US secretary of defense aims to deescalate Israel-Iran tensions

US secretary of defense aims to deescalate Israel-Iran tensions
Experts believe that US defense secretary’s visit to Israel aims to facilitate Washington’s eventual rejoining of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal. (Reuters/File)
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Updated 12 April 2021

US secretary of defense aims to deescalate Israel-Iran tensions

US secretary of defense aims to deescalate Israel-Iran tensions
  • Experts claim Tel Aviv will seek to play up the threat of Iran, with US return to JCPOA looming
  • The visit is aimed at reassuring Israel by bolstering US-Israeli and Gulf-Israeli defense relations while dispelling Iranian perceptions of US complicity in recent Israeli attacks on Iranian targets

AMMAN: Middle East experts believe that the visit of the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Israel is largely aimed at deescalating Israeli-Iranian tensions, and facilitating Washington’s eventual rejoining of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly referred to as the Iran nuclear deal.

Austin said the US is committed to “Israeli military edge” and advancing “strategic partnership” efforts with Tel Aviv.
Lamis Andoni, a veteran analyst based in Amman, told Arab News that the visit is ultimately aimed at helping the US return to the JCPOA. “President Joe Biden is worried that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu would like to escalate the situation in the Gulf, with the aim of torpedoing the eventual return to the Iran nuclear deal,” she said.
Andoni added that Netanyahu was only concerned about his own future, and would therefore focus on exaggerating Iranian threats to ensure Gulf states remained united against Iran.
Ali Jarbawi, a professor at Bir Zeit University, told Arab News that Austin’s visit was nothing more than an attempt to placate Israel.
“They want Israel to be reassured on the fact that the new administration will be returning to the Iran nuclear deal,” he said.
Retired Jordanian air force general, Maamoun Abu Nawwar, said that the goal of the visit is to ensure that Israeli does not escalate the situation in the Gulf. “The fact that the first senior official from the Biden administration to visit Israel is a military man is a clear sign that they are hoping he will address the potential of a dangerous escalation … between Israel and Iran,” he told Arab News.
Ofer Zalzberg, Middle East Program director at the Herbert Kelman Institute for Conflict Transformation, said that the visit will be characterized by an internal contradiction in US objectives: “It aims at reassuring Israel by bolstering US-Israeli and Gulf-Israeli defense relations while dispelling Iranian perceptions of US complicity in recent Israeli attacks on Iranian targets, which harm establishing the trust required for successful nuclear negotiations,” he said.
Musa Shteiwi, former head of the University of Jordan’s Center of Strategic Studies, said that the visit would seek to resolve the Iran issue at a time that Israel is going in the opposite direction. “They will talk about pursuing the partnership issue in order to facilitate the return to the Iran deal,” he said. Barak Ravid, a Tel Aviv-based reporter for Axios, argued that both Austin’s position and the timing of the visit were important.

“This is the first trip of a senior Biden administration official to Israel. Austin will try to make sure that there is a no surprises policy between Israel and the US when it comes to Iran, and will try to reassure the Israelis about the nuclear talks with Iran. The Biden administration wants to make sure tensions in the region will not escalate in a way that sabotages the nuclear talks,” he said.
Regardless of the worries about military escalation, it is clear to observers that the real issue is the political one. Abu Nawwar believes that the Iran nuclear deal, initially signed by the administration of former President Barack Obama, will eventually prevail. “It is the only game in town,” he added.

On Monday, Iran said it blames Israel for Sunday's incident at the Natanz nuclear site and will take its revenge, state TV quoted Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as saying.
Iranian authorities described the incident a day earlier as an act of "nuclear terrorism" and said Tehran reserves the right to take action against the perpetrators.


Palestinian protests deter Jewish extremists

Palestinian protests deter Jewish extremists
Israeli police take position during clashes with Palestinians on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, at Jerusalem's Old City, May 8, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 09 May 2021

Palestinian protests deter Jewish extremists

Palestinian protests deter Jewish extremists
  • Protests continued in the Old City and in the streets of East Jerusalem, with Red Crescent officials reporting injuries and saying that Israeli police were obstructing their work
  • The Arab League has agreed to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the issues around Jerusalem, including the Israeli attacks against worshippers in Al-Aqsa and Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah

JERUSALEM: Israeli authorities appear set to re-route the traditional Jerusalem Unity Day parade which has been known to be provocative and anti-Arab.

Israeli media reported that security officials on Sunday urged the government to rethink the annual event, a flag-waving display of Israeli claims to all of the contested city set to take place Monday, following days of unrest and Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the capital.

Ynet reported that Israeli security officials “called for the government to reconsider the route, the number of marchers, and even the event itself.”

Persistent and widespread protests in Jerusalem have brought worldwide condemnation of Israel, and the security establishment appears to have won the day in pressing right-wing politicians to lower tensions.

Protests continued in the Old City and in the streets of East Jerusalem, with Red Crescent officials reporting injuries and saying that Israeli police were obstructing their work.

Parades are also scheduled to coincide with an Israeli court decision about an appeal request against eviction orders for Palestinian families living in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.

Tens of thousands of people, including many Palestinian citizens of Israel, flooded Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque to commemorate the holy night of Laylat Al-Qadar, the first revelation of the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad.

Most people have vowed to stay in Al-Aqsa to protect it from public calls from Jewish extremist groups.

The mosque’s preacher Ekrima Sabri said that what happened on Monday would depend on the occupiers.

“For our part, we  are holding onto our mosque and our faith and will defend it until the last breath,” he told Arab News.

Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, the former president of Al-Quds University, said what was happening in the city was a wake-up call.

“Events in Jerusalem have reminded Israel and the rest of the world that peace with the continued occupation is impossible, as is Israeli sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem,” he told Arab News. “Palestinians will not disappear with the passing of time, nor will justice. Israel will not have a future if it continues to trample on Palestinian rights and their national and religious sites and symbols.”

Ahmad Budeiri, Al-Ghad TV reporter in Jerusalem, summarized the situation as favoring the Palestinians in the short-term as long as the protests on the ground kept the pressure on.

“There is no doubt that the protests in Jerusalem and the persistence of Jerusalemites to defended their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and their holy places is what moved the international community as well as the Israeli security forces and to react,” said Ahmad Budeiri.

But it might be a temporary victory because the overall strategy of the Israelis would not be easily changed, he added.

In Amman, there were protests calling on the government to close down the Israeli embassy in Jordan and to recall the Jordanian ambassador from Tel Aviv.

The Arab League has agreed to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the issues around Jerusalem, including the Israeli attacks against worshippers in Al-Aqsa and Israeli plans to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah.

In Kuwait, football players wore the Palestinian keffiyeh as a sign of support for the people of Jerusalem.

Luis Miguel Bueno, an EU diplomat who is the bloc’s official Arabic spokesman, condemned the attacks and the incitement against the faithful.

“The occupation forces must respect its obligations according to international law,” he tweeted in Arabic. “We call for the immediate de-escalation. East Jerusalem is part of the occupied territories for which international humanitarian law applies.”

The Jerusalem Waqf Council called on people to stay overnight at Al-Aqsa as a precaution to ensure that radical Jewish groups would be deterred from entering the mosque.

It promised to provide iftar and suhoor to all free of charge.

 


Houthis defy US, UN calls for halting offensive on Marib

Houthis defy US, UN calls for halting offensive on Marib
Updated 09 May 2021

Houthis defy US, UN calls for halting offensive on Marib

Houthis defy US, UN calls for halting offensive on Marib
  • Mohammed Ali Al-Houthis, the president of the militia’s supreme revolutionary committee, said on Twitter that the movement would continue reinforcing the battlefields with new fighters
  • Thousands of rebel fighters and government troops have been killed in fierce fighting since February, when the Houthis renewed a major offensive to seize control of Marib

AL-MUKALLA: Iran-backed Houthis have defied US and UN calls to halt their deadly offensive on Yemen’s central city of Marib by drumming up supporters to join the battlefields.

A day after the US slammed the militia for snubbing the UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths in Muscat and refusing to halt their military operations, Mohammed Ali Al-Houthis, the president of the militia’s supreme revolutionary committee, said on Twitter that the movement would continue reinforcing the battlefields with new fighters and equipment and would keep fighting until they outright defeat their opponents. 

Thousands of rebel fighters and government troops have been killed in fierce fighting since February, when the Houthis renewed a major offensive to seize control of Marib, the government’s last stronghold in the country’s north.

Local and international aid organizations and officials warned that the Houthi invasion of Marib would trigger a displacement that would fuel the humanitarian crisis, as the city hosts more than 2 million people who have already fled fighting and Houthi suppression.

Briefing the Yemeni Cabinet on the military situation during an online meeting on Saturday, Defense Minister Mohammed Al-Maqdishi said that the Houthis suffered “big” losses in fighters and equipment and the Yemeni Army and allied tribesmen took the initiative on the battlefields and foiled many “suicidal” assaults on Marib, the official news agency SABA reported.

The cabinet urged the international community to take a “firm and clear” stand against the Houthis’ repeated rejection of peace initiatives and their determination to worsen the humanitarian crisis.

“Hazy positions would push this militia and its supporters in Tehran into increasing the suffering (of Yemenis) and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen,” the Cabinet said in a statement.

Last week, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi dispatched Prime Minister Maeen Abdul Malik Saeed to Marib in a show of support to government forces. 

Saeed was ordered to increase military support to the army and tribesmen who are battling the Houthis close to the city.

At the same time, government officials and activists have launched on Sunday an online campaign in support of government troops battling the Houthis in Marib.

“We call on all Yemenis from all walks of life and political and social groups to participate in the media campaign to support the steadfastness of the heroes of the National Army and the Popular Resistance and the tribes on various fronts in Marib province,” Muammar Al-Eryani, minister of information, culture and tourism, said in a Twitter post.


Fire erupts in engine of tanker near Syrian coast

Fire erupts in engine of tanker near Syrian coast
Updated 09 May 2021

Fire erupts in engine of tanker near Syrian coast

Fire erupts in engine of tanker near Syrian coast

AMMAN/CAIRO: A small fire occurred in one of the engines of a tanker off the coast of Syria's Mediterranean port of Banias, state media said.
The fire was extinguished by the crew quickly with no casualties, it said.
"The technical fault took place in one of the engines of the oil tanker near the coast...it caused a small fire and a plume of smoke," state media said.
Local radio station FM Sham earlier said an explosion had hit a tanker during maintenance works after it had caught fire a few days earlier while offloading its oil cargo.
Last month, Syria's oil ministry said firefighters put out a fire on an oil tanker off the Banias refinery after a suspected attack by a drone coming from the direction of Lebanese waters.
Banias houses a refinery which, along with another in Homs, covers a significant part of the country's demand for diesel, heating fuel, gasoline and other petroleum products, according to industry experts.
Syria has grown more dependent on Iranian oil shipments in recent years but tightening Western sanctions on Iran, Syria and their allies, as well as a foreign currency crunch, have made it more difficult to get enough supplies.


Iraqi activist’s killing sparks protests against impunity

Iraqi activist’s killing sparks protests against impunity
Updated 09 May 2021

Iraqi activist’s killing sparks protests against impunity

Iraqi activist’s killing sparks protests against impunity
  • Ihab Al-Wazni, a coordinator of protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, was a vocal opponent of corruption
  • He was shot overnight outside his home by men on motorbikes, in an ambush caught on surveillance cameras

KARBALA: A leading Iraqi anti-government activist was killed early Sunday, security sources and activists said, sending supporters of a protest movement onto the streets to demand an end to bloodshed.
Ihab Al-Wazni, a coordinator of protests in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, was a vocal opponent of corruption, the stranglehold of Tehran-linked armed groups and Iran’s influence in Iraq.
He was shot overnight outside his home by men on motorbikes, in an ambush caught on surveillance cameras. His death was confirmed by security forces and activists.
Wazni narrowly escaped death in December 2019, when men on motorbikes used silenced weapons to kill fellow activist Fahem Al-Tai as he was dropping him home in Karbala, where pro-Tehran armed groups are legion.
Both were key figures in a national protest movement that erupted against government corruption and incompetence in Iraq in October 2019.
Around 600 people were killed as a result of their association with that movement — many on the streets during rallies, others targeted on their doorsteps away from the rallies.
Protests broke out in Karbala, Nassiriya and Diwaniya in southern Iraq in reaction to Wazni’s killing, as people called for an end to the bloodshed and to rampant corruption.
In a video recording in the morgue where his body was initially held, a fellow activist made it clear who he and colleagues blamed for the killing.
“It is the Iranian militias who killed Ihab,” said the unnamed activist. “They are going to kill all of us! They threaten us and the government remains silent.”
Police in Karbala said they “will spare no effort” to find “the terrorists” behind Wazni’s killing.
Politicians, including Shiite leader Ammar Al-Haki, deplored the killing and called for justice.
Around 30 activists have died in targeted killings and dozens of others abducted, some detained briefly, since October 2019.
Such targeted killings are normally carried out in the dead of night by men on motorbikes, and nobody claims responsibility.
Activists and the UN repeatedly blame “militias.”
Authorities have consistently failed to identify the perpetrators of these political killings.
Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhemi took office a year ago, vowing to rein in rogue factions, fight corruption and roll out long-awaited reforms after years of war and insurgency.
Pro-Iran groups view the premier as being too close to Washington and protesters believe he has failed to deliver on his promises.
“Such crimes against activists in Iraq raise again the question about the real steps of the government regarding accountability for... (those) responsible for crimes” targeting protesters, Ali Bayati, a member of Iraq’s Human Rights Commission, tweeted Sunday.
Wazni had himself challenged Kadhemi in a Facebook post in February, asking rhetorically: “Do you know what is going on? You know that they kidnap and kill — or you live in another country?“


US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea ‘destined for Yemen from Iran’

 US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea ‘destined for Yemen from Iran’
Updated 4 min 10 sec ago

US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea ‘destined for Yemen from Iran’

 US Navy seizes weapons in Arabian Sea ‘destined for Yemen from Iran’
  • Seizure includes thousands of assault weapons, machine guns and sniper rifles hidden aboard a ship
  • US Navy’s initial investigation found the vessel came from Iran

DUBAI: The US Navy announced Sunday it seized an arms shipment of thousands of assault weapons, machine guns and sniper rifles hidden aboard a ship in the Arabian Sea, apparently bound for Yemen to support the country’s Houthi rebels.
An American defense official told The Associated Press that the Navy’s initial investigation found the vessel came from Iran, again tying the Islamic Republic to arming the Houthis despite a United Nations arms embargo. Iran’s mission to the UN did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though Tehran has denied in the past giving the rebels weapons.

 


The seizure, one of several amid the yearslong war in Yemen, comes as the US and others try to end a conflict that spawned one of the world’s worst humanitarian disasters. The arms shipment, described as sizeable, shows that the war may still have far to run.
The guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey discovered the weapons aboard what the Navy described as a stateless dhow, a traditional Mideast sailing ship, in an operation that began Thursday in the northern reaches of the Arabian Sea off Oman and Pakistan. Sailors boarded the vessel and found the weapons, most wrapped in green plastic, below deck.
When laid out on the deck of the Monterey, the scale of the find came into focus. Sailors found nearly 3,000 Chinese Type 56 assault rifles, a variant of the Kalashnikov. They recovered hundreds of other heavy machine guns and sniper rifles, as well as dozens of advanced, Russian-made anti-tank guided missiles. The shipments also included several hundred rocket-propelled grenade launchers and optical sights for weapons.

 

 


The Navy’s Mideast-based 5th Fleet did not identify where the weapons originated, nor where they were going. However, an American defense official said the weapons resembled those of other shipments interdicted bounded for the Houthis.
Based on interviews with the crew and material investigated on board, the sailors determined the vessel came from Iran, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
“After all illicit cargo was removed, the dhow was assessed for seaworthiness, and after questioning, its crew was provided food and water before being released,” the 5th Fleet said in a statement.
The seizure marks just the latest in the Arabian Sea or Gulf of Aden involving weapons likely bound to Yemen. The seizures began in 2016 and have continued intermittently throughout the war, which has seen the Houthis fire ballistic missiles and use drones later linked to Iran. Yemen is awash with small arms that have been smuggled into poorly controlled ports over years of conflict.

The weapons were seized from a dhow in the Arabian Sea. (US Navy)


This recent seizure appeared to be among the biggest. Tim Michetti, an investigative researcher who studies the illicit weapon trade, also said the shipment bore similarities to the others.
“The unique blend of materiel recovered by the USS Monterey appears to be consistent with the materiel from previous interdictions, which have been linked to Iran,” he said.
Yemen’s war began in September 2014, when the Houthis seized Sanaa and began a march south to try to seize the entire country. Saudi Arabia, along with the United Arab Emirates and other countries, entered the war alongside Yemen’s internationally recognized government in March 2015. Iran backed the Houthis, who harass Saudi Arabia with missile fire and drone attacks.
Since 2015, the UN Security Council has imposed an arms embargo on the Houthis. Despite that, UN experts warn “an increasing body of evidence suggests that individuals or entities in the Islamic Republic of Iran supply significant volumes of weapons and components to the Houthis.”