Recent US-Iran tensions: a chronology

18 June 2020

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Dr Leah Farrall
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security Section





The airstrike and its fallout

Australia’s reaction to the Suleimani assassination and subsequent events


On 3 January 2020 the United States assassinated Major General Qassim Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—Quds Force (IRGC-QF), in an airstrike on his convoy as it left Baghdad’s International Airport. The attack also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s powerful and IRGC-QF-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Suleimani’s assassination, condemned by Iran as a criminal act and by Iraq as a violation of its sovereignty, marked a major escalation in long simmering US-Iran tensions and led to fears it could jeopardise the coalition’s presence in Iraq and potentially embroil the Middle East in another conflict.

This chronology tracks media coverage of Suleimani’s assassination and its continuing fallout, up to and including the second anniversary in early May 2020 of the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear deal. It also outlines the Australian Government’s reaction to the assassination and ongoing events, including its decision to participate in the US-led International Maritime Security Construct in the Persian Gulf.


US-Iran relations most recently deteriorated following US President Donald Trump’s 2017 introduction of a maximum pressure strategy, which saw the US unilaterally withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—JCPOA (a nuclear deal that Iran was complying with), and impose sanctions that included the 2019 proscription of the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) in an effort to force the negotiation of a new deal. This was despite the designation typically applying to non-state actors, and not a sovereign state’s armed forces.

The Quds Force is ‘the unit of the IRGC responsible for extra-territorial operations’, and under Suleimani’s leadership, established an Iranian ‘arc of influence’ that extends ‘from the Gulf of Oman through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea’. Suleimani has been credited with being ‘the leading exponent of a uniquely Iranian style of insurgency’ that serves as both a core part and key driver of Iran’s asymmetric power. While revered in Iran, Suleimani was reviled by those who suffered at the hands of Quds Force-backed militias in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

Iran responded to the designation by proscribing the US Central Command (CENTCOM) as a terrorist organisation and doubling down on its own position. Following the US ending of some sanctions waivers for the purchase of Iranian oil, Iran’s military leadership threatened ‘if our crude is not to pass through the Strait of Hormuz, others’ will not pass either’. A series of sabotage attacks against petroleum tankers in the Gulf of Oman attributed by the US and its Gulf allies to Iran, and the IRGC in particular, continued to drive an escalation in tension, which saw Iran shoot down a US surveillance drone and the US conduct a retaliatory cyberattack and impose more sanctions. It also saw the US intensify its efforts to build a broad international coalition against Iran, resulting in the establishment of an International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to protect maritime shipping in the Persian Gulf, to which a handful of countries, including Australia, contribute.

Attacks in September 2019 against two of Saudi Arabia’s most significant oil facilities reportedly caused the largest-ever disruption to global oil supply and were attributed by the US to Iran. In October a wave of protests began to sweep across Iraq amid widespread discontent with the government. They were brutally repressed by Iraq’s security apparatus, including the IRGC-backed PMF, further inflaming anger at Iran’s influence in Iraqi political affairs. By December 2019 Iran was facing its own political unrest, the most serious the country had experienced since its 1979 revolution. This began with protests following a 50 per cent rise in fuel costs before reportedly ballooning into ‘a far more generalised expression of anger’ at the regime. For the IRGC-QF, however, it seemed to have been business as usual until the US strike early on 3 January.

The airstrike and its fallout

The airstrike that killed Suleimani took place ‘at the direction of’ US President, Donald Trump. Reporting suggests a MQ-9 Reaper drone, launched from an unknown location, was used to target Suleimani’s convoy at the airport. As with other US allies, Australia received no prior warning.

In remarks following the strike, Trump stated Suleimani was a terrorist and that on his order the military had carried out a pre-emptive strike against a terrorist leader planning attacks against the US. However, Suleimani was a General in charge of a unit within an official branch of a sovereign country’s armed forces. This raised a number of questions about whether the airstrike violated international law. Suleimani’s assassination was reportedly the first time since World War II that the US has ‘killed a major military leader in a foreign country’. Concerns within and beyond US Congress were reported too, as the domestic legality of Trump’s order came into question.

The Trump administration also found itself defending its claim the President’s decision to strike was intelligence-driven. Not only has the veracity of the alleged intelligence been questioned, but so too have Trump’s motivations. Additionally, in quite detailed and apparently leak-driven reporting, The New York Times and The Washington Post laid out internal machinations and manoeuvring within the Trump administration and Pentagon that were alleged to have played a role in Trump’s decision to target Suleimani. Similar reporting also appeared in CNN and The Los Angeles Times coverage.

Iran’s initial response

Iran’s initial response to the US strike indicated it would retaliate. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, said that Suleimani’s assassination was ‘extremely dangerous and foolish’, and the US ‘bears responsibility for all consequences of its rogue adventurism’. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, threatened revenge, as did the country’s President, Hassan Rouhani.

In a 4 January letter to the UN Security Council, Iran outlined how it considered Suleimani’s assassination to be ‘a criminal act’ that constituted ‘a gross violation of the fundamental principles of international law’, and stated it ‘reserves all of its rights under international law to take necessary measures in this regard, in particular in exercising its inherent right to self-defense’.

On 4 January a senior IRGC General was quoted in Iranian media threatening that ‘some 35 US targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach’, while also alluding to ships being targeted in the Strait of Hormuz. The same day, and in apparent response, Trump threatened to target ‘52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago)’ that are ‘important to Iran and the Iranian culture’.

International responses

International reaction to the escalation of tension between Iran and the US was initially one of alarm and there were widespread calls for restraint and de-escalation. By 4 January the UK had announced it would resume naval escorts of UK-flagged ships in the Gulf, and NATO reported it was suspending training missions in Iraq.

On 5 January the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), to which Australia’s Defence Force contributes, announced a pause in coalition training activities in Iraq to focus on force protection, as security concerns mounted. Media coverage included reporting that Trump’s threats to target sites of cultural value in Iran would constitute war crimes if carried out, as well as the Pentagon’s attempts to distance itself from his threats.

As media reports broke that Iran had indicated it would ‘no longer abide by any of the limits set out in the 2015 nuclear deal’, the EU invited Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif to Brussels for discussions as part of ongoing efforts to salvage the deal and de-escalate tensions.

Iraq responds

On 5 January Iraq’s parliament held an extraordinary session and voted to expel US and coalition forces, in a non-binding, but nonetheless symbolic, resolution. In response, US President Donald Trump threatened Iraq with sanctions. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Ali Abdul-Mahdi, also told the parliament that Suleimani had been in Baghdad to respond to an Iraqi-led mediation effort between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which had taken place at US President Trump’s request.

Confusion followed on 6 January, when the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office circulated a letter it had obtained which appeared to be from the Commander of US forces in Iraq acknowledging parliament’s resolution and advising US forces were being repositioned ‘for onward movement’. Initially dismissed as fake by the Pentagon policy office, it later emerged the letter was genuine but a ‘draft’ that was ‘poorly worded’ and ‘should not have been released’.

Although the US Secretary of Defence subsequently said ‘the letter is inconsistent of [sic] where we are right now’ and there ‘has been no decision whatsoever to leave’, Iraq’s Prime Minister was reported to be treating the letter as a ‘withdrawal announcement’ and allegedly requested a timetable for withdrawal.

The fallout continues

Also on 6 January, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, called for the ‘exercise of maximum restraint’, and the US denied Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif a visa, preventing him from attending a UN Security Council meeting scheduled for 9 January.

On 7 January Germany, Canada and NATO announced the ‘movement and withdrawal of some of their troops’ from Iraq, and Suleimani’s burial was postponed following a stampede that resulted in the deaths of 50 people after his funeral procession reached his hometown of Kerman. As coverage of the targeting of Suleimani continued, some media reported that US justifications for the strike were evolving.

Iran retaliates

By 8 January Iran had retaliated, launching 16 missiles that struck Iraq’s al-Asad base, which houses US forces, as well as another location in Erbil. The missiles reportedly damaged several buildings on the base in a strike. Ayatollah Khamenei told Iranians the strike was a ‘slap on the face’ of the US while Foreign Minister Zarif stated:

Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defence under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched.

We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.

Iraq reacted to Iran’s missile strikes in a statement, saying it ‘rejects these attacks and considers them a violation of Iraqi sovereignty’, and indicated the Government would summon Iran’s ambassador.

Trump responds to Iran

Shortly after Iran’s strikes on 8 January, Trump gave a national address about the Iran situation in which he said:

No Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties. All of our soldiers are safe and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.

Trump also called for the abandonment of the nuclear deal and the making of a new one, announcing he would impose additional sanctions on Iran to force it to accept a new deal. These sanctions included primary and secondary sanctions on several Iranian officials and on sectors of the Iranian economy, including construction, manufacturing, textiles, and mining.

Trump also indicated he would continue to attempt to build an international coalition, this time involving NATO, stating ‘Today I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process’. Perhaps in reference to the Iranian Foreign Minister’s statement about the missile strikes concluding Iran’s response to Suleimani’s assassination, Trump also said that Iran ‘appears to be standing down’.

A Ukrainian airliner is downed

Following Iran’s missile strikes, a number of airlines re-routed flights to avoid airspace over Iran and Iraq. However, Iran did not close its airspace to civilian traffic, and shortly after the missile strikes in Iraq, reports emerged of a Ukraine International Airlines flight crashing minutes after take-off from Tehran’s airport. All 176 people on board were killed, including 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, 11 Ukrainians, and a number of other international travellers.

Almost immediately following the incident, speculation began that the airliner did not crash but had been shot down. Iran initially denied its missiles brought down the flight. However, multiple videos soon emerged that showed what appeared to be a missile strike and its aftermath.

In an address to the nation late on 9 January, Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said:

We have intelligence from multiple sources—including our allies and our own intelligence—the evidence indicates that the plane was shot down by an Iranian surface-to-air missile. This may well have been unintentional.

It was not the first time a civilian airliner had been shot down as a consequence of US-Iran tensions. In 1988, during the ‘tanker war’, the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian airliner, killing all on board.

A muted US response

In his initial response to the aircraft downing Trump stated that he had his suspicions and went on to say:

It was flying in a pretty rough neighborhood and somebody could have made a mistake. Some people say it was mechanical. I personally don’t think that’s even a question, personally. So we’ll see what happens.

He was, however, more outspoken about his ongoing effort to build an international coalition against Iran, telling reporters on 9 January that when he had proposed NATO’s extension to include the Middle East to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg a day earlier: ‘“I actually had a name: NATO, right, and then you have ME—Middle East. NATOME. I said, what a beautiful name”’. Later that day, the US House of Representatives passed a non-binding War Powers Resolution in an effort to limit Trump’s ability to use military force without first obtaining congressional approval.

Global Coalition against Daesh ceases military activities in Iraq

In a 9 January statement released via Twitter the Global Coalition against Daesh announced it had ‘paused military activities in Iraq to focus on protecting Iraqi bases that host Coalition personnel’. It went on to say that ‘we await further clarification on the legal nature and impact of the resolution on foreign troops no longer being allowed to say in Iraq, passed on Sunday 5 January by the Iraqi parliament’.

Ukraine left out in the cold

On 10 January Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, indicated that his country had not received the intelligence other Western countries appeared to have been provided, and which led them to cite evidence the Ukraine International Airlines jet had been shot down. Shortly afterwards, his spokeswoman reported he had received information from the US and later that day would be speaking with US Secretary of State Pompeo.

US justification evolves

Also on 10 January, US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, spoke to reporters following the imposition of more sanctions against Iran, claiming ‘Now that we [the US] are outside of the Iran nuclear deal, we are in a much better position to deny Iran a nuclear weapon’. However, European foreign ministers who also met on the same day reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA, and indicated they had not discussed triggering the agreement’s dispute resolution processes because they remained willing to maintain the deal.

Trump followed up his 9 January comment that Suleimani was killed because Iran was ‘looking to blow up our embassy’, claiming in a 10 January interview that four US embassies were being targeted.

Iran admits downing the airliner in error

On 11 January Iran admitted IRGC forces had shot down the Ukrainian airliner in error. In a statement, the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces acknowledged that the ‘aircraft was targeted unintentionally due to human error’, and said IRGC officials would provide further details. In a subsequent statement to the media the head of the IRGC’s aerospace division took full responsibility for the incident but also stated that officials had refused a request for airspace to be closed.

Shortly after, protests were reported to have erupted across Iran amid what was said to have been widespread anger at the regime’s initial denial that it shot down the plane and the lack of safeguards put in place. On 12 January as protests entered their second day, reports emerged that Britain’s ambassador to Iran had been detained by security forces who accused him of taking part in the protests. He was released shortly thereafter, and his detention condemned by the UK and Germany.

The evolving narrative of the Trump administration’s justification of Suleimani strikes

By 11 January reports were also emerging that the US strike against Suleimani was part of a broader effort to decapitate the IRGC senior leadership. According to this reporting, on the same day that Suleimani was targeted the US undertook a separate strike in Yemen against Abdul Reza Shahlai, whom it was claimed was an IRGC commander operating in the country. The strike against Shahlai reportedly failed.

Europe attempts to preserve the JCPOA

Also on 11 January, European leaders called for the preservation of the JCPOA—with Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin holding a joint press conference at which Merkel indicated that the remaining partners to the deal would ‘continue to employ all diplomatic means to keep this agreement alive, which is certainly not perfect, but it is an agreement and it comprises commitments by all sides’. (This followed a 9 January opinion piece by former US Secretary of State John Kerry, in which he argued that Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement, which Kerry had helped negotiate, and Trump’s pursuit of a ‘reckless foreign policy’ had put the US on ‘a path to armed conflict with Iran’).

Late on 12 January the E3 (Germany, France and the UK) issued a statement in which it said it was ‘essential that Iran return to full compliance with its commitments under the agreement’ and despite US criticism of the deal, reiterated its support for the JCPOA.

More questioning of US intentions in relation to Suleimani strike

On 13 January, US Defence Secretary Mark Esper told US media he had not seen ‘the intelligence about Iran posing an imminent threat to four US embassies but I believe President Trump when he says there was one’. The same day CNN reported that ‘State Department officials involved in US embassy security were not made aware of imminent threats to four specific US embassies’. Also on 13 January, US Attorney-General, William Barr said the question over the imminence of the threat allegedly outlined in the intelligence was a ‘red herring’ and equated Trump’s decision to target Suleimani with Obama-era drone strikes on the leaders of terrorist organisations. He went on to say Suleimani’s killing was ‘a legitimate act of self-defence’ that ‘disrupted ongoing attacks and re-established deterrence’.

In tweets on 13 January, Trump addressed negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons stating ‘Actually, I couldn’t care less if they negotiate. Will be totally up to them but, no nuclear weapons and “don’t kill your protestors [sic]”’. He also ‘weighed in’ with additional tweets about the protests in Iran, with messages in English and Farsi. As scepticism mounted over Trump’s reasons for targeting Suleimani, Trump again took to Twitter on 14 January to defend the strike and claim that Suleimani’s ‘horrible past’ meant the reasons ‘didn’t really matter’.

The JCPOA flounders

Also on 14 January, US Secretary of State Pompeo stated that US sanctions against Iran ‘will continue until the regime stops its terrorist activity and commits to never having nuclear weapons’. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made headlines calling for a ‘Trump deal’ on Iran to replace the JCPOA. Iran’s Foreign Minister tweeted in apparent response:

For 20 months, the E3—following UK appeasement policy—has bowed to US diktat. That hasn’t gotten anywhere—and it never will. E3 can save JCPOA but not by appeasing the bully & pressuring the complying party. Rather it should muster the courage to fulfil its own obligations.

Later that day reports emerged that the E3 had triggered the JCPOA dispute mechanism. In a lengthy statement the E3 foreign ministers said they were left with no choice but to trigger the mechanism. Notably, they made it clear they sought to preserve the agreement and were not joining the ‘campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran’, stating it was their hope ‘to bring Iran back into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA’.

The Coordinator of the Joint Commission of the JCPOA, who was responsible for overseeing the Dispute Resolution Mechanism process, also released a statement on 14 January acknowledging receipt of a letter from the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the UK. The statement highlighted their intention to ‘preserve the JCPOA in the sincere hope of finding a way forward to resolve the impasse through constructive diplomatic dialogue’. It also noted:

The JCPOA is a significant achievement of sustained multilateral diplomacy following years of negotiations. In light of the ongoing dangerous escalations in the Middle East, the preservation of the JCPOA is now more important than ever.

Iran reacts

Iran’s reaction to the mechanism being triggered reportedly included the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani telling his cabinet in a 15 January speech that the Middle East ‘could be unsafe for European soldiers in the same way it is insecure for US troops’, and calling for Western forces to leave the region. On 16 January Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif posted a series of tweets in relation to the E3’s triggering of the dispute mechanism, claiming that the ‘E3 sold out remnants of JCPOA to avoid new Trump tariffs’ and that Iran had previously triggered the mechanism, but that this had been ignored. The same day he was reported to have held ‘frank’ discussions about the status of the JCPOA with the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

US threats and claims of obfuscation

On 16 January it emerged that the Trump administration had threatened the E3 in an effort to get it to trigger the dispute mechanisms within the JCPOA, which could then lead to a ‘snap back’ of sanctions. In a warning sent several days prior to the announcement, the E3 were told that if they continued to support the JCPOA and did not trigger the dispute mechanism the US would impose a 25 per cent tariff on European vehicles. The same day, Germany’s Defence Minister confirmed reports, saying ‘This expression or threat, as you will, does exist’. The Defence Minister also reiterated that Germany would not support the US maximum pressure campaign.

By 17 January US media was reporting that 11 US service members had been injured in the Iranian strikes, and were being treated for ‘concussion symptoms’. A Pentagon spokesman denied there had been any attempt to minimise or hide the casualties, attributing the delay in casualty reporting to service members only presenting with symptoms in the days after the attack.

Ayatollah Khamenei gives rare sermon

On 17 January Ayatollah Khamenei gave a rare Friday sermon in Iran—his first in eight years—in what was thought to be an attempt to settle domestic instability arising from protests that had erupted following news that the Ukrainian airliner had been downed in error by the IRGC, and public anger that it was several days before this was disclosed. In his sermon Khamenei was reported to have reiterated his support for the IRGC, whose Quds force he said were ‘fighters without borders’, and made calls for unity. On 19 January the speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, said:

… if the European powers, for any reason, adopt an unfair approach in using the dispute mechanism, we will seriously reconsider our cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

By 20 January Foreign Minister Zarif was reported to have said Iran had finished scaling back commitments to the JCPOA. However, he indicated Iran may consider other actions such as withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) ‘if the Europeans continue their improper behaviour or send Iran’s file to the Security Council’, the latter of which would take place as step five in the JCPOA dispute resolution process, which is currently in its early stages. Also on 20 January, Iran’s foreign ministry reported that Zarif would not be attending the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos later that week, which it indicated was a result of a program change that had not been agreed upon.

On 21 January reports emerged that an Iranian MP had offered a reward of US$3 million to anyone who killed President Trump. The same day reports also emerged of another MP saying:

If we had nuclear weapons today, we would be protected from threats ... We should put the production of long-range missiles capable of carrying unconventional warheads on our agenda. This is our natural right.

The following day President Hassan Rouhani was reported to have said in a Cabinet meeting:

We have never sought nuclear weapons ... With or without the nuclear deal we will never seek nuclear weapon ... The European powers will be responsible for the consequences of violating the pact.

Rouhani’s chief of staff indicated on the same day that exiting the JCPOA was a possible option for Iran, saying:

It was discussed that it’s possible some may take Iran’s file to the (U.N.) Security Council ... If this happens we will take tougher decisions such as leaving the nuclear deal[.] 

He was also reported to have indicated that Iran and Saudi Arabia ‘should work together to overcome problems’.

South Korea orders dispatch of naval forces to Gulf, independent of the IMSC

On 21 January South Korea announced it would send a naval unit to the Gulf, reportedly comprised of a naval destroyer and 300 naval forces. It emphasised its force would work independently of the IMSC.

US actions

On 22 January US media reported that US Citizens and Immigration Services had announced Iranian nationals could no longer enter the US on investment and trade visas, and those already in the US with such visas must leave once they had expired:

… due to the Oct. 3, 2018, termination of the 1955 Treaty of Amity, Economic Relations, and Consular Rights with Iran, Iranian nationals are no longer eligible for E-1 treaty trader and E-2 treaty investor changes or extensions of status based on the treaty.

On 23 January an Arabic-language publication reporting on an interview with US Special Envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, said that he had threatened that Suleimani’s successor would face the same fate ‘if he follows the same path of killing Americans’. The same day US Treasury imposed sanctions on a number of companies it alleged were helping Iran’s National Iranian Oil Company export oil.

On 24 January the Pentagon revealed that 34 service members had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries or concussion, which marked an almost threefold rise in the number initially reported injured from Iran’s strikes against US forces in Iraq.

E3 comments on JCPOA partners

On 24 January Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was reported to have ‘warned against prematurely scrapping an international nuclear deal with Iran, saying that it would be wrong to abandon an “imperfect” deal with nothing better in place’. This followed a statement issued five days earlier by the other two members of the E3—Britain and France—in which they ‘reiterated their commitment to the JCPOA and also acknowledged the need to define a long-term framework to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon’. Also on 24 January, the EU’s Josep Borrell outlined in a statement that he had extended the time for dispute negotiations in relation to the JCPOA:

All JCPOA participants reconfirmed their determination to preserve the agreement which is in the interest of all.

Notwithstanding differences on modalities, there is agreement that more time is needed due to the complexity of the issues involved. The timeline is therefore extended.

All agreed to pursue expert-level discussions addressing the concerns regarding nuclear implementation, as well as the wider impacts of the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA and its re-imposition of sanctions, concerning which all JCPOA participants have expressed regret.

The Joint Commission will review progress regularly. The next meeting will take place in February.

Iran’s Foreign Minister gives interview with German publication

Also on 24 January Germany’s Der Spiegel published an interview with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on the most recent tensions between the US and Iran, and the state of the JCPOA. The interview attracted attention for a number of comments Zarif made, and also prompted a Twitter response from Trump. On the issue of the status of the JCPOA, Zarif said:

We are not violating the agreement; we are acting in accordance with JCPOA. Let me make it very clear to the Europeans: If they want to implement their obligations, we will be prepared to go back to full compliance immediately. But implementing their obligations is not just about making announcements that they are committed to JCPOA. I could also make the same announcement: We are committed to the agreement, we love the agreement, we want it to stay alive forever. Words are cheap. Europe should show us one single action. But what have they done?

DER SPIEGEL: They established the Instrument Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), a special purpose vehicle to enable companies to do business with Iran despite the U.S. sanctions.

Zarif: INSTEX is basically an accounting company. More than a year and a half after the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Europeans haven’t succeeded in carrying out a single transaction.

Zarif again emphasised that Iran had concluded its formal response to the US assassination of Suleimani, stating ‘The strike against the military base in Iraq, from which the U.S. conducted its operation, was Iran’s formal military response’. He also claimed that in a communication to the US, passed via Swiss diplomatic channels, Iran had told the US ‘that the action has ended and that we will not take any more action if they don’t take any more action—and that we are not responsible for the actions of others’.

When asked about the status of the JCPOA, and whether the deal was ‘dead’, Zarif responded as follows:

DER SPIEGEL: Is the nuclear deal dead?

Zarif: No. Inspections and transparency about Iran’s activities are an important part of the agreement, and they are still happening. The EU has not fulfilled parts of the agreement and Iran has not fulfilled parts, but that doesn’t mean it is dead.

DER SPIEGEL: If Iran fails to reach an agreement with the Europeans within 30 days, the matter will go to the UN Security Council and UN sanctions will be imposed against Iran again. That would spell the end of the agreement.

Zarif: The Europeans have no legitimate grounds for resorting to this mechanism. They can’t just refer something to the Security Council because they are Europeans and they have blue eyes. And it’s not only us who think this, but also the Russians and the Chinese. The Europeans will be up against a major battle.

What prompted US President Donald Trump to tweet about the interview was Zarif’s response to a question about the possibility of negotiations with the US:

DER SPIEGEL: Do you rule out the possibility of negotiations with the U.S. following Soleimani’s murder?

Zarif: No, I never rule out the possibility that people will change their approach and recognize the realities. For us, it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the White House. What matters is how they behave. The Trump administration can correct its past, lift the sanctions and come back to the negotiating table. We’re still at the negotiating table. They’re the ones who left. The U.S. has inflicted great harm on the Iranian people. The day will come when they will have to compensate for that. We have a lot of patience.

On 26 January Trump tweeted in apparent response to Zarif’s comments in the Der Spiegel interview:

Iranian Foreign Minister says Iran wants to negotiate with The United States, but wants sanctions removed. @FoxNews@OANN No Thanks!

Zarif then responded to Trump, also via Twitter, saying:

.@realdonaldtrump is better advised to base his foreign policy comments & decisions on facts, rather than @FoxNews headlines or his Farsi translators To be better informed, he can read my entire interview (in English) … [link provided]

Iranian and Omani foreign ministers meet again

Also on 26 January, Zarif met with Oman’s Foreign Minister, Yousef bin Alawi, for talks. The two met a number of times in January. In this most recent meeting the two were said to have discussed maritime security in the Strait of Hormuz, which falls within the territorial waters of both countries.

Oman was a key interlocutor in JCPOA negotiations and has maintained strong relations with Iran.

Iran’s domestic politics continue to fracture

On 27 January President Hassan Rouhani pushed for Iran to meet money laundering compliance requirements imposed by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), because of a looming February deadline. Complying with FATF rules requires legislative action that hardliners in Iran’s parliament oppose. In October 2018 Iran’s parliament ratified a Combating the Financing of Terrorism Bill  that would have met the requirements, but the Bill then had to pass through the ‘Guardian Council’, which subsequently rejected it along with another.

According to Radio Farda reporting, the matter then progressed to the hardliner-dominated Expediency Council for ‘arbitration’. The deadline for a decision on the Bill was 22 January, which passed without any action, leading some to claim this meant it had been rejected. A failure to meet FATF requirements could see Iran become more financially isolated.

Increasing tension between Iran’s hardliners and moderates

The divide between moderates and hardliners in Iran became more pronounced in late January as the country approached a March election and hardliners engaged in ‘mass disqualification of candidates’. This led Iran’s President—himself considered moderate—to reportedly ‘lash out’ at hardliners and call for unity, amid the country dealing with the ongoing effects of Trump’s ‘maximum pressure campaign’.

On 27 January supporters of Iran’s hardliners took to the streets in front of the Foreign Affairs Ministry to protest against Foreign Minister Zarif and demand his resignation. The protesters were allegedly angered by the comments Zarif made in the Der Spiegel interview, in which he indicated Iran had not walked away from the possibility of negotiations.

On 28 January Reuters reported that Iran’s parliament would debate a motion for the country to leave the NPT after the minimum number of MPs necessary for such a motion to be debated signed the request. That same day Iran’s Minister of Information and Communications Technology confirmed US media reporting that the country was readying for a satellite launch, which the US alleges is cover for its ballistic missile program. The failure of the JCPOA to address the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile development was one of the key reasons cited by Trump for withdrawing from the deal, and as such, the satellite launch was seen by his administration as a further provocation.

Also on 28 January, an Iranian MP was reported to have claimed that ‘twenty-three law makers have filed a lawsuit against Foreign Minister Zarif and intend to impeach him’. (It was not the first time hardliners within Iran’s parliament have tried to impeach Zarif. In late November 2018 reports emerged that hardliners were attempting to impeach Zarif, angered allegedly by his stance that Iran should move to meet FATF guidelines in relation to money laundering and counter-terrorism financing.)

Pentagon reveals up to 50 service members injured in Iranian strikes

On 29 January the Pentagon issued revised injury numbers for the Iranian strike, revealing that a total of 50 troops had now been diagnosed with ‘traumatic brain injury’.

US announces new Iran sanctions, waivers and a humanitarian channel via Switzerland

The following day US Treasury announced the completion of the first transactions via a Swiss ‘humanitarian channel’, which allowed Iran to purchase medical goods and treatments.

Reports also emerged that the Trump administration would be announcing new sanctions, this time targeting ‘the head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran [AEOI]’, Ali Akbar Salehi. Although the administration was reported to be sanctioning the AEOI chief, according to reports, it was, however, allowing the renewal of several waivers that allow foreign firms dealing with the AEOI to continue their ‘nonproliferation work’ without fear of US sanctions. The waivers were reportedly renewed for a period of 60 days.

The spokesman for the AEOI responded to reports saying, ‘Such measures will have no impact on our nuclear program and Tehran’s civilian nuclear work will continue with full force based on Iran’s needs’.

European maritime security mission commences in the Persian Gulf

On 30 January a French frigate commenced patrols in the Strait of Hormuz as part of the European Maritime Awareness mission (EMASoH), the purpose of which was to ‘ensure the freedom of navigation in the Gulf while promoting a de-escalation approach with Iran’. This followed the 20 January declaration of the creation of EMASoH, supported by eight European Union states:

… the Governments of BELGIUM, DENMARK, FRANCE, GERMANY, GREECE, ITALY, THE NETHERLANDS, AND PORTUGAL politically support the creation of a European-led maritime surveillance mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH). We welcome any contribution in kind as already declared by DENMARK, FRANCE, GREECE, and THE NETHERLANDS to this effort and look forward to further commitments in the coming days.

In complementarity with existing maritime security efforts and initiatives in the region, including IMSC, EMASoH aims to ensure a safe navigation environment and to lower the existing tensions in the region.

In full accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), the mission will concretely provide enhanced maritime situation awareness and surveillance through the deployment of additional maritime surveillance assets in the Gulf and Arabian Sea. We are grateful to the UAE for offering to host the mission HQ on their territory.

EMASOH will constitute a useful instrument in safeguarding the freedom of navigation by ensuring adequate coordination and information sharing mechanisms with all partners operating in the area, including the maritime industry. Moreover, EMASOH aims to foster de-escalation and to complement vital diplomatic efforts aiming at ensuring increased stability and an inclusive regional dialogue in a critical context.

A Dutch frigate was reported to be joining the mission.

EMASoH is a separate entity to the US-led IMSC, in which EU countries declined to participate.

Japan sends naval destroyer to the Gulf but does not join IMSC

Following earlier Cabinet approval, on 2 February Japan dispatched a naval destroyer along with two maritime patrol planes to protect its shipping. The Japanese mission will operate independently of both the IMSC and EMASoH and be limited to the Gulf of Oman.

Japan’s naval mission to the Gulf is the first of its kind. At a farewell ceremony Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, said ‘Thousands of Japanese ships ply those waters every year including vessels carrying nine tenths of our oil. It is Japan’s lifeline’. The mission is reported to be one year in duration with the possibility of extension via Cabinet approval.

EU Foreign Affairs chief visits Iran

On 3–4 February the EU’s Head of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, visited Iran and met with President Hassan Rouhani and senior Iranian political figures in an attempt to ‘convey the EU’s strong commitment to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and to discuss bilateral relations and cooperation between the European Union and Iran’. According to an EU statement, Borrell had ‘a strong mandate from the EU foreign ministers to engage in diplomatic dialogue with regional partners, to de-escalate tensions and seek opportunities for political solutions to the current crisis’.

During the visit Borrell outlined that the EU was willing to extend the time limits for dispute resolution contained within the JCPOA agreement, in an effort to avoid progressing to the next stage of the process, which involves referring the dispute to the UN Security Council, and potentially, the introduction of additional sanctions.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani was reported to have indicated in response:

The Islamic Republic of Iran is still ready for interaction and cooperation with the European Union for resolving issues and, whenever the opposite side completely upholds their commitments, Iran will return to its commitments.

Iranian media reported the President also said ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran is still committed to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s supervision and the process of supervision will continue like before unless we face new conditions’.

Iran rules out bilateral talks with US

While Iran remained open to EU dialogue, the regime emphatically ruled out discussions with the US, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman saying on 3 February, ‘Iran does not have and will not have any kind of bilateral negotiation with American [sic] and this is our policy’.

Iran-Ukraine relations deteriorate following leaked recording

The same day, Ukraine’s President claimed a leaked audio recording transcript of a conversation between the pilot of another airliner and Tehran’s airport control tower—in which the pilot was adamant he had seen the plane shot down—proved Iran knew immediately that its forces had downed the aircraft. The audio transcript was leaked to Ukrainian media after Iran provided it to Ukraine’s government. In response to the leak and President Zelensky’s claim, Iranian authorities said Iran would cease sharing material and information with Ukrainian officials.

Swiss humanitarian channel begins trial operations; criticised by Iran

Also on 3 February, the governments of Switzerland and the US announced that trial operations of a humanitarian channel called the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement (SHTA), which provides a way to facilitate trade in medical and pharmaceutical goods as well as food, had begun. Iranian officials, however, were less enthusiastic, with Iranian media noting the initiative was represented as if it were delivering aid rather than facilitating trade of goods Iran had to purchase. Iran’s Foreign Minister was also reported to have said ‘This is a small step and we thank the Swiss government for its efforts (...) but this channel is not a sign of America's goodwill at all’.

The first SHTA transaction involved Iran’s purchase of around €2.3 million worth of drugs needed for organ transplants and cancer.

Iran proposes new alliance, welcomes Iraq’s mediatory efforts

On 5 February Iran’s Ambassador to Iraq, Iraj Masjedi, appeared to confirm the former Iraqi Prime Minister’s claims that Qassim Suleimani had been traveling to Baghdad to deliver a message from Iran as part of Iraq-led mediation with Saudi Arabia when he was assassinated. Masjedi reportedly said that the message Suleimani was delivering ‘set out Tehran’s position on “fighting terrorism and achieving peace and security in the region”’. Masjedi also said ‘Tehran welcomes Iraq’s role in trying to solve differences between Iran and Saudi’, and that Iran wished ‘to resolve differences and challenges with Saudi and the UAE as quickly as possible’.

The same day, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Hosseini proposed closer relations and a new alliance between Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Russia and China, noting that ‘the future of political power belongs to Asia’.

IAEA announces that Iran has not carried out any further breaches of JCPOA beyond its already reported fifth breach

On 6 February the IAEA Director-General said there had been no further breaches by Iran in the aftermath of its fifth breach, before going on to note that the country continued to enrich uranium.

Iran satellite launch fails

On 9 February media reported on Iran’s failed satellite launch, plans for which had been announced by Iran’s Minister for Information and Communications Technology several days earlier. Following the launch failure, the minister tweeted out news the launch ‘was not successful’ while earlier in the day an Iranian defence official was reported to have said the satellite ‘had launched successfully but not reached orbit’.

Iran’s space program, including its Space Agency, is the subject of US sanctions. The US contends:

Space launch vehicle (SLV) technologies, such as those developed by Iran’s space program, are virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles. Iran’s civilian space launch vehicle program allows it to gain experience with various technologies necessary for development of an ICBM – including staging, ignition of upper-stage engines, and control of a multiple-stage missile throughout flight.

On 11 February US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement in relation to Iran’s launch and claimed it proved that the JCPOA failed to ‘constrain testing that could support further advancement of Iran’s ballistic-missile program’. He also alleged the JCPOA ‘lifted the prohibition on Iran’s missile testing and development of systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons and we are seeing the dangerous consequences today’.

US announces more than 100 Iraq-based US troops now diagnosed with brain injury

Also on 11 February, the Pentagon announced the number of service members who suffered a brain injury—as a result of Iran’s retaliatory missile attack after the assassination of General Suleimani—had climbed to over 100 service members. It further reported that of these, ‘76 had returned to duty’.

US warship seizes Iranian weapons from vessel in Arabian Sea

US Central Command released a statement on 13 February outlining the seizure by the USS Normandy of Iranian-made weapons from a vessel in the Arabian Sea, which were believed destined for Houthi militants in Yemen. According to the statement:

The weapons seized include 150 'Dehlavieh' anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM), which are Iranian-manufactured copies of Russian Kornet ATGMs. Other weapons components seized aboard the dhow were of Iranian design and manufacture and included three Iranian surface-to-air missiles, Iranian thermal imaging weapon scopes, and Iranian components for unmanned aerial and surface vessels, as well as other munitions and advanced weapons parts.

Many of these weapons systems are identical to the advanced weapons and weapon components seized by guided-missile destroyer USS Forrest Sherman (DDG 98) in the Arabian Sea on Nov. 25, 2019. Those weapons were determined to be of Iranian origin and assessed to be destined for the Houthis in Yemen, which would be in violation of a UN Security Council Resolution that prohibits the direct or indirect supply, sale, or transfer of weapons to the Houthis.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) removes restrictions on US civilian flights over Gulf airspace

On 14 February the US FAA removed the restrictions it had placed on US civil aviation operations and allowed a resumption of flights over some countries in the Gulf region. In the background information to the notice, the FAA noted:

Iran has de-escalated its military posture in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman as of early February 2020. Given this de-escalation, the FAA assesses there is sufficiently reduced risk of Iranian military miscalculation or misidentification that could affect U.S. civil aviation operations in the overwater airspace above the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman in the Kuwait Flight Information Region (FIR) (OKAC), Jeddah FIR (OEJD), Bahrain FIR (OBBB), Emirates FIR (OMAE), and Muscat FIR (OOMM) to permit U.S. civil flight operations to resume.

US Secretary of State Pompeo says US willing to talk to Iran

On 19 February the US Secretary of State told reporters the US was willing to ‘talk to Iran “anytime”, but that Iran needed to “fundamentally” change its behaviour and that a campaign of maximum pressure against it would continue’. He reportedly went on to say ‘We are not rushed, the pressure campaign continues. It’s not just an economic pressure campaign ... it’s isolation through diplomacy as well’.

Iran’s government announces first COVID-19 deaths

Also on 19 February, Iran’s government reported its first two COVID-19 deaths in the city of Qom and announced the establishment of a coronavirus health taskforce. Some media reported ‘mixed messages and confusion … emanating from Iran’ in the week following its first coronavirus deaths, and in the lead-up to its election, as authorities sought to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak.

Iran’s 11th parliamentary elections begin

Iranians went to the polls on 21 February in the 11th parliamentary elections to take place in the country following the 1979 Revolution. It was the first time Iranians had gone to the polls since US President Donald Trump came to power and reimposed sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy. However, the outcome of the vote has little influence on Iran’s foreign and security policy as these are controlled by Iran’s supreme leader.

The election was marred by controversy before it even began, following the powerful Guardian Council’s disqualification of thousands of candidates considered moderate, and ensuing criticism from the moderate-leaning President, Hassan Rouhani. The President, however, lacked the power to overrule the disqualifications, with Reuters noting:

Khamenei, the final authority in Iran’s complex system of clerical rule and limited democracy, backed the Guardian Council, saying the next parliament was no place for those scared of speaking out against foreign enemies.

This highlights the impact that tensions with the US have on Iran’s domestic politics and the probable domination of hardliners in Iran’s new parliament. Indeed, reporting in the lead-up to poll seemed to suggest:

Big gains by security hawks would confirm the political demise of the country’s pragmatist politicians, weakened by Washington’s decision to quit a 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.

More hardliner seats in the Feb. 21 vote may also hand them another prize — more leeway to campaign for the 2021 contest for president, a job with wide day-to-day control of government.

Such wide command of the power apparatus would open an era in which the elite Revolutionary Guards, already omnipresent in the life of the nation, hold ever greater sway in political, social and economic affairs.

Other reporting highlighted ‘Confrontation with America, economic hardship and an airline tragedy have battered Iranians’ confidence in their leaders, posing a potential problem for the authorities in a parliamentary election this week’. Despite this, government officials were reportedly expecting the same degree of turnout as previous elections—around 60 per cent.

In what appears to have been a symbolic move, on 21 February the US sanctioned five members of Iran’s Guardian council for their role in disqualifying candidates in the elections.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklists Iran

The FATF met on 21 February and voted to reimpose counter-measures on Iran, often referred to in commentary as ‘blacklisting’. The outcome was not unexpected. Iran has been subject to multiple warnings, and moderates within the parliament had unsuccessfully attempted to secure the passing of the relevant legislation, in an effort to prevent measures being enacted against Iran that would further isolate it from financial markets. In a statement, the FATF said:

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.

Iran’s Central Bank chief said in response:

The decision is politically motivated and not a technical decision ... I can assure our nation that it will have no impact on Iran’s foreign trade and the stability of our exchange rate.

Iran’s poll attendance announced—record low participation

On 23 February Iranian authorities announced a record low 42 per cent participation rate in the parliamentary election, making it the lowest on record since the country’s 1979 revolution. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed coronavirus fears stoked by Iran’s enemies for the drop in turnout. The election result saw conservatives dominate.

EMASoH reaches full operational capacity

On 25 February the EMASoH’s military component, Operation Agenor, operating out of a French naval base in Abu Dhabi, was declared to have reached full operational capacity.

COVID-19 fallout hits Iran’s economy

Iran’s rial dropped to a one-year low against the US dollar on 26 February. The drop was thought to be due in part to the closure of most of Iran’s borders as a result of growing COVID-19 cases. Analysts contended the consequences were dire—with border closures further isolating Iran and hampering its ability to conduct cross-border trade in goods not under sanction, which comprise a key part of its ‘economic lifeline’.

Remaining JCPOA parties meet

On 27 February JCPOA parties met as part of their continued efforts to preserve the agreement. A Chair’s Statement, issued after the meeting, said:

The meeting addressed both Iran's steps in reducing its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA including its announcement of 5 January 2020, as well as longstanding concerns, recognised by all participants, regarding the impact of the US withdrawal from the agreement in 2018 and the re-imposition of sanctions by it.

In this context, serious concerns were expressed regarding the implementation of Iran's nuclear commitments under the agreement. Participants also acknowledged that the re-imposition of US sanctions did not allow Iran to reap the full benefits arising from sanctions-lifting. 

All participants reaffirmed the importance of preserving the agreement recalling that it is a key element of the global nuclear non-proliferation architecture. 

The statement also went on to say that an additional four European countries had joined the INSTEX trading mechanism as ‘new shareholders, with more to follow’.

A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman provided an update of China’s position, saying:

During the meeting, China stressed that the JCPOA, as an important outcome of multilateral diplomacy, has been widely supported by the international community. The US withdrawal from the JCPOA and its maximum pressure against Iran is the root cause of the Iranian nuclear crisis. All parties should proceed from the goal of preserving the JCPOA, deal with the Iranian nuclear issue in an objective and fair way, and seek to resolve disputes through consultation under the Joint Commission framework. It is imperative for all parties to restore balance between rights and obligations under the JCPOA. All parties reaffirmed their commitment to upholding the JCPOA, agreed on the principle China proposed to resume implementing the agreement in a gradual, step-by-step and reciprocal way, and promised to take concrete measures to comprehensively and effectively implement the JCPOA. China will continue to closely coordinate with all parties to safeguard the JCPOA and work for a political and diplomatic settlement of the Iranian nuclear issue.

US grants SHTA formal sanctions waiver

On 28 February media reported the US had formally granted a sanctions waiver for the Swiss Humanitarian channel (SHTA) that had earlier in the month begun trial operations. The waiver allowed for certain transactions to be conducted with Iran without fear of US sanction and essentially allowed for trade in food, medicine and other supplies. Iran, however, still has to purchase these supplies amid a growing economic crisis.

The following day, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed in a statement at a US House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting:

“We have made offers to the Islamic Republic of Iran to help,” Pompeo said in a hearing at House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Their healthcare infrastructure is not robust and to date, their willingness to share information about what’s really going on inside ... Iran has not been robust and I am very concerned that ... it is Iran that is not sharing information.”

E3 offer Iran a €5 million assistance package to deal with COVID-19

As Iran continued to battle a growing COVID-19 outbreak, the E3 offered an assistance package, which was to be provided via the World Health Organization and other UN agencies. According to a 2 March statement released by Britain’s Foreign Office, the E3 also sent medical supplies.

IAEA issues report highlighting Iran’s non-compliance with requests

On 4 March the IAEA reportedly released a confidential second report on Iran’s nuclear activities to IAEA member countries, in which it rebuked the country for its lack of cooperation, including denying IAEA officials access to certain sites. The report was in addition to the IAEA’s regular update on Iran, which detailed that Iran had nearly trebled its stockpile of ‘low-enriched uranium … to more than a tonne’. On 6 March US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Iran to be held to account, saying:

Iran’s intentional failure to declare such nuclear material, as reported by the IAEA this week, would constitute a clear violation of its safeguards agreements required by the NPT.

The regime must immediately cooperate with the IAEA and fully comply with its IAEA safeguards obligations. All nations must hold Iran accountable to its commitments, otherwise, the NPT isn’t worth the paper that is written on.

Iran, in response claimed the IAEA’s case was ‘based on “fabricated” Israeli intelligence’ and stood by its decision to deny IAEA officials access to two sites. Reuters also reported:

Diplomats who follow the IAEA say the decision to inspect those sites to take environmental samples was based at least in part on a trove of documents Israel says its intelligence agents seized in Iran. Israel calls it an “archive” of past activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran does not want to set a bad precedence by giving legitimacy to such alleged information,” Iran’s mission to the IAEA in Vienna said in a statement.

Iran’s Foreign Minister and the EU’s Foreign Policy Chief subsequently held a telephone discussion regarding the report, the status of the JCPOA and Iran’s COVID-19 efforts.

On 11 March US authorities released details about Iranian nuclear sites to IAEA members, claiming one may have hosted uranium metal, providing details of the locations and other information.

Iran agrees to release Ukraine airliner black boxes to Ukrainian authorities

Also on 11 March, an Iranian diplomat stated Iran would send black boxes from the Ukrainian airliner to Ukraine for analysis, following two months of stonewalling. According to Reuters:

Canadian Foreign Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne described the move as a step in the right direction.

“We welcome those words, but we will judge Iran obviously by their actions,” he told reporters. Ottawa has repeatedly pressed Iran to hand over the damaged boxes from the crash, in which 57 Canadians died.

Iran had also made clear it would transfer the boxes to France if need be, Champagne said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Iran in January to send the recorders to France, one of the few countries with the ability to read damaged black boxes.

US and coalition forces come under rocket attack in Iraq

US and coalition forces at Iraq’s Camp Taji base came under rocket attack on 11 March. According to ABC reporting, ‘The US-led military coalition in Iraq said in a statement that the 18 rockets that struck the base were 107 mm Katyusha missiles and suggested they may have been fired from a truck’. Three service members (two American and one British) were killed and 14 others injured.

On 12 March the US retaliated against Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah, which is a part of the Iran-backed PMF that the US suspected of carrying out the attack. The retaliatory attack allegedly killed Iraqi soldiers and a civilian at Karbala airport.

Iran seeks US$5 billion emergency IMF assistance to fight COVID-19 outbreak

With its economy in free-fall and dealing with one of the world’s most severe COVID-19 outbreaks, Iran sought emergency IMF assistance on 12 March. It was reportedly ‘Iran’s first request for IMF aid since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution’.

Iran’s Central Bank reported it had sought US$5 billion from the IMF, while the country’s foreign minister lobbied the UN Secretary-General to assist with lifting US sanctions. (Several days later Iran’s foreign minister stated on Twitter that President Rouhani had also written to leaders of other countries (who were not named), about US sanctions harming Iran’s ability to respond to COVID-19).

US House of Representatives votes to limit President’s ability to ‘wage war against Iran’

Also on 12 March, the US House of Representatives voted on a resolution intended to limit the President’s ability to ‘wage war against Iran’. The Iran War Powers resolution passed, but Trump indicated he intended to exercise his powers of veto. For the Senate to overturn his veto a supermajority of two-thirds would be required.

The same day, the head of US Central Command said during a Senate hearing that in his view, Iran’s outbreak of COVID-19 made the country ‘… more dangerous rather than less dangerous’.

Taji complex again comes under rocket attack

On 14 March the Taji complex where US, Australian and other coalition forces are based again came under rocket attack in what was assumed to be a response to the US retaliatory strike of 12 March. Three US service members along with two Iraqi air defence personnel were reported injured in the barrage of 33 rockets fired at the base. A group called ‘Usbat al-Thayyireen’ claimed responsibility for this and an earlier 11 March attack on Taji, with Newsweek reporting:

they were to avenge the "assassinations of our martyred commanders" in likely reference to the killing of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces deputy chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport in January.

Usbat al-Thayireen's logo and rhetoric bear similarities to many other Shiite groups active in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, a Popular Mobilization Forces spokesperson told Newsweek that "there is no affiliation" with its forces.

The Iraqi military was widely reported to have cautioned that the latest attack should not trigger a further US retaliatory response without Iraq’s prior approval. The US Secretary of State said in a statement on 16 March:

the Government of Iraq must defend Coalition personnel supporting the Iraqi government’s efforts to defeat ISIS. Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable. Secretary Pompeo noted that America will not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives and will take additional action as necessary in self-defense.

China urges lifting of US sanctions against Iran

On 17 March China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman called for a lifting of US sanctions against Iran, tweeting:

We urge the US to immediately lift unilateral sanction [sic] on Iran. Continued sanction is against humanitarianism and hampers Iran’s epidemic response & delivery of humanitarian aid by the UN and other organizations.

China’s comments followed those of Russia a week earlier, in which Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said:

We called and are calling on the United States to abandon the inhumane practice of applying unilateral sanctions against Iran, which has an acute shortage of means to solve urgent health issues in the current situation of the spread of the coronavirus.

Iran’s Foreign Minister calls for sanctions relief on humanitarian grounds

On 18 March Iran’s Foreign Minister released an English-language speech ahead of Nowruz (the end of the Persian calendar year) in which he claimed US sanctions prevented Iran from accessing medical supplies. He said:

Sadly, a huge part of the danger Iranian's face is due to restrictions unjustly imposed on them by the United States Government. Iran today is the most intensely sanctioned country in history, not in line with United Nations decisions, but contrary to them. The economic siege imposed on us impedes all legitimate trade and deprives us from our own resources, the ones necessary to address the needs of our people, including their health and livelihoods. Even amid this pandemic the US government has vengefully refused to lift its unlawful and collective punishment, making it virtually impossible for us to even buy medicine and medical equipment. The bigger tragedy is that many companies and countries who officially oppose these sanctions have chosen to comply with them, perhaps in hopes of avoiding the future wrath of the United States, despite President Trump time and again proving that this is just wishful thinking.

Iran’s President suggests more retaliation for Suleimani assassination may be coming

The same day, in a televised speech to his Cabinet to mark Nowruz, Iran’s President Rouhani said that Iran had not left the US assassination of General Suleimani unanswered and appeared to indicate there may be a future retaliatory response for his death.

US adds more sanctions

The US State Department announced more sanctions against Iran on 18 March, outlining it had ‘sanctioned nine entities and three individuals who have engaged in activity that could enable the regime’s violent behaviour’:

The actions of these individuals and entities provide revenue to the regime that it may use to fund terror and other destabilizing activities, such as the recent rocket attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces located at Camp Taji in Iraq. 

A factsheet released in support of the announcement identified sanctioned entities, including Chinese, Hong Kong and South African companies that were ‘trading in or transporting Iranian petrochemicals’.

The following day the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control also announced it had taken ‘action against five United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based companies that facilitate the Iranian regime’s petroleum and petrochemical sales’.

Trump’s and Pompeo’s Nowruz messages strike different tones

On 20 March President Trump released a Presidential Message marking the celebration of Nowruz. In his message Trump said:

The past year has been historic for the people of Iran. We saw brave and courageous Iranians stand up in massive numbers across the entire country to protest their government’s corruption and demand accountability. The people of Iran have made it clear that they want leadership that represents them, not the interests of its corrupt regime. The Iranian people deserve leaders who listen to, respect, and invest in them, not leaders who target and persecute them while wasting money to advance their nuclear ambitions and test more missiles.

Nowruz is a time of renewal that encourages those observing the holiday to embrace a refreshed sprit of optimism. The Iranian people have great untapped potential. Their culture is vibrant, and Iranians excel in fields from math and science, law, technology, and the arts. They deserve a future of peace and prosperity at home and with all other nations. As they begin this season of renewed hope, we join our partners and allies around the world in praying for a brighter, freer future for Iran.

On behalf of the United States, I extend my warmest greetings for a joyous and peace-filled Nowruz. Today, we are reminded once more that the forces of freedom and liberty will always triumph over evil and oppression.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s message was less political, and indicated a US willingness to assist Iran:

I join President Trump in wishing a happy, healthy, and prosperous Nowruz to all who celebrate this tradition across the world.

The arrival of spring reminds us of our many blessings. Nowruz is a time to gather and recognize these blessings among friends and family by paying visits and sharing meals. Unfortunately, we must exercise more caution in our exchanges this year as the Coronavirus has affected many countries, including those that celebrate Nowruz.

We are saddened to learn of the mounting deaths this virus has caused, particularly in Iran. We are heartened by each recovery and share hopes with the people of Iran and around the world that they can prevent the spread of this virus. To support the recovery from this especially difficult time, our offer still stands to send humanitarian and medical assistance to the people of Iran.

As Nowruz also symbolizes rebirth, may this year serve as an opportunity to refresh our commitments to health, hope, and renewal for all!

During a 20 March press conference, Pompeo was asked about the possibility of relaxing sanctions on Iran because it was ‘particularly hard hit’ by COVID-19. He responded:

…The whole world should know that humanitarian assistance into Iran is wide open. It’s not sanctioned. We’ve offered to provide assistance to the Iranians as well. I talked with Dr. Ted Rose from the World Health Organization about this. We’re doing everything we can to facilitate both the humanitarian assistance moving in, and to make sure that financial transactions connected to that can take place as well.

There is no sanction on medicines going to Iran. There’s no sanctions on humanitarian assistance going into that country. They’ve got a terrible problem there, and we want that humanitarian medical healthcare assistance to get to the people of Iran.

Q But the sanctions themselves, no — no movement?

SECRETARY POMPEO: We are — we are working to do all the things we’ve had in place for the first three years here to deliver security for the American people.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei responds to US offers of assistance

In a 22 March televised speech, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, acknowledged US offers of assistance but rejected taking them up. Iran’s PressTV reported Khamenei said:

Americans have said several times that 'we are ready to help with treatment and medicine; just ask us and we will help'. This is one of the weirdest things which they tell us to ask them.

Firstly, you have a shortage yourself and this is what American officials say. Secondly, you are accused of producing the virus. I do not know how true this accusation is, but when such an accusation is made, which wise person will ask for your help?

Khameni reportedly went on to say:

American officials are mendacious, deceitful, shameless and greedy. They are all kinds of charlatans who speak like charlatans. They are cruel, merciless, and terrorist …

There is no trust in the Americans because they may send in drugs that make the virus more prevalent or persistent in Iran, or may even send people as healers to see the effect of the virus - part of which is said to have been made for Iran - in order to complete their information and increase their hostility. Therefore, what the Americans are saying is not acceptable

Two days earlier, the Ayatollah had said in a speech to mark the start of Nowruz that ‘Iran had benefited from America’s sanctions. It made us self-sufficient in all areas’, and reportedly went on to name the New Year ‘the year of the jump in production’.

European Union provides aid to Iran

On 23 March the EU’s Josep Borrell reported that in the coming weeks Iran would receive ‘20 million euros of humanitarian help’, and confirmed the EU would support requests Iran and Venezuela had made to the IMF. Borrell explained:

We are going to support these requests because these countries are in a very difficult situation, mainly due to the American sanctions that prevent them from having income by selling their oil. On these situations, we believe that is has to be reaffirmed that humanitarian trade, such as goods, that can be delivered to these countries, food, medicines and medical stuff, can be delivered to this countries and are not under American sanctions. This has to be reaffirmed because many people believe that if they participate in this kind of humanitarian trade, they can be under these sanctions. This is not the case, but it has to be reaffirmed in order for everybody to understand that they can participate in this humanitarian help.

UN Human Rights Commissioner calls for lifting of sanctions

The following day, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged the lifting of broad sectoral sanctions, including those on Iran, saying:

At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended. In a context of global pandemic, impeding medical efforts in one country heightens the risk for all of us.

Reports of US citizen’s death in Iranian custody

On 26 March reports emerged that missing US citizen and former FBI agent, Bob Levinson, was believed to have died in Iranian custody. Iran responded by claiming that Levinson had ‘left Iran years ago’. It also lobbied for the release of Iranian prisoners in US custody because of

US adds more Iran-related sanctions while granting Iraq a sanction waiver

Also on 26 March, the US Treasury reported it had:

designated 20 Iran- and Iraq-based front companies, senior officials, and business associates that provide support to or act for or on behalf of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) in addition to transferring lethal aid to Iranian-backed terrorist militias in Iraq …

On the same day, the US granted Iraq a 30-day sanctions waiver enabling the country to purchase Iranian energy, which still accounts for around 30 per cent of Iraq’s energy needs despite growing US pressure on the country to move away from Iranian supply.

Iran taps sovereign fund as 20 per cent of budget allocated to COVID-19 response

In an indication of Iran’s increasingly troubled economic situation, on 29 March President Rouhani declared the country would allocate 20 per cent of its budget to dealing with COVID-19. He also revealed he was seeking to access Iran’s sovereign wealth fund—which requires permission from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

First INSTEX transaction takes place

On 31 March the E3 used the INSTEX trade mechanism for the first time to export medical goods to Iran. According to a statement released by the German Government:

France, Germany and the United Kingdom confirm that INSTEX has successfully concluded its first transaction, facilitating the export of medical goods from Europe to Iran. These goods are now in Iran. INSTEX aims to provide a sustainable, long-term solution for legitimate trade between Europe and Iran as part of the continued efforts to preserve the JCPOA. Now the first transaction is complete, INSTEX and its Iranian counterpart STFI will work on more transactions and enhancing the mechanism.

Trump claims Iran planning an attack

On 1 April the New York Times reported President Trump had ‘strongly hinted’ if Iranian proxy militias in Iraq again attacked US forces he would consider retaliating against Iran, and appeared to indicate he would target senior officials, saying ‘If it happens again, that would go up the food chain’. On 2 April Trump tweeted that Iran was planning a ‘sneak attack’ on US interests in Iraq, but provided no further details. He did, however, warn Iran that any such attack would come with a ‘very heavy price’.

The same day, senior officials in the Trump administration told media that the US believed ‘Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security was directly involved in the killing of an Iranian dissident last November in Turkey’. The US Secretary of State also tweeted about the reports, claiming:

Reports that Iranian diplomats were involved in an assassination of a dissident in Turkey are disturbing but fully consistent with their assignments - Iran's "diplomats" are agents of terror and have conducted multiple assassinations and bomb plots in Europe over the past decade.

Iran denies reports it delayed reporting coronavirus and was involved in dissident killing

On 2 April Reuters alleged that in late 2019 and early 2020 Iranian authorities had played down reports about the spread of coronavirus within the country, fearing it could jeopardise the upcoming election. While there has been previous coverage of Iran’s alleged under-reporting of figures, the Reuters report outlined that the warnings of doctors were initially ignored, and authorities delayed ‘releasing detailed information’ out of fear it would ‘unsettle the public ahead of parliamentary elections’. According to the Reuters report, another factor driving the downplaying of cases was a desire to protect Iran’s relationship with China and that ‘Iran did not want to risk disrupting its vital trade and diplomatic ties with Beijing, one of its most important allies’.

An Iranian spokesperson contacted by Reuters said ‘The notion that there was intentional concealing of facts is preposterous’.

On 3 April Iran’s Foreign Minister responded to Trump’s sneak attack claims, tweeting:

Don’t be misled by usual warmongers, AGAIN, @realDonaldTrump: Iran has FRIENDS: No one can have MILLIONS of proxies. Unlike the US — which surreptitiously lies, cheats & assassinates — Iran only acts in self-defence. Openly [sic]

Iran starts no wars, but teaches lessons to those who do.

Zarif’s comments came a day after an aide to Iran’s supreme leader reportedly warned the US ‘of consequences of provocative actions in Iraq’.

On 4 April an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman took aim at the US Secretary of State’s tweet about Iranian diplomats allegedly being involved in the killing of an Iranian dissident, saying:

Undisputed fact: US "diplomats" have long been in the business of coups, arming terrorists, fueling sectarian violence, supporting narcotics cartels, bullying governments & companies, spying on even US allies, flirting with dictators, butchers and terrorists, etc…

(2) But @SecPompeo (#Mr_CIA aka #Secretary_of_Hate) & his masters have taken the "job" to a whole new level: #Medical_terrorism. That's why he has a conscience so filled with guilt that resorts to such psychological projection.

European Leadership network members issue call to ease humanitarian trade with Iran

On 6 April, 24 former high-ranking officials from across Europe, NATO and the US made a transatlantic call for the US to ease humanitarian trade with Iran, on the grounds that Iran has been one of the countries most badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The statement said:

Though never intended to kill, US “maximum pressure” through sanctions on Iran are compromising the performance of the Iranian healthcare system as Iran’s outbreak moves into its second month. Despite humanitarian exemptions provided under US and international law, these sanctions make the importation of medicine, medical equipment and raw materials needed to produce these goods domestically slower, more expensive, and complicated – when even possible – by deterring potential suppliers out of fear of overstepping sanctions’ limits.

It argued:

 Like every country – even one as large and wealthy as the United States – success in fighting the virus requires that Iran have flexible, reliable and affordable means of importing these crucial supplies through commercial channels. The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran are the most extensive coercive economic measures ever imposed on a country. A focused reduction in overall pressure would have a significant impact on the ability of Iran’s healthcare system to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, potentially saving the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Iranians and, by helping to curb the virus’ rapid spread across borders, the lives of its neighbors, Europeans, Americans and others.

The statement also contended that although the US had claimed it made offers of assistance to Iran, it ‘has not made the details or any potential conditions public’ and that ‘given the high level of tensions and mutual distrust between Tehran and Washington, it is unrealistic to expect that Iran would tie itself to US aid to tackle a national emergency or ask Washington for help’:

Offering aid with one hand while taking away much more through the pressure of crippling economic sanctions with the other is not a coherent posture. Iran has received timely and important aid from the E3/EU (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union), as well as Japan, China, Russia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and others. While this aid has played an important role in the early days of the crisis, Iran cannot depend on this limited assistance alone, especially as the pandemic becomes more severe in many of the donor countries.

Just as the COVID-19 pandemic has upended every aspect of the global economy and of human lives and health, it has drastically changed the impact of a US policy designed for a different purpose and conditions. Just because Iran has managed the crisis badly, that does not make its humanitarian needs and our security ones any the less. Targeted sanctions relief would be both morally right and serve the health and security interests of the United States, Europe, and the rest of the world.

A series of immediate and further measures were laid out, including a call for the US to abstain from interfering if the IMF board ‘votes in favour of providing Iran with requested emergency financing’. The US is the largest shareholder in the IMF.

Iran taps sovereign fund; continues IMF push

Iranian officials also continued their campaign to have US sanctions lifted, with a Foreign Ministry spokesman saying at a 6 April news conference: ‘Iran has never asked and will not ask America to help Tehran in its fight against the outbreak ... But America should lift all its illegal unilateral sanctions on Iran’. Iran’s Foreign Minister echoed this sentiment the following day, tweeting:

Iran is rich in human & natural resources. We don't need charity from @realDonaldTrump—who's forced to buy ventilators from sources he's sanctioned.

What we want is for him to STOP preventing Iran from selling oil & other products, buying its needs & making & receiving payments.

On 7 April Ayatollah Khamenei approved ‘the withdrawal of one billion euros from the country’s sovereign wealth fund to help fight the coronavirus epidemic’. His decision came amid reports that Iran was ‘struggling to shield its economy from the coronavirus pandemic’.

On 8 April Iran’s President continued the country’s push for the IMF to grant a $5 billion emergency loan, reportedly saying ‘I urge international organisations to fulfil their duties ... We are a member of the IMF’. The same day, in a conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, President Rouhani said that while the first INSTEX transaction consisting of the export of medical goods to Iran was a positive step, it was insufficient. Macron in turn reportedly called on Iran to continue to uphold its nuclear obligations, ‘refrain from taking new measures contrary to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and contribute to the easing of regional tensions’.

IMF decision on Iran aid stalls

Reports emerged on 15 April that ‘US opposition to opening new avenues of funding for Iran and China’ was ‘preventing the International Monetary Fund from deploying a powerful new tool to help countries fight the economic impact of the coronavirus’. Elsewhere, it was reported that the IMF was ‘still assessing Iran’s request for $5 billion in emergency financing’, in part because ‘of the IMF’s limited engagement with Tehran in recent times’.

Iranian IRGC naval vessels harass US military ships in the Persian Gulf

On 15 April the US Navy reported that ‘Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels conducted unsafe and unprofessional actions against U.S. military ships by crossing the ships’ bows and sterns at close range while operating in international waters’ in the Persian Gulf. At the time, US forces were ‘conducting joint interoperability operations in support of maritime security in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations’. The incident came a day after the IRGCN briefly detained a Hong Kong flagged tanker.

On 17 April Iran’s Defence Minister, speaking on the sidelines of Iran’s Army Day Parade, claimed ‘What creates insecurity in the Persian Gulf region is in fact the illegal and aggressive presence of Americans, who have come near our borders from the other side of the world’. Over the following two days Iran’s army announced it had acquired three new drones capable of flying at high altitudes and carrying bombs and missiles, and had developed two new long-range radar systems, as well as a ‘mobile missile defence system’ to bolster its air defences.

The IRGC responded to the US Navy’s statement on 19 April, saying: ‘We advise the Americans to follow international regulations and maritime protocols in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and to refrain from any adventurism and false and fake stories’. The IRGC also reportedly said it was increasing its naval patrols.

On 20 April Iran’s IRGC’s Navy commander said in an interview that Iran had extended the range of its naval missiles to 700 km. He also discussed the recent incident between Iranian and US naval forces, and the US presence in the region, alleging ‘Since the arrival of the Americans in the region, 550 oil tankers have been targeted … and regional security has been decreased by 55 per cent’.

Trump claims willing to assist Iran; Iran lobbies Europe for sanctions relief; US stalls IMF vote

Also on 20 April, President Trump said he would be willing to give Iran assistance in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. The same day, in a phone discussion with Italy’s Prime Minister, Iran’s President called US pressure on Iran ‘inhumane’ and ‘against all human principles and international regulations’. He lobbied Italy and other European countries to ‘take appropriate stances against such violation of the rules in these difficult circumstances’.

On 22 April Politico reported that the EU’s Josep Borrell told a meeting of European foreign ministers that ‘I regret that ... the United States are opposing the International Monetary Fund to take this decision’ and that ‘From the humanitarian point of view, this decision, this request should have been accepted’.

Iran launches military satellite; Trump threatens to ‘shoot down’ Iranian naval vessels

On 22 April, Iran’s IRGC announced it had successfully launched its first military satellite, which it reported ‘was orbiting 425 km above the earth’s surface’. According to an Israeli analyst, the satellite’s ‘military use is limited’ because of its low altitude, hence ‘it can be used only for reconnaissance, but with limited performance’. However, the technology Iran used to launch the satellite is dual-use, which has further fuelled concerns Iran is using its space program as cover for developing longer range ballistic missiles capable of targeting more countries, and potentially carrying nuclear warheads.

Several hours after Iran’s satellite launch, Trump tweeted ‘I have instructed the United States Navy to shoot down and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea’.

US reactions to Iranian satellite launch and naval activity

The US Secretary of State was among the first US officials to address Iran’s satellite launch at a press briefing later that day:

… The Iranians have consistently said that these missile programs were disconnected from their military, that these were purely commercial enterprises. I think today’s launch proves what we’ve been saying all along here in the United States: The IRGC, a designated terrorist organization, launched a missile today. And I’ll leave to the Department of Defense to talk about the details about that. But when you talk about the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, I think every nation has an obligation to go to the United Nations and evaluate whether this missile launch was consistent with that Security Council resolution. I don’t think it remotely is, and I need – I think Iran needs to be held accountable for what they’ve done. They’ve now had a military organization that the United States has designated terrorists attempt to launch a satellite.

In an article covering US reactions to the launch and Iran’s naval activity, the New York Times noted:

The United Nations resolution Mr. Pompeo referred to does not explicitly prohibit such launches; instead, watered-down language agreed to as part of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal says that Iran is “called upon” to refrain from work on ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons, for up to eight years. Iran insists it is not working on a nuclear weapon, and thus none of its missiles are designed to be “nuclear capable.”

The appearance of the mobile launcher struck both American and Israeli officials as a major advance. Previously Iran has launched its satellites from fixed sites, which are easy to strike before a launch. But the photos and video of this launch showed a mobile launcher similar to what the North Koreans have increasingly used. The system reduces warning time, and thus makes it harder to pre-empt a launch.

Pompeo also addressed Trump’s tweet threatening to ‘shoot down’ Iranian naval vessels:

… You saw the President’s statement this morning. The President’s been very clear to the Department of Defense and frankly to the State Department team too to do everything we need to do to make sure that we protect and defend our officers, our military officers, our diplomats around the world, to continue to ensure that they are secure and safe. What he said this morning and what I know he’s told all of us in leadership inside the government is take whatever action is necessary to make sure that you can defend and keep our people safe. I’m confident that the Department of Defense will do that in response to what the President said this morning as well.

Department of Defence officials responded to both the satellite launch and the President’s tweet, with the US Deputy Secretary for Defence stating:

DOD has and continues to monitor closely Iran's pursuit of viable space-launched technology and how it may relate to its advancement of its ballistic missile program. And Iran's ballistic missile program remains a regional threat to U.S. interests and those of our allies and partners, and we remain confident in our ability to deter and defend against [the] threat posed by Iran and its proxies.

The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff added that the launch meant Iran ‘has the ability, once again, to threaten their neighbors, our allies, and we want to make sure that they can never threaten the United States’.

When asked about Trump’s tweet and ‘whether Pentagon leadership has, in fact, received an order that changes policy or changes procedures for handling encounters with Iranian gunboats’ the two responded:

MR. NORQUIST: So the president issued an -- an important warning to the Iranians. What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense.

Vice Chairman, did you want to add on that?

GEN. HYTEN: Well, I'll just say that every capability that we deploy, every ship that deploys into harm's way has the inherent right of self-defense, as the secretary just described. What that means is if we see a hostile act, if we see hostile intent, we have the right to respond up to and including lethal force, and if it happens in the Gulf, if it happens in any way, we will respond with overwhelming lethal force, if necessary, to defend ourselves, and it's really that simple. But nobody should doubt that the commanders have the authority right now to respond to any hostile act or hostile intent.

Q: I have a quick follow-up to that. So what you seem to be saying is that, of course, this has been existing policy for -- for a long time of self-defense. So this communication from the president does not, in fact, then, you're saying, represent a change in how you handle this.

MR. NORQUIST: The president's describing and responding to poor behavior on the behalf of the Iranians, and he is emphasizing and warning to them about the challenges of what they -- they create. So I think it was a very useful thing that he put out, and I think it's an important thing for other people to understand and take very seriously.

GEN. HYTEN: So I like that the president warned an adversary. That's what he's doing. He's providing a warning. If you want -- if you want to go down that path, we will come and we will come large, so don't go down that path. That is what he's saying. He's saying it in clear, uncertain [sic] terms. We understand that direction, and every commander that's deployed has the ability to execute that.

At a press briefing later that day, Trump was asked about his tweet and whether he was ‘going to change, formally, rules of engagement for our U.S. military so that they can engage’:

THE PRESIDENT: No. We’re covered — we’re covered 100 percent. We don’t want their gunboats surrounding our boats and traveling around our boats and having a good time. We don’t want them anywhere near our boats. And — so you know the order I gave. I don’t think I have to say it again, but I’ve given that order.

Under the Obama administration, it was taking place all the time. Under my administration, I gave this order early on and nothing happened. They were very nice; they were no problem. But then I noticed yesterday, they did that in a much lighter form, but they did that again. I said, “We’re not going to — we’re not going to stand for it.”

So if they do that, that’s putting our ships at danger and our great crews and sailors at — in danger. I’m not going to let that happen. And we will — they’ll shoot them out of the water.

Q So the U.S. military does not have to change its rules of engagement in order to follow your directive?

THE PRESIDENT: No, that’s not rules of engagement; that’s a threat when they get that close to our boat. And they have guns. They have very substantial weapons on those boats. But we’ll shoot them out of the water. Okay?

Trump was also asked about Iran’s satellite launch:

Q Mr. President, I wanted to ask you about the launch of the military satellite by Iran. I wanted to get your response to that. Do you see this an advancement of the missile program?

THE PRESIDENT: You mean the shot they took? Well, they say no. Okay? They say all sorts. “It was for television”. Does anybody really believe that? They want to have better television in Iran, so they say.

No, we’re watching Iran very closely. Very closely.

Q Are you concerned —

THE PRESIDENT: We know more about Iran than they do. Right now, we know more than they do. So we know all about it. We watched it; we knew it was going up. We followed it very closely. They say it was for television.

Iran responds with threats of its own

Iran’s military and political leaders responded to Trump’s tweet and also summoned the Swiss ambassador, who acts as an interlocutor between Iran and the US. On 23 April IRGC Commander, Hossein Salami, was reported by Tasnim News Agency to have said:

We (warn) the Americans that we are fully determined and serious in defending our national security, maritime borders, maritime interests, maritime security and security of our forces at sea and any (wrong) move (by enemies) will meet our decisive, effective and prompt response.

He also indicated the IRGC has ‘also ordered our military units at sea that if a vessel or military unit of the navy of the US terrorist military seeks to threaten the security of our civilian ships or combat vessels, they should target that (enemy) vessel or military unit’. This followed the IRGC releasing its own video of the encounter between its vessels and the US Navy.

Iran’s Foreign Minister responded to the renewed tensions, tweeting:

The US military is hit by over 5000 #covid19 infections. @realdonaldtrump should attend to their needs, not engage in threats cheered on by Saddam's terrorists.

Also, US forces have no business 7,000 miles away from home, provoking our sailors off our OWN Persian Gulf shores.

Some Iranian officials also responded to US criticisms of its satellite launch. The head of Iran’s Civil Defence Organisation reportedly said ‘such [a] breakthrough in the space sphere proved the fact that the sanctions cannot obstruct Iran’s progress’. He also noted ‘These realities demonstrate that we can make great and strategic strides in the path to progress in spite of the sanctions’ and that such success came as a result of Iran’s ‘rejection of a JCPOA on missiles’.

E3 criticism of Iran’s satellite launch

On 24 April France condemned the launch saying it was ‘not in conformity with UNSCR 2231’. The statement went on to say:

Given that the technology used for space launches is very similar to that used for ballistic missile launches, this launch directly contributes to the extremely troubling progress made by Iran in its ballistic missile program. The role played by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Aerospace Force, an entity subject to EU sanctions, in this launch reflects the close link between these two programs.

Iran’s ballistic missile program is of major concern for regional and international security. It contributes to the destabilization of the region and to mounting tensions.

We call on Iran to immediately halt any activity related to the development of ballistic missiles designed to be able to carry nuclear weapons, including space launch vehicles, and to comply with its obligations under all relevant UN Security Council resolutions.

The UK Foreign Office also issued a statement:

Reports that Iran has carried out a satellite launch – using ballistic missile technology – are of significant concern and inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231. The UN has called upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Iran must abide by this.

We have significant and longstanding concerns, alongside our international partners, over Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which is destabilising for the region and poses a threat to regional security.

Germany was reported to have said that Iran’s missile program threatened to destabilise the region and was unacceptable. Russia reportedly ‘rejected assertions the launch violated the UN Security Council’s resolution in Iran, noting Iran had the right to develop its space program for peaceful purposes’.

Iran’s response

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to international criticism on 24 April and claimed that UNSCR 2231 ‘is a resolution that the US regime has violated by withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and continues to openly pressure other independent states to violate …’. Iran’s Foreign Minister also tweeted:

 US has been bullying all against UNSC Resolution 2231 since 2017. Europe obeyed US instead of 2231. Neither can lecture Iran based on flimsy misreadings of UNSCR 2231. Iran neither has nukes nor missiles “DESIGNED to be capable of carrying” such horrific arms …

The same day, Iranian media reported President Rouhani had called for a strengthening of Iran’s space capabilities and for the country’s armed forces to ‘pursue strategies that would ensure and strengthen stability and sustainable security in the region’.

The following day—25 April—Rouhani told Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, that ‘The Islamic Republic of Iran is closely watching and following the activity and movements of Americans, but will never be the initiator of any tension and conflict in the region’. Two days later, in a 27 April phone call with China’s President, Xi Jinping, Rouhani reportedly ‘asked Xi for help in ending US sanctions’, while Iran’s Foreign Minister tweeted:

2 yrs ago, @SecPompeo and his boss declared "CEASING US participation" in JCPOA, dreaming that their "max pressure" would bring Iran to its knees. Given that policy's abject failure, he now wants to be JCPOA participant. Stop dreaming: Iranian Nation always decides its destiny.

US-Iraq sanctions waiver

Also on 27 April, the US renewed a waiver that allowed Iraq to continue importing Iranian ‘electricity’ for 30 days. The waiver renewal was again of a shorter duration than those previously granted ‘for periods of 90 or 120 days’ and was reportedly designed to push Iraq away from its dependency on Iranian oil. However, one state department official claimed the short timeframe for this most recent exemption was to ‘allow time for the formation of a credible government’, a reference to political turmoil that engulfed Iraq following the fall of its government in late 2019.

Iran’s military releases statement about US and IMSC presence in Gulf

The same day, Iranian media reported on a statement its military had issued in relation to ‘The American naval coalition in the Gulf’. According to PressTV, the statement said ‘High-risk behaviors, which make shipping [in regional waters] insecure, have started since the adventurist and terrorist country of America and some of its allies came to this sensitive region’. It also went on to say ‘Any act of adventurism, harassment and provocation will be met with the Iranian Armed Forces’ decisive response and hostile forces, including the US, will be responsible for consequences’. The statement also referenced the IMSC, which is currently led by the (UK) Royal Navy.

Reports emerge of US campaign to extend UN Iran arms embargo

On 28 April reports emerged of a new US strategy to extend the UN Security Council Iran arms embargo, which expires in October 2020. According to Reuters, a US intelligence official confirmed the JCPOA’s E3 had been provided with a ‘US-drafted resolution to extend the embargo’. The draft was not provided to Russia and China. Nor were other members of the UN Security Council provided with the draft. The US Secretary of State appears to have presaged the strategy in 18 April tweets:

The arms embargo on #Iran - the world's leading state sponsor of terror - expires six months from today. The UN Security Council #UNSC must extend the embargo before Iran's violence escalates and they start a new arms race in the Middle East. The clock is ticking[.]

In the last year, #Iran fired ballistic missiles at its neighbors, mined and captured oil tankers, smuggled weapons into conflict zones, and shot down a civilian passenger jet. We can't risk Iran buying more advanced weapons and transferring their arsenal to irresponsible actors.

Reuters also reported that if the resolution to extend the embargo failed, ‘the next step in the U.S. plan would be to try and trigger a so-called snapback of all U.N. sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo, using a process outlined in the nuclear deal’, from which the US unilaterally withdrew in May 2018. The ‘snapback’ refers to the re-imposition of ‘measures’, including sanctions, which were previously in place and lifted as part of the nuclear deal.

When asked at his 29 April press conference about the US campaign to renew the embargo, the US Secretary of State said:

We’re not going to let that happen. The failures of the Iran nuclear deal are legion. One of them is now upon us. It’s now just several months out where China, Russia, other countries from around the world can all sell significant conventional weapons systems to the Iranians in October of this year. This isn’t far off. This isn’t some fantasy by conservatives. This is a reality. Does anybody think that the nation that today is conducting terror campaigns by Lebanese Hizballah or Iraqi Shia movements or firing military missiles into the air ought to be permitted to purchase conventional weapons systems in just a few months? I think the world realizes that’s a mistake. We’re urging our E3 partners to take action, which is within their capacity to do. We’ll go – we’ll work with the UN Security Council to extend that prohibition on those arms sales. And then in the event we can’t get anyone else to act, the United States is evaluating every possibility about how we might do that. And I’m not trying to be too clever by half. Your question was about us as a participant.

In response to reports that the US could not use UNSC 2231—which endorsed the JCPOA—because it had unilaterally withdrawn from the deal, he contended:

The UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is very clear: We don’t have to – we don’t have to declare ourselves a participant. UN Security Council Resolution 2231 is unambiguous where the United States is a participant in the UN Security – it’s just there in the language. There’s nothing magic about this. There’s no fancy – I – someone suggested this is fancy lawyering. It’s just reading. (Laughter.) It’s unambiguous and the rights that accrue to participants in the UN Security Council resolution are fully available to all those participants. We’re going to – we are going to make sure that come October of this year, the Iranians aren’t able to buy conventional weapon that they would be given what President Obama and Vice President Biden delivered to the world in that terrible deal.

In its report, Reuters also quoted a Security Council diplomat who said the draft ‘will be dead on arrival’, an acknowledgment that for the resolution to pass it would require ‘nine votes in favor and no vetoes by Russia, China, the United States, Britain or France’.

Iran sells shares in state owned companies

Iran’s financial solvency was the subject of speculation on 29 April, amid reporting the regime had ‘decided to sell the shares of loss-making state-owned companies and banks to the public to raise money’. It was also reported that ‘In order to encourage the people to buy these shares, last week the government suddenly brought down the interest rates on banking deposits’. According to some estimates the scheme could raise ‘roughly 500,000 trillion rials ($33 billion), or equal to 10 percent of the country’s annual budget’.

Iran’s response to US campaign to extend arms embargo

On 29 April Iran’s Ambassador to the UN, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, said in an interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency:

… it is unprecedented in the history of the United Nations that a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which has passed a resolution, violates the resolution itself, and also encourages other countries to violate it.

On 30 April Mohsen Rezaei, a senior Iranian government official and former commander of the IRGC, reportedly told Al Jazeera ‘The international arms embargo imposed on us will end soon, and no one can prevent us from buying weapons from international markets following that date’ and that ‘The position of Washington and the European Union on the arms embargo on Iran is not binding for Iranians and we will not adhere to it’.

US Special Representative for Iran argues case for embargo extension

Also on 30 April, US Special Representative, Brian Hook, noting the arms embargo was due to sunset in October, outlined a range of reasons why it should continue, listing instances where Iran was caught exporting weapons to proxies and saying:

So we can’t let the arms embargo expire. It was a mistake to ever put this in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. And we have drafted a resolution. It’s quite easy to renew the arms embargo, and since the arms embargo has been voted on unanimously in the past, there’s a lot of policy precedent to support renewing the arms embargo.

We have started our diplomacy on this. We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to do this in a very clean way through the UN Security Council, but we’re also prepared to use every diplomatic option available to us if those efforts are frustrated.

Hook also refuted claims the US cannot invoke a sanctions snapback because it was no longer a part of the JCPOA.

EU’s Josep Borrell says the US is no longer a participating member in the JCPOA

On the same day, EU Foreign Policy head Josep Borrell reportedly said:

It's clear that in the statement by President Trump and the U.S. presidential memorandum of last May, they announced that he was ending his participation in JCPOA.

And I also want to recall that the U.S. has not participated in any meetings of activities within the framework of this agreement since then. So it's quite clear for us that the U.S. are no longer a participating member in this agreement … [.]

It was also reported:

Borrell said the United States has a right to call for an arms embargo, like any other U.N. member, if they wish.

Pointing out that the 2015 nuclear agreement stipulated that the U.N. arms embargo on Iran would be lifted five years later, Borrell said any member of the U.N. Security Council can go to the Security Council and propose another measure, "let's see what the Security Council decides then," he said.

US politicians urge more UN diplomacy to secure Iran arms embargo extension

On 1 May Reuters reported there was bipartisan consensus the Trump administration needed to pursue more UN diplomacy, claiming:

Nearly 90% of U.S. House of Representatives members have signed a letter urging the Trump administration to increase its diplomatic action at the United Nations to renew an arms embargo on Iran.

According to Reuters, ‘signatures were still being collected, and the letter had not yet been sent to the State Department’. The letter reportedly urged the Secretary of State ‘to work with US allies and partners to extend the embargo, as well as UN travel restrictions on Iranians involved with arms proliferation’.

US adds more sanctions

On 1 May the US Treasury sanctioned an individual and company it alleged were involved in ‘IRGC-QF efforts to generate revenue and smuggle weapons abroad’. According to the press release, the individual was allegedly involved in ‘efforts to smuggle shipments from Iran to Yemen’, and his support for IRGC-QF included ‘efforts aimed at the shipment of weapons including missiles’. The company was reportedly involved in efforts ‘to procure an oil tanker’.

Arms embargo campaign controversy continues

Also on 1 May, Russian diplomats commented on US threats to trigger the snapback of Iran’s sanctions under the auspices of the JCPOA—from which it unilaterally withdrew—calling them ‘ludicrous’. On 2 May an Iranian Government spokesperson said in reaction to the US Iran arms embargo campaign that ‘extension of the arms embargo on Iran contravenes the previous agreements and will draw a harsh reaction from the Islamic Republic of Iran’. He also claimed ‘We believe that the JCPOA member states and the permanent members of the Security Council will definitely oppose this American law-breaking’.

In response to reporting about the US strategy, Iran’s Permanent Representative to the UN office in Geneva tweeted:

“#US' invocation of #UNSCR2231 is a travesty, flouting a fundamental principle governing intl relations;"...a party which disowns or doesn't fulfill its own obligations cannot be recognized as retaining the rights which it claims to derive from the relationship" (#ICJ, 1971)

Iran’s Foreign Minister also tweeted about the US campaign to extend the UN arms embargo against Iran:

The U.S. has long been the world's top - Military spender - Arms seller - War initiator & instigator - Conflict profiteer. Yet @SecPompeo is apparently so worried about Iran—a huge U.S. arms customer till 1979—that he's pouring weapons all over the globe.

Iran revamps currency, cuts four zeros, in effort to stem inflation

On 4 May Iranian state media reported that Iran’s parliament had agreed to change the country’s national currency, and ‘slash four zeros’ from the existing currency, the rial. The decision to do so allegedly stemmed from falls in the value of the currency. According to New York Times reporting, Iran’s currency has ‘fallen by roughly 60 per cent’ since the US reimposed sanctions on Iran, and ‘has been devalued 3,500 times since 1971’.

Rouhani briefs Cabinet about US embargo

On 6 May Iran’s President told his Cabinet ‘The United States and other countries should know that Iran will not accept violation of Resolution 2231 under any circumstances’. He also indicated he had written to remaining JCPOA members about the US campaign, saying ‘if the arms embargo is extended in any form and through any mechanism, our response will be what I have stated in the last paragraph of my letter to the heads of JCPOA member states’, although no further details were provided. Rouhani also reportedly said ‘For the United States, there is no return to the JCPOA. It is finished for them … unless they come forward, ask for coming back and all the parties involved accept their request and America lifts all the sanctions on Iran under special conditions’.

Trump vetoes Iran War Powers resolution; Senate vote fails to override the veto

On 7 May President Trump vetoed the Iran War Powers Resolution that was introduced after he ordered Suleimani’s assassination and which had passed both houses of Congress. A vote in the Senate the following day failed to reach the two-thirds ‘supermajority’ required to override his veto.

Also on 7 May, the US Secretary of State told Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, that the US would provide a lengthier sanctions waiver allowing Iraq to continue importing Iranian energy, saying: ‘In support of the new government the United States will move forward with a 120-day electricity waiver as a display of our desire to help provide the right conditions for success’.

Russian Foreign Minister writes to Iranian Foreign Minister regarding US sanctions

On the same day, Iranian media reported on a letter from Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to Iran’s Foreign Minister Javed Zarif, in which he criticised the US for not lifting sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic, writing ‘We have always called on the United States to lift these sanctions and not to prevent a full-scale fight against the coronavirus infection’.

Two-year anniversary of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA agreement

The EU’s Josep Borrell and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif discussed the JCPOA in an 8 May telephone conversation. The same day, Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s Permanent Representative to International Organisations in Vienna, including the IAEA, tweeted:

Two years ago today #US withdrew from #JCPOA. Now we can see that this step resulted in deteriorated security in P. #Gulf, development of nuclear programme of #Iran beyond the agreed limits and desperate efforts of US to restore the status of a participant of the #IranDeal.

When asked a question by a Twitter user about a potential sanctions ‘snapback’, the Russian ambassador replied:

SnapBack is not associated with voting. It is automatic. But first US will need to convince all members of UNSC and the rest of international community that it is not kidding and that it really remains a participant of IranDeal. It can be done only through verifiable compliance.

He also went on to say:

Confusion is caused by ridiculous and not well calculated attempts of US to claim that it retains the status of a JCPOA participant. Very cynical in view of well known national decision to withdraw. Unique situation in the work of UN Security Council.

On 9 May the US Secretary of State released a statement in relation to the JCPOA, in which he said:

Two years ago, President Trump announced the bold decision to protect the world from Iran’s violence and the nuclear threats it poses by exiting from the flawed Iran Deal and its façade of security. Since that time, we have built the strongest sanctions in history and prevented Iran from funding and equipping terrorists with many billions of dollars. Today, the American people are safer and the Middle East is more peaceful than if we had stayed in the JCPOA.

The statement also made clear ‘The United States will exercise all diplomatic options to ensure the UN arms embargo is extended. We will not accept their status quo level of violence and terror. And we will never allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon’.

Also on 9 May, the Iranian Foreign Ministry published a letter Foreign Minister Zarif wrote to the UN Secretary-General in relation to the JCPOA. The same day, Iran’s envoy to the UN was reported by Iranian state media to have addressed the UNSC, in which he said:

The illegal unilateral actions of the U.S., with its excessive addiction to sanctions and economic terrorism as well as its policy to withdraw from international instruments and institutions, are alarming.

One of the living examples of the systematic mockery of international law is the violation of the Council’s resolution 2231 by the U.S. which is brazenly threatening others to either violate that resolution or face punishment.

Such bullying policies and unlawful practices are growingly eroding the pillars of multilateralism, tarnishing the credibility of this Organization and mainly the Security Council.

With the passing of the second anniversary of the US withdrawal from the JCPOA marked by a renewed US campaign to extend the UN arms embargo against Iran due to sunset in October, tensions between the two countries look set to continue. Indeed, they may further inflame as Trump’s re-election campaign gathers momentum, and in which the Iran issue will most certainly feature. As the 11 May Iranian friendly fire naval incident shows, the waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman remain dangerous—not only as a result of deliberate military actions, but also from mishaps in what has become an increasingly crowded operational space.

Australia’s reaction to the Suleimani assassination and subsequent events

Australia’s reaction to Suleimani’s assassination and the events that followed has thus far been relatively muted. On 3 January after news broke of Suleimani’s assassination, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for restraint and de-escalation. He also reiterated Australia’s commitment to the coalition effort in Iraq and said the Government continued to closely monitor the situation. In a 9 January press conference following Iran’s retaliatory missile strike the previous day, the Prime Minister indicated Australian forces would remain in Iraq as ‘the situation overnight has stabilised’.

On 10 January, responding to reports the Ukrainian Airliner was downed by Iranian missiles, the Prime Minister said, ‘This is not a deliberate attack … it’s a terrible accident’. He also said he had offered Canada assistance, noting ‘We have an embassy in Tehran and Canada does not’.

Second military contribution to the IMSC

The Royal Australian Navy’s Anzac Class frigate HMAS Toowoomba departed for the Middle East on 13 January as part of Operation Manitou (a maritime security operation). Additionally, Toowoomba will contribute to the IMSC, along with six other IMSC members, in efforts to safeguard maritime security in the Persian Gulf. (The RAAF 8A-Poseidon aircraft deployed following the announcement that Australia was contributing to the IMSC, returned in late 2019. In October 2019 a small number of ADF personnel also joined the IMSC headquarters in Bahrain.)

Safety of Australian troops in Iraq

On 15 January there were reports of a rocket attack on Iraq’s Taji base where around 300 Australian military personnel were based at the time. According to the OIR spokesperson, while ‘no Coalition troops were affected by this small attack’, it did wound two Iraqi personnel. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds was also reported to have said, ‘We are always closely monitoring what is happening in a very volatile region of the world (and) we are making sure that our people are safe’.

Status of detained Australian academic

On 17 January Foreign Minister Marise Payne reportedly spoke to her Iranian counterpart about the status of Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic detained by Iran on espionage charges that are rejected by the Australian Government and Dr Moore-Gilbert. The conversation took place on the sidelines of the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi. The following day, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson denied a conversation took place.

Australian Defence Force Personnel Middle East deployment

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a media statement on 7 February regarding a rotation of ‘more than 200 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel’ to the Middle East. Minister Reynolds did not cite the ADF operation to which the personnel were deploying. As such, it is unclear whether the forces were deploying as part of the IMSC or other ADF operations.

Australia bans Iranian travellers from entry following COVID-19 outbreak

On 1 March Australia banned travellers who had been in Iran from entering the country for ‘an initial 14 day period’ as a result of Iran’s COVID-19 outbreak. Only Australian citizens, permanent residents and their dependants were exempted, and were required to self-isolate at home for a period of 14 days. The move followed Australia’s Foreign Minister directing Iran-based non-essential Australian embassy staff and dependants to leave the country.

Australian Member of Parliament Dave Sharma raises Dr Moore-Gilbert’s case in parliament

On 2 March Government MP Dave Sharma spoke about Dr Moore-Gilbert’s case, and reported that he had met with Iran’s ambassador to convey his concern. He made the case that Dr Moore-Gilbert’s plight demands special attention:

A young woman is being held far from home in very trying conditions. The Australian government does not accept the charges that have been made against her. Her future is bleak. As her letters make clear, she is rapidly losing hope, and her health is in danger. In addition to the trying nature of what appears to be solitary confinement, I also draw attention to media reports of a possible outbreak of coronavirus at Evin Prison and the shortage of treatment medicines available for prisoners at that prison.

Australia’s response to IAEA reports on Iran

At a 10 March IAEA Board of Governors meeting, Australia’s representative to the IAEA, Richard Sadleir, made the following statement:


Australia thanks the Director General for his 3 March report on verification and monitoring in Iran, which provides a comprehensive update on Iran’s implementation of nuclear related obligations under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

We also thank the Secretariat for the informal technical briefing provided on 5 March.


Australia remains deeply concerned by the many steps Iran has taken to wind back compliance with the JCPOA, most recently its 5 January announcement that the Iranian Government will no longer be constrained by any of the limits set by the JCPOA.

We have said many times that we find Iran’s reduction in compliance on the basis of ‘less-for-less’ to be unacceptable.

It is therefore a matter of deep regret that, instead of returning to full compliance at the urging of the international community, Iran’s steps away from the JCPOA have only extended further.

We are particularly concerned that Iran’s expansion of research and development capability, beyond the limits of the JCPOA, has continued, bringing with it irreversible implications.


Australia remains of the view that the JCPOA can continue to serve the international community’s interests.

But for this objective to be realised, Iran must recommit itself to the terms of the deal, return to compliance, and engage in constructive diplomatic dialogue.

In light of this, Australia again strongly urges Iran to reverse its actions and to return immediately to full compliance with all of its obligations under the JCPOA.


Australia recognises the efforts of France, Germany and the United Kingdom to preserve the JCPOA and provide an avenue for ongoing dialogue by referring Iran’s non-compliance to the Joint Commission, under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism (DRM).

We call upon Iran to refrain from any further actions that might jeopardise these efforts, and encourage Iran to engage constructively in the DRM with a view to preserving the JCPOA and its important non-proliferation benefits. We would like to underline that the provisional application by Iran of its Additional Protocol with the IAEA, in accordance with the terms of the deal, remains fundamental to Australia’s ongoing support for the JCPOA.


We take note of ongoing interactions between Iran and the Agency in relation to natural uranium particles of anthropogenic origin detected in Iran. We urge Iran to provide timely and full responses to questions put to it by the Agency.

Finally, Australia expresses strong support for the Agency’s work on monitoring and verification in Iran and for its ongoing judgement on reporting to the Board of Governors.

We thank the Agency and its staff for their sustained courage, rigour, professionalism, and independence.

Thank you.

Foreign Minister provides update in relation to Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert

On 12 March Foreign Minister Payne responded to a question about the wellbeing of Dr Moore-Gilbert in view of Iran’s COVID-19 outbreak. In her response, Minister Payne reported that the Australian Government had been:

… very focused on communicating with the Iranian authorities about our expectations for Kylie Moore-Gilbert. There is the threshold issue of course that we don't accept the charges upon which she is detained and we continue to make that case. But at the moment our concern is for her health and her safety. We've sought assurances from the Iranian system in relation to that.

Department of Defence statement on Taji attack

The Department of Defence issued a media release on 12 March confirming reports of a rocket attack on the Taji Military Camp, where Australian personnel are based alongside their coalition partners. It confirmed all Australian service members were safe, and reported the situation was being monitored.

Another statement was issued on 14 March after Taji again came under attack following a US retaliatory strike against Iran-supported Iraqi militia. The Department of Defence statement said:

"Defence condemns these attacks and continues to closely monitor the situation along with our Coalition partners.

"The safety of our personnel deployed on operations is our highest priority."

Iran releases prisoners

On 17 March it was reported that Iran temporarily freed ‘around 85,000 people from jail’. There were no indications that Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was among them. On 19 March reports emerged that ‘Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will pardon 10,000 prisoners including political ones’. Again, there were no indications Australian academic Dr Kylie Moore-Gilbert was among them.

ADF makes changes to its Middle East posture as a result of COVID-19

On 23 March it was reported Australian troops would be temporarily moved from Iraq and Afghanistan as a precautionary measure following the growing spread of COVID-19. In a statement Defence Minister Reynolds said: ‘Non-essential personnel will be relocated to Australia’s main logistics base in the Middle East and those who are close to concluding their operational duties will be able to return home’. She also emphasised that ‘There will be no impact to the force-protection of ADF personnel remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan’. For operational reasons no further detail was provided.

Media reports Australian academic in poor condition; family issues denial

On 8 May the US-based ‘Center for Human Rights in Iran’ issued a statement in relation to Dr Moore-Gilbert. It contained unverified information in relation to her condition and called on the Australian and British governments to do more to secure her release and ensure her wellbeing. According to media reporting, Australia’s ambassador to Iran spoke with Dr Moore-Gilbert on 21 April, and the embassy in Tehran continues to ‘impress on Iranian authorities the importance of Dr Moore-Gilbert’s maintaining regular contact with her family and consular officials in Tehran’, and ‘advocate strongly’ on her behalf. (On 17 May Dr Moore-Gilbert’s family issued a statement denying recent reporting that claimed she had attempted self-harm, or that she had been subject to torture by the IRGC.)


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