US secretary of state: Iran ‘weeks away from having material to build nuclear bomb’

US secretary of state: Iran ‘weeks away from having material to build nuclear bomb’
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Biden is building a strong team to deal with Iran to seek a “longer and stronger” nuclear deal. (File/AFP)
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Updated 02 February 2021

US secretary of state: Iran ‘weeks away from having material to build nuclear bomb’

US secretary of state: Iran ‘weeks away from having material to build nuclear bomb’
  • New US secretary of state says Washington wants ‘longer and stronger’ deal to curb Tehran’s behavior

JEDDAH: Iran will be weeks away from building a nuclear bomb if it stays on its current path, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned on Monday.

In his first TV interview since his appointment was confirmed last month, Blinken said Tehran was months away from being able to produce enough material for a weapon, but it would be “a matter of weeks” if it continued to breach the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The future of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions, is an early foreign policy challenge for the new Biden administration.

Donald Trump withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy, and Tehran has responded by gradually increasing its enrichment of uranium beyond what is permitted under the deal.

Blinken said on Monday the US was willing to return to compliance with the JCPOA if Iran did, and then work with US allies and partners on a “longer and stronger” agreement encompassing other issues.

Iran has rejected any new negotiations or changes to the participants in the JCPOA, after French President Emmanuel Macron said new talks should include Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom and its Gulf allies believe any enhanced agreement should address Iran’s ballistic missile program, and its regional meddling through proxy militias in Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

Blinken’s reference to a timeframe for Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb means the issue must be resolved rapidly, because the US will never allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, political analyst Hamdan Al-Shehri told Arab News. “The US is giving Iran an ultimatum to solve the matter within weeks,” he said.

Al-Shehri said the international community was aware that if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, it would not be alone in the region. “Other countries will not accept that Iran possesses nuclear weapons alone, and remain standing idly by,” he said. 

“However, although the US is offering to open the door for Iran to return to a deal, entrance is subject to certain conditions,” Al-Shehri said. These included US follow-up to ensure Iran’s compliance, addressing other issues such as ballistic missiles, and involving other countries including Saudi Arabia, he said.

Iran would understand the threat and was unlikely to wholly reject the proposal, Al-Shehri said.

Soleimani’s shadow
Qassem Soleimani left a trail of death and destruction in his wake as head of Iran’s Quds Force … until his assassination on Jan. 3, 2020. Yet still, his legacy of murderous interference continues to haunt the region

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UAE reports 1,549 new COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,549 new COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths in last 24 hours
Updated 26 July 2021

UAE reports 1,549 new COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths in last 24 hours

UAE reports 1,549 new COVID-19 cases, 7 deaths in last 24 hours
  • 1,510 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing patient recoveries to 650,683

DUBAI: The UAE on Monday reported 1,549 new COVID-19 cases and seven deaths overnight, bringing the total number of recorded cases to 673,185 with 1,927 fatalities related to the highly contagious disease.

The Ministry of Health and Prevention also said that 1,510 individuals had fully recovered from COVID-19, bringing patient recoveries to 650,683.

An 232,389 additional COVID-19 tests were also over the past 24 hours, the ministry added in a statement published by state news agency WAM.

The UAE’s aggressive vaccination drive has resulted into a 77.85 percent of the population receiving a first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 68.75 percent have been fully vaccinated.

The total number of doses provided stands at 16,495,917 with a rate of vaccine distribution of 166.79 doses per 100 people, the ministry reported.


Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq

Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq
Updated 26 July 2021

Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq

Biden, Iraqi PM to announce end of US combat mission in Iraq
  • Plan to shift the American military mission will be spelled out in a broader
  • The Daesh is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi are expected to announce on Monday that they’ve come to an agreement to end the US military’s combat mission in Iraq by the end of the year, according to a senior Biden administration official.
The plan to shift the American military mission, whose stated purpose is to help Iraq defeat the Daesh group, to a strictly advisory and training role by year’s end — with no US troops in a combat role — will be spelled out in a broader communique to be issued by the two leaders following their White House meeting on Monday afternoon, said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the yet to be announced plan.
The official said the Iraqi security forces are “battle tested” and have proved themselves “capable” of protecting their country. Still, the Biden administration recognizes that Daesh remains a considerable threat, the official said.
Indeed, the Daesh terror organization is a shell of its former self since it was largely routed on the battlefield in 2017. Still, it has shown it can still carry out high-casualty attacks. Last week, the group claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least 30 people and wounded dozens in a busy suburban Baghdad market.
The US and Iraq agreed in April that the US transition to a train-and-advise mission meant the US combat role would end, but they didn’t settle on a timetable for completing that transition. The announcement comes less than three months before parliamentary elections slated for Oct. 10.
Al-Kadhimi faces no shortage of problems. Iranian-backed militias operating inside Iraq have stepped up attacks against US forces in recent months, and a series of devastating hospital fires that left dozens of people dead and soaring coronavirus infections have added fresh layers of frustration for the nation.
For Al-Kadhimi, the ability to offer the Iraqi public a date for the end of the US combat presence could be a feather in his cap ahead of the election.
Biden administration officials say Al-Kadhimi also deserves credit for improving Iraq’s standing in the Mideast.
Last month, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi visited Baghdad for joint meetings — the first time an Egyptian president has made an official visit since the 1990s, when ties were severed after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
In March, Pope Francis made a historic visit to Iraq, praying among ruined churches in Mosul, a former IS stronghold, and meeting with the influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani in the holy city of Najaf.
The US and Iraq have been widely expected to use the face-to-face meeting to announce plans for the end of the combat mission, and Al-Kadhimi before his trip to Washington made clear that he believes it’s time for the US to wind down the combat mission.
“There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” Al-Kadhimi said.
The US troop presence has stood at about 2,500 since late last year when former President Donald Trump ordered a reduction from 3,000.
The announcement to end the US combat mission in Iraq comes as the US is in the final stages of ending its war in Afghanistan, nearly 20 years after President George W. Bush launched the war in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
The US mission of training and advising Iraqi forces has its most recent origins in former President Barack Obama’s decision in 2014 to send troops back to Iraq. The move was made in response to the Daesh group’s takeover of large portions of western and northern Iraq and a collapse of Iraqi security forces that appeared to threaten Baghdad. Obama had fully withdrawn US forces from Iraq in 2011, eight years after the US invasion.
The distinction between combat troops and those involved in training and advising can be blurry, given that the US troops are under threat of attack. But it is clear that US ground forces have not been on the offensive in Iraq in years, other than largely unpublicized special operations missions aimed at Daesh group militants.
Pentagon officials for years have tried to balance what they see as a necessary military presence to support the Iraqi government’s fight against IS with domestic political sensitivities in Iraq to a foreign troop presence. A major complication for both sides is the periodic attacks on bases housing US and coalition troops by Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran.
The vulnerability of US troops was demonstrated most dramatically in January 2020 when Iran launched a ballistic missile attack on Al-Asad air base in western Iraq. No Americans were killed, but dozens suffered traumatic brain injury from the blasts. That attack came shortly after a US drone strike killed Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport.
The US military mission since 2014 has been largely focused on training and advising Iraqi forces. In April, in a joint statement following a US-Iraqi meeting in Washington, they declared, “the mission of US and coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq” at a time to be determined later.
Monday’s communique is also expected to detail US efforts to assist the Iraqi government’s COVID-19 response, education system and energy sector.


Consultations to pick new PM kick off in crisis hit Lebanon

Consultations to pick new PM kick off in crisis hit Lebanon
Updated 15 min 5 sec ago

Consultations to pick new PM kick off in crisis hit Lebanon

Consultations to pick new PM kick off in crisis hit Lebanon
  • Even if a new PM is nominated, It could take months before an actual government is formed

BEIRUT: Parliamentary consultations to designate a new Prime Minister kicked off this morning, with two-time premier Najib Mikati already receiving the backing of 55 MPs while 18 MPs either boycotted the session or abstained. 

Former premier Saad Hariri, who stepped down earlier this month, voted for Mikati along with the rest of his parliamentary bloc. MP Elie Ferzli, who serves as Deputy Speaker of the Parliament, also backed Mikati. The Marada Movement bloc, Hezbollah's bloc and the Progressive Socialist Party’s bloc also voted for Mikati.

Earlier in the day,  Mikati met with President Michel Aoun briefly before exiting without giving any statements. The rest of the country's parliamentary blocs will cat their ballots throughout the day. The Lebanese Forces, the country's second-largest Christian bloc, refrained from voting for anyone, in line with its previous stance since mass protests kicked off  in late 2019.

MP George Adwan, a member of the LF's bloc, said his group will not "cover any government from the current political class."

MP Osama Saad, an independent MP from Sidon, also abstained. MP Fouad Makhzoumi, meanwhile, voted for Nawaf Salam, a Lebanese diplomat, jurist, and academic.

If a new premier is designated, it will be the third attempt within a year to form a government amid deepening political and economic turmoil.
The country has been without a fully functioning government since then-prime minister Hassan Diab resigned in the wake of the Beirut port explosion that killed more than 200 people last August.
Despite an economic crisis branded by the World Bank as one of the world’s worst since the mid-19th century, political squabbling has repeatedly thwarted progress, with two designated premiers failing to form a cabinet since then.
Talks have begun in the presidential palace at 10:30 am and will run until the afternoon with a final pick announced by the end of the day, said the official National News Agency.
Three of Lebanon’s former prime ministers — Hariri, Fouad Siniora and Tamam Salam — on Thursday said they would endorse Mikati’s candidacy.
If selected, the 65-year-old political veteran will be expected to deliver a lineup that satisfies political leaders jostling for cabinet shares and ministerial portfolios.
It could take months before an actual government is formed, but crisis-hit Lebanon, grappling with soaring poverty, a plummeting currency and shortages of basic items from medicine to fuel, can ill afford any delays.
International donors led by former colonial power France have pledged millions of dollars in humanitarian aid, but conditioned it on Lebanon installing a government capable of tackling corruption.
But even as international pressure mounted, with threats of European Union sanctions against them, Lebanese politicians have failed to make any serious progress.
France this month said it would host an aid conference on August 4 to “respond to the needs of the Lebanese, whose situation is deteriorating every day.”
The date of the conference coincides with the first anniversary of the port blast which is widely blamed on decades of negligence by the country’s ruling class.

(With  AFP)


Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks

Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks
Updated 26 July 2021

Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks

Tunisians celebrate government ousting with cheers, fireworks
  • Tunisia’s military stop Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering the parliament building early on Monday
  • ‘The president was very brave ... we know this is not a coup’

Soon after Tunisia’s President Kais Saied said he had ousted the government, tens of thousands of people poured into city streets to applaud a move decried by his critics as a coup.
As they cheered, ululated, honked car horns and let off fireworks, Said’s supporters revelled in his decision and in the perceived downfall of the moderate Islamist Ennahda, the biggest party in parliament and his main political opponent.
It showed how a decade after Tunisia’s 2011 revolution that introduced democracy, street activism remains a potentially powerful force — and one that could lead to confrontation after Ennahda called for people to protest against Saied.
Tunisia’s military stopped Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi from entering the parliament building early on Monday, a witness said, after Saied declared he had frozen the body’s activities.
The crowds late on Sunday were defying a COVID-19 curfew as they gathered in local neighborhoods and cities throughout the North African country and along the main Habib Bourguiba avenue in Tunis that has long served as the epicenter of any protests in the capital.

A military vehicle drives on a street as supporters of Tunisia's President Kais Saied gather after he dismissed the government and froze parliament, in Tunis, Tunisia July 25, 2021. (Reuters)

 

Thousands of people including many families walked along the tree-lined avenue, raising national flags, dancing and lighting red flares.

“The president was very brave... we know this is not a coup,” said Amira Abid, a woman in Tunis’ town center as she kissed a Tunisian flag.


Soon afterwards, Saied himself arrived to meet jubilant supporters in the very street where the biggest protests took place in 2011 during a revolution whose own democratic legacy now hangs in the balance.
Saied’s critics fear his move to dismiss the government and freeze parliament is part of a shift away from democracy and a return to the autocratic rule of the past — concerns he rejected in public statements as he denied conducting a coup.
As helicopters hovered above the crowds supporting his move, the people on the streets cast Ennahda as the cause of Tunisia’s failures over the past decade to overcome political paralysis and achieve prosperity.
“Today, today, Ennahda ended today,” sang young men in the Omrane Superieur district of the capital.
Nearby, as families stood with their children and raised their phones to the record the moment, a man walking with his daughter said “today is our Eid (holiday).”


Tensions in Tunisia after president suspends parliament

Tensions in Tunisia after president suspends parliament
Updated 19 min 18 sec ago

Tensions in Tunisia after president suspends parliament

Tensions in Tunisia after president suspends parliament
  • Protesters celebrate President Kais Saied’s decision, shouting with joy, honking horns and waving Tunisian flags

TUNIS: Tunisian troops surrounded parliament and blocked its speaker from entering after the president suspended the legislature and fired the prime minister following violent nationwide protests over the country’s economic troubles and virus crisis.

Protesters celebrated President Kais Saied’s decision late Sunday night, shouting with joy, honking horns and waving Tunisian flags. But his critics accused him of a power grab that threatens Tunisia’s young democracy.

Chief among them was the parliament speaker and head of Islamist movement Ennahdha, Rached Ghannouchi, who called it “a coup against the constitution and the (Arab Spring) revolution.”

Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, following a day of angry street protests against the government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tunisian president has also relieved Defense Minister Ibrahim El-Bertagi of his post, Al-Arabiya TV has reported.

Crowds gather on the street after Tunisia's president suspended parliament, in La Marsa, near Tunis on July 26, 2021. (Social media via Reuters)

Saied on Monday assigned Khaled Yahyaoui, the Director General of the Presidential Security unit and an ally to the president, to supervise the Interior Ministry after dismissing the government on Sunday, two security sources said according to Reuters. 

Saied’s dramatic move -- a decade on from Tunisia's 2011 revolution -- comes even though the constitution enshrines a parliamentary democracy and largely limits presidential powers to security and diplomacy.

It “is a coup d'etat against the revolution and against the constitution,” Ennahdha, which was the biggest party in Tunisia's fractious ruling coalition, charged in a Facebook post, warning that its members “will defend the revolution”.

The crisis follows prolonged deadlock between the president, the premier and Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response as deaths have surged to one of the world's highest per capita rates.

“I have taken the necessary decisions to save Tunisia, the state and the Tunisian people,” Saied declared in a statement on Sunday, a day that had seen Covid street protests flare in multiple cities.

The president's announcement sparked jubilant rallies by many thousands of his supporters who flooded the streets of the capital late Sunday to celebrate and wave the national flag, as car horns sounded through the night and fireworks lit up the sky.

World reacts 

But the shock move was criticised abroad by Turkey’s foreign ministry, which said it was “deeply concerned” and called for “democratic legitimacy” to be restored.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov, in brief comments, said Russia was monitoring developments in Tunisia.
“We hope that nothing will threaten the stability and security of the people of that country,” he told reporters at a daily phone briefing.

A spokeswoman for the German foreign ministry, Maria Adebahr, told reporters that Germany hoped Tunisia would return “as soon as possible to constitutional order”.

Germany was "very worried" she said, adding however: “We don't want to speak of a coup d'etat”. 

“It is important to return to constitutional order as quickly as possible,” Adebahr said.

“We will certainly try to discuss (the situation) with the Tunisian ambassador in Berlin, and our ambassador in Tunis is ready to engage in discussions.”

Qatar on Monday called on all parties in Tunisia's political crisis to avoid escalation and move towards dialogue, the state-run Qatar News Agency said.

“Qatar hopes that Tunisian parties will adopt the path of dialogue to overcome the crisis,” QNA cited a foreign ministry statement as saying.

Ghannouchi ends sit-in 

Soldiers from early Monday blockaded the assembly in Tunis while, outside, the president's supporters hurled stones and insults at backers of Ennahdha, whose leader staged a sit-in to protest being barred entry to the complex.

But later Al Arabiya TV said Ghannouchi has departed the oustide of the Tunisian parliament after announcing that he was holding a sit-in at the site. It also aired a picture of his convoy outside the parliament with a broken car window after it was pelted with stones by protesters who oppose the Ennahdha chief.

Tunisia’s economy has been struggling for years, and the country recently reimposed lockdowns and other virus restrictions because it’s facing one of Africa’s worst virus outbreaks.

After the announcement of the president’s decision, army units were deployed around the capital, and an Associated Press reporter saw military vehicles heading toward the parliament in nearby Bardo.

Tunisian Parliament Speaker Rached Ghannouchi labeled President Kais Saied's freezing of parliament as a “a coup against the revolution and constitution.” (Reuters)

During the night, Ghannouchi tried to enter with an associate but was blocked, according to Mosaique FM news radio. He insisted the parliament would continue to work despite the president’s move.

The president cited concerns about violence as a reason for his decision, and warned against any breach of public order, threatening troublemakers with severe penalties. “We have taken these decisions ... until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” he said in a military-style televised address.

Tunisian police run towards demonstrators to quell an anti-government protest in Tunis on July 25, 2021. (Reuters)

He invoked an article of Tunisia’s constitution allowing him to take “exceptional measures in the event of imminent danger threatening the institutions of the nation and the independence of the country and hindering the regular functioning of the public powers.”

The measure allows him to assume executive power and freeze parliament for an unspecified period of time until normal institutional workings can be restored.

A man reacts as police officers detain a demonstrator during an anti-government protest in Tunis, Tunisia, on July 25, 2021. (Reuters)

But Ghannouchi said the president didn’t consult with him and the prime minister as required by the article. The three have been in conflict.

Others also criticized the president’s decision.

Former President Moncef Marzouki called for political dialogue, saying in a Facebook video, “We made a huge leap backward tonight, we are back to dictatorship.”