The US imposed sanctions Thursday on "20 individuals and entities that violate Iraqi sovereignty and exploit Iraq's economy to funnel money to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force." Some of the sanctioned individuals are accused of providing "lethal aid" to Iranian-backed Iraqi terrorist groups such as Kata'ib Hizballah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq.
After the family of retired FBI agent Robert Levinson, who disappeared in Iran in 2007, yesterday announced at a press conference that recently received information from US officials led the officials and us to conclude Levinson died in Iranian custody sometime prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump responded: "It's not looking great but I won't accept that he's dead." Levinson's family thanked President Trump and other members of his administration for their efforts to secure Robert Levinson's release and, clearly referring to the Obama administration, hoped those in the "US government who for many years repeatedly left him behind" would eventually "receive justice." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Musavi said Thursday, "Based on credible evidence, [Levinson] left Iran years ago for an unknown destination." Similarly, Alireza Miryousefi, head of the Iranian UN Mission's media office, stated, "Iran has always maintained that its officials have no knowledge of Mr. Levinson's whereabouts, and that he is not in Iranian custody. Those facts have not changed."
The Blue and White party splintered Thursday as its chairman, Benny Gantz, decided his 15 MK-strong Israel Resilience faction will form a coalition with Likud and its right-wing and religious allies. To this end, Gantz nominated himself as Knesset speaker and was elected to the position with the support of his faction and the pro-Netanyahu bloc of parties. Reportedly, Benjamin Netanyahu will serve as prime minister until September 2021, when Gantz will succeed him. In the meantime, Gantz will serve as either foreign or defense minister. Israel Reliance is also expected to get the justice ministry. Blue and White's other factions, Yesh Atid and Telem, are heading to the opposition. There are conflicting reports as to whether Labor will split from Meretz and join the unity government.
As part of the ongoing drawdown and concentration of the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition forces in Iraq, American personnel will complete evacuating the Qayyarah Airfield West base, which is south of Mosul, in the coming days and transfer full control to the Iraqi military. American forces withdrew from al-Qaim base in Anbar last week and are expected to leave the K1 airbase in Kirkuk next week.
The US renewed Thursday a sanctions waiver permitting Iraq "to engage in financial transactions related to the import of electricity from Iran... to meet the immediate energy needs of the Iraqi people."
To focus on fighting COVID-19, Yemen's internationally recognized government and the Houthis agreed late Wednesday to the first nationwide ceasefire since 2016. There are so far no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yemen. Nevertheless, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is suspending millions in aid to Houthi-controlled areas because of the rebels' failure "to demonstrate sufficient progress towards ending unacceptable interference in these operations," according to a USAID spokesman.
Plummeting demand for oil, due to COVID-19, and surging freight costs, attributable to a record oil glut, are upending Saudi Arabia's plan to increase market share by expanding crude production following Riyadh's inability to negotiate an oil price stabilization deal with Russia in early March.
By holding a tender Thursday for reconstructing two bridges, Turkey took the first step in the estimated $11.6 billion project to construct Kanal Istanbul, which will connect the Black Sea north of Istanbul with the Marmara Sea to the south. The AKP government first proposed the project in 2011, saying the canal will ease shipping traffic on the Boshphorus Strait and prevent accidents. However, it has drawn the ire of environmentalists claiming it will pollute fresh water resources. CHP Istanbul mayor Ekrem Imamoglu criticized the central government for spending money on a "weird project" when more money needs to be invested in managing the COVID-19 crisis.
Cairo expelled The Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson last week for citing a study that estimated the number of COVID-19 infections is much higher than the official tally.
Information Minister Menal Abdussamed said Lebanon will start enforcing a 7 PM-5 AM curfew on Thursday to combat COVID-19.
Micah Levinson is a Washington, DC resident fellow at the Middle East Forum.