Posts Tagged ‘U.S.’

As U.S. Confronts Internet’s Disruptions, China Feels Vindicated

October 17, 2017

HULUNBUIR, China — In the United States, some of the world’s most powerful technology companies face rising pressure to do more to fight false information and stop foreign infiltration.

China, however, has watchdogs like Zhao Jinxu.

From his small town on the windswept grasslands of the Inner Mongolia region of China, Mr. Zhao, 27, scours the internet for fake news, pornography and calls to violence. He is one of a battalion of online “supervisors” whom Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms, announced last month it would hire to help enforce China’s stringent limits on online content.

For years, the United States and others saw this sort of heavy-handed censorship as a sign of political vulnerability and a barrier to China’s economic development. But as countries in the West discuss potential internet restrictions and wring their hands over fake news, hacking and foreign meddling, some in China see a powerful affirmation of the country’s vision for the internet.

“This kind of thing would not happen here,” Mr. Zhao said of the controversy over Russia’s influence in the American presidential election last year.

Besides Communist Party loyalists, few would argue that China’s internet control serves as a model for democratic societies. China squelches online dissent and imprisons many of those who practice it. It blocks foreign news and information, including the website of The New York Times, and promotes homegrown technology companies while banning global services like Facebook and Twitter.

At the same time, China anticipated many of the questions now flummoxing governments from the United States to Germany to Indonesia. Where the Russians have turned the internet into a political weapon, China has used it as a shield.

In fact, when it comes to technology, China has prospered. It has a booming technology culture. Its internet companies rival Facebook and Amazon in heft. To other countries, China may offer an enticing top-down model that suggests that technology can thrive even under the government’s thumb.

An electronic display showing recent cyberattacks in China at the China Internet Security Conference in Beijing last month. Credit Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press

“It doesn’t matter how efficient the internet is,” said Zhu Wei, deputy director of the Communications Law Research Center at the China University of Political Science and Law, which advises the government on internet laws. “It won’t work without security.”

China is not resting on its laurels.

In the weeks leading up to the major party congress that opens in Beijing on Wednesday, the country’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, has issued a raft of new regulations.

One, which took effect last week, holds the creators of online forums or group chats responsible for their users’ comments.

Another bans anonymous users, a blow at the bots and deceptive accounts — like those on Facebook and Twitter — that distributed false stories aimed at American voters.

“If our party cannot traverse the hurdle presented by the internet, it cannot traverse the hurdle of remaining in power,” a department of the cyberspace administration wrote in a top party journal last month.

The article was in keeping with President Xi Jinping’s early recognition of the power of the internet. Mr. Xi created and empowered the cyberspace administration, which has subsumed many of the overlapping agencies that once governed content in cyberspace.

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All eyes on the dragon and the bear

October 17, 2017

By Jean-Pierre Lehmann
The Straits Times

How China and Russia get along will have an impact on the evolving world order.

Since the beginning of this century, signs have been appearing that seemed to herald the erosion of “the West” as the fulcrum of world order. Last year, with Brexit, Mr Donald Trump and other vicissitudes, the signs became unmistakable.

The narrative of the 21st century will be written in Eurasia. This does not mean a new Eurasian world order, but flagrantly illustrates what can be termed a chaotic global transition to uncertainty: new actors, new stages, new technologies, new demographics, new passions, new geopolitics, new military balances, and so on.

I arrived in Moscow on Saturday Sept 30, and on Sunday morning, went walking in Red Square while also visiting the big department store Gum. I first visited Moscow in 1965.

Though I have returned often since, I had not been there for some time. The big shock – though with the benefit of hindsight it should not have been a surprise: Masses and masses and masses of Chinese tourists. There was none in 1965! Indeed this was smack in the middle of the vitriolic Sino-Soviet split which, in 1969, degenerated into a bloody border war.

The border is long. Leaving aside Kazakhstan and Mongolia, countries with which Russia shares immensely long borders (respectively 6,846km and 4,677km), the current direct border between Russia and China is 3,645 km.

Apart from a shared border, however, China and Russia have very little in common. In fact, it is difficult to think of examples of neighbours having such radically different cultures.

Throughout history, relations have hardly ever been warm or close. This has been especially the case since 1703, when Peter the Great founded Saint Petersburg as the capital of the Russian empire looking to Europe. Europe has been an integral part of modern Russian history as Russia has been an integral part of modern European history.

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Among the many fascinating questions arising in the current chaotic transition to uncertainty is whether Russia is now looking more to the East, due to the sanctions, the expulsion of Russia from the G-8, and the hostility of European governments following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

This is what President Vladimir Putin would seem to be heralding, including last month through his hosting of the Eastern Economic Conference in Vladivostok.

TWO PROMINENT PLAYERS

Among the actors that will determine the narrative of the Eurasian 21st century, obviously Russia and China will play prominent parts. How they get on – or not – will also have a huge impact. So watch this space.

The scenario is by no means clear. For one thing, whereas China is a rising empire, Russia is a declining empire. As a Russian friend put it to me in conversation in Moscow, empires never exit gracefully. Look at the Ottoman empire or, for that matter, the British empire with the continuing warfare in post-partition Kashmir. Collateral damage from imploding empires is often, arguably invariably, considerable.

Today, Russia aspires to being a geopolitical giant, but is an economic dwarf. China, whose GDP is 10 times greater than Russia’s, had become a global economic giant and now is in the process of flexing its geopolitical muscle.

A second shock I had in my recent visit to Moscow – which, however, once again with the benefit of hindsight should not have been a surprise – is how much Mr Mikhail Gorbachev is reviled.

The shock came as on my first night in Moscow I was dining at Café Dr Zhivago, where I had brought with me the 800-page biography by William Taubman entitled Gorbachev and displaying his portrait on the cover.

When they saw this, I was harangued, albeit in a friendly way, by a group of Russian millennials who could find no words strong enough to express their dislike and contempt for the man.

‘THE RUSSIANS DON’T GET IT’

In 1991-1992, some milestone events took place that put Russia and the Gorbachev revulsion today in perspective. In 1991, Indian Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao undertook radical economic reforms, thereby abandoning the “Hindu rate of growth” in which it had been languishing for decades.

Following the cataclysm of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, in 1992, strongman Deng Xiaoping went on his historic Southern Tour thereby kickstarting the revival of the Chinese economy, leading to the superlative growth that ensued.

At the western end of the Eurasian continent, in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty was signed leading to greater European unity.

Much of the world seemed to be moving confidently forward.

What a contrast with Russia. In 1991, the Soviet empire imploded, chaos followed, while “shock therapy” reforms were administered by Mr Yegor Gaidar which resulted, among other things, in massive poverty and hyper-inflation. As was commented when the reforms’ volcanic dust began to settle, lots of shock, but where was the therapy?

The economy never recovered. The 1990s are seen by many Russians as an unmitigated catastrophe. On the economic front, things have not improved much since.

As a Hong Kong Chinese friend put it at a recent roundtable forum in Chamonix, when comparing the Russian and Chinese economies, “the Russians just don’t get it” – the “it” meaning the market. China may still be a communist state, but there a sizeable chunk of the economy is market-driven and entrepreneurialism is rife.

Also, many Chinese enterprises, including small and medium-sized ones, are plugged into the global market and looking to export (and increasingly to acquire assets). In Russia, the export sector is dominated by a small handful of colossal players.

On the political front, with Mr Gorbachev and Mr Boris Yeltsin reviled, Mr Putin appears as somewhat of a saviour. There are, of course, highly divergent views, but in comparison with his predecessors, he has restored a degree of dignity and respect to Russia. This arises in good part from another humiliating crisis of the 1990s, the degree with which the West treated Russia with derision and contempt. There was no significant reaching out on the part of Europe or the United States. There was no sense of Russian pride and the ways in which the Russian soul could be wounded. Feared in the Cold War, Russia was denigrated in the post-Cold War.

Russian political leaders and policymakers made many mistakes. But the West also botched it. It was singularly insensitive and unimaginative. The opportunity of fashioning a new world order was lost.

How will the Sino-Russian relationship fare in the decades ahead? At this stage, it can be said that political relations are very good, as appears to be the case in the personal relationship between President Xi Jinping and Mr Putin. There are growing cultural ties. No one plays Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto as divinely as the Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang. But economic links remain weak. Russians are potentially excited by the opportunities that may arise from the Belt and Road Initiative, though so far results are meagre. Ultimately, no matter how cordial the political and cultural relations may be, economic ties will obviously matter greatly.

The way forward is not obvious. But, as in the famous Chinese proverb, a long journey belongs with a single step; an important and potentially very promising step was recently taken with the establishment of a Joint Russian-Chinese University in Shenzhen. There is the potential of the new generations creating a solid Sino-Russian edifice.

How the Dragon and the Bear get on will have a huge impact on prospects for Eurasia, and ipso facto for the planet.

So, as I said, watch this space. I shall be returning frequently.

•The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and a visiting professor at Hong Kong University. He writes monthly for the By Invitation column.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017
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US takes aim at Yemeni Daesh for first time

October 17, 2017

Reuters

(Reuters)
DUBAI: The United States said it launched its first attack on Daesh’s deadly Yemen branch on Monday with a series of nighttime airstrikes that residents said targeted two villages and killed several people.
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Unmanned US drones launched around 12 missiles at militant positions in Yakla and Al-Abl in southern Al-Bayda province, according to local people living nearby, who declined to be named due to safety concerns.
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They said the number of casualties caused by the attack was not immediately clear because locals were too afraid to approach the site as US aircraft hovered over the area for hours.
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The Pentagon said in a statement that US forces had killed dozens of Daesh members in a strike on two camps where fighters trained in using machine guns and grenade launchers.
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Residents disputed that account, saying the fighters targeted actually hailed from a powerful Al-Qaeda affiliate who deployed in the area to fight Iran-aligned Houthi militiamen as part of Yemen’s civil war, which began in 2015.
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The complex conflict pits a kaleidoscope of tribes, military units and political factions against each other in chaotic rivalries that have allowed hard-line Sunni Muslim militant groups like Al-Qaeda and Islamic State to thrive.
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The United States provides arms and logistical support to a Saudi-led military coalition that has launched almost daily air strikes against the Houthis to try to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government.
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Al Qaeda in Yemen, one of the fiercest branches of the global network, has plotted to down US airliners and claimed responsibility for the 2015 attacks on the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris.
It has been targeted by US air strikes for a decade.
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Daesh, which only launched its first bombing in Yemen as it careered toward civil war in March 2015, has claimed responsibility for a series of spectacular attacks on military and civilian targets which have killed hundreds of people.
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Yakla, one of the sites targeted in the strike, was the site of a US raid in January targeting suspected Al-Qaeda militants which local medics said killed 30 people including 10 women and children, and also left a Navy SEAL dead.
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U.S. Targets Haqqani Network in Pakistan — Death toll from US drone strike in Pakistan rises to 26

October 17, 2017

A file photo of a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone is conducting tests over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland, US in this undated US Navy photo. (Reuters)
PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The death toll from a US drone attack on a compound used by the Taliban-allied Haqqani network has risen to 26, officials said Tuesday, less than a week after a US-Canadian family held captive by the militants was rescued.
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The barrage on Monday targeted a meeting of Haqqani fighters in Pakistan’s remote tribal Kurram district along the Afghan border in the deadliest attack on the group this year.
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Image result for Kurram, tribal areas, pakistan, map
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“First drone strike killed five fighters from Haqqani network and minutes apart a second drone then fired two more missiles after militants arrived to retrieve dead bodies from the rubble,” a senior government official in Kurram told AFP Tuesday.
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“So far 26 dead bodies have been retrieved and drones are still flying in the sky,” the official said.
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The US has increased pressure on Pakistan in recent months to crack down on the outfit.
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A second government official in Kurram confirmed the drone strikes and the new death toll.
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Both officials said the strikes took place on the border with Afghanistan, with part of the compound sited in Afghan territory.
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The Haqqanis are one of the strongest factions in the Afghan Taliban insurgency and have earned a fearsome reputation for their vicious attacks on NATO troops and Afghan installations over the years.
The group has long been suspected of having ties to Pakistan’s shadowy security establishment, souring relations with Washington.
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Islamabad has repeatedly denied the accusations of turning a blind eye to militancy, lambasting the United States for ignoring the thousands who have been killed on its soil and the billions spent fighting extremists.
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Canadian hostage Joshua Boyle and his American wife and three children were freed on October 11 in Pakistan after five years of captivity at the hands of the Haqqani network.
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North Korea says ‘a nuclear war may break out any moment’

October 17, 2017

By Edith Lederer

The Associated Press

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador warned Monday that the situation on the Korean peninsula “has reached the touch-and-go point and a nuclear war may break out any moment.”

Kim In Ryong told the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee that North Korea is the only country in the world that has been subjected to “such an extreme and direct nuclear threat” from the United States since the 1970s — and said the country has the right to possess nuclear weapons in self-defense.

Kim Jong Un at the test launch of a missile, Sept. 16, 2017, in North Korea. (Korean Central News Agency-Korea News Service-AP)

He pointed to large-scale military exercises every year using “nuclear assets” and said what is more dangerous is what he called a U.S. plan to stage a “secret operation aimed at the removal of our supreme leadership.”

This year, Kim said, North Korea completed its “state nuclear force and thus became the full-fledged nuclear power which possesses the delivery means of various ranges, including the atomic bomb, H-bomb and intercontinental ballistic rockets.”

“The entire U.S. mainland is within our firing range and if the U.S. dares to invade our sacred territory even an inch it will not escape our severe punishment in any part of the globe,” he warned.

Kim’s speech follows escalating threats between North Korea and the United States, and increasingly tough U.N. sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that his country is curtailing economic, scientific and other ties with North Korea in line with U.N. sanctions, and the European Union announced new sanctions on Pyongyang for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Sunday that diplomatic efforts aimed at resolving the North Korean crisis “will continue until the first bomb drops.” His commitment to diplomacy came despite President Donald Trump’s tweets several weeks ago that his chief envoy was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whom he derisively referred to as “Little Rocket Man.”

North Korea’s deputy U.N. ambassador called his country’s nuclear and missile arsenal “a precious strategic asset that cannot be reversed or bartered for anything.”

“Unless the hostile policy and the nuclear threat of the U.S. is thoroughly eradicated, we will never put our nuclear weapons and ballistic rockets on the negotiating table under any circumstances,” Kim said.

He told the disarmament committee that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea — North Korea’s official name — had hoped for a nuclear-free world.

Instead, Kim said, all nuclear states are accelerating the modernization of their weapons and “reviving a nuclear arms race reminiscent of (the) Cold War era.” He noted that the nuclear weapon states, including the United States, boycotted negotiations for the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that was approved in July by 122 countries at the United Nations.

“The DPRK consistently supports the total elimination of nuclear weapons and the efforts for denuclearization of the entire world,” he said. But as long as the United States rejects the treaty and “constantly threatens and blackmails the DPRK with nuclear weapons … the DPRK is not in position to accede to the treaty.”

Who are the Haqqanis, Afghanistan’s most feared insurgents?

October 17, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File / by David STOUT | This 1991 file picture shows Jalaluddin Haqqani, centre, the founder of the Haqqani network who rose to prominence as an Afghan mujahideen commander fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s

ISLAMABAD (AFP) – The rescue of an abducted US-Canadian family in Pakistan last week has spotlighted their captors the Haqqani network, former CIA assets now considered one of the most dangerous factions fighting US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Led by Sirajuddin Haqqani, who doubles as the Afghan Taliban’s deputy leader, the extremist group has been blamed for spectacular attacks across Afghanistan since after the US invasion.

Long suspected of links to Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment, the network was described by US Admiral Mike Mullen in 2011 as a “veritable arm” of Pakistani intelligence.

“When you hear US officials, including in private settings, talking about what worries them the most, they always talk about the Haqqanis,” said analyst Michael Kugelman, of the Wilson Center in Washington.

– Who are they? –

The group was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, an Afghan mujahideen commander fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s with the help of the US and Pakistan.

Jalaluddin gained notoriety for his organisation and bravery, garnering attention from the CIA and a personal visit from US congressman Charlie Wilson.

A fluent Arabic speaker, Jalaluddin also fostered close ties with Arab jihadists, including Osama Bin Laden, who flocked to the region during the war and later became a minister in the Taliban regime.

Now designated a terrorist group by the US, the Haqqanis are known for their heavy use of suicide bombers.

They were blamed for the truck bomb deep in the heart of Kabul in May that killed around 150 people — though Sirajuddin later denied the accusation in a rare audio message.

The network has also been accused of assassinating top Afghan officials and holding kidnapped Westerners for ransom.

That includes recently released Canadian Joshua Boyle, his American wife Caitlan Coleman, and their three children — all born in captivity — as well as US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, who was released in 2014.

– Where are they now? –

Following the US invasion of Afghanistan, Taliban fighters flooded across the border into Pakistan, where they regrouped before launching an insurgency against the Americans.

That included the Haqqanis, who coordinated attacks on NATO from across the border in their stronghold of Miran Shah, the biggest town in North Waziristan, one of Pakistan’s semi-autonomous border tribal areas.

The US has launched repeated drone attacks targeting the group — including one late Monday — while Pakistan’s military has conducted successive clearing operations, though sceptical Afghan officials have noted they always seemed to miss the Haqqanis.

Pakistan intensified a military operation in the area in 2014, however, and some militant sources say the pressure has forced many of the Haqqanis underground or over the border into their Afghan strongholds, claims that AFP could not confirm.

– Why are they linked to Pakistan? –

Pakistan sees its arch-nemesis to the east, India, as an existential threat, and has long sought influence over Kabul as a bulwark against Delhi.

The Haqqanis have frequently been accused of targeting Indian installations in Afghanistan, spurring speculation they were overseen by Pakistani intelligence agencies.

“For Pakistan the calculus comes down to India,” said Kugelman.

“It views the Haqqanis and also more broadly the Afghan Taliban as a useful asset to help push back against the presence of India in Afghanistan.”

Politicians and retired military officials in Islamabad acknowledge privately that having open channels with the Haqqanis is vital.

Some stressed the nature of the connection. “There’s a difference between contact and supporting them or being part of them,” Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier who worked in Pakistan’s tribal areas, told AFP.

– What does the US want Pakistan to do? –

Washington has long pressured Pakistan to crack down on militant groups, with the Haqqanis a top priority.

US President Donald Trump turned up the heat this summer when he accused Pakistan of playing a double game in Afghanistan and upbraided Islamabad for sheltering “agents of chaos”.

Islamabad has repeatedly denied the claims and accused Washington of ignoring the thousands of Pakistani lives lost in its struggle with militancy.

The recovery of Boyle, Coleman, and their children came weeks later, with Pakistan using its role in securing their freedom to urge the US to trust it is doing its best.

But, Pakistan’s desire for strategic depth aside, a crackdown on the Haqqanis might not be easy in a tribal society where social relations matter, warned Pakistani political analyst Imtiaz Gul.

“You can’t simply pluck out somebody because they’ve gone politically incorrect,” he said.

by David STOUT

Israel Says Europeans Putting Their Heads in The Sand, Like Before World war II

October 16, 2017
BY GIL HOFFMAN
 OCTOBER 15, 2017 06:27

“The Europeans continue to put their heads in the sand, exactly like they did before World War II.”

Def. minister: 'Europeans putting heads in the sand' on Iran deal

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at a party event, September 13, 2017. (photo credit:MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman slammed Great Britain, France and Germany Saturday night for their opposition to the steps US President Donald Trump announced against the Iranian nuclear deal.

The leaders of the three European countries, whose companies have made massive business deals with Iran, issued a joint statement saying they “stand committed” to the deal and are concerned about the implications of Trump’s refusal to back it.

“The Europeans continue to put their heads in the sand, exactly like they did before World War II,” Liberman told Channel 2. “The leaders of Europe prefer to run away from reality.” Liberman praised Trump for sending the Iran deal back to Congress for reevaluation, calling it a “courageous and correct decision.” The defense minister added that “Israel must be ready to handle Iran by itself without the US.”

Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon said at a cultural event in Kiryat Ono on Saturday that Trump had made a mistake.

“The Iran deal is clearly bad because it enables the Islamic Republic to achieve a military nuclear capability,” he said. “But instead of arguing with the partners to the agreement, who oppose reopening it, it would have been better for the US to focus its efforts on pressuring the Iranian regime with sanctions due to its violations of UN Security Council decisions on terrorism, undermining regimes in the area, human rights violations and distributing weapons and missiles.”

Science, Technology and Space Minister Ofir Akunis praised Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “waking up the world to the dangers of the Iranian threat,” and ridiculed the opposition for saying that Netanyahu’s party, Likud, was fear-mongering and using the issue for political gain.

Netanyahu posted a video on his Facebook page crediting himself for Trump’s move and mocking criticism of his efforts against the Iran deal by opposition heads Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid, as well as by Channel 2 commentator Amnon Abramovich.

Labor Party chairman Avi Gabbay said Netanyahu’s behavior on the Iranian issue had harmed Israel diplomatically.

“Those who burn bridges in the diplomatic game stop having influence,” Gabbay said in a speech at a cultural event in Beersheba on Saturday. “This is what happened to Netanyahu with the Iran deal. He is good at speeches but has failed at negotiating and, therefore, we had no impact on the agreement. I hope that this time Netanyahu will behave differently.”

Gabbay welcomed Trump’s decision to harm the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ terrorist operation financially and said the next step must be amending the agreement and lengthening it so Iran will not be able to return to enriching uranium.

Zionist Union MK Omer Bar-Lev said he was glad Trump had not decided to cancel the agreement, because that could have enabled Iran to race forward to nuclear capability.

He said it was right of Trump to push for new sanctions against Iran due to its development of missiles and continued support of terrorism.

“Sanctions against the Revolutionary Guard could be a beneficial step to restraining Iranian support for terrorism, including Hezbollah and Hamas,” Bar-Lev said.

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Iraqi troops advance on Kurds-controlled oil fields in Kirkuk

October 16, 2017

Iraqi forces have moved towards oil fields and a military base held by Kurdish forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The US, which backs both sides, urged their allies to deescalate the explosive situation

Irak Armee startet Operation in Kirkuk (Getty Images/AFP/A. Al-Rubaye)

Iraqi security forces and allied Shiite militia clashed with Kurdish peshmerga forces early Monday south of Kirkuk, an oil-rich area at the heart of disputes between the two sides.

Tensions between the two sides have escalated since the Kurds overwhelmingly voted last month for an independent state in a non-binding referendum, which controversially included disputed territories such as Kirkuk.

Baghdad began advancing to take control of oil fields and a strategically-important military base in Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk, the Kurds said.

“Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilization are now advancing from Taza, south of Kirkuk, in a major operation; their intention is to enter the city and take over (the) K1 base and oil fields,” said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Security Council.

Popular Mobilizations Units (PMU) are Iran-backed Shiite militia allied with the Iraqi government.

Footage today shows Iranian-backed PMF deployed near Maktab Khalid, SW of Kirkuk, using US equipment for attack on Kirkuk.  pic.twitter.com/bajU2YPvzp

STATEMENT: Iraqi forces/PMF attacked Peshmerga forces in South Kirkuk in operation using US equipment, incl. Abrams tanks.  pic.twitter.com/C95Qfrb77y

View image on Twitter

Columns of Iraqi troops and PMU could be seen heading north from the town of Taza Khurmatu, which is located south of the city of Kirkuk.

Iraqi state TV reported that Iraqi forces had taken control of “vast areas” in Kirkuk province without opposition from Kurdish peshmerga.  Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the peshmerga.” It added that it had instructed the PMU to stay out of the city.

Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said its forces had taken control of several roads, an industrial zone southwest of Kirkuk, an oil facility, power station and police station.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed peshmerga had destroyed several US-supplied Humvees belonging to the PMU.

The US Defense Department, which has supplied and trained both the peshmerga and Iraqi army, urged its two allies in the war against the “Islamic State” (IS) “to avoid additional escalatory actions.” It added that it opposed destabilising actions that distract from the battle against IS militants.

The Iraqi troops and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been engaged in a standoff since Saturday, when they took positions on opposite banks of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdish forces were given a deadline of 2 a.m. local time Sunday (2300 UTC Saturday) to surrender their positions and return to their pre-June 2014 positions.

Kirkuk in Kurdish hands since 2014

Read moreWhat is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum?

Abadi has demanded that Kurdish leaders disavow the September 25 referendum but the Kurds have rejected the demand.

Baghdad called the referendum “anti-constitutional.” Turkey, Iran and the United States were all against the vote.

After the referendum, the Iraqi parliament asked Abadi to use armed force to retake control of Kirkuk, which is inhabited by Kurds and Sunni and Shiite Turkmen and Arabs.

The Kurdish peshmerga have controlled Kirkuk since 2014 when it prevented the province’s oil fields from falling into the hands of IS after the Iraqi army collapsed. With Baghdad weak, the Kurds moved to expand territory under its control outside the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdistan region.

The Kurds and Baghdad have long been in dispute over oil resources and revenue sharing.

‘Declaration of war’

Baghdad said on Sunday fighters from Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were present in Kirkuk among Kurdish peshmerga forces, in what it said amounted to a “declaration of war.”

“It is impossible to remain silent” faced with “a declaration of war towards Iraqis and government forces,” the National Security Council headed by the Iraqi prime minister said in a statement.

The PKK affiliated ANF News Agency said its fighters had been called to mobilize and form a “defensive line to protect the people.”

The PKK has close ties with some Iraqi Kurdish parties, particularly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

A PKK presence in Kirkuk would draw the ire of Turkey, which supports its ethnic cousins the Turkmen in the province.

ap/rc (Reuters, AFP)

How Trump may have set a trap for Iran

October 16, 2017

By Oubai Shahbandar
Arab News

To understand why the Iranian government is worried about President Donald Trump taking a harder line with sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards, we first must take a look back at how the 2015 nuclear deal intersected with the IRGC and its regional activities and interests.

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In what perhaps turned out to be a signal of where the Iran nuclear deal would lead us today, as it immediately released billions of dollars into the hands of Tehran and gradually ended crippling economic sanctions, President Barack Obama pledged in 2015: “There’s no scenario where sanctions relief turns Iran into the region’s dominant power.”

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He went on: “This is not to say that sanctions relief will provide no benefit to Iran’s military…. We have no illusions about the Iranian government, or the significance of the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force.”

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The message that Obama was attempting to send, both to a domestic audience and internationally, was that his administration would still take seriously the destabilizing activity of the IRGC and that the nuclear deal would not in any way deter US resolve to confront IRGC terror activity that threatened US and its allies’ interests.

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When Obama said: “If we’re serious about confronting Iran’s destabilizing activities, it is hard to imagine a worse approach than blocking this deal,” he was attempting to outmaneuver opponents of the deal by arguing that not only would the deal prevent — at least in the short term — Iran from achieving nuclear break-out capability, but that effectively confronting Iran’s covert activities in the Middle East necessitated such a deal.

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Critics, of course, have pointed to what seem to be contradictory facts on the ground. For instance, IRGC activity has significantly increased since 2015. The commander of the IRGC, Qassem Soleimani, took a direct and much more visible role in expanding IRGC bases of operation throughout Syria and lines of supply to its proxies throughout the Arabian Gulf.

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By making the entire IRGC — not just the Quds Force — subject to a total freeze of its assets abroad, Trump will have more than just sent a warning show across the bow. It means that IRGC front companies, or even companies suspected of being IRGC fronts, from Asia to the Gulf states to Europe, will be shut down. The US National Security Council has said Trump’s Iran strategy has four strands: Neutralizing IRGC and destabilizing operations; targeting IRGC financial lifeblood; countering Iran’s ballistic missile threat, in which the IRGC and its front companies play an important role; and ending all pathways to nuclear weaponization.

Rather than breach the nuclear deal himself, Donald Trump could provoke Tehran into doing so by targeting its crown jewel — the Revolutionary Guards.

Oubai Shahbandar

The last objective is particularly important as it means not only ensuring Iranian compliance, but also preventing Iran from biding its time and preparing the requisite procurement, production and research facilities that would allow it to move quickly toward a nuclear weapon after the nuclear deal expires.

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So it was no wonder that Ali Akbar Velayati, the adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said if the US labeled the IRGC a terrorist organization, then “all options are on the table.” Trump may have outmaneuvered Tehran in this regard. Instead of handing Iran a diplomatic victory by initiating a wholesale pull out from the nuclear deal, the White House has now shifted the pressure and spotlight on the IRGC.

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The thinking among Trump’s senior officials seems to be that a much stronger case can be made to European allies that Iran is in violation of the nuclear deal if Tehran decides to initiate massive breaches of the agreement as a retaliatory measure to sanctions against the IRGC. Obama’s senior foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes has argued that Iran is much stronger today than it was then, and that direct confrontation would only play into its hands and de-incentivize it from holding its end of the nuclear bargain. But Trump is playing from a wholly different playbook — one that Tehran may not be prepared to deal with.

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• Oubai Shahbandar is a Fellow in New America’s International Security Program. He is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic consultant specializing in technology, energy and Arabian Gulf security. Twitter: @OS26

http://www.arabnews.com/node/1178221

Iran move won’t weaken US hand with NKorea: Tillerson — “Diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.”

October 15, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied President Trump’s un-diplomatic style is undermining his efforts to rein in North Korea

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Sunday denied that Donald Trump’s threat to tear up the Iran nuclear deal had weakened America’s chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile drive through diplomacy.

By calling into question the landmark deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, worried allies fear the US president has sent a message to Pyongyang that America’s word cannot be trusted.

In a virulent speech Friday, Trump refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the deal, kicking its fate to Congress, which he told to address its “many serious flaws.”

“I think what North Korea should take away from this decision is that the United States will expect a very demanding agreement with North Korea,” Tillerson said on CNN’s State of the Union.

“One that is very binding and achieves the objectives not just of the United States but the policy objectives of China and other neighbors in the region, a denuclearized Korean peninsula.”

“If we achieve that, there will be nothing to walk away from because the objective will be achieved.”

The US top diplomat’s efforts to rein in North Korea have been overshadowed by Trump’s un-diplomatic style and his streams of taunting tweets stirring international tensions.

Earlier this month, as Tillerson flew home from meeting with top Chinese officials, Trump tweeted that his envoy was “wasting his time” in trying to probe North Korea’s willingness to talk.

But Tillerson pushed back at claims that Trump has undermined his efforts, after outspoken Republican senator and Trump critic Bob Corker said the president was seeking to “castrate” his top diplomat.

“No, sir. He has made it clear to me to continue my diplomatic efforts,” Tillerson said. “Those diplomatic efforts will continue until the first bomb drops.”

“The president has also made clear to me that he wants this solved diplomatically,” he added. “He’s not seeking to go to war.”

The Secretary of State was forced this month to deny claims of a serious rift with Trump, after it was reported he had called the president a “moron.”

Tillerson has refused to outright deny the report, which he once more dismissed on CNN as “petty stuff.”

But he had a quick comeback at the ready when asked about Corker’s claim that Trump was trying to “castrate” him on the world stage: “I checked. I’m fully intact.”