MESOP MIDEAST WATCH LATEST-Bennett to Blinken: US must immediately halt Iran talks over ‘nuclear blackmail’

In call with US secretary of state, prime minister calls for world powers to take ‘concrete steps’ against Tehran over its boosted uranium enrichment

By AMY SPIRO Today, 2-2-2021 TIMES OF ISRAEL – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called on the United States on Thursday to immediately halt the ongoing negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

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November 18, 2021 – December 2, 2021 Editor: Dr. Raz Zimmt


  • A prominent Iranian commentator denied in an interview to the Tasnim news agency, which is affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), the unconfirmed reports that Syria’s leadership was behind the decision to end the tenure of the commander of the Iranian forces in Syria. He added that since the liberation of Albu Kamal in eastern Syria in 2017, IRGC forces have rarely taken part in large-scale offensives in Syria.
  • In late November, the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan militia operating under IRGC command in Syria, carried out a military exercise with special forces, ground troops and armored vehicles.
  • The Iranian minister of industry and trade arrived for a visit in Damascus to open the Iranian trade show and establish a joint trade commission for the two countries. Meanwhile, the Iranian deputy minister of trade reported that Iran’s share in Syria’s imports comprises of only three percent, compared to Turkey’s 30 percent share. His statement joins that of other senior Iranian officials who have expressed indignation about the economic preferential treatment supposedly given by the Syrian regime to Turkey and Russia at Iran’s expense.
  • The Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, stated in a TV interview that since September, the organization has paid over 10 million dollars to import fuel and diesel from Iran to Lebanon. He reported that in the coming days, another ship from Iran carrying fuel to Lebanon will dock in Syria, from where its content will be transferred by ground to Lebanon.
  • The Iranian minister of foreign affairs condemned the UK’s decision to label Hamas as a terrorist organization, remarking that the Rights of Palestinians cannot be trampled on by “distorting facts.”
Iranian Involvement in Syria and Lebanon
  • An Iranian commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, Masoud Asadollahi, refuted in an interview to the Tasnim news agency (November 21) the unconfirmed reports that the Commander of the Iranian forces in Syria, Javad Ghafari, was removed from his duty due to an order of the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, following a request of the Emirati minister of foreign affairs, who recently paid a visit to Damascus. He remarked that Ghafari’s tenure was set to end about 18 months ago, but that his deployment was extended following the assassination of the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, in January 2020. He reaffirmed the statement of the spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who asserted that the Syrian Minister of Defense, Ali Ayoub, held a formal send-off ceremony to Ghafari, which was attended by several senior Syrian Army officers, representatives from the IRGC and Hezbollah, and that the minister of defense expressed appreciation for Ghafari’s work. He added that if the Syrian authorities were indeed interested in removing Ghafari from their country, they would not have allowed them to move around the country for a month, conducting multiple public ceremonies marking his departure.
  • Addressing Iranian activities in Syria, the prominent analyst averred that since the liberation of Albu Kamal in eastern Syria in late 2017, the operational circumstances changed. Qasem Soleimani personally thought that the IRGC and forces operating under their command in Syria should no longer participate in major military operations, but merely assist the Syrian army. According to him, the last major military operation in which IRGC, Hezbollah and Fatemiyoun Brigade militiamen participated was the capture of the M5 highway connecting Aleppo to Damascus in eastly 2020.
  • In late November, fighters of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the IRGC-backed Afghan militia operating in Syria, carried out a major exercise in Syria. The statement issued by the militia reported that during the training, the fighters proved their operational abilities in a joint exercise of special forces, ground troops and armored vehicles, which successfully captured the pre-determined targets without incurring casualties (Telegram channel of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, November 26).
  • On November 21, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amir-Hossein Abdollahian, and his senior adviser, Ali-Asghar Khaji, met with a Russian delegation headed by Alexander Laverentiev, the Special Envoy on Syrian Affairs of the Russian President Putin, and Sergey Varshinin, the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister. During their meetings, the two sides discussed cooperation in the Middle East between Iran and Russia, and particularly in Syria. The Iranian minister of foreign affairs stated that the cooperation between the countries is very successful and vital for the reconstruction of Syria and ensuring the country’s stability. The adviser of the Iranian minister of foreign affairs stressed the need to maintain the cooperation between the two countries in the “war on terror” in Syria, as well as the importance of preserving Syria’s sovereignty and facilitating its reconstruction. In addition, Khaji highlighted the need to reach a political solution to the crisis in Syria as part of the Astana negotiations process (Fars, November 21).
  • The Iranian Minister of Industry and Trade, Reza Fatemi-Amir, arrived in late November for a visit in Syria at the helm of a trade delegation. The visit centered around the opening of an Iranian trade fair in Damascus, and the establishment of a joint Syrian-Iranian trade committee. During the visit, the minister met with senior Syrian officials, including the Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous; Mohammad Samer al-Khalil, the Minister of industry, Economy and Foreign Trade; and Minister of Oil and Mineral Resources, Bassam Tohme (IRNA, November 28).
  • The Deputy Chairman of the Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Mohammad Amirzadeh, stated that Iran’s relative share in Syria’s imports stands at only three percent, compared to Turkey’s share of 30 percent. According to him, these data point to the weakness of Iran’s “economic diplomacy,” which manifests in additional spheres (ISNA, November 21). Amirzadeh’s statement joins the criticism voiced in recent years by Iranian officials concerning the supposed favoritism of the Syrian regime toward Russia and Turkey at Iran’s expense. In September 2021, the Deputy Chairman of the Joint Iranian-Syrian Trade Commission, Ali-Asghar Zebardast, alleged that Russia and Turkey are obtaining economic favors in Syria at Iran’s expense. In an interview to the ILNA news agency (September 19), Zebardast claimed that Iran is gaining economic benefits in Syria, as opposed to Iran, and won several reconstruction projects, this is while trade between Iran and Syria is barely happening.
  • The Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Mehdi Sobhani, argued in an interview to the Lebanese newspaper al-Ahed that the relationship between Iran and Syria is strategic and encompasses all spheres, including military cooperation. He remarked that “the enemy” has not changed its strategy vis-à-vis Syria, but did change its tactics and moved from a military campaign to an economic and political one, attempting to force Syria to alter its positions. Addressing the sale of fuel by Iran to Lebanon through Syria, the ambassador stated that this has geopolitical importance greater than solving the fuel crisis in Lebanon, and that the transfer of the fuel represents an understanding that the battlefield has moved from the land to the sea. The arrival of the oil trucks to Lebanon proves, according to him, that if the “resistance axis” makes a decision on any matter, no one will be able to overturn this decision, and that in some cases, sanctions can be turned into opportunities (ISNA, November 27).
  • The Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, stated in a TV interview (November 26) that since the month of September, the organization paid over ten million dollars to purchase fuel and diesel from Iran to Lebanon through Syria’s ports. He remarked that part of the supplies, worth a total of 2.6 million dollars, was distributed for free to NGOs, municipalities, governmental hospitals and other organizations, while the rest was sold at a subsidized price. He added that another tanker carrying fuel will arrive in the coming days from Iran to Syria. According to him, the plan to import fuel will continue for another month, and during the winter season, preference will be given to distributing heating fuel to residents of Lebanon’s high-altitude areas.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
  • The Spokesman of the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity, Ahmed Mousa, stated that his ministry is willing to pay for the gas Iraq has been acquiring from Iran to supply its power stations. In an interview with the IRNA news agency (November 19), he remarked that the Iraqi Ministry of Finance is the one that must repay the debts Iraq has already accrued to Iran. He added that a number of Iraqi delegations previously held meetings with senior Iranian officials concerning the manner in which the debt will be repaid, and the scheduling of repayment. Over the past year, negotiations continued between officials of the two countries, including the two chairmen of the central banks, concerning the repayment of the Iraqi debt for electricity and gas sold by Iran to Iraq, estimated to total in a sum of about seven billion dollars. In May 2021, the Iranian Minister of Electricity, Majid Mahdi Hantoush, visited Tehran and discussed with his Iranian counterpart cooperation between the two countries in the spheres of energy and the matter of settling Iraq’s debt to Iran (IRNA, May 2, 2021).
  • On November 28, the Iranian Minister of Agriculture, Javad Sadatinejad, spoke on the phone with his Iraqi counterpart, Mohammad Karim al-Khafaji, and discussed ways to expand agricultural cooperation between the two countries. The Iranian minister stressed the need to solve the issue of transferring agricultural goods and called to establish a taskforce that will include representatives from both countries to solve the problem. The Iraqi minister of agriculture stated that Iran is an advanced country in the sphere of agriculture, and that his country is interested in expanding its cooperation with it. He remarked that an Iraqi delegation will soon visit Iran to discuss issues related to trade of agricultural products between the two countries, and that later on, he will himself visit Tehran (the website of the Iranian government, November 28).
  • The Dean of the Medical Sciences University of Tehran, Hossein Qanati, signed during a visit to Iraq a memorandum of understanding concerning the establishment of a medical university in Karbala, Iraq. The academic administration of the university will be entrusted to the Tehran Medical University for a period of 50 years. During the initial phase of its operation, 50 medical students, 50 nursing students, and 50 physical therapists will be trained each year (ISNA, November 24).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
  • Iran condemned the decision of the United Kingdom to label Hamas as a terrorist organization. The Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amir-Hossein Abdollahian, wrote on his Twitter account (November 19) that it would be impossible to make anyone forget the rights of the Palestinians by distorting facts, and that the only political solution for Palestine is holding a referendum of its original inhabitants in 1948.
  • The Head of Hamas’ Politburo, Ismail Hanniyeh, thanked Iran for its support to the organization and defined the ties between them as “strategic.” In an interview with Hamas’ TV station, al-Aqsa (November 20), Hanniyeh asserted that Iran plays a central role in supporting the “resistance” and that it provides financial, political, military and technological support to the “resistance” in Palestine.
  • The Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, insisted in an interview to the TV channel al-Mayadeen (November 24) that Iran’s position concerning “the Zionist regime” and Palestine will never change. On the occasion of the second anniversary of the death of senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader, Bahaa’ al-‘Ataa, al-Nakhleh stated that Iran sees itself as the defender of the Palestinian cause and sees Israel as an enemy; this will not change, he asserted.
Iranian Involvement in Afghanistan
  • In late November, an Iranian delegation departed to Herat in western Afghanistan for talks with Afghan authorities concerning a join railway project linking the two countries. The Tasnim news agency reported (November 24) that the delegation is set to discuss the restart of the fourth stage of the project to lay a railway connecting Herat to the city of Khaf in northeastern Afghanistan. The works on this stage of the project were paused after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the head of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce reported a rise of 50 percent in Afghanistan’s exports to Iran. He remarked that the volume of trade (most of it agricultural goods) reached 17 million dollars this year (IRNA, November 28).

MESOP MIDEAST WATCH : Iranian forces, Taliban clash over Afghan ‘border misunderstanding’

Iranian media denied reports that several Iranian border checkpoints fell to the Taliban on Wednesday. Al-Monitor Staff December 1, 2021

Clashes between Iranian forces and Afghanistan’s Taliban fighters have ended, Iranian state news outlets reported on Wednesday, blaming a “border misunderstanding” for the incident.

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH IRAN: Tehran’s Fear of U.S. “Soft War” (PolicyWatch 3551) –  HOW TEHRAN VIEWS WASHINGTON

Featuring Amir Toumaj and Sanam Vakil – Policy Forum Report December 1, 2021

Researchers discuss Iran’s mindset toward the Biden administration and the country’s prospects for internal change as nuclear talks resume in Vienna.

On November 29, The Washington Institute held a virtual Policy Forum with Amir Toumaj and Sanam Vakil.

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH : Iran Insists on Immediate Lifting of Sanctions as Nuclear Talks Resume – THE SOUFAN CENTER US

Iran nuclear talks resumed Monday in Vienna, Austria, as the U.S. warned Tehran against further uranium enrichment, Israel forcefully lobbied against sanctions relief for Iran, and Iran announced its “willingness and seriousness” to reach a deal—but only if the U.S. lifts sanctions. Enrique Mora, deputy secretary-general of the European Union, who is chairing the talks, said that Iran “recognizes the work done in the past six rounds and the fact that we will be building on that.” But he said that Iran was “insisting on sanctions lifting” immediately, which is likely to be unacceptable to Washington. Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh said Tehran is willing to get on the right track to reach an agreement “if the other side shows the same willingness.”

Iran is also insisting that the United States and its allies promise never to impose sanctions on Iran again, the country’s chief negotiator, deputy foreign minister Ali Bagheri Kani, said after the talks. According to a senior European official, Kani also said during meetings that Iran would further escalate its nuclear program if those demands were not met. But Iran did agree to resume talks today in one of three working groups established in earlier rounds, which is focused on exactly which sanctions could eventually be lifted by the United States. The other two working groups, on the nuclear issue itself and on implementation of a new deal, will not resume talks today.

Meanwhile, Israel has shared intelligence over the past two weeks with the U.S. and several European allies suggesting that Iran is taking technical steps to prepare to enrich uranium to 90% purity—the level needed to produce a nuclear weapon. The intelligence suggests the Iranian preparatory steps would allow Iran to move ahead with 90% enrichment within weeks if it chose to do so. Israel also shared an intelligence assessment that Iran’s desire for leverage in Vienna could lead Tehran to further increase attacks against U.S. forces and interests in the region via proxies in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Israeli Defense Secretary Benny Gantz is expected to visit Washington in the coming days to discuss the Iranian nuclear crisis with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and other senior Biden administration officials.  New York Times, CNN, The Hill, Washington Post, Axios

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH : As Vienna talks open, Israel pleads for firmness with Iran

Israel’s leadership has ramped up diplomatic efforts to convince world powers to keep the sanctions on Iran in place and not give an inch during the renewed talks.

Ben Caspit November 30, 2021 AL MONITOR –

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH REPORT: Iran Makes Maximalist Demands as Vienna Nuclear Talks Open

30 November, 2021 – Asharq Al-Awsat – Iran struck a maximalist tone Tuesday after just one day of restarted talks in Vienna over its tattered nuclear deal, suggesting everything discussed in previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: Iran stellt maximalistische Forderungen zur Eröffnung der Wiener Atomgespräche

Dienstag, 30 November, 2021 – Asharq Al-Awsat

Der Iran schlug am Dienstag nach nur einem Tag wieder aufgenommener Gespräche in Wien über sein zerfetztes Atomabkommen einen maximalistischen Ton an, was darauf hindeutet, dass alles, was in früheren Runden der Diplomatie diskutiert wurde, neu verhandelt werden könnte.

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH : Council on Foreign Relations  – Daily News Brief – Iran Makes Maximalist Demands in New Round of Nuclear Talks

November 30, 2021   Iran called for an immediate lifting of U.S. sanctions (NYT) against it in negotiations yesterday with other parties to the 2015 nuclear deal, European Union delegate Enrique Mora said, a demand the United States is unlikely to accept. While Mora called the talks “extremely positive” (Reuters) and said they built on previous negotiations, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri Kani, told Iranian state television that everything previously discussed was a “draft” (AP).

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MESOP MIDEAST WATCH – US CENTCOM chief: Iran closer than ever to a nuclear weapon

Nov 27, 2021  DEBKA FILES ISRAEL – Clearest, most reliable picture to date of the state of Iran’s nuclear program was drawn on Nov 25 by Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command. He made eight strong points:

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