In Other News: Killing of Iranian Nuclear Scientist, US Rewards for Tips on North Korea & More – December 4, 2020

December 4, 2020

The killing of senior Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh has prompted Iran to disavow any rapprochement with its “enemies” – including the U.S. – but President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration early next year could nonetheless be the catalyst for a return to the negotiating table. Press reports are near unanimous in attributing Fakhrizadeh’s killing to Israel. President-elect Biden has signaled his intention to revisit a rapprochement with Iran when he takes office, which will prove more complicated in the aftermath of Fakhrizadeh’s death. Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a speech at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral, said dialogue and negotiations were “not possible, because our enemies oppose the nature of the Islamic Republic establishment”. However, Iran is under tremendous stress on the public health front – due to Covid-19 – and the economic front, owing to the reimposition of strict sanctions following the U.S. pull-out from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal. Iranian moderates may look to the Biden administration as a possible avenue for relief, but Iran will have to walk a thin line in any overtures it makes to the U.S. to return to talks. Hardliners in both countries will object to any indication that their public officials are too trusting of the other side’s intentions, meaning that each step of the process must be carefully calibrated so that neither side appears to be ceding too much ground.

The U.S. State Department has initiated a system of monetary rewards – up to $5 million – for tips on trade activity that seeks to evade sanctions on North Korea and facilitates further development of the country’s nuclear program. Trade transactions in question include money laundering, exports of luxury goods, and cyber activities. The initiative, which features a website for submission of tips (, is expected to turn up information on China, which has long been suspected of providing assistance to North Korea in contravention of U.S. sanctions. In its final weeks, the Trump administration has been ratcheting up pressure on a number of foreign adversaries like Iran and China via sanctions and other punitive actions, and North Korea is no exception. The US is expected to levy further sanctions on Pyongyang and its collaborators before the transfer of power on January 20, which will include sanctions on Chinese individuals and entities involved in illicit trade with Kim Jong-Un’s regime. This initiative and other U.S. pressure campaigns will likely complicate any efforts on the part of the Biden administration to dial down tensions with adversarial regimes and force a more confrontational foreign policy posture than under the last Democratic administration.

Armed criminal gangs seized cities in Brazil in coordinated bank robbery attacks this week. The cities of Criciúma and Cametá both came under fire by masked gunmen who took people hostage and stormed the banks. Thought to be gang members, the men were heavily armed and easily overpowered the police forces in these small, otherwise tranquil towns. In Criciúma, the assailants exchanged gunfire with the police and used explosives to detonate the bank. A similar two-hour drama played out the following day in Cametá, which is approximately 2,000 miles from Criciúma. Law enforcement and bank officials have not said the amount of money stolen. Organized criminal groups and drug gangs are known to operate in Brazil, but in these cases, it is clear that gangs are fanning out from the large metropolises of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to the smaller, more vulnerable cities in coordinated, well-planned attacks. In Brazil, the high annual murder rate is approximately 30.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, and the Brazilian government estimates that crime costs the country’s economy approximately $75 billion each year. Unfortunately, these brazen bank heists will only contribute to the heightened sense of public insecurity in Brazil. They also undermine President Jair Bolsonaro’s law and order messaging which helped propel him to the presidency in 2018.