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. 

State Department details China genocide against Uyghurs

China’s genocide against Muslim Uyghurs detailed in new State Dept. report

Abuses against Christian, Buddhist minorities also documented

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The State Department is declaring that Chinese government continues to engage in genocide and crimes against humanity through the repression of predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities in western China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the assertion in introducing the department’s annual assessment of global religious freedom on Wednesday.

China broadly criminalizes religious expression and continues to commit crimes against humanity and genocide against Muslim Uyghurs and other religious and ethnic minority groups,” Mr. Blinken said.

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The annual report outlines widespread abuses by the Chinese government against the estimated 200 million religious believers, including Christian, Muslims and Buddhists.

Despite Wednesday’s assertion by Mr. Blinken, the annual report said the department is reviewing the genocide designation that was announced earlier this year by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

The review is an indication that the Biden administration is still weighing whether to back away from the label that has drawn intense criticism from the Chinese government, which denies that its actions amount to genocide.

While the review issue remains unresolved, the State Department has said crimes carried out by the Chinese government in China‘s western Xinjiang province include mass imprisonment, forced sterilizations, torture, forced labor and draconian restrictions on religious freedom and freedom of movement.

Since April 2017, the U.S. government estimates Chinese authorities have detained more than 1 million Uyghurs, along with ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and members of other Muslim groups, and some Christians, in internment camps and converted detention facilities.

The repression has been carried out by Chinese authorities under the guise of national counterterrorism law and a regional counter-extremism policy, according to Wednesday’s report.

Mr. Blinken also announced Wednesday that the State Department is sanctioning a Chinese Communist Party official in the Chengdu area of Sichuan Province for committing “gross violations of human rights” against the anti-communist  Buddhist religious group Falun Gong.

Daniel Nadel, the State Department official in charge of religious freedom, also said during a briefing for reporters that China‘s genocide continues against Uyghurs, asserting that the human rights situation in Xinjiang “remains dire.”

Mr. Nadel said evidence of abuses includes testimony from survivors of repression, as well as Chinese documents outlining how the government planned to build concentration camps for Uyghurs and how they intend to “manage these populations.”

“At the end of the day it is absolutely clear what horrors are taking place in Xinjiang,” he said. “And we will continue to speak out.”

Chinese authorities initially created a network of camps in Xinjiang that were used to detain and “re-educate” Uyghurs.

“What the [Chinese] government is doing now is it has turned Xinjiang into an open-air camp,” said Mr. Nadel. “They’ve essentially turned the entire region into an open-air prison.”

People under suspicion by the Chinese authorities are tracked electronically or have “minders” assigned to monitor their activities. Uyghurs, specifically, are required to sign in before going to a market.

Mr. Nadel said the Chinese government has shifted from its previous position of “outright denial” about the genocide to attempting to justify the activities as an internal security issue.

“Of course, the world isn’t buying it,” he said, noting Beijing has realized the genocide cannot be denied or papered over.

Chinese propaganda has gone into overdrive in recent months with stories in state media attempting to show Uyghurs as happy and content.

Asked if the United States would boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics over the genocide issue next year, Mr. Nadel said the department is reviewing policy options and messaging related to the games, as well as consulting Congress and allies.

Currently, the U.S. government’s reaction to Xinjiang repression has been to sanction Chinese officials. “When we find the perpetrators we’ll continue to hold them accountable under U.S. law,” said Mr. Nadel.

Mr. Pompeo, meanwhile, argued while serving as secretary of state under former President Trump, that Beijing’s atrocities in Xinjiang are “an extreme affront to the Uyghurs, the people of China, and civilized people everywhere.”

“If the Chinese Communist Party is allowed to commit genocide and crimes against humanity against its own people, imagine what it will be emboldened to do to the free world, in the not-so-distant future,” Mr. Pompeo said at the time.

In Hong Kong, where China last year imposed a draconian national security law, religious freedom is threatened but so far has not been undermined by mainland authorities, according to Wednesday’s report.

The report warned that the future of religious freedom in the former British colony is endangered by the new Beijing-appointed chief of Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Xia Baolong, who led a 2014 campaign of repression against churches in China’s Zhejiang Province.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party constitution nominally permits freedom of religion but limits practicing faith to unspecified “normal” activities. Additionally, all party members and People’s Liberation Army troops must be atheists and are prohibited from engaging in religious practices.

Stop funding for Kerry’s climate office over alleged intel-sharing with Iran, GOP senators say

Stop funding for Kerry’s climate office over alleged intel-sharing with Iran, GOP senators say

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry listens during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Monday, May 10, 2021

Four Republican senators on Monday called for a freeze on funding for State Department official John Kerry‘s new climate-change initiative until the former secretary of state answers questions about his alleged intelligence-sharing with Iran.

In a letter to Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the GOP lawmakers said Mr. Menendez should hold up $2.5 million in taxpayer money to establish Mr. Kerry‘s “office of the special presidential envoy for climate” inside the State Department.

The money should be frozen, they said, until Mr. Kerry provides a detailed accounting of his interactions with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who said in a recent leaked audiotape that Mr. Kerry shared with him secret information about Israeli military activity.

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“Several Republican senators have called for an investigation into the veracity and context of the allegations against Kerry, and for his resignation or firing if the allegations are confirmed. However, Congress has limited leverage to ensure that these legitimate requests are addressed by the Biden administration,” wrote Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas, John Barrasso of Wyoming, Marco Rubio of Florida and Todd Young of Indiana, all members of the Foreign Relations Committee.

The senators said the $2.5 million should be held up until Mr. Kerry provides a list of all meetings, phone calls, and other interactions with Mr. Zarif from January 2017 to January of this year, along with copies of all digital communications related to Israeli military activity. They also said Mr. Kerry must provide a sworn statement “that he did not divulge classified information to Foreign Minister Zarif.”

Mr. Menendez and his colleagues in the Democrat-controlled Senate are unlikely to agree to the request, but the Republican senators’ letter puts renewed public pressure on Mr. Kerry for his seemingly close working relationship with Mr. Zarif, a key figure in the Iranian regime.

Last month, the London-based Iran International media outlet and the New York Times released leaked audio of Mr. Zarif discussing the power of Iranian military officials in his country.

As an example of how he’s often kept in the dark by the military, Mr. Zarif said that he learned from Mr. Kerry the true extent of Israel’s air campaign against Iran-backed militias in Syria. Mr. Zarif said that Mr. Kerry told him Israel had conducted more than 200 covert airstrikes against Iranian targets.

Mr. Kerry has denied ever having such a conversation.

“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” he said in a Twitter post last month.

State Department officials also have sought to downplay the charges of intelligence-sharing and have pointed to a September 2018 public acknowledgment of the 200 airstrikes by the Israeli government.

But there are major unanswered questions about the timing of the alleged Kerry-Zarif conversation.

Mr. Kerry has admitted to meeting with Mr. Zarif at least twice after leaving his post as secretary of state in January 2017 and prior to former President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal in May 2018. The first public disclosure of Israel’s 200 airstrikes in Syria appears to have come in September 2018.

The four Republican senators said neither Mr. Kerry nor the State Department have adequately explained the matter.

“Those defenses are not tenable,” they wrote in their letter to Mr. Menendez.

U.S. approves $2.4 billion sale of maritime patrol jets to India

U.S. approves $2.4 billion sale of maritime patrol jets to India

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Friday, April 30, 2021

The Biden administration announced it will sell six P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and related gear to India worth $2.42 billion. The jet sale was announced by the State Department and the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation agency notified Congress of the sale Friday.

The arms transfer is part of American efforts to coax the traditionally non-aligned Indian government into greater regional efforts to counter China’s growing military expansionism. India has joined the “Quad” of regional powers that includes the United States, Japan and Australia that is emerging as a quasi-anti-Beijing alliance.

The P-8 is a militarized Boeing 737 considered an advanced anti-submarine and anti-surface ship weapon. Its armament includes torpedoes and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The jets also can operate as maritime surveillance aircraft and provide targeting and tracking information.

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The sale is the third purchase of P-8s by Delhi. The Indians paid $2.1 billion in 2009 for eight P-8s and purchased four additional jets in 2016.

In 2013, India purchased AGM-84L Harpoon missiles and Mk 54 torpedoes for its P-8s.

The patrol aircraft sale also included tactical radio systems, missile warning sensors, GPS inertial navigation and engine spares, and aircraft counter-missile systems.

“This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by helping to strengthen the U.S.-Indian strategic relationship and to improve the security of a major defensive partner, which continues to be an important force for political stability, peace, and economic progress in the Indo-Pacific and South Asia region,” the State Department said in announcing the sale.

India has grown increasingly wary of Chinese military expansionism in the Indian Ocean, including Chinese submarine patrols and naval port visits to Pakistan.

Tensions between India and China soared in June 2020 when Indian and Chinese troops battled each other along the disputed border in the Galwan Valley. A total of 20 Indian soldiers were killed. China reported 43 casualties.

John Kerry denies sharing secret intelligence with Iran as calls for resignation grow

John Kerry denies sharing secret intelligence with Iran as calls for resignation grow

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Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry speaks during a press briefing at the White House, Thursday, April 22, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) ** FILE ** more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

State Department climate envoy John Kerry late Monday denied reports that he shared information about covert Israeli military strikes with top Iranian officials, with the former secretary of state trying to blunt growing calls for his resignation from leading Republicans.

In a brief Twitter post Monday evening, Mr. Kerry pushed back on claims that he told Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif about at least 200 Israeli strikes against Iran-backed militia targets inside Syria. 

“I can tell you that this story and these allegations are unequivocally false. This never happened — either when I was secretary of state or since,” Mr. Kerry said. 

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The reports originated with leaked audio of Mr. Zarif speaking with an Iranian journalist for a government-sponsored Iran history project. Mr. Zarif expressed “astonishment” at the revelation of hundreds of Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, according to The New York Times, which reviewed the audiotape that was first released by the London-based Iran International media outlet.

Iranian officials have not denied the authenticity of the recordings but have said they were selectively edited. 

Republicans say that the revelations, if true, should lead to Mr. Kerry’s resignation.

“If this is true, I certainly hope other members of this body, Democrats and Republicans, will join me in calling for the resignation of John Kerry. Enough is enough,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said on the Senate floor. “The red line that was crossed, if this is true, revealing secret information to one of America’s most sworn enemies, with the blood of thousands of American military members on its hands, undermining the interests of one of our most important allies, the state of Israel, if this is true, John Kerry needs to go.”

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif appear to have had a working relationship for years. The two men worked closely together crafting the Obama-era Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Even after Mr. Kerry left the State Department and former President Trump came to power in January 2017, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Zarif remained in contact. By Mr. Kerry’s own admission, they met in person several times, though Mr. Kerry has denied that there was anything inappropriate about their discussions.

But that’s not enough for Republicans who say it’s clear the former Massachusetts senator is far too close with top Iranian officials.

“This is disgusting on many levels,” tweeted Nikki Haley, former ambassador to the United Nations during the Trump administration. 

President Biden “and Kerry have to answer for why Kerry would be tipping off Iran, the number one sponsor of terror, while stabbing one of our greatest partners, Israel, in the back,” she said. 

US weighs policy on Venezuela as Maduro signals flexibility

US weighs policy on Venezuela as Maduro signals flexibility

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A nurse inoculates a woman with a dose of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at the Perez Carreno public hospital in Caracas, Venezuela, Friday, April 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos) more >

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By JOSHUA GOODMAN

Associated Press

Monday, April 26, 2021

MIAMI (AP) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government is intensifying efforts to court the Biden administration as the new U.S. president weighs whether to risk a political backlash in Florida and ease up on sanctions seeking to isolate the socialist leader.

In the past two weeks, Maduro conceded to longstanding U.S. demands that the World Food Program be allowed to establish a foothold in the country at a time of growing hunger. His allies also vowed to work with the U.S.-backed opposition to vaccinate Venezuelans against the coronavirus and have met with diplomats from Norway trying to revive negotiations to end the country’s never-ceasing political strife.

The frenzy of activity comes as senior U.S. officials, including Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, meet Monday as part of their continuing review of policy toward Venezuela, according to two people familiar with the plans. The interagency meeting, which has not been previously reported, will focus on whether the U.S. should take steps to support an uncertain attempt at dialogue between Maduro and his opponents, according to the people on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified diplomatic matters.

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“All these recent movement points to Maduro trying to get Washington’s attention,” said Geoffrey Ramsey, a Venezuela watcher at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The question is whether the White House is ready to commit to a full-fledged negotiations strategy, or whether it will continue to play it safe and keep the policy on the back burner.”

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza and Jorge Rodriguez, the head of the pro-Maduro congress and a key promoter of dialogue, wouldn’t comment when asked about the recent moves by Maduro.

Ramsey said even more goodwill gestures could be on the horizon.

Tuesday is the deadline for a committee in the Maduro-controlled congress to present a list of candidates for the National Electoral Council. Behind the scenes, moderates aligned with former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles have been meeting with Maduro representatives to push for the inclusion of two opposition rectors on the five-member board. If the demand is met, it could pave the way for Maduro’s opponents to participate in mayoral and gubernatorial elections later this year.

Also in the mix is future of several American citizens jailed in Venezuela. In recent months, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has pressed Maduro and senior aides to release six former executives at Houston-based CITGO as well as two former Green Berets who participated in a failed raid last year staged from neighboring Colombia.

So far, the posturing by Maduro has failed to impress officials in Washington.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has described Maduro as a “brutal dictator” and vowed to continue recognizing opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful leader – a position shared by more than 50 nations.

Other than promising to work more with U.S. allies and support the delivery of more humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the Biden administration has done little to unwind Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign to unseat Maduro.

The politics of engaging with Maduro are treacherous. Past attempts at dialogue have failed to produce a breakthrough and ended up strengthening Maduro, whose grip on power relies on support from the military as well as allies Iran, China and Russia – all of whom have seen their influence expand since Guaidó, with U.S. support, tried to ignite protests by declaring himself president in 2019 after Maduro was re-elected in a vote boycotted by the opposition when several of its leaders were barred from running.

That hasn’t stopped others from trying to bring the two sides together, however. This week, the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, is traveling to Venezuela in what many observers see as an effort by the Holy See to test the waters for another attempt at negotiations like the ones it mediated with former Spanish President Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero in 2016.

While the trip’s stated purpose is to attend the April 30 beatification of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, known as the “doctor of the poor” for his caring of the sick in the 1800s, Parolin is the Vatican’s former ambassador to Venezuela and his highly unusual trip suggests more than just saint-making is on the agenda.

But both supporters and opponents of more active U.S. engagement agree that the biggest obstacle is Florida. Trump comfortably carried the battleground state in part due to hardline policies preferred by immigrant voters fleeing Cuba, Venezuela and other authoritarian governments. With Democrats holding a slim six-seat majority in the House of Representatives, betting on Maduro to follow through on his word could end up hurting their chances in midterm elections.

“As of today, there is simply no reason to believe the Maduro regime is acting in good faith,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela and Iran. He cited Maduro’s failure to honor an agreement last year brokered by the World Health Organization’s regional arm to combat the coronavirus pandemic as just one example.

“Every engagement by Biden with the Maduro regime undermines the democratic opposition,” said Abrams, now a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations. “If the US is going to engage at any point, it should only be done in the context of serious negotiations between the regime and the opposition, to help those negotiations succeed.”

Monday’s meeting is unlikely to produce any immediate shift in policy and follows at least one previous high-level meeting by senior Biden officials at several agencies – the Treasury, Justice, Commerce and State Departments as well as the White House – to discuss Venezuela.

However, it could provide a roadmap for future U.S. actions should momentum toward negotiations build, the two people said, including the lifting of a Trump-era ban on diesel fuel swaps that even some of Maduro’s opponents say is worsening hunger by making it harder to move food supplies to market in diesel-powered trucks.

The U.S. must also decide by June whether to allow Chevron to resume limited drilling and oil shipments – a potential lifeline to Maduro, who is desperate for every dollar as oil production under his watch has fallen to its lowest level since the 1930s despite abundant crude reserves. As part of a waiver from sanctions granted last year, the U.S. oil giant and its American partners were ordered to cease all operations except those strictly necessary to maintain its assets in the country.

The State Department wouldn’t comment on Monday’s meeting or the status of the review of U.S. policy. However, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere said the U.S. welcomes efforts to relieve the suffering of the Venezuelan people and bring the country’s humanitarian crisis to an end through effective international cooperation.

To be sure, not all of the signals coming from Caracas are encouraging.

Last week, when the State Department celebrated the World Food Program’s announcement it would begin providing emergency food assistance to 1.5 million Venezuelan children, Foreign Minister Arreaza took to Twitter to accuse the U.S. of “kidnapping” Venezuela’s resources in international banks through “criminal sanctions.”

That triggered a bitter exchange which ended with Arreaza vowing to present as evidence of blackmail to the International Criminal Court a tweet by a senior State Department official conditioning sanctions relief on the release of political prisoners and the organizing of free and fair elections.

“If Washington’s responses remain exclusively public – via Twitter or television ؅- without a counterpart in a private diplomatic channel, progress or any sort of thaw or transition will be painful and full of mistrust,” said Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

While Gunson said Maduro’s limited willingness to engage in partial agreements should be reciprocated wherever possible to encourage further opening, overcoming the inertia of the Trump years will be difficult.

“There is no quick fix in Venezuela,” said Gunson. “A solution is going to require subtlety and long-term engagement.”

AP Writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

Blinken names experienced diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as envoy for troubled Horn of Africa

Blinken names experienced diplomat Feltman as envoy for troubled Horn of Africa

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Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman is shown in this 2009 file photo. On Friday, April 23, 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Mr. Feltman, a career diplomat, would serve as the State Department’s special … more >

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By David R. Sands

The Washington Times

Friday, April 23, 2021

Jeffrey Feltman, a career diplomat who served for a time as assistant secretary of state and as the U.N.’s undersecretary-general for political affairs, has been named the State Department’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, where a civil war in Ethiopia has created a destabilizing humanitarian crisis in one of the continent’s most strategic areas, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken announced Friday.

U.N. officials and human rights groups warn that the Ethiopian government’s military campaign against the rebellious Tigray region has sparked fears of massive food shortages and atrocities directed at civilians. In addition, both Egypt and Sudan have clashed with Addis Ababa over Ethiopia’s plans for a giant power-generating dam on the upper reaches of the Nile River, warning they will not allow Ethiopia to cut off vital water resources.

“At a moment of profound change for this strategic region, high-level U.S. engagement is vital to mitigate the risks posed by escalating conflict while providing support to once-in-a-generation opportunities for reform,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement.

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Timothy Lenderking, U.S. special envoy: Iran is still fueling Yemen conflict

U.S. envoy: Iran still fueling Yemen conflict

Sees increase in airstrikes by Houthis

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State Department spokesman Ned Price reacts as technical difficulties prevent U.S. special envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking from speaking via teleconference during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool) **FILE** more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

A top U.S. diplomat painted a dark picture of Iran’s meddling in Yemen on Wednesday, telling a congressional hearing that Tehran continues to provide “lethal” support for Houthi fighters even after the Biden administration eased pressure on the rebel group by removing them from the State Department’s foreign terrorist list.

There has recently been a “significant increase” in airstrikes carried out by the Houthis, said U.S. Special Envoy Timothy A. Lenderking, who added that cross-border attacks by the Houthis against neighboring Saudi Arabia are also soaring.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the envoy said there have recently been “more Houthi attacks on civilians and other infrastructure in Saudi Arabia than at any other point” in the seven-year war between the Iran-backed rebels and Yemen’s Saudi-backed government. Houthi forces have made significant battlefield gains in recent months but have faced strong resistance in the most recent attack on the strategic city of Marib in the north.

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An Iranian spokesman denied that Tehran was fueling the conflict, saying it was the U.S. and the Saudis who were to blame.

Iran has, time and again, called for a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Yemen,” a spokesman for Iran’s U.N. mission in New York told the Reuters news agency. “In contrast, the U.S. has been providing the deadliest weapons to those who are using them to kill innocent men, women and children on a daily basis.”

The Biden administration is attempting to put a fresh touch on the complex relationships between the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Iran, with the Yemen war and its spiraling humanitarian crisis factoring heavily into the White House’s approach.

Scaling back the Trump administration’s strong tilt toward Riyadh in the conflict, the Biden team has created a window for easing Saudi-Iran tensions, which have threatened to escalate into direct military clashes amid repeated Houthi missile and drone strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure.

Former diplomatic channels between Riyadh and Tehran have been shuttered since 2016. But there were reports this week of a private meeting between Saudi and Iranian officials in Iraq. Details have been sparse, although the thorny subject of Yemen’s war is said to have been discussed.

The Biden administration is simultaneously seeking to rejuvenate the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran that has foundered since Mr.  Trump withdrew the U.S. from it in 2018. The Saudis themselves are recalibrating their own regional posture after losing an unflinching supporter in Mr. Trump.

Analysts say Iran, meanwhile, has calculated that its own gradual detente with the Saudis could work in Tehran’s favor during renewed nuclear talks with Washington and other world powers. The Iranians may even see cooperation toward a political solution in Yemen as a bargaining chip as they seek sanctions relief from the Biden administration in the talks that have recently resumed in Vienna.

The Yemen civil war quickly became a proxy fight to regional powers, with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launching an air campaign in support of the government after the Iran-backed Houthis made major strikes early in the war.

The Biden administration adjusted the U.S. pro-Saudi approach in February, pulling American military support for the Saudi bombing campaign while also revoking the State Department’s terrorist designation of the Houthis, which aid groups warned could magnify the humanitarian health and hunger crisis in the Middle East’s poorest country.

Mr. Lenderking, a career U.S. diplomat who served as a Mideast-focused deputy assistant secretary of state under Mr. Trump before President Biden tapped him as special envoy for Yemen, suggested Wednesday that all sides are guilty of disrupting aid flows and energy shipments into the war zone.

“The Republic of Yemen bears responsibility to address this issue and Saudi Arabia must not stand in the way of doing so,” he said. “Separately, the Houthis bear responsibility for then ensuring that fuel moves freely throughout the areas under their control.”

But the envoy added that “more work is needed” to get the Houthi forces “to put down their guns and compromise for the sake of peace.”

Iran’s support to the Houthis is quite significant and it’s lethal,” Mr. Lenderking said. “We have seen thus far no real evidence that Iran wants to support a constructive resolution of the conflict in Yemen.”

Iran supports the Houthis in a number of ways, through training, through providing lethal support, to helping them fine-tune their [drone] and missile programs. And unfortunately all of this is working to very strong effect as we see more and more attacks on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and potentially other countries, more accuracy and more lethality,” he said. “This is of great concern to us.”

Slain Afghan midwife among those to be honored for courage by State Department

Slain Afghan midwife among those to be honored for courage by State Department

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in this Tuesday, May 12, 2020, photo, security officers are seen through the shattered window of a maternity hospital after gunmen attacked, in Kabul, Afghanistan, The Geneva-based international health organization Médecins Sans Frontières — also known as Doctors Without Borders … more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Friday, March 5, 2021

It was nearly a year ago that Maryam Noorzad, a midwife at a hospital in Afghanistan, took a stand when extremists went on a rampage at the maternity ward where she worked in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Ms. Noorzad, who refused to leave her patient as gunmen sprayed bullets through the ward, was among more than a dozen women killed, along with her own patient and the patient’s newborn baby in the May 2020 attack.

Now, she is being honored by the United States along with six other Afghan women who were assassinated in separate incidents while serving their communities in the war-torn nation last year.

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Recognition for the tragically murdered Afghan women will be given Monday, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken hosts the annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) awards virtual ceremony, honoring a group of extraordinary women from around the world. The event coincides with International Women’s Day on March 8.

“Now in its 15th year, the Secretary of State’s IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment — often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” the State Department said in a press release. “From the inception of this award in March 2007 to today, the Department of State has recognized more than 155 awardees from over 75 countries.”

Those being honored Monday include women from Afghanistan, Belarus, Burma, Cameroon, China, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guatemala, Iran, Nepal, Somalia, Spain, Sri Lanka, Turkey and Venezuela.

Among them is Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kalesnikava, a jailed leader of the pro-democracy uprising that has nearly toppled the three-decade rule of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko over the past year. Also cited are Wang Yu, whom the State Department described as one of China’s “most prominent human rights lawyers until her arrest and imprisonment,” and Shohreh Bayat, an Iranian chess champion persecuted by the government in Tehran because she was photographed at an international chess competition without wearing her hijab.

A full list of the 2021 recipients with bios for each can be found on the State Department’s website.

With regard to the seven assassinated Afghan women to be honored, the case of Noorzad is one among the many involving the gruesome targeting of women in Afghanistan over the past year — assassinations occurring amid a surge of extremist violence that has coincided Washington’s difficult attempt to negotiate with Taliban militants and withdraw American forces after roughly two decades of involvement in the war-torn nation.

Noorzad was serving for Médecins Sans Frontières — Doctors Without Borders — when three gunmen attacked the maternity ward where she worked. A Doctors Without Borders press release last year said 15 mothers were killed in the attack, five of whom were in labor and were minutes, or at most hours, from giving birth. Two children aged 7 and 8 were also killed.

The BBC reported at the time that the attackers walked straight past a number of other wards, all closer to the entrance of Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, and made straight for the maternity unit. No group claimed responsibility for the massacre, although the BBC cited U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as blaming Islamic State terrorists for the attack, saying the jihadists are seeking to undermine ongoing peace talks and fan a sectarian war in Afghanistan.

Senators push for free world to coordinate tech policy to counter China

Senators push for free world to coordinate tech policy to counter China

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In this file photo, Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and vice chairman Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., arrive for a Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 24, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Mr. Warner and Mr. … more >

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By Ryan Lovelace

The Washington Times

Friday, March 5, 2021

A bipartisan group of senators wants a new alliance with democratic countries to develop rules of the road in tech to counter China’s dominance in artificial intelligence, 5G, and quantum computing. 

Eight senators proposed the Democracy Technology Partnership Act to establish a new agency within the State Department to develop international standards for tech, including investment screening and guidelines for research and development. The act would also create a $5 billion fund for joint projects between governments, universities, and companies from the participating countries.  

The Democratic chairs of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Robert Menendez of New Jersey respectively, partnered with an unlikely pairing of Republicans and Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, Sen. Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat; and GOP Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Todd Young of Indiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Jon Cornyn of Texas have joined forces on the legislation to battle China

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Mr. Schumer said both parties agreed on the need to compete with China and want democracies to have the competitive edge. 

“In order to compete and counter the expansion of Chinese dominance in critical technology sectors, we need to create a strategy that leverages the power of American partnerships to protect and advance our technological edge,” said Mr. Warner in a statement. “This bipartisan legislation will help foster partnerships among the U.S. and like-minded democratic countries to better protect and compete against China in critical emerging technologies while helping set global rules, standards, and protocols for the market.”

The new office created by the bill within the State Department would coordinate tech strategies among free countries to counter China and other authoritarian regimes. The senators say the U.S. is at risk of falling behind China on technologies of the future, which prompted them to act urgently to ensure China does not develop technological supremacy. 

The proposal won plaudits from former national security and diplomatic officials, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley. 

“The United States needs a national strategy for innovation, and this legislation outlines an essential element in that larger strategy: a coalition of democratic countries to coordinate on defense of technologies, set standards, and develop common policies for emerging technologies,” said retired U.S. special operations commander Adm. William McRaven in a statement. 

The push for a national innovation strategy appears consistent with the findings of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence’s final report to Congress earlier this week. The commission, which was created by a 2018 defense bill, recommended spending billions of taxpayer dollars on artificial intelligence now or risk losing key ground to China going forward. 

Biden nominee vows to fight Russian gas pipeline to Germany

Biden nominee vows to fight Russian gas pipeline to Germany

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In this file photo, then-Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman is shown at a Senate hearing on Feb. 4, 2014. Ms. Sherman is President Biden’s nominee for Deputy Secretary of State. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) **FILE** more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

President Biden’s nominee for the number two State Department leadership post says that if confirmed, she’ll fight to block Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Western Europe.

“I will do everything I possibly can to ensure that Nord Stream 2 does not go forward,” Deputy Secretary of State nominee Wendy Sherman told lawmakers weighing her nomination on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

Ms. Sherman pushed back against criticism from Republicans and some Democrats, who claim the Biden administration is deliberately ignoring pressure from Congress to level sanctions against Russian and German companies involved in the pipeline’s construction.

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“I do not believe that the Biden-Harris administration has been soft on Russia in any way, shape or form,” she said during an exchange with Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, who argued the administration has dropped the ball on Nord Stream since taking office in January.

“Words are cheap,” said Mr. Cruz, who asserted that “if the Biden administration wishes to not be soft on Russia, rather than saying ‘we don’t want to be soft on Russia,’ they could actually follow the mandatory law and stop the pipeline.”

The senator was referring to legislation passed late-2020 mandating the White House to deliver a report to Congress on companies involved in Nord Stream that may be subject to sanctions. While the legislation set in motion the process for authorizing the president to level sanctions against Russian and German firms, it does not explicitly mandate such sanctions.

However, lawmakers from both parties have written to the Biden administration in recent weeks pressuring the White House to act on the legislation, while also voicing bipartisan concern that a completed Nord Stream 2 pipeline would hand Russian President Vladimir Putin key strategic leverage over Western Europe.
 
Mr. Cruz claimed Wednesday that the administration did a poor job in delivering a report on the matter to Congress last month.

“Last month the State Department transmitted a mandatory and overdue report to Congress about who is helping Putin build the pipeline. The report included one ship and its owner, which the Trump administration had already sanctioned — so it simply reiterated what the Trump administration had done,” the Texas Republican said. “It didn’t include any entities that are plainly in violation — not even the company that is actually constructing the pipeline, [which] Congress has instructed the president to sanction.”

Mr. Cruz lamented that the Biden administration missed an opportunity to address Nord Stream in sanctions it leveled against Russia this week in response to Moscow’s poisoning and jailing of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny. “Those sanctions went out of their way not to touch the Nord Stream 2 pipeline,” the senator said. “That was not an accident.”

“If the Biden admin doesn’t change course,” Mr. Cruz said, “we’re going to wake up in six months or a year and this pipeline is going to be built because this administration failed to act.”

The geopolitics surrounding Nord Stream 2 have long been vexing, as U.S. ally Germany has been shaken by heated internal fighting over on-again-off-again German government efforts to facilitate the pipeline to ease the energy needs of its own people as well as other populations across Western Europe.

Ken Silverstein, a longtime global energy sector journalist underscored the complexity of the issue in a column published by Forbes last October, explaining that while the pipeline is about 90 percent completed, “Russia does not have the technology to finish the job.”

“The United States is opposed to the pipeline, saying that it gives Russia too much power over Western Europe as well as parts of Eastern Europe that also gets some gas from Russia: Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine, to name three,” Mr. Silverstein wrote, adding that potential U.S. sanctions could target “companies that are trying to help Russia finish the project. That includes Royal Dutch Shell and Engie, and German companies Uniper and Wintershall DEA.”

The column noted that Russia — as of last year — was already supplying roughly 40 percent of Eruope’s natural gas. Mr. Silverstein also cited the European Commission as saying the United States was supplying 3.5 percent of the gas going to Europe, with a third of all U.S. Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) having gone to the European Union between January and November 2019.
 
How the U.S. share of the market will be impacted if Nord Stream 2 goes is halted or goes forward is a subject of debate among analysts.

Pompeo: Reckless Chinese virus labs threaten the world

Pompeo: Reckless Chinese virus labs threaten the world

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In this file photo, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media prior to a meeting at the U.S. State Department on Nov. 24, 2020. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP) (Associated Press) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Chinese laboratories conducting virus research pose a threat to the world and China‘s government should be held to account for the global coronavirus pandemic.

“The evidence that the virus came from Wuhan is enormous, though largely circumstantial, and most signs point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, as the source of COVID-19,” Mr. Pompeo stated in an op-ed with Miles Yu, former senior Asia policymaker at the State Department who worked with him.

“In America, concern about the site is now broad and bipartisan,” the two former officials said. “The Biden administration stated that it has ‘deep concerns’ about the World Health Organization’s investigation into the early days of the pandemic, particularly Beijing’s interference with the investigators’ work.”

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China appears “obsessed” with viruses and has engaged in dangerous laboratory manipulation experiments, having discovered nearly 2,000 new viruses in over a decade, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yu said in a Wall Street Journal op-ed article, equal to the number of viruses were discovered by the rest of the world over the past 200 years.

“More troubling is the party’s negligence on biosafety,” the two authors wrote. “The costs and the risk to world health are enormous, as evidenced by a novel coronavirus that escaped Wuhan. This situation can’t continue. The world must hold the Chinese Communist Party accountable and punish Beijing if it fails to uphold global biosafety standards, including basic transparency requirements.”

The evidence linking the virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is “enormous” although largely circumstantial, U.S. officials concluded in a survey released just before Mr. Pompeo stepped down last month. According to Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yu, State Department cables from 2018 warned there were biosafety problems at the institute.

The cables predicted that the infection method for the current SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the pandemic, would involve human-to-human transmission. One cable noted that the director of the WIV high-security laboratory warned that the laboratory could benefit humanity but also “lead to a disaster.”

Critics say Chinese laboratories lack technical safety support and standards for safety requirements, while engaging in unsafe handling of lab animals and equipment.

Bloggers in China have reported that virus-carrying animals at the WIV were sold as pets and could be sold to wild animal markets. Wuhan’s Huanan Seaford Market is believed to be another possible source for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Additionally, WIV virologist Shi Zengli has published a scientific report on bat coronaviruses, like the virus behind Covid, that involved laboratory engineering of bat viruses. Dr. Shi also warned in 2019 that a future outbreak of a SARS-like virus originating from bats would take place in China.

“At the time, WIV housed tens of thousands of bat virus samples and experiment animals,” Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yu stated, noting that China’s government has resisted international monitoring at the WIV.

“The People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, has admitted to developing bioweapons,” they said. “In 2011 China informed the International Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention Review Conference that its military experts were working on the ‘creation of man-made pathogens,’ ‘genomics laying the foundation for pathogen transformation,’ ‘population-specific genetic markers,’ and ‘targeted drug-delivery technology making it easier to spread pathogens.’”

Additionally a study by the Chinese military in 2015 treated the 2003 outbreak of the SARS coronavirus outbreak as a “contemporary genetic weapon.”

“And in January 2021, the State Department confirmed that people had fallen mysteriously ill at WIV in fall 2019, and that the WIV conducts secret bioweapons research with the PLA,” Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Yu said. “The Chinese Communist Party’s recklessness has already cost the world too much, and its obfuscation guarantees this won’t be the last such tragedy.”

US: Aid pause to Ethiopia no longer linked to dam dispute

US: Aid pause to Ethiopia no longer linked to dam dispute

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By CARA ANNA

Associated Press

Friday, February 19, 2021

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – The United States says it has decided to “de-link” its suspension of millions of dollars of aid to Ethiopia from that country’s dispute with Egypt over a massive hydroelectric dam project.

But the State Department early Friday said that does not mean all the roughly $272 million in security and development assistance will immediately start to flow, and it depends on more recent “developments” – an apparent reference to the deadly conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.

The State Department said humanitarian assistance remains exempt from the aid suspension. It said it has informed Ethiopia’s government. A spokeswoman for Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Ethiopians were furious after former President Donald Trump last year directed the suspension of aid to their country in a rare example of his direct involvement in an African issue. Ethiopia had left a U.S.-led attempt to mediate the dispute with Egypt, alleging bias. Trump also caused an uproar by saying downstream Egypt would “blow up” the dam project that Cairo considers an existential threat.

Ethiopia asserts that the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that it has nearly completed on the Blue Nile River is essential for development and the pulling of millions of people out of poverty. Egypt says it threatens its water supply.

Ethiopia is now under pressure from the U.S. and others including the European Union and United Nations over the deadly fighting in its northern Tigray region, where some 6 million people have been largely cut off from the world since fighting began in November between Ethiopian and allied forces and Tigray ones.

Witness accounts have emerged of massacres, people beginning to starve to death and the presence of thousands of soldiers from neighboring Eritrea, which Ethiopia’s government has denied.

The U.S. has said Eritrean soldiers should “immediately” leave Ethiopia. And earlier this week, a State Department spokesperson said “we remain gravely concerned by the widespread humanitarian suffering and reported human rights abuses in the Tigray region.”

The spokesperson urged “an immediate end to the fighting in Tigray, full and unhindered humanitarian access, an independent investigation into the human rights violations and abuses and for those responsible to be held accountable.”

___

Matthew Lee in Washington contributed.

Joe Biden open to Iran talks, re-entering nuclear deal

Republicans rip Biden administration’s move to new talks with Iran

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In this Feb. 4, 2021, photo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department in Washington. The Biden administration on Feb. 18 rescinded former president Donald Trump’s restoration of U.N. sanctions on Iran, an announcement that could help … more >

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By Ben Wolfgang

The Washington Times

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Top Biden administration officials said Thursday that the U.S. would accept an invitation from the European Union to join multilateral talks with Iran, extending an olive branch that could pave the way for Washington to re-enter a landmark global nuclear deal with Tehran or craft another to take its place.

In a concrete sign of the change in Washington, U.S. diplomats Thursday announced they were repudiating an order by President Trump that all U.N. sanctions should be restored and separately announced an easing of stringent restrictions on the domestic travel of Iranian diplomats posted to the world body.

Leading Republicans quickly slammed the move and accused the Biden administration of making concessions to Iran without receiving any firm assurances that the Iranian regime is prepared to roll back its uranium-enrichment activities and come back into compliance with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which former President Trump exited in 2018.

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The State Department’s brief statement late Thursday offered little in the way of specifics, other than to make clear Washington is willing to talk.

“The United States would accept an invitation from the European Union high representative to attend a meeting of the P5+1 and Iran to discuss a diplomatic way forward on Iran’s nuclear program,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The P5+1 refers to the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China — and Germany. Those nations, along with Iran, signed the JCPOA in 2015. The deal put firm limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for major economic sanctions relief.

Since Mr. Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and sanctions were put back in place, Iran has ramped back up its uranium enrichment beyond the thresholds it agreed to as part of the nuclear deal.

Until Thursday’s State Department comments, neither side seemed prepared to act first. The U.S. insisted that Iran come back into full compliance with the deal, while Tehran said Washington must make the first move by lifting sanctions.

“We’ll follow ACTION w/ action,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted Thursday.
Republicans warned the administration was moving ahead without demanding action by Tehran.

“It is concerning the Biden Administration is already making concessions in an apparent attempt to re-enter the flawed Iran deal. The Trump administration created leverage for President Biden on Iran — we should not squander that progress,” said Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“We need to secure a better deal that keeps the American people safe from the full range of Iran’s malign threats,” he said. “The Biden administration must prioritize bipartisanship and stick to their assurance not to re-enter the deal until Iran comes back into full compliance with the JCPOA.”

But some Democrats praised the move. House Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, California Democrat, said in a statement that Mr. Trump’s unilateral hard line had only pushed Iran closer to getting a nuclear weapon.

“Consequently, I welcome the Biden administration’s announcement that it intends to pursue a renewed diplomatic effort, in close cooperation with our European allies,” Mr. Schiff said. “…And I hope the administration will pursue additional requirements that constrain Iran’s nuclear program for a longer time period and address its other malign activities, including its missile program and sponsorship of terror.”

Iraqi refugee program paused after ‘insider threat’ at DHS immigration agency

‘Sophisticated insider threat’ at DHS immigration agency forces pause to Iraqi refugee program

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U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, left, and an Iraqi policeman, right, help a suspected terrorist step down from a truck during a joint operation in al-Shaheed village in Kirkuk province, north of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Maya … more >

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By Stephen Dinan

The Washington Times

Monday, February 15, 2021

Ali had been anxiously eyeing the first days of the Biden administration, counting on the president’s promises of a new era in immigration to clear hurdles and help him get the visa he’s been seeking for years, as a reward for helping the U.S. war effort in Iraq.

But two days into the new administration, those hopes were dashed when the State Department announced an emergency pause on the special Iraqi refugee program.

Prosecutors had just revealed an almost unthinkable internal security breach: Two Homeland Security employees had been selling secret files from the Iraqi program for years, leaving security experts to figure out the damage, and the State Department to try to cauterize the wound.

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The scam also left those like Ali — a pseudonym The Washington Times is using to protect his identity — worried about what bad guys might now know about him.

“I was literally counting the days of Trump’s presidency term and wishing Biden wins the election to resume the program so we can finally get our freedom and restore our normal life,” Ali told The Times in an email. “Now with this news I receive another shock to be added to my life’s tragedy.”

The criminal case has exposed staggering gaps in security at Homeland Security’s legal immigration agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

According to court documents, a Jordanian and a Russian working at U.S. embassies for USCIS used their jobs to gain access to the refugee database. They then sold information to an Iraqi man who’d failed in his own refugee claims, and was now living in Jordan.

Haitham Sad, who worked for USCIS at the embassy in Amman, pleaded guilty just days after the charges were announced. He said in his plea that he worked for the agency from 2007 through 2016 but managed to keep access to the database even after his termination, selling files to Aws Muwafaq Abduljabbar, the Iraqi ringleader of the fraud.

Along the way they recruited another USCIS employee, Olesya Krasilova, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Moscow and to whom the two men referred as the “female doctor.”

She and Mr. Sad stole hundreds of files, and were paid tens of thousands of dollars, Mr. Sad said. They also tried to recruit other USCIS employees,

“It’s very good money, for nothing,” Ms. Krasilova told one recruiting target in 2019.

Sources told The Times the goal was not, as Ali feared, to glean information that could be used to exact retribution against those who helped the U.S. Instead, the scammers were trying to exploit America’s generosity to pave a path for undeserving people.

Having access to the case files from successful applications gave the fraudsters a template to help others craft their own applications, cutting out information that had sunk others and highlighting the factors that had worked in previous cases.

“These guys were seeing applications and write-ups of those who were successfully able to establish eligibility, and basically take those narratives and repurpose them for others,” said Rob Law, the past chief of policy at USCIS. “People adopt similar stories, once someone is found to successfully navigate the system.”

Key to the scam was a security flaw in the refugee database that Mr. Sad and Ms. Krasilova were able to exploit. While the current refugee database system is known as WRAPS II, the older version, WRAPS I, was still operational and could access the same information, without leaving digital fingerprints.

It was only in 2019 that an update added an audit feature that allowed managers to look back to see who’d accessed files, and investigators were able to piece together the scam.

Top Republicans on the House’s Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees have demanded secret briefings on what went wrong, calling it a “sophisticated insider threat.”

“When employees of the United States Government are abusing their power to undermine the integrity of these critical programs for nefarious purposes, this represents a significant breach of public trust and erosion of homeland security,” said Rep. John Katko, the ranking homeland security Republican.

The two USCIS employees were what’s known in government-speak as foreign service nationals or locally-employed staff (FNS/LES), and were part of a program that used locals to help process refugee checks.

Even before the latest revelations, USCIS had been cutting its FSN/LES staff. The agency said it now has 19 such employees. The agency declined to talk more about the breach, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

Mr. Law, now director of regulatory affairs and policy at the Center for Immigration Studies, said he expects more revelations about the extent of the fraud.

“What’s being currently reported as being uncovered is potentially just the beginning,” he said.

He also said the scam should be a caution to the Biden administration as it seeks to unwind former President Donald Trump’s strict vetting of refugees and other foreign arrivals.

Mr. Trump imposed the tougher rules after several striking cases of refugees accused of joining jihadist movements. Among them was Aws Mohammed Younis Al-Jayab, who just months after his arrival in the U.S. in 2012 began plotting to join Ansar Al-Islam in Syria.

“The Biden administration may want to really think twice about undoing everything that was done in this space, because there are bad actors out there,” said Mr. Law.

The Iraqi refugee program is one of two paths for Iraqis who helped with the U.S. war effort. The other is a special immigrant visa reserved specifically for those who performed translation duties.

Both programs are relatively small at this point.

Just 63 cases involving 161 people were resettled in the U.S. in fiscal 2020, which spanned Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020. In the four months after through, through Jan. 31, another 38 people were admitted. Only one was from the special refugee program.

Ali was hoping to be one of them.

He said he worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces in 2005, but left after he saw too many colleagues assassinated and faced too many threats himself.

When the U.S. announced the special pathways, he was eager to apply. But one of the hurdles is having a senior U.S. military commander vouch for your services, and Ali said he spent years trying to track down an email for someone who could do so.

Once he did apply, he thought things were “moving well” before Mr. Trump’s ascension to the White House, which he thought derailed things again.

Mike Jabbar, a translator who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee in 2019, during the Trump years, said the problem wasn’t Mr. Trump, it was the way Congress wrote the program.

In the middle of the last decade, during the Obama years, the number of special visas was cut dramatically. Some lawmakers fought to restore them, but the lion’s share goes to those helping with the effort in Afghanistan, not Iraq, Mr. Jabbar said.

He also said fraud is rife in the program — including forged documentation claiming they helped the Defense Department.

“Believe me, it’s happened in the past,” he said. “People have immigrated from those countries to the U.S., they have never worked for the U.S. government but they somehow managed to come up with all this fake paperwork.”

Mr. Jabbar said it was frustrating to see family migration cases from Iraq getting approved while people he knew risked their lives for the U.S. were stuck waiting on refugee slots.

“Why does somebody who doesn’t know how to speak English get their visa approved because she fell in love with a dude online, and she’s going to the [United] States before me?” he wondered.

Biden taps Obama nuclear deal architect as Iran envoy

Biden taps Obama nuclear deal architect as Iran envoy

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The State Department headquarters is located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington. (Associated Press) ** FILE ** more >

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By Guy Taylor

The Washington Times

Friday, January 29, 2021

The Biden administration has appointed a former Obama White House Mideast adviser Robert Malley to be the State Department’s new Special Envoy for Iran policy.

Mr. Malley, who has spent recent years heading the International Crisis Group think tank, is widely credited as one of the architects of the 2015 nuclear deal that the Obama administration reached with Iran and other world powers. He will now have a central role in the Biden administration.

Speculation has swirled since Mr. Biden’s November election win that the new administration has plans to try and quickly re-enter the nuclear deal that former President Trump withdrew the U.S. from in 2018. The nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) had seen Tehran limit its nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

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President Trump disparaged the JCPOA for failing to address other matters such as Tehran’s ballistic missile program that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions and the Iranian government’s support for destabilizing militants in various nations around the Middle East.

After pulling out of the deal, the Trump administration unilaterally re-imposed U.S. sanctions on Iran. In response to the re-imposed sanctions, the Iranian government resumed high-level nuclear enrichment activities.

Newly-confirmed Secretary of State Antony Blinken made headlines this week by saying Iran must act first if it wants to salvage the deal, suggesting the Biden administration will not ease sanctions until Tehran has halted uranium enrichment activities that violate the Obama-era accord.

Talking with reporters on his first full day on the job Wednesday, Mr. Blinken stopped short of laying out explicit preconditions for talks with the Iranian, saying that the Biden administration will reciprocate only “if Iran comes back into full compliance.”

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement Friday that Mr. Blinken is now “building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views” for the Iran policy.

“Leading that team as our Special Envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran’s nuclear program,” Mr. Price said.

Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act could delist some Chinese companies from U.S. markets

Law could delist some Chinese companies from U.S. markets

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President Trump signed the Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act. The law prevents securities at foreign companies from being listed on any U.S. exchange if firms fail to company with federal PAOB audits. (ASSOCIATED PRESS) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Sunday, December 20, 2020

President Trump has signed into law a new measure designed to force Chinese companies linked to the military out of U.S. capital markets in a measure opposed by some in the administration who favor close business ties with Beijing.

The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act prevents securities of foreign companies from being listed on any U.S. exchange if the firms fail to comply with federal Public Accounting Oversight Board (PAOB) audits. The companies must also prove to the board they are not owned or controlled by foreign government, something most Chinese companies are unable to do.

Under the law, if the board cannot audit reports from Chinese companies, the companies must be delisted from capital markets.

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Chinese companies have refused to provide audit reports in the past, claiming their audits are conducted by non-U.S. public accounting firms and cannot be shared with American regulators.

Administration officials familiar with the legislation said several senior officials opposed the new law and urged Mr. Trump to veto the bill, arguing that keeping Chinese companies inside U.S. markets could prevent them from investing in other foreign markets.

One of those who opposed enacting the legislation was Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs investment banker.

Two officials said Mr. Mnuchin has been a frequent critic of Mr. Trump’s hardline policies toward China and in the past has sought to soften new policies toward Beijing over concerns they would upset trade and financial relations.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Mnuchin disputed the officials’ account.

“He never opposed the bill,” said Monica Crowley, assistant Treasury secretary for public affairs.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a leader behind many of the administration’s tougher approaches to China, said he and Mr. Mnuchin are not at odds.

“There is no clash between Secretary [Mnuchin] and me,” he tweeted. “We are simply working to resolve interagency mechanics of an important executive order.”

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the two Cabinet secretaries clashed over a recent executive order that blocked Americans from investing in Chinese companies tied to Beijing’s military.

The new law is the latest step by the Trump administration designed to prevent China from exploiting U.S. capital markets for building up its military. Mr. Trump in November signed an executive order the blocks U.S. investors from holding shares in companies linked to the Chinese military.

The law applies to all companies but mentions Chinese companies in particular that would be restricted under its provision.

A senior State Department official said the law was the result of a whole-of-government approach to shady accounting practices by Chinese companies.

“This act is long overdue,” the official said. “The Trump administration should be given credit for fighting vested interests in American society that are addicted to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) financial sugar high.”

The official said the CCP has been making money by skirting standard international accounting practices and creating false records. “They have basically cheated for years,” the official said.

Passage of the law followed a high-profile accounting scandal in April involving China‘s Luckin Coffee, a Starbucks competitor, that admitted to reporting $310 million in fabricated sales.

The company was forced to leave the Nasdaq Stock Market in June.

The legislation passed with rare bipartisan support in both the House and Senate earlier this month. Its main sponsors were Sens. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.

“This law will protect American retail investors and pensioners from risky investments in fraudulent, opaque Chinese companies that are listed on U.S. exchanges and trade on over-the-counter markets,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a key proponent of restricting Chinese access to U.S. capital markets.

“I was proud to work with Sen. Kennedy on this important legislation that sends a strong message to the Chinese Communist Party: if Chinese companies want access to U.S. capital markets, they must comply with American laws and regulations for financial transparency and accountability,” Mr. Rubio told The Washington Times.

A State Department fact sheet made public earlier this month stated that U.S. investors were funding malign Chinese companies on major indices, such as the Morgan Stanley Capital International (MSCI), a major stock market index, and the Financial Times Stock Exchange Group, known as FTSE.

“The money flowing into these index funds — often passively, by U.S. retail investors — supports Chinese companies involved in both civilian and military production,” the State Department said

Some of the Chinese companies on the indices produce technology in China that has been used in repression of ethnic Uighurs, where over 1 million people have been put in concentration camps. The companies also are providing surveillance gear to repressive regimes such as Iran and Venezuela.

The State Department fact sheet identifies over 70 companies or subsidiaries listed on five difference MSCI and FSE indices that are involved in Chinese military activities.

Also, 22 of the 31 companies identified by the Pentagon as part of the Communist Chinese military buildup are invested in U.S. financial markets.

Thirteen Chinese companies are listed on the Commerce Department’s Entities List that is designed to block exports of U.S. goods deemed valuable for military programs. The companies include major Chinese military contractors, telecommunications firms and high-technology companies.

According to the State Department, Chinese stocks directly affect pension funds of American workers and retirees.

“Some of the Chinese companies [on MSCI Index] present significant national security and humanitarian concerns for the United States which increases the risk that they could be subject to sanctions, public protests, trade restrictions, boycotts, and other punitive measures that jeopardize their business and profitability,” White House National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien and National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence Kudlow stated in May.

Former White House National Security Council official Roger W. Robinson Jr., was among the first experts to identify how China was using U.S. capital markets to finance military projects.

Mr. Robinson believes Chinese investment in U.S. capital markets is a stalking horse for China‘s stealth financial warfare and part of a strategy to compromise U.S. policy toward China.

If Americans’ pension funds and other investment portfolios became filled with Chinese securities, scores of millions of Americans would have a vested financial interest in lobbying to thwart U.S. sanctions or penalties on Beijing for fear that their retirement accounts and other investments would lose value.

“This unanimously passed legislation is a historic achievement as it is the first investor protection bill of its kind directed at America’s foremost adversary,” said Mr. Robinson, president of RWR Advisory Group.

“It’s only a shame that Chinese companies were given three full years to comply with PAOB audits after almost 20 years of not doing so — and receiving completely unjustified preferential treatment over American firms as a consequence.”

Mr. Robinson first disclosed that in 2018, China Shipbuilding announced plans to build the Chinese navy’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Shortly after the announcement, China Shipbuilding issued a $1 billion bond in the German bond market in Frankfurt, part of efforts to fund the naval construction.

State Department cancels China-paid junkets for congressional staff

State Department cancels China-paid junkets for congressional staff

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In this file photo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks after a security briefing on Mount Bental in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, near the Israeli-Syrian border, Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, … more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Friday, December 4, 2020

The State Department on Friday canceled five longstanding cultural exchange programs with China that had allowed Beijing to fund all-expenses-paid trips to China for congressional staff.

The program, authorized under a section of the 1961 Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act (MECEA), was halted by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as part of efforts to counter Beijing’s covert influence operations carried out by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) known as “united front work.”

Notice of the cancellation was sent to the Chinese Embassy in Washington in a diplomatic note. An embassy spokesman did not return an email seeking comment.

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The five programs, dating from 1994, were identified as the Policymakers Educational China Trip Program, the U.S.-China Friendship Program, the U.S.-China Leadership Exchange Program, the U.S.-China Transpacific Exchange Program and the Hong Kong Educational and Cultural Program.

Mr. Pompeo said the five programs “are fully funded and operated by the [Chinese] government as soft power propaganda tools.”

“They provide carefully curated access to Chinese Communist Party officials, not to the Chinese people, who do not enjoy freedoms of speech and assembly,” he said in a statement Friday night. “The United States welcomes the reciprocal and fair exchange of cultural programs with PRC officials and the Chinese people, but one-way programs such as these are not mutually beneficial.”

Officials said the program was killed as a threat to U.S. national security, since China has targeted Congress as part of a major campaign of influence peddling and pro-Beijing propaganda.

China’s lobbying efforts include attempts to block policies its opposes, such as arms sales to Taiwan, and to promote U.S. policies that favor Beijing. China has used similar exchanges in the past to recruit visiting U.S. nuclear scientists as spies.

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe revealed this week that China’s government has been waging a “massive influence campaign” targeting several dozen members of Congress and congressional aides. He did not elaborate.

Separately, Mr. Pompeo, announced Friday the department is imposing new visa restrictions on Chinese officials, including those working with a party unit called the United Front Work Department (UFWD).

China “has long sought to spread Marxist-Leninist ideology and exert its influence all over the world,” Mr. Pompeo said in a statement. “The CCP’s United Front Work Department funds and supports overseas organizations to spread propaganda and coerces and bullies those who would oppose Beijing’s policies.”

Effective Friday, the State Department rescinded its approval of five cultural exchange programs that were funded by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress — the Chinese legislature — and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. In reality, U.S. officials say, the programs were part of covert Communist Party united front operations targeting Congress.

The Beijing-funded travel programs had been permitted under Section 108A of MECEA. The section permits federal employees, including those from the Congress and the judiciary, to travel on approved cultural exchange programs funded by the Chinese government.

The State Department is continuing to support people-to-people exchanges as part of its diplomatic mission. But the department says it now wants reciprocity and more transparency about the goals of exchange and cultural programs with China. The programs had been handled by the State Department’s education and cultural affairs office.

A Trump administration official familiar with the decision to cancel the programs said the exchanges were examined and determined to be fraudulent cultural exchange efforts. The five programs – four for China and one for Hong Kong – were being used to further China’s global, multi-million dollar influence operations.

The programs were also scuttled because the United States had no role in selecting or overseeing officials who were permitted to travel to China, what locations they could visit and what officials they would meet. That lack of oversight was viewed as a serious national threat.

The cancelation of the program is expected to upset some in Congress who favor keeping the programs going as part of people-to-people exchanges they believe will develop closer U.S.-China ties.

But Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the congressional China Task Force, however, praised the move.

“I’m in favor of getting rid of [MECEA trips] to the PRC, given [China‘s] ongoing espionage and influence operations aimed at members of Congress and staff,” he said.

“These trips, in my mind, use the pretext of educational and cultural exchange as means to engage in broader malign efforts. The U.S. government should not allow a MECEA[trip] to a country that is an outright adversary.”

Spokesmen for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to email requests for comment.

Mr. Pompeo said the front has used intimidation tactics against members of academia, business and civil society groups and overseas Chinese communities who speak out against China’s human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Tibet.

The UFWD has used “doxing” — or releasing personal information about targeted groups and people — as one means of political intimidation,.

Starting Friday, the new visa restrictions will prevent entry into the United States by Chinese government, CCP and UFWD officials who have been linked to the use of threats of violence, theft and release of private information, espionage, sabotage or malicious interference in U.S. political affairs. Those that threaten academic freedom, personal privacy or business activity will also be restricted from entry.

“These malign activities are intended to co-opt and coerce sub-national leaders, overseas Chinese communities, academia and other civil society groups both in the United States and other countries in furtherance of [China‘s] authoritarian narratives and policy preferences,” Mr. Pompeo said. “I will continue to implement such visa restrictions to make clear that those responsible for actions that contravene the rules-based international order are not welcome in the United States.”

Biden builds out national security picks with Blinken, Kerry

Biden builds out national security picks with Blinken, Kerry

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FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, file photo, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. Blinken is the leading contender to become President-elect Joe … more >

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By MATTHEW LEE

Associated Press

Monday, November 23, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) – President-elect Joe Biden is building out his administration with several key picks for national security and foreign policy roles.

John Kerry, a former secretary of state, will lead the incoming administration’s effort to combat climate change. Alejandro Mayorkas will be nominated as the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security.

Biden also plans to nominate Antony Blinken as his secretary of state, according to multiple people familiar with the Biden team’s planning.

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Blinken, 58, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration and has close ties with Biden. If nominated and confirmed, he would be a leading force in the incoming administration’s bid to reframe the U.S. relationship with the rest of the world after four years in which President Donald Trump questioned longtime alliances.

Biden is moving forward with plans to fill out his government even as Trump refuses to concede defeat, has pursued baseless legal challenges in several key states and has worked to stymie the transition process. The stakes of a smooth transition are especially high this year because Biden will take office amid the worst pandemic in more than a century, which will likely require a full government response to contain.

In nominating Blinken, Biden would sidestep potentially thorny issues that could have affected Senate confirmation for two other candidates on his short list to be America’s top diplomat: Susan Rice and Sen. Chris Coons.

Rice would have faced significant GOP opposition and likely rejection in the Senate. She has long been a target of Republicans, including for statements she made after the deadly 2012 attacks on Americans in Benghazi, Libya.

Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, lacked the granular experience in managing day-to-day foreign policy issues that Blinken would bring to the job.

Biden is likely to name his Cabinet picks in tranches, with groups of nominees focused on a specific top area, like the economy, national security or public health, being announced at once. Advisers to the president-elect’s transition have said they’ll make their first Cabinet announcements on Tuesday.

If Biden focuses on national security that day, Michèle Flournoy, a veteran of Pentagon policy jobs, is a top choice to lead the Defense Department. Jake Sullivan, a longtime adviser to Biden and Hillary Clinton, is also in the mix for a top job, including White House national security adviser.

For his part, Blinken recently participated in a national security briefing with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and has weighed in publicly on notable foreign policy issues in Egypt and Ethiopia.

Biden‘s secretary of state would inherit a deeply demoralized and depleted career workforce at the State Department. Trump’s two secretaries of state, Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, offered weak resistance to the administration’s attempts to gut the agency, which were thwarted only by congressional intervention.

Although the department escaped massive proposed cuts of more than 30% in its budget for three consecutive years, it has seen a significant number of departures from its senior and rising mid-level ranks, from which many diplomats have opted to retire or leave the foreign service given limited prospects for advancements under an administration that they believe does not value their expertise.

A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School and a longtime Democratic foreign policy presence, Blinken has aligned himself with numerous former senior national security officials who have called for a major reinvestment in American diplomacy and renewed emphasis on global engagement.

“Democracy is in retreat around the world, and unfortunately it’s also in retreat at home because of the president taking a two-by-four to its institutions, its values and its people every day,” Blinken told The Associated Press in September. “Our friends know that Joe Biden knows who they are. So do our adversaries. That difference would be felt on day one.”

Blinken served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration before becoming staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair of the panel. In the early years of the Obama administration, Blinken returned to the NSC and was then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser before he moved to the State Department to serve as deputy to Secretary of State John Kerry.

Biden also is expected to tap longtime diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Biden has pledged to build the most diverse government in modern history, and he and his team often speak about their desire for his administration to reflect America. He is being watched to see whether he will make history by nominating the first woman to lead the Pentagon, the Treasury Department or the Department of Veterans Affairs or the first African American at the top of the Defense Department, the Interior Department or the Treasury Department.

Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said Sunday the Trump administration’s refusal to clear the way for Biden’s team to have access to key information about agencies and federal dollars for the transition is taking its toll on planning, including the Cabinet selection process. Trump’s General Services Administration has yet to acknowledge that Biden won the election – a determination that would remove those roadblocks.

“We’re not in a position to get background checks on Cabinet nominees. And so there are definite impacts. Those impacts escalate every day,” Klain told ABC’s “This Week.”

Even some Republicans have broken with Trump in recent days and called on him to begin the transition. Joining the growing list were Sens. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Former Republican Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, a longtime Trump supporter, told ABC that it was time for the president to stop contesting the outcome and called Trump’s legal team seeking to overturn the election a “national embarrassment.”

Meanwhile, planning was underway for a pandemic-modified inauguration Jan. 20. Klain said the Biden team was consulting with Democratic leadership in the House and the Senate over their plans.

“They’re going to try to have an inauguration that honors the importance and the symbolic meaning of the moment, but also does not result in the spread of the disease. That’s our goal,” Klain said.

___

Associated Press writers Julie Pace in Washington, Alexandra Jaffe in Wilmington, Delaware, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

France’s Macron hosts Trump envoy after congratulating Biden

France’s Macron hosts Trump envoy after congratulating Biden

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, walks to a motorcade vehicle after stepping off a plane at Paris Le Bourget Airport, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, in Le Bourget, France. Pompeo is beginning a 10-day trip to Europe and the … more >

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By SYLVIE CORBET

Associated Press

Monday, November 16, 2020

PARIS (AP) – French President Emmanuel Macron held a closed-door, low-key meeting Monday with U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat, a delicate tip-toe around the ticklish fact that France has already recognized President-elect Joe Biden as the U.S. election winner.

The zero fanfare welcome for U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Trump loyalist, at the presidential Elysee Palace was in itself indicative of how Macron’s government is already looking ahead to the Biden era.

No press conferences were held, depriving journalists of an opportunity to ask Macron’s office, his Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian or Pompeo about whether they discussed their conflicting interpretations of the U.S. election result. Unusually, Le Drian met Pompeo at the Elysee Palace, rather than his own office. Macron’s office described Pompeo’s stop as a “courtesy” visit.

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Pompeo tweeted a photo of himself wearing a Stars and Stripes face mask in the meeting with “my good friend” Le Drian and said they had an “important discussion.”

“There is no challenge we cannot conquer when the U.S.-France Transatlantic relationship is strong,” he tweeted.

A U.S. State Department statement said Pompeo discussed a range of topics with Le Drian, including the NATO alliance, stabilization efforts for Libya and Africa’s Sahel region, promoting reform and combating extremism in Lebanon, and what the statement described as “our strong alliance in countering the Chinese Communist Party’s malign activity in Europe.” The nature of the alleged activity wasn’t detailed. They also discussed human rights abuses in China’s western region of Xinjiang.

Still, it wasn’t clear why Pompeo came so far in the midst of the pandemic and for so long, on a three-day stop in Paris that is largely locked down because of a surge of coronavirus cases, for such a low-visibility outcome.

Officials in Pompeo’s team said French authorities told them that no press access was possible due to concerns over the pandemic.

Pompeo appeared last week to cast doubt on Trump’s election defeat, speaking instead of “ a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Macron last week spoke by phone with Biden to congratulate him.

Before meeting Macron and Le Drian, Pompeo laid a bouquet of red, white and blue flowers at a memorial to victims of terrorism at a Paris landmark, the Hotel des Invalides.

The ceremony lasted about a minute.

“The United States stands with France. We mourn the victims, pray for their families, and condemn in the strongest terms these senseless attacks against innocent French citizens.” Pompeo tweeted.

In an arrival tweet Saturday, Pompeo laid out the standard diplomatic groundwork for his Paris visit, noting that France is the “oldest friend and Ally” of the United States.

From Paris, Pompeo was traveling to Turkey.

No meeting with Turkish officials were scheduled during the brief visit to Istanbul, a senior State Department official who was not authorized to speak publicly about Pompeo’s agenda said last week.

The stop in Turkey will focus on promoting religious freedom and fighting religious persecution, which is a key priority for the U.S. administration, the official said.

Pompeo will discuss religious issues with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, and with the apostolic nuncio to Turkey, Archbishop Paul Russell.

Later stops on the tour will include visits to Israeli settlements in the West Bank that have been avoided by previous secretaries of state.

________

Matthew Lee in Washington and John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report.

MQ-9 Reaper drones sold to Taiwan

Strike drones sold to Taiwan

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The U.S. will send Taiwan four MQ-9A Reapers. The hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicles can conduct long-endurance, high-altitude flights. (U.S. Air Force photograph) more >

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By Bill Gertz

The Washington Times

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Trump administration is stepping up efforts to bolster Taiwan‘s defenses, announcing this week that its latest arms sale package includes the first transfer of advanced Reaper drones capable of firing missiles. Four MQ-9 Reaper drones were approved for sale to Taiwan by the State Department in a package worth an estimated $600 million.

The Pentagon announced that the State Department had reviewed and approved the latest sale, describing the Reapers as “weapons-ready.”

The Reaper is one of the United States’ most effective hunter-killer unmanned aerial vehicles that can conduct long-endurance, high-altitude flight. The famed weapon has been used for attacks in the Middle East, including the targeted killings of terrorist leaders.

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The drones can be armed with up to four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles or two 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs. The Reaper also can fire the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM.

Future weapons in the package to Taiwan could include Stinger air-to-air missiles and anti-missile interceptors.

Taiwan will have no problem outfitting the drones with some of the 400 Hellfires purchased in 2005.

The approval was sent to Congress by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency on Tuesday.

“This sale will increase Taiwan‘s self-defense capabilities,” said a senior administration official familiar with the transfer. “Taiwan is the first non-NATO+5 recipient of the MQ9 Reaper. It’s a good step forward.”

No missiles were included in the deal, which includes two ground stations and a targeting system along with maritime patrol radar and electronic surveillance systems.

The sale “serves U.S. national, economic and security interests by supporting the recipient’s continuing efforts to modernize its armed forces and to maintain a credible defensive capability,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The drones will improve Taiwan‘s ability to “meet current and future threats by providing timely Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), target acquisition, and counter-land, counter-sea, and anti-submarine strike capabilities for its security and defense. The capability is a deterrent to regional threats and will strengthen [Taiwan‘s] self-defense.”

The drones are made by General Atomic Aeronautical Systems Inc. in San Diego.

The drone sale follows the announcement of other weapons sales to Taiwan valued at around $4.2 billion, including Harpoon anti-ship missiles and air-launched SLAM-ER extended-range cruise missiles.

“This is the tenth arms sales to Taiwan under President Trump and the third time in two weeks that the U.S. government has supplied our country with major defensive weapons that will enable Taiwan to be more capable and confident in defending peace in the Taiwan Strait,” Taipei’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The latest arms sale followed angry denunciations by China and the imposition of sanctions by Beijing on three U.S. defense contractors for earlier arms sales to Taiwan.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a recent interview that stepped-up Chinese saber-rattling against rival Taiwan is being closely watched.

“The primary concern stems from the fact [that China] has demonstrated its incapacity to live up to its own commitments,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin denounced the Reaper sale and urged the U.S. government to cancel the sale.

China will take legitimate and necessary reactions to firmly safeguard national sovereignty and security interests,” he said.

The Reaper sale is the first of its kind since the U.S. government shifted its policy on the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, which until July restricted exports of drones like the Reaper.

The drone sale provides Taiwan with a crucial targeting capability to support the recent sale of short-range missiles, SLAM-ER and Harpoon missiles, said Rick Fisher, a China expert with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.

“The MQ-9s are needed to help make sure the missiles find and reach their targets, be they People’s Liberation Army invasion ships or gathering invasion forces across the Taiwan Strait in Fujian Province,” he said.

STILWELL ON CHINA’S MALIGN INFLUENCE

China‘s Communist Party is engaged in large-scale corrupt, coercive and covert actions programs that pose threats to American security and must be countered, David Stilwell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, said in a recent speech.

“The Chinese Communist Party challenges our free and open societies,” Mr. Stilwell told the Hoover Institution during an online webinar from Tokyo. “The prosperity, liberty and security of the American people and our friends around the world are at risk, and it hinges on how we meet this challenge.”

Mr. Stilwell, a retired Air Force brigadier general who once worked as an attache in China, said a major worldwide defense program to counter Beijing‘s malign influence is a difficult but noble task.

The Chinese Communist Party is conducting operations that are “hostile to our basic political principles of democracy, openness and individual dignity,” he argued.

China, he added, is coopting both private-sector and government targets in its influence activities and therefore all institutions of society need to understand the Chinese strategy and take steps to counter the threats.

Chinese influence operations are fundamental to how the regime engaged the world in an adversarial fashion, he said.

“We might prefer to think of China as simply a trade partner or the home of great civilization, but the [Communist Party] today has taken an adversarial stance toward its neighbors,” Mr. Stilwell said. “Not just today. It’s been a long-term process. We’re recognizing it today.”

The Chinese objectives are opposed to stability, or respect for rule of law. Instead, Beijing‘s strategy is aggressive and intrusive, Mr. Stilwell said.

China “not only rejects our democratic political principles, but it sees them as a prime vulnerability that it can exploit,” he said.

The key to countering Chinese operations and mitigating risks is to seek reciprocity in relations, something the Trump administration has sought to do.

“Reciprocity is basic in international relations. You’ve got to give to get,” Mr. Stilwell said.

Another tool is better coordination with allies. China‘s narrative is that the battle is one between the U.S. and China, but the Trump administration has countered that by seeking support from nations of Asia and Europe.

“The world is increasingly aware of how the CCP is using its foreign engagements to influence, interfere and coerce,” Mr. Stilwell said. “The awareness is disturbing and even shocking for many people, because for decades the U.S. and other countries forged links with China based on the optimistic good-faith expectation that shared prosperity and trust would result from our diplomacy, our trade and our investment. It worked so many times in the past.”

Instead, China‘s leaders chose to “weaponize” engagement, he argued. Instead of mutual benefits, Beijing‘s activities are “systematically predatory and hegemonic,” he said.

“The CCP wants control, and at least it wants a veto in public discourse and political decisions globally, world over,” said Mr. Stilwell, noting that Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the activities a “magic weapon” of the ruling party.

Beijing has used its economic power to bully companies such as Marriott and Mercedes-Benz, he said, forcing the companies to parrot Chinese talking points or face state-backed boycotts.

The party also used disinformation about COVID-19, he noted. The activities are carried out by an additional 40,000 workers at a unit called the United Front Work Department.

Other units include the Foreign Ministry, the Central Propaganda Department, the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Education, the International Liaison Department, the Political Work Department, the Central Propaganda Bureau and the People’s Liberation Army.

U.S. officials say those entities are used to guide additional quasi-official front groups, such as Confucius Institutes.

“All told, we face a large and deliberately opaque amount of Chinese Communist Party officials, agents and cutouts seeking advantage in our societies,” Mr. Stilwell said.

China‘s rulers want to set the rules for the entire world and view free and open societies as threats, he said.

“A future Pax Sinica fully realized would be aggressive. It would be contemptuous of human liberty, and domineering,” Mr. Stilwell said.

“Instead of a rules-based international order, peaceful resolution of disputes, respect for sovereignty and of law-abiding nations, a CCP-oriented world would require obedience to an unelected clique in Beijing, technological advances in surveillance and control, [and] risk casting the entire world into an age of tyranny,” he said.

• Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

US calls bid to stop extradition of 2 to Japan ‘meritless’

US calls bid to stop extradition of 2 to Japan ‘meritless’

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FILE – This Dec. 30, 2019 image from security camera video shows Michael L. Taylor, center, and George-Antoine Zayek at passport control at Istanbul Airport in Turkey. The U.S. State Department has agreed to turn over to Japan Taylor and … more >

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By ALANNA DURKIN RICHER

Associated Press

Friday, October 30, 2020

BOSTON (AP) – U.S. Department of Justice lawyers urged a judge Friday to deny a bid to block the extradition of two American men wanted in Japan for helping former Nissan Motor Co. boss Carlos Ghosn sneak out of the country in a box.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Hassink described Michael Taylor and Peter Taylor’s “eleventh-hour bid to thwart their extradition” as “meritless,” and asked the judge to allow the father and son to be handed over to Japan. The U.S. Department of State has agreed to extradite them, but a judge put a hold on it Thursday after their lawyers filed an emergency petition.

“Here, the United States has a strong interest in having extradition requests submitted by Japan (and other treaty partners) resolved promptly,” Hassink wrote in court documents.

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The men’s lawyers, which include former Trump White House attorney Ty Cobb, said Thursday that they are also appealing to officials within the State Department and White House to block the extradition. The lawyers were told in a letter they received this week while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Asia that Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun had authorized the extradition.

The State Department has said it does not comment on pending extradition requests.

The Massachusetts men are wanted by Japan so they can be tried on charges that they helped the former Nissan chairman flee the country last year with Ghosn tucked away in a box on a private jet. Ghosn had been out on bail and awaiting trial on financial misconduct allegations, which he has denied.

The flight went first to Turkey, then to Lebanon, where Ghosn has citizenship but which has no extradition treaty with Japan. Ghosn said he fled because he could not expect a fair trial, was subjected to unfair conditions in detention and was barred from meeting his wife under his bail conditions.

The Taylors have not denied helping Ghosn flee but insist they can’t be extradited because they say what they are accused of isn’t a crime under Japan law. They have asked the judge to rule that the Secretary of State’s decision to surrender them to Japan violates the law.

Prosecutors have described it as one of the most “brazen and well-orchestrated escape acts in recent history, involving a dizzying array of luxury hotel meetups, fake personas, bullet train travel, and the chartering of a private jet.”

Authorities say that Peter Taylor arrived in Japan on Dec. 28, 2019, and met with Ghosn at the Grand Hyatt Tokyo for about an hour. Just before 10 a.m. the next day, Michael Taylor flew into Osaka on a chartered jet from Dubai with another man, George-Antoine Zayek, carrying two large black boxes and told airport employees they were musicians carrying audio equipment.

At one point, the group split up and Peter Taylor headed to the airport to hop on a flight to China, authorities say. Meanwhile, the others hopped on a bullet train and went back to a hotel where Taylor and Zayek had booked a room. They all went in; only two were seen walking out.

Michael Taylor is a private security specialist who has been hired by parents to rescue abducted children, gone undercover for the FBI in a sting on a Massachusetts drug gang and worked as a contractor for the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, other Arab states watch Trump-Biden election closely

Arab states eye U.S. vote after attention from Trump

Some recall Obama administration tensions; others prefer to deal with Biden

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Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi speaks at the “G20 Investment Summit.” (John MacDougall/Pool via AP, File) more >

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By Jacob Wirtschafter and Mina Nader Special to The Washington Times

Thursday, October 29, 2020

CAIRO — From the time he first met the candidate in the fall of 2016 through the last days of the 2020 presidential campaign, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi has promoted himself as one of Donald Trump’s best friends on the international stage.

“We expressed our congratulations in advance of the last election, and we expressed them now before the next one,” Mr. el-Sissi said last year, just moments after Mr. Trump dubbed him “my favorite dictator.”

“Our relationship started before the campaign, continued through the campaign and afterward,” Mr. el-Sissi told Mr. Trump and reporters assembled in France for the August 2019 Group of Seven summit of major industrial nations.

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Now Egypt’s president — like many of his counterparts in the Arab world who have thrived under renewed attention from Washington under Mr. Trump — is trying to game out the possible replacement of his patron in the White House after the election Tuesday.

In Amman, King Abdullah II hopes for closer coordination with a Biden administration. He has been largely sidelined by Mr. Trump’s Middle East policy — spearheaded by White House aide and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner — that forged historic direct ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and, most recently, Sudan, without securing tangible gains for the Palestinians, who make up at least half of Jordan’s population.

Mr. el-Sissi, meanwhile, is bracing for increased scrutiny by a Democratic administration.

Aides close to Mr. Biden already have resumed criticism of Egypt’s military government for human rights abuses and have pressed Cairo to revive the “road map to democracy” abandoned after Egypt changed its constitution last year to allow Mr. el-Sissi to stay in power at least through 2030.

“The Egyptian administration generally prefers Trump’s policies since we have achieved understanding in many political and economic [areas],” said Gehad Auda, professor of political science and international relations at Helwan University near Cairo.

“Just this weekend, Trump boosted Egypt’s position on negotiations over the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, going so far as to say he would understand why Cairo might want to ‘blow it up,’” said Mr. Auda. Like many others, he worries that the faster Ethiopia moves on the massive hydroelectric project, the less water from the Nile will flow to Egypt.

He, like other political scientists, also points to Egypt’s diplomatic role in Mr. Trump’s “Deal of the Century” framework to advance Arab-Israeli peace while sidestepping the question of Palestinian statehood. Egypt pioneered the recognition of the Jewish state in the wake of the 1979 Camp David Accords, but few of its Arab neighbors followed suit.

“This will create a good investment climate,” Mr. Auda said. “Add that to the appointment of the Egyptian nominee, Mahmoud Mohieldin, as executive director of the International Monetary Fund, and we see the el-Sissi administration receiving tangible rewards from Trump.”

Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid since its peace treaty with Israel in 1979.

Tensions with Obama

Even so, it still rankles Cairo that the Obama administration placed a temporary freeze on military assistance in 2013 after the military and then-Defense Minister el-Sissi ousted the democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, a leader of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

Mr. el-Sissi’s supporters never forgave Mr. Obama for questioning the legitimacy of the former field marshal’s elevation to the presidency in 2014. They also don’t miss what they say were constant critiques by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her successor, John F. Kerry.

“We suffered from many problems during the era of former President Barack Obama,” said Said Fayez, a 42-year-old Cairo lawyer who made his first trip to the U.S. last year on a program funded by the State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“The Trump era witnessed alignment with the el-Sissi administration, a renewed awareness of Egypt’s regional role and the leader’s rights to pursue independent policies without American interference and imposition of radical Islamic movements that Barack Obama supported,” Mr. Fayez said.

Still, Mr. Fayez acknowledged, “I have reservations about Trump’s lack of support for personal and political freedoms, which are more central concerns for” Mr. Biden.

The former vice president has signaled strong objection to Mr. el-Sissi’s human rights record. In July, Mr. Biden slammed the Egyptian president for the arrest, torture and exiling of activists.

“No more blank checks for Trump’s favorite dictator,” Mr. Biden tweeted.

Last week, a group of 56 Democratic lawmakers reinforced Mr. Biden’s message in a formal letter to Mr. el-Sissi, urging the release of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and other prisoners of conscience.

The letter chastised the Egyptian leader for the tens of thousands who have been imprisoned during his administration. Many remain in jail awaiting trial for periods far longer than the legal minimum of two years.

“We are disappointed not just with Trump. We fear the shrinking role America plays in defending free speech, promoting women’s equality and emphasizing development along with security concerns,” said Ahmed Samih, director at the Andalus Institute for Tolerance and Anti-Violence Studies, a human rights organization shut down by Egyptian authorities in 2016. “Trump has no respect for human rights, the United Nations or even real open markets.

“I don’t just fear what four more years of him mean for the Arab world but also the American people,” he added. “If Trump is reelected, there will be no limits on him, and he will act like a king in the U.S, as a new MBS,” said Mr. Samih, referring to hard-charging Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Like Mr. el-Sissi, the crown prince, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, has firmly consolidated power, crushed dissent and detained rivals — all while cultivating Riyadh’s privileged status under Mr. Trump as a key regional ally and bulwark against Iran.

King Salman, 84, has largely given his 35-year-old heir a free hand to shape domestic economic reforms and a foreign policy realignment that puts a priority on curbing Iran’s nuclear program over traditional concerns such as the plight of the Palestinians.

Trump and the young

Many younger Arabs across the region, meanwhile, tend to see Mr. Trump’s presidency and the coming U.S. vote through the prism of their frustrated aspirations for economic security and personal liberties.

Along with de-emphasizing human rights, the administration’s transactional approach to the region’s authoritarian leaders and its clear tilt toward Israeli policies on Palestinian independence and the status of Jerusalem have led the “Arab Street” to prefer Mr. Biden.

A YouGov poll released Sunday of some 18 Middle Eastern and North African countries found 39% backed Mr. Biden, while only 12% preferred Mr. Trump.

When asked which candidate would be better for the Arab world, the largest share of respondents (49%) said neither candidate would be, but Mr. Biden (40%) was considered a better option than Mr. Trump (12%).

But popular sentiment in Egypt and elsewhere often struggles to break through given regional media that are largely controlled by the government and largely favorable to Mr. Trump.

“President Trump has been one of the greatest [presidents] in American history,” said Mohammed Salem Al Ghamdi, a columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Medina. “His business mentality and expertise have allowed him to create and implement a strategy with great results.

“In comparison, the Obama administration showed indecisiveness accompanied with a serious inability to express commitment to supporting allies and stopping enemies from continuing to inflict economic damage on the U.S. and its allies alike.”

Mr. Al Ghamdi said most Saudis tend to favor and expect a second Trump term, but should Mr. Biden achieve an electoral victory, they expect the long history of U.S.-Saudi ties to survive.

“Nevertheless, the excitement [over the] potential of a stronger alliance between the U.S. and its friends in the Middle East might not be as it would if Trump should win,” he said.

Ex-embassy worker suspected of sexually assaulting 24 women

Ex-embassy worker suspected of sexually assaulting 24 women

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By JULIE WATSON

Associated Press

Thursday, October 29, 2020

SAN DIEGO (AP) – A former U.S. embassy worker in Mexico is believed to have drugged and sexually assaulted as many as two dozen women, filming many of them while they were unconscious, according to federal prosecutors.

Brian Jeffrey Raymond was arrested earlier this month in San Diego, where he had moved after leaving his job in June. He has been charged in one case involving an alleged assault on May 31 and prosecutors say they anticipate more charges involving 23 other women.

The FBI started investigating after Mexican police responding to a call May 31 found a woman naked and screaming from the balcony of an embassy-leased apartment in Mexico City.

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Investigators found more than 400 photos and videos on Raymond’s iCloud account in which he appears to be filming unconscious women, according to court documents.

Prosecutors say they now have evidence for charges involving 23 other alleged victims.

Raymond has worked for the U.S. government for 23 years in numerous countries, according to court documents. Prosecutors did not specify what position he held in Mexico other than to say he was working for a U.S. government agency at the embassy.

Roberto Velasco, director general of North America in Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Raymond was the first secretary of the United States, a mid-level diplomatic post.

Mexican authorities collaborated with U.S. officials on the investigation that led to Raymond’s arrest “in order to bring to justice a potential series of sexual abuses that occurred in both countries,” Velasco said in a statement.

The Mexican government emphasized “its categorical rejection of any form of gender violence,” Velasco said.

Raymond has not entered a plea and his defense attorney did not immediately respond to phone messages and emails from The Associated Press requesting comment. The Daily Beast first reported on the charges.

Neither embassy nor State Department officials would comment on the case.

Raymond left his job in mid-June after he was questioned about the May 31 incident and his cellphones and lap top were seized, according to court documents.

Mexican police reported finding a “naked, hysterical woman desperately screaming for help from the defendant’s balcony,” according to prosecutors. Raymond had been living there since August 2018.

The victim told investigators she had no idea that Raymond was filming her or that he had pulled down her bra, exposing her breasts.

The 23 other victims were discovered after investigators found hundreds of photos and videos, according to court documents.

If convicted, Raymond could face a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.

Fluent in Spanish and Mandarin, Raymond has “led an exemplary life” from all outward appearances, according to prosecutors.

“The fact that many victims in defendant’s case were unaware of his behavior until they were shown the videos and photographs made while they were unconscious is evidence of his unique ability to portray a very different public face,” prosecutors said in their court filings.

He continued to meet with women until September of this year in San Diego, according to court documents.

Raymond remains in custody in San Diego, though the case is being transferred to Washington. His preliminary hearing has been delayed until Dec. 14 because the coronavirus pandemic has impeded his new defense attorney’s ability to travel and meet with him.

____

AP reporters Mark Stevenson and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.

Nagorno-Karabakh fighting grinds on amid more peace talks

Nagorno-Karabakh fighting grinds on amid more peace talks

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Vovik Zakharian, 72, walks past his apartment building damaged by shelling by Azerbaijan’s forces during a military conflict in Shushi, outside Stepanakert, the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020. Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh continued on … more >

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By AVET DEMOURIAN

Associated Press

Thursday, October 29, 2020

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) – Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ground on for a fifth week Thursday as top diplomats from Armenia and Azerbaijan prepared for more talks on a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Separatist authorities of Nagorno-Karabakh accused Azerbaijani forces of targeting several of the region’s towns with Smerch multiple rocket systems, a devastating Soviet-designed weapon intended to ravage wide areas with explosives and cluster munitions, and one town with military aviation.

In Stepanakert, the region’s capital, civilians were killed and wounded, officials said without clarifying how many.

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Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry denied using aviation and accused Armenian forces of shelling the Terter, Goranboy and Barda regions of Azerbaijan. The ministry also reported downing two Armenian Su-25 warplanes, a claim Armenian officials rejected as “disinformation.”

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994.

The latest fighting between regional, Armenian and Azerbaijani forces began Sept. 27 and has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones. It is the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in the quarter-century since the war ended. Hundreds and possibly thousands of people, have been killed in a little over a month.

According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,119 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed 90 civilians and wounded 392.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that, according to Moscow’s information, the death toll from the fighting was nearing 5,000, a significantly higher number than officially reported.

The hostilities have raged on despite international calls for peace and three attempts at establishing a cease-fire. The latest U.S.-brokered truce frayed immediately after it took effect Monday, just like two previous cease-fires negotiated by Russia. The warring sides have repeatedly blamed each other for violations.

Russia, the United States and France have co-chaired the so-called Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate in the conflict, but they have failed to score any progress.

The Minsk Group’s co-chairs were set to meet with the foreign ministers of Azerbaijan and Armenia in Geneva on Thursday, but the prospects for a breakthrough appeared dim.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has said that to end hostilities, Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. He has insisted that Azerbaijan has the right to reclaim its territory by force since international mediators have failed.

___

Associated Press writer Daria Litvinova in Moscow and Aida Sultanova in London contributed to this report.

Pompeo says AES of US, PetroVietnam to sign $2.8B LNG deal

Pompeo says AES of US, PetroVietnam to sign $2.8B LNG deal

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In this file photo, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a joint press briefing with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena) **FILE** more >

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Associated Press

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

HANOI (AP) – The U.S. energy firm AES and PetroVietnam plan to soon sign an agreement on a $2.8 billion liquefied natural gas project, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.

Pompeo made the comments in pre-recorded remarks to a business conference hosted both online and in person in Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Later Wednesday, the State Department announced that Pompeo had added a stop in Vietnam to his Asia tour this week.

Arlington, Virginia-based AES Corp. and its Vietnamese partners have been gradually ramping up efforts to develop a hub for importing LNG from the U.S. over the past several years.

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Pompeo said Vietnam has approved the project, and that it would “open the door to billions of dollars per year in U.S. LNG exports to Vietnam. That’s a real win-win situation.“

Last year, President Donald Trump and his Vietnamese counterpart, Tran Dai Quang, signed a memorandum of understanding on AES working with PetroVietnam Gas JSC to develop the LNG terminal and 2,250 megawatt power plant at Son My, in the south-central province of Binh Thuan.

Vietnam’s demand for energy is soaring as its economy rapidly industrializes. The U.S., its biggest trading partner, is keen to increase exports to the country to help rebalance its trade deficit, which was nearly $55 billion in 2019.

The U.S. has been seeking to increase American investments in Asian energy, infrastructure and telecoms and has nearly 60 potential projects worth $185 billion, Pompeo said without giving details.

Delta Offshore Energy and a consortium that includes Bechtel Infrastructure, GE Power and other companies also recently announced plans for a $4 billion LNG to power project in southern Vietnam’s Bac Lieu province.

Armenia, Azerbaijan keep fighting despite cease-fire deal

Armenia, Azerbaijan keep fighting despite cease-fire deal

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An Armenian wounded soldier receives treatment in a military hospital near the frontline in the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh, Sunday, Oct. 25, 2020. Armenia and Azerbaijan have accused each other of violating the new U.S.-brokered cease-fire aimed to halt the … more >

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By AVET DEMOURIAN

Associated Press

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

YEREVAN, Armenia (AP) – Fighting over the separatist territory of Nagorno-Karabakh raged on Tuesday, unimpeded by a U.S.-brokered cease-fire, while Armenia and Azerbaijan traded blame for the deal’s quick unraveling.

Azerbaijan accused Armenia of striking the Barda region with rockets, killing four civilians, including a 2-year-old girl and wounding 13 others. The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry denounced the attack as “another war crime committed by Armenia in recent days in gross violation of the agreed humanitarian ceasefire.”

Armenia’s Defense Ministry rejected the accusations as “an absolute lie and a dirty provocation.”

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Earlier in the day, the Armenian military accused Azerbaijani forces of firing at Armenian border guard positions on the country’s southern border with Iran, adding that it has retaliated. Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry rejected the statement as “false and provocative.”

The U.S.-brokered truce frayed instantly after taking effect Monday, just like two earlier truces negotiated by Russia, with the warring parties blaming each other for violations.

In a bid to save the deal, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke separately to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian on Tuesday. He pressed them to “abide by their commitments to cease hostilities and pursue a diplomatic solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict,” the State Department said, emphasizing that “there is no military solution to this conflict.”

Nagorno-Karabakh lies within Azerbaijan but has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces backed by Armenia since a war there ended in 1994. By then, Armenian forces not only held Nagorno-Karabakh itself but also captured substantial areas outside the territory’s borders.

The latest fighting, which began Sept. 27 has involved heavy artillery, rockets and drones in the largest escalation of hostilities over the separatist region in the quarter-century since the war ended.

According to Nagorno-Karabakh officials, 1,009 of their troops and 39 civilians have been killed in the clashes so far, while 122 civilians have been wounded. Azerbaijani authorities haven’t disclosed their military losses, but say the fighting has killed 65 civilians and wounded nearly 300.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that, according to Moscow’s information, the death toll from the fighting was nearing 5,000.

Russia, the United States and France have co-chaired the so-called Minsk Group set up by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to mediate in the conflict, but their attempts to negotiate a political settlement have stalled.

The Minsk Group’s co-chairs are set to meet with the foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan in Geneva on Thursday, but prospects for progress appear dim.

Azerbaijan’s president has argued that his country has the right to reclaim its territory by force after nearly three decades of international mediation have brought no result.

In an interview released on Monday, Aliyev again took aim at the Minsk Group, accusing its co-chairs of working on “freezing the conflict” and offering “just promises, just bureaucratic procedures.”

The president of Azerbaijan said that for the hostilities to end, Armenian forces must withdraw from Nagorno-Karabakh. In Monday’s televised address to the nation, Aliyev boasted about Azerbaijani forces retaking control over several areas in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the past, officials in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh have rejected some of Aliyev’s previous claims of battlefield gains. However, the Armenian Defense Ministry acknowledged Monday that Azerbaijani forces took control of the town of Gubadli near Nagorno-Karabakh’s southern edge and acknowledged that Azerbaijani forces also “made advances in some directions.”

____

Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Aida Sultanova in London and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

China to sanction U.S. weapons companies over $1.8 billion proposed arms sale to Taiwan

China to sanction U.S. weapons companies over $1.8 billion proposed arms sale to Taiwan

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In this Feb. 5, 2020, file photo, Lockheed Martin’s Robert Balserak, lead executive, Air Superiority Programs, explains the capabilities of the F-21 at the DefExpo in Lucknow, India. China’s government said Monday, Oct. 26, 2020, that it will impose sanctions … more >

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By Lauren Toms

The Washington Times

Monday, October 26, 2020

China is gearing up to slap sanctions on several U.S. weapons manufacturers for their role in a new weapons sale to Taiwan.

The companies that will be sanctioned include Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Raythron, among others, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry said Monday.

“To safeguard our national interests, China decided to take necessary measures and levy sanctions on U.S. companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing Defence and Raytheon, and those individuals and companies who behaved badly in the process of the arms sales,” spokesperson Zhao Lijian told reporters, as quoted by Reuters.

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The Trump administration last week formally notified Congress of an intended $1.8 billion weapons sale to Taiwan.

Although the U.S. does not share formal, diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the sale is the latest step in a sharp escalation of tensions between the U.S. and China, which has included the shuttering of diplomatic consulates, trade tariffs, the expulsion of journalists and U.S. sanctions over Chinese policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang province.

The notice, announced Wednesday, detailed the weapons package approved by the State Department and includes 135 Boeing-made air-to-ground missiles, also known as Standoff Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles, and related maintenance products valued at more than $1 billion; 11 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) M142 Launchers worth roughly $436 million; and six MS-110 Recce Pods valued at $367.2 million.

The decision to sell advanced weapons to Taiwan marks a particularly provocative advance in the eyes of China, which views Taiwan as its own territory.

Lebanon names team for maritime border talks with Israel

Lebanon names team for maritime border talks with Israel

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Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas field in the Mediterranean Sea, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. Lebanon and Israel have reached an agreement on a framework of indirect, U.S.-mediated talks over a longstanding disputed maritime border between the two countries, the parties announced … more >

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By BASSEM MROUE

Associated Press

Monday, October 12, 2020

BEIRUT (AP) – Lebanon announced on Monday the names of its delegation that will hold indirect talks later this week with Israel over the disputed maritime border between the two countries.

The announcement by President Michel Aoun’s office comes two weeks after Lebanon and Israel reached an agreement on a framework for the U.S.-mediated talks. The talks are scheduled to begin Wednesday at the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the southern Lebanese border town of Naqoura.

Israel and Lebanon have no diplomatic relations and are technically in a state of war. They each claim about 860 square kilometers (330 square miles) of the Mediterranean Sea as within their own exclusive economic zones.

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Aoun’s office said the four-member Lebanese delegation will be headed by air force Brig. Gen. Bassam Yassin. The three other members are navy Col. Mazen Basbous, Lebanese oil official Wissam Chbat and border expert Najib Massihi.

Israel’s Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz will lead the Israeli delegation, according to Israeli officials.

Lebanese officials have made sure to send a team of experts to show that this week’s talks with Israel are purely technical and don’t mean any kind of normalization between the two countries.

Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group said last week that the talks don’t mean reconciliation with Israel. A statement by Hezbollah’s bloc in parliament said last week that defining the border of “national sovereignty” is the job of the Lebanese state.

The talks will see the Lebanese delegation speaking through U.N. and U.S. officials to the Israelis.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, the top American diplomat for the Middle East, will be in Lebanon ahead of the talks to attend the opening session, the State Department said.

It added that Schenker will be joined by Ambassador John Desrocher, who will serve as the U.S. mediator for these negotiations.

The agreement to commence discussions on the maritime boundary “is a vital step forward that offers the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike,” the State Department said in its statement Monday.

The talks come as Lebanon is passing through the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history. Beirut hopes that oil and gas discoveries in its territorial waters will help it come out of the crisis.

Lebanon began offshore drilling earlier this year and is expected to start drilling for gas in the disputed area with Israel in the coming months.

Lebanon and Israel hold monthly tripartite indirect meetings in Naqoura to discuss violations along their border. The countries also held indirect negotiations in the 1990s when Arab states and Israel were working on reaching peace agreements. Although the Palestinians and Jordan signed agreements with Israel, Lebanon and Syria did not.

China says US orders it to close its consulate in Houston

U.S. orders China to close its consulate in Houston amid rising tension

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A firetruck is positioned outside the Chinese Consulate Wednesday, July 22, 2020, in Houston. Authorities responded to reports of a fire at the consulate. Witnesses said that people were burning paper in what appeared to be trash cans, according to … more >

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By Lauren Meier

The Washington Times

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

The U.S. on Wednesday ordered China to close its consulate in Houston, citing efforts to protect American intellectual property.

The move marks the latest in a series of increasing escalation between Washington and Beijing over trade, human rights, technology and national security.

While the Trump administration did not provide details behind the reason it is closing the Chinese consulate in Houston, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointed to action being taken by the White House to end alleged intellectual property theft.

SEE ALSO: Rubio: Chinese Consulate in Houston is a ‘front’ for ‘massive spy operation’

“The United States will not tolerate [China‘s] violations of our sovereignty and intimidation of our people, just as we have not tolerated [its] unfair trade practices, theft of American jobs, and other egregious behavior,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement.

One day prior, the Justice Department accused the Chinese government of running an elaborate cyberhacking operation aimed at stealing secrets from Western companies, including U.S. businesses racing to develop a coronavirus vaccine to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic that began in China six months ago.

Federal prosecutors claimed that two Chinese hackers were working with the government in Beijing to steal hundreds of millions of dollars and secrets through a yearslong operation that has recently targeted biotechnology companies, including one in Maryland and another in Massachusetts.

“President Trump has said, ‘Enough, we’re not going to allow this to continue to happen,’ ” Mr. Pompeo said while on an official visit to Copenhagen.

Back in Houston, firefighters responded to calls of papers being set ablaze on the consulate’s property but were denied entry to the grounds, local news reported.

Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, on Wednesday said the Chinese consulate in Houston is basically a front for a massive spy operation after the State Department ordered the consulate to close.

“So this consulate is basically a front. … It’s kind of [the] central node of a massive spy operation — commercial espionage, defense espionage — also influence agents to try to influence Congress,” Mr. Rubio, the acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on Fox Business Network.

Mr. Rubio said the closure was “long overdue” and predicted that China would close one of the United States’ facilities in China as a response.

China has condemned the U.S.’ move to shut down the consulate.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a news conference Wednesday that “the unilateral closure of China’s consulate general in Houston within a short period of time is an unprecedented escalation of its recent actions against China.”

He warned of firm countermeasures if the U.S. does not reverse itself. Besides its embassy in Beijing, the U.S. has five consulates in mainland China, according to its website. They are in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Shenyang.

At the height of the coronavirus outbreak in China, the U.S. in January closed its consulate in Wuhan and has since decided to not reopen the facility.

• David Sherfinski contributed to this story, which is also based on wire reports.