Iran ups the ante in search of Vienna nuclear negotiations advantage

Anti-US sentiment is used to justify a ramping up of military activity against the West and its allies by Iran and its proxies. (AFP)
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Anti-US sentiment is used to justify a ramping up of military activity against the West and its allies by Iran and its proxies. (AFP)
Talks continue in Vienna over a new nuclear deal. (AFP)
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Talks continue in Vienna over a new nuclear deal. (AFP)e
Talks continue in Vienna over a new nuclear deal. (AFP)
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Talks continue in Vienna over a new nuclear deal. (AFP)
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Updated 09 January 2022

Iran ups the ante in search of Vienna nuclear negotiations advantage

Iran ups the ante in search of Vienna nuclear negotiations advantage
  • Tehran’s proxies appear to have stepped up pressure on the US and its allies in the Gulf
  • Developments point to strategy to extract maximum concessions, say experts

DUBAI: Tehran’s proxies have been ramping up their activities on the battlefields of the Middle East in recent weeks. In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, forces loyal to the Iranian regime have been busy, escalating attacks against US and Saudi targets.

One spark for this intensification may be the second anniversary of the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian general who set in motion much of the chaos still ravaging the region. But some analysts believe the prime reason is the Iran-US nuclear talks that have resumed in Vienna.

As the talks progress, albeit painstakingly, Iran’s officials have been increasingly upbeat, believing it is on the verge of salvaging a deal that would ease crippling US sanctions on its financial institutions and political bodies.

An informed source has told Arab News that the nuts and bolts of a new arrangement between Washington and Tehran are now primarily in place.

One remaining obstacle is a demand by Iran that the next US president should not walk out of any new deal. Whether the US could honor such a pledge remains unclear. In 2018, US President Donald Trump scorned and abandoned the “one-sided deal.” Iran responded by ceasing its cooperation with international inspectors that kept tabs on its nuclear infrastructure and ramping up its enrichment efforts.

The current president, Joe Biden, has staked much of his first term foreign policy legacy on reinstating the deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This has earned the opprobrium of regional allies as his officials persist with talks with Iranian hardliners.

Entifadh Qanbar, a former Iraqi spokesperson, said: “Iranians like to twist arms in negotiations. Robert Malley seems to be trying hard to appease the Iranians and, unfortunately, has the upper hand in the Biden administration when it comes to the negotiations. The Biden administration is coming off weak, especially in light of the chaos in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.”

Dr. Ras Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, said: “Looking at the recent attacks on Syria and Iraq, one of the main reasons it happened, I believe, is the second anniversary of the killing of Qassem Soleimani.” He said this hung a pall over the negotiations from the Iranian side.

Washington’s response to the attacks on US forces has been a far cry from Trump’s reaction as Iran-backed rioters approached the US embassy in Baghdad two years ago, when he sanctioned the assassination of Soleimani.




Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi (R), accompanied by chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Mohammad Eslami, speaks to the media during a visit to the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, southeast of Tehran. (Photo by Iranian Presidency / AFP)

Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi spoke on the anniversary of Soleimani’s death at a ceremony in a large prayer hall in Tehran. The president vowed revenge on Donald Trump, calling him the primary “aggressor and assassin.”

The Iranian general and his ally, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was also killed in the drone strike in January 2020, had been masters of the art of wielding powerful proxy forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen and also of bombing the US into concessions with low intensity – but high political impact – rocket fire.




Gen. Hossein Salami (C), head of Iran's Quds Force, attending military exercises dubbed Payambar-e-Azadm held in three provinces last December. (SEPAH NEWS handout photo via AFP) 

On Wednesday, an armed pro-Iranian militia called Gassem Al-Jabarayn claimed responsibility for Iraq’s drone and rocket attacks, which caused no casualties. The group posted online that they vow to maintain their attacks until there was a complete US withdrawal from Iraq. This group is believed to be a cover for one of the main Iranian proxies, whose influence in Iraq remains extensive as the central government continues to struggle to assert control.

Analysts in the region say the frequency of attacks in Iraq and Syria tends to increase whenever a weighty political decision draws near. Few such decisions have carried more consequences than whether to re-engage with Iran – an actor widely distrusted by the GCC and the rest of the Middle East.

To do so could be the biggest gamble of Biden’s presidency, potentially destabilizing bedrock security arrangements with core US allies, who remain averse to such a move without stringent restrictions to prevent even clandestine efforts to build nuclear weapons.

However, other commentators have played down the impact of the attacks on the Vienna talks.

Mohanad Hage Ali, director of communications and fellow of Carnegie Middle East Center, said: “These attacks are directed to serve an internal (Iranian) purpose and have little military significance given the absence of serious casualties. They are more useful in justifying the lack of reprisals for major attacks against Iranian forces and their militias.

“I see them as ineffective in pushing for a change in Vienna as compared to the actual progress in Iran’s nuclear program.”

Rasha Al-Aqeedi, an Iraqi researcher on militancy and ideology, said: “The recent attacks are unlikely to achieve concessions given their marginal impact on US personnel and facilities.”




Iraqi troops inspect an unfired Katyusha rocket during a rocket attack on a military base hosting US forces near Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 5, 2022. (Iraqi Media Security Cell/Handout via REUTERS)

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby blamed the attacks on a combination of hostility toward Washington’s continued presence in Iraq and the anniversary of Soleimani’s death.

Whether the rocket fire improves Iran’s hand is open to contention. However, even the perception Iran aims to create of being able to bomb itself into a better bargaining position acts as a fillip to the country’s negotiators, who have long touted the virtues of “strategic patience” over the capriciousness of US policy.

As the latest round of talks resumed, the US special envoy for Iran was in Saudi Arabia this week to talk with senior officials. Gulf countries retain a skeptical line on Iran, despite having embarked on a series of regional discussions at an intelligence level last year.

Central to Saudi concerns is that Iran has refused to use the Vienna talks to discuss its ballistic missile program or its interventions across a region still reeling from decades of war and insurrection — much of it Iranian-led.

“If the US does not maintain a tough hand, the region will sink further,” said a senior Iraqi official, “This is not a time for weak hearts.”

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A century ago, the autonomous sheikhdom of Arabistan was absorbed by force into the Persian state. Today the Arabs of Ahwaz are Iran's most persecuted minority

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Israeli forces shoot dead Palestinian teenager in West Bank clashes: Palestinian ministry

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AFP file photo)
Israeli security forces clash with Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AFP file photo)
Updated 21 May 2022

Israeli forces shoot dead Palestinian teenager in West Bank clashes: Palestinian ministry

Israeli security forces clash with Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AFP file photo)
  • Jenin refugee camp has served as a flashpoint amid recent tensions following a wave of attacks in Israel in which 19 people were killed

RAMALLAH, Palestinian Territories: A Palestinian teenager was shot dead by Israeli forces early Saturday during a raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said.
“A 17-year-old boy was killed, and an 18-year-old was critically wounded by the Israeli occupation’s bullets during its aggression on Jenin,” a statement by the health ministry said.
Jenin refugee camp has served as a flashpoint amid recent tensions following a wave of attacks in Israel in which 19 people were killed.
Thirteen Palestinians were injured last week during an operation by Israeli forces in the camp in which one Israeli commando and one Palestinian were also killed.
Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett named the Israeli commando as Noam Raz.
The Palestinian was later named as Daoud Al-Zubaidi, a brother of Zakaria Al-Zubaidi, who headed the armed wing of the Fatah movement of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas and briefly escaped from Israeli prison last year.
The raids came hours before violence erupted at the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist who was killed last week while covering another Israeli raid on the camp.
As her funeral unfolded, Israeli police stormed the grounds of a Jerusalem hospital as the body of the slain journalist was being transported for burial, prompting an international outcry.
 


Israeli missile strikes kill 3 near Syria capital: state media

Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
Updated 21 May 2022

Israeli missile strikes kill 3 near Syria capital: state media

Israeli F35 I fighter jets take part in an air defence exercise in Eilat. (AFP file photo)
  • Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes there, targeting government positions as well as bases and weapon depots for allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah

DAMASCUS: Israeli surface-to-surface missiles killed three people near the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday, state media said quoting a military source.
“The Israeli enemy carried out an aggression... that led to the death of three martyrs and some material losses,” Syria’s official news agency SANA quoted the source as saying.
The missiles came from the Israeli-occupied Golan heights and were intercepted by the Syrian air defenses, the military source said.
AFP correspondents in the Syrian capital said they heard very loud noises in the evening.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said that the three people killed were officers and that four other members of the air defense crew were wounded.
The Israeli strikes targeted Iranian positions and weapon depots near Damascus, the monitor said.
A fire broke at one of the positions near the Damascus airport, where ambulances were seen rushing to the site of the strikes, according to the Observatory.
The latest strike follows one on May 13 that killed five people in central Syria, and another one near Damascus on April 27 which, according to the Observatory, killed 10 combatants, among them six Syrian soldiers, in the deadliest such raid since the start of 2022.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes there, targeting government troops as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
While Israel rarely comments on individual strikes, it has acknowledged carrying out hundreds of them.
The Israeli military has defended them as necessary to prevent its arch-foe Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.
The conflict in Syria has killed nearly half a million people and forced around half of the country’s pre-war population from their homes.


Tunisia heads for ‘new republic’ in dialogue without political parties

Tunisia heads for ‘new republic’ in dialogue without political parties
Updated 32 min 49 sec ago

Tunisia heads for ‘new republic’ in dialogue without political parties

Tunisia heads for ‘new republic’ in dialogue without political parties
  • On Friday the official gazette announced that law professor Sadeq Belaid would head the newly created "National Consultative Commission for a New Republic"
  • Saied announced in early May the establishment of a long-awaited "national dialogue"

TUNIS: Tunisia’s President Kais Saied on Friday appointed a loyalist law professor to head a committee charged with writing a constitution for a “new republic”, through a national dialogue that excludes political parties.
On July 25 last year, Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament, sidelining the political parties that have dominated Tunisian politics since the 2011 revolution that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings.
He has since vowed to scrap the country’s 2014 constitution and draft a replacement to be put to referendum in July, but has repeatedly inveighed against political parties despite calls for an inclusive dialogue.
On Friday the official gazette announced that law professor Sadeq Belaid would head the newly created “National Consultative Commission for a New Republic”, charged with drawing up a draft constitution.
Saied has also created three other committees to focus on socio-economic issues, the judiciary and on national dialogue.
While major organisations including the powerful UGTT trade union confederation are supposed to be involved, no political party is set to take part.
Saied announced in early May the establishment of a long-awaited “national dialogue” – at the same time attacking the political parties he accuses of having plundered the country.
Since his July power grab, many Tunisians have supported his moves against a political class seen as corrupt, but opponents have labelled his moves a coup and he has faced calls from home and abroad for a dialogue involving all of the country’s major actors.


Sandstorms pose serious risk to human health: WMO

People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
Updated 20 May 2022

Sandstorms pose serious risk to human health: WMO

People navigate a street during a recent sandstorm in Basra, Iraq. (AP)
  • The UN agency WMO has warned of the “serious risks” posed by airborne dust

PARIS: Sandstorms have engulfed the Middle East in recent days, in a phenomenon experts warn could proliferate because of climate change, putting human health at grave risk.
At least 4,000 people went to hospitals on Monday for respiratory issues in Iraq where eight sandstorms have blanketed the country since mid-April.
That was on top of the more than 5,000 treated in Iraqi hospitals for similar respiratory ailments earlier this month.
The phenomenon has also smothered Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE with more feared in the coming days.
Strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust into the atmosphere, that can then travel hundreds, even thousands, of kilometers.
Sandstorms have affected a total of 150 countries and regions, adversely impacting on the environment, health and the economy, the World Meteorological Organization said.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The UN agency WMO has warned of the ‘serious risks’ posed by airborne dust.

• The fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular ailments.

• They also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.

“It’s a phenomenon that is both local and global, with a stronger intensity in areas of origin,” said Carlos Perez Garcia-Pando, a sand and dust storm expert at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center and the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies.
The storms originate in dry or semi-dry regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Central Asia and China.
Other less affected areas include Australia, the Americas and South Africa.
The UN agency WMO has warned of the “serious risks” posed by airborne dust.
The fine dust particles can cause health problems such as asthma and cardiovascular ailments, and also spread bacteria and viruses as well as pesticides and other toxins.
“Dust particle size is a key determinant of potential hazard to human health,” the WMO said.
Small particles that can be smaller than 10 micrometers can often become trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, and as a result it is associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma and pneumonia.
The most at-risk are the oldest and youngest as well as those struggling with respiratory and cardiac problems.
And the most affected are residents in countries regularly battered by sandstorms, unlike in Europe where dust coming from the Sahara is rare, like the incident in March.
Depending on the weather and climate conditions, sand dust can remain in the atmosphere for several days and travel great distances, at times picking up bacteria, pollen, fungi and viruses.
“However, the seriousness is less than with ultrafine particles, for example from road traffic, which can penetrate the brain or the blood system,” says Thomas Bourdrel, a radiologist, researcher at the University of Strasbourg and a member of Air Health Climate collective.
Even if the sand particles are less toxic than particles produced by combustion, their “extreme density during storms causes a fairly significant increase in cardio-respiratory mortality, especially among the most vulnerable,” he said.
With “a concentration of thousands of cubic micrometers in the air, it’s almost unbreathable,” said Garcia-Pando.
The sandstorms’ frequency and intensity could worsen because of climate change, say some scientists.
But the complex phenomenon is “full of uncertainties” and is affected by a cocktail of factors like heat, wind and agricultural practices, Garcia-Pando told AFP.
“In some areas, climate change could reduce the winds that cause storms, but extreme events could persist, even rise,” he said.
With global temperatures rising, it is very likely that more and more parts of the Earth will become drier.
“This year, a significant temperature anomaly was observed in East Africa, in the Middle East, in East Asia, and this drought affects plants, a factor that can increase sandstorms,” the Spanish researcher said.


Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political
Updated 20 May 2022

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political

Iran holds pro-government rallies after price protests turn political
  • "The enemies mistakenly think the Iranian people will respond to ...the rumours that they spread and lies they tell," Guards commander Hossein Salami said
  • Iranian authorities say the unrest over rising food prices has been fomented by foreign enemies

DUBAI: Thousands of supporters of Iran’s clerical establishment, including 50,000 Revolutionary Guards and Basij militia members, rallied on Friday, state media reported, after protests against rising food prices turned political.
“The enemies mistakenly think the Iranian people will respond to ...the rumors that they spread and lies they tell,” Guards commander Hossein Salami said in televised remarks at the massive rally outside the capital Tehran, which marked a major victory in Iran’s war with Iraq in the 1980s.
Iranian authorities say the unrest over rising food prices has been fomented by foreign enemies. On Friday, state television showed pro-government marchers chanting “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” in southwestern cities of Yasuj and Shahr-e Kord, scenes of recent protests.
Iranians took to the streets last week after a cut in food subsidies caused prices to soar by as much as 300 percent for some flour-based staples. The protests quickly turned political, with crowds calling for an end to the Islamic Republic, echoing unrest in 2019 which began over fuel prices hike.
The government acknowledged the protests but described them as small gatherings. State media reported last week the arrests of “dozens of rioters and provocateurs.”
Authorities have also arrested a number of labor union and rights activists, accusing them of contacts with foreigners, a leading rights group said on Friday.
“The arrests of prominent members of civil society in Iran on baseless accusations of malicious foreign interference is another desperate attempt to silence support for growing popular social movements in the country,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, in a statement.
Iran’s state television on Tuesday showed what it described as details of the arrest of two French citizens earlier this month, saying they were spies who had sought to stir up unrest.
France has condemned their detention as baseless and demanded their immediate release, in an incident likely to complicate ties between the countries as wider talks stall on reviving a nuclear deal.
In recent months, teachers across Iran have staged protests demanding better wages and working conditions. Dozens have been arrested.
Social media users inside Iran say Internet services have been disrupted since last week, seen as an apparent effort by authorities to stop use of social media to organize rallies and disseminate videos. Iranian officials denied any disruption to Internet access.