The US Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on five United Arab Emirates-based companies that "collectively purchased hundreds of thousands of metric tons of petroleum products from the National Iranian Oil Company." While Sen. Bernie Sanders yesterday urged the US to "lift any sanctions hurting Iran's ability to address [the COVID-19] crisis, including financial sanctions," Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin said today: "The Iranian regime uses revenues from petroleum and petrochemical sales to fund its terrorist proxies, like the IRGC-QF, instead of the health and well-being of the Iranian people."
Iran released on medical furlough Thursday American Navy veteran Michael White, who was imprisoned in July 2018, while visiting his Iranian girlfriend, and convicted of insulting Iran's supreme leader and posting private information. White will undergo a medical evaluation while in the custody of the Swiss embassy and is prohibited from leaving Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, "The United States will continue to work for Michael's full release as well as the release of all wrongfully detained Americans in Iran."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a police-enforced lockdown will go into effect early Friday and last initially for seven days. Israelis will only be permitted to leave their homes to purchase food, medicine, or to receive medical treatment. The only exception will be for those whose work is defined by the government as "essential."
Although the Blue and White party issued a statement Thursday night saying that it was calling off coalition negotiations with Likud and no deals had been reached, Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz in a Channel 12 interview expressed for the first time a willingness to sit in a national-unity rotation government under Prime Minister Netanyahu. Gantz is reportedly willing to let Netanyahu serve as prime minister first, as long as legislation ensures that the rotation takes place on a set date. Sources claim that the unity government would include an equal number of ministers from the pro-Netanyahu bloc (Likud, Shas, UTJ, and Yamina), on the one hand, and Blue and White, Labor, and Meretz on the other. Yisrael Beiteinu's fate in this government is unclear. The same sources report that Moshe Ya'alon, leader of Blue and White's Telem faction, refuses to join any unity government led by Netanyahu while Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid remains on the fence.
The Mossad intelligence agency delivered 100,000 COVID-19 test kits acquired abroad to local labs in an overnight operation and expects to provide 4 million more in the next few days. Also on Thursday, Israel's Health Ministry issued a preliminary permit for the licensing of a generic version of AbbVie's HIV drug Kaletra to treat COVID-19. AbbVie's patent for Kaletra in Israel ends in 2024, making this the first time the country's attorney general has allowed the use of a generic version of a patent-protected drug in Israel. While a clinical test of Chinese patients found Kaletra's efficacy in treating COVID-19 to be "significant, albeit modest," astudy released Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicinecompletely denied its efficacy.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, "The Trump administration is considering intervening in the Saudi-Russian oil-price war with a diplomatic push to get the Saudis to cut oil production and threats of sanctions on Russia aimed at stabilizing markets." Wednesday, nine Republican senators, including Kevin Cramer of oil-rich North Dakota, on a telephone call with Saudi Ambassador to the US Princess Reema bint Bandar bin Sultan implored the kingdom to stop flooding global oil markets. Cramer sent the president a letter advocating embargoing oil from Russia, Saudi Arabia, and "other OPEC nations like Iraq." However, in a press conference Thursday, President Trump said that his administration is "trying to find some kind of a medium ground" balancing between the threat to American oil producers and consumers helped by low gas prices.
Saudi Aramco will continue reducing operations at its local refineries in April and May to boost the state energy company's potential to export crude oil, a company official said. Finance Minister Mohammad Al-Jadaan issued a statement late Wednesday that the government will cut spending by 5%, about $13.3 billion, to offset lower oil prices and falling demand. This comes less than a week after Saudi Arabia's central bank announced a $13 billion stimulus package to help small and medium-sized businesses cope with the COVID-19 crisis.
Saudi authorities late Thursday banned worshippers from entering and praying at the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina to limit the spread of COVID-19.
President Trump at a press conference Thursday morning thanked the Lebanese government for freeing Lebanese-American Amer Fakhoury and sending him back to the US. Fakhoury was arrested last September on decades-old charges relating to his work at the Khiam detention center for the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army. Although a military tribunal in Beirut on Monday ordered Fakhoury's release because the 10-year statute of limitations for his alleged offences had passed, a Lebanese military judge Tuesday asked the Military Court of Appeals to reverse that decision.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca informed parliament Thursday that Turkey sent 500,000 COVID-19 testing kits to the United States as the number of confirmed American cases hit 11,597 and the death toll reached 171. As of Thursday, Turkey only registered 192 cases and three deaths.
The Turkish Ministry of Defense said on Thursday that a rocket attack by "radical groups" killed two Turkish soldiers and injured one more in Syria's Idlib province, prompting Turkish retaliatory fire in the direction of the rockets.
US-led coalition forces withdrew from al-Qaim base on the Iraq-Syria border Thursday as part of a broader drawdown that will likely see coalition forces evacuate more bases in the coming weeks, including Qayara, which is south of Mosul, and K1, in Kirkuk province. Iraq's military is also suspending training activities with the coalition due to concerns about COVID-19.
Qatar is placing some migrant worker camps on Doha's outskirts under lockdown for two weeks to contain the spread of COVID-19 after multiple infections were detected among the low-income expatriates. Foreigners living in camps on the capital's outskirts make up a majority of the country's workforce.
The Houthi-run Specialized Criminal Court in Sanaa Thursday sentenced to death in absentia 19 figures loyal to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi's internationally recognized government, which is based in Aden. The condemned were accused of colluding with the Saudi-led coalition defending the Aden-based government. Those sentenced include Vice President Ali Mohsen Al-Ahmer, Defense Minister Mohammed Ali Al-Maqdashi, 4thMilitary Region commander Fadhel Hassan, along with other generals loyal to the Hadi regime. Houthi militia spokesman Yahya Saree also announced: "Everyone who contributes to the arrest of any local or foreign coalition mercenary commander, regardless of his rank, will receive care and attention, in addition to a large financial reward." This comes on the heels of the Specialized Criminal Court sentencing to death in absentia 35 Yemeni lawmakers who fled the capital after the Houthi takeover in 2014. The Houthi court also seized the lawmakers' property.
Micah Levinson is a Washington, DC resident fellow at the Middle East Forum.