Iran atomic program ‘stronger than ever,’ nuclear chief says

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization and vice president to Hassan Rouhani, said Tehran would resume uranium enrichment with more sophisticated equipment. (AP)
Updated 12 September 2018
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Iran atomic program ‘stronger than ever,’ nuclear chief says

  • The US flight ban is a new threat to crumbling economy
  • If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before: Salehi

LONDON: Iran increased its threat to regional security on Tuesday by boasting that its nuclear program was more advanced than ever.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization and vice president to Hassan Rouhani, said that if US President Donald Trump succeeded in dismantling the 2015 deal to curb the program, Tehran would resume uranium enrichment with more sophisticated equipment.

“If we have to go back and withdraw from the nuclear deal, we certainly do not go back to where we were before,” he said. “We will be standing on a much, much higher position.”

Iran stores centrifuges to enrich uranium at its underground Natanz facility, under surveillance by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Salehi said it would build a new facility at Natanz that will produce more advanced centrifuges.

“This does not mean we are going to produce these centrifuges now,” he said. “This is just a preparation. If Iran decides to start mass production of such centrifuges, we would be ready for that.”

If the nuclear deal fell apart, Iran would react in stages, Salehi said. It could enrich uranium “to 20 percent, because this is our need,” and could also increase its stockpile of enriched uranium.

Iran’s fragile economy is already suffering from US withdrawal from the nuclear deal and the reimposition of economic sanctions. Prices have soared, the rial has plunged in value and thousands of Iranians have taken part in street protests demanding regime change. Further sanctions in November will target Iran’s energy sector and slash its crucial oil revenues.

Tehran hoped that the other signatories to the nuclear deal — Russia, China, France, Germany and the UK — would keep it alive, but faced with the threat of blocked access to the US financial system, Western companies from aircraft manufacturers to oil firms have pulled out of Iran.

In a further blow to Iran’s economy, the US renewed its warning to civilian airlines on Tuesday to avoid Iranian airspace. Hundreds of international flights pass over Iran every day, and each is required to pay an overflight fee. Iran refuses to disclose its revenue from these fees, but it is thought to be considerable.

The US Federal Aviation Administration said flying over Iran was risky because of the possibility of interception, and military activities related to the war in Syria.

Flight Service Bureau, which advises airlines, said the deteriorating relationship between the US and Iran must be taken into account when planning flights in Iran’s airspace.

“Although the reopening of Iraqi airspace in November last year has provided additional routing options ... there is no perfect route in the region, and operators must consider their preference for Iraq vs Iran,” it said.


Amnesty: Firm at Qatar 2022 World Cup not paying wages

Updated 19 min 17 sec ago
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Amnesty: Firm at Qatar 2022 World Cup not paying wages

  • Mercury MENA, an engineering and plumbing firm, owes thousands of dollars of wages to workers from countries where many live on less than $2 a day
  • Qatar previously has faced criticism for worker conditions as it prepares to host the World Cup

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: A contractor involved in building the marquee stadium for Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup did not pay its workers, leaving them stranded thousands of miles from home, according to a report released Wednesday.
Mercury MENA, an engineering and plumbing firm, owes thousands of dollars of wages to workers from countries where many live on less than $2 a day, Amnesty International said. Those employees helped build projects including Qatar’s Lusail Stadium, which will host the opening and closing matches of the soccer tournament.
The company, whose website is now down and offices in Doha are shuttered, did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press. Qatar’s government said it was investigating.
“People from all over the world cheering, laughing, touring some of the beautiful stadiums, recreational sites and hotels here... Will they ever think what are the stories behind those structures?” one worker reportedly told Amnesty. “I guess not... Blind eyes are common nowadays.”
Amnesty said it examined the cases of 78 former employees of Mercury MENA, interviewing 44 and analyzing documentation of another 34. Of them, 58 came from Nepal, 15 from India and five from the Philippines, Asian nations that send thousands of laborers, taxi drivers and office workers to the Gulf.
Mercury MENA worked on several projects in Qatar, including the stadium, the new Qatar National Library and a worker’s hospital and modern accommodation for laborers, Amnesty said. Workers told Amnesty that the firm owed them on average between $1,370 to $2,470, a huge sum for their families back home. It said one worker was owed nearly $25,000 after over a decade of work.
Some workers found themselves stuck in Qatar without money and unable to leave the country as local laws require workers to get an exit permit supported by their employer before they leave. Earlier this month, Qatar partially ended that requirement, part of its internationally criticized “kafala” system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.
Amnesty said Mercury MENA’s CEO told them in 2017 that his firm “had been the victim of unscrupulous business partners resulting in ‘cashflow problems’ and a number of disputes over payments with contractors and clients.”
Companies around the Gulf have been suffering from an economic slowdown in part aggravated by oil prices going as low as $30 a barrel in early 2016. Brent crude now is trading at over $80 a barrel. Meanwhile, Doha has faced a boycott by four Arab nations since June 2017 as part of a regional political dispute, further affecting its economy.
In a statement, Qatar’s Labor Ministry said such abuse of workers is “not tolerated” in the country and that there are unspecified “legal proceedings” against Mercury MENA.
“While Mercury MENA no longer operates in Qatar, legal matters will continue and we will conduct a full investigation,” the statement said.
Qatar previously has faced criticism for worker conditions as it prepares to host the World Cup in an Arabian Peninsula country where temperatures rise to a humid 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer. FIFA already has agreed to a 28-day World Cup tournament from to November to December 2022, which is already a departure from the regular mid-year schedule.
A British worker, Zachary Cox, died after falling nearly 40 meters (130 feet) in January 2017 at the Khalifa International Stadium. A British coroner blamed dangerous working practices for his death. A 23-year-old Nepali worker died at its Al Wakrah Stadium project site in August.