Posts Tagged ‘Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’

Iran: Israel Will Pay for Strike on Drone Base in Syria

April 17, 2018

Tehran’s Foreign Ministry warns ‘Zionist regime’ will receive ‘an appropriate response’ to attack

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Iran's Revolutionary Guard troops parade to mark the 36th anniversary of Iraq's 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran. Sept. 21, 2016
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard troops parade to mark the 36th anniversary of Iraq’s 1980 invasion of Iran, in front of the shrine of   Ayatollah Khomeini,   just outside Tehran, Iran. Sept. 21, 2016Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iran will punish Israel for a strike on a drone base in Syria, Tehran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, following a report quoting an Israeli senior military official as admitting that the country was behind the attack.

“Tel Aviv will be punished for its aggressive action,” Bahram Ghassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, told reporters. “The occupying Zionist regime will, sooner or later, receive an appropriate response to its actions.”

Ghassemi called the airstrike “unacceptable” and said “the Syrian military can defend its territory and will do so.”

>> Putin’s bluff is finally being called and Russia is running out of options in Syria | Anshel Pfeffer ■ Trump chose not to threaten Assad’s rule. The question is what Putin will do | Amos Harel ■ Attack gives instant gratification but is much ado about nothing | Chemi Shalev ■ Putin may limit Israel’s operations in Syria in retaliation for U.S.-led strikes | Zvi Bar’el

The attack last week killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force members, including Colonel Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit operating out of the base east of Homs. Israel declined to comment on whether it was behind the strike. However, the New York Times quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that Israel conducted the attack and that the incident “was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people.”

Hezbollah’s second in command echoed the Iranian warning on Monday. Naim Qassesm, deputy secretary-general of the Lebanon-based Shi’ite Muslim organization, said Iran will respond to the strike at a time and place of its choosing.

The attack on the drone base in Syria came about two months after an Israeli F-16 aircraft was shot down after it struck targets in Syria in response to an Iranian drone that infiltrated Israeli airforce.

The downed Iranian drone was armed with explosives and on its way to carry out an attack, the Israeli military later announced.

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Secret Russian Airlift Helps Syria’s Assad

April 6, 2018

Private Russian military contractors are being sent on clandestine flights to Syria, plane-tracking data shows. And a trail of documents reveals how aircraft from the West end up in the hands of those on U.S. blacklists.

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Reuters

Filed 

MOSCOW/KIEV – In a corner of the departures area at Rostov airport in southern Russia, a group of about 130 men, many of them carrying overstuffed military-style rucksacks, lined up at four check-in desks beneath screens that showed no flight number or destination.

When a Reuters reporter asked the men about their destination, one said: “We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.

“You too,” he warned.

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The chartered Airbus A320 waiting on the tarmac for them had just flown in from the Syrian capital, Damascus, disgorging about 30 men with tanned faces into the largely deserted arrivals area. Most were in camouflage gear and khaki desert boots. Some were toting bags from the Damascus airport duty-free.

The men were private Russian military contractors, the latest human cargo in a secretive airlift using civilian planes to ferry military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his six-year fight against rebels, a Reuters investigation of the logistical network behind Assad’s forces has uncovered.

The Airbus they flew on was just one of dozens of aircraft that once belonged to mainstream European and U.S. aviation companies, then were passed through a web of intermediary companies and offshore firms to Middle Eastern airlines subject to U.S. sanctions – moves that Washington alleges are helping Syria bypass the sanctions.

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The flights in and out of Rostov, which no organisation has previously documented, are operated by Cham Wings, a Syrian airline hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016 for allegedly transporting pro-Assad fighters to Syria and helping Syrian military intelligence transport weapons and equipment. The flights, which almost always land late at night, don’t appear in any airport or airline timetables, and fly in from either Damascus or Latakia, a Syrian city where Russia has a military base.

The operation lays bare the gaps in the U.S. sanctions, which are designed to starve Assad and his allies in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Hezbollah militia of the men and materiel they need to wage their military campaign.

It also provides a glimpse of the methods used to send private Russian military contractors to Syria – a deployment the Kremlin insists does not exist. Russian officials say Moscow’s presence is limited to air strikes, training of Syrian forces and small numbers of special forces troops.

Reuters reporters staked out the Rostov airport, logged the unusual flights using publicly available flight-tracking data, searched aircraft ownership registries and conducted dozens of interviews, including a meeting at a fashionable restaurant with a former Soviet marine major on a U.S. government blacklist.

NIGHT FLIGHTS: A Cham Wings aircraft on the runway at the Rostov airport. The Syrian airline was hit with U.S. sanctions in 2016. REUTERS/Stringer

Asked about the flights and the activities of Russian private military contractors in Syria, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin referred Reuters to the Defence Ministry — which didn’t reply to the questions. The Syrian government also didn’t reply to questions.

In response to detailed Reuters questions, Cham Wings said only that information on where it flies was available on its website.

The flights to Rostov aren’t mentioned on the site. But the journeys do appear in online flight-tracking databases. Reporters traced flights between the Rostov airport and Syria from Jan. 5, 2017, to March 11, 2018. In that time, Cham Wings aircraft made 51 round trips, each time using Airbus A320 jets that can carry up to 180 passengers.

The issue of military casualties is highly sensitive in Russia, where memories linger of operations in Chechnya and Afghanistan that dragged on for years. Friends and relatives of the contractors suspect Moscow is using the private fighters in Syria because that way it can put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers, whose deaths have to be accounted for.

Forty-four regular Russian service personnel have died in Syria since the start of the operation there in September 2015, Russian authorities have said. A Reuters tally based on accounts from families and friends of the dead and local officials suggests that at least 40 contractors were killed between January and August 2017 alone.

One contractor killed in Syria left Russia on a date that tallies with one of the mysterious nighttime flights out of Rostov, his widow said. The death certificate issued by the Russian consulate in Damascus gave his cause of death as “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

RETURNING HOME: Unidentified men carrying camouflage rucksacks and Damascus airport duty-free bags arrive at the Rostov airport from Syria. REUTERS/Stringer

“We signed a piece of paper – we’re not allowed to say anything. Any minute the boss will come and we’ll get into trouble.”

Man waiting to board flight to Syria

TRYING TO CHOKE OFF ASSAD’S ACCESS TO AIRCRAFT

To sustain his military campaign against rebels, Assad and his allies in Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militia need access to civilian aircraft to fly in men and supplies. Washington has tried to choke off access to the aircraft and their parts through export restrictions on Syria and Iran and through Treasury Department sanctions blacklisting airlines in those countries. The Treasury Department has also blacklisted several companies outside Syria, accusing them of acting as middlemen.

“These actions demonstrate our resolve to target anyone who is enabling Assad and his regime,” John E. Smith, director of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said in testimony to a congressional committee in November.

In recent years, dozens of planes have been registered in Ukraine to two firms, Khors and Dart, that were founded by a former Soviet marine major and his onetime military comrades, according to the Ukraine national aircraft register. The planes were then sold or leased and ended up being operated by Iranian and Syrian airlines, according to the flight-tracking data.

MILITARY PAST: Sergei Tomchani, a former Soviet marine major, helped found the air industry firms Khors and Dart. Aircraft operated by those companies wound up in the hands of Syrian and Iranian operators subject to sanctions. Tomchani is pictured here in 2010. REUTERS/Stringer

One of the companies, Khors, and the former marine major, Sergei Tomchani, have been on a U.S. Commerce Department blacklist since 2011 for allegedly exporting aircraft to Iran and Syria without obtaining licences from Washington.

But in the past seven years, Khors and Dart have managed to acquire or lease 84 second-hand Airbus and Boeing aircraft by passing the aircraft through layers of non-sanctioned entities, according to information collated by Reuters from national aircraft registers. Of these 84 aircraft, at least 40 have since been used in Iran, Syria and Iraq, according to data from three flight-tracking websites, which show the routes aircraft fly and give the call sign of the company operating them.

In September, the U.S. Treasury Department added Khors and Dart to its sanctions blacklist, saying they were helping sanctioned airlines procure U.S.-made aircraft. Khors and Dart, as well as Tomchani, have denied any wrongdoing related to supplying planes to sanctioned entities.

The ownership histories of some of the aircraft tracked by Reuters showed how the U.S. restrictions on supplies to Iranian and Syrian airlines may be skirted. As the ownership skips from one country to the next, the complex paper trail masks the identity of those involved in Syria’s procurement of the planes.

One of the Cham Wings Airbus A320 jets that has made the Rostov-Syria trip was, according to the Irish aircraft register, once owned by ILFC Ireland Limited, a subsidiary of Dublin-based AerCap, one of the world’s biggest aircraft-leasing firms.

In January 2015, the aircraft was removed from the Irish register, said a spokesman for the Irish Aviation Authority, which administers the register. For the next two months, the aircraft, which carried the identification number EI-DXY, vanished from national registers before showing up on the aircraft register in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian register gave its new owner as Gresham Marketing Ltd, which is registered in the British Virgin Islands. The owners of the company are two Ukrainians, Viktor Romanika and Nikolai Saverchenko, according to corporate documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Ukrainian business records show they are managers in small local businesses. Contacted by phone, Romanika said he knew nothing and hung up. Saverchenko couldn’t be reached by phone and didn’t respond to a letter delivered to the address listed for him.

In March 2015, Gresham leased EI-DXY to Dart, according to the Ukrainian aircraft register. The identification number was changed to a Ukrainian number, UR-CNU. On Aug. 20, 2015, Khors became the aircraft’s operator, the register showed.

A representative of the Ukraine State Aviation Service said the register was not intended as official confirmation of ownership but that there had been no complaints about the accuracy of its information.

From April that year, the aircraft was flown by Cham Wings, according to data from the flight-tracking websites.

Gillian Culhane, a spokeswoman for AerCap, the firm whose subsidiary owned the plane in 2015, didn’t respond to written questions or answer repeated phone calls seeking comment about what AerCap knew about the subsequent owners and operators of the plane. Dart and Khors didn’t respond to questions about the specific aircraft.

Four lawyers specialising in U.S. export rules say that transactions involving aircraft that end up in Iran or Syria carry significant risks for Western companies supplying the planes or equipment. Even if they had no direct dealings with a sanctioned entity, the companies supplying the aircraft can face penalties or restrictions imposed by the U.S. government, the lawyers said.

The lawyers, however, said that the legal exposure for aircraft makers such as Boeing and Airbus was minimal, because the trade involves second-hand aircraft that are generally more than 20 years old, and the planes had been through a long chain of owners before ending up with operators subject to sanctions.

Two of the lawyers, including Edward J. Krauland, who leads the international regulation and compliance group at law firm Steptoe & Johnson, said U.S. export rules apply explicitly to Boeing aircraft because they’re made in the United States. But they can also apply to Airbus jets because, in many cases, a substantial percentage of the components is of U.S. origin.

Boeing said in a statement: “The aircraft transactions described that are the subject of your inquiry did not involve The Boeing Company. Boeing maintains a robust overall trade control and sanctions compliance program.” An Airbus spokesman said, “Airbus fully respects all applicable legal requirements with regard to transactions with countries under U.N., EU, UK and U.S. sanctions.”

WAR-ZONE FLIGHTS

When Reuters sent a series of questions to Khors and Dart about their activities, Tomchani, the former marine major, called the reporter within minutes.

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Russian President Vladimir Putin has provided military power to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. Above, the two men meet in Sochi, Russia, last November. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

He said he was no longer a shareholder in either firm but was acting as a consultant to them, and that the questions had been passed on to him. He invited the reporter to meet the following day at the high-end Velyur restaurant in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

In the 90-minute meeting, he denied providing aircraft to Iran or Syria. Instead, he said, Khors and Dart had provided aircraft to third parties, which he did not identify. Those third parties, he said, supplied the planes on to the end users.

“We did not supply aircraft to Iran,” Tomchani, a man of military bearing in his late 50s, said as he sipped herbal tea. “We have nothing to do with supplying aircraft to Cham Wings.”

Neither Dart nor Khors could have sold or leased aircraft to Cham Wings because they were not the owners of the aircraft, he said.

Tomchani used to serve in a marine unit of the Soviet armed forces in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast. In 1991, after quitting the military with the rank of major, he set up Khors along with two other officers in his unit. Tomchani and his partners made a living by flying Soviet-built aircraft, sold off cheap after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in war zones.

HOT SEAT: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria, in 2017. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Khors flew cargoes in Angola for the Angolan government and Defence Ministry and aid agencies during its civil war. Tomchani said his companies also operated flights in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, transporting private security contractors.

Ukraine’s register of business ownership showed that Tomchani ceased to be a shareholder in Khors after June 2010 and that he gave up his interest in Dart at some point after April 2011. He told Reuters he sold his stakes to “major businessmen,” but declined to name them.

He did say, however, that the people listed at the time of the interview in Ukraine’s business register as the owners of the two companies were merely proxies. One of the owners in the register was a mid-ranking Khors executive, one was an 81-year-old accountant for several Kiev firms, and another was someone with the same name and address as a librarian from Melitopol in southeast Ukraine.

According to the business register, the owner of 25 percent in Khors is someone called Vladimir Suchkov. The address listed for him in the register is No. 33, Elektrikov Street, Kiev. That’s the same address as the one listed in Ukrainian government procurement documents for military unit No. A0515, which comes under the command of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Main Intelligence Directorate.

Tomchani said he and Suchkov were old acquaintances. “He wasn’t a bad specialist,” Tomchani said. “A young lad, but not bad.” He said he believed Suchkov was living in Russia.

Reuters was unable to contact Suchkov. A telephone number listed for him was out of service. The Ukrainian Intelligence Directorate’s acting head, Alexei Bakumenko, told Reuters that Suchkov doesn’t work there.

Reuters found no evidence of any other link between the trade in aircraft and Ukraine’s broader spy apparatus. Ukrainian military intelligence said it has no knowledge of the supply of aircraft to Syria, has no connection to the transport of military contractors from Russia to Syria, and hasn’t cooperated with Khors, Dart or Cham Wings.

On Jan. 9 this year, Dart changed its name to Alanna, and listed a new address and founders, according to the Ukrainian business register. On March 1, a new company, Alanna Air, took over Alanna’s assets and liabilities, the register showed.

CONTRACTORS COME BACK IN CASKETS

Although Moscow denies it is sending private military contractors to Syria, plenty of people say that’s untrue. Among them are dozens of friends and former colleagues of the fighters and people associated with the firm that recruits the men – a shadowy organisation known as Wagner with no offices, not even a brass plaque on a door.

It was founded by Dmitry Utkin, a former military intelligence officer, according to people interviewed during this investigation. Its first combat role was in eastern Ukraine in support of Moscow-backed separatists, they said. Reuters was unable to contact Utkin directly. The League of Veterans of Local Conflicts, which according to Russian media has ties to Utkin, declined to pass on a message to him, saying it had no connection to the Wagner group.

Russia has 2,000 to 3,000 contractors fighting in Syria, said Yevgeny Shabayev, local leader of a paramilitary organisation in Russia who is in touch with some of the men. In a single battle in February this year, about 300 contractors were either killed or wounded, according to a military doctor and two other sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian private military contractor who has been on four missions to Syria said he arrived there on board a Cham Wings flight from Rostov. The flights were the main route for transporting the contractors, said the man, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Vladimir. He said the contractors occasionally use Russian military aircraft too, when they can’t all fit on the Cham Wings jets.

Two employees at Rostov airport talked to Reuters about the men on the mysterious flights to Syria.

“Our understanding is that these are contractors,” said an employee who said he assisted with boarding for several of the Syria flights. He pointed to their destination, the fact there were no women among them and that they carried military-style rucksacks. He spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.

Reuters wasn’t able to establish how many passengers were carried between Russia and Syria, and it is possible  that some of those on board were not in Syria in combat roles. Some may have landed in Damascus, then flown to other destinations outside Syria.

Interviews with relatives of contractors killed in Syria also indicate the A320 flights to Rostov are used to transport Russian military contractors. The widow of one contractor killed in Syria said the last time she spoke to her husband by phone was on Jan. 21 last year — the same day, according to flight-tracking data, that a Cham Wings charter flew to Syria.

“He called on the evening of the 21st. … There were men talking and the sound of walkie-talkies. And by the 22nd he was already not reachable. Only text messages were reaching him,” said the woman, who had previously visited her husband at a training camp for the contractors in southern Russia.

After he was killed, she said, his body was delivered to Russia. She received a death certificate saying he had died of “haemorrhagic shock from shrapnel and bullet wounds.”

The widows of two other contractors killed in Syria described how their husbands’ bodies arrived back home. Like the first widow, they spoke on condition of anonymity. They said representatives of the organisation that recruited their husbands warned of repercussions if they spoke to the media.

The two contractors had been on previous combat tours, their widows said. The women said they received death certificates giving Syria as the location of death. Reuters saw the certificates: On one, the cause of death was listed as “carbonisation of the body” – in other words, he burned to death. The other man bled to death from multiple shrapnel wounds, the certificate said.

One of the widows recounted conversations with her husband after he returned from his first tour of duty to Syria. He told her that Russian contractors there are often sent into the thick of the battle and are the first to enter captured towns, she said.

Syrian government forces then come into the town and raise their flags, he told her, taking credit for the victory.

Additional reporting by Christian Lowe, Anton Zverev, Gleb Stolyarov and Denis Pinchuk in Moscow and Joel Schectman and Lesley Wroughton in Washington

Vapour Trail

By Rinat Sagdiev, Maria Tsvetkova and Olena Vasina

Data: Rinat Sagdiev

Graphics: Michael Ovaska and Maryanne Murray

Photo editing: Simon Newman

Video: Matthew Larotonda

Design: Catherine Tai

Edited by Kari Howard and Richard Woods

Report: U.S. Gives Israel Green Light to Assassinate Iranian General Suleimani

January 1, 2018

Al Jarida, considered an Israeli mouthpiece, says Israel was ‘on the verge’ of assassinating Suleimani, but the U.S. warned Tehran and thwarted the operation

Haaretz Jan 01, 2018 1:30 PM

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read more: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.832387?utm_source=Push_Notification&utm_medium=web_push&utm_campaign=General

General Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, 2015.

General Qassem Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, 2015. AP
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Washington gave Israel a green light to assassinate Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida reported on Monday.

Al-Jarida, considered an Israeli mouthpiece, quoted a source in Jerusalem as saying that “there is an American-Israeli agreement” that Suleimani is a “threat to the two countries’ interests in the region.”

The agreement between Israel and the United States, according to the report, comes three years after the Washington thwarted an Israeli attempt to kill the general.

The report says Israel was “on the verge” of assassinating Soulemani three years ago, near Damascus, but the United States warned the Iranian leadership of the plan, revealing that Israel was closely tracking the Iranian general.

The incident, the report said, “sparked a sharp disagreement between the Israeli and American security and intelligence apparatuses regarding the issue.”

The Kuwaiti report also identified Iran’s second in command in Syria, known as “Abu Baker,” as Mohammad Reda Falah Zadeh. It said he also “might be a target” for Israel, as well as other actors in the region.

Haaretz
read more: https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.832387?utm_source=Push_Notification&utm_medium=web_push&utm_campaign=General

U.S. sanctions individuals, entities for Iran-linked counterfeiting

November 20, 2017

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department on Monday sanctioned a network of individuals and companies it said counterfeited Yemeni bank notes potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars for Iran Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force.

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The network circumvented European export restrictions in order to provide the counterfeiting supplies and equipment, according to a Treasury statement.

President Donald Trump last month declared Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a supporter of terrorism and authorized Treasury to impose tough sanctions limiting its access to goods and funding.

Republican Trump has been critical of the 2015 agreement his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, reached with Iran and said the United States must take stronger steps to ensure the country does not acquire nuclear weapons.

The counterfeiting scheme exposed the “deep levels of deception” that the Qods Force, a Revolutionary Guard unit carrying out missions outside the country, employs “against companies in Europe, governments in the Gulf, and the rest of the world to support its destabilizing activities,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

According to Treasury, Pardavesh Tasvir Rayan Co.  is a printing operation controlled by businessman Reza Heidari and owned by Tejarat Almas Mobin Holding that procured equipment and materials to print counterfeit Yemeni rial bank notes.

Qods Force used the currency to support its activities.

Heidari used front companies and other methods to keep European suppliers in the dark about their ultimate customer. He coordinated with Mahmoud Seif, Tejarat’s managing director, on the logistics of procuring materials and moving them into Iran, Treasury said.

Treasury sanctioned both men and both companies, as well as ForEnt Technik GmbH, which Heidari owns, and Printing Trade Center GmbH for serving as front companies in the operation.

Reporting by Lisa Lambert, editing by G Crosse and Cynthia Osterman

Iran says France’s ‘biased’ stance threatens regional stability

November 17, 2017

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France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian attends a joint news conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 16, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser

November 17, 2017

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran accused France of fuelling tension in the Middle East by taking a “biased” stance on Tehran’s regional policy, state TV reported on Friday.

“It seems that France has a biased view towards the ongoing crises and humanitarian catastrophes in the Middle East … this view fuels regional conflicts, whether intentionally or unintentionally,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that France was worried about Iran’s involvement in the Middle East crisis and the country’s disputed ballistic missile program.

Iran has repeatedly rejected France’s call for talks on its missile program, saying it was defensive and unrelated to a nuclear agreement with world powers in 2015.

Paris suggested that new European Union sanctions against Iran may be discussed over its missile tests. But EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini seemed to dismiss that idea on Tuesday, keen to avoid risks to the hard-won deal that curbed Iran’s nuclear activity.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, editing by Larry King)

Related:

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir sends message to Iran: “enough is enough”

November 16, 2017

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir attends an interview with Reuters in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on November 16, 2017. (REUTERS)

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister told Reuters in an interview on Thursday that the kingdom was reacting to what he called the “aggressive” behavior of its arch-rival Iran in Lebanon and Yemen.

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“Any way you look at it, they (the Iranians) are the ones who are acting in an aggressive manner. We are reacting to that aggression and saying enough is enough,” Adel Jubeir said.
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Jubeir also said that Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which he called a subsidiary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, must disarm and become a political party for that country to stabilize.
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“Whenever we see a problem, we see Hezbollah act as an arm or agent of Iran and this has to come to an end,” he said after meeting his French counterpart in Riyadh.

Saad al-Hariri, a Saudi ally, resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister on Nov. 4, citing an assassination plot and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the region.

In Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is involved in a two-year-old war and has been criticized for blocking humanitarian aid, Jubeir accused the Iran-aligned Houthis of besieging civilian areas and preventing supplies from coming in or out.

“That’s why you have the starvation that’s taking place in Yemen and people need to do a more serious job of holding Houthis accountable for this,” he said.

Jubeir said domestic anti-corruption investigations which have netted senior princes, officials and businessmen in the past two weeks were ongoing.

Syria army renews assault on last IS-held town

November 16, 2017

AFP

© AFP | The Syrian army deploys artillery near Albu Kamal, the last town in the country still held by the Islamic State group, on November 10, 2017

BEIRUT (AFP) – The Syrian army on Thursday entered Albu Kamal, the last town in the country held by the Islamic State group, several days after the jihadists recaptured it, a monitor said.

The town in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor on the border with Iraq was initially captured by the army and allied forces a month ago but IS retook it in a counterattack.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the new offensive had successfully penetrated the town, with troops backed by Russian air strikes advancing from the west, east and south.

“Fighting is ongoing inside the town, there is artillery fire and there are Russian air strikes,” Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The first assault on Albu Kamal was spearheaded by Syrian government allies, including Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters, and advisers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the Observatory said.

“This time, the military operation is being led directly by regime forces,” Abdel Rahman said, adding that troops had taken the town’s eastern, southern and western suburbs.

IS still holds around 25 percent of the countryside of Deir Ezzor province but are under attack not only by government forces but also by US-backed Kurdish-led fighters.

The jihadists once controlled a territory the size of Britain, proclaiming a “caliphate” in 2014 that spanned Syria and Iraq.

But they have successively lost all their key strongholds, including Raqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq

Kurds Say Now America is No Longer a Trustworthy Ally; Donald Trump Betrayed Us — “We were not supported by the American ally” — “Iran was here, the U.S. was not here.”

October 22, 2017
Time magazine

Armed Kurdish civilians set-up checkpoints in Kirkuk Monday morning as they tried to prevent Kurdish peshmerga fighters from evacuating the city as Iraqi government forces advanced.

The peshmerga left along with tens of thousands of fleeing civilians that jammed the road from Kirkuk to Erbil. Resident burnt tires and shouted “shame on you,” while some civilians pointed guns as the peshmerga departed.

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Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum, September 16, 2017 (SAFIN HAMED-AFP)

By mid-afternoon, the Kurds had lost control of Kirkuk, Iraq’s most contested city. Young Arab men hung an Iraqi flag from a bridge as American-made Humvees rolled through the streets, closely followed by pick-up trucks filled with fighters from the mostly-Shia Popular Mobilization Forces.

“Now all Kirkuk can see this flag,” said Abdullah Gubal as he hung it over a billboard for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the leading Kurdish political party in Kirkuk.

Claimed by both the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional authority in Erbil, the fate of Kirkuk should have been decided by referendum a decade ago. Kurds took control of Kirkuk when Iraqi forces fled ISIS’s advance in June of 2014. The Kurdish leadership vowed they wouldn’t hand the city back. But Kirkuk’s government buildings and Kurdish party headquarters were virtual empty Monday and residents said they saw Kurdish officials and forces leave before the Iraqi forces advanced.

“They sold Kirkuk,” said Ahmad Mohamed holding his Kalashnikov at the edge of the city with a group of angry Kurdish volunteer fighters pledging to go back and push the Iraqi forces out.

“This is shame on the Kurdish leaders and most of the Kurdish commanders in Kirkuk,” said Wyra Ali. “They didn’t fire one bullet from their weapons. They should defended Kirkuk, but they didn’t.”

Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish analyst, says the peshmerga retreat may have been the result of both confusion and internal division. Since the Kurds’ controversial referendum on sovereignty last month, the division between the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the party of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, and the PUK has been growing and many here believe the PUK struck a deal to hand over Kirkuk to Baghdad.

“One camp said stay at home,” says Osman. “The other camp said take your weapons and go in to the street.”

In the end, Iraqi forces and allied militias met little resistance in the urban center after clashes with forces outside the city. Overnight Iraqi forces took control of the areas outside the city and by afternoon American-trained elite forces had taken the Kurdish flag off the governors’ office and raised the Iraqi one instead.

Monday’s Iraqi advance on Kirkuk was spurred by the controversial Kurdish referendum on September 25. Washington and Baghdad both urged the Kurdish leadership to postpone the vote, but they went ahead. Since then, Baghdad has been increasing pressure on the Kurds’ semi-autonomous region — halting international flights out of the Kurds’ two international airports and threatening to take control of the borders.

Kurds were outnumbered, out-armed and also unsupported by the ally they share with Baghdad. Both the Iraqi forces entering the city today and the Kurdish forces that left, are funded, trained and equipped by the U.S. and allies in the fight against ISIS, putting Washington in difficult position.

“Where are the American planes?” asked another man. The pop of gunfire could be heard in the distance as the volunteer Kurdish fighters talked about heading in to Kirkuk.
President Donald Trump said Monday that the U.S. would not take sides in the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute. But Jennifer Cafarella, senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, says it’s this position and American tunnel vision on the fight against ISIS that allowed this situation to escalate.

“The U.S. is in a terrible position because we remained focused on the very narrow anti-ISIS mission,” says Cafarella, explaining the U.S. needed to be more engaged before these tensions between the Iraqis and the Kurds spiraled. She also cautions that while U.S. has not been involved, the Iranians have. “Now the U.S. is sitting on the sidelines asking for everyone to deescalate.”

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CNN

Trump’s actions are beginning to have global consequences

Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.

Image result for Masoud Barzani, photos, marching, with Kurdish flag

(CNN) — The last time Baghdad sent troops into Kirkuk to kick out Kurdish forces, I was in the first group of journalists taken to see the aftermath.

Bloated bodies and blown-up trucks littered the road as we arrived.
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Fresh on the heels of the allied liberation of Kuwait in 1991, swaths of Iraq’s downtrodden rose up against Saddam Hussein. The Shia in the south and the Kurds in the north were both brutally crushed.
Around Kirkuk we witnessed the ugly aftermath of more killings. Kurds who had been gunned down, their bodies untouched where they fell.
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It was, as my wife — then a CNN correspondent — reported, “an object lesson in brutality.”
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Although Baghdad’s offensive in Kirkuk this week is tame by comparison, it is nevertheless an object lesson not just for the Kurds, but for the US — and President Trump in particular.
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The Iraqi government forces arrived in US-made Humvees and Abrams tanks backed by Shia militias who are supported by Iran. Both the US and Iran are vying for influence in Iraq.
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Iran’s claim is historic, rooted in religious ideology. By contrast, America appears as the Johnny-come-lately.
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So when Trump refused to recertify Iran’s compliance of the Iran nuclear deal last week and threatened to designate Iran’s top military force, the revolutionary guard — the IRGC — a terrorist organization, he wasn’t just slapping down the theocracy — he was also upping the stakes in Iraq.
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Image result for Masoud Barzani, photos, marching, with Kurdish flag
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In part drawing a line in the sand; in part throwing sand in the faces of Iran’s leaders. Iran’s Supreme Leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is throwing sand back, pledging to undermine US interests in Iraq and by implication its Kurdish region.
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Not long after my visit to Kirkuk in 1991, the US designated Kurdish areas a safe zone, denying Saddam access.
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Since then, the Kurds — under their leader Masoud Barzani — have cemented autonomy and grown claims for independence, wooing America as a protector by granting oil rights and offering strategic airbases for them — some close to Iran’s border.
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But last month, Barzani pushed the relationship to the brink by forcing through a Kurdish referendum on independence against the express wishes of America, Iraq, and Iran. Only Israel accepted the Kurds’ overwhelming call for independence.
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On the eve of Iraq’s Kurdish offensive this week, an IRGC general slipped into Kirkuk with two Iraqi generals and told the Kurds to get out or be crushed.
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Both the President and the Iranians have put their cards on the table: Trump can’t abide them; they want American influence in the region gone. The days of cooperating over ISIS are likely not long for this world.

iraq kirkuk changing hands wedeman pkg nr_00002711

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Kirkuk on edge after Peshmerga pushed out 02:31
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A marriage of convenience is splintering, as they so often do, into a messy separation.
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If the Iran deal was the pre-nup, the divorce won’t be about who gets to keep how much enriched uranium as much as it will be about who gets which country or region as a sphere of influence.
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The fault lines have been solidifying for decades. A first faint trace came almost a century ago with the Sykes-Picot division of the post-Ottoman Middle East.
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The Sultan’s caliphate was parceled up into trans-tribal, trans-ethnic and trans-secular countries whose citizens were new to such nationhood.
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In the century since, kings and dictators have mostly sought to subjugate in their own interest. National interest has only ever been a tool wielded to hold on to power.
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It is why Iraq and Syria are in turmoil today and why Lebanon is still recovering from a civil war that ended over two decades ago. The region is fragile and every outside player makes it more brittle.
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As former US Secretary of State Colin Powell apparently told President George W. Bush: “If you break it, you own it.”
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Donald Trump may not have created this mess, but his recent pronouncements on the Iran deal appear to lack the leadership skills that would be expected of a US president.
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Indeed, Trump seems to be the only person unable to comprehend the ripple effect of his actions.
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Trump’s sabre rattling on Iran and North Korea isn’t just ensuring that citizens of those countries get in line behind their regimes, but it also exposes the paucity of his policies to a global audience.
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Iraq seizes disputed city from Kurdish control

Iraq seizes disputed city from Kurdish control 01:45
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All of the other signatories to the deal — Russia, China, Germany, France and the UK as well as the EU — urged against doing what he did and risk triggering a collapse of the deal.
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EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini sounded particularly bitter: “It is not (a) bilateral agreement. It does not belong to any single country. And it is not up to any single country to terminate it.”
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Trump’s more than 200 days in office are shearing him of his allies’ close support.
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His decision on Iran shredded any last vestige of doubt for Trump’s critics and most of his allies that he is setting America’s international standing back years — maybe decades.
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His statement on Iran has been the culmination of months of unease that most European leaders had hoped could be avoided.
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Within a week, their worst fears may be taking shape. Kurds routed from Kirkuk by Iranian-backed forces and the real possibility of a bigger confrontation that could mean more refugees spilling into Europe.
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The assumption that Trump’s impulses can be kept in check by wiser minds in his administration is being challenged.
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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “President Trump’s foreign-policy goals break the mold of what people traditionally think is achievable on behalf of our country … We’re finding new ways to govern that deliver new victories.”
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On Iran, Defense Secretary James Mattis said: “I give advice to the President, he was elected by the American people and I stand by the Iran strategy as it came out today.”
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And Chief of Staff John Kelly offered this guidance on his role at the White House: “I was not sent in to — or brought in to control him.”
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What’s really worrying European diplomats is what could happen if another Middle East conflict kicked off.
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In 2015, a massive wave of refugees principally from the Syrian conflict shifted Europe’s politics to the right and changed the face of the continent.
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More evidence of this came in Austria’s elections last weekend: The world’s youngest-ever leader surfing into power on a wave of anti-migrant rhetoric.
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Voters in Germany, France and Holland have also boosted nationalist hopes of a revival in the immediate aftermath of Britain’s Brexit vote.
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Europe is experiencing a reactionary lurch in which nationalists feel emboldened — and the refugees of Syria’s civil war helped make that happen.
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Another Middle East war would likely cloud Europe’s horizons further. ISIS is using the moment to stoke primal fears. A perfect storm may be brewing.
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Our lives risk being reshaped by inexperienced leaders who like lashing out on both sides of the Atlantic. Don’t tell me that isn’t a recipe for disaster.
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Several reliable Kurds shared their disillusionment with the U.S. and President Donald Trump with Peace and Freedom. One said, “We were confronted with Shia Iraqis with U.S. weapons and we had no ally. The U.S. was not here. But Iran was here.”
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© AFP/File | Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a welcoming ceremony on January 23, 2016 in the capital Tehran

Image may contain: one or more people, crowd and outdoor

Iranian General Helped Iraqis Seize Kirkuk From U.S. Allies

October 19, 2017

NBC News

OCT 18 2017, 6:20 PM ET

By Carol E. Lee,  and 

A few days after the Trump administration announced a new, get-tough approach to Iran, one of that country’s top military commanders and the armed Shiite militias he supports played a key role in the seizure of an important Iraqi city from the U.S.-backed Kurds, according to Iraqi, Kurdish and American officials.

Former U.S. national security officials told NBC News the Iranian-brokered seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk by the Iraqi government and its militia partners, which heightens the risk of civil war, amounts to an embarrassing strategic blow to the U.S. at the hands of Iran.

“It is a catastrophic defeat for the United States and a fantastic victory for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, proving that Qassem Soleimani gets his way once again,” said Ali Khedery, a former senior adviser on Iraq policy in the Bush and Obama administrations.

Soleimani is head of the Iranian military’s special forces and extraterritorial operations. The major general commands an elite unit known as the Quds Force and has been dubbed the most powerful intelligence operative in the Middle East. According to Kurdish and Iraqi officials, he traveled to Kirkuk last week to weigh in on the dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds over the strategically important city of Kirkuk.

Image: Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani
Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani (C) attends Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s (not seen) meeting with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) on September 18, 2016 in Tehran, Iran. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images file

Kurdish officials and former U.S. intelligence officials told NBC News Soleimani helped negotiate a deal under which one Kurdish faction would abandon its checkpoints and allow Iraqi government forces, backed by Iranian-supported Shiite militias, to take the city uncontested. That explains, they say, why there was so little fighting as Iraqi forces, armed with heavy weapons provided by the U.S., seized Kirkuk from the Kurds, who also carry American weapons and have been the most stalwart U.S. ally in the fight against ISIS.

“We’re confident that Qassem Soleimani engineered, guided, directed, manipulated this deal,” Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish representative in Washington, told NBC News.

She said Soleimani used a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening force and offering financial inducements to certain elements of a Kurdish faction whose soldiers abandoned their positions.

A spokesman for Iraq’s Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces, Mouin al-Khadhimy, acknowledged to NBC News that Soleimani was in Iraq in recent days — to ease tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, al Khadhimy said.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said in an Oct. 17 statment reported by Al-Monitor that “Iran plays no role in the Kirkuk operation.”

President Donald Trump said the U.S. wasn’t taking sides, and his government neither condemned the move by Baghdad nor mentioned the Iranian component.

“We remain very concerned about the situation in northern Iraq,” said Michael Anton, spokesman for the National Security Council. “We urge both parties to stand down and resolve any dispute peacefully and politically, remain united in the fight against ISIS and remain united against a common threat in Iran.”

Image: Kurdish gunmen in Kirkuk
Kurdish gunmen take up position on a street in central Kirkuk city, northern Iraq, on Oct. 16, 2017. Afan Abdulkhaleq / EPA

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) warned Monday there would be “severe consequences” if Baghdad used U.S. arms against the Kurds.

“The United States provided equipment and training to the government of Iraq to fight [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)] and secure itself from external threats — not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Critics accused Trump of wilting in the face of Iran’s tough tactics.

“This is the first real tangible challenge to the Trump Iran doctrine, and we have our answer: it seems like there is nothing behind it,” Michael Barbero, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who served in Iraq and has close ties to the Kurds, told NBC News.

By allowing Iran to facilitate an Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk, Khedery added, “We have undermined our secular moderate, Western-leaning Kurdish allies in the Middle East. Our foes will be emboldened, our allies shaken.”

U.S. officials, not authorized to be named speaking publicly, disputed the idea that Iran got the better of the Trump administration. They argue that Kirkuk was always going to be a flashpoint between Baghdad and the Kurds, whether or not Iran was involved. Iran’s heavy involvement in Iraq has long been a fact of life, they say — something the U.S. has no choice but to live with.

U.S. officials have long sought to convince the Kurds to postpone a referendum declaring independence from Iraq. After U.S. forces left Iraq in 2011, Vice President Joseph Biden and other American officials conducted hours of diplomacy in an effort to mediate the situation.

Image: Iraqi police monitor as people gather in the street in the city of Kirkuk
Iraqi police monitor as people gather in the street in the city of Kirkuk to celebrate on Oct. 18, 2017, after Iraqi government forces retook almost all the territory disputed between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdish region, crippling its hopes of independence after a controversial referendum. Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP – Getty Images

Brett McGurk, the U.S. diplomat most closely focused on Iraq and ISIS policy, was unable to convince the Kurds to continue postponing the vote, which finally occurred in September. Once the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of separating, American officials declared the referendum illegitimate, in keeping with their policy of trying to maintain Iraq as a single country.

“We were never going to support the Kurds in a fight with the Iraqi government,” one U.S. intelligence official told NBC News.

The referendum put the focus on Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city rich with oil fields that historically has been part of the Kurdish region. Saddam Hussein orchestrated a mass movement of Arabs to the city, displacing Kurds from their homes. In the years after his fall, Kurds began returning, but the occupying American forces carefully mediated the status of the city between Baghdad and the Kurds.

In public, U.S. officials tried to downplay the role of Iranian-backed Shiite militias in seizing Kirkuk.

Asked about it Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, said, “We do not have reports of…the types of units that you had mentioned.”

Image: Iraqi people celebrate after Kirkuk was seized by Iraqi forces as they gather on the street of Baghdad
Iraqi people celebrate after Kirkuk was seized by Iraqi forces as they gather on the street of Baghdad, Iraq on Oct. 18, 2017. Khalid al-Mousily / Reuters

However, Kurdish officials point to a Facebook video of a ceremony in which the Iraqi flag was raised at a government building. It shows two controversial figures on hand: Hadi al-Amiri, the head of the Badr Organization, an Iranian-backed political party; and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who has been sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury for acts of violence against Americans, and is considered a close adviser to Soleimani.

Three days before that flag raising, on Oct. 13, Trump announced his new Iran strategy.

“Our policy is based on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world,” Trump said.

Trump also announced new sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

The timing of the Kirkuk incursion was not a coincidence, Khedery said.

“Iran is intentionally seeking to challenge and humiliate President Trump only days after the U.S. designated the IRGC,” he said. “Tehran is testing our resolve, and our allies and foes are all closely watching how this will unfold.”

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/mideast/iranian-general-helped-iraqis-seize-kirkuk-u-s-allies-n811026

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© AFP/File | Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during a welcoming ceremony on January 23, 2016 in the capital Tehran

Image may contain: one or more people, crowd and outdoor

Iran: 10 Trumps couldn’t roll back nuke deal benefits

October 7, 2017

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Hassan Rouhani — AP photo

The Associated Press

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s president defended the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers on Saturday, saying not even 10 Donald Trumps can roll back its benefits to his country, state TV reported.

Hassan Rouhani’s comments came as President Donald Trump appears to be stepping back from his campaign pledge to tear up the deal, instead aiming to take other measures against Iran and its affiliates.

State TV broadcast Rouhani while addressing students at Tehran University, marking the beginning of the educational year.

“We have achieved benefits that are irreversible. Nobody can roll them back, neither Trump, nor 10 other Trumps,” he said.

Rouhani warned the U.S. not to violate the deal.

“If the United States violates (the nuclear deal), the entire world will condemn America, not Iran,” he said.

Iran accepted curbs on its contested nuclear program as part of the agreement. In return, Iran has benefited from the lifting of sanctions against its oil exports among others.

Trump is expected to take new action against Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the Iranian backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

He is set to deliver a policy speech on Iran next week in which he is expected to decline to certify Iran’s compliance in the landmark 2015 agreement that the U.S. and its partners signed with Tehran to rein in its nuclear program.

That would stop short of pulling out of the deal. Lawmakers say Trump isn’t going to immediately announce new nuclear sanctions, which are prohibited by the deal, and instead will refer the matter to Congress.

President Trump has repeatedly described the deal as “bad.” He signed a bill that imposes mandatory penalties on people involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program and anyone who does business with them.

Rouhani is struggling to keep the deal on two fronts. One is with Trump, who always says it is a bad deal, and on the other side, hardliners inside the country.

By the time of his 2017 re-election, Rouhani increasingly criticized hard-liners within Iran who criticized him and the atomic deal for giving too much away to the West, especially the U.S., still the “Great Satan” for some even decades after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.