Israeli strike kills Palestinian commander as cease-fire calls mount

Israeli strike kills Palestinian commander as cease-fire calls mount

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People look at a residential building after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashdod, southern Israel, Monday, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Monday, May 17, 2021

Fresh Israeli strikes on Gaza killed a top military official Monday of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a group the State Department considers an Iranian-backed terrorist group blamed for some of the thousands of rockets launched at Israeli in recent days.

The killing of Hussam Abu Harbeed, the armed commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in north Gaza, was seen as a major battlefield gain for Israel at a moment when Israeli leaders are reportedly weighing whether to pull back and embrace international calls for a cease-fire after more than a week of war.

“There is a sense Israel could seriously talk cease-fire by midweek,” one diplomatic source in the region told The Washington Times on condition of anonymity.

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But there was little sign of momentum toward a truce on Monday, despite mounting international calls for a halt to the violence. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, which is aligned with Palestinian Islamic Jihad and politically controls Gaza, might be within reach.

“Egypt is going to great lengths to reach a cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians — and hope still exists that a collective action could end the conflict,” Mr. el-Sissi told the Al Arabiya news outlet.

Mr. el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah spent the weekend scrambling to erect diplomatic back channels between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. But there are indications that both sides continue to seek strategic war gains.

Analysts say the Palestinians and their Iranian backers are pressing the narrative internationally that Israel is the aggressor in the latest round of violence. Israeli forces, on the other hand, are seizing the current moment to pound militant positions in Gaza in response to waves of rockets fired from there toward Israeli cities and towns.

An Egyptian diplomat said on background that the current efforts to negotiate a cease-fire are focused on two issues — an end to all attacks from both sides and halting Israeli policies in the contested city of Jerusalem that helped spark the fighting more than a week ago. These include police raids against Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the planned evictions of Palestinians by Jewish settlers in east Jerusalem.

The diplomat said mediators were counting on the Biden administration to put pressure on Israel to stop its offensive and there were expectations for action in the coming 48 hours.

But Washington has so far declined to publicly criticize Israel‘s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Monday that Washington will support any initiative to stop the fighting, but signaled the U.S. does not intend to put pressure on the two sides to accept a cease-fire.

“Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” Mr. Blinken said.

A State Department spokesman later said Mr. Blinken spoke by phone Monday with Jordanian Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Ayman Safadi and that “both agreed on the urgency of working toward a sustainable calm.

During the call, Mr. Blinken also “reiterated that both Israelis and Palestinians equally deserve to live in safety and security,” the spokesman said.

The comments came after Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the Palestinian group has been contacted by the United Nations, Russia, Egypt and Qatar as part of cease-fire efforts, but “will not accept a solution that is not up to the sacrifices of the Palestinian people.”

The commander of Iran’s elite military Quds Force, meanwhile, has promised Hamas that Iranian forces will provide strong backing for the group in the escalating clash with Israel. Brig. Gen. Esmaeil Qaani, who heads Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ overseas force, spoke by phone with Mr. Haniyeh over the weekend, praising what he called the “resistance forces’ successful confrontation with the Zionist enemy.”

The call was reported Sunday by the Iranian Tasnim news agency.

The State Department has designated both Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations since 1997. The department has separately listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984, and the most recent “Country Reports on Terrorism” compiled by the department contended that Iran in 2019 “provided support to Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad.”

Israel‘s military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on Gaza, saying it destroyed 9 miles of militant tunnels and the homes of nine Hamas commanders. The strikes came a day after the deadliest attack in the current round of hostilities between Israel and Gaza‘s Hamas rulers, which killed 42 people and flattened three buildings in Gaza.

Gaza‘s mayor, Yahya Sarraj, told Al-Jazeera TV that the strikes had caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure.

“If the aggression continues we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.

Palestinian militants also continued their rocket attacks, launching them from residential areas in Gaza and targeting civilian population centers in Israel.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

New DHS terror alert blames Russia, China, Iran for COVID-19 conspiracies, stoking anti-Asian fears

New DHS terror alert blames Russia, China, Iran for COVID conspiracies, stoking anti-Asian fears

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the Russian Geographical Society via video link in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, April 14, 2021. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP) more >

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By Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

Friday, May 14, 2021

Homeland Security issued a new terrorism alert Friday saying online forums are increasingly being exploited by America’s adversaries, and specifically connected Russia, China and Iran to fomenting violence against Asians amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) bulletin listed a host of threats taking to online, from White supremacists to jihadists like al Qaeda.

The NTAS also said countries with interests opposed to the U.S. are using the online environment for their purposes.

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“Nation-state adversaries have increased efforts to sow discord,” the bulletin warned. “For example, Russian, Chinese and Iranian government-linked media outlets have repeatedly amplified conspiracy theories concerning the origins of COVID-19 and effectiveness of vaccines; in some cases, amplifying calls for violence targeting persons of Asian descent.”

Reports of anti-Asian crimes have risen along with the coronavirus, which is believed to have originated in China.

Homeland Security’s new warning comes amid a series of high-profile cybersecurity breaches and ransomware attacks, but its focus is on the nature of social media communications as an amplifier of fringe activities, or a recruiting tool.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the terrorism landscape is increasingly complex, with the rise of domestic extremists adding to threats from abroad.

“With the issuance of today’s NTAS Bulletin, we are advising the public to be vigilant about ongoing threats to the United States, including those posed by domestic terrorism, grievance-based violence, and those inspired or influenced by foreign terrorists and other malign foreign influences,” he said.

The NTAS warnings were accompanied by mundane recommendations such as reporting suspicious activity or getting help for people suffering from mental health issues.

The bulletin also suggested Americans improve their “digital literacy” to spot “false and harmful narratives.”

Palestinian terrorists say their rockets come from Iran

Iran supplying rockets used in attacks on Israel, Palestinian terrorist group claims

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Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra) more >

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By Rowan Scarborough

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The terrorist group Palestine Islamic Jihad says that Iran provided the rockets that have been striking civilian targets by the scores in Israel, including schools, homes and vehicles.

Terrorist group official Ramez Al-Halabi says the “weapons we use to pound Tel Aviv, our weapons, our money, and our food are provided by Iran,” according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).

He made the comments in an interview with Iraqi television on May 7 as Hamas, a U.S.-designated terrorist army, and his Islamic Jihad began a rocket barrage of Israel from bases in the Gaza Strip.

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MEMRI has posted a number of messages by Palestinians that underscore the huge reach of Iran inside Islamic elements determined to destroy Israel.

Republican senators have called on President Biden to end discussions with Iran on freeing up more sanctioned cash for the revolutionary Islamic regime. Mr. Biden wants to restart the 2015 Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear agreement that resulted in a quick $1.7 billion cash infusion from the U.S. delivered by aircraft on wooden pallets.

Iran has collected billions more in once-restricted reserves from other countries.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, which limits certain weapons enrichment operations but does not bar Iran from building bombs once the pact expires in 2030.

Mr. Al-Halabi said: “The mujahideen in Gaza and in Lebanon use Iranian weapons to strike the Zionists. We buy our weapons with Iranian money. An important part of our activity is under the supervision of Iranian experts. The contours of the victories in Palestine as of late were outlined with the blood of [Gen.] Qasem Soleimani, Iranian blood. Today, the patronage of the axis of resistance has begun to prevail in the region, thanks to Allah and to the blood of the martyrs, and it has begun to make an impact, and what an impact.”

Soleimani commanded the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which personally trained Islamic Jihad fighters. Mr. Trump ordered a strike in January 2020 that killed Soleimani and a U.S.-designated terrorist militia leader as they drove from Baghdad International Airport.

The Trump administration said Soleimani was planning more attacks on American troops in Iraq. During the Iraq war, he led an operation to kill hundreds of U.S. troops with roadside bombs.

U.S. officials have said Iran has a huge, malign influence in the region by providing money, arms and training to Syria’s military as well as the U.S.-designated terrorist groups Lebanese Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. All three are committed to destroying the Jewish state, as is Iran.

MEMRI also posted a TV clip of Saleh Al-Arouri, deputy chairman of Hamas’ political bureau. He bragged Wednesday that the group has an endless rocket supply.

“We can continue fighting for many months,” Al-Arouri said. “We have only been getting rid of our surplus rockets so we can replace them with modern, more powerful missiles.”

In January, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC Aerospace Force and Missile Unit, said his units have taught Hamas how to produce an array of rockets.

“In Palestine, they are now using missiles instead of stones, and this caused fear among all the Zionist regime officials, because today the might of the resistance axis is no longer what it was 10 years ago,” Gen. Hajizadeh said, according to MEMRI.

“The Zionist regime stands at a crossroad of fire, from Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and other Islamic states. If in the past the strength of our friends was limited to stones and rockets, today they are equipped with precision missiles and many of them have these technologies.”

GOP senators to Joe Biden: No sanctions relief to Iran amid Israel-Palestine violence

GOP senators to Biden: No sanctions relief to Iran amid Israel-Palestine violence

Warns that negotiations could fuel Tehran's support for Hamas

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A banner depicting Hamas leadership hangs on an archway as Muslims gather following Eid al-Fitr prayers at the Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of Jerusalem, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Eid al-Fitr, … more >

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By Tom Howell Jr.

The Washington Times

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Senate Republicans told President Biden on Thursday to withhold any sanctions relief from Iran as administration officials plot the next steps in nuclear talks amid street violence and the heavy exchange of airstrikes between Israelis and Hamas militants in Gaza.

GOP members of the Senate Banking Committee said Iran is backing the Palestinian group so they’re afraid of an ill-timed error.

“Over the past couple days, Palestinian terrorists in Gaza, who are funded by Iran, have launched a series of rocket attacks into Israel,” the senators wrote. “This is troubling as members of your administration are currently in Vienna negotiating with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. In light of these recent attacks by Hamas against Israel, the United States should take all steps necessary to hold Tehran accountable and under no circumstances, provide sanctions relief to Iran.”

SEE ALSO: Israeli-Palestinian clash rattles Trump’s Abraham Accords, Biden agenda

The White House said Mr. Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday to condemn the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups into Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The president also said the U.S. seeks “a pathway toward restoring a sustainable calm,” according to a readout of the call.

Led by Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio of Florida, the GOP group said Iran looms in the background and is hard to ignore, as the Biden administration surveys what’s left of the nuclear deal the Obama administration and western allies struck with Tehran before former President Trump withdrew.

The senators said the U.S. should end the talks to ensure a unified message to Iran amid the unfolding violence.

“While the United States and countries around the world condemned these rocket attacks, Iran resoundingly supports this aggression,” they wrote. “Shortly after the attacks began, and as they continued, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that Palestinians should unite to ‘use the tools of their disposal’ to attack Israel, which he recently called not a nation, but a ‘terrorist garrison.’”

“We call on you to immediately end negotiations with Iran,” they said, “and make clear that sanctions relief will not be provided.”

Israeli-Palestinian clash rattles Trump Abraham Accords, Biden agenda

Israeli-Palestinian clash rattles Trump’s Abraham Accords, Biden agenda

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Israeli police patrol during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews, in the mixed town of Lod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. As rockets from Gaza streaked overhead, Arabs and Jews fought each other on the streets below. Rioters torched … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Escalating Israeli-Palestinian violence is threatening to undermine historic progress made by the Trump administration’s prized Abraham Accords and drive a new wedge between Israel and the Arab world, all while President Biden scrambles to address the crisis that has eclipsed his own foreign policy priorities such as climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and U.S.-China competition.

The bloodshed in Gaza, where dozens have died during clashes between the Hamas militant group and Israeli military, brings with it geopolitical ramifications around the world, including in Washington. Some leading Republicans say Mr. Biden bears some of the blame for the conflict because of his “ambiguous” support for Israel.

The administration pushed back Wednesday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other officials expressed strong U.S. backing for Israel’s right to defend itself.

SEE ALSO: GOP senators to Biden: No sanctions relief to Iran amid Israel-Palestine violence

But analysts say the Biden administration has little in the way of a coherent strategy to cool the soaring tensions in Gaza and appears to have been caught off guard by the Israeli-Palestinian escalation, which is now reverberating dangerously through the wider Middle East.

The crisis is showing signs of spreading as Israeli officials blame their Arab counterparts across the region for not doing enough to help quell increasingly ugly anti-Israel protests in mixed communities across the country, including in Jerusalem.

Foreign policy analysts say that in a worst-case scenario, the violence could undercut Israel’s new ties with nations such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. Formal relationships between Israel and those countries were enshrined in the 2020 Abraham Accords negotiated by President Trump.

Hopes that other Arab nations might follow suit could diminish if Israel’s military campaign in Gaza drags on and anti-Israel sentiment grows, said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Most Arab states are hostile to Hamas, and therefore sympathetic to Israeli strikes against Hamas,” Mr. Alterman wrote in an analysis published on the think tank’s website.

“They have objected strenuously to Israeli actions [in Gaza], however, seeking to differentiate between the Palestinian people and the Hamas fighters lobbing rockets at Israel,” he said. “The protests are likely to be transient assuming that the Israeli response is short-lived. A longer-term response would have a chilling effect on ties [between Israel and the Arab world] but would not end them.”

Gilad Erdan, Israeli ambassador to the U.S., said Wednesday that he’s hopeful the newfound cooperation between Israel and some Arab nations can survive the battle in Gaza.

“I’m still quite optimistic because I hear, and we are in a constant dialogue with the Abraham Accords countries, Arab countries,” Mr. Erdan told The Washington Times’ Tim Constantine, host of “The Capitol Hill Show.”

“We see they understand the complexity in our region. They understand Hamas is not only a jihadist terrorist organization. It is also backed by Iran,” he said in the Wednesday interview. “They understand the moderate countries in our region should continue to engage with one another.”

The fighting in Gaza intensified as Hamas fired more rockets into Israel. At least six Israelis have been killed by the bombardment, which has occasionally pierced the nation’s famed Iron Dome missile defense system.

Meanwhile, dozens of Palestinians have died in retaliatory Israeli strikes. One Israeli strike Wednesday reportedly killed Bassem Issa, a Hamas military commander. He is the highest-ranking Hamas official to be killed in fighting with Israel since 2014, and it is widely expected that his death will provoke a strong reaction from the militant group.

Should the fighting drag on, it will also cast uncertainty on the viability of a long-term two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian tensions, which remains the ultimate U.S. goal, Mr. Blinken said.

The Secretary of State told reporters he was dispatching key State Department officials to the region to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in an effort to stop the conflict.

“The United States remains committed to a two-state solution. This violence takes us further away from that goal,” Mr. Blinken said. “We fully support Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself. We’ve condemned and I condemn again the rocket attacks in the strongest possible terms. We believe Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live with safety and security, and we’ll continue to engage with Israelis, Palestinians and other regional partners to urge de-escalation and to bring calm.”

The administration is facing fire from all sides for its handling of the crisis.

Mr. Erdan wrote in a Twitter post Wednesday that the State Department’s messages are “not acceptable.”

“It is impossible to put in the same message statements by Israeli leaders who call for calm alongside instigators and terrorist organizations that launch missiles and rockets,” he said.

Palestinian leaders also have condemned the U.S. approach as too favorable to Israel and too forgiving of Israeli military operations that they say have indiscriminately hit civilians.

Meanwhile, some top Republicans suggested that Hamas’ rocket bombardment of Tel Aviv and other cities is motivated by a weak U.S. policy that is too generous to Iran and other enemies of Israel.

“The conflict we are seeing is the direct result of the tragic mistakes of the Biden foreign policy,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “And when you are ambiguous, when you are agonizing, when you undermine our support for Israel, what happens is it encourages the terrorists who attack and launch the kind of missile and rocket attacks we’re seeing right now.”

The Biden administration wants to resurrect an Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran despite the Islamic republic’s ongoing financial support for Hamas, the militant group targeting Israel. That nuclear agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, did not address Iran’s backing of Hamas, which the U.S. has labeled as a terrorist organization.

Mr. Blinken has suggested that a new version of the pact could address Iran’s support for terrorist groups.

In recent days, Iran’s government has blasted Israel’s actions in Gaza. Tehran’s state-run Fars News Agency on Wednesday decried “Israeli crimes” against Palestinians and labeled the United States an “accomplice.”

With that as a backdrop, several Arab nations are seeking to defuse the crisis.

Egypt has offered to mediate talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, though those efforts haven’t born fruit.

Some foreign policy analysts say the Biden administration should redouble its efforts to facilitate peace.

“No other country has the networks of relationships the United States has across the region — from Israel to Egypt to Jordan and across the entire Arab world. It should make use of these relationships to de-escalate tensions,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress who specializes in the Middle East.

“Extremists stuck in the past are taking advantage of the tensions and the violence that has flared up because of a vacuum of leadership in the region,” Mr. Katulis said in comments circulated to reporters this week. “The United States can’t fill that gap alone, but if it adopts an approach that leads with diplomacy backed by a regional security strategy to protect lives of all people, it can deal with the crisis and look for long-term ways to resolve the conflict.”

⦁ Valerie Richardson contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports. 

Strait of Hormuz incident may be linked to Iran nuclear talks, analysts say

‘Good cop-bad cop’ scheme: Strait of Hormuz incident may be linked to nuclear talks, analysts say

Pentagon pushes back after Iran blames U.S. after Coast Guard cutter fire warning shots at armed speedboats

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In this image provided by the U.S. Navy, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) fast in-shore attack craft (FIAC), a type of speedboat armed with machine guns, speeds near U.S. naval vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz, Monday, … more >

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By Mike Glenn

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

The U.S. and Iran traded blame Tuesday for an incident in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend that saw a U.S. Coast Guard cutter fire warning shots at armed Iranian speedboats.

While Pentagon officials said they don’t know what prompted Iran‘s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) to engage in a high-speed charge at U.S. vessels that triggered the warning shots, some analysts say Tehran’s actions could be tied to recent nuclear talks.

The Biden administration has been trying to revive the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal that has foundered since former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of it in 2018, and some believe Tehran may now be trying send a message via actions in the Strait of Hormuz.

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Brent Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare at The Heritage Foundation, said Tuesday that Iran‘s rulers could be engaged in a “good cop-bad cop” scheme aimed at threatening Washington into making concessions in the nuclear talks or face retaliation from Iranian hardliners and the IRGCN.

“It could be an effort to try and say, ‘If you don’t deal with the ‘moderate faction,’ you’re going to have to deal with these crazies over here,’” said Mr. Sadler, a retired U.S. Navy captain. 

At the Pentagon on Tuesday, Defense Department spokesman John Kirby said officials remain troubled by the weekend incident in which IRGCN vessels launched a high-speed charge at the guided-missile submarine U.S.S. Georgia and its protective screen of U.S. Navy and Coast Guard ships.

“It’s difficult to get inside the heads of the IRGC and why they do or don’t do certain things,” Mr. Kirby said. “Incidents like what we saw over the weekend are troubling. They can lead to a miscalculation where somebody could get hurt.”

The IRGCN’s public affairs office, meanwhile, claimed Tuesday that the incident was Washington’s fault and accused Mr. Kirby of making “false and unrealistic allegations.”

“It is the Americans who, through their illegitimate presence, have become the center of instability,” they said, according to the official IRGC news agency. “Americans must strictly abide by international regulations and the rules of navigation.”

The U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet said five of the six U.S. warships that were protecting the U.S.S. Georgia in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend are permanently stationed in the Persian Gulf region: the U.S.S. Thunderbolt, U.S.S. Hurricane and U.S.S. Squall – Navy patrol coastal vessels – and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters, the Wrangell and the Maui. 

A crew from the Maui fired the warning shots at the Iranian vessels. 

The U.S.S. Monterey, a guided-missile cruiser, is also assigned to the U.S.S. Dwight D. Eisenhower carrier strike group presently in the Persian Gulf to provide additional capabilities to U.S. officials orchestrating America’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“An aircraft carrier and the strike group bring an awful lot to the table,” Mr. Kirby, a retired Navy admiral, told reporters on Tuesday. 

Iran’s recent speedboat stunt may be an attempt to repeat a January 2016 incident when the IRGCN seized two U.S. Navy riverine command boats that entered Iranian waters because of navigational errors.

Iran released photos at the time that showed the U.S. sailors on their knees with their hands clasped behind their heads after they were apprehended.

“If [the Iranians] think they can overwhelm and embarrass us, they will,” Mr. Sadler said Tuesday. 

The sailors involved in the 2016 incident were released about 15 hours after their boats were taken.

AP-NORC poll: Biden approval buoyed by his pandemic response

AP-NORC poll: Biden approval buoyed by his pandemic response

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FILE – In this May 5, 2021, file photo President Joe Biden takes questions from reporters as he speaks about the American Rescue Plan, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington. Biden is plunging into the … more >

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By JULIE PACE and HANNAH FINGERHUT

Associated Press

Monday, May 10, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Joe Biden is plunging into the next phase of his administration with the steady approval of a majority of Americans, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The survey shows Biden is buoyed in particular by the public’s broad backing for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the fourth month of his presidency, Biden‘s overall approval rating sits at 63%. When it comes to the new Democratic president’s handling of the pandemic, 71% of Americans approve, including 47% of Republicans.

The AP-NORC poll also shows an uptick in Americans’ overall optimism about the state of the country. Fifty-four percent say the country is on the right track, higher than at any point in AP-NORC polls conducted since 2017; 44% think the nation is on the wrong track.

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Those positive marks have fueled the Biden White House‘s confidence coming out of the president’s first 100 days in office, a stretch in which he secured passage of a sweeping $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package and surged COVID-19 vaccines across the country. The U.S., which has suffered the most virus deaths of any nation, is now viewed enviably by much of the rest of the world for its speedy vaccination program and robust supplies of the shots.

“We are turning a corner,” said Jeff Zients, the White House‘s COVID-19 response coordinator.

The improvements have also impacted Americans’ concerns about the virus. The AP-NORC poll shows the public’s worries about the pandemic are at their lowest level since February 2020, when the virus was first reaching the U.S. About half of Americans say they are at least somewhat worried that they or a relative could be infected with the virus, down from about 7 in 10 just a month earlier.

As has been the case throughout the pandemic, there is a wide partisan gap in Americans’ views of pandemic risks. Among Democrats, 69% say they remain at least somewhat worried about being infected with the virus, compared with just 33% of Republicans.

Despite the overall positive assessments of Americans, Biden‘s advisers are well aware that the next phase of his presidency is potentially trickier. Vaccination rates have slowed, and the administration is grappling with how to persuade those who are reluctant to get the shots about their safety and efficacy.

Biden‘s legislative agenda for the rest of this year also faces obstacles on Capitol Hill. Republicans are resisting his calls for passing a sweeping infrastructure package, and there’s insufficient support among Democrats for overhauling Senate rules in a way that would allow the party to tackle changes to immigration policy, gun laws and voting rights on its own.

There are also potential warning signs emerging on the economy after a strong start to the year. A new government report out Friday showed employers added just 266,000 jobs in April, sharply lower than in March and far fewer than economists had expected. The slowdown was attributed to a multitude of factors, including nearly 3 million people reluctant to look for work because they fear catching the virus. Some businesses – and Republican lawmakers – also argue that a $300-a-week jobless benefit, paid for by the federal government, is discouraging some of the unemployed from taking new jobs.

Biden, however, argued that the report is an indication that more federal spending is needed to help bolster the economy. He’s pitched to Congress a $4 trillion package for spending on infrastructure, education and children, a measure many liberal Democrats say should be bigger and most Republicans argue is far too large.

“We never thought that after the first 50 or 60 days everything would be fine,” Biden said after Friday’s job report was released. “There’s more evidence our economy is moving in the right direction. But it’s clear we have a long way to go.”

What’s unclear is whether the employment slowdown will continue or how it will impact Americans’ views of Biden‘s handling of the economy. Ahead of Friday’s new jobs numbers, his approval rating on the economy stood at a solid 57%.

Compared with Biden‘s approval ratings on the pandemic, there is a starker partisan divide in views of his handling of the economy. Nearly all Democrats, 91%, back his economic stewardship, while just 19% of GOP voters do.

While the pandemic and the economy have dominated Biden‘s early months in office, other significant issues loom.

Immigration in particular has become a growing concern for the White House as it grapples with an increase in migration, including by unaccompanied minors, at the U.S. border with Mexico. Republicans have tried to tie the uptick to Biden‘s rollback of more stringent border policies enacted by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Immigration is also among Biden‘s lowest-rated issues in the AP-NORC survey. Overall, 43% approve of his handling of the issue, while 54% disapprove.

The president also receives lower marks on gun policy, which has catapulted back to the forefront of the national debate following a string of mass shootings across the country. Americans are largely split over Biden‘s approach to the issue, with 48% approving and 49% disapproving.

The next phase of Biden‘s presidency is also likely to include more action on foreign policy. He announced that all U.S. troops will withdraw from Afghanistan by September, and American negotiators have resumed discussions with Iran on a new nuclear agreement. The White House has also signaled that Biden may hold his first in-person meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer.

Thus far, a slim majority of Americans, 54%, say they approve of Biden‘s foreign policy.

___

The AP-NORC poll of 1,842 adults was conducted April 29-May 3 using a sample drawn from NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for all respondents is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea likely bound for Yemen

US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea likely bound for Yemen

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A U.S. Navy Seahawk helicopter flies over a stateless dhow later found to be carrying a hidden arms shipment in the Arabian Sea on Thursday, May 6, 2021. The U.S. Navy announced Sunday it seized the arms shipment hidden aboard … more >

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By JON GAMBRELL

Associated Press

Saturday, May 8, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The U.S. Navy announced Sunday it seized an arms shipment of thousands of assault weapons, machines guns and sniper rifles hidden aboard a ship in the Arabian Sea, apparently bound for Yemen to support the country’s Houthi rebels.

An American defense official told The Associated Press that the Navy’s initial investigation found the vessel came from Iran, again tying the Islamic Republic to arming the Houthis despite a United Nations arms embargo. Iran’s mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though Tehran has denied in the past giving the rebels weapons.

The seizure, one of several amid the yearslong war in Yemen, comes as the U.S. and others try to end a conflict that spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The arms shipment, described as sizeable, shows that the war may still have far to run.

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The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey discovered the weapons aboard what the Navy described as a stateless dhow, a traditional Mideast sailing ship, in an operation that began Thursday in the northern reaches of the Arabian Sea off Oman and Pakistan. Sailors boarded the vessel and found the weapons, most wrapped in green plastic, below deck.

When laid out on the deck of the Monterey, the scale of the find came into focus. Sailors found nearly 3,000 Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, a variant of the Kalashnikov. They recovered hundreds of other heavy machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as dozens of advanced, Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles. The shipments also included several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers and optical sights for weapons.

The Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet did not identify where the weapons originated, nor where they were going. However, an American defense official said the weapons resembled those of other shipments interdicted bounded for the Houthis.

Based on interviews with the crew and material investigated on board, the sailors determined the vessel came from Iran, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

“After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released,” the 5th Fleet said in a statement.

The seizure marks just the latest in the Arabian Sea or Gulf of Aden involving weapons likely bound to Yemen. The seizures began in 2016 and have continued intermittently throughout the war, which has seen the Houthis fire ballistic missiles and use drones later linked to Iran. Yemen is awash with small arms that have been smuggled into poorly controlled ports over years of conflict.

This recent seizure appeared to be among the biggest. Tim Michetti, an investigative researcher who studies the illicit weapon trade, also said the shipment bore similarities to the others.

“The unique blend of materiel recovered by the USS Monterey appears to be consistent with the materiel from previous interdictions, which have been linked to Iran,” he said.

Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and began a march south to try to seize the entire country. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen’s internationally recognized government in March 2015. Iran backed the Houthis, who harass Saudi Arabia with missile fire and drone attacks.

The war has killed some 130,000 people, including over 13,000 civilians slain in targeted attacks, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Project.

The war has seen atrocities from all sides. Saudi airstrikes using American-made bombs killed school children and civilians. The UAE paid off local al-Qaida fighters to avoid fighting and controlled prisons where torture and sexual abuse was rampant. The Houthis employ child soldiers and indiscriminately lay landmines.

Since 2015, the U.N. Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis. Despite that, U.N. experts warn “an increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.”

___

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

Talks ‘intensify’ on bringing U.S. back to Iran nuclear deal

Talks ‘intensify’ on bringing U.S. back to Iran nuclear deal

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Russia’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mikhail Ulyanov, has a cigarette break outside of the “Grand Hotel Wien” where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Friday, May 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa Leutner) more >

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By David Rising and Philipp Jenne

Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

VIENNA (AP) — World powers held a fourth round of high-level talks Friday in Austria aimed at bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran, with both sides signaling a willingness to work out the major stumbling blocks.

The talks began in early April and Russian delegate Mikhail Ulyanov tweeted following Friday’s meeting that “the participants agreed on the need to intensify the process.”

“The delegations seem to be ready to stay in Vienna as long as necessary to achieve the goal,” he wrote.

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The U.S. pulled out of the landmark 2015 deal in 2018 after then-President Donald Trump said the pact needed to be renegotiated. The deal had promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, and the Trump administration reimposed heavy sanctions on the Islamic republic in an unsuccessful attempt to bring Tehran into new talks.

Iran reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the deal, which is intended to prevent the country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Iran began enriching uranium to a greater purity, stockpiling more than allowed and beginning to use more advanced centrifuges in an attempt to pressure the world powers remaining in the deal – Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China – for economic relief.

U.S. President Biden says he wants to rejoin the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, but that Iran needs to return to compliance.

Iran, which insists it does not want to produce a nuclear bomb, has said it is prepared to reverse all of its violations but that Washington must remove all sanctions imposed under Trump.

On the other side is the question of what Iran’s return to compliance would look like. Delegates to the Vienna talks concede, for example, that Iranian nuclear scientists cannot unlearn the knowledge they acquired in the last three years, but it is not clear whether Iran’s new centrifuges would need to be destroyed, mothballed and locked away, or simply taken offline.

Because the U.S. is currently out of the deal, there was no American representation at the talks. Diplomats involved are shuttling between the Iranian side and a delegation from Washington elsewhere in Vienna.

Between the high-level meetings, expert groups have been meeting to try and come up with solutions to the outstanding issues.

Ahead of the talks, a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. position, said Washington has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make and that success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.

The official said it remains possible to reach an agreement before Iran’s June presidential election, which some believe are a complicating factor in the discussions.

Iran’s delegate to the talks, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, told his country’s state-run IRNA news agency late Thursday that his team was trying to reach an agreement as soon as possible but would not act in haste and would act in Iran’s national interests.

“We are on a specified path about which there are, fortunately, agreements, but there are serious obstacles in the way as well,” Araghchi said.

Heading into the talks, Ulyanov tweeted that he saw positive signs from the Iranian minister’s statements.

“The head of the Iranian delegation is cautious in his assessment of the current state of affairs at the Vienna talks (very similar to assessments of the US colleagues),” he tweeted. “But both #Iran and #US refrain from pessimistic conclusions. This seems to be not a bad sign.”

_____

Matthew Lee in Washington and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this story. Rising reported from Berlin.

Palestinians, Israel police clash at Al-Aqsa Mosque; 53 hurt

Palestinians, Israel police clash at Al-Aqsa Mosque; 53 hurt

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Demonstrators burn representations of Israeli and U.S flags during the annual Al-Quds, or Jerusalem, Day rally, with the Azadi (Freedom) monument tower seen at right, in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 7, 2021. Iran held a limited anti-Israeli rally amid the … more >

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By Joseph Krauss

Associated Press

Friday, May 7, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) — Palestinian worshippers clashed with Israeli police on Friday evening at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City as weeks-long tensions between Israel and the Palestinians over Jerusalem soared again.

The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service said 53 people were wounded in clashes with police there and elsewhere in Jerusalem, including 23 who were hospitalized. It says most were wounded in the face and eyes by rubber-coated bullets and shrapnel from stun grenades.

The clashes were the latest in a deadly day that saw Israeli forces shoot and kill two Palestinians after three men opened fire on an Israeli base in the occupied West Bank.

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They erupted when Israeli police deployed heavily as Muslims were performing evening prayers at Al-Aqsa during the holy month of Ramadan. Video footage from the scene shows worshippers throwing chairs, shoes and rocks toward the police and officers responding by opening fire. Israeli police also closed gates leading to Al-Aqsa inside the walled Old City.

Dozens of Palestinians in an east Jerusalem neighborhood are at risk of being evicted following a long legal battle with Israeli settlers, and Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli police in the city on a nightly basis since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The unrest has drawn attention from across the region, with neighboring Jordan warning Israel against further “provocative” steps, and Iran seizing on the sensitivities around Jerusalem and encouraging the violence.

In the attack on Friday morning, Israeli police said three attackers fired on the base near the northern West Bank town of Jenin. The Border Police and an Israeli soldier returned fire, killing two of the men and wounding the third, who was evacuated to a hospital.

Some 70,000 worshippers attended the final Friday prayers of Ramadan at Al-Aqsa, the Islamic endowment that oversees the site said. Thousands protested afterwards, waving the green flags of the Islamic militant group Hamas and chanting pro-Hamas slogans before dispersing peacefully.

Israelis and Palestinians are bracing for more violence in the coming days.

Sunday night is “Laylat al-Qadr” or the “Night of Destiny,” the most sacred in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers will gather for intense nighttime prayers at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem‘s Old City, a flashpoint site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, who refer to it as the Temple Mount.

Sunday night is also the start of Jerusalem Day, a national holiday in which Israel celebrates its annexation of east Jerusalem and religious nationalists hold parades and other celebrations in the city. On Monday, an Israeli court is expected to issue a verdict on the evictions.

Israel‘s archenemy Iran was meanwhile marking its own Quds, or Jerusalem, Day on Friday. The national holiday typically features anti-Israel protests and fiery speeches by Iranian leaders predicting Israel‘s demise.

“The downward and declining movement of the Zionist regime has begun and will not stop,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a televised address. He called for continuing armed “resistance” in the Palestinian territories and urged Muslim nations support it.

This year, Ramadan has coincided with an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian violence focused on Jerusalem, where Palestinian protesters have repeatedly clashed with Israeli police over restrictions on outdoor gatherings at the Damascus Gate leading into the Old City.

On Thursday, Israeli forces arrested a Palestinian suspected of carrying out a drive-by shooting earlier this week in the West Bank that killed an Israeli and wounded two others.

On Wednesday, Israeli troops shot and killed a 16-year-old Palestinian during a confrontation near the West Bank city of Nablus. The military said several Palestinians had thrown firebombs toward soldiers.

In recent days, protesters have scuffled with police and settlers over the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Several Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah have been embroiled in a long-running legal battle with Israeli settler groups trying to acquire property in the neighborhood north of the Old City.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, along with the West Bank and Gaza – territories the Palestinians want for their future state – in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel annexed east Jerusalem in a move not recognized internationally and views the entire city as its capital.

The Palestinians view east Jerusalem – which includes major holy sites for Jews, Christians and Muslims – as their capital, and its fate is one of the most sensitive issues in the conflict.

Neighboring Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994 and is the custodian of Al-Aqsa, weighed in on Friday, saying “Israel‘s continuation of its illegal practices and provocative steps” in the city is a “dangerous game.”

“Building and expanding settlements, confiscating lands, demolishing homes and deporting Palestinians from their homes are illegal practices that perpetuate the occupation and undermine the chances of achieving a just and comprehensive peace, which is a regional and international necessity,” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi tweeted.

The Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, has egged on the violence, and Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired rockets in support of the protesters.

Earlier this week, the shadowy commander of Hamas’ armed wing, Mohammed Deif, released his first public statement in seven years, in which he warned Israel it would pay a “heavy price” if it evicts Palestinians from their homes.

___

Associated Press writers Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

US says fate of nuclear pact up to Iran as talks resume

US says fate of nuclear pact up to Iran as talks resume

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In this May 3, 2021, photo, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speak at a news conference at Downing Street in London. A flurry of diplomatic activity and reports of major progress suggest … more >

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By MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Thursday, May 6, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Biden administration is signaling that Iran shouldn’t expect major new concessions from the United States as a new round of indirect nuclear talks is set to resume.

A senior administration official told reporters Thursday that the U.S. has laid out the concessions it’s prepared to make in order to rejoin the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that former President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. The official said success or failure now depends on Iran making the political decision to accept those concessions and to return to compliance with the accord.

The official spoke to reporters in a State Department-organized conference call on the eve of the negotiations’ resumption in Vienna. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. position going into the fourth round of closed-door talks at which the remaining participants in the nuclear deal are passing messages between the American and Iranian delegations.

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The comments came after Secretary of State Antony Blinken complained of Iranian intransigence in the talks during a visit to Ukraine.

“What we don’t know is whether Iran is actually prepared to make the decisions necessary to return to full compliance with the nuclear agreement,” Blinken said in an interview with NBC News in Kyiv. “They unfortunately have been continuing to take steps that are restarting dangerous parts of their program that the nuclear agreement stopped. And the jury is out on whether they’re prepared to do what’s necessary.”

Iran has thus far given no indication it will settle for anything less than a full lifting of all the Trump sanctions and has balked at suggestions it would have to reverse all of the steps it has taken that violate the deal. Iranian officials have in recent weeks said the U.S. has offered significant, but not sufficient sanctions relief, but they have not outlined exactly what they would do in return.

The administration official said the United States is ready to return to the explicit terms of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA, as they were negotiated by the Obama administration, but only if Iran will do the same. The official said the United States will not accept doing more than required by the JCPOA to bring Iran back into compliance.

The deal gave Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its nuclear program. Much of that relief evaporated after Trump pulled out and re-imposed and expanded U.S. sanctions. Iran responded by breaking though the deal’s limits on uranium enrichment, the use of advanced centrifuges and other activities such as heavy water production.

After previous rounds of talks in Vienna, the administration had said there was flexibility in what it might offer to Iran, including going beyond the letter of the deal to ease non-nuclear sanctions from the Trump era that nonetheless affected the relief the Iranians were entitled to for agreeing to the accord.

That is still the case, although the official’s comments on Thursday suggested that the limits of that flexibility had been reached. The official would not describe the concessions the U.S. is prepared to make and declined to predict whether the fourth round would produce a breakthrough.

However, the official said it remains possible to reach an agreement quickly and before Iran‘s June presidential elections that some believe are a complicating factor in the talks. The official said the outlines of what both sides need to do is clear. “We think it’s doable,” the official said. “This isn’t rocket science;”

But, the official said success depends on Iran not demanding more than it is entitled to under the terms of the original deal and by verifiably reversing the steps it has taken that violate it.

The Biden administration has been coy about what specific sanctions it is willing to lift, although officials have acknowledged that some non-nuclear sanctions, such as those Trump imposed for terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses, may have to be eased for Iran to get the relied it is entitled to. That’s because the some entities that were removed from sanctions under the nuclear deal are now penalized under other authorities.

Flurry of diplomatic contacts fuel Iran deal speculation

Flurry of diplomatic contacts fuel Iran deal speculation

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, is greeted by Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab at the start of the G-7 foreign ministers meeting in London Tuesday, May 4, 2021. G7 foreign ministers meet in London Tuesday for their first … more >

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By Matthew Lee

Associated Press

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

WASHINGTON (AP) — A flurry of diplomatic contacts and reports of major progress suggest that indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran may be nearing an agreement. That’s despite efforts by U.S. officials to play down chances of an imminent deal that would bring Washington and Tehran back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. 

With the negotiations in Vienna on hiatus, the U.S. and Britain denied Iranian reports that any agreement was at hand with Iran for a swap of American and British prisoners. Such an exchange could be a confidence-building measure to revive the nuclear deal.

A U.S. return to the deal would be the biggest and most controversial foreign policy initiative in the early months of Joe Biden’s presidency. It would revive a deal that top Biden aides put together during their years in the Obama administration, only to see President Donald Trump pull out and try to prevent the U.S. from ever returning. Rejoining it — and making the concessions required to do so — would enrage Republicans and likely unsettle Israel and Gulf Arab allies.

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Even as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the prisoner swap reports at a news conference Monday in London, senior American diplomats were in the Middle East meeting Gulf Arab leaders. And two of the nuclear deal’s biggest proponents in Congress — Democratic Sens. Chris Coons and Chris Murphy — were touring the region. 

Those discussions follow a week of top-level meetings in Washington between Biden; his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan; Blinken; his deputy, Wendy Sherman; special Iran envoy Rob Malley; and others with the head of Israel’s spy agency and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top national security aide.

The Israelis are adamantly opposed to any U.S. rapprochement with Iran, which they regard as an existential threat to the Jewish state. At least three separate meetings were held with the Israelis last week, including one Friday with Mossad chief Yossi Cohen at which Biden made an appearance. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Cohen was briefed on the Vienna discussions “and the progress being made there.” 

Later Friday, and on Saturday, reports emerged from Iran and Iran-linked media outlets that an agreement had been struck on what the U.S. would provide in return for Iran returning to compliance with the 2015 deal, which had given billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. On Sunday reports of the prisoner swap deal emerged.

U.S. officials were quick to bat those reports down as premature and inaccurate, although the broad contours of potential sanctions relief are well-known and Washington has made no secret of its eagerness to free Americans held in Iran.

Administration officials have allowed that limited progress has been made at the talks in Vienna, where Malley is heading the U.S. delegation. Malley was a key figure in the Obama administration’s negotiation of the original nuclear deal in 2015, as were Sherman and Sullivan, who respectively led those talks and took part in secret meetings that paved the way for the agreement.

The Biden administration reacted sharply to the Iranian reports. The State Department said “we are not at the cusp of any breakthrough” and dismissed the prisoner swap claim as false. “Unfortunately, that report is untrue,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said Sunday.

Sullivan himself has been cautious in public comments about the talks, stressing that things stand at an “unclear place in Vienna.” At a virtual meeting of the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, he underscored that the talks were a “real negotiation” while acknowledging the indirect nature of the discussions have made the undertaking somewhat “inefficient.”

“I guess good faith is always in the eye of the beholder and we believe the Iranians have come in a serious way to have serious discussions about details and the teams are working through those details now,” he said.

Thus, the surge in diplomatic activity as negotiators prepare for a fourth round of talks in Vienna has given supporters of the deal that Trump withdrew from in 2018 reason for hope. And it has caused deal opponents great angst.

Complicating any potential resolution either in the short- or medium-term is the significant array of opponents lined up to try to frustrate a deal. In addition to the Gulf Arabs and Israel, there is strong opposition from Republican members of Congress who are already trying to pass legislation to block it. In Iran, elements of the hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps appear to be using the Vienna talks to thwart a candidacy of Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif in presidential elections this year.

Deal critics have taken issue with the negotiating tactics of Malley and his colleagues, alleging that they are giving away the leverage on Iran that Trump created when he pulled out of the deal and imposed sweeping new sanctions. In fact, any U.S. return to the deal would require the easing of many of those sanctions, including possibly ones that were imposed for non-nuclear reasons, such as terrorism, ballistic missile activity and human rights abuses.

Deal supporters, on the other hand, have lashed out at that criticism, accusing the other side of rejecting diplomacy and cheerleading for war. They argue that sanctions relief is the only way to bring Iran back into compliance with the agreement and shut down its pathways to a nuclear weapon.

___

Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani in Chicago contributed to this report.

Iran police probe death of Swiss Embassy staffer in Tehran

Iran police probe death of Swiss Embassy staffer in Tehran

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – Iranian police on Tuesday started investigating the death of a Swiss diplomat who died after reportedly falling from a high rise in the capital of Tehran.

The Swiss woman, in her 50s, fell from the upper floors of a 20-story building in which she lived in northern Tehran, the state-run IRNA news agency reported. A worker discovered her missing on Tuesday morning and called authorities.

The Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern acknowledged in a statement that an employee “died in a fatal incident on Tuesday.” The ministry declined to identify the woman, but said diplomats had been in touch with local police.

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US and UK reject reports of imminent prisoner deal with Iran

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Japan’s Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19, sits at a table during bilateral talks with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on the sidelines of a G7 foreign ministers meeting, at … more >

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By PAN PYLAS

Associated Press

Monday, May 3, 2021

LONDON (AP) – The U.S. and the U.K. dismissed reports coming out of Iran that they are thrashing out a prisoner exchange deal with Tehran that could see the imminent release of a British-Iranian woman, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and four Americans, among others.

Iran was a key topic of discussions Monday between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his host in London, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab. Their meeting took place a day before the first face-to-face meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in two years, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic. Iran, Ukraine, China, Russia, climate change and COVD-19 are expected to dominate the talks.

Blinken’s visit to London, his first since being appointed by President Joe Biden, comes amid mounting speculation of a prisoner swap deal with Iran. Such exchanges are not uncommon and were a feature of the 2015 nuclear accord between Iran and the world’s leading powers. Biden has indicated he is looking to restart nuclear talks with Tehran after his predecessor, Donald Trump, pulled the U.S. out of the agreement in 2018.

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“The reports coming out of Tehran are not accurate,” Blinken said at a press briefing after their meeting, adding that he had “no higher priority” than bringing all detained Americans home.

“More broadly on this, we have to take a stand against the arbitrary detention of citizens for political purposes,” he said.

Raab also dismissed the prospects of an imminent breakthrough amid reports in Iran that Britain would pay a 400 million-pound ($550 million) debt to secure Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. He insisted that the British government was working “very intensively” on the release of detained British citizens in Iran.

“I would say it’s incumbent on Iran unconditionally to release those who are held arbitrarily and in our view unlawfully,” Raab said.

In Britain, there’s particular interest in the well-being of Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was last week sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of spreading “propaganda against the system.”

The two diplomats discussed an array of subjects, such as sanctions on Russian citizens, climate change and Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan later this year, a process that began in earnest over the weekend. Russia and its aggressive actions toward Ukraine were also on the agenda, with Blinken set to travel to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on Wednesday.

Biden is also set to take a new approach with regard to North Korea following a policy review completed last week. Blinken, who met in London with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts earlier Monday, said the new approach will be “practical and calibrated” and urged the leadership in Pyongyang to “take the opportunity to engage diplomatically.”

On Tuesday, the top diplomats from the full G-7 – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.K. and the U.S. – will meet along with their foreign minister colleagues from selected other countries, including Australia, India and South Africa.

Ahead of the gathering, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “authoritarian states” around the world are “trying to play us against each other” and that breaches of international law have become commonplace.

“It is important that we hold our values of democracy, state of law, human rights and a global order based on rules against them, united and credibly,” he said.

Britain’s Foreign Office said the G-7 ministers will invest $15 billion in development finance over the next two years to help women in developing countries access jobs, build resilient businesses and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

They are also expected to pledge to get 40 million more girls into school and 20 million more girls reading by the age of 10 in poorer nations by 2026.

___

Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin contributed to this report.

Diplomats from 5 nations resuming Iran nuclear talks

Progress noted at diplomats’ talks on Iran nuclear deal

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The ambassador of the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, Wang Qun, leaves the “Grand Hotel Wien” where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, Austria, Saturday, May 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Lisa … more >

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By Philipp Jenne and Kirsten Grieshaber

Associated Press

Saturday, May 1, 2021

VIENNA (AP) — High-ranking diplomats from China, Germany, France, Russia and Britain made progress at talks Saturday focused on bringing the United States back into their landmark nuclear deal with Iran, but said they need more work and time to bring about a future agreement.

After the meeting, Russia’s top representative, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted that members of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, “noted today the indisputable progress made at the Vienna talks on restoration of the nuclear deal.”

“The Joint Commission will reconvene at the end of the next week,” Ulyanov wrote. “In the meantime, experts will continue to draft elements of future agreement.”

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“It’s too early to be excited, but we have reasons for cautious and growing optimism,” he added. “There is no deadline, but participants aim at successful completion of the talks in approximately 3 weeks.”

The three Western European countries involved in the talks struck a more restrained note.

“We have much work and little time left. Against that background, we would have hoped for more progress this week,” the senior diplomats said talking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be publicly named.

“We have yet to come to an understanding on the most critical points. Success is by no means guaranteed, but not impossible.”

Abbas Araghchi, Iran‘s deputy foreign minister, participated in the Vienna talks. 

“I can say that now our discussions have reached a maturity, both in the disputed topics and in the sections that we are agreed on,” he told Iranian state TV. “Although we cannot yet fully predict when and how we will be able to reach an agreement, it is moving forward, although slowly.” 

The U.S. did not have a representative at the table when the diplomats met in Vienna because former President Trump unilaterally pulled the country out of the deal in 2018. Trump also restored and augmented sanctions to try to force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions. 

U.S. President Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and a U.S. delegation in Vienna was taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The Biden administration is considering a rollback of some of the most stringent Trump-era sanctions in a bid to get Iran to come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, according to current and former U.S. officials and others familiar with the matter.

Ulyanov said JCPOA members met on the side with officials from the U.S. delegation but the Iranian delegation was not ready to meet with U.S. diplomats.

The nuclear deal promised Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of U.S. sanctions has left the Islamic Republic’s economy reeling.

Tehran has responded by steadily increasing its violations of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief from the sanctions. 

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

The Vienna talks began in early April and have included several rounds of high-level discussions. Expert groups also have been working on how to resolve the issues around the American sanctions and Iranian compliance, as well as the “possible sequencing” of the U.S. return. 

Outside the talks in Vienna, other challenges remain. 

An attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel recently struck Iran‘s Natanz nuclear site, causing an unknown amount of damage. Tehran retaliated by beginning to enrich a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, its highest level ever.

___

Grieshaber reported from Berlin, Amir Vahdat contributed from Tehran, Iran.

Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid new complications

Iran nuclear talks resume in Vienna amid new complications

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FILE – In this April 20, 2021 file photo Russia’s Governor to the International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Mikhail Ulyanov smokes a cigarette in front of the ‘Grand Hotel Wien’ where closed-door nuclear talks with Iran take place in Vienna, … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – World powers resumed high-level talks in Vienna on Tuesday focused on bringing the United States back into the nuclear deal with Iran, in their first session since comments surfaced from the Iranian foreign minister alleging that Russia once tried to scupper the pact.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has not responded to requests for comment on the remarks from Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made in a seven-hour interview with a think tank associated with the Iranian presidency that leaked over the weekend.

Ahead of the main talks, Russia’s top representative Mikhail Ulyanov said he’d met on the side together with officials from Iran and China, but did not mention anything about Zarif‘s comments.

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“We compared notes and exchanged views on the way ahead towards full restoration of the nuclear deal,” he tweeted. “It was a very fruitful meeting.”

Following the main meeting with his counterparts from China, Germany, France, and Britain – the other parties to the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – Ulyanov tweeted that they were “guided by the unity of purpose.”

“Which is full restoration of the nuclear deal in its original form,” he wrote. “It was decided to expedite the process.”

China’s delegate Wang Qun told reporters on his way out of the talks that discussions would continue on Wednesday.

The U.S. is not at the table because it unilaterally pulled out of the deal in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump, who restored and augmented American sanctions in a campaign of “maximum pressure” to try and force Iran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions. President Joe Biden wants to rejoin the deal, however, and there is a U.S. delegation in Vienna taking part in indirect talks with Iran, with diplomats from the other world powers acting as go-betweens.

The deal promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. The reimposition of American sanctions has left the country’s economy reeling, and Tehran has reacted by steadily increasing its violations of the restrictions of the deal, such as increasing the purity of uranium it enriches and its stockpiles, in a thus-far unsuccessful effort to pressure the other countries to provide relief.

The ultimate goal of the deal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, something it insists it doesn’t want to do. Iran now has enough enriched uranium to make a bomb, but nowhere near the amount it had before the nuclear deal was signed.

The comments from Zarif, who himself helped negotiate the original 2015 nuclear deal, have the potential to complicate the Vienna talks, which are currently focused on how the U.S. would roll back its sanctions – and which ones – and how Iran would return to compliance.

In the interview, reviewed by The Associated Press, Zarif describes Russia as wanting to stop the nuclear deal before it was struck under the Obama administration in 2015, suggesting Moscow wanted to keep Iran at odds with the West.

Iran‘s Foreign Ministry has called the leak of the recording “illegal,” but hasn’t disputed its authenticity.

The Vienna talks began in early April, and there have been several rounds of high-level discussions, while expert groups have been working on proposals on how to resolve the issues around American sanctions and Iranian compliance, as well as the “possible sequencing” of the U.S. return.

The comments from Zarif are just the latest complication that the diplomats have to deal with.

Among other things, an attack suspected to have been carried out by Israel recently struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, causing an unknown amount of damage.

Tehran retaliated by beginning to enrich a small amount of uranium up to 60% purity, its highest level ever.

___

Philipp Jenne in Vienna, Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Daria Litvinova in Moscow contributed to this story.

Israel says Syrian missile was not aimed at nuclear reactor

Israel says Syrian missile was not aimed at nuclear reactor

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By JOSEF FEDERMAN

Associated Press

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) – The Israeli military said Thursday that a Syrian missile that reached deep into Israeli territory and set off air raid sirens near the country’s top-secret nuclear reactor was the result of a misfire and not a deliberate attack.

The missile landed in southern Israel early Thursday, prompting Israel to respond with airstrikes on the missile launcher and other targets in Syria.

The army’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, was quoted as telling military correspondents that the Israeli air force was already operating in Syrian airspace when the anti-aircraft missile was fired. He said the projectile, identified as a Russian-made SA-5 missile, missed its target and exploded in southern Israel.

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The missile, also known as an S200, set off air raid sirens in a village near Dimona, the southern desert town where Israel‘s nuclear reactor is located, and some 300 kilometers (200 miles) south of Damascus.

“There was no intention of hitting the nuclear reactor in Dimona,” Zilberman was quoted as saying.

An Israeli missile-defense system tried but failed to intercept the incoming missile. Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the incident was under investigation.

In Washington, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, gave a similar assessment to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.

“I think it reflects, actually, incompetence in Syrian air defense, where they were responding to Israeli strikes on targets in Syria. The fired their missiles, the missiles went ballistic, literally, and followed a parabolic trajectory to Israel,” he said. “I do not believe it was an intentional attack, but just rather a lack of capability on the part of the Syrian air defenders.”

In recent years, Israel has repeatedly launched air strikes at Syria, including at military targets linked to foes Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, both allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Such strikes routinely draw Syrian anti-aircraft fire. Thursday’s exchange was unusual because the Syrian projectile landed deep inside Israel.

Syria‘s state news agency SANA said the exchange began with an Israeli air strike on Dumeir, a suburb of the capital, Damascus. Dumeir is believed to house Syrian army installations and batteries as well as bases and weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias. SANA said four soldiers were wounded.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group based in Britain that tracks Syria’s civil war, said the Israeli strikes hit an air defense base belonging to the Syrian military and destroyed air defense batteries in the area. It said the Syrian military fired surface-to-air missiles in response.

Syrian media made no mention of an anti-aircraft missile landing deep inside Israel.

The air raid sirens were sounded in Abu Krinat, a village near Dimona. Explosions heard across Israel might have been the air-defense systems.

Apparent missile fragments were found in a swimming pool in Ashalim, a community approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) southwest of Dimona. Israeli troops arrived at the scene and collected the fragments. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

The exchange between Israel and Syria comes against the backdrop of growing tensions between Israel and Iran, which maintains troops and proxies in Syria. Iran has accused Israel of a series of attacks on its nuclear facilities, including sabotage at its Natanz nuclear facility on April 11, and vowed revenge.

The exchange of fire also threatened to complicate U.S.-led attempts to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran, to which Israel is deeply opposed.

___

Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

US, Belgium, France and Japan hold Mideast naval exercise

US, Belgium, France and Japan hold Mideast naval exercise

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Sunday, March 21, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The U.S. Navy said Sunday it will hold a major naval exercise alongside Belgium, France and Japan in the Mideast amid tensions over Iran‘s nuclear program in the region.

The Group Arabian Sea Warfare Exercise will see ships from the four countries conduct drills in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman. Ships involved include the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, as well as the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island.

The Belgian frigate HNLMS Leopold I and the Japanese destroyer JS Ariake also will take part, as well as aircraft from the four nations.

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The drill comes as Iran has abandoned all limits of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers in the wake of then-President Donald Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from the accord.

President Joe Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq – likely backed by Iran – continue to target American interests.

Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

There was no immediate reaction from Iran to the naval drill.

A New Year in Iran, but the country’s crises remain the same

A New Year in Iran, but the country’s crises remain the same

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Performers play folklore music welcoming Persian New Year, or Nowruz, meaning "New Day." in northern Tajrish Square, Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, March 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi) more >

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By AMIR VAHDAT and ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Saturday, March 20, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – The Persian New Year, Nowruz, begins on the first day of spring and celebrates all things new. But as families across Iran hurried to greet the fresh start – eating copious crisp herbs, scrubbing their homes and buying new clothes – it was clear just how little the country had changed.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic that has devastated Iran, killing over 61,500 people – the highest death toll in the Middle East – the nation is far from out of the woods. And although Iranians had welcomed the election of President Joe Biden with a profound sigh of relief after the Trump administration’s economic pressure campaign, the sanctions that have throttled the country for three years remain in place.

“I was counting down the seconds to see the end of this year,” said Hashem Sanjar, a 33-year-old food delivery worker with a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “But I worry about next year.”

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Once again, Nowruz, a joyous two-week celebration rooted in gatherings – at homes, in parks and squares – will be stifled by the pandemic. Gone from Tehran’s streets are the performers dressed as “Hajji Firuz,” the ancient folk figure who dances, sings and bangs tambourines to ring in the holiday. Gone too are the usual piles of old furniture, which families can no longer afford to throw out for the new year.

A nightly curfew in the capital forbids residents from venturing out after 9 p.m. Health officials are pleading with the public to stay home. And the government has banned travel to cities hardest-hit by the virus.

Still, authorities will allow families to travel to the Caspian Sea and other vacation spots with lower infection rates, a bid to boost Iran’s slumping retail sales. Before the pandemic, domestic travel revenue accounted for an estimated $1.2 billion over the holiday. Police warned of heavy traffic from Tehran to the northern coast as residents hit the road.

Last year as Nowruz approached, the country of 83 million had become a global epicenter of the coronavirus. The virus coursed across Iran as heads of shrines called on pilgrims to keep coming and authorities dismissed alarm over rising deaths. Desperate to salvage its ailing economy, the government resisted a nationwide lockdown, further spreading the disease.

Now, the pain of the pandemic runs too deep to deny. The virus has touched all aspects of daily life, infecting some 1.78 million people, overwhelming hospitals, filling vast cemeteries and pummeling an economy already reeling from U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s economy shrank 5% last year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Over 1 million people lost their jobs in 2020, reported the Interior Ministry. Inflation has soared to nearly 50% compared to 10% in 2018, before then-President Donald Trump withdrew from Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers and re-imposed sanctions. The prices of basic goods, including Nowruz staples like spiced nuts and clothes, have doubled or tripled.

Casual laborers bear the brunt of the fallout. The poverty rate has surged to 55%. The government’s $40 stipends for poor families have failed to plug the gap.

Payman Fadavi, a 48-year-old electronics shop owner in a Tehran mall, said he faces financial ruin.

“The virus led to economic problems for the whole world, but in Iran it is worse, we are experiencing sanctions along with coronavirus,” he said, adding the pandemic forced him to fire most of his staff. “I think I have to close the store soon.”

Rasul Hamdi, a 38-year-old cleaner, struggles because clients “wouldn’t let me come and clean their homes out of fear of the virus.” The outbreak has altered his life in other ways, as people around him fell ill. Now, all his next-door neighbors are gone – a whole family dead from COVID-19.

Amid the misery, and despite the chilling rain, signs of life were returning to Tehran ahead of the holiday.

Through pandemics, wars and disasters, the ancient Zoroastrian festival of Nowruz, or “New Day” in Farsi, has been celebrated continuously for over 3,000 years, predating the region’s Muslim conquest. Some 300 million people in Iran and beyond gather around tables replete with ancient symbols of renewal, prosperity and luck: green wheat sprouts, apples, gold coins and oranges or goldfish in bowls of water.

This week, throngs of mask-clad shoppers packed the metro and jockeyed to buy last-minute gifts and sweets at Tehran‘s storied Grand Bazaar. In the northern Tajrish Square, vendors hawked candles and flowers, calling out wishes for a joyous new year. Even as the infection rates have dropped from peaks reached last fall, the crowded scenes pointed to pandemic fatigue and public intransigence rather than national recovery, especially as Iran’s vaccine rollout lags.

Still waiting for big shipments from COVAX, the global initiative to provide doses to low- and middle-income countries, Iran so far has inoculated only several thousand health care and front-line workers. Around a hundred people continue to die of COVID-19 each day, according to government statistics. Daily infection counts have hovered at around 8,000 since the discovery of a fast-spreading variant earlier this year.

Many in Iran find the seasonal symbols on their Nowruz tables in increasingly short supply. Hopes for a rapid return to the nuclear deal are dimming as the Biden administration, grappling with congressional opposition, a litany of higher priorities and pressure to wring more concessions from Iran, refuses to lift sanctions. The U.S. insists that Iran come back into compliance with the nuclear accord first.

As Iran‘s frustration deepens, the country is hurtling toward a different sort of renewal – a presidential election in mid-June. Disappointment with continued sanctions under relative moderate President Hassan Rouhani could play a critical role in the vote, said Behnam Maleki, a Tehran-based economist. Rouhani, who is term-limited from running again, faces strong opposition from hard-liners, narrowing the window for a diplomatic breakthrough with the U.S.

But on Saturday at 1:07 p.m., the exact moment of the spring equinox, Iranian families will pay little heed to their country’s mounting crises. Over hearty meals, they will embrace and kiss, hoping for better times.

___

DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Iran denies it attacked Israeli-owned ship in Gulf

Iran denies it attacked Israeli-owned ship in Gulf

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By EDITH M. LEDERER

Associated Press

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

UNITED NATIONS (AP) – Iran has rejected what it says are Israel’s unfounded allegations that Iran‘s Revolutionary Guard attacked an Israeli-owned cargo ship near the Gulf of Oman last month.

Iran‘s U.N. ambassador in a letter circulated Tuesday accused Israel of “playing the victim to distract attention away from all its destabilizing acts and malign practices across the region.”

Ambassador Majid Takht Ravanchi said in the letter to the U.N. Security Council that the incident “has all the characteristics of a complicated false flag operation by actors in order to pursue their malign policies and to advance their illegitimate objectives.”

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He was responding to a letter to the council from Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan. It accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guard of attaching an explosive device to the Israeli-owned cargo vessel Helios Ray in international waters near the Gulf of Oman on Feb. 25. The vessel was en route from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

The explosion caused “severe damage, forcing the ship to return to the port of Dubai to ensure the safety of the crew,” Gilad said in the letter, also circulated Tuesday.

Israel has accused archenemy Iran of developing nuclear weapons, a charge Tehran denies, and of supporting hostile militant groups across the region, such as Hamas in Gaza and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Israel has acknowledged carrying out hundreds of airstrikes on targets connected to Iran and its proxies in Syria.

Gilad’s letter cited previous Iranian attacks on civilian ships, including its seizure of a South Korean flagged tanker in Gulf waters in early January and on four commercial vessels in May 2019 in the territorial waters of the United Arab Emirates east of the port of Fujairah.

In the tense summer of 2019, the U.S. military blamed Iran for explosions on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. The U.S. also had attributed a series of other suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines – designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull – to cripple the four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.

The Israeli ambassador said the Feb. 25 attack and previous attacks “prove yet again that Iran will use any means to destabilize the region” and he urged the Security Council to condemn Iran’s violations of the U.N. Charter “and hold the Iranian regime responsible for this attack and for destabilizing the regime.”

Iran’s Ravanchi countered that the “Israeli regime” must be held accountable for all of its “crimes, brutalities and threats … in particular its occupation of Palestine and parts of other countries, as well as its persistent military adventurism in such a volatile region as the Middle East.”

He said Israel must “also be reminded that it will bear all consequences as a result of any possible miscalculation.”

The Feb. 25 blast came as Iran has increasingly breached its 2015 nuclear accord with world powers in an attempt to pressure U.S. President Joe Biden to grant the sanctions relief it received under the deal that former President Donald Trump abandoned nearly three years ago.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including a mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.

U.S. deploys B-52 bombers to Middle East in warning to Iran

U.S. deploys B-52 bombers to Middle East in warning to Iran

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Pilots from the 69th Bomb Squadron board B-52H Stratofortress bomber "Wham Bam II" in preparation for a flight over the Mideast on March 6, 2021, at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The U.S. military on Sunday flew two B-52H “Stratofortress” bombers across the Middle East “to deter aggression” in the region, delivering a clear warning to Iran after a string of recent rocket attacks that targeted American troops.

U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees American military operations in the region, said that aircraft from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar joined the B-52 bombers during their flights. It’s the fourth time this year the Pentagon has sent B-52s to the Middle East.

“The U.S. Air Force routinely moves aircraft and personnel into, out of, and around the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility to meet mission requirements, and to train with regional partners, underscoring the importance of strategic partnerships,” CENTCOM said Sunday in a statement.

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Sunday’s move comes just days after another rocket attack on an air base in Iraq that houses American troops. A U.S. contractor died of a heart attack during last Wednesday’s assault, which American officials believe was almost certainly carried out by Iran-backed militias.

That attack was especially noteworthy because it came on the heels of U.S. airstrikes along the Syria-Iraq border targeting the Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah. The U.S. airstrike suggested that the Biden administration was prepared to take a hard line toward Iranian aggression, though other than Sunday’s B-52 flights, Washington has not directly responded to the most recent rocket attack.

The escalating tensions between the two countries come as the White House also pursues a duel diplomatic track. Administration officials have said the U.S. is willing to meet with international partners and Iran to discuss resurrecting a deal to limit Tehran’s nuclear program.

So far, Iran has rejected those overtures, limited the access of international inspectors to its nuclear facilities, and threatened to ramp up its uranium enrichment to near-weapons grade levels.

B-52s again fly over Mideast in US military warning to Iran

B-52s again fly over Mideast in US military warning to Iran

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Pilots from the 69th Bomb Squadron board B-52H Stratofortress bomber "Wham Bam II" in preparation for a flight over the Mideast on March 6, 2021, at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the … more >

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By JON GAMBRELL

Associated Press

Sunday, March 7, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – A pair of B-52 bombers flew over the Mideast on Sunday, the latest such mission in the region aimed at warning Iran amid tensions between Washington and Tehran.

The flight by the two heavy bombers came as a pro-Iran satellite channel based in Beirut broadcast Iranian military drone footage of an Israeli ship hit by a mysterious explosion only days earlier in the Mideast. While the channel sought to say Iran wasn’t involved, Israel has blamed Tehran for what it described as an attack on the vessel.

The U.S. military’s Central Command said the two B-52s flew over the region accompanied by military aircraft from nations including Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It marked the fourth-such bomber deployment into the Mideast this year and the second under President Joe Biden.

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Flight-tracking data showed the two B-52s flew out of Minot Air Base in North Dakota, something Central Command did not mention in its statement on the flights though authorities later published images of the flight crew preparing its departure there.

The military did not directly mention Iran in its statement, saying the flight was to “deter aggression and reassure partners and allies of the U.S. military’s commitment to security in the region.”

However, such flights had become common in the last months of former President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump’s 2018 decision to unilaterally withdraw from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers sparked a series of escalating incidents in the region.

Biden has expressed a desire to return to the deal if Iran honors the deal’s limits on its nuclear program. However, tensions remain high after militias in Iraq – likely backed by Iran – continue to target American interests.

Biden last month launched an airstrike just over the border into Syria in retaliation, joining every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

Meanwhile Sunday, Beirut-based channel Al-Mayadeen aired footage of the Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship hit by the blasts Feb. 26 in the Gulf of Oman.

The grainy footage included areas blurred out on the video, likely coordinates and other information displayed by the Iranian military drone. The footage at one point showed what appeared to be a hole in the side of the vessel.

Al-Mayadeen did not say when the footage was shot, nor explain the circumstance by which the Iranian drone was following the ship. The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet, which patrols the Mideast and often has tense encounters with Iran, declined to comment on the footage.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed Iran for the blasts, something denied by Tehran. However, the Gulf of Oman saw a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the U.S. Navy then blamed on Iran.

___

Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellAP.

British-Iranian woman ends 5-year sentence, but not free yet

British-Iranian woman ends 5-year sentence, but not free yet

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FILE – In this March 31, 2019 file photo, Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of British charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is being held in Iran poses for a photo with a giant Mother’s Day card and flowers left on the … more >

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By AMIR VAHDAT and ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Sunday, March 7, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) – A British-Iranian woman held in an Iranian prison for five years on widely refuted spying charges ended her sentence on Sunday, her lawyer said, although she faces a new trial and cannot yet return home to London.

The twists and turns of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s years-long case have sparked international outrage and strained already fraught diplomatic ties between Britain and Iran.

Although Zaghari-Ratcliffe completed her full sentence and was allowed to remove her ankle monitor and leave house arrest, her future remains uncertain amid a long-running debt dispute between Britain and Iran and rising regional tensions.

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“It feels to me like they have made one blockage just as they have removed another, and we very clearly remain in the middle of this government game of chess,” her husband Richard Ratcliffe said.

Iranian state-run media reported that she has been summoned to court on March 14 over murky new charges, including “spreading propaganda,” which were first announced last fall. Her trial was then indefinitely postponed, stirring hopes for her return home when her sentence ended. Authorities released her on furlough last March due to surging coronavirus pandemic, and she has remained in detention at her parent’s home in Tehran since.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe, 43, was sentenced to five years in jail after being convicted of plotting to overthrow Iran’s government, a charge that she, her supporters and rights groups vigorously deny. She was taken into custody at the airport with her toddler daughter after visiting family on holiday in the capital of Tehran in 2016. At the time, she was working for Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of the news agency.

The United Nations has described her arrest as arbitrary, and reported that her treatment, including stints in solitary confinement and deprivation of medical care, could amount to torture.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed the removal of Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s ankle tag but called for her to be allowed to return home.

“Her continued confinement remains totally unacceptable,” he said on Twitter. “She must be released permanently so she can return to her family in the UK, and we continue to do all we can to achieve this.”

The latest setback in Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case comes as Britain and Iran negotiate a spat over a debt of some 400 million pounds ($530 million) owed to Iran by London, a payment the late Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi made for Chieftain tanks that were never delivered. The shah abandoned the throne in 1979 and the Islamic Revolution installed the clerically overseen system that endures today.

Ratcliffe, who for years has campaigned vocally for his wife’s release, has said that Iran was holding Zaghari-Ratcliffe as “collateral” in the dispute. Authorities in London and Tehran deny that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case is linked to the repayment deal. But a prisoner exchange that freed four American citizens in 2016 saw the U.S. pay a similar sum to Iran the same day of their release.

Her case has also played out against rising tensions over Iran‘s tattered atomic deal with world powers. Since former U.S. President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the deal in 2018, Iran has been accelerating its breaches of the pact by enriching more uranium than allowed, among other actions. Tehran is seeking to press the other signatories to the deal, including Britain, to help offset the economic devastation wrought by American sanctions.

As for Zaghari-Ratcliffe, exactly what will happen next weekend in court remains uncertain. Her family and supporters fear the worst.

“We don’t know how to interpret being summoned … Is it that they’re just going to finish off all the paperwork and release her and give her passport back? Or Is it that they are going to whack her with that second sentence?” her sister-in-law Rebecca Ratcliffe told U.K’s Sky News.

The uncertainty means “there are a few more sleepless nights ahead of us,” she added.

In what the U.N. has criticized as an “emerging pattern,” Iran frequently has arrested dual citizens in recent years, often using their cases as bargaining chips for money or influence in negotiations with the West, something Tehran denies.

Several other dual nationals, including at least one other British citizen and three Americans, remain in prison. Iran refuses to recognize dual nationality, so detainees like Zaghari-Ratcliffe cannot receive consular assistance.

Meanwhile, with her ankle tag off for the first time, Zaghari-Ratcliffe spent the afternoon visiting her grandmother and the family of one of the other British-Iranians held in prison, her husband said.

“It’s a mixed day for us,” Ratcliffe added. “She is having a nice afternoon, has turned her phone off and is not thinking about the rest of it.”

___

Associated Press writer Kelvin Chan contributed from London. DeBre reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric hold historic, symbolic meeting

Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric hold historic, symbolic meeting

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A photo released by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani Office shows the meeting between Pope Francis, right, and Shiite Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, Iraq, Saturday, March 6, 2021. Pope Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday to … more >

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By Nicole Winfield and Qassim Abdul-Zahra

Associated Press

Saturday, March 6, 2021

PLAINS OF UR, Iraq (AP) — Pope Francis and Iraq‘s top Shiite cleric delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence Saturday, urging Muslims in the war-weary Arab nation to embrace Iraq’s long-beleaguered Christian minority during a historic meeting in the holy city of Najaf.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history.

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.

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The historic meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly discussed and negotiated between the ayatollah’s office and the Vatican.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, traveling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam. He then walked the few meters (yards) to al-Sistani’s modest home, which the cleric has rented for decades.

A group of Iraqis wearing traditional clothes welcomed him outside. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

The “very positive” meeting lasted a total of 40 minutes, said a religious official in Najaf, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room – a rare honor. Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks. Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public – even on television – wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not. The aging ayatollah, who underwent surgery for a fractured thigh bone last year, looked tired.

The pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani‘s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting. Francis paused before leaving al-Sistani’s room to have a last look, the official said.

The pope arrived later in the ancient city of Ur for an interfaith meeting in the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

Religious leaders stood to greet him. While Francis wore a mask, few of the leaders on the tented stage did. The meeting was held in the shadow of Ur’s magnificent ziggurat, the 6,000-year-old archaeological complex near the modern city of Nasiriyah.

The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

The Vatican said the historic visit to al-Sistani was a chance for Francis to emphasize the need for collaboration and friendship between different religious communities.

In a statement issued by his office after the meeting, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness, and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

For Iraq’s dwindling Christian minority, a show of solidarity from al-Sistani could help secure their place in Iraq after years of displacement – and, they hope, ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

Iraqis cheered the meeting of two respected faith leaders.

”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is an historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Francis arrived in Iraq on Friday and met with senior government officials on the first-ever papal visit to the country. It is also his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and his meeting Saturday marked the first time a pope had met a grand ayatollah.

On the few occasions where he has made his opinion known, the notoriously reclusive al-Sistani has shifted the course of Iraq‘s modern history.

In the years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists. The country was nevertheless plunged into years of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon lead to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

Iraqis have welcomed the visit and the international attention it has given the country as it struggles to recover from decades of war and unrest. Iraq declared victory over the Islamic State group in 2017 but still sees sporadic attacks.

It has also seen recent rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities, followed by U.S. airstrikes on militia targets in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The violence is linked to the standoff between the U.S. and Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord and its imposition of crippling sanctions on Iran. President Joe Biden has said he wants to revive the deal.

Francis’ visit to Najaf and nearby Ur traverses provinces that have seen recent instability. In Nasiriyah, where the Plains of Ur is located, protest violence left at least five dead last month. Most were killed when Iraqi security forces used live ammunition to disperse crowds.

Protest violence was also seen in Najaf last year, but abated as the mass anti-government movement that engulfed Iraq gradually petered out.

___

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Anmar Khalil in Najaf, Iraq, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.

Iran to meet with UN technical experts over uranium find

Iran to meet with UN technical experts over uranium find

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Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi from Argentina, addresses the media during a news conference behind plexiglass shields after a meeting of the IAEA board of governors at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, … more >

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By DAVID RISING

Associated Press

Thursday, March 4, 2021

BERLIN (AP) – Iran has agreed to sit down with international technical experts investigating the discovery of uranium particles at three former undeclared sites in the country, the head of the U.N. atomic watchdog said Thursday, after months of frustration at Tehran’s lack of a credible explanation.

The agreement came as three of the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran – France, Germany and Britain – backed off the idea of a resolution criticizing Iran for its decision to start limiting access by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to current facilities.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters in Vienna it was not up to him to say whether Iran‘s move to hold talks with his technical experts was linked to the decision of the so-called E3 group, but suggested it was difficult to separate the political side of Iran‘s nuclear program from the technical side.

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“It is obvious for everybody that all these matters need to have some resolution, and when it comes to Iran – and I’m not saying anything that Iran itself hasn’t said – everything is interconnected, of course,” he said.

“These are different parts of a single whole.”

The E3 had floated the idea of the resolution after Iran began restricting international inspections last week. After a last-minute trip to Tehran by Grossi, however, some access was preserved.

Russia and China – the other members of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – were reportedly against the resolution, saying it could antagonize Iran further.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press it was common to “discuss all possible options for action” ahead of such meetings, and that despite dropping the resolution, the E3 still had concerns about Iran‘s “serious violations” of the nuclear deal.

“Above all, we would like to support the Director General of the IAEA in his efforts to start talks with Iran regarding the open safeguards issues,” the ministry said.

Iran‘s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, tweeted after the decision that “wisdom prevails” and that the E3 had prevented unnecessary tension.

Iran‘s Foreign Ministry applauded the move.

“Today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran and the IAEA, and pave the way for full implementation of commitments by all parties to the nuclear deal,” spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

The nuclear deal promised Iran economic incentives in return for the curbs on its nuclear program. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal unilaterally in 2018, saying it needed to be renegotiated.

Since then, Iran has slowly violated the restrictions to try and pressure the remaining nations to increase the incentives to offset new, economy-crippling U.S. sanctions.

Before the decision to start limiting IAEA access, it had already begun enriching more uranium than allowed and to a greater purity than permitted, among other things.

U.S. President Joe Biden has said he is ready to join talks with Iran and world powers to discuss a return to the deal but the violations complicate the matter, and over the weekend Iran turned down a European Union offer to host joint talks.

Outside the JCPOA, Grossi has also been pushing Iran for answers on three sites where inspections had revealed traces of uranium of man-made origin, suggesting they were once connected to Iran‘s nuclear program.

Grossi said that with Iran agreeing to face-to-face talks about the findings he hoped that “we could try to go beyond the exchange of letters and messages which, to me, seemed a lot like talking past each other on this issue, and really try to tackle them and try to solve them.”

The first meeting is to take place at the beginning of April and Grossi said he hoped to “come to some satisfactory outcome” by the next IAEA board meeting in June.

In his address to the board, U.S. representative Louis Bono urged Iran to cooperate fully with the IAEA to resolve these issues.

He also called Iran‘s recent restrictions on IAEA inspections “troublesome and counterproductive” and said they should be reversed.

IAEA verification is the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the foundation on which the JCPOA is built,” Bono said according to a copy of his remarks provided by the U.S. delegation. “Iran should not undermine that foundation at the very time we all seek a return to the deal – especially considering that the IAEA continues to investigate a number of serious, outstanding safeguards concerns regarding possible undeclared nuclear material in Iran.”

He said that reliable verification could not be used by Iran as a “bargaining chip” with the U.S.

“As President Biden has made clear, the United States, in close coordination with our allies and partners, is ready to re-engage in meaningful diplomacy to achieve a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA, a key achievement of multilateral diplomacy, and a vital instrument in addressing the international community’s longstanding concerns with Iran’s nuclear program,” Bono said.

“We hope that Iran will agree to begin necessary discussions on a diplomatic way forward without delay.”

_____

Philipp Jenne in Vienna, Jill Lawless in London and Isabel DeBre in Dubai contributed to this report.

Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking Israeli-owned cargo ship

Netanyahu accuses Iran of attacking Israeli-owned cargo ship

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In this Aug. 14, 2020, photo, the vehicle cargo ship Helios Ray is seen at the Port of Chiba in Chiba, Japan. An explosion struck the Israeli-owned Helios Ray as it sailed out of the Middle East on Friday, Feb. … more >

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By Ilan Ben Zion

Associated Press

Monday, March 1, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday accused Iran of attacking an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman last week, a mysterious explosion that further spiked security concerns in the region.

Without offering any evidence to his claim, Netanyahu told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that “it was indeed an act by Iran, that’s clear.”

Iran is the greatest enemy of Israel, I am determined to halt it. We are hitting it in the entire region,” Netanyahu said. Iran promptly dismissed the charges.

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The blast struck the Israeli-owned MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship, as it was sailing out of the Middle East on its way to Singapore on Friday. The crew was unharmed, but the vessel sustained two holes on its port side and two on its starboard side just above the waterline, according to American defense officials.

The ship came to Dubai’s port for repairs on Sunday, days after the blast that revived security concerns in Mideast waterways amid heightened tensions with Iran.

Iran has sought to pressure the U.S. to lift sanctions on Tehran as President Joe Biden’s administration considers option for returning to negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Biden has said repeatedly the U.S. would return to the nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers that his predecessor, Donald Trump, withdrew from in 2018 only after Iran restores its full compliance with the accord.

The explosion on the Israeli-owned ship last week recalled the tense summer of 2019, when the U.S. military accused Iran of attacking several oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman with limpet mines, designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull. The Gulf of Oman leads through the narrow Strait of Hormuz, a vital passage for the world’s oil supplies. Tehran has denied the accusations that it was behind the limpet mine attacks.

It remains unclear what caused Friday’s blast on the Helios Ray. The vessel had discharged cars at various ports in the Persian Gulf before the explosion forced it to reverse course. Over the weekend, Israel’s defense minister and army chief had both indicated they held Iran responsible for what they said was an attack on the vessel.

Iran responded to Netanyahu‘s statement saying it “strongly rejected” the claim that it was behind the attack. In a press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said Netanyahu was “suffering from an obsession with Iran” and described his charges as “fear-mongering.”

Khatibzadeh also accused Israel of taking “suspicious actions in the region” against Iran in recent months to undermine the 2015 nuclear deal, without elaborating, and vowed Iran would respond.

Israel knows very well that our response in the field of national security has always been fierce and accurate,” he said.

Overnight, Syrian state media reported a series of alleged Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, saying air defense systems had intercepted most of the missiles. Israeli media reports said the alleged airstrikes were on Iranian targets in response to the ship attack.

Israel has struck hundreds of Iranian targets in neighboring Syria in recent years, and Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence there. Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah have provided military support to Syrian President Bashar Assad in the more than decade-long Syrian civil war.

The Israeli military declined to comment.

Iran also has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including another mysterious explosion last summer that destroyed an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at its Natanz nuclear facility and the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a top Iranian scientist who founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago. Iran has repeatedly vowed to avenge Fakhrizadeh’s killing.

“It is most important that Iran doesn’t have nuclear weapons, with or without an agreement, this I also told to my friend Biden,” Netanyahu said Monday.

Iranian threats of retaliation have raised alarms in Israel since the signing of normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in September.

___

Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

Internet disruption reported in southeast Iran amid unrest

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By ISABEL DEBRE

Associated Press

Saturday, February 27, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Iran’s impoverished southeast has been experiencing wide disruptions of internet services, experts said, as unrest gripped the remote province after fatal border shootings.

Several rights groups reported in a joint statement that authorities shut down the mobile data network in the restive province of Sistan and Baluchestan, calling the disruptions an apparent “tool to conceal” the government’s harsh crackdown on protests convulsing the area.

The reports of internet interference come as Iranian authorities and semiofficial news agencies increasingly acknowledge the turmoil challenging local authorities in the southeast – a highly sensitive matter in a country that seeks to repress all hints of political dissent.

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Starting Wednesday, the government shut down the mobile data network across Sistan and Baluchestan, where 96% of the population accesses the internet only through their phones, rights groups said, crippling the key communication tool.

After four days of unverified “localized regional network disruptions” amid the protests, NetBlocks, which monitors worldwide internet access, confirmed a new disruption to internet connectivity in the province beginning late Saturday.

“This is Iran’s traditional response to any kind of protest,” Amir Rashidi from Miaan Group, a human rights organization that focuses on digital security in the Middle East, told The Associated Press on Saturday. “Shutting down the internet to block news and pictures getting out makes (authorities) feel more comfortable opening fire.”

The week saw a series of escalating confrontations between police and protesters. Crowds with light arms and grenade launchers descended on Kurin checkpoint near Iran’s border with Pakistan on Thursday, Abouzar Mehdi Nakhaie, the governor of Zahedan, the provincial capital, said in comments carried by Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency. The violence killed one policeman, he added.

Earlier this week, protesters attacked the district governor’s office and stormed two police stations in the city of Saravan, outraged over the shootings of fuel smugglers trying to cross back into Iran from Pakistan on Monday. The border shootings and ensuing clashes killed at least two people, the government said. Many rights activists in the area reported higher death tolls without offering evidence.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Saeed Khatibzadeh, vowed Friday to investigate the deaths. Officials insisted that calm had returned to the streets.

The Iranian government previously has cut off internet access and cellphone service in tense times. In the fall of 2019, for instance, Iran imposed a near nationwide internet blackout as anti-government protests sparked by an increase in fuel prices roiled the capital of Tehran and other cities. Hundreds were reportedly killed in the crackdown nationwide.

Given that authorities targeted the mobile network and not the landline in Sistan and Baluchestan, the disruption likely wouldn’t appear on regular network data, said Mahsa Alimardani, researcher at Article 19, an international organization that fights censorship. The area already suffered from unreliable internet connections.

“This targeted shutdown was very intentional because they knew the realities of this province,” where people are poor and use cheap phones as opposed to computers, Alimardani said.

Sistan and Baluchestan is one of most unstable and least developed parts of Iran. The relationship between its predominantly Sunni residents and Iran’s Shiite theocracy long has been fraught. A low-level violent insurgency in Sistan and Baluchestan involves several militant groups, including those demanding more autonomy for the region.

The area also lies on a major trafficking route for drugs and petrol, which is highly subsidized in Iran and a key source of income for smugglers.

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

EXPLAINER: US airstrike in Syria sends message to Iran

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FILE – In this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Washington. A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to … more >

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By ZEINA KARAM and BASSEM MROUE

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) – A U.S. airstrike targeting facilities used by Iran-backed militias in Syria appears to be a message to Tehran delivered by a new American administration still figuring out its approach to the Middle East.

The strike was seemingly a response to stepped-up rocket attacks by such militias that have targeted U.S. interests in Iraq, where the armed groups are based. It comes even as Washington and Tehran consider a return to the 2015 accord meant to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. appears to have chosen the target, just across the border in Syria rather than in Iraq, carefully. It’s a way for President Joe Biden to signal he will be tough on Iran while avoiding a response that could offset the delicate balance in Iraq itself or trigger a wider confrontation.

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And it’s yet another example of how Syria, mired in civil war for the past decade, has often served as a proxy battlefield for world powers.

WHO ARE THE FORCES TARGETED BY THE US?

The U.S. airstrike – which took place Friday in Syria – targeted one of the most powerful Iran-backed militias in the Middle East known as Kataeb Hezbollah, or the Hezbollah Brigades. The group is part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, which includes an array of Iraqi militias.

The group was founded after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It is different from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, but the two groups are strong allies. In recent years, Kataeb Hezbollah has played a major role in the fight against the Islamic State group as well as helping President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s conflict.

The group was founded by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and killed in a U.S. drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020 along with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force.

The U.S. has hit the group before: In December 2019, an American strike along the SyriaIraq border killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens. Washington called it retaliation for the death of an American contractor in a rocket attack that it blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah.

___

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR RELATIONS WITH IRAN?

The attack is likely aimed at sending a message to Tehran that the U.S. will not tolerate attacks against American interests in the region, while leaving the door open for talks.

It comes as the Biden administration faces an uncertain road in its attempts to resurrect the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – which gave Tehran billions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program and that the Trump administration pulled out of.

In the meantime, relations with Iran have been further strained as the country’s proxies become more assertive, with Iran-backed militias increasingly targeting U.S. interests and allies. That has rekindled worries that the standoff relations between the U.S. and Iran could end up being fought out in Iraq.

Already there are signs that Iraq is being used to fight a proxy war. Explosive-laden drones that targeted Saudi Arabia’s royal palace in the kingdom’s capital last month were launched from inside Iraq, a senior Iran-backed militia official in Baghdad and a U.S. official told The Associated Press this week.

___

WILL THIS TRIGGER A WIDER ESCALATION?

That is unlikely at this point.

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria does not appear to signal an intention to widen U.S. military involvement in the region, but rather to demonstrate a will to defend U.S. troops in Iraq while also avoiding embarrassing the Iraqi government, a U.S. ally, by striking on its territory.

Pentagon Spokesman John Kirby said the operation in Boukamal, Syria, sends an unambiguous message: “President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel. At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

A Syrian commentator based in Turkey, Abdulkader Dwehe, said the choice of Syria was a wise one.

“Responding in Iraq could open a front that may be hard to close,” he tweeted following the attack. “With the Boukamal strike, a valuable point, and a political message rather than a military one, have been made.”

___

FOLLOWING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF OTHER US PRESIDENTS

In its first weeks, the new Biden administration has emphasized its intent to put its focus on the challenges posed by China – even as volatility and threats to U.S. interests persist in the Middle East.

But the operation proved the region is never far from a U.S. president’s agenda.

By striking Syria, Biden joins every American president from Ronald Reagan onward who has ordered a bombardment of countries in the Middle East.

Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension

Explosion strikes Israeli-owned ship in Mideast amid tension

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BREAKING NEWS BANNER FROM THE WASHINGTON TIMES more >

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By Jon Gambrell and Isabel Debre

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — An explosion struck an Israeli-owned cargo ship sailing out of the Middle East on Friday, an unexplained blast renewing concerns about ship security amid escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran.

The crew and vessel were safe, according to the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which is run by the British navy. The explosion forced the vessel to head to the nearest port.

The site of the blast, the Gulf of Oman, saw a series of explosions in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran against the backdrop of steeply rising threats between former President Donald Trump and Iranian leaders. Tehran denied the accusations, which came after Trump abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed harsh sanctions on the country.

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In recent weeks, as the administration of Joe Biden looks to re-engage with Iran, Tehran has escalated its breaches of the nuclear accord to create leverage over Washington. The deal saw Tehran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling sanctions.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, identified the stricken vessel as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahamian-flagged roll-on, roll-off vehicle cargo ship. Another private security official, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, similarly identified the ship as the Helios Ray.

Satellite-tracking data from website MarineTraffic.com showed the Helios Ray had been nearly entering the Arabian Sea around 0600 GMT Friday before it suddenly turned around and began heading back toward the Strait of Hormuz. It still listed Singapore as its destination on its tracker.

While details of the explosion remained unclear, two American defense officials told the AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd. Calls to Ray Shipping rang unanswered Friday.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction.

According to the Nikola Y. Vaptsarov Naval Academy, where Ungar provides support and maritime training, he owns dozens of car-carrying ships and employs thousands of engineers.

The U.S. Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet said it was “aware and monitoring” the situation.

While the circumstances of the explosion remain unclear, Dryad Global said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” Dryad reported. Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The explosion on Friday recalled the summer of 2019, when the U.S. military blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes. In the preceding months, the U.S. had attributed a series of suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull – to cripple four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.

__

Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

EU sees must-not-miss chance to revive Iran nuclear deal

EU sees must-not-miss chance to revive Iran nuclear deal

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By

Associated Press

Friday, February 26, 2021

BRUSSELS (AP) – The top European Union diplomat supervising the international agreement aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions called Friday for a concerted effort to reinvigorate the pact even as Tehran appears to be reneging on some of its commitments.

“This is an occasion that we cannot miss,” to revive the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters via video-link.

The deal almost collapsed after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled the U.S. out three years ago, triggering crippling economic sanctions on Iran. Britain, France and Germany notably struggled to keep it alive and have been heartened by President Joe Biden’s willingness to bring the U.S. back in.

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“I am convinced as coordinator of the JCPOA that we do have diplomatic space, a diplomatic window of opportunity to dialogue” in line with Biden’s aims, Borrell said. “We need to use this opportunity and focus on solutions to bring the JCPOA back on track in order for everybody (to fulfil) their commitments.”

Iran this week effectively set a deadline to lift the U.S. sanctions within three months, after which it said it would erase surveillance footage of its nuclear facilities. It has also limited some monitoring of its activities, which the EU says are meant to help ensure that Tehran‘s nuclear work is peaceful.

The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also reported that Iran has added 17.6 kilograms (38.8 pounds) of uranium enriched up to 20% to its stockpile as of Feb. 16 – far past the 3.67% purity allowed under the JCPOA.

Borrell said that Iran’s latest moves “are very much concerning.”