple of years, the children had to witness many similar situations. Each time they watched helplessly as their mother - or sometimes their father, who has also been persecuted for his journalism - were arrested at their home and then taken off to jail. The twins cannot recall any happy family memories: Too often, one of their parents was absent, and the fear of the next separation is too present. Now 10 years old, Kiana and Ali have lived in exile in France with their father, Taghi Rahmani, since July 2015. Their mother is in Tehran's infamous Evin prison. Last May, a court in Iran's capital found her guilty on several counts and sentenced her to 16 years.

Military Matters

Iran has unveiled a new helicopter designed for offshore operations, medical evacuations and surveillance. The official IRNA news agency says Tuesday that the four-bladed Saba-248 has two engines but its capable of operating with just one, and that it can fly in temperatures ranging from minus 25 to 55 degrees Celsius (minus 13 to 131 degrees Fahrenheit). Iran has been producing its own weapons and military equipment, including missiles, fighter jets and submarines, for more than two decades.

Proxy Wars

Nearly half of all shipping docks in Iran are operated by the regime's military, and it is using shell companies to smuggle weapons and other illicit goods, according to a new report. A total of 90 docks have been taken over by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which is using them to circumvent sanctions and fund terrorist activities in the Middle East and beyond, according to the anti-regime People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK). "Based on the direct order of the current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, no authority is allowed to oversee the activities of the IRGC at border areas, be it on the ground, sea or air, and it can import anything in any quantity without paying any customs fee," PMOI officials said in a statement provided to Fox News. "The IRGC uses these docks for its unlawful activities." The PMOI adds that in order to fund its activities, the Revolutionary Guard engages in smuggling oil, gas, chemical products, cigarettes, narcotics, alcohol, mobile phones, pharmaceuticals, hygiene material and energy drugs and supplements. The importing and exporting of these illicit goods has allowed the IRGC to net $12 billion annually, the group estimates.

Opinion & Analysis

Last month, the Donald Trump administration noted that it was contemplating whether to designate Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization, a State Department listing that includes Hamas, Hezbollah, the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and many other groups. But the administration's critics decried even this as an unwise provocation, despite the fact that the United States has for the past three decades officially denounced Iran as the leading sponsor of terrorism. What's more, in 2007, a number of Democratic and Republican politicians, including then-Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, cosponsored a bill known as the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act that called on the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to report on its efforts to designate the Revolutionary Guard as an FTO. But the bill did not pass. From the IRGC's inception in 1979, terrorism has been its defining feature. The 125,000-strong force has always been commanded by reactionary religious ideologues. During the 1980s, the IRGC conducted vicious campaigns against all forms of dissent as well as against ethnic minorities, especially the Kurds and the Baluchis. Throughout the 1990s, the group attacked the Iranian reform movement and became even more feared than Iran's intelligence ministry, which had a reputation for human rights abuses. In 1999, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei unleashed the IRGC to crush student protests, a move that President Hassan Rouhani, then the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, had passionately supported. In the summer of 2009, the guards also squashed the pro-democracy Green Revolution, arresting thousands and torturing hundreds. Since its foundation, the IRGC has overseen a terror apparatus that has assassinated intellectuals, journalists, dissident politicians, and literary figures.

Iran's leaders describe homosexuality as "moral bankruptcy" or "modern western barbarism". Amnesty International estimates that 5,000 gays and lesbians have been executed there since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Although it is less common now, it still occurs. In the summer of 2016 a 19-year-old boy was hanged in Iran's Markazi province: in 2014 two men were executed. The threat of blackmail is now a huge problem for gay men, explains Saghi Ghahraman, founder of the Iranian Queer Organization. This is because Iran's complex laws around homosexuality mean that men face different punishments for consensual sexual intercourse, depending whether they are the "active" or the "passive" participant. The passive person faces the death penalty, but the active person only faces the same punishment if married. The laws can lead to distrust between partners, as if caught, the only defence for the passive partner is rape. This also creates an atmosphere for blackmail. And in a remarkable piece of legislation, fathers and grandfathers are given the right under Iranian law to kill their offspring, making "honour" killings legal. "From an early age, children learn starting in the home that the world is very hostile to LGBT people," says Ghahraman. The government's treatment of the transgender community is not so black and white. Since 1983, when Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa permitting the acceptance of transgender people in society, sex reassignment surgery has been available and Iranians can take out loans for the surgery. In fact, except for Thailand, Iran carries out more sex reassignment operations than any other country in the world. It's a double edged sword for some in the LGBT community though - the operations have become a controversial solution for gay men trying to reconcile their faith with their sexuality and the government refuses to recognise transgender people who don't want surgery.

Eye on Iran is a periodic news summary from United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) a program of the American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, Inc., a tax-exempt organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Eye on Iran is not intended as a comprehensive media clips summary but rather a selection of media elements with discreet analysis in a PDA friendly format. For more information please email

United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) is a non-partisan, broad-based coalition that is united in a commitment to prevent Iran from fulfilling its ambition to become a regional super-power possessing nuclear weapons.  UANI is an issue-based coalition in which each coalition member will have its own interests as well as the collective goal of advancing an Iran free of nuclear weapons.

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