Iran Digest: Week of January 1-8, 2016

Iran Digest

AIC’s Iran digest project covers the latest developments and news stories published in Iranian and international media outlets. This weekly digest is compiled by Communications Associate Alexander Benthem de Grave and Research Associate Bradford Van Arnum.

Regional Politics

Iran claims Saudi airstrike hit its embassy in Yemen

A diplomatic crisis roiling the Middle East intensified Thursday as Iran claimed that a Saudi airstrike overnight hit its embassy in Yemen, a charge not supported by signs of damage but that nevertheless raised tensions between the rivals.

There was no visible evidence of harm to the embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, which is held by Iranian-friendly rebels who have faced more than nine months of air raids from a Saudi-led military coalition.

But the accusation signaled dangerously heightened friction after Saudi Arabia and a number of fellow Sunni countries severed or downgraded diplomatic relations with Iran, a Shite-led theocracy, over the last week. The row threatened to intensify the rivals’ destructive proxy conflicts in the region, notably in Yemen. (The Washington Post)

More countries back Saudi Arabia in Iran dispute

Qatar has become the latest country to back Saudi Arabia in its dispute with Iran, recalling its ambassador to Tehran on Wednesday in response to the attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions last weekend.  

Jordan, Djibouti, and Turkey also expressed pro-Saudi positions on Wednesday after the embassy attacks in Iran that followed the execution of a renowned Shia leader in Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the execution of 47 men for terrorism charges in Saudi Arabia was "a domestic issue". One of those put to death was Shia Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr - a move that stirred sectarian anger across the region. (Al Jazeera)

Nuclear Accord

Republican-led committee approves legislation for oversight of landmark Iran nuclear deal

The GOP-led House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday approved legislation that would give Congress greater oversight of the landmark nuclear deal with Iran.

Passage of the bill comes as the United States is poised to begin lifting sanctions against Iran, possibly as early as this month, as Tehran fulfills its obligations under the July 14 agreement. The Iran Terror Finance Transparency Act would subject an important part of the deal to expanded scrutiny on Capitol Hill.

But several Democrats who opposed the measure called it an 11th-hour attempt to scuttle the agreement after President Barack Obama last year won enough support to prevent Congress from derailing it or forcing him to veto it. The bill would bar the removal of certain individuals and foreign financial institutions on a restricted list kept by the Treasury Department until the president certifies to Congress that they weren't involved in Iran's ballistic missiles program or terrorist activities. (U.S. News & World Report)

What does the Tehran-Riyadh split mean for the Iranian nuclear deal?

split deal.jpg

In a region already afflicted by multiple armed conflicts, a new source of tension erupted in the first week of the year that could upset global nuclear stability. On January 2, Saudi Arabia announced it had executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a top Shia cleric who had spent more than a decade in Iran, along with 46 other people convicted of terrorism. That evening, protesters attacked and trashed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. By January 3, Riyadh had announced it was cutting diplomatic ties with Tehran, giving Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the Kingdom and recalling its own ambassador.

Other Sunni-majority states began to sever ties with Tehran as Iranian officials denounced both the storming of the embassy and the execution. With swaths of Syria and Iraq still under the control of the Islamic extremist group ISIS, Syria torn between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, and other rebel and terrorist groups, and Yemen in the midst of a conflict that has killed some 6,000 people since March, this formal break in Saudi-Iran relations could exacerbate many tensions. (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists)

International Trade

Foreign firms dash to get in on Iran 'gold rush' – but US companies left out in cold

American companies risk missing out on a “gold rush” in Iran if sanctions are lifted as expected next year under the controversial nuclear deal, experts have warned. Companies from Asia and Europe are already flocking to do business in the emerging economy, which is set to come in from the cold should Tehran meet its obligations to not pursue a nuclear weapon.

But while the accord has been billed as a flagship of Barack Obama’s foreign diplomacy, the US might be among the last to benefit commercially. Only a small fraction of US sanctions – those related to Iran’s nuclear activities – will be suspended as part of the deal, which also allows for a “snapback” of all sanctions in the event of non-compliance.

Although US companies’ foreign subsidiaries will be allowed to engage with Iran, a minefield of regulatory, transparency and legal issues could present more risk than reward in the eyes of many. Investors are also likely to be wary of the next US presidential election, with Republican candidates vowing to scrap the deal if they come to office. (The Guardian)

Saudi Arabia to halt flights, trade with Iran - minister

Saudi Arabia widened its rift with Iran on Monday, saying it would end air traffic and trade links with the Islamic republic and demanding that Tehran must "act like a normal country" before it would restore severed diplomatic relations.

Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Reuters in an interview that Tehran was responsible for rising tensions after the kingdom executed Shi'ite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday, describing him as a terrorist.

Insisting Riyadh would react to "Iranian aggression", he accused Tehran of dispatching fighters to Arab countries and plotting attacks inside the kingdom and its Gulf neighbours.

"There is no escalation on the part of Saudi Arabia. Our moves are all reactive. It is the Iranians who went into Lebanon. It is the Iranians who sent their Qods Force and their Revolutionary Guards into Syria," Jubeir said. (Reuters)


Iran environment department chief sets temperature challenge

The vice president and head of Iran's Department of Environment, Massoumeh Ebtekar, has invited Iranian people to take part in a temperature challenge aimed at tackling air pollution across the country.

“The 18° temperature challenge, set your thermostat at home or work to curb air pollution and fight climate change,” Ebtekar said in a post on her Twitter page on Thursday.

Following Ebtekar’s tweet, many Iranians welcomed her initiative as people in Tehran and a number of other major Iranian cities have been suffering from severe air pollution for the past 20 days. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Friday thanked Ebtekar for offering the temperature challenge and expressed his support for the initiative. (PressTV)

Inside Iran

Rouhani shows determination to end embassy attacks in Iran

President Hassan Rouhani asked Iran's judiciary on Wednesday to urgently prosecute the people who attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran in protest at the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric.

Rouhani's comments appear to show his determination to reduce tension with Iran's Sunni Gulf neighbors and continue his attempts to normalize ties with world powers by speaking out on a practice that has become a challenge for the Islamic Republic's foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti broke all ties with Iran this week, the United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations and Kuwait recalled its ambassador after the embassy was stormed. Jordan summoned Iran's ambassador. (Reuters)

Rouhani asks judiciary to prosecute Saudi Embassy attackers

President Hassan Rouhani asked Iran's judiciary on Wednesday to urgently prosecute the people who attacked the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in protest over the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shia cleric.

His comments appear to show his determination to reduce tensions with Iran's Sunni Gulf neighbors and continue his attempts to normalize ties with world powers by speaking out on a practice that has become a challenge for the Islamic Republic's foreign policy.

On Wednesday, Qatar became the latest country to recall its ambassador from Iran. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti broke ties with Iran earlier in the week. The United Arab Emirates downgraded its relations, and Kuwait recalled its ambassador after the embassy was stormed. Jordan summoned Iran's ambassador. (Al Jazeera America)


Perils of prediction: Why it’s so hard to guess the fallout of the Saudi-Iran split

By Kenneth M. Pollack

I want to sound a note of warning about recent developments between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is the typical analytic tendency to predict that tomorrow will be essentially the same as yesterday and today. That’s because it is correct in the vast majority of cases.

But that is also why it is often difficult for even the best analysts to recognize—let alone predict—discontinuous change. Major events often catch the finest experts by surprise. I fear that the Middle East has entered a period where major, discontinuous change has become far more possible, even probable.

I see this week’s events in Saudi Arabia and Iran as evidence of just that. Five years ago, the Saudis might not have felt the need to execute Nimr al-Nimr because they did not feel as threatened by a wider Shiite threat (both internal and external), exaggerated though we may believe it to be. Five years ago, the Iranians would probably have settled with a perfunctory verbal condemnation and left it at that. And five years ago, the Saudis probably would have brushed aside any Iranian criticism. The last few days have demonstrated that today is not five years ago.

Read the full article.