Iran’s execution of journalist Ruhollah Zam, briefly explained

“Iranian journalist Ruhollah Zam, whose reporting helped spur large anti-government protests, was executed by Iran”

“Zam, 47, was found guilty of “corruption on earth” and sentenced to death”

“The vague charge of “corruption on earth” is often used “in cases involving espionage or attempts to overthrow Iran’s government,” Al Jazeera reported Saturday.

Zam ran the site Amad News and coordinated a Telegram channel, both of which helped spread information during a wave of anti-regime protests that shook Iran in 2017 and 2018. He was living abroad in Paris at the time, but returned to the Middle East in 2019 and was arrested in Iraq by members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

Iran Just Handed Biden His First Credibility Test

“as many as 24 rockets were fired at a U.S. military base at Erbil International Airport, in the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The attacked, almost certainly launched by an Iran-backed militia, wounded an American soldier, killed one non-U.S. contractor and wounded five others. Three local civilians were also wounded.”

Why Biden can’t ignore Iraq and Afghanistan, even if he might want to

“When President Joe Biden gave his first foreign policy address two weeks ago, he didn’t once mention the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan.” But events in those two countries over the past 24 hours have offered a stark reminder to the administration that it can’t forever ignore America’s forever wars.

In Iraq, rockets seemingly launched by an Iranian-backed militia on Monday killed a non-American civilian contractor at a military base in Erbil. Nine others were injured, including four US contractors and one service member, according to Col. Wayne Marotto, the spokesperson for the US-led coalition against ISIS.

And in Afghanistan, the Taliban has closed in on major cities just a few months before the scheduled departure of US forces on May 1. The insurgent group released an open letter to Americans on Tuesday, basically asking the Biden administration to trust the Taliban to lead the nation and respect human rights after the troops leave — a dubious claim at best.

Even as Biden would prefer to spend most of his time addressing the coronavirus, China, and climate change, it’s clear that, like every president since George W. Bush, he’ll continually have his attention diverted toward Afghanistan and Iraq.

It’s not that he and his team have neglected those countries. Defense chiefs from NATO nations are meeting over the next two days in large part to discuss plans for Afghanistan and Iraq. The administration is also reviewing its policies in the two countries, weighing what to keep from the past four years and what to change.

But recent events have added an extra sense of urgency, with US troops under threat in an increasingly unstable Iraq, and a tough decision looming for the president in Afghanistan: leave the country to almost certain ruin, or stay and face another deadly fighting season against the Taliban?

In normal times, those would be tough issues for any administration to handle. In this era, they’re extra difficult.”

Three Solutions to Biden’s Nuclear Stalemate with Iran

“Biden must open the door for these direct talks. His first step must be significant enough to restore belief in the original “win-win” logic of the deal and offer Iranian officials a credible rationale for engagement with the U.S. At the same time, it may be limited enough to keep the U.S. outside of the deal, offering him political cover with critics and underscoring the necessity for Iran to also take reciprocal steps.

Taking this kind of first step could, in its way, be a signal of strength for Biden: He’d be showing domestic opponents of the JCPOA that he will not be bullied into compromising his Iran policy. The fight over the appointment of Robert Malley as Iran envoy showed that hawks will “play dirty” to undermine the credibility of Biden’s outreach to Iran. Biden ought to nip this kind of cynical politics in the bud.

If Biden goes go this route, officials in the U.S., Europe, and Iran are currently deliberating what a reasonable first move could be. Our conversations with officials suggest that there is awareness that breaking out of the political deadlock may require Biden to be bold. He has a few options.

First, the Biden administration could restore temporary waivers that enable Iran to sell oil while U.S. sanctions remain in place. Iran’s oil production and exports are rising faster than projected despite the Covid-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions. This trend has reduced the perceived urgency of restoring the nuclear deal among key political stakeholders in Tehran who may gain more power after the upcoming Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA would be best served by making already increasing oil sales once again subject to the “win-win” logic of the nuclear deal. Iran’s earnings from these oil sales would be accrued in escrow accounts and subject to strict oversight as per the waiver terms. Revenues would be used by Iran for sanctions-exempt trade with the country in which the funds are held. Such a step would serve to remove a key piece of tension with U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and India whose energy security has been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Second, the Biden administration could support Iran’s loan request for funds from the International Monetary Fund. Iran’s request has languished despite the IMF’s technical assessment that Iran qualifies for financial support to address the balance of payments crisis created by the pandemic. Iran has indicated it is ready for these funds to be disbursed to its accounts outside of the country to be used for paying for sanctions-exempt imports. The funds would not flow directly into Iranian government coffers, but rather be used to address trade deficits. The Biden administration should grant this loan as part of its commitment to address the humanitarian impact of sanctions and a wider push to encourage the IMF to use its full financial capacities to address the ongoing economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Finally, a third option could be easing Iran’s access to its existing foreign exchange reserves. Presently, Iran has free and ready access to an estimated 10 percent of its reserves, a circumstance that has placed extraordinary pressure on Iran’s currency and generated high levels of inflation that harm ordinary Iranians. Iran has been engaged in fraught negotiations with numerous countries to try and get access to frozen assets, who continue to look to the U.S. Treasury Department for the final say. The Biden administration could give these countries, including allies Germany and South Korea, the approvals and guidance necessary to enable both central and commercial banks to readily execute payments on behalf of Iranian account holders. As with the oil waivers and IMF loan, these payments can be restricted to sanctions-exempt trade, a key outcome of which would be lower rates of inflation.

Should Biden take any of these three steps, Iran can be expected to cease ramping up its nuclear program. Neither country would be fully implementing its commitments under the JCPOA, but an opportunity will have been created for new talks in the spirit of “win-win” diplomacy. There is no guarantee that these talks, and the complicated choreography of JCPOA restoration, will succeed. But Biden needs to give himself a shot. After the last four years, timid gestures will fail to do that. It’s time to be bold.”

U.S. must undo damage to nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister says

“Iran’s foreign minister said on Sunday that if the U.S. wanted to restore the terms of the nuclear agreement it exited, the onus was on the Biden administration to live up to the deal.
“It was the United States that left the deal,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “It was the United States that violated the deal. It was the United States that punished any country that remained respectful and compliant with the deal. So it is for the United States to return to the deal, to implement its obligations.””

“Iran’s foreign minister also said his country would refuse to consider negotiating a different deal or adding other elements to the agreement.

“The entire nuclear deal is nonnegotiable because it was fully negotiated,” Zarif said. “We need to implement something that we negotiated. We do not buy the horse twice.””

Trump left behind a sanctions minefield for Biden

“The 2015 Iran deal came together after years of U.S. and international sanctions battered the Islamic Republic’s economy and internal political shifts made an agreement more viable. The deal, which seven countries negotiated, lifted nuclear-related sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on its nuclear program.

However, the nuclear deal left in place numerous other U.S. sanctions on Iran, such as those related to the Islamist regime’s support for terrorism, its ballistic missile program and its human rights abuses. Many of the U.S. sanctions are especially powerful because they apply to non-American entities who would otherwise want to do business with Iran.

Trump took office complaining that the nuclear agreement was too narrowly focused and that its provisions didn’t last long enough. He withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018 — then reimposed the nuclear-related sanctions while also piling on new sanctions on other fronts, such as ones targeting the Iranian regime’s corruption or its backing of terrorist activity. Overall, the sanctions have badly hit Iran’s economy, which also has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the U.S. departure, Iran, too, has taken steps that have put it out of compliance with the agreement, including enriching uranium to 20 percent purity. Iranian leaders say they’ll return to compliance with the deal once the United States lifts its sanctions — ideally returning to the 2016 status, they say. But Biden has indicated he wants Iran to return to compliance first before he’ll lift sanctions.”

“People who worked in the Trump administration say the new president shouldn’t lift any of the sanctions because the nuclear deal isn’t worth reviving. Rather, they argue that the Trump team handed Biden a gift by placing Iran’s Islamist regime under such intense pressure.

“Don’t let up,” said Len Khodorkovsky, a former senior State Department adviser on Iran policy. “The only way to get positive movement out of Iran is to increase pressure.”

The deal’s supporters, however, point out that Trump’s strategy failed to push Iran into talks for a more stringent agreement. Nor has Tehran stopped other behavior that has upset the U.S. and its allies, such as backing militias outside its borders; it’s also closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon today than it was when the U.S. was in the deal.”

“Former U.S. officials say it’s possible that Biden’s final decisions will result in a mixed picture: Non-nuclear sanctions with a solid legal basis will stay on, while other sanctions – such as some that appear intended to wreck the nuclear deal – will likely be removed.

The Biden team might also take an incremental approach: Offer some limited sanctions relief in exchange for initial actions on Iran’s part to roll back its recent nuclear advances as a first step toward a full return to the agreement by both countries.

There is pressure to move quickly. For one thing, Iran’s presidential election, set for June, could usher into power a hardline government opposed to the nuclear deal.

But when asked for comment, a State Department official indicated the process of returning to the agreement will take longer than many advocates might wish.

“Iran is a long way from returning to compliance, and there are many steps in the process we will need to evaluate,” the official said in a written statement. “Our first order of business will be consulting with Congress and our allies on the path forward.””

Why labeling Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists could hurt millions of people

“The Trump administration announced its intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” — a move that could exacerbate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

“The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Both sides have launched numerous attacks and committed atrocities. The Saudi-led coalition, for example, killed around 30 children on a bus in 2019. The Houthis, meanwhile, launched missiles at an airport and airbase in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and at Saudi oil stations last year.

In his statement, Pompeo said the new terrorism designation is “intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.””

“Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. It has helped coalition forces push back on Iran, the Houthis’ main supplier for weapons and funds. Until November 2018, the US refueled Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. Now the US mostly helps the Saudis gather intelligence.

The entire war has been a disaster. The United Nations estimated in December that about 233,000 people have died since fighting began, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, health services, and more. Meanwhile, another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.”

“One way those in need get help is through humanitarian organizations. The Houthis control Yemen’s north, and it’s impossible for those organizations to operate there without the Houthis’ approval.

If the US follows through on designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, then it will be harder for those groups to offer support for fear of possible prosecution by the US government.

As a result, “humanitarian assistance is likely going to be dramatically scaled back,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam. He added that the designation will likely scare off foreign businesses, investors, and banks, thus further decimating Yemen’s reeling economy. “Services will become less available, goods more expensive, and people’s ability to pay less possible,” Scott told me.

One way humanitarian groups have gotten around this predicament before is by asking the US government to provide waivers for them. Basically, the waivers say, “As long as you ensure you’re not helping the designated terrorist, you can continue operating as you have been.”

But Pompeo’s Sunday statement suggests the US hasn’t designed those waivers yet. “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.””

““While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, the designations do nothing to address these concerns,” reads the current letter, which is scheduled for release later this week or early next week. “They will, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.”

Altogether, the real losers of the FTO designation won’t be the Houthis. It’ll be the millions of Yemenis already struggling to stay alive because of the war the US participated in.”

Iran expands nuclear program amid heightened tensions with the US

“The new 20 percent enrichment target was set by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was killed near Tehran on November 27, 2020, in an ambush that Iran has blamed on Israel.

And the same new law that mandates 20 percent enrichment also raises the imminent specter of international nuclear inspectors being expelled from the country: According to the New York Times, Iran has set “a two-month deadline for oil and banking sanctions against Iran to be lifted before inspectors are barred.” Currently, the IAEA says it has “inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordow.””

“In November 2020, Iran began operating advanced centrifuges at another underground nuclear facility, Natanz, and its nuclear stockpile stood at more than 12 times the limit imposed by the JCPOA.

US President-elect Joe Biden, who will take office on January 20, has indicated that he hopes to rejoin and revive the JCPOA, which was negotiated while he was serving as vice president to President Barack Obama. Some observers see Iran’s enrichment efforts as a way of building negotiating leverage, but it remains to be seen whether recent strides in Iran’s nuclear program could complicate things.”

4 looming foreign policy crises that could derail Biden’s agenda early on

“President-elect Joe Biden may want his administration to focus on long-term issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, rebuilding alliances, and America’s relationship with China, but some key near-term foreign policy problems will likely require his attention first.

After the assassination of its top nuclear scientist by an unknown attacker, Iran might be less willing to engage in diplomacy with America and instead seek revenge by targeting US officials. North Korea could test an intercontinental ballistic missile early in Biden’s term to try to gauge the new administration’s response. The last remaining nuclear arms control deal between the US and Russia is set to expire just over two weeks after Biden takes office. And the reduced number of American troops in Afghanistan could derail sputtering peace talks and worsen the country’s security situation.

Such a dilemma wouldn’t be unique to Biden. Every new president comes in with ideas on how to handle larger global problems, only to have the colloquial “tyranny of the inbox” monopolize their time. “If you assume that foreign policy is less than half, and maybe a quarter, of the president’s time, then that really shines a light on how serious this inbox problem is,” said Christopher Preble, co-director of the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council think tank.

Once he’s in the Oval Office, then, Biden will likely find his hopes of tackling grander foreign policy challenges dashed by the effort he’ll have to expend cleaning up more immediate messes.”

Biden Must Craft a Foreign Policy for a World the U.S. Doesn’t Rule

“the world Biden will inherit is a far cry from the one he occupied when he was the vice president, or during the 1990s when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. America’s unipolar moment has long been relegated to the dustbin of history. China, in the Pentagon’s parlance, is a peer competitor. Other powers, both large and small, including Russia, Iran and North Korea, can easily frustrate U.S. ambitions. Rarely has the environment for international cooperation seemed more challenging.
The president-elect has said repeatedly that his primary goal abroad is to put American back at “the head of the table” because “the world won’t organize itself.” But the shape of that table has changed profoundly. A global pandemic has laid bare the limits of globalization and multilateral diplomacy and accelerated the demise of the liberal international order that America created and that sustained its primacy; it has also exacerbated preexisting trends toward renewed geopolitical competition and heightened sensitivities about national sovereignty on issues from border security to the economy and health care. A powerful China and a declining yet still determined Russia have conspired successfully to oppose Pax Americana.”

“The Trump administration has failed to realize any of its objectives with China and has driven the bilateral relationship into a ditch by demonizing China and blaming Beijing for Trump’s own failures in responding to the pandemic; hyperventilating about the Chinese threat; hinting at a goal of toppling the regime and recognizing Taiwan as an independent country; and embracing reckless trade and technology policies that hurt the U.S. more than China and threaten to “decouple” the world’s two largest economies. Not surprisingly, Trump imagines that the U.S. and China are locked into a zero-sum game and that U.S. cooperation on issues of mutual concern is for suckers and losers.

Some of China’s behavior—its predatory trade and technology policies and repression at home, are two examples—warrants a more muscular American response. And Trump deserves credit for raising political consciousness of these obnoxious Chinese practices. But the Biden administration, notwithstanding its hard-line rhetoric during the campaign, will need to hit the reset button with Beijing. There are several steps the new administration can take to halt the downward spiral in the U.S.-China relationship.”

“should end the feckless and counterproductive tariff war with China, which according to several studies cost U.S. businesses $46 billion and the U.S. economy 300,000 jobs and roughly 0.5 percent of GDP growth.”

“The Trump administration’s policy of applying “maximum pressure” on Iran has also been a complete bust. Iran has not agreed to renegotiate an agreement with more stringent restrictions on its nuclear program, and it now possesses 12 times the amount of weapons grade material it had when the nuclear deal with Iran was signed in 2015. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has not reduced its “malign” activities in the region nor curtailed its ballistic missile programs; sanctions have not hastened the collapse of the regime; the U.S. is more isolated diplomatically than ever from its allies; Iran has been able to increase oil revenues by evading sanctions; and the administration’s unsuccessful efforts to isolate Iran have handed both China and Russia a golden opportunity to forge closer relations with Tehran.”