Week of July 27th, 2020 | Iran Unfiltered is a weekly digest tracking Iranian politics & society by the National Iranian American Council
- Mock U.S. Aircraft Carrier Blown Up in War Games Exercise
- U.S. Jets Intercept Iranian Passenger Aircraft
- Rouhani Talks about U.S. Requests for Negotiations
- Brian Hook’s Diplomatic Trips Analyzed
- Iran & the U.S. Spar Over Afghanistan
- COVID-19 Limits Set for Religious Ceremonies
Mock U.S. Aircraft Carrier Blown Up in War Games Exercise
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) naval and aerospace force conducted a wargames exercise in the western part of the Strait of Hormuz. The wargames were dubbed the “Great Prophet 14 sea maneuver.”
The exercise saw a mock U.S. aircraft destroyed with missiles. The mock aircraft carrier was first constructed for a wargames exercise in 2015, when it was fired upon with four land-to-sea missiles and 400 rockets. It was reconstructed for this exercise.
IRGC commander Hossein Salami said that even though Iran’s military doctrine is “defensive,” in “tactics and operations we are completely offensive.” He said the exercise was an “offensive missile, naval, and drone operation against enemy positions” and was an “operation of offensive mining and cutting the transport lines of hypothetical enemy vessels” and “firing land to sea missiles.” Missiles launched from underground silos were also used in the exercise.
The exercises and ballistic missile launches prompted U.S. military bases in the UAE and Qatar to go on high alert. U.S. troops in these bases sought cover.
The U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, said in a statement the Iranian exercise was aimed at “intimidation.” U.S.-Iran tensions have increased in the Persian Gulf in recent months. In April, after close encounters between U.S. and Iranian military vessels, President Trump threatened Iran in a tweet: “I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.”
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U.S. Jets Intercept Iranian Passenger Aircraft
An Iranian civilian aircraft flying from Tehran to Beirut was intercepted by American military jets over Syrian airspace. The incident occurred on July 23rd over the al-Tanf U.S. military base near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan.
As the jets neared, the pilot of the Iranian civilian aircraft suddenly descended, causing injuries among many passengers. Iranian officials have strongly condemned the U.S. action as illegal and lodged formal complaints with the UN Security Council and global aviation bodies.
U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) has said the U.S. abided by aviation rules during the incident. A CENTCOM statement said that as the Iranian aircraft neared al-Tanf, two U.S. jets were patrolling the area and attempted to establish radio communications with the Iranian aircraft. CENTCOM alleges the Iranian aircraft did not respond and the jets then neared the aircraft to within 1,000 meters to visually identify it.
The pilot of the Iranian aircraft denies this and said he communicated with the U.S. jet pilots. He says that for fear of the planes colliding, he descended his aircraft. It is illegal under international aviation law for military aircraft to intercept civilian airliners that are on predetermined routes and responding to radio communications.
The Iranian civilian aircraft belonged to Mahan airlines. Mahan has been sanctioned by the U.S. and is accused of transporting Iranian military forces and arms to Syria and Iraq.
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Rouhani Talks about U.S. Requests for Negotiations
President Rouhani said that “Western leaders” have made 23 requests of Iran to negotiate in the past 2 years and three months. Rouhani has often said that these leaders have relayed U.S. desires for negotiations.
Rouhani said “eight requests” were made of him for negotiations during the 2017 UN General Assembly. He said there were more requests the following year and that during the 2019 UN General Assembly, “practically every Western and European leader asked us for negotiations [with the U.S.].”
Rouhani said Iran is not “hesitant” to enter negotiations. However, he said Iran is “not looking for a symbolic show but seeks to resolve the issue.” He added: “Today, sanctions have been imposed on us that go against all international laws. They must remove these sanctions and our basis is that first they must end the wrongdoing they have committed.”
Rouhani said that removing sanctions was not a “precondition” for negotiations, but a “reality.” He declared that U.S. sanctions are “economic terrorism” and said that they have continued during the COVID-19 pandemic, making them tantamount to “medical terrorism.” He then condemned the U.S. for obstructing Iran’s request for international loans to assist in addressing the pandemic.
The U.S. continues to oppose the IMF granting Iran a $5 billion loan to address the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing rebuke from the EU and others.
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Brian Hook’s Diplomatic Trips Analyzed
The State Department’s Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook recently travelled to several countries to discuss Iran. He went to Tunisia, Estonia, and the United Kingdom, which are all members of the UN Security Council.
Hook’s trips come amid increased efforts by the Trump administration to renew a UN arms embargo on Iran. The UN arms embargo on Iran expires on October 27th, as mandated by UN Security Council resolution 2231. In early June, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo proclaimed he was “confident” the arms embargo would be extended.
Hook has also travelled to Kuwait and Qatar, which are not members of the UN Security Council. The Iranian outlet Fararu analyzed Hook’s trip to these two countries as part of a new U.S. effort to create a united front among the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries against Iran. The GCC has been splintered since the Saudi siege of Qatar began in June 2017, which has seen Qatar move closer to Iran.
Fararu stated that the UK’s position on the arms embargo is more “ambiguous” than that of Germany and France. It noted that Pompeo recently travelled to the UK to discuss Iran.
However, Fararu states that the EU prioritizes keeping the JCPOA alive, even though it is also concerned about the UN arms embargo expiring. On the other hand, China and Russia oppose a new UN arms embargo against Iran.
Fararu also states that Europe is searching for a compromise with the U.S. on a “limited” extension of the arms embargo. However, it says these “behind-the-scenes” talks have not reached any results. Pompeo has said the U.S. seeks an “indefinite” extension of the embargo and that if this is unsuccessful, the U.S. will seek to “snapback” all UN sanctions by citing UN Security Council resolution 2231.
Fararu also analyzed recent diplomatic outreach to Russia by both Iran and the United States. It noted that Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif travelled to Russia last week and carried a “special letter” from President Rouhani to President Putin. Rouhani’s letter was reportedly primarily about the JCPOA and arms embargo situation. (Read more about Zarif’s trip to Russia in last week’s issue of Iran Unfiltered).
Fararu then noted President Trump’s phone conversation with Putin after Zarif’s trip. The Trump-Putin call was primarily about “strategic stability and arms control” issues and, according to the Kremlin readout, “touched on” the “situation with the Iranian nuclear programme.”
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Iran & the U.S. Spar Over Afghanistan
U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad criticized Iran for not playing a helpful role in the Afghan peace talks. Khalilzad is leading U.S. diplomatic efforts to foster reconciliation between the Taliban and the Afghan central government and withdraw U.S. military forces.
Khalilzad was speaking during a video conference with the U.S. ambassadors of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. He said that one of the biggest challenges facing the Afghan peace process was that Iran was not welcoming it.
Khalilzad said Iran is not helping advance inter-Afghan peace talks because of the current tensions between Tehran and Washington. He claimed Iran does not want the U.S. to broker a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.
The Iranian embassy in Kabul said Khalilzad’s remarks were “incorrect.” The embassy released a statement emphasizing “Iran’s support for the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan and reiterating the Islamic Republic of Iran’s consistent position on the necessity of establishing peace on the basis of the results of inter-Afghan talks that are owned and led by Afghans.”
Khalilzad also cited recent comments by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. Araghchi recently travelled to Kabul and said in an interview that Iran “doubts America’s intentions in the Afghan peace process.”
Araghchi said “Iran is not opposed to peace in Afghanistan, but what the U.S. seeks is a deal with the Taliban.” Araghchi said there are “different signs” that have made Iran “pessimistic” about “America’s peace plan with the Taliban.”
Khalilzad said Araghchi’s remarks showed that Iran did not want the U.S. to reach a peace deal in Afghanistan. He said Iran prefers that the U.S. militarily withdraws from Afghanistan without reaching a peace agreement, which, he said, “means a continuation of war in Afghanistan.”
Khalilzad also cited other challenges facing the Afghan peace talks. Khalilzad said this includes differences between the Arab Persian Gulf states and among the south Asian states. He said that the U.S. wants India, Russia, and China to support the Afghan peace process.
Khalilzad is beginning a new round of diplomatic trips to advance the peace process. He will be travelling to Qatar, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Norway, and Bulgaria to help advance the talks.
Last August, the U.S. reached an initial peace deal with the Taliban. The deal requires the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan central government and draws down the number of U.S. troops in the country over time.
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COVID-19 Limits Set for Religious Ceremonies
Authorities have announced limitations for upcoming religious holidays. Two major Islamic holidays are approaching that are marked by large public gatherings, Eid-e Ghorban (Eid al-Adha) and the Muharram mourning processions.
There has been a debate inside Iran over how these public ceremonies should take place. Iran’s main anti-coronavirus task force has said public ceremonies can be held in indoor environments such as mosques and Hussainiyas but under restrictions, including on the size, time, and duration of the ceremonies. The ceremonies can also only take place in areas that are approved by provincial specialists.
The Health Ministry has said large-scale religious gatherings will be prohibited. Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi has said: “The definitive opinion of the health ministry is that large public gatherings for Muharram be prohibited. Especially in indoor environments which we strongly oppose.”
Raisi added: “The ceremonies that do take place will not be like before at all. They will be totally limited. We have to learn to use virtual media and conduct these ceremonies in our own homes.”
The number of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Iran has been sharply rising. According to official data, roughly 16,000 Iranians have died from the disease and over 293,000 have been infected.
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