Iran’s president rejects resignation of his foreign minister

February 27, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s president rejected the resignation of his foreign minister on Wednesday, throwing his full support behind the diplomat who negotiated the country’s nuclear deal with world powers as both men face growing pressure from hard-liners as the accord unravels under American pressure.

President Hassan Rouhani earlier gave a speech praising Mohammad Javad Zarif after the foreign minister’s sudden resignation shocked the Islamic Republic late on Monday night. His rejection of the resignation, reported by the state-run IRNA news agency, continued that praise.

“Since I consider you in the front line of resistance against broad pressures by the U.S., I consider acceptance of your resignation against the expedience of the country and I do not agree with it,” Rouhani reportedly told Zarif.

It’s unclear what will happen next. Zarif could stop going to work at the Foreign Ministry, forcing Rouhani’s hand. But there’s no precedent for that in the history of the Islamic Republic. Zarif more than likely will return to work. There was no immediate response from the 59-year-old diplomat.

It remains unclear what sparked Zarif’s resignation. However, it came after Zarif was not present for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad on Monday. Assad was warmly received by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well as Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guard.

The Guard’s website later quoted Soleimani as offering his support to the foreign minister. “Definitely, Zarif is in charge of foreign policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran and he has been always supported by top officials including the supreme leader,” Soleimani reportedly said.

Analysts say Rouhani faces growing political pressure from hard-liners within the government as the nuclear deal unravels. Iranian presidents typically see their popularity erode during their second four-year term, but analysts say Rouhani is particularly vulnerable because of the economic crisis assailing the rial, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to openly call for his ouster.

The son of a wealthy family, Zarif overcame hard-line objections and Western suspicions to strike the accord with world powers that saw Iran limit its uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.

But the deal was later challenged by the administration of President Donald Trump, which pulled America out of the accord. In doing so, Trump also fueled Iranian suspicions about U.S. intentions dating back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif had faced withering criticism at home after he shook hands with President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long a critic of Iran, welcomed his departure. “Zarif is gone, good riddance. As long as I am here Iran will not get nuclear weapons,” he wrote in Hebrew on Twitter. Iran has always said its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, and U.N. inspectors say it is still complying with the 2015 nuclear accord.

Rouhani cited that Israeli response in his support of Zarif. “The happiness and rejoicing of the real enemies of the people such as the Zionist regime over your resignation is the best indication of success of Mohammad Javad Zarif and the biggest reason for continuation of your activity in the post of foreign minister,” Rouhani said.

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Iran unveils first semi-heavy missile-equipped submarine

February 17, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran’s state TV is reporting that the country’s President Hassan Rouhani has unveiled the first Iranian made semi-heavy submarine. The Sunday report said the Fateh, “Conqueror” in Persian, is capable of being fitted with cruise missiles.

Since 1992, Iran has developed a homegrown defense industry that produces light and heavy weapons ranging from mortars and torpedoes to tanks and submarines. The Fateh has subsurface-to-surface missiles with a range of about 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), capable of reaching Israel and U.S. military bases in the region.

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Iran pressures Europe to do more to save the nuclear deal

February 17, 2019

MUNICH (AP) — Europeans need to do more than talk if they want to preserve a deal meant to keep Tehran from obtaining a nuclear weapon after the unilateral withdrawal of the United States, Iran’s foreign minister said Sunday, slamming Washington as the “biggest source of destabilization” in the Middle East.

Mohammad Javad Zarif told a gathering of world leaders, top defense officials and diplomats that a barter-type system known as INSTEX, which was set up last month by France, Germany and Britain to allow businesses to skirt direct financial transactions with Iran and thereby evade possible U.S. sanctions, is not enough.

“Many around the world, particularly on this continent, speak eloquently about multilateralism, but they also need to walk the walk,” Zarif told the Munich Security Conference in an impassioned address. “INSTEX falls short of the commitments by (European countries) to save the nuclear deal. Europe needs to be willing to get wet if it wants to swim against a dangerous tide of U.S. unilateralism.”

The three European nations, as well as Russia, China and the European Union as a whole, have been struggling to save the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran since President Donald Trump announced a unilateral American withdrawal from it last year and re-imposed sanctions on Iran.

The deal promises Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for limiting its nuclear program, and so far the International Atomic Energy Agency has said that Tehran has been living up to its obligations.

Those working to preserve the agreement have been trying to walk a fine line between mollifying Iran without angering Washington. Zarif’s comments appeared directed at European assurances that INSTEX could concentrate on products not currently subject to U.S. sanctions, such as medicine, medical supplies and agricultural goods, rather than on broader trade.

On Saturday, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence slammed INSTEX and urged others to abandon the nuclear deal entirely. “The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining U.S. sanctions against this murderous revolutionary regime,” Pence said before leaving Germany. “The time has come for our European partners to stand with us and with the Iranian people, our allies and friends in the region. The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.”

Before Pence spoke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the Iran deal, saying while she shared concerns about Iran’s missile program and its regional ambitions, it was important to keep “the small anchor we have (with Iran) in order maybe to exert pressure in other areas.”

Merkel’s comments, and her defense of global diplomacy instead of a go-it-alone foreign policy, drew lengthy applause. Zarif told the conference that Pence had “arrogantly demanded that Europe must join the United States in undermining its own security and breaking its obligations” and urged them to push back against American pressure.

“If the United States were to come, in the course of their fight with China, and tell Europe to stop dealing with China, what would you do?” he asked. “Whatever you want to do then, do now, in order to prevent that eventuality.”

He would not comment on whether the nuclear deal will survive without the U.S. but said Iran was not prepared to renegotiate it as Trump has suggested. “Nothing can be done that is better than this deal,” he said. “It’s not all we want and it’s certainly not all the United States wants but it’s the best that can be achieved.”

Responding to Pence’s comments that Iran was the “greatest threat to peace in the Middle East,” Zarif said the U.S. had an “unhealthy fixation” with Iran and was itself the “single biggest source of destabilization in our neighborhood.”

“The U.S. claims … that it is Iran which is interfering in the region, but has it ever been asked whose region?” Zarif said. “Just glimpse at a map for a second — the U.S. military has traveled 10,000 kilometers to dot all our borders with its bases. There is a joke that it is Iran’s fault that it put itself in the middle of all (the) U.S. bases.”

Zarif also accused the U.S. administration of looking for regime change in Iran — something Washington denies — and said Israel was “looking for war” with “violations of Lebanon’s air space and shooting into Syria.”

“The risk (of war) is great, but the risk will be even greater if you continue to turn a blind eye to severe violations of international law,” he said. Benny Gantz, a former Israeli military chief and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s primary challenger in the upcoming April election, responded in a separate forum, slamming Iranian aggression in the region.

“On my watch, there will be no appeasement (of Iran). On my watch, Iran will not threaten Israel by taking over Syria, Lebanon or Gaza strip,” he said. “On my watch, Iran will not have nuclear weapons.”

Gantz told the audience, speaking of Zarif: “do not be deceived by his eloquence. Do not be fooled by his lies.” The Munich Security Conference is an annual gathering of world leaders and defense and foreign policy officials.

Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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Report: At least 20 Guard personnel killed in Iran bombing

February 13, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A suicide bombing targeting a bus carrying personnel of Iran’s elite paramilitary Revolutionary Guard force killed at least 20 people and wounded 20 in the country’s southeast, state media reported. An al-Qaida-linked Sunni extremist group operating across the border in Pakistan reportedly claimed the assault.

The bombing came on the same day a U.S.-led conference in Warsaw was to include discussions on what America describes as Iran’s malign influence across the wider Mideast. It also comes two days after Iran marked the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and four decades of tense relations with the West.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif directly linked the meeting to the attack. “Is it no coincidence that Iran is hit by terror on the very day that (hashtag)WarsawCircus begins?” Zarif wrote on Twitter. “Especially when cohorts of same terrorists cheer it from Warsaw streets & support it with (Twitter) bots?”

The state-run IRNA news agency, citing what it described as an “informed source,” reported the attack on the Guard in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province. The province, which lies on a major opium trafficking route, has seen occasional clashes between Iranian forces and Baluch separatists, as well as drug traffickers.

The Guard is a major economic and military power in Iran, answerable only to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It later issued a statement saying a vehicle loaded with explosives targeted a bus carrying border guards affiliated with its force.

While Iran has been enmeshed in the wars engulfing Syria and neighboring Iraq, it largely has avoided the bloodshed plaguing the region. In 2009, more than 40 people, including six Guard commanders, were killed in a suicide attack by Sunni extremists in Sistan and Baluchistan province. Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group still active in the region on Iran’s border with Pakistan, claimed responsibility for that attack.

More recently, another Sunni extremist group known as Jaish al-Adl linked to al-Qaida, kidnapped 11 Iranian border guards in October. Five later were returned to Iran and six remained held. Both official and semi-official Iranian media outlets blamed Wednesday’s bombing on Jaish al-Adl, or “Army of Justice,” saying the group had claimed the attack.

That group formed in 2012 and drew some militants from Jundallah, experts believe. Iran long has suspected Saudi Arabia of supporting the militants, something Riyadh denies. It’s also unclear how the militants have been able to operate freely from Pakistan for years.

A coordinated June 7, 2017 Islamic State group assault on Parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. At least 18 people were killed and more than 50 wounded.

And most recently in September, militants disguised as soldiers opened fire on a military parade in Iran’s oil-rich southwestern city of Ahvaz, killing 24 people and wounding over 60. Khamenei blamed Riyadh and Abu Dhabi for the attack, allegations denied by both countries.

Arab separatists in the region claimed responsibility, as did the Islamic State group. The attacks come as Iranian officials have said they blame Saudi Arabia and the United States for stirring up dissent in the country. President Donald Trump, who campaigned on a promise of tearing up Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, withdrew the U.S. from the accord last May. Since then, the United Nations says Iran has kept up its side of the bargain, though Iranian officials have increasingly threatened to resume higher enrichment.

Amid the new tensions, Iran’s already-weakened economy has been further challenged. There have been sporadic protests in the country as well, incidents applauded by Trump amid Washington’s maximalist approach to Tehran.

Khamenei, who earlier approved President Hassan Rouhani’s outreach to the West during the nuclear deal negotiations, dismissed any future dealings with the U.S. “About the United States, the resolution of any issues is not imaginable and negotiations with it will bring nothing but material and spiritual harm,” Khamenei said in a statement.

The Warsaw summit, which started Wednesday, was initially pegged to focus entirely on Iran. However, the U.S. subsequently made it about the broader Middle East, to boost participation. Zarif earlier predicted the Warsaw summit would not be productive for the U.S.

“I believe it’s dead on arrival or dead before arrival,” he said at a news conference before the bombing.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Iranians mark anniversary of victory day in 1979 revolution

February 11, 2019

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Waving Iranian flags, chanting “Death to America” and burning U.S. and Israeli flags, hundreds of thousands of people poured out onto the streets across Iran on Monday, marking the date that’s considered victory day in the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On Feb. 11 that year, Iran’s military stood down after days of street battles, allowing the revolutionaries to sweep across the country while the government of U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi resigned and the Islamic Republic was born.

In Tehran, despite the rain, crowds streamed in from the capital’s far-flung neighborhoods to mass in the central Azadi, or Freedom, Square, waving Iranian flags and chanting “Death to America” — standard fare at rallies across Iran.

Chants of “Death to Israel” and “Death to Britain” followed, and demonstrators burned U.S. and Israeli flags. Iranian state TV, which said millions participated in the celebrations, ran archive footage of the days of the uprising and played revolutionary songs. It later broadcast footage showing crowds across the country of 80 million.

The 6-mile-long downtown Enghelab, or Revolution, Street was decorated with huge balloons as loudspeakers blared out revolutionary and nationalist songs. Every year, the anniversary festivities start on Feb. 1 — the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from France after 14 years in exile to become the supreme leader as Shiite clerics took power. The celebrations continue for 10 days, climaxing on Feb. 11.

This year’s anniversary comes as Iran grapples with the aftermath of President Donald Trump’s decision last May to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal and restore tough U.S. sanctions. Speaking from a podium in central Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani addressed the crowds for nearly 45 minutes, lashing out at Iran’s enemies — America and Israel — and claiming their efforts to “bring down” the country through sanctions will not succeed.

“The presence of people in this celebration means that plots by the enemies … have been defused,” Rouhani said. “They will not achieve their ill-omened aims.” In the backdrop to Monday’s marches, the military displayed Iranian-made missiles, which authorities showcase every year during anniversary celebrations. The missiles have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles), placing Israel and U.S. military bases within range.

Over the past decade, Iran has frequently test-fired and displayed missiles, sent several short-lived satellites into orbit and in 2013 launched a monkey into space. The ballistic missile tests have angered the United States, which fears they are part of an effort to develop a nuclear weapons capability, something Iran insists it has never sought. The 2015 nuclear agreement urged Iran to cease such missile tests, but did not forbid them outright.

“We do not and we will not ask permission for producing any type of missiles from anybody,” Rouhani said in his speech Monday, though he stressed that Iran would “continue constructive engagement” with the international community.

Rouhani also promised that Iran would overcome its economic hardships, worsened by the restored U.S. sanctions. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, attended a rally in the southern city of Kerman. He is widely seen as the mastermind of Iran’s extensive military activities across the region, which have also angered Washington. Iran supports the Lebanese Hezbollah and other militias in the region, and is closely allied with Syria’s government.

In Tehran, 27-year-old medical student Hossein Hosseinpour walked with his wife and their 18-month-old son. He said he wanted to teach his son to support the revolution. “I see a bright future for him and our nation,” Hosseinpour said.

Mahmoud Hemmati, 35, was pushing his 68-year-old mother, Parivash Fakheri, in a wheelchair. “My mother, despite her illness, asked me to bring her out,” he said. Fakheri, who was one of the revolutionaries on the streets of Tehran in 1979, said she would defend the revolution all over again.

“I know there are many economic problems today, but that is something different from our revolution,” she said. “It has been moving forward over the past 40 years and making Iran stronger.” Last week, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei defended the “Death to America” chants, saying they are aimed at America’s leaders, such as Trump, and not its people.

The Iranian people “will not stop saying ‘Death to America’ as long as the U.S. acts maliciously” toward Iran, Khamenei said. Iranian state TV anchor Mehdi Khosravi said he expects John Bolton, the U.S. national security adviser, to be very angry on Monday since he had once predicted that Iranians will not see the 40th anniversary of their revolution.

Last year, Bolton told a meeting of Iranian exiles that “before 2019, we here … will celebrate in Iran.”

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Iran unveils new long-range cruise missile

February 3, 2019

Iran on Saturday unveiled a new cruise missile with range up to 1,350 kilometers (around 840 miles), according to Iran’s state television.

The missile, named Hoveizeh, was displayed in a ceremony attended by Defense Minister Amir Hatami.

According to Hatami, the missile was produced with local capabilities.

The missile was successfully tested with Iranian officials saying it has ability to fly on a low height and hit its target accurately.

Iran has developed a large domestic arms industry in the face of international sanctions and embargoes that have barred it from importing many weapons. Last month, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying: “Iran’s home-grown defensive missile program is the Iranian nation’s natural right”.

A US-Iranian war of words has escalated since US President Donald Trump took Washington out of a world powers’ nuclear deal with Iran in May, and reimposed sanctions on its banking and energy sectors.

Iran has warned that if it cannot sell its oil due to US pressure, then no other regional country will be allowed to do so either, threatening to block the Strait of Hormuz in the Gulf. The Guards’ naval arm lacks a strong conventional fleet. However, it has many speed boats and portable anti-ship missile launchers, and can lay mines.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190203-iran-unveils-new-long-range-cruise-missile/.

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European nations create workaround to US Iran sanctions

January 31, 2019

BERLIN (AP) — Three European countries that have been working to preserve a deal limiting Iran’s nuclear capability have established a new system so their companies can continue trading with the Mideast nation without incurring U.S. sanctions, diplomats said Thursday.

The barter-type system set up by France, Germany and Britain is designed to allow businesses to skirt direct financial transactions with Iran and thereby evade possible U.S. sanctions, setting up a potential collision with President Donald Trump’s hard-line policies on Tehran.

Once the process is up and running, a financial institution, known as an “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” or INSTEX, would run a payment channel, brokering Iranian imports in and European exports out, while insulating the companies involved.

In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Germany, Britain and France sought to allay Washington’s possible fears. “INSTEX will function under the highest international standards with regards to anti-money laundering, combating the financing of terrorism and EU and U.N. sanctions compliance,” their statement said.

The three nations have been working on the plan for months. It follows Trump’s decision last year to unilaterally withdraw from the international accord aimed at preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons in exchange for economic incentives. His administration also introduced new sanctions on Iran.

The other parties to the 2015 agreement — France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China — have been scrambling to keep the deal alive. In recent months, Iranian officials threatened to resume enriching uranium to higher purities than allowed under the deal, putting pressure on the Europeans to find a way around the sanctions.

“This is a clear, practical demonstration that we remain firmly committed to the historic 2015 nuclear deal struck with Iran… for as long as Iran keeps implementing it fully,” British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said..

The ministers emphasized that their payment channel is “aimed at facilitating legitimate trade between European economic operators and Iran.” “We’re making clear that we didn’t just talk about keeping the nuclear deal with Iran alive, but now we’re creating a possibility to conduct business transactions,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters Thursday after a meeting with European counterparts in Bucharest, Romania.

“This is a precondition for us to meet the obligations we entered into in order to demand from Iran that it doesn’t begin military uranium enrichment,” Maas said. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif welcomed the establishment of INSTEX, saying in a tweet it was a “long overdue 1st step” to save the nuclear deal.

“We remain ready for constructive engagement with Europe and on equal footing & with mutual respect,” Zarif wrote. The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, who helped negotiate the 2015 accord with Tehran, said the new system would be “essential for the continued full implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran.”

The U.S. State Department said it was “closely following” reports on the European mechanism, which originally was known as a “special purpose vehicle,” for details about exactly what would be involved.

“As the president has made clear, entities that continue to engage in sanctionable activity involving Iran risk severe consequences that could include losing access to the U.S. financial system and the ability to do business with the United States or U.S. companies,” the State Department said in a statement.

INSTEX is to be headquartered in Paris and overseen by a German banker. The three foreign ministers said a parallel structure would have to be set up in Iran and other work needs to be done to “address all the technical and legal aspects required to make this vehicle operational.”

At the outset, the European institution will concentrate on products that are not currently subject to U.S. sanctions, such as medicine, medical supplies, and agricultural goods. Many of Europe’s biggest companies shut off all commerce with Iran when the U.S. stepped up sanctions, exercising an abundance of caution. The governments of Germany, France and Britain hope the workaround will lure back some trade of non-sanctioned goods, though it’s not clear if companies would try to do business through the new state-run system and risk possible U.S. retribution down the road.

Stefan Mair, a board member of the influential Federation of German Industries, welcomed the establishment of the financial institution, but expressed skepticism about how effective it might be. “Central questions remain open,” he said. “The clearinghouse is dependent on Iran’s sanctioned oil and gas business. This continues to pose a significant risk to building long-term business relations.”

Though established by Britain, Germany and France, other European Union nations were expected to join as well. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the EU wanted to continue to support the nuclear deal.

“The most important thing is to show our American colleagues that we are moving in the same direction on a whole series of issues, such as ballistic missiles or Iran’s regional influence, but that we do have a difference of opinion on the nuclear agreement,” Reynders said. “I hope we can also find a solution.”

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Iran’s state television he expected the mechanism to be ready to start brokering business in one or two months. “The next issue is how European companies are willing to join SPV with this mechanism,” he said.

Iran’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, said on Twitter he also thinks the start of the program was imminent.

Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jon Gambrell in Dubai and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

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