Saturday, January 16, 2021

Biden announces Iran deal negotiator Wendy Sherman for deputy secretary of state

 US President-elect Joe Biden on Saturday confirmed his selection of Wendy Sherman as deputy secretary of state.

Sherman, a chief US negotiator for the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, will be nominated for the role under Biden’s nominee for the secretary position, Tony Blinken. Her selection had been reported by Politico earlier this week.

Working with then-deputy secretary of state Blinken, Sherman was a key architect of the Iran nuclear deal, which exposed her to criticism from parts of the pro-Israel establishment in Washington. Invoking her own Judaism, she has described the dissent the Obama administration faced over the multilateral accord from the American Jewish community as the most “painful” part of its efforts to push the deal through. (Read More)

E3: Iran making uranium metal, a nuke component, has ‘grave military’ potential

BERLIN, Germany — European powers on Saturday voiced deep concern over Iran’s plans to produce uranium metal, warning that Tehran has “no credible civilian use” for the element.

“The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications,” said the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, the so-called E3, in a joint statement.

Uranium metal can be used as a component in nuclear weapons. Iran had signed up to a 15-year ban on “producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys” under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with world powers.

“We strongly urge Iran to halt this activity, and return to compliance with its JCPOA commitments without further delay if it is serious about preserving the deal,” said the ministers.

Their call came after Iran told the UN nuclear watchdog on Wednesday that it was advancing research on uranium metal production, saying it is aimed at providing advanced fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. (Read More)

Pentagon moves Israel into Central Command to boost cooperation with Arab states

With a nod to Israel’s increasingly normalized relations with the Arab world, the Pentagon is reorganizing its global command structure to include the Jewish state in the military sphere managed by US Central Command, which includes other Middle East countries.

The move will allow for greater collaboration against Iran, the primary regional foe of Israel, the US and some Arab countries. Israel for decades had been in the sphere of European Command because of its hostile relations with many Arab countries, a condition that was viewed as making it difficult for Central Command to do business with both Israel and the Arab world.

Central Command’s area of responsibility stretches across the Middle East to Central Asia, including the Persian Gulf region as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. US President Donald Trump ordered the shift earlier this week following lobbying from several pro-Israel groups in Washington, and the Pentagon made the official announcement on Friday. (Read More)

Abbas issues decree ordering Palestinian elections for first time in 14 years

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas alongside Central Elections Commissioner Hana Naser on Friday, January 15, 2021, announcing an election decree (courtesy: WAFA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree on Friday ordering Palestinian national elections to be held within the next seven months, a move which could send Palestinians to the ballot box for the first time since 2006.

Abbas has promised elections several times since his four-year term was supposed to have expired in 2009. However, repeated attempts to hold votes for president and parliament have failed, largely due to the inability of rivals Fatah and Hamas to agree to terms.

According to the decree, which was published on Friday night, Palestinians across the territories — in East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank — will head to the ballot box on May 22, 2021 to vote for the Palestinian Legislative Council.

If all goes according to the decree, another two rounds of elections will be held afterward: on Saturday, July 7, 2021, they will vote for Palestinian Authority president, a position Abbas has held since 2004, and on August 31, 2021, they will vote a third time for the Palestinian National Council.

The Hamas terror group, Abbas’s rivals, welcomed the presidential decree and vowed to “fulfill the promise” offered by the move towards elections through negotiations over the election bylaws. Senior officials in Fatah and Hamas will reportedly soon head to Cairo to discuss some of the voting terms.

“It is necessary to expedite the holding of a comprehensive national dialogue in which all Palestinian factions participate without exception,” Hamas said in a statement.

Presidential elections were last called after Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat died in 2004. The last presidential elections were held on January 9, 2005, which ended with Abbas victorious.

Palestinian national elections have not been held since 2006, when Hamas took a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Abbas’s Fatah movement refused to sit with Hamas or give up control of its institutions, which it had ruled since the Palestinian Authority’s formation in the late 1990s.

The subsequent tug-of-war eventually led to a bloody struggle for control of the Gaza Strip. Hamas won, expelling Fatah to the West Bank. The Palestinian legislature has essentially been inactive since then, as most power has devolved to Abbas’s executive branch.

“Abbas may want to restore his legitimacy in front of the international community, after ruling for so many years without elections. The regional picture has also changed dramatically over the last few months, with the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab states,” said Palestinian political analyst Jihad Harb. READ MORE 

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard conducts long-range anti-warship missile drill

In this photo released Jan. 16, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted a drill on Saturday launching anti-warship ballistic missiles at a simulated target in the Indian Ocean, state television reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.

Footage showed two missiles smash into a target that Iranian state television described as “hypothetical hostile enemy ships” at a distance of 1,800 kilometers (1,120 miles). The report did not specify the type of missiles used. That range could put the missiles in striking distance of Israeli targets.

Iran’s armed forces chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri was present on the second day of the drill, alongside Guards chief Major General Hossein Salami and aerospace commander Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist group by the US.

Using “long-range missiles for maritime targets indicates that if the enemies… show any ill will towards our national interests, maritime trade routes or territory, they will be targeted and destroyed by our missiles,” Sepahnews quoted Bagheri as saying.

“We do not intend to carry out any attack,” he said, adding that the exercise showed Iran’s readiness to defend itself “with all its strength” against any aggressor. READ MORE 

Friday, January 15, 2021

Franklin Graham Compares 10 Republicans Who Voted to Impeach Trump to Betrayal of Christ

Evangelist Franklin Graham compared 10 members of the GOP to Judas Iscariot on Thursday after they voted to approve President Donald Trump's second impeachment.

Graham, the head of the non-profit organization Samaritan's Purse, has been a longtime 

supporter of Trump's presidency. Rifts between the evangelical community and Trump have 

developed after recent events, including a January riot at the U.S. Capitol. Trump's impeachment 

in the aftermath of the riot at the U.S. Capitol did not change Graham's support of the president,

leading Graham to draw parallels between Trump's impeachment and the betrayal of 

Jesus Christ as described in the Bible.

"Shame, shame on the ten Republicans who joined with @SpeakerPelosi & the House 

Democrats in impeaching President Trump yesterday," Graham tweeted. "After all that he has 

done for our country, you would turn your back & betray him so quickly? What was done 

yesterday only further divides our nation." (Read More & Watch Video)

Microsoft helping create COVID-19 vaccination 'passport'

Microsoft is part of a coalition of technology and health organizations working on the development of a digital COVID-19 vaccination passport that could be used by businesses and countries to enforce mandatory inoculation.

Announced Thursday, the Vaccination Credential Initiative aims to enable people to "demonstrate their health status to safely return to travel, work, school and life while protecting their data privacy," the Financial Times reported

Oracle and the Mayo Clinic also are part of the coalition, which is working with technology created by The Commons Project in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

People who have been vaccinated for the coronavirus currently receive a piece of paper to document their vaccination, Paul Meyer, the chief executive of The Commons Project, told the Financial Times. (Read More)

Israel is launching Covid immunity passports

Israel has been lauded for deploying what is currently the fastest Covid-19 vaccination campaign in the world. Less than a month after receiving its first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab, the country of 9 million has vaccinated around 20% of its population, and more than 72% of people over the age of 60 have already gotten their first dose of the shot. Israel’s health ministry aims to have 5.2 million of its citizens vaccinated by March.

The vaccinations, officials say, will help the country gradually exit its strict lockdown, and soon with the help of a new document: a Covid-19 vaccination certification, or what’s being called the “green booklet.” (Read More)

Ex-IDF intel expert: Iran retaliatory attack certain, unclear when, where

First of all, the Biden administration is coming in only one week. Everyone is talking about the likelihood of attacks from Iran even before then, but there was a recent INSS annual report that came out and said that the likelihood might even go up under the Biden administration, that there's an "open account" between Israel and Iran, between Iran and the United States, and maybe because the Biden administration might be a government with more restraint in general, that maybe Iran might see this as a green light to finally get revenge on Israel for various events that Israel might have been involved in over the last year related to certain top Iranian intelligence and other officials officials disappearing. Please, what do you think about that?

Well, as you said, we just published our annual strategic assessment for 2021 and the Iranian paragraph is titled something like "Iran is at a low point but still poses the main threat to Israel's security," and that's much broader than the current situation. As to your question, I think Iran, like all the key players in the Middle East, does not want large scale escalation. Iran suffered from a very difficult year from the sanctions, from the maximum pressure policy from the Trump administration, the huge number of deaths from COVID-19, and the year started with the killing of Soleimani, the commander of the Quds force and architect of the Iran regional policy and ended with the killing of Mohsen Fakrizadeh, who was in charge of the weapons group within the nuclear program. And it also had the attack on the advance centrifuge facility Natanz. All these - READ MORE 

Iran’s largest warship boosts its Red Sea naval buildup

The Iranian navy’s largest warship Makran, a logistics vessel which carries 7 helicopters, and the missile carrier Zereh have been posted to its fleet in the northern Indian Ocean, the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and the Red Sea, the Tasnim news agency reports. The two new warships were unveiled and delivered during a two-day Iranian exercise in the Gulf of Oman.

“We are once again in the Red Sea region,” said Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagher reporting on the ongoing buildup of warships on Wednesday. State TV said the 121,000-metric ton Makran is Iran’s largest military ship at 228 meters (748 feet) long, 42 meters (138 feet) wide and 21.5 meters (70 feet) tall. It is claimed to support combat ships in the fleet, can travel for nearly three years without docking and carry information collection and processing gear. These features are not independently confirmed. Video footage released by the military showed helicopters carrying commandos to the Makran as part of the exercise.

Newsweek this week ran images of advanced Iranian Shahed-136 “suicide drones” deployed to Houthi-controlled northern Yemen. They are estimated to have an effective range of 2,000 to 2,200 km. Israel, Saudi Arabia and US bases are well within range.

Israel military sources say the IDF has identified the peril posed by Iran’s “second circle” of aggression in Yemen and Iraq. The IDF has been conducting war games since December simulating attacks from the south from a variety of hardware, whether by missiles, drones or other remote guidance weapons. Patriot and Iron Dome anti-missile batteries have been moved to its southernmost town, the Red Sea port city and resort of Eilat.

Its backing for the Yemeni Houthi insurgency has won Iran a strategic foothold against Israel and Saudi Arabia, over and above Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Its naval buildup puts Tehran in position to blockade this vital sea lane.

Iran routinely uses Yemen’s Houthis for cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia. Its current naval buildup will threaten the kingdom’s Red Sea coastline and western oil route as well. Iran’s use of its “second circle” of aggression against American allies in the region is one more item for the incoming Joe Biden presidency to tackle in any renewed nuclear negotiations with the Islamic Republic.

Iran holds ballistic missile, drones drill amid tensions

In this photo released on January 15, 2021, by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, missiles are launched in a drill in Iran. Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces on Friday held a military exercise involving ballistic missiles and drones in the country's central desert, state TV reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran's nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic. (Iranian Revolutionary Guard/Sepahnews via AP)

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces on Friday held a military exercise involving ballistic missiles and drones in the country’s central desert, state TV reported, amid heightened tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program and a US pressure campaign against the Islamic Republic.

In the first phase of the drill Friday morning, the Guard’s aerospace division launched several surface-to-surface ballistic missiles against simulated enemy bases, state TV reported. It said the drill included Zolfaghar and Dezful solid-fuel ballistic missiles. Bomb-carrying drones were also deployed. The Dezful, a version of the Zolfaghar, has a 700-kilometer (430-mile) range and 450-kilogram (992-pound) warhead.

Iran has missile capability of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), far enough to reach archenemy Israel and US military bases in the region. Last January, after the US killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad, Tehran retaliated by firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing US troops, resulting in brain concussion injuries to dozens of them.

In recent weeks, Iran has increased its military drills. On Wednesday, Iran’s navy held a two-day short-range missile drill in the Gulf of Oman. On Saturday, the Revolutionary Guard held a naval parade in the Persian Gulf. A week earlier, Iran held a massive drone maneuver across half the country. READ MORE 

Israel increases efforts to expose the Iranian threat to global security

Gilad Erdan

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan, sent an official letter to the Security Council on Thursday noting all of Iran's rogue activities and demanded that the council discuss its aggression, including the transfer of weapons to terrorist organizations, systematic violations of the nuclear agreement and its repeated calls for Israel's destruction.

Ambassador Erdan's letter is part of a diplomatic effort he has been leading in recent months against Iran at the UN and within the diplomatic community. As part of this campaign, he recently presented a "5-point plan" to combat global terrorism to the Security Council, which included calling for condemnations against countries that fund terrorist organizations.

In his letter, Ambassador Erdan highlighted Iran's current efforts to enrich uranium to 20%, in clear violation of the nuclear agreement and another step that clearly demonstrates its ambitions to develop a nuclear program for military purposes. The letter also mentions a recent bill proposed by the Iranian Parliament calling for the destruction of Israel by the year 2041.

“It is no secret that Iran has become the largest proliferator of ballistic and other missile technologies to Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Gaza, delivering these capabilities into the hands of non-state and terrorist actors and destabilizing the region,” Ambassador Erdan wrote in the letter.

He continued, "Israel has repeatedly warned of Iran’s unceasing malign activities and highlighted these violations through numerous calls to the international community and letters to the United Nations bodies, providing concrete, verified and documented evidence of the Iranian regime’s reckless and illicit behavior in the Middle East and beyond."

Ambassador Erdan called on the Security Council to immediately impose an arms and missile embargo on the regime in Tehran and apply maximum pressure against it.

Erdan, who will soon take up his post as Israel’s Ambassador to the US in addition to the UN, closed the letter warning that Israel would take all necessary measures to protect its citizens and sovereignty.

North Korea displays new ballistic missile

North Korean ballistic missile (archive)

North Korea displayed what appeared to be a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) at a parade on Thursday, Reuters reported, citing state media.

The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, smiled and waved as he oversaw the parade in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, photos by state media showed.

The parade featured rows of marching soldiers, as well as a range of military hardware including tanks and rocket launchers, according to Reuters.

At the end, a number of what analysts said appeared to be new variants of short-range ballistic missiles and SLBMs rolled into the square on trucks.

“The world’s most powerful weapon, submarine-launch ballistic missiles, entered the square one after another, powerfully demonstrating the might of the revolutionary armed forces,” the country’s news agency KCNA reported.

Photos released by state media showed the SLBM was labelled Pukguksong-5, potentially marking an upgrade over the Pukguksong-4 that was unveiled at a larger military parade in October.

The display follows the congress of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, the first of its kind in five years. During the congress, Kim was named the “general secretary” of the party.

In remarks he made at the start of the gathering, Kim threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal and stated that the fate of relations with the United States depends on whether it abandons its “hostile policy”.

Kim’s comments were seen as applying pressure on the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Outgoing President Donald Trump tried to reached an agreement with North Korea while in office. Kim and Trump met in Hanoi in 2019 for a summit that left nuclear talks at a standstill.

The pair had met three times since June 2018 but made little progress towards denuclearization.

Since those talks broke down, North Korea has conducted several tests of ballistic missiles.

Biden, who will take office on January 20, is unlikely to hold direct meetings with Kim unless the North Korean leader takes significant denuclearization steps.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

FBI said to warn of attacks on state capitols, lawmakers’ homes during inaugural

The FBI has warned police forces across the United States to be on high alert and share intelligence on threats ahead of next week’s presidential inauguration of Joe Biden, a report said Wednesday.

The dome of the US Capitol building is visible as riot gear is laid out on a field on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

FBI Director Christopher Wray warned of “potential attacks on state capitols, federal buildings, the homes of congressional members and businesses,” the New York Times reported, citing one of the police chiefs on the call.

“They don’t want to be dismissive of anything,” the report cited Chief Jorge Colina of the Miami Police Department. “So even if it sounds aspirational, even if it’s just like, ‘Yeah, it’d be great if the whole place is burned down,’ they don’t want us to think, ‘Ah, that’s just some knucklehead, pinhead,’ and be dismissive.”

A separate bulletin published Wednesday by the National Counterterrorism Center and the Justice and Homeland Security Departments warned that extremists could view the death of protester and QAnon supporter Ashli Babbit during the Capitol riots as an “act of martyrdom,” according to the NYT.

The officials warned that “the shared false narrative of a ‘stolen’ election’ may lead some individuals to adopt the belief that there is no political solution to address their grievances and violent action is necessary.”

The FBI has previously warned that armed protests by violent supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump were being planned in all 50 state capitals as well as in Washington for the days leading up to the inauguration of Biden. READ MORE 

IDF said drawing up plans to attack Iran’s nuclear program

The Israel Defense Forces is drawing up plans for an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, the Israel Hayom daily reports in a front-page article.

The pro-Netanyahu newspaper says IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi has asked for three alternate plans to derail Tehran’s program, without elaborating on the proposals.

The unsourced report, however, indicates one of the proposals is a military strike, noting that such a plan would require a budgetary boost for the Israeli army.

Likud minister warns Israel could attack Iran nuclear program if US rejoins deal

Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi in Gush Etzion in the West Bank, December 24, 2020 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Likud ministers on Wednesday refrained from confirming whether Israel was behind a raid in Syria overnight, but said the incoming US administration must not “appease” Iran, and warned Tehran the Jewish state will not tolerate its military presence in Syria or its development of nuclear weapons.

In one of the most forceful statements made by an Israeli official, the Likud’s Tzachi Hanegbi, considered an ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, threatened that Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear program if the United States rejoined the nuclear deal, as US President-elect Joe Biden has indicated he plans to do.

“If the United States government rejoins the nuclear deal — and that seems to be the stated policy as of now — the practical result will be that Israel will again be alone against Iran, which by the end of the deal will have received a green light from the world, including the United States, to continue with its nuclear weapons program,” Hanegbi said in an interview with Kan news.

“This of course we will not allow. We’ve already twice done what needed to be done, in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear program and in 2007 against the Syrian nuclear program,” he said, referring to airstrikes on those two countries’ nuclear reactors.

Asked about speculation that US President Donald Trump may conduct a large strike on Iran and its nuclear program before he leaves office next week, Hanegbi said this was not expected. “The [Israeli] assessment is that nothing dramatic will happen during this week,” he said.

The massive airstrikes in eastern Syria reportedly targeted more than 15 Iran-linked facilities and were the fourth reported attack by Israel against Iranian targets in Syria in the past two and a half weeks, a significant increase from the normal rate of such strikes. The predawn attacks on Wednesday also struck a significant number of targets in Syria, more than 15 by most counts from Syrian media. READ MORE 

With Iran held in check by Biden hopes, Israel grabs chance to hit hard in Syria

F-16 jets fly above the Herzliya airport on November 15, 2019. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Over the past two and a half weeks, Israel has reportedly conducted at least four rounds of airstrikes on Iran-linked sites in Syria, including a major bombardment in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning according to media outlets there, in a major step up from the normal scope and frequency of attacks.

Wednesday’s attack was a major operation against Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in the country, one of the largest reported Israeli airstrikes in years, with over 15 sites bombed in eastern Syria some 500 kilometers (300 miles) from Israel, according to Syrian reports.

The bombing was both more intense than normal — in comparison, the Israel Defense Forces said it struck some 50 targets in Syria in all of 2020 — and took place much farther from Israel than most attacks attributed to the Jewish state. The three other rounds of airstrikes in last few weeks took place in areas closer to Damascus and the Syrian Golan.

The IDF had no comment on the late-night strikes, in accordance with its policy to neither confirm nor deny its operations in Syria save for those in retaliation to an attack on Israel from the country.

The significant increase in the frequency and scope of the attacks stems from an assessment by the Israel Defense Forces, shared with The Times of Israel, that Iran is unlikely to retaliate in a major way to these strikes in the short term.

In general over the past year, Iran has not responded to Israeli airstrikes — either not finding a way to do so or being stopped by Israel from doing so — and currently Tehran appears to be preparing to enter into negotiations with US President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration, which would be more difficult were it to be actively engaged in fighting with Washington’s key ally in the region. While Iran takes a wait-and-see approach, Israel is taking advantage. READ MORE 

Iran starts work on uranium metal-based fuel


Iran has started work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, the UN nuclear watchdog and Tehran said on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

The move marks Iran’s latest breach of the nuclear deal it signed with six major powers in 2015.

“(International Atomic Energy Agency) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today informed IAEA Member States about recent developments regarding Iran’s plans to conduct R&D activities on uranium metal production as part of its declared aim to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” the IAEA said in a statement.

The IAEA’s confidential report to member states, obtained by Reuters, said Iran had indicated it plans to produce uranium metal from natural uranium and then produce uranium metal enriched up to 20% for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

Iran has gradually scaled back its compliance with the 2015 deal in response to US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement in May of 2018.

Last week, the Islamic Republic announced it had resumed enrichment of uranium at its underground site in Fordow. Iran plans to enrich uranium to 20%, a level it last reached before the 2015 deal.

Iran’s continued violations of the deal are viewed as a means to challenge US President-elect Joe Biden, has taken a different approach to the Iran deal than Trump and has expressed a desire to rejoin the agreement. He recently told The New York Times that he would do so if Iran returned to compliance with it.

The Iranian government, however, has ruled out the possibility of renegotiating the nuclear deal, saying it was fully discussed in detail five years ago and needs no renegotiations.