Biden to press Iraqi leader to help stop Iran’s drone strikes on U.S. troops

Biden to press Iraqi leader to help stop Iran’s drone strikes on U.S. troops

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In this file photo, President Joe Biden speaks while meeting with union and business leaders to discuss the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 22, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) **FILE** more >

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By Jeff Mordock

The Washington Times

Saturday, July 24, 2021

President Biden is expected to use his meeting Monday with the Iraqi prime minister to press him to take a stronger role in curtailing Iranian-backed drone attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq in Syria.

But Mr. Biden may not have enough leverage to overcome Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s fears of retaliation from Iran, analysts say.

“Iraq is not going to take a hard line against things that are not in the interest of Iraq,” said Robert Rabil, a professor at Florida Atlantic University, who has written books on the region.

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“The prime minister is pro-U.S., but he is also a nationalist and pro-Iraq. He knows he can’t make an enemy out of Iran.”

Since President Biden took office in January, at least eight drone attacks and 17 rocket attacks have targeted U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. An attack earlier this month on an Iraqi airbase hosting U.S. forces wounded two American service members.

The U.S. blamed the attacks on Iranian-backed militias operating inside Iraq and Syria. The militias make up a large part of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, a state-sponsored umbrella organization composed of roughly 40 mostly Shia Muslim paramilitary groups.

In response to the attacks, Mr. Biden has twice ordered airstrikes against the militia groups operating inside Syria, including a strike near the Iraqi border.

The president is going to need to sell Mr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi on taking a harder and more public line against the drone attacks if he expects to make progress in the region, analysts say.

So far, Mr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi has been reluctant to take a stronger approach, fearing not only retaliation but blowback in his own country, Mr. Rabil said.

“To go against Iran, he will not do,” Mr. Rabil said of the prime minister. “Iraq does not have a political party so he needs to work in consensus. He wants to improve Iraq but has been faced with a lot of challenges. Using Iraq to settle the score between the U.S. and Iran won’t help.”

Complicating matters is the tense relationship between Iraq and the U.S. that has lingered since the Trump administration.

Former President Trump last year ordered a drone strike that killed Iran military leader Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi military commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The strike took place at the Baghdad International Airport.

Mr. Biden has sought a fresh start in U.S.-Iraqi relations and Mr. Mustafa al-Kadhimi appears to be on board. The visit to the White House is a sign of warming relationships.

Even if the prime minister won’t use harsher rhetoric against the drone strikes, there are still things he can do to assist the U.S.

First, he can share information with the U.S. about what Iraqi intelligence is gathering on the ground about the militias and drone strokes.

Mr. al Kadhimi can also work in the region to assist Mr. Biden in overcoming obstacles to reviving the Obama-era nuclear accord with Iran. There are signs that Iran is looking to curb the attacks on the U.S. military to reengage on a nuclear deal.

Mr. Rabil said the drone strikes appear to be structured to send a message to the United States but cause enough chaos to scuttle negotiations. For example, while the attacks have wounded service members, the U.S. has not sustained any casualties.

“If you look at the attacks, they are not aimed in a way to demand a strong retaliation,” he said. “They want to be able to say that we handled the United States on our terms, but not provoke a strong response.”

‘Criminal contract hackers’: China, Iran, Russia enlist more high-tech gangsters for cyberattacks

‘Criminal contract hackers’: China, Iran, Russia enlist more high-tech gangsters for cyberattacks

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This Feb 23, 2019, file photo shows the inside of a computer in Jersey City, N.J. Cybersecurity teams worked feverishly Sunday, July 4, 2021, to stem the impact of the single biggest global ransomware attack on record, with some details … more >

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By Ryan Lovelace

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Rogue governments are increasingly outsourcing cyberattacks to criminals in the borderless domain of cyberspace to wreak havoc on the U.S. and other nations around the world.

China, Iran, Russia and other foreign adversaries have contracted with hackers, deployed sophisticated spyware technology and used social media platforms as tools to facilitate espionage.

The U.S. and its allies blamed the Microsoft Exchange hack, which compromised tens of thousands of computers, on “criminal contract hackers” working for China’s Ministry of State Security), a senior Biden administration official said.

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The Justice Department has indicted four Chinese nationals, including three suspected officers of the Ministry of State Security, in the malicious cybercampaign. The ministry recruits hackers through universities in Hainan and elsewhere in China.

“Not only did such universities assist the MSS in identifying and recruiting hackers and linguists to penetrate and steal from the computer networks of targeted entities, including peers at many foreign universities, but personnel at one identified Hainan-based university also helped support and manage Hainan Xiandun as a front company, including through payroll, benefits and a mailing address,” the Justice Department said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian posted a message to Twitter rejecting the U.S. and allies’ condemnations as “groundless accusations” and claiming that the U.S. was the “world’s top ‘hacking empire.’”

China is not the only outsourcer of cyberattacks. Facebook said it observed a group of hackers in Iran outsourcing the development of malicious software to several cybercriminal gangs.

Facebook’s Mike Dvilyanski and David Agranovich said Mahak Rayan Afraz, an information technology company in Tehran with suspected links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, developed a portion of the malware used by the Iranian hackers leveraging Facebook as part of a “broader cross-platform cyber espionage operation.”

The hackers used custom-created malware tools and shared links to malicious Microsoft Excel spreadsheets that enabled the malware to profile a victim’s machine, Mr. Dvilyanski and Mr. Agranovich wrote on Facebook’s blog last week. Facebook said it found the hackers targeting “military personnel and companies in the defense and aerospace industries primarily in the U.S., and to a lesser extent in the U.K. and Europe.”

Google recently revealed that Russian hackers used LinkedIn messages to target government officials using Apple devices. Google’s Threat Analysis Group identified the hackers as “a likely Russian government-backed actor.” Google said it was the same actor that other cybersecurity professionals linked to a group affiliated with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

The U.S. government blames the SVR for the SolarWinds hack of computer network management software.

The outsourcing of cybercombat is not limited to governments using academics to spot skilled hackers or commercial businesses staffed with former regime officials. In some instances, authoritarian regimes rely on off-the-shelf tools and technology to monitor and disrupt their targets.

The Israeli tech and spyware firm NSO Group has sold Pegasus, a product that can access a smartphone’s messages, camera and microphone without any action from the user. The Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation by more than 80 journalists and 17 media outlets from 10 countries, was organized by the news outlet Forbidden Stories. According to the Amnesty International Security Lab, which provided technical support to the Pegasus Project, Pegasus users are conducting widespread and unlawful surveillance.

The technical team said it observed cyberattackers exploiting an iPhone 12 using the newest operating system software available from Apple at the time of the report’s publication.

“The Pegasus attacks detailed in this report and accompanying appendices are from 2014 up to as recently as July 2021,” said Amnesty International’s Security Lab report. “These also include so-called ‘zero-click’ attacks which do not require any interaction from the target. Zero-click attacks have been observed since May 2018 and continue until now.”

The NSO Group has denied accusations by journalists and organizations participating in the Pegasus Project.

“We would like to emphasize that NSO sells [its] technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts,” the NSO Group said Sunday in a statement on its website.

Tracking the builders and users of tools in cyberattacks has proved difficult for the U.S.

The digital presence of cybercriminal gang REvil noticeably diminished last week. REvil’s business model relies on developers and affiliates to deploy cyberattacks, making it difficult for victims to neatly pinpoint their hackers.

A senior Biden administration official said federal agents are watching the darknet to better understand the changes involving REvil but do not expect to turn off cybercriminals’ activity like a light switch.

Desperate for vaccines amid surge, Iranians flock to Armenia

Desperate for vaccines amid surge, Iranians flock to Armenia

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A person holds up an Iranian passport as people, most of them residents of Iran stand in line for a vaccine at a mobile vaccination station in the center of Yerevan , Armenia, Friday, July 9, 2021. Armenia’s offer of … more >

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By Avet Demourian and Nvard Hovhannisyan

Associated Press

Saturday, July 17, 2021

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) — In Iran, the urgency of getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is growing by the day.

A crush of new cases fueled by the fast-spreading delta variant has threatened to overwhelm Iranian hospitals with breathless patients too numerous to handle. But as deaths mount, and the sense swells that protection for most citizens remains far-off, thousands of desperate Iranians are taking matters into their own hands: They’re flocking to neighboring Armenia.

In the ex-Soviet Caucasus nation, where vaccine uptake has remained sluggish amid widespread vaccine hesitancy, authorities have been doling out free doses to foreign visitors – a boon for Iranians afraid for their lives and sick of waiting.

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“I just want her to get the jab as soon as possible,” said Ahmad Reza Bagheri, a 23-year-old jeweler at a bus stop in Tehran, gesturing to his diabetic mother who he was joining on the winding 20-hour road trip to Armenia‘s capital, Yerevan.

Bagheri’s uncle had already received his first dose in the city and would soon get his second. Such stories have dominated Iranian social media in recent weeks, as hordes of Iranians head to Armenia by bus and plane. Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said last week that foreigners, including residents, have accounted for up to half of about 110,000 people who were vaccinated in the country. Armenia administers AstraZeneca, Russia’s Sputnik V and China’s CoronaVac vaccines.

In Iran, which has the highest COVID-19 death toll in the Middle East, less than 2% of the country’s 84 million people have received both doses, according to the scientific publication Our World in Data.

Although the sanctions-hit country has imported some Russian and Chinese vaccines, joined the U.N.-supported COVAX program for vaccine sharing and developed three of its own vaccines, doses remain scarce. Authorities have yet to inoculate nonmedical workers and those under age 60, promising that mass vaccinations will start in September.

“I can’t wait such a long time for vaccination,” said Ali Saeedi, a 39-year-old garment trader also waiting to embark on the journey at a Tehran bus station. “Officials have delayed their plans for public vaccination many times. I’m going to Armenia to make it happen.”

Others, like 27-year-old secretary Bahareh Khanai, see the trip as an act of national service, easing the daunting inoculation task facing Iranian authorities.

It remains unclear just how many Iranians have made the trip to get vaccinated, as Armenia also remains a popular summer getaway spot. But each day, dozens of buses, taxis and flights ferry an estimated 500 Iranians across the border. Airlines have added three weekly flights from Iran to Yerevan. The cost of bus tours has doubled as thousands devise plans. Travel agents who watched the pandemic ravage their industry have seen an unprecedented surge in business.

“The number of our customers for the Armenia tour has tripled in recent weeks,” said Ahmad, the manager of a tour agency in Tehran who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals.

The surge of Iranians has inundated Armenia’s coronavirus testing centers, leaving scores stranded in the buffer zone, Iranian semiofficial ILNA news agency reported, with several fainting from the heat. Roughly 100 miles away in Yerevan, hundreds of Iranians lined up to get a vaccine shot, with some sleeping on the streets to secure a place.

Hope sustains them through the long lines under an unforgiving sun. In the streets of the Armenian capital, Iranians cavort to Farsi music outside vaccine centers, clapping as they receive doses, videos show.

“We couldn’t expect that our humanitarian act would become popular and spread so much and that we would have a big flow of foreigners,” Armenian Health Minister Anahit Avanesyan told reporters. “Our citizens are our priority, but I repeat again that the pandemic doesn’t recognize citizenship.”

But even as Armenian authorities encourage vaccination tourism, the sheer number of Iranians flooding vaccination centers has pushed Armenia to tighten the rules.

At first, Iranian vaccine-seekers headed for clinics in the southern border town of Meghri. A local doctor, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media, reported seeing at least 100 Iranians vaccinated there over the past few weeks.

But last week the government decreed that foreign visitors can only receive a jab at five designated AstraZeneca mobile clinics in Yerevan, and, in an apparent bid to boost the country’s tourist sector, must spend at least 10 days in Armenia before getting vaccinated.

Now, the profile of Iranian visitors is changing, as cross-border bus jaunts become extended vacations, with some flights routed through Qatar. The surge in interest has also pushed up the price, putting the journey out of reach for all but the wealthy.

Ethicists, who said they otherwise wouldn’t take issue with needy foreigners securing excess shots shunned by citizens, say the price hike and new 10-day requirement exacerbates the stark inequalities in the pandemic.

“It increases the money and time required … and so the inequity of who is going to be able to participate,” said Alison Bateman-House, an assistant professor of medical ethics at New York University.

More broadly, she added, vaccination vacations, like all travel in a time of contagious virus variants, carries “unintended consequences” and increases “the possibility of disease transmission.” A fairer alternative, she noted, would be for Armenia to transfer its surplus doses to the international COVAX initiative.

But for many in Iran, where scores are dying daily in an outbreak that has exhausted the health system and economy, the cost of waiting has grown too high.

Mohammad Seifpour, a 48-year-old Tehran resident, grimly surveyed the crowds of Iranians at the Yerevan vaccine clinic.

“This is just because of the horrible situation we are facing,” he said.

Feds charge 4 in Iranian plot to kidnap U.S. journalist

Feds charge 4 in Iranian plot to kidnap U.S. journalist

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By Larry Neumeister

Associated Press

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

NEW YORK — An Iranian intelligence officer and three alleged members of an Iranian intelligence network have been charged in Manhattan with plotting to lure a U.S. journalist and human rights activist from New York to Iran, authorities said Tuesday.

An indictment in Manhattan federal court alleges that the plot was part of a wider plan to lure three individuals in Canada and a fifth person in the United Kingdom to Iran. Victims were also targeted in the United Arab Emirates, authorities said. The identities of the alleged victims were not released.

According to the indictment, all of the targeted victims had been critical of Iran, including the New Yorker, a Brooklyn resident described as a journalist, author and human rights activist who has publicized the government of Iran‘s human rights abuses.

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Although not charged in the kidnapping plot, Niloufar Bahadorifar, also known as Nellie, was arrested July 1 in California on charges that she has provided U.S. financial and other services to Iranian residents and entities and some financial services supported the plot and violated sanctions against Iran, according to a release.

The indictment said Bahadorifar, 46, originally from Iran, works at a California department store. Bahadorifar’s lawyer, Assistant Federal Defender Martin Cohen, declined to comment.

Bahadorifar has pleaded not guilty to charges lodged at the time of her arrest and been released on bail, authorities said. She still faces arraignment on charges in Tuesday’s superseding indictment.

The rest of the defendants are fugitives believed to be based in Iran, authorities said.

U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said the four defendants charged in the kidnapping plot “monitored and planned to kidnap a U.S. citizen of Iranian origin who has been critical of the regime’s autocracy, and to forcibly take their intended victim to Iran, where the victim’s fate would have been uncertain at best.”

“Among this country’s most cherished freedoms is the right to speak one’s mind without fear of government reprisal. A U.S. citizen living in the United States must be able to advocate for human rights without being targeted by foreign intelligence operatives,” she added.

“Every person in the United States must be free from harassment, threats and physical harm by foreign powers,” Acting U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mark J. Lesko said. “Through this indictment, we bring to light one such pernicious plot to harm an American citizen who was exercising their First Amendment rights.”

William F. Sweeney Jr., the head of New York‘s FBI office, noted that the indictment sounded a bit like “some far-fetched movie plot.”

“We allege a group, backed by the Iranian government, conspired to kidnap a U.S. based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran. Not on our watch,” he said.

The Iranian intelligence officer, who remains a fugitive, was identified as Alireza Shavaroghi Farahani.

Farahani, 50, and three other defendants tried since at least June 2020 to kidnap the U.S. citizen of Iranian origin who lives in Brooklyn, the indictment said. If caught and convicted, the four could all face life in prison.

Farahani and the network he led on multiple occasions in 2020 and 2021 lied about his intentions as he hired private investigators to surveil, photograph and video record the targeted journalist and his household members, the indictment said. It said the surveillance included a live high-definition video feed of the journalist’s home.

The indictment alleged that the government of Iran in 2018 tried to lure the journalist to a third country so a capture would be possible, even offering money to the journalist’s relatives to try to make it possible. The relatives, the indictment said, refused the offer.

Authorities said Iranian intelligence services has previously lured other Iranian dissidents from France and the United States to capture and imprison critics of the Iranian regime and have publicly claimed responsibility for the capture operations.

They noted, as did the indictment, that an electronic device used by Farahani contains a photograph of the New York journalist alongside pictures of two other individuals. Those individuals, the indictment said, were captured by Iranian intelligence authorities. One was later executed and the other was imprisoned, it said.

The others charged in the kidnapping plot were identified as Mahmoud Khazein, 42, Kiya Sadeghi, 35, and Omid Noori, 45, all from Iran.

According to the indictment, Sadeghi researched a service offering military-style speedboats that could perform a maritime evacuation out of New York City that would ultimately reach Venezuela, whose de facto government has friendly relations with Iran.

Khazein, it said, researched travel routes from the journalist’s residence to a waterfront neighborhood in Brooklyn and the location of the journalist’s residence relative to Venezuela and Tehran.

Mike Pompeo calls for stepped-up pressure on ‘weak’ Iranian regime

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In this March 26, 2021, photo, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the West Side Conservative Club in Urbandale, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) **FILE** more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Iran‘s theocratic government is at “its weakest point in its now 40 years of existence,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a global virtual rally of exiled regime opponents Saturday, arguing that now is the time for the U.S. and its allies to increase pressure on hardline President-elect Ebrahim Raisi as he prepared to take office.

Thousands of dissidents from more than 100 locations around the world are meeting online this weekend. They heard from a number of former U.S. and European government officials and a bipartisan slate of lawmakers from Capitol Hill during Saturday’s opening session.

Mr. Pompeo was a chief architect of the Trump administration’s tough line with Tehran, which included tearing up the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and re-imposing harsh economic sanctions on the regime and its trading partners.

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He said Mr. Trump’s approach was beginning to bear fruit, even if “its application for under two years was insufficient to fully achieve its end goals.”

“The regime is at its weakest point in its now 40 years of existence,” Mr. Pompeo said. “Iranians from every corner of the nation can see the failure of the regime to deliver on the very promises that it made.”

He cited what he called Tehran’s bungling of the COVID-19 crisis and the low rates of vaccination despite plentiful supplies, a foreign policy and push for nuclear power that have left Iran a “pariah” in the Middle East, and economic policies that have led to food shortages and sharp increases in the price of basic consumer goods.

“In short, Iran is not working, and the Iranian people know it,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The former secretary of state — and potential contender for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — also dismissed any notions that President-elect Raisi represents any change for the regime, even as the Biden administration moves to strike a deal for the U.S. to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.

“This Raisi fellow, he is not the president of the people of Iran,” Mr. Pompeo argued. “He is the president of the [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei]. His mission is clear: Inflict pain; frighten, continue to loot, and to plunder; protect the clerics and protect the Republican Guards.”

The current head of the Iranian judiciary who was elected from a field in which most prominent moderates were banned from running, Mr. Raisi “was chosen by the Ayatollah because he is just about 60 years old and thus could lead for the next two to three decades,” Mr. Pompeo said.

Although hardliners in Iran opposed the original nuclear deal, Mr. Pompeo predicted the Supreme Leader and the new president will happily accept the benefits if the U.S. rejoins.

“They get to do the deal politically and reap the economic benefits from re-entering the [nuclear deal] and get the resources that come from it at no cost to the revolutionary leadership,” Mr. Pompeo said. “So, Raisi is likely to complain about the deal, use that to gain even more concessions from a deal-hungry U.S., but won’t, in the end, block it, creating a clear pathway to a nuclear weapon.”

Among the dozens of others who addressed Saturday’s virtual rally were House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, California Republican; former British Defense Secretary Liam Fox; former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, New Jersey Democrat.

U.S. airstrikes hit Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria

U.S. launches series of airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria

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In this June 21, 2021, photo, Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi waves at the conclusion of his news conference in Tehran, Iran. Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of a hard-liner as Iran’s president won’t affect prospects for … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 27, 2021

U.S. forces on Sunday night launched three airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, Pentagon officials said, calling the action a “clear and unambiguous deterrent message” to Tehran and its proxy groups in the region.

The airstrikes targeted facilities used by the groups Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, both of which have launched drone attacks against American personnel in the region. 

The Pentagon classified the strikes as “defensive precision airstrikes,” suggesting that military leaders believed more attacks against U.S. troops may have been looming.

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“President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Defense Department said in a statement. “Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the president directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks.”

“The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation — but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” the Pentagon said.

Indeed, Iran-backed groups have regularly targeted U.S. military personnel in the Middle East in recent years.

The president, returning to the White House Sunday night from a weekend at Camp David, didn’t respond to reporters’ questions about Syria.

The strikes targeted two operational and weapons storage facilities in Syria and one in Iraq. The bombings appear aimed to limit the militias’ ability to target American troops in the future.

A reporter with the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said a child had been killed and three other civilians wounded in the strike near the border town of al-Bukamal, but that account could not be confirmed independently.

It’s at least the second time Mr. Biden has ordered direct airstrikes against the Kata’ib Hezbollah group. In February, he ordered the bombing of the militia’s facilities in Syria, just across the border with Iraq.

Sunday’s attacks come amid diplomatic talks between the U.S., Iran and other world powers about the future of Tehran‘s nuclear program. The Biden administration is seeking to reinstate an Obama-era agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear-weapons program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Former President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018.

Mr. Biden‘s critics have taken aim at the diplomatic engagement with Iran partially because of Tehran‘s continued backing of dangerous militia groups, including the two organizations targeted on Sunday.

Iran condemned the U.S. strike Monday in relatively restrained terms. Foreign Ministry spokeman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a Monday press briefing in Tehran that the U.S. government “is still following a wrong path in the region” by sticking with the pressure tactics of the Trump administration.

“Unfortunately, what we see is that the [Biden] administration continues with the failed American policies in the region not only n the issue of sanctions, but also on regional policies,” the spokesman said. “… What the U.S. is doing is upsetting security in the region, and it itself will be one of the victims of such insecurity,” he said.

McAfee antivirus software creator dead in Spanish prison

Antivirus software creator John McAfee dead in Spanish prison

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FILE – In this Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016 file photo, software entrepreneur John McAfee listens during the 4th China Internet Security Conference (ISC) in Beijing. McAfee, the creator of the McAfee antivirus software, was found dead in a prison near … more >

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By Aritz Parra, Renata Brito and Barry Hatton

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

MADRID (AP) — John McAfee, the creator of the McAfee antivirus software, has been found dead in his cell in a jail near Barcelona, a government official told The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Authorities said the cause of death was being investigated.

Hours earlier, a Spanish court issued a preliminary ruling in favor of the 75-year-old tycoon’s extradition to the United States to face tax-related criminal charges that could carry decades in prison.

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Security personnel at the Brians 2 penitentiary near the northeastern Spanish city tried to revive him, but the jail’s medical team finally certified his death, a statement from the regional Catalan government said.

“A judicial delegation has arrived to investigate the causes of death,” the statement said, adding that “Everything points to death by suicide.”

The statement didn’t identify McAfee by name, but said he was a 75-year-old U.S. citizen awaiting extradition to his country. A Catalan government source familiar with the event who was not authorized to be named in media reports confirmed to the AP that the dead man was McAfee.

Spain’s National Court on Monday ruled in favor of extraditing McAfee, who had argued in a hearing earlier this month that the charges against him by prosecutors in Tenessee were politically motivated and that he would spend the rest of his life in prison if he was returned to the U.S.

The court’s ruling was made public on Wednesday and was open for appeal. Any final extradition order would also need to get approval from the Spanish Cabinet.

The entrepreneur was arrested last October at Barcelona’s international airport. A judge ordered at that time that McAfee should be held in jail while awaiting the outcome of a hearing on extradition.

McAfee led an eccentric life after he sold his stake in the antivirus software company named after him in the early 1990s.

He twice ran long-shot bids for U.S. president and was a participant in Libertarian Party presidential debates in 2016.

In July 2019, McAfee was released from detention in the Dominican Republic after he and five others were suspected of traveling on a yacht carrying high-caliber weapons, ammunition and military-style gear, officials on the Caribbean island said at the time.

McAfee was charged last October in Tennessee with evading taxes after failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies while he did consulting work, made speaking engagements and sold the rights to his life story for a documentary. The criminal charges carry a prison sentence of up to 30 years.

The last post from McAfee’s Twitter account was a retweet of a Father’s Day message from his wife Janice McAfee.

“These eight months John has spent in prison in Spain have been especially hard on his overall health both mentally and physically, as well as financially, but he is undeterred from continuing to speak truth to power,” it said.

The U.S. embassy in Madrid didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

___

Brito reported from Barcelona, Spain, Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal 

Iranian media: ‘Sabotage attack’ on nuclear building foiled

Iranian media: ‘Sabotage attack’ on nuclear building foiled

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This Monday, June 21, 2021 photo shows Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi during a news conference in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File) more >

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By Nasser Karimi

Associated Press

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — An Iranian news site close to security services says that authorities have thwarted a “sabotage attack” on the country’s civilian nuclear program, without providing further information.

Nournews, a website believed to be close to Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, reported Wednesday that the attack was foiled “before causing any damage to the building.” It said the case was “under investigation.”

When asked for comment, an Iranian official referred to the Nournews report. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they did not have authorization to discuss the matter with the media.

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Iran‘s semi-official ISNA news agency said the building was located near Karaj City, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) west the capital of Tehran.

The website of state-owned IRAN newspaper published the same report without offering the location or other details. Iranian state TV carried the report on its news ticker.

The report comes after a series of suspected sabotage attacks targeting Iran’s nuclear program in recent months. In April, Iran’s underground Natanz nuclear facility experienced a mysterious blackout that damaged some of its centrifuges.

Iran described the blackout as an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions as world powers and Tehran negotiated a return to its tattered 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

Israel is widely believed to have carried out the sabotage that caused the outage, though it has not claimed it.

Last year, Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.

Iran claims state media websites seized by U.S.

Iran claims several state media websites have been seized by U.S.

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In this June 21, 2021, photo, Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi waves at the conclusion of his news conference in Tehran, Iran. Biden administration officials are insisting that the election of a hard-liner as Iran’s president won’t affect prospects for … more >

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By

Associated Press

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Iran said Tuesday that several state-linked news websites have been seized by the U.S. government under unclear circumstances. 

While there was no immediate acknowledgment of the seizures from American authorities, it comes amid the wider heightened tensions between the U.S. and Iran. 

The Islamic Republic’s president-elect, judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi, staked out a hard-line position Monday in his first news conference since his election victory. He said he would not meet with President Joe Biden and ruled out any further negotiations with the West over Tehran’s ballistic missile program and support for regional militias.

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Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency identified a series of websites taken offline, saying they were seized by the Department of Justice.

The Iranian state-linked websites that abruptly went offline with what appeared to be U.S. seizure notices include state television’s English-language arm Press TV, as well as the Yemeni Houthi rebels’ Al-Masirah satellite news channel and Iranian state TV’s Arabic-language channel, Al-Alam.

The notice said that the websites were seized “as part of law enforcement action” by the Bureau of Industry and Security, Office of Export Enforcement and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Marzieh Hashemi, a prominent American-born anchorwoman for Press TV, told The Associated Press that the channel was aware of the seizure but had no further information.

“We are just trying to figure out what this means,” she said.

Joel C. Rosenberg, Evangelical-Jewish author, sees room for optimism in Biden, Bennett pairing

Evangelical-Jewish author Rosenberg sees room for optimism in Biden, Bennett pairing

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, speaks during a memorial ceremony for Israeli soldiers who fell in battle during the 2014 Gaza War, in the Hall of Remembrance at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, Israel, Sunday, June 20, 2021. (Abir … more >

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By Mark A. Kellner

The Washington Times

Monday, June 21, 2021

GRAPEVINE, TEXAS — Novelist, journalist, and political insider Joel C. Rosenberg, whose Middle East connections extend from the top echelons of Israeli governments to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, believes there is room for optimism over U.S.-Israeli relations despite changes in administrations in Washington and Jerusalem.

“We are in a very strange moment,” Mr. Rosenberg conceded during an interview at the National Religious Broadcasters convention, an event where he will host former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday for a live discussion before an audience of Christian media professionals.

Mr. Rosenberg, a Jewish-Christian evangelical who divides his time between the U.S. and Jerusalem, was a researcher for the late Rush Limbaugh, a campaign advisor to 2000 GOP presidential hopeful Steve Forbes and a consultant in the late 1990s for Israeli politicians Natan Sharansky and prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who recently was turned out of office.

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But Mr. Rosenberg is as well known, if not more so, as a suspense/action/thriller novelist, whose current fictional hero, Marcus Ryker, faces new and chilling dangers on the eve of a peace pact between Israel and Saudi Arabia in “The Beirut Protocol,” a novel Tyndale House released in April. His next nonfiction book, “Enemies and Allies,” due in September, details the growing entente between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, many of whom are increasingly alarmed by an ascendant, hard-line Iranian regime.

Since the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Biden, both Israel and Iran have chosen or installed new leaders. Naftali Bennett, a Netanyahu protege now estranged from his mentor, became Israel’s 13th prime minister less than 10 days ago. And Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline Iranian politician, was elected June 20th as Iran’s president.

Mr. Rosenberg sees positives for Israel and her evangelical Christian supporters in the U.S. in the arrival of both Mr. Biden and Mr. Bennett — and a fair amount of concern about Mr. Raisi, who is slated to take office on Aug. 3.

“I think President Biden, himself really is a Zionist,” Mr. Rosenberg explained. “He‘s one of the few American politicians who calls himself a Zionist, meaning he truly believes Israel has the right to be there and to defend herself. If you just take the Iron Dome funding, for example, the Obama-Biden administration was the ones that funded the anti-rocket defenses. And that has saved my life, my wife’s life, the lives of my children and lives of countless thousands of Israelis. So that’s good.”

A key differentiator between Israel’s Mr. Bennett and his immediate predecessor was the proposal to send the Palestinian Authority 1.4 million doses of the Pfizer anti-COVID-19 vaccine, in exchange for a similar number from the Palestinians later this year, when Israelis may need a booster shot. Though agreed to on both sides, the Palestinians later scrapped the deal, claiming the promised Israeli doses were too close to expiration for them to use.

Mr. Rosenberg said the incident shows that “Nafali Bennett is looking for opportunities to be positive, not just because of the Palestinians, but because he’s trying to send a message to Biden: ‘I am not Netanyahu, when it comes to Iran, when it comes to security. I’m a hawk. But when it comes to trying to be friendly with my neighbors, including the Palestinians, I am not going to dig my heels in and say no, no, no, it’s never gonna happen.’”

On the American side, along with Mr. Biden’s stated Zionism — which Mr. Rosenberg said is a bulwark against the more extreme positions of lawmakers like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — the family background of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken as the stepson of a Holocaust survivor is notable.

“This guy understands how the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and [the] demonic hatred of the Jewish people can have an effect if it’s not confronted and contained,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

While he said it’s difficult to assess where Vice President Kamala Harris stands in the midst of this, Mr. Rosenberg noted some interesting factors there, as well: “On the positive side, she‘s married to a Jewish man. She has Jewish stepdaughters, she‘s visited Israel, [and] her voting record is reasonably pro-Israel.”

He noted that his 2020 novel, “The Jerusalem Assassin” was ahead of the curve in predicting an eventual Israel-Saudia Arabia peace treaty. Mr. Rosenberg said reality may catch up with the dramatic storyline sooner than many might expect.

“I’m the only political thriller writer in the world, who has sat down not once, but twice with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and had hours and hours of conversations with him about every issue in the Middle East, including how he sees the future of Israeli-Saudi relations,” Mr. Rosenberg said. “So while ‘The Jerusalem Assassin’ is fiction today, two, three, or five years from now, I think that it’s actually increasingly likely that we’re going to see a Saudi-Israeli summit and an actual peace treaty.”

Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s president-elect, says he won’t meet with Joe Biden

Iran’s president-elect says he won’t meet with Biden

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Iran’s new President-elect Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a press conference in Tehran, Iran, Monday, June 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi) more >

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By Isabel Debre and Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Monday, June 21, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran‘s president-elect said Monday he wouldn’t meet with President Biden nor negotiate over Tehran‘s ballistic missile program and its support of regional militias, sticking to a hard-line position following his landslide victory in last week’s election.

Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi also described himself as a “defender of human rights” when asked about his involvement in the 1988 mass execution of some 5,000 people. 

Raisi made the comments in his first press conference in Tehran

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“The U.S. is obliged to lift all oppressive sanctions against Iran,” he said. 

The victory of Raisi, the protege of Iran‘s supreme leader sanctioned by the U.S. in part over his involvement in the mass executions, came amid the lowest turnout in the Islamic Republic’s history. Millions of Iranians stayed home in defiance of a vote they saw as tipped in Raisi‘s favor.

Of those who did vote, 3.7 million people either accidentally or intentionally voided their ballots, far beyond the amount seen in previous elections and suggesting some wanted none of the four candidates. In official results, Raisi won 17.9 million votes overall, nearly 62% of the total 28.9 million cast.

Raisi‘s election puts hard-liners firmly in control across the government as negotiations in Vienna continue to try to save a tattered deal meant to limit Iran‘s nuclear program, at a time when Tehran is enriching uranium at 60% its highest levels ever, though still short of weapons-grade levels. Representatives of the world powers party to the deal returned to their capitals for consultations following the latest round of negotiations on Sunday.

Iran nuclear power plant undergoes emergency shutdown

Iranian nuclear power plant undergoes unexplained emergency shutdown

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In this Oct. 26, 2010, file photo, a worker rides a bicycle in front of the reactor building of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, just outside the southern city of Bushehr. Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone a temporary … more >

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By

Associated Press

Sunday, June 20, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s sole nuclear power plant has undergone an unexplained temporary emergency shutdown, the country’s state TV reported.

An official from the state electric company Tavanir, Gholamali Rakhshanimehr, said on a talk show that aired on Sunday that the Bushehr plant shutdown began on Saturday and would last “for three to four days.” Without elaborating, he said that power outages could result.

This is the first time Iran has reported an emergency shutdown of the plant in the southern port city of Bushehr. It went online in 2011 with help from Russia. Iran is required to send spent fuel rods from the reactor back to Russia as a nuclear nonproliferation measure.

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The report came as top diplomats said that further progress had been made at talks Sunday between Iran and global powers to try to restore a landmark 2015 agreement to contain Iranian nuclear development that was abandoned by the Trump administration. They said it was now up to the governments involved in the negotiations to make political decisions.

Earlier in the day, Tavanir released a statement saying that the Bushehr nuclear plant was being repaired, without offering further details. It said the repair work would take until Friday.

In March, nuclear official Mahmoud Jafari said the plant could stop working since Iran cannot procure parts and equipment for it from Russia due to banking sanctions imposed by the U.S. in 2018.

Bushehr is fueled by uranium produced in Russia, not Iran, and is monitored by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA acknowledged being aware of reports about the plant, but declined to comment.

Construction on the plant, on the coast of the northern reaches of the Persian Gulf, began under Iran‘s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in the mid-1970s. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the plant was repeatedly targeted in the Iran-Iraq war. Russia later completed construction of the facility.

The plant, which sits near active fault lines and was built to withstand powerful quakes, has been periodically shaken by temblors. There have been no significant earthquakes reported in the area in recent days.

Meanwhile, the European Union on Sunday chaired the final meeting in Vienna of the sixth round of talks between Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain and Iran.

The nations involved in the negotiations have been trying to resolve the major outstanding issues on how to return the U.S. into the landmark nuclear agreement, which then-President Donald Trump pulled Washington out of unilaterally in 2018. Trump also restored and augmented sanctions to try to force Tehran into renegotiating the pact with more concessions.

The meeting was the first since Iran’s hard-line judiciary chief won a landslide victory in the country’s presidential election last Friday. Some diplomats expressed concern that the election of Iran’s incoming President Ebrahim Raisi could complicate a possible return to the nuclear agreement.

‘Wake up:’ New Israeli leader blasts Biden’s nuclear talks with Iran

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FILE – In this June 13, 2021, file photo Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennett holds a first cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. How President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett manage that relationship will shape the prospects for peace … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Updated: 5:29 p.m. on
Sunday, June 20, 2021

The Biden administration and its international partners must “wake up” and rethink negotiations with a dangerous regime in Iran, new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Sunday as he opened his first Cabinet meeting with a harsh rebuke of the U.S.-led push to strike a new nuclear deal with the Islamic republic.

Mr. Bennett made the blunt comments hours after Iranian judiciary chief and hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi was elected as Iran‘s next president.

President Biden and his foreign policy team are widely believed to be racing to secure a nuclear pact with Iran before Mr. Raisi takes office in about six weeks. They fear that new Iranian leadership could scuttle any diplomacy with the U.S. and that relations between the countries could deteriorate further.

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Mr. Bennett, though, said the Iranian election should serve as a warning sign, not as a reason for the parties to move faster.

“Raisi’s election as president of Iran is a signal to world powers that they need to wake up,” Mr. Bennett said. “This may be the last signal a moment before returning to the Iran deal. They must understand who they’re doing business with and what kind of regime they are choosing to strengthen.

“A regime of executioners cannot have weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

Mr. Bennett‘s takedown of U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran echoes the stance of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who led Israel for 12 years until his ouster this month. The new prime minister formed a broad coalition of ultranationalists, liberals and other parties to push out Mr. Netanyahu.

Mr. Bennett‘s remarks Sunday made clear that Israel’s leadership will maintain steadfast opposition to any agreement involving the U.S., other world powers and Iran, unless the agreement completely dismantles Tehran’s nuclear program and ends its support of terrorism.

Iran is the prime state sponsor of terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which are sworn enemies of Israel. Hamas last month launched an unprecedented campaign of rocket attacks against Israeli civilian targets, leading to an 11-day war with hundreds of deaths.

With stiff Israeli opposition, the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an Obama-era deal signed by the U.S., Iran, Russia, China, Britain, Germany and France. It freed up billions of dollars in frozen Iranian assets in exchange for unprecedented restrictions on Iran‘s nuclear program.

President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the JCPOA in 2018 because, among other things, the deal did not address Iran‘s support of terrorism and contained “sunset” provisions that lifted key limits on Tehran’s nuclear programs by 2030.

In the years since the U.S. exited the pact, Iran‘s behavior has grown more brazen. In addition to financing Hamas and Hezbollah, the Islamic republic backs Houthi rebels battling an internationally recognized government in Yemen, routinely harasses American naval vessels in the Persian Gulf, supports militias in Iraq and Syria that target U.S. military personnel, and is suspected of providing sanctuary to top al Qaeda leaders.

Despite all of that, the Biden administration is forging ahead. White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan skirted questions Sunday about whether the administration feels pressure to move quickly and strike a new deal with Iran.

“What we’re intending to do is to reimpose the constraints that put Iran‘s nuclear program in a box,” he told “Fox News Sunday.”

Once the JCPOA is fully resurrected, Mr. Sullivan said, “the idea is to negotiate a follow-on agreement that will make for a longer and stronger agreement.”

Mr. Raisi has been tight-lipped about Iranian-U.S. negotiations since his election victory.

“I hope I can respond well to the people’s confidence, vote and kindness during my term,” he said Saturday.

Mr. Raisi was elected with about 62% of the vote, although turnout across Iran was historically low after calls for a national election boycott. Mr. Raisi already has a strained relationship with Washington. He is under American economic sanctions because of his involvement in the deaths of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.

Mr. Bennett on Sunday referred to Mr. Raisi as the “hangman of Tehran” and voiced moral objections to the idea of doing business with him.

Mr. Raisi is “infamous among Iranians and across the world for leading the death committees that executed thousands of innocent Iranian citizens throughout the years,” Mr. Bennett said.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. might be willing to lift those sanctions on Mr. Raisi to secure a nuclear deal. Mr. Sullivan would not address that question Sunday.

“The whole question of which sanctions will be lifted is currently being negotiated in Vienna, and I’m not going to conduct those negotiations in public,” Mr. Sullivan told ABC News’ “This Week.”

Mr. Sullivan also sought to downplay Mr. Raisi‘s role in any deal. He said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran‘s supreme leader, is the one who “will call the shots.”

Other Iranian officials said sticking points remain but it will soon be time to either make a deal or abandon the talks.

“I think time has come for the other parties to make their decision because the stage for negotiations and a possible agreement is fully clear,” Seyed Abbas Araghchi, Iranian deputy foreign minister and top nuclear deal negotiator, said Sunday. “They have to make their own decisions, and it is now clear in what areas what is possible and what is not possible. It is time for all parties, especially the other parties, to make their final decision.

“For a few days … we will stop the talks and return to the capitals not only for further consultations but also for decision-making,” he said.

Top Russian representative Mikhail Ulyanov said each of the governments must make “political decisions” before a final is reached.

Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

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Ebrahim Raisi, a candidate in Iran’s presidential elections, raises his hands as he casts his vote at a polling station in Tehran, Iran, Friday, June 18, 2021. Iran began voting Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favor of … more >

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By Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Friday, June 18, 2021

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran voted Friday in a presidential election tipped in the favor of a hard-line protege of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, fueling public apathy and sparking calls for a boycott in the Islamic Republic.

State-linked opinion polling and analysts put hard-line judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi as the dominant front-runner in a field of just four candidates. Former Central Bank chief, Abdolnasser Hemmati, is running as the race’s moderate candidate but hasn’t inspired the same support as outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, who is term limited from seeking the office again.

If elected, Raisi would be the first serving Iranian president sanctioned by the U.S. government even before entering office over his involvement in the mass execution of political prisoners in 1988, as well as his time as the head of Iran‘s internationally criticized judiciary — one of the world’s top executioners.

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It also would firmly put hard-liners in control across the Iranian government as negotiations in Vienna continue over trying to save Tehran’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers, as it enriches uranium to the closest point yet to weapons-grade levels. Tensions remain high with both the U.S. and Israel, which is believed to have carried out a series of attacks targeting Iranian nuclear sites and assassinating the scientist who created its military atomic program decades earlier.

Polls opened at 7 a.m. local time for the vote, which has seen widespread public apathy after a panel under Khamenei barred hundreds of candidates, including reformists and those aligned with Rouhani. Khamenei cast the ceremonial vote from Tehran, where he urged the public to take part.

“Through the participation of the people the country and the Islamic ruling system will win great points in the international arena, but the ones who benefit first are the people themselves,” Khamenei said. “Go ahead, choose and vote.”

But by mid-day, turnout appeared far lower than Iran‘s last presidential election in 2017. State television offered tight shots of polling places, several of which seemed to have only a handful of voters in the election’s early hours. Those passing by several polling places in Tehran said they similarly saw few voters.

Raisi, wearing a black turban that identifies him in Shiite tradition as a direct descendant of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, voted from a mosque in southern Tehran, waving to those gathered to cast ballots. The cleric acknowledged in comments afterward that some may be “so upset that they don’t want to vote.”

“I beg everyone, the lovely youths, and all Iranian men and women speaking any accent or language from any region and with any political views, to go and vote and cast their ballots,” Raisi said. 

There are more than 59 million eligible voters in Iran, a nation home to over 80 million people. However, the state-linked Iranian Student Polling Agency has estimated a turnout of just 42%, which would be the lowest ever since the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Fears about a low turnout have some warning Iran may be turning away from being an Islamic Republic — a government with elected civilian leadership overseen by a supreme leader from its Shiite clergy — to a country more tightly governed by its supreme leader. As supreme leader, Khamenei has final say on all matters of state and oversees its defense and atomic program.

“This is not acceptable,” said former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who sought to change its theocracy from inside during his eight years in office. “How would this conform to being a republic or Islamic?”

For his part, Khamenei warned of “foreign plots” seeking to depress turnout in a speech Wednesday. A flyer handed out Wednesday on the streets of Tehran by hard-liners followed in that thought, bearing the image of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2020.

“If we do not vote: Sanctions will be heavier, the U.S. and Israel will be encouraged to attack Iran,” the leaflet warned. “Iran will be under shadow of a Syrian-style civil war and the ground will be ready for assassination of scientists and important figures.”

State television also aired footage of a polling station set up by Soleimani’s grave in the city of Kerman. Poll workers also wore gloves and masks due to the coronavirus pandemic, with some wiping down ballot boxes with disinfectants.

“We cannot leave our destiny in the hands of foreigners and let them decide for us and create conditions that will be absolutely harmful for us,” Tehran voter Shahla Pazouki said. “We should change our country’s situation by cooperation with each other.” 

Yet the disqualification of candidates seemed aimed at preventing anyone other than Raisi from winning the election, as Khatami did in 1997 by surprisingly beating a hard-liner favored by Khamenei. That’s coupled with public anger for Rouhani, whose signature 2015 nuclear deal collapsed after then-President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord in 2018. Iran‘s already-ailing economy has suffered since, with double-digit inflation and mass unemployment.

The vote “is set to be the least competitive election in the Islamic Republic’s history,” wrote Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst at the risk consultancy firm Verisk Maplecroft. “The election is heavily stacked in favor of candidates from the theocratic and hard-line end of Iran‘s political spectrum; there will be little need for the more overt forms of election fraud that characterized the turbulent re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.”

Rouhani, after casting his vote at the Interior Ministry, urged people to vote as it was important “for the county, the fate of people and the system.”

The decision to limit participation comes as whoever wins likely will serve two four-year terms as nearly every Iranian president has since the revolution. That means they may be at the helm at what could be one of the most-crucial moments for the country in decades — the death of the 82-year-old Khamenei.

Already, speculation has mounted that Raisi may be a contender for the position, as well as Khamenei‘s son, Mojtaba, who is believed to have close ties to Iran‘s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-U.S. counterintel chief: Russia could halt cyber strikes ‘in one moment’

EXCLUSIVE: Ex-U.S. counterintel chief: Russia could halt cyber strikes ‘in one moment’

Evanina says U.S. must step up offensive game against ransomware, cyber hits

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Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at the “Villa la Grange” in Geneva, Switzerland in Geneva, Switzerland, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool) more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied Moscow’s involvement in the surge of ransomware attacks targeting the U.S., but a recently retired U.S. spy chief says there’s no question Russian intelligence has influence over the hacking operations.

The reason: The cyberattacks fit in with Mr. Putin’s larger strategy to undermine American democracy and economic power.

“The Russian government could shut this down in one moment if they wanted to,” said William R. Evanina, who tracked Russian and other hostile operations against the U.S. as director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center until early this year and previously as chief of the CIA’s “counterespionage” group.

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While Mr. Evanina generally praised the Biden administration’s attempts to elevate the government’s response to the growing drumbeat of ransomware and other cyberattacks, he told The Washington Times in an interview that U.S. intelligence could engage in dramatically more aggressive cyber operations to counter the Russian hacking.

“We always have a list of targets,” Mr. Evanina said. U.S. intelligence “can reach out and touch anybody, any time we want.”

But he said the offensive cyber operations have been held back by a range of legal and policy concerns — as well as the prospect of triggering a “cascading escalation” with the Russians.

He made the comments as President Biden and Mr. Putin engaged in their high-stakes summit this week, an event that came in the wake of allegations of Russian intelligence involvement in last year’s SolarWinds hack, which was viewed as the worst cyber-espionage breach ever against American government agencies, as well as last month’s Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that nearly crippled gasoline supplies across the U.S. Southeast.

U.S. cyber forensics investigators have pinned both attacks on hackers operating from inside Russia, and Mr. Biden presented Mr. Putin with a list of critical American infrastructure systems that should be off-limits for future ransomware and cyberattacks during Wednesday’s summit, warning that the U.S. has “significant cyber capability” to respond if such attacks were to occur.

In his own press conference, Mr. Putin denied Russian involvement in any cyberattacks, claiming “Russia isn’t on the list” of countries the attacks could have originated from. He told NBC News ahead of this week’s summit that the charges were “farcical.”

Mr. Evanina, who currently runs the Evanina Group, a firm focused on advising CEOs and board of directors on strategic corporate risk in the cybersecurity and other arenas, said in the interview that the recent attacks have been carried out by “a criminal element in Russia [that is] unable to operate without the express or implied protection of the [Russian] intelligence services.”

“They’re being protected by the Russian Federation,” he said, drawing a parallel to Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election via the “Internet Research Agency,” a pseudo-private Russian firm that manipulated American social media accounts in coordination with Russian intelligence prior to being neutralized by U.S. counter cyberattacks.

The Internet Research Agency was “an ‘independent contractor’ in Russia, but if anybody thought they were doing that without the instruction of the intelligence services, it would be foolish and naive to say the least,” Mr. Evanina said, adding that the current wave of cyber operations fits under Mr. Putin’s modus operandi of doing “anything he can to destabilize our democracy.”

The Biden administration has scrambled to respond in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline attack, but some are criticizing the White House for not explicitly addressing the threat for what it is: a state-sponsored campaign that will get worse until U.S. leadership confronts it.

Leon E. Panetta, a former CIA director and Obama administration defense secretary, recently told C-SPAN that the U.S. “lacks an effective national strategy” for dealing with cyberattacks.

“We also need to have an offense as well that can make clear to our adversaries — whether it’s Russia, or China or North Korea or Iran or terrorists — that if they’re going to continue these kinds of attacks on the United States, they, too, will have to pay a price,” Mr. Panetta said.

Prior to Wednesday’s summit, Mr. Biden stopped short of directly blaming the Kremlin for authorizing the Colonial Pipeline attack.

“So far, there is no evidence based on, from our intelligence people, that Russia is involved,” the president said in the immediate aftermath of the attack, although he added that “there’s evidence that the actors, ransomware, is in Russia” and that the Russian government has “some responsibility to deal with this.”

Mr. Evanina said one of the primary challenges is the elusive reality of the cyber-realm. “People don’t understand it, they don’t see it, they don’t taste it,” he told The Times. “It’s not like terrorism, where there is kinetic value, where you get to see people hurt. It’s invisible.”

But the sophistication of ransomware attacks has risen dramatically in recent years, he said.

“Two years ago, you had criminals or ransomware threat actors who would lock down your systems and then you would have to pay to have them unlocked. It was a simple formula,” Mr. Evanina said. “Now, ransomware has turned into a data issue. Data is the huge commodity right now. So now there are ransomware actors, criminals, who can steal your data and use your data as a bargaining chip for remuneration.”

Such was the case with Colonial Pipeline. Hackers first locked important proprietary company files, then threatened to make them public if the company didn’t pay up.

“They’ve upped the game and they’ve upped the ante,” Mr. Evanina said.

He cautioned against dismissing the seemingly small ransom demands in recent cases. In the Colonial attack, the hackers sought only $4.4 million from a company with assets of more than $3 billion.

“Four million dollars will fund a lot of stuff in Moscow,” Mr. Evanina said. “…We’re talking about astronomical numbers” when one considers the full slate of ransomware attacks in recent months — a slate that includes incidents not publicized or reported to government agencies.

While he said “we don’t know” how much is really being paid in ransom, Mr. Evanina estimated it’s in the “tens of millions upon hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Colonial CEO Joseph Blount testified to Congress this month that the decision to pay was “the hardest” he’s ever made in 39 years in the energy industry.

The White House itself faced criticism for saying it hadn’t offered advice to Colonial on whether or not to pay the ransom — prompting charges the administration is leaving American companies to fend for themselves against Russian state-sponsored cyberattacks.

‘Dramatic increase’

Mr. Evanina was a career FBI official before being tapped in 2014 to head U.S. counterintelligence under President Obama and then staying on through the Trump administration.

He broadly defended recent cybersecurity policy moves by the Biden administration, including Mr. Biden‘s executive order last month requiring federal agencies to increase their basic cybersecurity protections and setting new security standards for software contractors with the federal government.

Mr. Evanina told The Times the administration has “the right concepts in place” to improve both government and private-sector preparedness. With not only Russia, but China and Iran also “getting more brazen with their cyberattacks,” he said, “we’re going to have to respond accordingly and I think the Biden administration is doing that.”

He stressed, however, that “there needs to be more aggressive intelligence-sharing” between the government and the private sector.

“We have to have the ultimate public-private partnership here, with the government to be able to provide as much information as possible about the networks and the criminal elements — whether or not they are state sponsored — to the sectors and corporations so that CEOs can make value-added business decisions of whether or not they’re going to pay,” Mr. Evanina said.

“There [also] needs to be a concerted effort by industry to take precautions that are necessary to prevent ransomware in the first place and those precautions start with basic cyber-hygiene,” he said, pointing to moves such as increasing employee awareness of potential spear-phishing emails.

The Justice Department said this month it was elevating investigations of ransomware attacks to a similar priority as terrorism. The move has prompted speculation that future U.S. action against cyber criminals soon could mirror aggressive tactics used against global terror groups over the past two decades.

Mr. Evanina predicted “a dramatic increase” is coming in U.S. cyber operations, both by the U.S. intelligence community and the Pentagon’s Cyber Command.

Despite the legal and policy implications at play, “I think you’re going to see an opening of the optic so the American people and the world will see that we are going to continue to fight back but we will be more transparent about it.”

• Dave Boyer, Jeff Mordock and Ryan Lovelace contributed to this article.

Naftali Bennett sworn in as Israeli prime minister

Netanyahu ousted by single vote after 12 years as Israel’s prime minister

Former ally Naftali Bennett to head fragile, unwieldy coalition

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Israel’s designated new prime minister Naftali Bennett sends greetings during a Knesset session in Jerusalem Sunday, June 13, 2021. Bennett is expected later Sunday to be sworn in as the country’s new prime minister, ending Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Sunday, June 13, 2021

A coalition united solely by the proposition that Benjamin Netanyahu should not be prime minister took power in Israel, sending into opposition a figure who has dominated the country and the region for a dozen years.

An unwieldy coalition of eight parties headed by conservative former Netanyahu ally Naftali Bennett and centrist Yair Lapid controls just enough seats in the 120-member Knesset to oust Mr. Netanyahu.

Just hours before he was deposed, Mr. Netanyahu launched a bitter diatribe in the Knesset against the new government.

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The final vote, taken after hours of debate, was 60-59, with one abstention, showing how narrow the margin of error is for the new government.

Mr. Bennett, a 49-year-old former high tech entrepreneur who spent part of his childhood in Canada and the United States, was jeered by Netanyahu backers Sunday as he promised to fashion a government that would “represent all of Israel.

“The time has come for different leaders, from all parts of the population, to stop, to stop this madness,” he said. “I am proud that I can sit in a government with people with very different views.”

The vote was the culmination of two years of political gridlock and four inconclusive elections centered largely on Mr. Netanyahu, whose conservative Likud party still controls the largest single bloc of seats in the Knesset.

Under the coalition agreement, Mr. Bennett will serve as prime minister for the first two years of the government’s term before giving way to Mr. Lapid.

Israeli political analysts say the coalition may struggle to stay in power that long. Its members span the political spectrum, from religious conservatives to far-left parties to the first Israeli Arab party to formally join a ruling coalition.

In the sometimes raucous debate before the vote, Likud supporters heckled Mr. Bennett repeatedly as he tried to address the Knesset. Mr. Netanyahu defended his record and vowed not to go quietly into political oblivion.

“Our successes turned Israel from a fringe state to a leading power,” Mr. Netanyahu said at one point.

“If we have to be in opposition, we will do this standing tall — until we bring down this dangerous government and return to lead the state,” he said.

Mr. Netanyahu faces a difficult path personally and professionally. He is under indictment on corruption charges in a legal proceeding that stalled while he remained in office. In addition, the new coalition is expected to introduce a limit of two terms for any prime minister, effectively barring a Netanyahu comeback.

The 71-year-old Mr. Netanyahu has served as prime minister for a record of 15 years, including the last 12. But Israeli politics has been stuck in neutral since 2019, as four separate national elections have failed to produce a majority big enough either to keep Mr. Netanyahu and Likud in power or create a coalition strong enough to defeat him.

Major events, including Israel‘s failures and then successes dealing with COVID-19, a string of diplomatic breakthrough deals with once-hostile Arab states, and even last month’s 11-day war with Palestinian militants, could not break the political deadlock.
Iran clash looms.

Iran clsh looms

The Knesset voted at a sensitive time for the Biden administration, which is close to forging a new agreement with Iran on a nuclear pact that the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government staunchly opposed. Mr. Netanyahu told the Knesset that the coalition government would be unable to stand up to Washington and European leaders pushing hard to revive the accord with Tehran.

Mr. Netanyahu‘s exit could give President Biden more maneuvering room and remove an Israeli leader who forged close ties with President Trump, conservative Republicans and evangelical Christians.

“I can’t imagine that anyone in the Biden administration is not cheering privately that Bibi is going,” said Paul Scham, a scholar at the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, using Mr. Netanyahu‘s widely used nickname.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement “warmly welcomed” the news of the new government’s election Sunday. and President Biden offered his congratulations to the Bennett government as well.

“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Bennett to strengthen all aspects of the close and enduring relationship between our two nations,” he said in a statement from the G-7 summit in England. He said his administration is fully committed to working with the new government “to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region.”

Mr. Bennett, who rose through the political ranks as an ultranationalist fiercely opposed to an independent state for the Palestinians, also faces hard choices on how to govern, given how fragile and divided his coalition is on basic issues.

Israel has been unable to approve a government budget for two years because of political gridlock.

Shira Efron, a visiting fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, predicted that the new government would be unified for now by their shared distaste for Mr. Netanyahu.

But beyond some basic domestic political housekeeping, she said, it is unlikely that the coalition can take on big projects or deal with difficult issues such as the Palestinian peace process.

Ms. Efron said in a webinar Friday sponsored by the Middle East Institute that the success of the coalition will depend on Likud and whether it can move past Mr. Netanyahu and rebuild its political fortunes. Most are betting that Mr. Lapid will not get the prime minister’s seat in two years.

“Everyone here is really skeptical about the government’s durability,” she said.

Israel’s Netanyahu lashes out as end of his era draws near

Israel’s Netanyahu lashes out as end of his era draws near

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In this June 6, 2021, file photo, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at a ceremony showing appreciation to the health care system for their contribution to the fight against the coronavirus, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File) more >

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By Josef Federman

Associated Press

Friday, June 11, 2021

JERUSALEM (AP) — In what appear to be the final days of his historic 12-year rule, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not leaving the political stage quietly.

The longtime leader is accusing his opponents of betraying their voters, and some have needed special security protection. 

Netanyahu says he is the victim of a “deep state” conspiracy. He speaks in apocalyptic terms when talking about the country without his leadership.

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“They are uprooting the good and replacing it with the bad and dangerous,” Netanyahu told the conservative Channel 20 TV station this week. “I fear for the destiny of the nation.”

Such language has made for tense days as Netanyahu and his loyalists make a final desperate push to try to prevent a new government from taking office on Sunday. With his options running out, it has also provided a preview of Netanyahu as opposition leader.

For those who have watched Netanyahu dominate Israeli politics for much of the past quarter century, his recent behavior is familiar.

He frequently describes threats both large and small in stark terms. He has belittled his rivals and thrived by using divide-and-conquer tactics. He paints his Jewish opponents as weak, self-hating “leftists,” and Arab politicians as a potential fifth column of terrorist sympathizers.

He routinely presents himself in grandiose terms as the only person capable of leading the country through its never-ending security challenges.

“Under his term, identity politics are at an all-time high,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

It is a formula that has served Netanyahu well. He has led the right-wing Likud party with an iron fist for over 15 years, racking up a string of electoral victories that earned him the nickname, “King Bibi.” 

He fended off pressure by President Barack Obama to make concessions to the Palestinians and publicly defied him in 2015 by delivering a speech in Congress against the U.S.-led nuclear agreement with Iran.

Although Netanyahu was unable to block the deal, he was richly rewarded by President Donald Trump, who recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, pulled out of the nuclear agreement and helped broker historic diplomatic pacts between Israel and four Arab nations.

Netanyahu has waged what appears to be a highly successful shadow war against Iran while keeping Israel’s longstanding conflict with the Palestinians at a slow boil, with the exception of three brief wars with Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers.

The situation with the Palestinians today is “remarkably the same” as when Netanyahu took office, Plesner said. “No major changes in either direction, no annexation and no diplomatic breakthroughs.”

But some of Netanyahu‘s tactics now appear to be coming back to haunt him. The new Biden administration has been cool to the Israeli leader, while Netanyahu‘s close relationship with Trump has alienated large segments of the Democratic Party.

At home, Netanyahu‘s magic also has dissipated — in large part due to his trial on corruption charges. He has lashed out at an ever-growing list of perceived enemies: the media, the judiciary, police, centrists, leftists and even hard-line nationalists who were once close allies.

In four consecutive elections since 2019, the once-invincible Netanyahu was unable to secure a parliamentary majority. Facing the unappealing possibility of a fifth consecutive election, eight parties managed to assemble a majority coalition that is set to take office on Sunday.

Israeli politics are usually split between dovish, left-wing parties that seek a negotiated agreement with the Palestinians, and religious and nationalist parties — long led by Netanyahu — that oppose Palestinian independence. If any of the recent elections had centered on the conflict, then right-wing parties alone would have formed a strong, stable majority. 

But the Palestinians hardly came up — another legacy of Netanyahu, who has pushed the issue to the sidelines.

Instead, all anyone seemed to talk about was Netanyahu‘s personality and his legal troubles, which proved to be deeply polarizing. The incoming government includes three small parties led by former Netanyahu aides who had bitter breakups with him, including the presumed prime minister, Naftali Bennett.

Bennett and his right-wing partners even broke a longstanding taboo on allying with Arab parties. A small Islamist party, which Netanyahu had also courted, is to be the first to join a ruling coalition.

Netanyahu and his followers in Likud have grown increasingly desperate. Initially, Netanyahu tried to lure some “defectors” from his former allies to prevent them from securing a parliamentary majority. 

When that failed, he resorted to language similar to that of his friend and benefactor Trump.

“We are witnesses to the greatest election fraud in the history of the country,” Netanyahu claimed at a Likud meeting this week. He has long dismissed the corruption trial as a “witch hunt” fueled by “fake news,” and in the TV interview he said he was being hounded by the “deep state.”

His supporters have held threatening rallies outside the homes of lawmakers joining the new government. Some of the parliamentarians say they and their families have received death threats, and one said she was recently followed by a mysterious car.

Netanyahu‘s ultra-Orthodox partners have meanwhile cast Bennett as a threat to their religion, with one even calling on him to remove his kippa, the skullcap worn by observant Jews.

Online incitement by Netanyahu‘s followers has grown so bad that several members of the incoming government were assigned bodyguards or even moved to secret locations. 

Some Israelis have drawn comparisons to the tensions that led to the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol in January, while others have pointed to the incitement ahead of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

In a rare public statement, Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, recently warned of a “serious rise and radicalization in violent and inciting discourse” on social media that he said could lead to violence.

Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he too has been a target.

Late Thursday, Netanyahu’s Likud Party issued a statement on Twitter in English saying his fraud comments were not directed at the vote counting process and that he has “full confidence” in it. “There is also no question about the peaceful transition of power,” it said.

Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said she expects the coming months to remain volatile.

“We’re going to see a very assertive and aggressive head of the opposition, meaning Netanyahu, determined to make sure that this coalition of change would be a short-lived one and that we will have another election as soon as possible,” she added. 

“We don’t have even a memory of what normal politics looks like,” Talshir said. 

___

Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

China continues proliferation of nuclear tech, missiles: Report

China supplying North Korea, Iran with dangerous nuclear tech, missiles: Report

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China’s DF-26 ballistic missiles worry the U.S. because they can be fired from long ranges with enough precision to attack a moving ship. (Associated Press) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

China is continuing to sell dangerous nuclear technology and missiles around the world, mainly to North Korea and Iran, according to the Congressional Research Service.

A CRS report published earlier this month reveals that the Chinese government seems to have ceased direct involvement in nuclear arms proliferation and sales of complete missile systems in favor of hiding behind cutout entities.

“The Chinese government has apparently ended its direct involvement in the transfer of nuclear- and missile-related items, but Chinese-based companies and individuals continue to export goods relevant to those items, particularly to Iran and North Korea,” the report states.

SEE ALSO: Blacklisted Chinese tech still spreading in U.S. as lawmakers scramble to close loopholes

A more recent focus of China‘s arms proliferation has been the threat of the acquisition of American-origin nuclear technology. The CRS report said a 2018 State Department annual report on arms compliance provided details of the illicit activities by China.

The Chinese government has denied engaging in arms proliferation activities and has insisted it supports international arms control and nonproliferation regimes.

The report, based on highly classified intelligence, said Chinese companies in 2018 supplied missile goods restricted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal international arms accord, to Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Pakistan.

Beijing ignored U.S. government appeals to stop the sales, the report said.

The most recent State Department arms compliance report omitted details of the Chinese proliferation activities but stated that Beijing continued to supply missile goods in violation of its MTCR commitments. The arms proliferation has continued despite decades of sanctions imposed on Chinese entities for arms proliferation activities.

The most recent sanctions were imposed in November against two Chinese entities for what the State Department said were in response to the companies’ transfer of “sensitive technology and items to Iran‘s missile program.”

Earlier in 2017 the Treasury Department sanctioned a Chinese coal company for using foreign exchange produced by selling North Korean coal and using the funds to purchase nuclear and missile components for Pyongyang.

The CRS report sought to distance the Chinese government from the illicit arms proliferation, quoting former State Department arms expert Vann Van Diepen as saying that even if the arms-related transfers are not state-sponsored, the government has failed to devote enough resources to stop them.

“When that continues to be the case over 20 years, even when they have been criticized, over time it becomes a choice, and you have to wonder what’s going on,” Mr. Van Diepen said.

In addition to arms proliferation, China also has engaged in money-laundering, providing illicit financial services and utilizing “a network of financial representatives, primarily in China, who operate as agents for North Korean financial institutions,” the report said.

“The representatives orchestrate schemes, set up front or shell companies, and manage surreptitious bank accounts to move and disguise illicit funds, evade sanction, and finance the proliferation of North Korea‘s [weapons of mass destruction] and ballistic missile programs.”

According to Alex Wong, until recently deputy assistant secretary of state for North Korea, China hosts around two dozen North Korean weapons of mass destruction and missile procurement agents and bank representatives.

China has flouted U.N. Security Council resolutions’ requirements to expel such representatives,” the report quoted Mr. Wong as saying, adding that the U.S. government “provided China with ample actionable information on the ongoing U.N.-prohibited activities occurring within its borders,” yet Beijing “has chosen not to act.”

The report also says China is assisting the Saudi Arabian government in building facilities for possible uranium production.

China also built civilian nuclear reactors in Pakistan that have been a proliferation concern. Critics say the reactors violate Beijing‘s commitments to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an international organization devoted to halting nuclear weapons proliferation.

China has constructed four power reactors in Pakistan and is constructing two additional such reactors,” the CRS report said, noting the facilities’ lack of international oversight. “Islamabad’s nuclear weapons facilities are not safeguarded.”

China has been a major nuclear proliferator beginning in the late 1990s when Beijing sold ring magnets to Pakistan that were used in the development of Islamabad’s nuclear weapons. China also has sold heavy-duty truck chassis that were used for North Korea‘s new, road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles.

China‘s initial motivation for sales of dangerous weaponry was a way to raise funds for its military modernization program.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, China transferred nuclear and missile technology to other countries’ weapons programs,” the report said.

China provided assistance to Pakistan‘s nuclear weapons program and engaged in nuclear cooperation with Iran. Beijing exported missiles to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ex-Iranian leader, blocked from comeback run in presidential vote

Ex-leader Ahmadinejad blocked from comeback run in Iran presidential vote

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Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks with the media after registering his name as a candidate for the June 18 presidential elections at elections headquarters of the Interior Ministry in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi) more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Two-term former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not be allowed to pursue a comeback bid in next month’s Iranian presidential elections, the religious body that vets all candidates announced Tuesday.

The fiery Mr. Ahmadinejad, whose antisemitic rhetoric and hostility to Israel sent regional tensions soaring during his two terms that ended in 2013, was not among the seven candidates approved by Iran‘s Guardian Council in the race to succeed relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who is stepping down after two terms.

The early front-runner in the race appears to be another hardliner, Chief Justice of Iran Ebrahim Raisi, who is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s ultimate political authority.

SEE ALSO: Iran approves 7 for presidential vote, bars Rouhani allies

Also making the cut in the small field are Saeed Jalili, a chief negotiator of the Iran nuclear deal; former Revolutionary Guard chief Mohsen Rezaei, a frequent presidential candidate; and Abdolnaser Hemmati, considered a moderate with an international profile as head of Iran’s central bank.

Also excluded from the final candidate list were Ali Larijani, the longtime speaker of the Iranian parliament, and First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri, considered Mr. Rouhani’s closest ally among the likely candidates.

In all, 33 of the final 40 candidates for president were rejected by the Guardian Council, a panel of senior clerics, a high percentage that even some conservatives said was too restrictive.

Mr. Raisi, a Muslim cleric and longtime jurist, was defeated by Mr. Rouhani in the 2017 presidential race run-off. Regime critics had long criticized him for his role in the 1988 campaign targeting political prisoners held by the government for execution. He also has been seen as a potential successor to the aging Ayatollah Khamanei as supreme leader.

The fate of the nuclear deal and Iran‘s mounting domestic economic woes are likely to be major issues in the coming campaign.

Iran agrees to extend deal on cameras at its nuclear sites

Iran agrees to extend deal on cameras at its nuclear sites

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This April 27, 2021, file photo shows Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi in front of a shelter construction which covers the exploded reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Speaking at a news … more >

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By Phillip Jenne and Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Monday, May 24, 2021

VIENNA (AP) — Iran and the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agreed on Monday to a one-month extension to a deal on surveillance cameras at Tehran‘s atomic sites, buying more time for ongoing negotiations seeking to save the country’s tattered nuclear deal with world powers.

The last-minute discussions further underscored the narrowing window for the U.S. and others to reach terms with Iran as it presses a tough stance with the international community over its atomic program. The Islamic Republic is already enriching and stockpiling uranium at levels far beyond those allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal.

Speaking at a news conference Monday in Vienna, IAEA Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi told journalists that came after a discussion with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran‘s civilian nuclear program. He acknowledged that challenges remain, however, as the agency still can’t access images taken by its cameras.

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“I’d want to stress this is not ideal,” Grossi said. “This is like an emergency device that we came up with in order for us to continue having these monitoring activities.”
Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran‘s representative to the IAEA, acknowledged the deal at the same time on Twitter. 

“We recommend the negotiating countries to seize the extra opportunity provided by Iran in good faith for the complete lifting of sanctions in a practical and verifiable manner,” Gharibabadi wrote.

Under a confidential agreement called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA collects and analyzes images from a series of surveillance cameras installed at Iranian nuclear sites. Those cameras helped it monitor Tehran‘s program to see if it is complying with the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iran‘s hard-line parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February. 

The IAEA then struck a three-month deal with Iran in February to have it hold the surveillance images, with Tehran threatening to delete them afterward if no deal had been reached.

Iran since has broken all the deal’s limits after then-President Trump in 2018 unilaterally withdrew America from the accord. Negotiations continue in Vienna to see if both the U.S. and Iran can re-enter the deal, which limited Tehran‘s enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

Mikhail Ulyanov, Russia’s ambassador to the IAEA, called Monday’s agreement “commendable.” 

“It will help maintain businesslike atmosphere at the Vienna talks on #JCPOA and facilitate a successful outcome of the diplomatic efforts to restore the nuclear deal,” he wrote on Twitter, using an acronym for the deal.

But if a deal isn’t reached in a month’s time — which will be after Iran‘s upcoming June 18 presidential election — that footage again would be in jeopardy. 

Asked about that, Grossi simply said: “We are going to discuss that when we get to that point.”

___

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report. 

Antony Blinken says Hamas offers ruin for Palestinians

Blinken defends Israel bombing, says Hamas brings ‘nothing but ruin’ for Palestinians

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A crater full of water and sewage remains where the home of Ramez al-Masri was destroyed by an air-strike prior to a cease-fire reached after an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Beit … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Updated: 4:13 p.m. on
Sunday, May 23, 2021

The Biden administration elevated its criticism of the Hamas over the weekend, as a cease-fire between Israeli forces and the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip appeared to be holding for a third consecutive day.

President Biden has faced pressure from progressives in his own party for his repeated defenses of Israel’s campaign to halt a Hamas missile barrage from the Gaza Strip, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken signaled Sunday there was no softening of the U.S. opposition to Hamas in the wake of the fighting.

“The fact of the matter is Hamas has brought nothing but ruin to the Palestinian people,” Mr. Blinken said of the group that has won elections in Gaza, but has been listed by the State Department as a “foreign terrorist organization” since 1997 and is backed by the government of Iran, according to U.S. intelligence.

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Mr. Blinken said Sunday that if the current cease-fire holds, the Biden administration’s plan is to try and bolster “moderate Palestinian” elements in a renewed push for Israeli-Palestinian talks toward a long-elusive “two-state” solution.

During an interview with ABC’s “This Week,” the secretary of state lamented Hamas’ “indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians,” saying the attacks “elicited the response that they did because Israel has a right to defend itself.”

The course of the fighting that began May 10 only deepened the cracks within the once-solidly pro-Israel Democratic Party, with Mr. Biden and the administration facing charges they were too tolerant of Israel’s recent bombing campaign in Gaza that killed more than 200 Palestinians, including dozens of children. The campaign came as Hamas and other Palestinian militants fired thousands of rockets into Israeli, killing at least a dozen Israelis.

The two sides reached a cease-fire late Thursday, ending 11 days of fighting. The agreement was brokered by Egypt, although the Biden administration insists it played a key role in pushing the two sides to the final accord. The Associated Press reported that Mr. Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu six times during the fighting.

In hailing the cease-fire last week, Mr. Biden said Mr. Netanyahu had credited Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system with limiting the death toll inside Israel from Palestinian rockets. The president also said Washington would help Israel swiftly restock the system.

Liberal Democrats on Capitol Hill, including Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, say the Biden administration should not be “rubber-stamping” weapons sales to Israel in light of the number of Palestinian civilians killed in the recent bombing of Gaza. Many say the Netanyahu government’s settlement policies and hard-line of Palestinian rights and development contributed to the more recent outbreak of fighting, the worst between the two sides in seven years.

But Mr. Blinken defended the president’s position on Sunday, saying the ever-present threat of Hamas rocket fire into Israel warrants continued strong U.S. support for Israeli forces, although he left open the notion that Congress could influence the pace of new weapons sales to Israel should enough lawmakers demand it.

“We are committed to giving Israel the means to defend itself, especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians,” the secretary of state said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“Any country would respond to that, and we’re committed to Israel’s defense,” he said. “At the same time, any arms sale is going to be done in full consultation with Congress. We’re committed to that.”

A lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has remained elusive for decades. The Trump administration succeeded in brokering historic diplomatic breakthroughs between Israel and various Arab powers, but its blueprint for an Israeli-Palestinian accord went nowhere.

The clash has been particularly vexing for the Biden administration, which has put reviving the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran at the center of its regional diplomacy. The State Department has listed Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984 and the department’s most recent Country Reports on Terrorism contended that Iran in 2019 “provided support to Hamas and other designated Palestinian terrorist groups, including Palestine Islamic Jihad.”

When asked Sunday whether he believes Iran is funding Hamas, Mr. Blinken told ABC’s “This Week” that Iran continues to back extremist groups in the region, but that the nuclear deal is the best way to ensure Tehran does not get weapons of mass destruction as well.

The State Department report on Iran’s terror record can be found at https://www.state.gov/reports/country-reports-on-terrorism-2019/iran/.

Iran says inspectors may no longer get nuclear sites images

Iran says inspectors may no longer get nuclear sites images

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In this May 28, 2020, file photo, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, center, is surrounded by a group of lawmakers after being elected as speaker of the parliament, in Tehran, Iran. Iran’s parliament speaker says international inspectors may no longer access images … more >

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By Nasser Karimi and Jon Gambrell

Associated Press

Sunday, May 23, 2021

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran‘s parliament speaker said Sunday that international inspectors may no longer access surveillance images of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, escalating tensions amid diplomatic efforts in Vienna to save Tehran‘s atomic accord with world powers.

The comments by Iran‘s parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, aired by state TV, further underscored the narrowing window for the U.S. and others to reach terms with Iran. The Islamic Republic is already enriching and stockpiling uranium at levels far beyond those allowed by its 2015 nuclear deal.

“Regarding this, and based on the expiration of the three-month deadline, definitely the International Atomic Energy Agency will not have the right to access images from May 22,” Qalibaf said. May 22 was Saturday.

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Hours later, however, a website called Nournews that’s believed to be close to Iran‘s Supreme National Security Council quoted an anonymous official suggesting Tehran‘s deal with the IAEA could be extended “another month.” 

The International Atomic Energy Agency had said its director-general would brief reporters later Sunday in Vienna. The United Nations agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under what is called an “Additional Protocol” with Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the agency said in 2017. The agency also said then that it had placed “2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment.”

Iran‘s hard-line parliament in December approved a bill that would suspend part of U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities if European signatories did not provide relief from oil and banking sanctions by February. The IAEA struck a three-month deal with Iran to have it hold the surveillance images, with Tehran threatening to delete them afterward if no deal had been reached.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the images from February had been deleted. Before Qalibaf’s remarks, lawmaker Ali Reza Salimi urged an open session of parliament to ensure Iran‘s civilian nuclear arm “erased” the images. The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran did not immediately comment on the decision.

“Order the head of the Atomic Energy Organization to avoid delay,” said Salimi, a cleric from Iran‘s central city of Delijan. The “recorded images in the cameras should be eliminated.”

It also wasn’t clear what this meant for in-person inspections by the IAEA. There are 18 nuclear facilities and nine other locations in Iran under IAEA safeguards.

Qalibaf said Iran‘s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has final say on all matters of state, supported the decision.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. unilaterally out of the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. An escalating series of incidents since Trump’s withdrawal has threatened the wider Mideast. 

Over a year ago, a U.S. drone strike killed a top Iranian general, causing Tehran to later launch ballistic missiles that wounded dozens of American troops in Iraq.

A mysterious explosion also struck Iran‘s Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran has described as sabotage. In November, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who founded the country’s military nuclear program some two decades earlier, was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.

___

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

On the sidelines, Hezbollah looms large over Gaza battle

On the sidelines, Hezbollah looms large over Gaza battle

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In this May 15, 2021, file photo, Lebanese wave Hezbollah and Palestinian flags, as they stand in front of the Israeli town of Metula, background, on the Lebanese side of the Lebanese-Israeli border in the southern village of Kfar Kila, … more >

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By Zeina Karam

Associated Press

Friday, May 21, 2021

BEIRUT (AP) — Ever since their last war in 2006, Israel and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia have constantly warned that a new round between them is inevitable. Yet once again, a potential trigger has gone unpulled.

Hezbollah’s shadow loomed large during Israel and Hamas’ two-week battle, with the possibility it could unleash its arsenal of missiles – far more powerful than Hamas’ – in support of the Palestinians.

Instead, Hezbollah stayed on the sidelines. And if a ceasefire called late Thursday holds, another Israel-Hamas war will have ended without Hezbollah intervention.

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For now, both sides had compelling reasons not to clash, including – for Hezbollah – the bitter memory of Israel’s punishing 2006 bombing campaign that turned its strongholds in Lebanon to rubble. Lebanon is also in the grips of an economic and financial collapse unparalleled in its modern history and can ill afford another massive confrontation with Israel.

For Israel, the Iranian-backed group in Lebanon remains its toughest and most immediate security challenge.

Israel needs to manage the conflict in Gaza with a very open eye toward what is happening in the north, because the north is a much more important arena than Gaza,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Israeli military intelligence chief who currently heads the Institute for National Security Studies.

Hezbollah’s reaction during the 11 days of Israeli bombardment that engulfed Gaza in death and destruction was relatively mute. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, did not make any public comments, even after a Hezbollah fighter was shot dead by Israeli soldiers at the border during a protest last week.

Late Thursday, Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet approved a unilateral cease-fire to halt the Gaza operation, a decision that came after heavy U.S. pressure to stop the offensive. Hamas quickly followed suit and said it would honor the deal. The truce took effect at 2 a.m. Friday.

However, throughout the 11-day war, shows of solidarity – including mysterious rocket barrages from south Lebanon into Israel on three separate occasions in the past week – appeared carefully calibrated for limited impact. Most landed in open areas or in the Mediterranean Sea. No party claimed responsibility for the rockets, but they’re believed to have been fired by Palestinian factions based in south Lebanon, likely with Hezbollah’s blessing.

“The political message is ‘we are here,’ and safety for Israel from its northern border is not to be taken for granted and neither is the deterrent that was established in 2006” when the two sides fought each other to a draw, said Joyce Karam, an adjunct professor of political science at George Washington University.

At the tense Lebanon-Israel border, Hezbollah supporters wearing yellow hats organized daily protests over the past week. On at least one occasion, dozens of people breached the fence and crossed to the other side, drawing Israeli shots that struck and killed a 21-year-old. He was later identified as a Hezbollah fighter, and given a full-fledged funeral with hundreds in attendance.

Analysts said chances of Hezbollah joining in the fighting with Israel were low, particularly given the political and economic implosion happening in Beirut and the array of challenges the group faces internally with social tensions on the rise. Even among Hezbollah’s supporters, there is no appetite for a confrontation as Lebanese suffer under an economic crash that has driven half of the population into poverty.

Also, Hezbollah’s patron Iran is engaged in nuclear talks with the West, with growing hopes an agreement might be reached. Tehran has also been holding talks with longtime regional rival, Saudi Arabia, signaling a possible de-escalation following years of animosity that often spilled into neighboring countries.

Hezbollah so far doesn’t seem inclined to spoil Iran’s talks with world powers on the nuclear front because it wants to see sanctions relief for its primarily political, military and financial backer,” said Karam, who covers Mideast politics for the regional newspaper The National.

Speaking at a rally in south Beirut on Monday, senior Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine bragged about the group’s firepower, which he said has multiplied many times since the 2006 war, but suggested the time has not come for Hezbollah to get involved.

“We in Hezbollah look to the day where we will fight together, with you, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, on all fronts to extract this cancerous gland,” he said, addressing Palestinians and referring to Israel’s presence in the Arab world. “This day is coming, it’s inevitable.”

Hezbollah has grown considerably more powerful in the last decade and amassed a formidable army with valuable battlefield experience backing the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the neighboring country’s civil war, Israeli defense officials say.

During the inconclusive, monthlong 2006 war, the group launched some 4,000 rockets into Israel, most of them unguided projectiles with limited range. Today, Israeli officials say Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel.

Yadlin, the former Israeli military intelligence chief, said all intelligence assessments, however, indicate that Hezbollah does not want a full-on conflict with Israel.

“Nasrallah is in the position that he doesn’t want to repeat the mistake of 2006. He knows he won’t be the defender of Lebanon, he will be the destroyer of Lebanon,” said Yadlin. “He had a lot of opportunities and he hasn’t taken them.” He was referring to Israeli strikes targeting Hezbollah assets in Syria for which the group vowed to retaliate, but still has not.

Qassim Qassir, an analyst and expert on Hezbollah affairs in Lebanon, concurred that there seemed to be no intention to open the southern front because it would “lead to an all-out war with consequences no one can predict.”

For now, both Israel and Hezbollah consider the deterrence established following the 2006 war to be holding, with Hezbollah threatening to strike deeper than ever inside Israel, including at its nuclear facilities, and Israel vowing to target civilian infrastructure, inflicting massive damage.

Karam said both Hezbollah and Israel have been saying since 2006 that round two is inevitable, but its cost has only gone up for both sides. For the moment, both seem satisfied with keeping their tensions on Syrian territory rather than having another war in Lebanon.

But each day brings closer the possibility of an unwanted conflict coming to bear.

“For now, this paradigm seems to hold but it could change later,” she said.

___

Associated Press writers Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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.