Monday, September 28, 2020

Threat to evacuate U.S. diplomats from Iraq raises fear of war

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Greece

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Washington has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut its embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats said, a step Iraqis fear could turn their country into a battle zone.

Any move by the United States to scale down its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks.

That in turn would open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website.

By Sunday, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, those sources and the two Western diplomats said.

The concern among the Iraqis is that pulling out diplomats would be followed quickly by military action against forces Washington blamed for attacks.

Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, issued a statement last week pleading for groups to avoid an escalation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.

One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. administration did not "want to be limited in their options" to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: "Strikes."

The U.S. State Department, asked about plans to withdraw from Iraq, said: "We never comment on the Secretary's private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders ... Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq." (Read More)

Sudan reportedly requesting billions in aid in exchange for ties with Israel

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stands with Sudanese Gen. Abdel-Fattah Burhan, the head of the ruling sovereign council, in Khartoum, Sudan, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020. (Sudanese Cabinet via AP)

Sudanese officials reportedly requested $3 billion to $4 billion in aid in exchange for normalizing relations with Israel during negotiations with US officials.

Sudan’s Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, its de-facto leader, held talks this week in the United Arab Emirates with US and Emirati officials.

During the talks, Sudan turned down an offer of $800 million in aid and investments as part of an exchange for a deal with Israel, The New York Times reported on Sunday. Most of the sum would have been paid by the US and UAE, with Israel paying around $10 million.

Sudan has also asked to be removed from the US list of state sponsors of terror, which US officials said they are willing to do. The designation prevents Sudan from receiving foreign funding, contributing to its ongoing financial crisis.

Sudan is now seen by US officials as the most likely candidate to follow the lead of the UAE and Bahrain, which normalized ties with Jerusalem earlier this month, but the financial aid package has emerged as a stumbling block in the talks, the report said.

The Walla news site previously reported that Sudan was asking for oil and wheat shipments worth $1.2 billion to cope with recent devastating floods, a $2 billion grant to deal with Sudan’s economic crisis and a commitment of economic support from the US and the UAE over the next three years.

Israeli officials have long expressed a wish for better relations with Khartoum, citing its importance in the region as well as its geographic location.

Israeli officials said that Saudi Arabia took part in negotiations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, but that the Saudis were unlikely to recognize Israel in the near future. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in the talks, and the kingdom secretly pushed other Middle East countries to support the agreements, The New York Times report said. (Read More)

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Rouhani accuses US of ‘atrocity’ over sanctions, blames ‘Zionists’ for woes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaking in a pre-recorded message played during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, at UN headquarters in New York, September 22, 2020. (UNTV via AP)

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday accused the US of committing an “atrocity” for sanctions that have inflicted damages of $150 billion, and urged the Iranian people to blame the White House for recent financial woes, in a televised address on Iranian state TV.

The United States imposed fresh sanctions this week on Iran’s defense ministry and enforced an arms embargo under a United Nations authority that is widely contested.

“The people should curse the White House for the shortages… the main source of all the crimes and pressures against the Iranian nation is the White House,” Rouhani said.

Rouhani went on to blame the ails of Iranian society on “Zionism, reactionary approaches, and US extremists.”

In his closing remarks, Rouhani said that he had “no doubt the US administration will bow down before the Iranian nation.”

Tensions between the US and Iran have escalated since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 deal aimed at capping Iran’s nuclear activities in return for sanction relief, and unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018.

Despite pulling out of the nuclear deal, Trump announced Monday that the US has reimposed UN sanctions on the grounds that the United States is still a “participant” in the accord, as it was listed in the 2015 resolution.

This argument has been rejected by virtually all nations on the UN Security Council, including US allies.

The sanctions target 27 entities and officials related to Iran’s nuclear proliferation activities, a statement from the White House said. The order seizes US assets from “those who contribute to the supply, sale, or transfer of conventional arms to or from Iran, as well as those who provide technical training, financial support and services, and other assistance related to these arms.”

Trump said in a statement: “This executive order is critical to enforcing the UN arms embargo on Iran. The order will greatly diminish the Iranian regime’s capacity to export arms to terrorists and dangerous actors throughout the region, as well as its ability to acquire weapons to build up its own forces.”

Time to hold the PLO accountable for its crimes

Saeb Erekat

(JNS) Earlier this month, the Harvard Kennedy School of Government announced that PLO Executive Committee chairman Saeb Erekat has been hired as a senior fellow for the school’s Future of Diplomacy Project for the 2020-2021 school year. This week, former senior Justice Department official attorney Neal Sher sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf asking that Erekat be denied a visa to the United States.

Sher noted that Erekat’s long record of supporting terrorism as a senior PLO official includes numerous acts of inciting, facilitating and soliciting terrorism. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Act, Sher argued, Erekat is legally barred from setting foot on U.S. soil.

The timing of Sher’s letter was noteworthy.

Twenty years ago this week, the PLO’s Palestinian Authority launched its terrorist war against Israel. It was two months after Erekat’s longtime boss PLO chief and P.A. chairman Yasser Arafat rejected Israel’s offer of peace and Palestinian statehood at the Camp David peace summit.

Arafat called the terrorist war “the al-Aqsa Intifada.” The name sent a signal to the Islamic world that the Palestinians were the advance guards of the global jihad.

Despite the P.A.’s acts of slaughter and incitement, despite its complete abrogation of all of its commitments to live at peace with Israel, and its embrace of the global jihad, no one disavowed the P.A. Israel continued to seek peace through appeasement. Washington continued to treat P.A. leaders as credible peacemakers even as they oversaw the massacre of hundreds of innocent Israelis. So did the wider international community.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak learned neither from Arafat’s cold shoulder at Camp David nor from the terrorist offensive he launched in September. Barak continued to beg Arafat for peace even as the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ran red with the blood of Israelis. At Taba, Barak’s negotiators made even more lavish offers for Israeli surrenders of land for peace than the offer he made at Camp David.

Is Israel holding secret peace talks with Syria?

Bashar Al-Assad

Following the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel and Bahrain and Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a growing number of Arab diplomats believe Syria is now conducting secret negotiations with the Jewish state.

According to a report by the London-based pro-Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat on Sunday, there is now a “widespread belief” among Arab diplomats that Syria and Israel have resumed secret negotiations, similar to the unofficial talks conducted between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Ehud Olmert government in 2008.

While there has been no official confirmation of the talks, Arab diplomats have noted that Syria declined to condemn either Bahrain or the UAE for recognizing Israel and establishing formal relations with the Jewish state, while Iran – the Syrian regime’s close ally – publicly lambasted Bahrain and the UAE for making peace with Israel.

The report noted that the deal between Israel and the UAE coincided with the shipment of humanitarian aid from the UAE to Syria.

If talks have restarted between Damascus and Jerusalem, they will have several major hurdles to surmount, including Iran’s continued military presence in Syria, which Israel has emphasized in the past it will never accept. In addition, Syria has long refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and has in past negotiations demanded the surrender of the Heights as a condition for peace.

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Abbas calls for international peace conference next year

Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas on Friday appealed to the United Nations for an international conference on the Middle East in 2021.

In an address to the General Assembly, Abbas asked Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to convene the meeting on the Palestinian issue "early next year" and bring in "all relevant parties."

"The conference should have full authority to launch a genuine peace process based on international law," Abbas told the virtual General Assembly in a recorded address, according to the AFP news agency.

"It should aim to end the occupation and grant the Palestinian people their freedom and independence in their own state along the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and settle final-status issues, notably the refugee question," he added.

Abbas’ comments follow the agreements that Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain earlier this month on the normalization of ties between those countries.

"It is delusional to think that the Palestinian people could be sidelined," the PA chairman said.

"You should all know that there can be no peace, no security, no stability or coexistence in our region without an end to the occupation and without a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question," he added.

Abbas has denounced the agreements Israel signed with the UAE and Bahrain, saying only an Israeli withdrawal from Judea and Samaria can bring peace to the Middle East.

The PA has refused diplomatic efforts by US President Donald Trump, arguing that his administration is biased in favor of Israel.

Abbas has repeatedly pushed for an international conference for peace in the Middle East, aimed at bypassing the US efforts to resume talks

Friday, September 25, 2020

Jordan, Egypt, France and Germany call for resumption of Israel-PA peace talks

Netanyahu and Abbas

The foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, France and Germany on Thursday urged Israel and Palestinian Arabs to engage in "credible dialogue" to restore "hope" to the peace process.

"Ending the stalemate in peace talks, the creation of political horizons and the restoration of hope through credible dialogue must be a priority," they said in a statement quoted by AFP.

The meeting comes after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain formally established full diplomatic ties with Israel, the third and fourth Arab states to do so after Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.

The Israel-Palestinian Authority (PA) peace process has been frozen since 2014, when PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas breached conditions of talks that were ongoing at the time by unilaterally joining international treaties and conventions.

After Thursday's meeting, the ministers stressed "the urgency of the resumption of serious, meaningful and effective negotiations on the basis of international law and agreed parameters directly between the parties or under the UN umbrella."

"We call upon the parties to commit to past agreements and to resume credible dialogue on this basis," they said.

The meeting was also attended by the EU's envoy for the peace process.

The ministers also met Jordan's King Abdullah II, who reiterated a long-held position that ending the conflict required "a two-state solution with an independent (and) viable Palestinian state" based on pre-1967 borders, with eastern Jerusalem as its capital.

The ministers also commented on Israel agreeing to pause its move to apply sovereignty over Judea and Samaria as part of the deal to normalize ties with the UAE.

"This suspension should become permanent," they said, stressing the "importance" of the UAE and Bahrain deals.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu insisted that the agreement with the UAE did not mark the end of his sovereignty plan, but is merely a temporary delay. US President Donald Trump, however, later asserted that Israel agreed not to apply sovereignty over Judea and Samaria as part of the agreement.

The EU, which was highly vocal in its criticism of Israel’s plans to apply sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, welcomed the agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates while restating its support for a two-state solution between Israel and the PA.

Russia dismisses US sanctions on Iran

Sergey Lavrov

Russia on Thursday dismissed the threat of US sanctions and attempts to isolate Iran, saying it intended to trade with Tehran once a UN arms embargo expires next month, AFP reports.

The embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran is set to expire on October 18.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced an executive order and new sanctions against Iran aimed at enforcing United Nations sanctions.

The sanctions put in place a new arms embargo on Iran to replace a UN ban set to expire in October. Administration officials say it is an indefinite ban on weapons sales and allows for sanctions on any international companies or individuals that seek to violate the embargo.

Last month, Washington started the process of restoring all pre-2015 UN sanctions against Iran. The move to activate the “snapback” came after the UN Security Council rejected the US resolution to extend the arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in October.

However, the president of the UN Security Council rejected the US demand, saying there was no general agreement among council members.

Speaking alongside visiting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed those threats as illegal.

"Russia will in no way build its policies on the basis of these aggressive illegal demands which have no legal force," Lavrov said.

He expressed hope that other countries cooperating with Iran would follow suit.

"The fact that the United States threatened to introduce sanctions on all those who will contradict the US interpretation of the current situation once again confirms that Washington wants to behave like a bull in a china shop," Lavrov added, according to AFP.

"In my opinion, the current (US) administration has lost diplomatic skills almost beyond retrieve," Lavrov continued.

He added however that Russia and European countries continued talks with Washington on the subject.

'I will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian State in the heartland of Israel'

Ofir Akunis - Wikipedia

Minister of Regional Cooperation Ofir Akunis spoke recently at the "Together for the Jordan Valley" event organized by the Holy Land Redemption Fund, and broadcast live on Arutz Sheva.

“Israel is the birthplace of both the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is the land where our patriarchs prayed, where our kings ruled, and where our prophets preached,” said Akunis.

“By returning to our homeland, Israel is fulfilling prophecy. We returned to the desert and made it bloom again. We restored the ancient language of the Bible and made it speak again. And we rebuilt the ruins of Jerusalem and made them strong again”.

“Recently, I had the honor of meeting the leaders of Israel's Christian communities at a summit at the President's Residence in Jerusalem. Israel is proud to be the one country in the Middle East where Christians both survive and thrive. Our Christian community is growing rapidly and flourishing,” continued Akunis.

“Sadly,” he noted, “this is not the case in Palestinian-controlled areas, where Christians have been persecuted for observing their faith. The number of Christians in the Palestinian Authority and in Gaza continues to drop and Christian worshippers are heavily restricted. This cannot continue. Israel stands with you.”

“When visiting Israel, you don’t need a tour book. The Bible itself is your tour book. Each location and holy site can be found exactly where it is described in the Bible. Be it Jerusalem, Hebron, Shiloh, Beit El, Bethlehem and more.”

Akunis pointed out that “In the United States, there are eleven places named Hebron, five places named Shiloh, four places named Beit El, and six places named Bethlehem. Here in Israel, we have only one Hebron, only one Shiloh, only one Beit El and one united Jerusalem.

“As such, I will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian State in the heartland of Israel,” he stressed.

“Dear friends, one of the most important places in Israel is the Jordan Valley. Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley, and its establishment as our eastern border, will be necessary both from a security and religious point of view,” continued Akunis.

“From a security point of view, Israeli sovereignty in the Jordan Valley will ensure that terrorists will be blocked from smuggling weapons from Jordan to the Palestinian Authority to attack Israel. Similarly, it will ensure that terrorists will be blocked from smuggling weapons from the Palestinian Authority to attack Jordan. Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley will protect the security of Israelis and Jordanians, and prevent the creation of another failed terror state in the Middle East.”

“From a religious point of view, the Jordan Valley is a holy site for both Jews and Christians,” Akunis pointed out.

“It was in the Jordan Valley where Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land after wandering for forty years in the desert. And it's in the Jordan Valley, in Qasr Al-Yahud, where Christians are baptized until this very day.”

“As Israel's Minister of Regional Cooperation, I will do everything in my power to further enhance cooperation with Christians in the Middle East,” vowed Akunis. “And I will do everything in my power to ensure that Qasr Al Yahud and all the Jordan Valley will remain part of Israel forever. We will develop, build and strengthen the Jordan Valley for generations to come.”

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Saudi dissidents launch opposition party amid 'repression'

A group of Saudi dissidents exiled in Britain, the US and elsewhere announced the launch of an opposition party on Wednesday, the first organized political resistance under King Salman's rule.

Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy that does not tolerate any political opposition, but the formation of the National Assembly Party on the anniversary of the kingdom's founding comes amid a growing state crackdown on dissent and freedom of expression.

"We hereby announce the establishment of the National Assembly Party, which aims to institute democracy as a form of government in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the group said in a statement. The development is unlikely to seriously undermine the authority of the Arab world's most powerful ruling family.  

But it poses a fresh challenge to Saudi Arabia's rulers as they grapple with low crude oil prices and gear up to host a G20 summit in November amid the coronavirus pandemic.

There was no immediate reaction from Saudi authorities. The party is led by prominent London-based human rights defender Yahya Assiri. 

Its members include Britain-based academic Madawi al-Rasheed, researcher Saeed bin Nasser al-Ghamdi, activist Ahmed al-Mshikhs, US-based Abdullah Alaoudh and Canada-based Omar Abdulaziz, sources close to the outfit told AFP.

"We are announcing the launch of this party at a critical moment to try to save our country... to institute a democratic future and to respond to our people's aspirations," Assiri, the party's general secretary, told AFP.

Assiri, a former Royal Saudi Air Force officer, founded the London-based human rights organisation ALQST, which has catalogued what it calls widespread state abuses including arrests of women activists, academics and royal family members.

The announcement comes at a time when "the scope for politics has become blocked in all directions", the party statement said. (Read More)

Iran tries to form Russia-China alliance against US

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif is trying to entice 
Russia to become closer to Iran through bilateral relations, Iranian media reported Thursday. He arrived in Moscow to discuss relations with Russia. His goal is to pave the way for Iran to circumvent the US embargo and sanctions. Iran seeks to harness Russia and also China to confront “US lawlessness,” Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported. 

Zarif praised the “important role of Russia and China in supporting the UN Security Council and countering US illegal actions in the Security Council,” the report quoted him as saying. 

“The Russian government and its representation in the UN have had the best position alongside China during the difficult recent months,” he said.
They have “played a leading role in the face of US lawlessness,” Zarif said, referring to the US pushing snapback sanctions this month after having asserted that Iran had violated the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran says the US has no leverage because it left the deal in 2018. (Read More)

Netanyahu approves large-scale construction in Judea and Samaria

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening ordered a meeting to be held immediately after Simchat Torah of the Supreme Planning Council of the Civil Administration, with the aim of approving extensive construction in Judea and Samaria.

Arutz Sheva has learned that Netanyahu has approved the promotion of more than 5,000 housing units in dozens of localities, after freezing construction planning in Judea and

Samaria since last February so as not to jeopardize the peace agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

In recent days, there have been contacts between the heads of the local councils in Judea and Samaria and the prime minister. The settler leaders demanded an end to the freeze and even threatened to protest widely against Netanyahu, which could put him in a difficult political situation.

Earlier this week, the head of the Samaria Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, said that "Netanyahu's test is in issuing the building permits in Judea and Samaria. The people of Israel expect full sovereignty to be applied as promised by the prime minister in three consecutive elections, but while sovereignty is not applied, a national government should take steps to strengthen settlement and prove that the national government is committed to Israel and to settlement in Judea and Samaria."

Following the eight-month freeze, Dagan sent a clear message to Netanyahu: "We will not accept a de facto construction freeze. I call on the Prime Minister to order now the convening of the Supreme Planning Council and the release of this cork that stops all settlement." (INN)

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Large fire breaks out in factory outside Tehran

A fire breaks out in a factory outside of Tehran, Iran on September 22, 2020. (Screencapture/Twitter)

A large fire erupted in an Iranian dairy factory near Tehran on Tuesday night, Iranian State television reported.

The cause of the fire was under investigation and no casualties were reported.

The fire is the latest in a series of mysterious blasts and blazes that have occurred in recent months throughout Iran.

The most recent occurred on September 11, when a huge explosion in a battery workshop southwest of Tehran killed one person and damaged dozens of cars and buildings, according to Iranian media.

While many of the incidents have been blamed on Iran’s crumbling infrastructure, speculation has swirled that Israel or the US could have been behind some of the blasts, particularly a July 2 explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility.

That explosion damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant. It has been reported by some experts to have significantly set back Iran’s nuclear program.

According to a New York Times report, the blast was most likely the result of a bomb planted at the facility, potentially at a strategic gas line. The report did not rule out the possibility that a cyberattack was used to cause a malfunction that led to the explosion.

US eyes breakthrough on Sudan-Israel deal before election

Mike Pompeo

With weeks to go before the US presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is racing to make a breakthrough with Sudan that he hopes could also benefit Israel.

Sudan's new civilian-led government is urgently seeking to be removed from the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, and is seen by Washington as open to becoming the latest Arab state to recognize Israel -- a major cause for President Donald Trump's electoral base.

"The United States has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that compensation is finally provided to victims of the 1998 Al-Qaeda-backed terrorist attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania," Pompeo wrote in a letter to senators that was confirmed by congressional sources.

"We also have a unique and narrow window to support the civilian-led transitional government in Sudan that has finally rid itself of the Islamist dictatorship that previously led that country."

Sudan is one of four nations listed as a state sponsor of terrorism by the United States, severely impeding investment as businesses worry of legal risks in dealing with the country.

The designation dates back to 1993 when then strongman Omar al-Bashir welcomed Islamists including Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, which carried out the embassy attacks that claimed more than 200 lives.

Washington had been gradually reconciling with Bashir, who agreed to independence for mostly Christian South Sudan.

But Sudan was transformed last year when Bashir was deposed following a wave of youth-led protests. British-educated economist Abdalla Hamdok has become the new prime minister with a reformist mandate in a transitional arrangement with the military.

Question for Congress

Sudan's delisting has been held up by a dispute over a package of some $335 million that Khartoum would pay as compensation to victims' families and survivors of the embassy attacks.

Completing a compensation package "is one of the highest priorities for the Department of State," a spokesperson said.

In his letter, Pompeo said it was "very likely" that an agreement on claims and on delisting Sudan from the terror blacklist would be completed by the end of October -- days before the November 3 election.

But Congress also needs to pass legislation to provide Sudan immunity from further claims.

Senate Democrats are divided in part because the draft package would provide more money to US citizens than Africans, who made up the bulk of the victims -- an arrangement some call discriminatory but others say is realistic and in keeping with precedent.

Some lawmakers also want further discussion on compensation for other attacks by Al-Qaeda, notably the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen.

Why the sudden push by Pompeo, who in his more than two years as America's top diplomat has rarely seemed preoccupied by Africa?

Sudan has hinted at a willingness to engage Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in February met Khartoum's top general, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, in Uganda.

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain last month recognized Israel, a coup for the Jewish state and a signature foreign policy win for Trump.

Pompeo briefly stopped in Khartoum in late August in the first visit there by a US secretary of state in 15 years.

Hamdok demurred in his meeting with Pompeo, saying that his transitional government, which is set to rule until 2022 elections, did not have a mandate to normalize relations with Israel -- in what would be a major about-face for a country until recently considered Islamist-run.

But some observers believe there can still be forward movement on relations with Israel, especially with the prospect of removal from the terror blacklist.