Iran says scientist jailed in US to return in days

Iranian scientist Sirous Asgari is due to return to his country in the coming days. (Courtesy of TWitter)
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Updated 01 June 2020

Iran says scientist jailed in US to return in days

  • Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio
  • Iran’s foreign ministry said last month that Asgari had contracted the novel coronavirus while in US custody

TEHRAN: Tehran said Monday that scientist Sirous Asgari, one of more than a dozen Iranians behind bars in the United States, is set to return to the Islamic republic within days.
Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio.
But the 59-year-old scientist from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology was acquitted in November.
The academic told British newspaper The Guardian in March that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was keeping him in a detention center in Louisiana without basic sanitation and refusing to let him return to Iran despite his exoneration.
“Dr. Sirous Asgari’s case has been closed in America and he will probably return to the country in the next two or three days,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
“That is, if no issues or obstacles come up,” he said, quoted by semi-official news agency ISNA.
Iran’s foreign ministry said last month that Asgari had contracted the novel coronavirus while in US custody.
If he returns to Iran, the scientist would become one of the few detainees held by either side not to have been released in a prisoner exchange.
Both Iran and the United States hold a number of each other’s nationals and they have recently called for them to be released amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iran is battling what is the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the virus, while the US has reported the highest total number of deaths worldwide from the disease.
Iran is holding at least five Americans and the US has 19 Iranians in detention, according to a list compiled by AFP based on official statements and media reports.
Tensions between the two arch enemies escalated in 2018, after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said last month that Tehran had offered “some time ago” to exchange all Iranian and US prisoners but was waiting for a response from the US.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of US homeland security, responded mockingly by saying Iran should “send a charter plane over” and return its nationals.
Mousavi hit back on Twitter by saying the world “is watching your action, not your word.”
The Islamic republic in December freed Xiyue Wang, a US academic, in exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani and said it was open to further swaps.
It has also said it has released more than 100,000 inmates, including 1,000 foreigners, to ease the pressure on Iran’s prison system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans and dual nationals currently known to be held by Iran include US Navy veteran Michael R. White, Siamak Namazi along with his father Baquer, Morad Tahbaz, Gholam Reza Shahini, and Karan Vafadari.
Asgari is one of the 19 held by the US, most of them dual nationals and charged with evading sanctions by either exporting goods to Iran or using the US financial system.
Long-time foes Iran and the United States have appeared to come to the brink of a direct conflict twice in the past year.
The most recent case was in January when Iran fired a barrage of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.
Trump refrained from taking any military action in response, however.
Iran on Monday also vowed to keep sending shipments of fuel to Venezuela in defiance of US threats.
The US has imposed unilateral sanctions aimed at ending oil exports by both Iran and Venezuela, both major crude producers.
“If Venezuela demands new shipments, we will export more to this country and any other who requires our shipments,” Mousavi said.
It comes days after Iranian tankers carrying much-needed petrol arrived in Venezuela.


US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

Updated 12 August 2020

US contractor told Lebanese port official of chemicals risk

  • Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast
  • The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years

WASHINGTON: About four years before the Beirut port explosion that killed dozens of people and injured thousands, a US government contractor expressed concern to a Lebanese port official about unsafe storage there of the volatile chemicals that fueled last week’s devastating blast, American officials said Tuesday.
There is no indication the contractor communicated his concerns to anyone in the US government.
His assessment was noted briefly in a four-page State Department cable first reported by The New York Times.
The cable, labeled sensitive but unclassified, dealt largely with the Lebanese responses to the blast and the origins and disposition of the ammonium nitrate, which ignited to create an enormous explosion. But it also noted that after the Aug. 4 explosion, a person who had advised the Lebanese navy under a US Army contract from 2013 to 2016 told the State Department that he had “conducted a port facility inspection on security measures during which he reported to port officials on the unsafe storage of ammonium nitrate.”
Concerns about the ammonium nitrate were known within the Lebanese government before the deadly blast, officials said.
The contractor, who was not identified by name and is now a State Department employee based in Ukraine, was in Lebanon to provide instruction to members of the Lebanese navy. While there, he made a brief, impromptu inspection of physical security at the facility in 2015 or 2016 at the request of a port official, US officials said. The contractor was not identified.
The contractor, who has a background in port and maritime security, noted weaknesses in security camera coverage and other aspects of port management but was not assessing safety issues, according to the US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of a planned public statement.
While inside the warehouse where ammonium nitrate was stored, the contractor saw problems such as poor ventilation and inadequate physical security, which he noted to the port official accompanying him, the officials said. It is unclear whether the port official reported this concern to his superiors.
The thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate had been stored in the warehouse for more than six years, apparently with the knowledge of top political and security officials. The catastrophic explosion one week ago Tuesday killed at least 171 peoples and plunged Lebanon into a deeper political crisis.
The contractor was working for the US Army’s Security Assistance Training Management Organization, headquartered at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He provided instruction to members of the Lebanese armed forces in naval vessel traffic systems and small boat operations. His class was visiting the Beirut port as part of that instruction program when the port official asked him for the inspection, which US officials said lasted about 45 minutes.
The United States has a close security relationship with Lebanon. According to the State Department, the US government has provided Lebanon with more than $1.7 billion in security assistance since 2006. The assistance is designed to support the Lebanese armed forces’ ability to secure the country’s borders, counter internal threats, and defend national territory.
Last September a US Navy ship, the guided-missile destroyer USS Ramage, visited Beirut. It was the first time in 36 years an American warship had made a port visit there, according to the US military at the time.