Week of June 10
A Lebanese man with permanent American residency boarded a plane from Tehran to Beirut on Tuesday after being detained in Iran for nearly four years. Nizar Zakka was suddenly arrested in Iran on September 18, 2015, on charges of espionage, although he was only visiting the country for a technology conference at the invitation of one of Iran’s vice presidents. The American government stated that they were “thankful” for Zakka’s release but characterized his detainment as “unlawful imprisonment.” Zakka was one of several individuals with links to the West who have been or continue to be imprisoned in Iran. American Navy veteran Michael R. White, Iranian-Americans Siamak and Baquer Namazi, and Chinese-American Xiyue Wang are still currently imprisoned in the country. The Lebanese government has been pushing for Zakka’s release for years, and Iran’s sudden compliance was shocking to many. Zakka felt that his release was a bid to de-escalate tensions in the Persian Gulf and that “it was a good move by the Iranians, because they will look like they’re doing a favor for Lebanon as a friendly country, without giving concessions to the U.S.” Mr. Zakka also described his despair at feeling like nothing more than a political pawn during his time in jail, saying, “‘It’s just trading of human beings — they just trade us.’”
It was a big week for art in the Middle East. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was accused of hiding a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting on his superyacht. The masterpiece was sold to an anonymous buyer at the end of 2017 and was supposed to be displayed in the Louvre Abu Dhabi; however, the painting never made it to the museum. The da Vinci painting, called “Salvator Mundi,” was intended to be the centerpiece of the French museum’s branch in the UAE. Now that the painting is apparently locked down on the Prince’s yacht, its absence has cast a disappointing shadow over the museum’s opening.
On Thursday, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman were attacked near the Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping route that has long been a source of tension in the region. The tankers, the Kokuka Courageous and Front Altair, are the property of Japanese and Norwegian shipping companies, respectively. This was the second attack on oil tankers in the region in recent months, following the May 12th “sabotage attack” on four commercial vessels near the Emirati port of Fujairah, in which the United States also suspects Iran.
The next day, the United States Central Command released a video (along with images, including the one to the left) that it claimed showed an Iranian boat pulling up beside one of the tankers to remove an unexploded mine, proving the Iranians were behind the attack. However, the Japanese government reported that they did not believe a mine was behind the attacks, saying, “the crew are saying it was hit with a flying object. They say something came flying toward them, then there was an explosion, then there was a hole in the vessel.” Iran has strenuously denied responsibility for the attack, with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeting that “The U.S. immediately jumped to make allegations against Iran – w/o a shred of factual or circumstantial evidence.”
On Sunday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubled down on the claim of Iranian responsibility, saying the intelligence community has “high confidence.” Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom have publicly sided with the United States, although other European leaders remain skeptical. The Pentagon has also released video, captured by the Yemeni Houthis, which it purports shows an American drone that Iran shot down prior to the Thursday attacks.
With tensions still high following the latest tanker incident, a spokesperson for Iran’s atomic agency announced late on Sunday that the country was set to break its uranium stockpile limit by June 27. The uranium limit was established in the JCPOA (which the U.S. left in 2018) and was meant to prevent further growth of Iran’s nuclear program; when uranium is enriched, it can power nuclear reactors. After America’s withdrawal from the deal and its increasing sanctions against Iran, Tehran set a July 7 deadline for European countries to come up with more favorable terms for the deal, or else the nuclear program would revert to pre-JCPOA uranium enrichment levels. Iran’s aggressive stockpiling is most likely a result of increasing conflict with the United States in the Gulf region over harsh economic sanctions. For more information about the key events behind the rising tensions in the Gulf, click here.
Social media turned #BlueforSudan last week in a campaign to spread awareness about the deadly crackdown on protesters across the country. See our summary from last week of the protests for a civilian government and the violent response from paramilitary groups. One of the people killed during the peaceful protests was Mohamed Mattar, a young Sudanese engineer who died shielding his fellow protesters from the paramilitary’s bullets. Mattar’s friends and family put together a campaign to honor his death, using Mattar’s favorite color, blue. Social media users across the world have been encouraged to turn their social media account profile pictures blue to honor the victims in Sudan and keep the violence in the country from being swept under the rug. While celebrities have joined in on the trend to spread awareness, there are growing concerns that Instagram users are using the hashtag to gain followers under false pretenses.