Posts Tagged ‘Iran’

Netanyahu Blasts Abbas Speech: He Revealed Truth About Conflict and Did Israel a Service

January 15, 2018

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during the meeting of the Palestinian Central Council in the West Bank city of Ramallah January 14, 2018. (Reuters)

Speaking to reporters while visiting India, Netanyahu says he supports economic relief for Gaza; on Iran, the prime minister warns West: Last chance to fix nuclear deal

By Noa Landau (New Delhi) 15.01.2018 16:30 Updated: 5:51 PM

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks back after inspecting a guard of honor during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in the Indian capital New Delhi on January 15, 2018

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks back after inspecting a guard of honor during a ceremonial reception at the Presidential Palace in the Indian capital New Delhi on January 15, 2018 PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s comments that Israel killed the Oslo accords by saying that his remarks did Israel a service. Netanyahu, speaking to Israeli journalists in his entourage during his visit to India, also said that he supports economic relief for the Gaza Strip.

However, Netanyahu added that the main problem in the enclave was “the failure of Gaza itself to take care of the basic infrastructure that people need, such as electricity, water and housing. That’s our problem. When they talk about collapse, that’s the infrastructure they mean. It is an absurd situation that the State of Israel has to handle the most basic needs of life, which are neglected by the Hamas government.”

Netanyahu’s comments follow the publication of a report in Haaretz Monday that quoted army officials as saying that the Strip is on the brink of economic collapse.

The prime minister also warned the West that it was the last chance to fix the nuclear deal with Iran.

Regarding the escalation on the border with Gaza, he said that Israel’s actions are guided by its security interests, and that Israel holds Hamas responsible for every attack. “The Israel Defense Forces does not bomb sand dunes,” he added.

Netanyahu looked tired. Aside from the hectic schedule of the official visit, he has taken part in a number of nighttime votes and debates in recent weeks. He also had to contend with negative reports about his son Yair, who was supposed to come on the trip but ultimately remained in Jerusalem.  At the start of the meeting with reporters, the premier asked for coffee, blaming jet lag.

‘What we have been saying all along’

Reacting to Abbas’ speech Sunday night, Netanyahu said that the Palestinian prime minister had exposed “what we have been saying all along, that the roots of the conflict are opposition to a Jewish state within any borders it might have. Not only the way he spoke but the things he said help us show the truth,” Netanyahu said. “I think this serves our political goals more than anything else.”

>> Abbas declares Oslo Accords dead: ‘Trump’s peace plan is a slap, we’ll slap back’ <<

Israel can now fairly make the “elementary, logical demand” that the Palestinian leader change his position, or there will be no peace, Netanyahu said. Abbas did truth a service, and Israeli diplomacy too, the prime minister added – possibly because the Palestinian president is worried that the Americans will come out with a new initiative, and would prefer that they were replaced in their role as mediators.

“But there is nobody else,” Netanyahu said: Abbas’ efforts to get them removed from that role won’t work. “For too long, the Palestinian Authority has been pampered by the international community, which didn’t dare tell them the truth – not about Jerusalem and not about recognizing Israel. That has changed. I think Abu Mazen [Abbas] was reacting to that. This is the first time somebody’s told him the truth to his face.”

‘Last chance to fix the Iran deal’

At the meeting with reporters during the second day of Netanyahu’s visit to India, he reviewed the trip so far and took questions. The prime minister began his remarks by underscoring the “vast importance” that the visit has for security.

Asked about reports that he’s trying to persuade India to reinstate a canceled sale of antitank missiles from the Israeli company Rafael, which was worth half a billion dollars, the prime minister said, “we’re working on it.” On security issues, Netanyahu said that he and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had discussed the Iranian threat.

“We have spent many hours together and much of that conversation focused on Iran, the danger it poses and the aspiration for hegemony over the Muslim world and Muslims everywhere,” Netanyahu said.

Asked about the future of the Iran nuclear agreement, given U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest statement that he will quit the deal unless it is “fixed,” Netanyahu said, “I think it’s the West’s last opportunity to fix the agreement.”

The Prime Minister’s Office later clarified that he meant to say “it looks like the last opportunity.”

Netanyahu said he has counseled European leaders to take Trump’s words seriously. “Some thought he would never retreat from this agreement. I told them I suggest they treat [him] with respect and seriousness. After what he said on Friday, I think people are starting to get it, perhaps belatedly, that this is how it is.”

Referring to his conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, Netanyahu said, “He told me, ‘I agree on the ballistic missiles, the terrorism, Iran’s aggression. But I don’t agree with you about the agreement.’ I told him, if we don’t change it, the agreement will double Iran’s aggression in the region and its ability to threaten France with missiles. They will achieve a nuclear arsenal. If the agreement isn’t changed, that’s what will be.”

“That is why Trump’s position is correct,” Netanyahu said, adding that he’s been preaching to that effect for some time. “He told me that he understand the superpowers have an opportunity here, I think the last one, to fix the agreement. I think the president is deadly serious that if the agreement isn’t changed, he will make the inescapable decision. The main thing is to make changes that prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear arsenal without hindrance. I think this is the Western countries’ last chance to fix the agreement.”

‘Tehran to Kfar Sava’

Speaking about an Iranian land corridor, Netanyahu said that nobody can stop a truck from driving from Tehran to Damascus. “My policy is to stop trucks driving from Tehran to Kfar Sava,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean we’re allowing Iran to establish itself militarily in Syria,” Netanyahu continued. “They want to bring planes there, they want to bring army forces, warships and submarines. We are preventing this in practice. What’s preventing it is Israel – only Israel,” he said, adding that Iran needs to understand that if it wants to advance its ground, air and naval forces into Israel’s back yard, it will be met with opposition. “The decision whether to escalate is in the hands of the Iranians,” the prime minister said.

Asked about ties between Iran and countries like India and China, with which Netanyahu is trying to improve ties, he answered gingerly, “We have an interest in maintaining excellent relations with India and China as well. I understand the sensitivities and we are discussing that. too. Our improvement of ties is not designed against any specific country.”

Annexing the West Bank?

Netanyahu also fielded a question about the Likud Central Committee’s resolution to annex the West Bank to Israel, noting that the committee could resolve whatever it liked, and the government would also do so.

The prime minister then said, “I support wisdom and responsibility and firmness regarding our central interests,” which he said include protecting Israel’s security and settlements, as well as maneuvering vis-à-vis the international community.

Asked whether the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad would be legalized after a terror attack nearby killed 35-year-old Rabbi Raziel Shevach, he said that this option was under consideration. He noted that in the meantime, the outpost has been connected up to water and electricity.

He then asked to share something personal with the reporters: a moment from the red-carpet reception, with the Indian honor guard present. “I thought how I was representing a people that was shattered to pieces 70, 75 years ago, and now I am being received here as its prime minister, with the respect given to a nation among the nations, and more,” Netanyahu said. “It moved me very much. I think that historically, the moment reflected the Jewish people’s return to the world stage, in many ways.”

The city of New Delhi alone has three times the whole population of Israel, Netanyahu said, and “India contains a considerable proportion of the people who live on Earth. India is a world power and Modi is trying to advance it, to become even more powerful. He is going out of his way to demonstrate his friendship toward Israel and the personal friendship between us.”

Netanyahu said that this is partly due to Israel’s might – economic, technological, in security and in intelligence – but also contains a dimension of personal relations.

A number of economic agreements have been signed during this visit, Netanyahu said, and he anticipates more agreements on security and business in the months to come.

No passage to India

The biggest obstacle that the Israeli delegation would like to resolve involves red tape on imports to India. Until a comprehensive solution, such as a free trade agreement, can be found, Israel has given India a list of products it wants to be exempt from customs – chiefly, food.

The topic of upgrading direct aviation links also arose, as did the use of Israeli agricultural technology in India, which hasn’t yet adopted all the advanced technologies, Netanyahu said carefully. “When I was the ambassador to the UN, we had no relations with India,” he added. “There was structural hostility. In recent years we have changed that from top to bottom. There has been unprecedented blossoming since the moment I met Modi and we decided to upgrade relations.”

Noa Landau
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Russia’s Sergei Lavrov slams US for ignoring ‘multipolar’ world

January 15, 2018

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has sharply criticized the US for trying to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal. Washington is still using ultimatums and failing to recognize the emerging “multipolar world,” he said.

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Moscow will work to preserve the Iran nuclear deal despite Donald Trump’s recent pledge to change it,Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at his annual news conference.

Russia also hopes that France, Germany and the UK would also resist US pressure to alter the arrangement, Lavrov added. The three European powers, alongside US, Russia, and China, reached the 2015 deal to limit Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions after years of laborious talks.

Read more:What is the Iran nuclear deal?

“Unfortunately, our American colleagues still want to operate only on the basis of dictating policy, issuing ultimatums,  they do not want to hear the perspectives of other centers of world politics,” Lavrov said on Monday.

Read moreIran rebuffs Trump’s demand for more nuclear negotiation

The US is refusing to “acknowledge the reality of the emerging multi-polar world,” he added.

Lavrov’s annual conference is designed to give an overview of Russia’s diplomatic efforts in the past year and provide a lookahead for 2018.

Iran failure – a message to North Korea?

Several days ago, US President Donald Trump said he would waive sanctions against Tehran only to give US and Europe more time to fix the “terrible flaws” of the Iran arrangement.

However, Iran has been fulfilling its part of the deal, Lavrov said on Monday.

“The US is requiring for Iran to stop developing its ballistic rockets, but that was never a topic of the talks and Iran has never taken up any obligations about it,” according to the official.

Read more: Tehran says nuclear deal relies on ‘full compliance’ from US

The Russian foreign minister said that statements coming from the US also “seriously aggravated” tensions in other parts of the world, including the Korean Peninsula.

The collapse of the Iran deal would also undermine any arrangement with Pyongyang, Lavrov added.

“If they put this agreement aside and tell Iran: you keep within the arranged limits and we’ll bring back the sanctions anyway – just put yourself in North Korea’s shoes. They have been promised that the sanctions would be removed if they give up their nuclear program.”

Read moreNorth Korea missile launch prompts Hawaii nuclear attack warning test

Lavrov  also criticized the US over their plans to provide Greece with US natural gas, and other energy initiatives clashing with Russia’s interests in Europe.

“When it comes to [Trump] administrations actions, there is a fear of healthy competition,” he said.

Commenting on the US actions in Syria, he said that Washington’s priorities had not changed under Trump. According to Moscow’s standpoint, Washington is focusing on regime change over ending the civil war.

In some areas, US foreign policy even became “more saturated, more assertive” under Donald Trump, “regardless of his positions during the electoral campaign,” Lavrov said.

dj/ng (AFP, Reuters, Interfax)

Erdogan: we will ‘strangle’ U.S.-backed force in Syria ‘before it’s even born’ — “What can that terror army target but Turkey?”

January 15, 2018

BEIRUT/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Monday to “strangle” a planned 30,000-strong U.S.-backed force in Syria “before it’s even born,” as Washington’s backing for Kurdish fighters drove a wedge into relations with one of its main Middle East allies.

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Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan 

The United States announced its support on Sunday for plans for a “border force” to defend territory held by U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led fighters in northern Syria.

The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad responded on Monday by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from the country. Assad’s ally Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control.

But the strongest denunciation came from Erdogan, who has presided as relations between the United States and its biggest Muslim ally within NATO have stretched to the breaking point.

“A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdogan said of the United States in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey?”

“Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

Erdogan said Turkey had completed preparations for an operation in Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria.

The United States has led an international coalition using air strikes and special forces troops to aid fighters on the ground battling Islamic State militants in Syria since 2014. It has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.

The U.S. intervention has taken place on the periphery of a near seven-year civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.

Islamic State was effectively defeated last year, but Washington says its troops are prepared to stay to make sure the Islamist militant group cannot return, also citing the need for meaningful progress in U.N.-led peace talks.

For much of the war, the United States and Turkey worked together, jointly supporting forces fighting against Assad’s government. But a U.S. decision to back Kurdish fighters in northern Syria in recent years has enraged Ankara.

Meanwhile, the Assad government, backed by Russia and Iran, has made great strides over the past two years in defeating a range of opponents, restoring control over nearly all of Syria’s main cities. It considers the continued U.S. presence a threat to its ambition to restore full control over the entire country.

On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said it was working with its militia allies, the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to set up the new force to patrol the Turkish and Iraqi borders, as well as within Syria along the Euphrates River which separates SDF territory from that held by the government.

FILE PHOTO: A U.S. fighter stands near a military vehicle, north of Raqqa city, Syria November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Turkey views the Kurdish forces supported by the United States as a national security threat. It says the Syrian Kurdish PYD movement and the affiliated YPG militia, the backbone of the U.S.-backed SDF force in Syria, are allies of the PKK, a banned Kurdish group waging an insurgency in southern Turkey.

“This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences,” Erdogan said.

“Either you take off your flags on those terrorist organisations, or we will have to hand those flags over to you, Don’t force us to bury in the ground those who are with terrorists,” he said.

“Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000 of them.”


Syria’s main Kurdish groups have emerged so far as one of the few winners in the Syrian war, working to entrench their autonomy over large parts of northern Syria. Washington opposes those autonomy plans even as it has backed the SDF.

The Syrian government and the main Kurdish parties have mostly avoided conflict during the civil war, as both sides focused on fighting other groups. But Assad’s rhetoric towards the Kurds has turned increasingly hostile.

Damascus denounced the new border force as a “blatant assault” on its sovereignty, Syrian state media said. It said any Syrian who joined the force would be deemed “a traitor”.

“What the American administration has done comes in the context of its destructive policy in the region to fragment countries … and impede any solutions to the crises,” state news agency SANA cited a foreign ministry source as saying.

Assad’s allies have also chimed in. In an apparent reference to the force, senior Iranian official Ali Shamkhani said it was “doomed to failure”, Fars news agency reported.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: “The actions that we see now show that the United States does not want to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria.”

“Fundamentally, this means the breakup of a large territory along the border with Turkey and Iraq,” Lavrov said. The zone would be controlled by groups “under the leadership of the United States”, he added.

The coalition said the Border Security Force would operate under SDF command, and about 230 individuals were currently undergoing training in its inaugural class.

Its ethnic composition will reflect the areas in which the force serves. More Arabs would serve along the Euphrates River Valley and the Iraqi border, and more Kurds would serve in areas of northern Syria, the coalition said.

Peace In Syria? Kurdish question hangs over Sochi conference

January 15, 2018

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A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through debris in the old city center on the eastern front line of Raqqa, Syria, on September 25, 2017. Credit AFP Bulent Kilic

By Yasar Yakis | 

Three issues come to the fore in Syria at the beginning of 2018: The Astana-Sochi process, Idlib and the Kurds. Russia decided to convene, on Jan. 29 in Sochi, the Syrian People’s Congress, but the US, UK and France are opposed to this meeting because it might consolidate Russia’s already strong leading role in the solution of the Syrian crisis.

Russia is trying to accommodate Turkey’s insistent objection to the participation of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). They will eventually participate under the name of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and the delegation will include some non-Kurds, such as Arabs, Turkmens, Armenians, Syriacs, Assyrians and Chechens, as well as the Kurds who support Kurdish political parties other than the PYD.

This scenario falls short of Turkey’s expectations but, when it is presented as an innocent package, it becomes more difficult for Turkey to reject, because that would be perceived as Turkey being opposed to the representation of around 10 percent of the Syrian population and a military force that controls a quarter of Syria’s territory, including almost all of its oil, gas and water resources.

The Sochi conference has to be linked one way or another to the work conducted under the UN’s auspices, because Russia wants the UN to endorse the entire process, including the withdrawal of forces from the US and Turkey.

France is not happy to see that the Astana and Sochi processes are dominated by Russia. President Emmanuel Macron voiced his discontent during a press conference held last week at the end of his talks with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the opposition is defeated in many places in Syria, Idlib has seen a concentration of various groups fighting against the regime. The Syrian army, on Jan. 7, carried out attacks in Idlib, mainly aimed at the opposition group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, and captured several villages in south Idlib, clearing the way to the rebel-held air base at Abu Al-Duhur.


Turkey-opposed efforts to create an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria remains the major issue ahead of peace talks later this month — and it may threaten the territorial integrity of the country.

Yasar Yakis

Meanwhile, Russia’s Hmeimim air base near Latakia was attacked last week by 13 drones. The Russian Defense Ministry subsequently sent a letter to the Turkish chief of joint staff and to the head of intelligence, bringing to their attention that the drones approached the air base from Idlib and asking them to establish observation posts in the area to fulfil its task of deconfliction. To emphasize its discontent, Russia leaked the content of this letter to the media.

At almost the same time, Turkey summoned the Russian and Iranian ambassadors in Ankara to the Foreign Ministry and asked for their respective governments’ intervention to stop the Syrian army’s bombing of opposition forces. This move contradicts Turkey’s commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity, because it will become void if Turkey complains about Syrian army attacks aimed at extending its sovereignty to all provinces including Idlib.

Turkey was more focused on what was going on in the neighboring Syrian province of Afrin, where Kurds declared their third autonomous canton. Turkey’s threat to crush any effort to create an autonomous Kurdish zone in the north of Syria is legitimate, but such a threat may not be sufficient to prevent this process from following its own path. Turkey has to make more effort to understand what the major actors have in mins when it comes to the Kurdish issue. London-based Pan-Arab paper Asharq Al-Awsat reported on Jan. 8 that the Trump administration is planning to recognize the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) as the legitimate authority in eastern Syria. This would mean the Syrian government loses part of its sovereignty in the northeast of the country, while for Turkey it would be a nightmare.

France gave an indirect sign of extending similar recognition to Kurds by announcing that the PYD has the right to judge the French Daesh fighters it has captured. France announced this position one day before Erdogan’s visit to Paris.

The Kurds remain the major issue in Syria, and it may threaten the territorial integrity of the country. The US will use the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces to negotiate concessions with the regime, while Russia and Iran will support the government against the American pressure. Serious clashes may be expected during this confrontation and the Syrian civilian population will continue to pay a heavy toll.

If Turkey-Syria relations had not deteriorated to this extent, the easiest solution would be for Turkey to cooperate with Damascus and agree with it not to let the Kurds establish an uninterrupted belt in the north of Syria. Such a solution would give full satisfaction to Ankara and Damascus, but it is conceivable only if they were able to forget the recent past.

•  Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
Twitter: @yakis_yasar


Syria says US-led coalition’s plan to create a “border force” creates ‘traitors’ — Russia-Syria Already Supported by Iran and Turkey 

January 15, 2018


© AFP/File | Kurdish female fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqa’s iconic Al-Naim square on October 19, 2017, after retaking the city from IS
DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syria on Monday lambasted the US-led coalition’s plan to create a 30,000-strong border force in the country’s northeast, saying it would consider its members “traitors”.The alliance fighting the Islamic State group announced on Sunday that it was working with Arab and Kurdish fighters to establish a Border Security Force (BSF).

The BSF would be responsible for preventing a “resurgence” of IS in areas where the jihadists had been cleared by the Syrian Democratic Forces.

But an official source in Syria’s foreign ministry on Monday denounced the plan.

“Syria strongly condemns the US announcement on the creation of militias in the country’s northeast, which represents a blatant attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity and unity of Syria, and a flagrant violation of international law,” said the source, cited by state news agency SANA.

“Syria considers any Syrian who participates in these militias sponsored by the Americans as a traitor to their people and nation, and will deal with them on this basis.”

Backed by the US-led coalition’s air strikes, advisers and weapons, the SDF has ousted IS from swathes of territory in the east and north, including IS bastion Raqa.

With the offensive winding down, the coalition and SDF said they were shifting their focus to border security to prevent a jihadist comeback.

“A strong Border Security Force will prohibit Daesh’s freedom of movement and deny the transportation of illicit materials,” the coalition said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

In a new emailed statement on Monday, it said it aimed to create the 30,000-strong force “over the next several years”.

About half would be SDF veterans, and another 15,000 would be new recruits.

“The Border Security Force will be stationed along the borders of SDF-held areas, to include portions of the Euphrates river valley and international borders to the east and north of SDF-liberated territory,” the coalition said.

Turkey reacted sharply to news of the border force on Sunday, saying it would “legitimise a terror organisation”.

Ankara is fiercely opposed to the SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — considered by the Turkish government to be a “terrorist” group.

Both the US-led coalition and the SDF declined to comment on potential rules of engagement with Turkish or Syrian troops.


In Iran, protesters’ ‘suicides’ are stirring anger and calls for accountability

January 15, 2018

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TEHRAN, Iran — Two of the detained young men killed themselves, and another was a terrorist who died in a clash with security forces, Iran’s government officials have declared with finality. But in an extraordinary display of audacity, many Iranians, including a number of lawmakers and a top entertainment star, have assailed such conclusions.

The three young men were among more than two dozen Iranians who died in the wave of anti-government protests that swept the country a few weeks ago, the most serious unrest to confront the Islamic republic’s political-religious hierarchy in nearly a decade.

The personal stories that have since emerged of the three have struck a nerve among many Iranians, who see glaring contradictions to the official accounts of the facts.

Their push for further investigation, including a parliamentary demand for an inquiry into the prison deaths, suggests that while the protests have largely subsided, the fallout in Iran may be just beginning.

“This news of so-called suicides is making people angry; they demand answers,” said Farshad Ghorbanpour, an analyst close to the government of President Hassan Rouhani.

It is unclear whether the anger signals a potent new complication for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who as Iran’s supreme leader was a target of some of the protests, which began over economic grievances and quickly broadened.

But the willingness by members of mainstream Iranian society to publicly repudiate the narrative of the top judicial authorities is unusual in this country of 80 million, where such behavior can be risky and invite retribution.

Iran’s judicial authorities, in an update on Sunday about the aftermath of the protests and government response, said a total of 25 people had died and nearly 4,000 had been arrested. They also said that hundreds had been released, including 500 in Tehran.

The national prosecutor, Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei, told a news conference in Tehran that “none of the bullets” found in those killed had matched types used by Iran’s law enforcement officers and military. Those who died in detention, he said, had “committed suicide.”

President Rouhani, who has defended the right of peaceful protest, on Sunday appeared to lend support to the doubters of such claims.

He extended his rebukes of hard-liners over the protests after an influential Friday Prayer leader called the protesters “garbage.” The prayer leader, Kazem Sadighi, later retracted his words.

Rouhani called upon the establishment to listen to the protesters, not demean them.

“We cannot call everybody who takes to the streets dirt and dust, cow, sheep or trash,” he said in a speech broadcast on state television. “What manner of talking is this? Why do we insult? Why do we treat our society impolitely?”

While acknowledging that some people exploited protester anger to stoke mayhem, Rouhani said, “it happens everywhere.”

On Saturday the authorities lifted a ban on the popular phone messaging app Telegram, which is used by more than 40 million Iranians. Its use had been suppressed by Iran’s National Security Council to stop the spreading of news about the protests. Rouhani, who as president officially heads the council, said on Sunday that “blocking is not a solution.”

Telegram users quickly began to share skepticism about the judiciary accounts of the prison deaths.

One of the dead, Vahid Heidari, a street peddler, had been trying to make a living in the central city of Arak. He was arrested on New Year’s Eve during the protests. The judicial authorities insist that he was seized for possession of drugs. A lawyer for his family, Mohammad Najafi, denies this.

The local prosecutor for the city, Abbas Qassemi, told the Mizan news agency, which is affiliated with the judiciary, that video footage showed Heidari stabbing himself with a knife. But the video was never released and Qassemi did not explain how Heidari had possessed a knife in his cell.

In Tehran’s Evin PrisonSina Ghanbari, 23, a student, hanged himself in a bathroom on Jan. 6, the judicial authorities say. He had been held with other protesters, but it has not been made clear whether he had also protested.

A group of lawmakers on Sunday called for an investigation into the deaths of both men, the semiofficial ISNA news agency reported. The members of Parliament say an inquiry is needed because “relatives and eyewitnesses” have questioned the official claims that the two killed themselves.

“Why is a young student, who goes for the first time to the streets to raise his voice, placed in an overcrowded prison cell?” Isa Saharkhiz, a political activist who has spent several stints in Evin Prison, said in reference to Ghanbari.

He said that panic and threats could make any inmate scared, but he was suspicious over the suicide claim. “There is so much traffic in those latrines, it almost seems impossible for any detainee to go inside the latrines and hang himself,” Saharkhiz said. “This must be investigated.”

During the last major nationwide protests, in 2009, the deaths of three men in a makeshift detention camp led to an official investigation, ordered by Khamenei. Twelve officers and guards were convicted of having played a role, but it has never been clear whether they all served prison time.

Skepticism about the official version of fatalities in the more recent protests was fueled further on Sunday when an Iranian celebrity actress, Bahare Rahnama, who stars in films and shows on state television, posted a series of messages on Twitter.

A former restaurant delivery boy she knew well, who had turned up dead in the city of Sanandaj, was described by the judicial authorities as a terrorist.

“He was neither an outlaw, nor dangerous, nor rebellious, he didn’t deserve this, I have no doubt,” Rahnama wrote in Persian.

The man, Saru Ghahremani, 24, an Iranian-Kurd, was arrested on Jan. 1 after he had gone out to protest, activists said.

A group of activists known as the Committee Investigating the ’96 Protests (in Iran’s calendar, the year is 1396), said in a Twitter message by a member that Ghahremani’s body had been delivered to his parents 11 days later. “The parents of this martyr were taken by the ambulance containing his corpse to the Mahmoudieh graveyard, where he was buried with no other family members present,” the message read.

The ’96 Protests Committee also said via Twitter that Ghahremani had once been arrested at age 18, over unspecified “political and security accusations,” and had spent 18 months in prison.

The governor of Sanandaj, Mohammad Ebrahim Zarei, said that Ghahremani had been associated with a “terror group” and had been killed in a clash with law enforcement agents, the official Islamic Republic News Agency has reported.

Rahnama, whose Twitter messages contradicted the Sanandaj governor, deleted some of them, after receiving thousands of likes and retweets.

The actress, who could not be reached for comment, later tweeted that she had been asked by the Sanandaj governor’s office “not to spread false rumors.”

One of the messages she kept up included a portrait of her and Ghahremani.

She also insisted that it was unimaginable that Ghahremani had done anything wrong.

“This kid was neither political nor a protester, nor a rebel, nor an outlaw, he had simple but big wishes for himself: like making his mother happy!” she wrote. “Why should he be killed?”

Russia says zone for US-backed rebels could end up splitting Syria — Russia-Syria Already Supported by Iran and Turkey

January 15, 2018

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gives his annual press conference in Moscow on January 15, 2018. (AFP)

MOSCOW: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday the formation of a zone controlled by US-backed rebels could lead to the partition of Syria.

Russia started to withdraw its forces from Syria last month, but Moscow has said it would keep its Hmeymim air base in Syria’s Latakia Province as well as its naval facility at Tartous “on a permanent basis.”

Russia will not support U.S. attempts to change Iran nuclear deal — “You want our cooperation on North Korea, yes?”

January 15, 2018

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday Moscow will not support attempts by Washington to change the Iran nuclear deal.

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Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. REUTERS – Sergei Karpukhin

Lavrov warned that changes to the Iran nuclear deal would be unacceptable for Tehran and the agreement’s collapse could be detrimental to dialogue with North Korea.

Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Jack Stubbs

Hamas Approaches Endgame in Gaza as Israel Sharpens Its Tunnel-elimination Prowess

January 14, 2018

Either way, Israel will keep building an anti-tunnel barrier along the Gaza border while looking for and destroying passages that have already been dug

By Amos Harel Jan 14, 2018 4:27 PM

An Israeli jeep drives near where Israeli forces said they had destroyed an attack tunnel from Gaza, December 10, 2017.

An Israeli jeep drives near where Israeli forces said they had destroyed an attack tunnel from Gaza, December 10, 2017. Amir Cohen

The destruction of the Hamas tunnel on the Gaza border Saturday night supports the conclusion that Israel has found a defense against the threat of attack tunnels under the Strip. Even if the defense isn’t perfect, it’s pretty effective. The tunnel that was identified and blown up over the weekend near the Kerem Shalom crossing, near where Egypt, Israel and Gaza meet, is reportedly the fourth to be found by Israel since October.

The latest tunnel demolition worsens Hamas’ dilemma on how it should act as Israel gradually deprives it of one of its main offensive assets. The finding of the latest tunnel isn’t directly related to the barrier that Israel has been putting up along the Gaza border. Saturday’s tunnel was found in an area where work on the barrier hasn’t yet begun.

But the combination of technology, intelligence and operational means, along with the planned completion of most of the security barrier by year-end, show that the clock is ticking for Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (The first tunnel destroyed belonged to the smaller Islamic Jihad.) As Hamas leaders’ would view them, the tunnels are a strategic project in which hundreds of millions of shekels have been invested over nearly a decade, involving thousands of laborers and fighters. And now all this may be going down the drain.


At this point, Hamas hasn’t responded clearly to Israel’s steps. Also, Hamas members haven’t been directly involved in the firing of rockets from Gaza at the Negev, some of which have been launched by Salafi groups and some by Islamic Jihad.

Hamas’ decision not to respond to the destruction of the tunnels also apparently reflects the trap the organization finds itself in. It’s having a hard time seeing to the economic needs of the 2 million Gazans, it has a poor relationship with Egypt, and implementation of the Hamas-Palestinian Authority reconciliation agreement is sputtering.

This time the embarrassment is even greater because Israel has announced that some of the latest tunnel was under Egyptian territory.

And the consequences for Hamas are greater than usual. Not only has the group’s planned offensive activity under the border and under the Kerem Shalom crossing — the main goods crossing into the Strip no less, along with pipelines supplying natural gas and diesel — been uncovered. This time the tunnel reflects an intrusion into the sovereignty of Egypt, which Hamas is greatly dependent on in its efforts to improve conditions in Gaza.

One can assume that the Israeli army is also prepared for a possible attack by a Palestinian group through a tunnel before other tunnels are discovered and destroyed.

Regarding the latest tunnel, Hamas claimed that the air force had bombed a “civilian” tunnel that had been used for smuggling goods, rather than a Hamas tunnel. In Israel, officials insisted that the tunnel had been dug with the help of Hamas’ elite Nukhba unit, and that the tunnel had a branch under the border crossing — evidence of plans for a terror attack inside Israel.

Israel’s excavations toward the Egyptian border may uncover plans to smuggle weapons from Sinai into Gaza or to get terrorists out of Gaza — if necessary to have them reinforce an attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing from the Egyptian side of the border. For years the Palestinian groups have viewed the crossings as legitimate and even desirable targets for terror attacks, despite the possible negative effects for Gazans. There is also a history of suicide bombings and the use of tunnels against the Erez, Karni and Kerem Shalom crossings between Gaza and Israel dating back a decade.

The stepped-up pace of Israeli army activity regarding Gaza is evidence of the efforts to deal with the tunnels, efforts that are far from over. In any event, Israel’s priorities in Gaza are clear. The main effort is building a barrier along the border to counter the tunnels, while looking for and destroying tunnels that have already been dug.

In addition to concerns about a humanitarian disaster in Gaza, dealing with the tunnels is another constraint in Israel’s considerations over whether to get into another large confrontation with Hamas in Gaza. Depriving Hamas of the offensive weapon of the tunnels is such a priority that Israel’s leaders are willing to show relative restraint over rocket fire from Gaza, as long as there are no casualties on the Israeli side.

This also comes against the backdrop, according to foreign reports, of Israeli operations against Iran and Hezbollah in Syria. In the north, this effort involves going right to the edge, with a relatively high risk of an outbreak of hostilities. Israel must therefore be cautious in calculating its moves so it can keep chalking up successes and avoid a conflagration on both fronts.

Amos Harel
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US is leading the way in challenging Iran

January 14, 2018

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg | 

US President Donald Trump has given the Iran nuclear deal a “last chance” and for the final time waived sanctions related to its nuclear program. If the agreement’s “disastrous flaws” are not fixed within 120 days, Trump says the US will withdraw from the deal.

In particular, the US insists on immediate inspections at all Iran’s nuclear sites, and it wants the curbs on Iran’s nuclear program — which expire after 10 years under the deal — made permanent. Trump has also asked Congress to modify US law on the nuclear deal to include clear automatic triggers that enable the US to re-impose nuclear-related sanctions if Iran violates the deal.

A man looks at Iranian-made missiles at Defense Museum in Tehran on Sept. 23, 2015. (Reuters)

Iran is, of course, desperate to save the deal without any changes. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has frequently said the deal was “not renegotiable.” The reason for Iran’s attachment to the deal is that it has reaped great benefits from it, without significant sacrifices. It was able to maintain its nuclear program, end its isolation and receive billions of dollars from previously frozen assets.

European foreign ministers will meet in Brussels next week to discuss the Trump ultimatum. While voicing serious concerns about Iran’s non-nuclear activities, Europeans would rather have the deal stick without amendments. Unlike US businesses, which have not benefited significantly from the deal, Europeans have been falling all over each other trying to secure trade and investment deals with Iran, made possible by the end of nuclear-related sanctions.

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Foreign Minister Javad Zarif

Regional players, including the Gulf Cooperation Council, support the US position. At their summit in Kuwait last month, GCC leaders applauded the GCC-US strategic partnership and announced that they were keen to work with the Trump administration to counter Iran’s “aggressive and expansionary” policies in the region. They denounced those destabilizing policies “in their nuclear dimensions and ballistic missile program.” They emphasized the need to “prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon,” stop its ballistic missile program and counter its activities aimed at destabilizing the region and endangering its peace. They reserved their harshest criticism for Iran’s support for terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and other sectarian militias.


While there is no consensus on the nuclear deal, all parties agree Tehran has to be held accountable on issues such as its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region.

Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

While there is no consensus now on the nuclear deal, all actors — including Europeans — agree that Iran has to be held accountable on non-nuclear issues, including its ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism and its destabilizing activities in the region. The recent protests in Iran have prompted additional concerns about human rights and the regime’s stability and long-term survival.

As GCC states have done before, Trump stressed the need to tie together Iran’s ballistic missile program, its support for terrorism and the nuclear issue, making any missile testing by Iran subject to “severe sanctions.” Similarly, the US administration has taken strong action against Iranian officials who are believed to support terrorism.

At the same time as the US was approving the waiver on nuclear-related sanctions, it also announced sanctions against 14 Iranian individuals and organizations, including the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani.

In another blow to the malign activities of Iran and its regional proxies, the US Department of Justice has set up the Hezbollah Financing and Narcoterrorism Team of federal prosecutors to investigate drug trafficking and money laundering believed to be carried out by the terrorist group and Iranian proxy.

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Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the new team would examine cases stemming from Project Cassandra, a Drug Enforcement Administration task force that targeted Hezbollah’s money laundering and drug trafficking in the United States. The Justice Department “will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug crisis,” he said.

Unlike previous investigations of Hezbollah, the new probe is politically sensitive because there are accusations, yet to be proven, that the Obama administration sought to downplay the issue as it tried to conclude the nuclear deal. “While I am hopeful that there were no barriers constructed by the last administration to allowing DEA agents to fully bring all appropriate cases under Project Cassandra, this is a significant issue for the protection of Americans,” Sessions said.

Previous investigations of Hezbollah activities in the US and elsewhere have led to numerous convictions of its operatives for narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime and money laundering, as well as assassinations and other acts of terrorism.

Washington’s push to counter Iran’s malign activities appears to be the most serious to date — and the most comprehensive, as it covers the nuclear program, ballistic missiles program, support for terrorism, narcoterrorism and money laundering. America’s allies are gradually joining the fight on one or more of these fronts.

•  Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is a columnist for Arab News. Email:
Twitter: @abuhamad1