Archive for May 16, 2019

Trump, Swiss leader said to discuss setting up channel for Iran talks 

May 16, 2019

Source: Trump, Swiss leader said to discuss setting up channel for Iran talks | The Times of Israel

Washington again expresses interest in communicating with Tehran, which has so far refused negotiations, as crisis mounts

US President Donald Trump sits with Attorney General William Barr during the 38th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the US Capitol, May 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Donald Trump sits with Attorney General William Barr during the 38th Annual National Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the US Capitol, May 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Donald Trump was set to meet with Swiss government officials on Thursday in an effort to open a communications channel with Iran.

Trump is set to meet with Ueli Maurer, president of the Swiss Confederation, at the White House to discuss “Switzerland’s role in facilitating diplomatic relations and other international issues,” the White House said, according to a Thursday CNN report.

Trump has expressed interest in speaking with the Iranians, although Tehran has not reciprocated, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying that negotiations with Washington would be “poison.”

As the US and Iran have no diplomatic ties, the Swiss embassy in Tehran handles US interests in the country and serves as a diplomatic channel between Washington and the Islamic Republic. Switzerland also hosted negotiations to finalize the nuclear deal.

Swiss Federal President Ueli Maurer addresses the media after talks with Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria, January 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Last week, the White House contacted Swiss officials and gave them a phone number for Iran to call Trump directly.

A source told CNN that the Swiss were unlikely to hand over the phone number to Iran unless they were asked to, and that Iran was unlikely to make such a request.

On May 9, Trump said he was open to talks with the Iranian leadership.

“What I would like to see with Iran, I would like to see them call me,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “We don’t want them to have nuclear weapons — not much to ask.”

Tensions between the two countries have soared in recent weeks with a war of words between American and Iranian leaderships, allegations of sabotage attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline claimed by Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels, and the dispatch of US warships and bombers to the region.

A helicopter loads cargo onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea as the ship’s strike group makes its way to the Persian Gulf, May 8, 2019. (US Navy/Michael Singley)

At the root of the recent spike in Persian Gulf tensions appears to be Trump’s decision a year ago to pull the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran to cripple the country’s economy.

Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat.

Iran’s supreme leader said on Tuesday that “there is not going to be any war” with the United States, but that there will also be no renegotiation of the nuclear deal.

In a speech to state officials, Khamenei said the showdown between the Islamic Republic and the United States was a test of resolve rather than a military encounter.

“This face-off is not military because there is not going to be any war. Neither we nor them [the US] seek war. They know it will not be in their interest,” he said, as quoted on the official website.

On Wednesday, however, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps warned Tehran was on the brink of full-on conflict with its enemy.

US sailors launch a fighter jet from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier while transiting the Red Sea, May 10, 2019. (Jeff Sherman/US Navy)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday in Sochi, Russia: “We fundamentally do not seek a war with Iran.”

The US State Department on Wednesday ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, and Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country.

On Monday, Trump rejected a report saying he was considering sending 120,000 troops to counter Iran, but didn’t rule out deploying “a hell of a lot more” soldiers in the future.

Also on Wednesday, Iran formally dropped the limitations on uranium enrichment and the production of heavy water that were laid down in its landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, an official from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran announced.

The official said the move was in accordance with instructions from Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and was part of a recent 60-day Iranian ultimatum for renegotiating the pact, the regime-affiliated Iranian Students News Agency reported.

The Third Gulf War has already begun 

May 16, 2019

Source: The Third Gulf War has already begun – Israel National News

The location and number of vessels in the Straits of Hormuz that were sabotaged by Iran this week send a clear message from Iran to Trump, and the US president will not take that lying down. 

Dr. Mordechai Kedar, 15/05/19 20:44 | updated: 08:03

On Monday morning, May 12, 2019, four oil tankers sailing in international waters were attacked as they made their way out of the Straits of Hormuz towards the Indian Ocean. The details of the sabotage are still unclear as these words are being written: who attacked, where they escaped to, how they attacked and how much damage they inflicted.  My intuition tells me that Western Intelligence agencies, certainly the American ones, know exactly who attacked and how the sabotage was accomplished.

All the media pundits are pointing an accusing finger at Iran, situated in direct sight of the Hormuz passage, and blaming it for the quadruple attack. It is not the first time Iran has behaved in this manner. On July 25, 2018, ten months ago, two Saudi tankers, sailing south of the Red Sea opposite the Hudeida port north of the Bab el Mandeb Straits, were attacked. The attackers were the Houthi rebels in Yemen who have been in direct conflict with the Saudis for years, but one month after the attack a senior Iranian officer admitted that the Houthis acted at Iran’s request.

No one thinks that this week’s attack was perpetrated by anyone other than Iran. The location and number of vessels attacked send a clear message from Iran to Trump:  If you want war you will get war, and we, the Iranians, are not afraid of you, your arrogant boasting, US military might in the Persian Gulf or aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln sent by you to the Gulf last week along with the auxiliary vessels surrounding it.

The US aircraft carrier was deployed to the Persian Gulf after US Intelligence identified unusual movements of Iranian ballistic missiles which seemed to signal preparation for launching them. John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, announced in a statement: “The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime. But we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps or regular Iranian forces.”

The Iranians did not let this pass quietly, with their spokesmen rivaling one another in seeking to threaten the US. Iran is walking a tightrope, assuming that the US does not want a war and will not take significant steps against the Islamic Republic, since in contrast to the situation prevailing during the 1991 and 2003 previous Gulf Wars when NATO and Australian armies fought side by side with the US,  European NATO members, particularly  Germany, France and the UK, who signed the 2005 nuclear deal with Iran and are still bound by it although the United States bowed out, are vehemently opposed to a conflagration.

I consider the attack on the Saudi tankers this week the first shot in a third Gulf war, because the US, especially under Donald Trump’s leadership, cannot allow itself to be humiliated this way by Tehran. After all, two and half years ago, even before entering the White House, Trump talked about “making America great again.” The attack on the Saudi tankers has furnished him with the reason for waging war against Iran, and I will not be surprised if before long, we are witness to US attacks on Iranian targets such as the port the attackers sailed from and Iranian nuclear power plants.

As the United States views it, attacks on vessels in the Straits of Hormuz are meant to destabilize the world’s economic and political order. These waters are international even though they are in close proximity to Iran. Any damage to the transport of oil from the Persian Gulf to the rest of the world deals a massive blow to the international economy, as it will lead to a sharp rise in oil prices, insurance for vessels carrying oil and costs to consumers for a large number of products.

Trump demands the Iranians enter into negotiations for a new nuclear deal, while the Iranians demand that the United States apologize for leaving the existing deal. Both sides have moved rapidly to the point of threats and actions, and the chance of a direct clash is becoming more imminent by the day.

In Iran there are two vying trends of thought: The radical Revolutionary Guards, who were against the nuclear deal from the start because it limited the development of an Iranian atomic bomb, would like the situation to deteriorate in order to force the US to remove the sanctions it placed on Iran and return to the nuclear deal. Opposing that idea is the moderate position of Foreign Minister Zarif, who believes that Iran must begin to act according to accepted international rules of the game, refrain from angering the US and ignoring international law, in hopes that the next eighteen months can pass without significant entanglements until the November 2020 US presidential elections bring back the Democrats. They, it is expected, will remove the sanctions and return to the nuclear deal.

The attacks on the Saudi tankers show that Supreme Leader Khamenei supports the Revolutionary Guards’ position and is willing to endanger his country in order not to give in to the forces of “The Arrogant Ones,” the expression denoting America in Ayatollah rhetoric.

Persian Gulf air is saturated with oil vapor while oil and gas facilities are everywhere, and Iran is easily able to deal a swift and mortal blow to the economies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Emirates. There is a serious potential for deterioration leading to war and it is highly likely that in the near future we will see a head-on clash between Iran and the United States.

And Israel? The results for Israel may be far from simple, because there is a distinct possibility that if violence erupts in the Straits, the Hezbollah will decide to use its missile arsenal against Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza will not sit idly by either, and may enter the action, receiving  their instructions from Iran.

Will Israel respond to this kind of attack resolutely and immediately as it has promised, sending Lebanon back to the Stone Age? What will Israel do to Gaza? Only Trump and Netanyahu know the answers to those questions.

It is entirely possible that the Iranians and their Lebanese and Gazan allies are relying on Putin to prevent Trump from overreacting, expecting him to use the weight of Russian military power to stop the American war machine. I, however, highly doubt Putin will want to antagonize the US for the sake of Iran, a country for which he has little affection. To Putin, the Iranians are partners, even allies, but only when carrying out important missions such as preserving the Syrian regime, purchasing another Russian nuclear power plant, or setting the world’s natural gas prices – but to sacrifice Russia in a war against the US may result in an international holocaust, and that is much more than Putin is willing to even consider. At the end of the day, Putin knows exactly what the Ayatollahs think of those who drink vodka and eat pork.

If I were one of Khamenei’s advisors, I would tell him to be wary and to keep away from any group to which Donald Trump, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo belong, especially since this group happens to control the largest and most deadly military might in the world. However, I am not one of Khamenei’s advisors, and that is why he is putting his regime and country into existential danger.

Israel must be prepared for any scenario that could take place in Lebanon and Gaza, and wish a heartfelt godspeed to the American army as it makes its way to its crucial missions in the land of Persia.

Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from the Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky, Op-ed and Judaism editor.


U.S. State Department: Iran’s IRGC has set up a training base in Lebanon

May 16, 2019

Source: U.S. State Department: Iran’s IRGC has set up a training base in Lebanon – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

The base is in close proximity to Lebanon’s Rayak Air Base and the border with Syria.

 MAY 16, 2019 13:48
U.S. State Department: Iran's IRGC has set up a training base in Lebanon

The video, released in an Arabic language tweet on Tuesday, said that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force training facility near Beit Moubarak on Lebanon’s eastern border opposite Syria’s Zabadani is a training facility for armoured personnel carriers.
“We see a small little valley that goes down. This has a series of berms that are alternating, the ones on the left, and the next ones on the right. This is a training course for armored personnel carriers,” Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., Senior Fellow for Imagery Analysis at Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) said in the video.

Embedded video

الخارجية الأمريكية


RT @DOTArabic: قوة القدس التابعة للحرس الثوري تعمل على تدريب وتسليح وتجهيز مليشيات تابعة لها في معسكرات تدريب في#لبنان، وكذلك في . الهدف من ذلك هو استخدام هذه المليشيات في حروب الوكالة، وإشاعة عدم الاستقرار في عموم الشرق الأوسط

According to Seth G. Jones, Senior Advisor at CSIS, Iran’s goal with a base like the one in Lebanon is to improve the capabilities of its local allies like Hezbollah and has similar training facilities in Iran “where it can bring individuals from all of these locations.”
“The IRGC’s Quds Force is Iran’s primary military actor in the Middle East. It competes with countries like the United States by training, advising and equipping sub-state forces including Shia militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said.
The Imam Ali Training Facility outside the Iranian capital of Tehran was mentioned in the video as being “a small facility until 2008” and has since become “a much larger, much more comprehensive” site with  shooting ranges, and training facilities for urban fighting and parade grounds, Bermudez explained.
According to David Daoud, a research analyst on Hezbollah and Lebanon at United Against Nuclear Iran, while the video suggests that IRGC base was discovered this past February, it “could be much older.”
“I also doubt APCs would be of any use to Iran or its proxies in confronting the United States or regional allies like the Israelis. They’d be easy targets for superior stand-off firepower,” Daoud told The Jerusalem Post.
Nevertheless, the fact that the base is in close proximity to Rayak air base shows two things, Daoud said.
“First, how compromised the eastern Lebanese-Syrian border is to entry of “resistance axis” elements and the Lebanese state’s inability to properly police its territory against Iranian penetration. The IRGC base’s proximity to the LAF’s Rayak Air Base only underscores this,” he said. “Second, it further demonstrates unification of the “Resistance Axis” that Nasrallah and other Iranian proxy-militia leaders have often mentioned, where in a future war (say, against Israel) Hezbollah would not fight alone, but would be joined by other forces.”
Officials in Israel’s defense establishment have warned that the Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an “integral part” of Hezbollah’s network and that the next war on Israel’s northern border will not be confined to one front but will see conflict with both Syria and Lebanon.
With the saber rattling between Iran and the United States, Daoud told The Post that it was “highly unlikely” that a war would break out “absent some miscalculation” but if one were to occur Iran would “activate their proxies on some level against US regional allies that would include Israel and Saudi Arabia.”
Israel and Hezbollah fought a deadly 33-day war in 2006  and while the border has been relatively quiet, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned that the next war with Israel would see fighters from across the Shia world participating.
But, Daoud said, “Hezbollah is as disinterested in a genuine escalation as its Iranian masters,” as a full-blown regional war would “endanger of all of its (Iran’s) gains in Syria and Iraq.”


Russia not a ‘fire brigade’ to save disintegrating Iran deal, says Putin 

May 16, 2019

Source: Russia not a ‘fire brigade’ to save disintegrating Iran deal, says Putin | The Times of Israel

Russian leader meets US secretary of state in Sochi, insists Iranians have been fulfilling their part of 2015 pact, but warns agreement is ‘falling apart’ and Europe can’t save it

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi on May 14, 2019. (Pavel Golovkin/POOL/AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi on May 14, 2019. (Pavel Golovkin/POOL/AFP)

SOCHI, Russia — President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said Moscow was sorry to see Iran’s nuclear deal falling apart but stressed Russia was not “a fire brigade” to “rescue everything.”

Tensions have sharply escalated between arch-rivals Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump withdrew last year from the Iran nuclear deal which removed sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

Putin spoke to reporters after hosting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday for the highest-level bilateral talks in nearly a year.

“We regret that the deal is falling apart,” Putin said following talks with Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen on Wednesday. “After the signing of the agreement Iran was and still is the world’s most verifiable and transparent country in this sense.”

Citing the International Atomic Energy Agency, Putin said Iran was “fulfilling all of its obligations.”

He urged Iran not to quit the 2015 agreement but added there was only so much Moscow could do.

“Russia is not a fire brigade,” He said. “We cannot rescue everything that does not fully depend on us. We’ve played our part.”

Putin also said that after Washington’s withdrawal Europe could do “nothing” to salvage the deal.

A US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress aircraft assigned to the 20th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron takes off from Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, May 12, 2019. (Staff Sgt. Ashley Gardner, US Air Force via AP)

Earlier Wednesday Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov expressed concern that tensions over Iran escalated despite assurances from Pompeo that Washington was not seeking war.

“So far we notice the continued escalation of tensions around this subject,” Peskov said.

“We are saddened to see the decisions taken by the Iranian side,” Peskov added, while arguing that Washington has been provoking Iran.

In Sochi, Pompeo said his country did not want war with Iran, despite a spike in tensions that has seen the Pentagon dispatch nuclear-capable bombers to the region.

Peskov sought to play down those statements.

“There were no assurances from Pompeo,” Putin’s spokesman said. “And one can hardly talk about some sort of assurances.”

Washington last year pulled out of a nuclear deal backed by Europe, Russia and China, which curbed Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.

Since then it has slapped sweeping sanctions on Iran.

On Sunday, mysterious attacks by unknown assailants against four ships in the region, including two from Saudi Arabia, pushed talk of war up another notch.

The US has accused Iran of planning “imminent” attacks in the region and on Wednesday, the US ordered all non-emergency staff to leave its embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad and consulate in Arbil.


Iran says US sanctions ‘unacceptable’ as crisis mounts 

May 16, 2019

Source: Iran says US sanctions ‘unacceptable’ as crisis mounts | The Times of Israel

Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif, visiting Japan, insists his country is within its rights to threaten an increase in uranium enrichment in response to US sanctions

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, walks to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe's official residence in Tokyo, May 16, 2019. (Eugene Hoshiko/Pool/AP)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, walks to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Abe’s official residence in Tokyo, May 16, 2019. (Eugene Hoshiko/Pool/AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s foreign minister on Thursday slammed mounting US sanctions imposed on Tehran by the Trump administration as “unacceptable,” even as he insisted that his country is committed to an international nuclear deal that has steadily unraveled amid rising tensions in the Mideast.

Recent days have seen allegations of sabotage attacks targeting oil tankers off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline claimed by Yemen’s Iranian-allied rebels, and the dispatch of US warships and bombers to the region.

Early Thursday, residents in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a said a wave of airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition hit rebel Houthi targets, as well as a residential house in the city. There were casualties, including civilians, the residents said without providing details. They spoke on condition of anonymity fearing for their safety.

Saudi Arabia has been at war with the Houthis since 2015, leading a mostly Arab coalition that’s launching near-daily airstrikes in support of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. The drone attacks on a Saudi pipeline Tuesday that were claimed by the Houthis marked one of the rebels’ deepest and most significant strikes inside Saudi territory since the conflict began.

At the root of the recent spike in Persian Gulf tensions appears to be US President Donald Trump’s decision a year ago to pull the US from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, embarking on a maximalist sanctions campaign against Tehran to cripple the country’s economy.

Smoke billows following an air strike in the Yemeni capital Sana’a on May 16, 2019. (Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP)

In response, Iran’s supreme leader issued a veiled threat Tuesday, saying it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic Republic to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels. He also said that while his country would not negotiate with the United States, Iran is not seeking war.

On Wednesday, the US State Department ordered all nonessential government staff to leave Iraq, and Germany and the Netherlands both suspended their military assistance programs in the country in the latest sign of tensions.

The movement of diplomatic personnel is often done in times of conflict, but what is driving the decisions from the White House remains unclear. Iraq is home to powerful pro-Iranian militias, while also hosting more than 5,000 US troops. The US military’s Central Command said its troops were on high alert, without elaborating.

Last week, US officials said they had detected signs of Iranian preparations for potential attacks on US forces and interests in the Middle East, but Washington has not publicly provided any evidence to back up claims of an increased Iranian threat.

But a senior British officer in the US-backed coalition fighting the Islamic State group appeared to push back against the US claims, telling reporters earlier in the week that there’d been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika’s comments exposed international skepticism over the American military buildup.

On a visit to Tokyo on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif told his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono that his country’s response to the US actions — America’s pullout from the nuclear deal last year and the imposition of US sanctions — is within Iran’s rights.

Iran recently threatened it might resume higher enrichment by July 7, beyond the level permitted by the current deal between Tehran and world powers. The US pulled out of the deal last year, re-imposing sanctions that would penalize countries and global companies that do business with Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, left, and Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono shake hands at the Prime Minister’s official residence in Tokyo on May 16, 2019. (Eugene Hoshiko/POOL/AFP)

Kono expressed concern over the rising tension in the Middle East, and urged Zarif to use restraint and keep implementing the nuclear agreement.

Though Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, scientists say the time needed to reach the 90 percent threshold for weapons-grade uranium is halved once uranium is enriched to around 20%.

Late Wednesday, Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of foreign affairs, said the Saudi-led coalition would “retaliate hard” for attacks on civilian targets, without elaborating.

However, he also said the UAE is “very committed to de-escalation” after the alleged sabotage of oil tankers off the country’s coast on Sunday. Gargash declined to directly blame Iran for the attack, though he repeatedly criticized Tehran.


Iran says it has developed a firewall against Stuxnet virus

May 16, 2019

Source: Iran says it has developed a firewall against Stuxnet virus –

Stuxnet was used in 2010 to attack uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and is believed to be a cyber weapon developed by the U.S. and Israel.

Iran has developed software to protect its industry against the Stuxnet computer virus, the Iranian communications minister said on Thursday, after accusing Israel in November of a cyberattack on Tehran’s telecommunications facilities.

Stuxnet, which is widely believed to have been developed by the United States and Israel, was discovered in 2010 after it was used to attack a uranium enrichment facility at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site. It was the first publicly known example of a virus being used to attack industrial machinery.

“Iran’s university scientists have developed a firewall for industrial automation systems to neutralize industrial sabotage such as that caused by Stuxnet in power networks, and it was successfully tested,” Communications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi said, quoted by the state news agency IRNA.

In November, Azari-Jahromi said a Stuxnet attack had failed to harm Iran’s communications infrastructures and accused Israel of being behind it.

Israel has declined comment on whether or not it is involved in a cyberwar on Iran.

In 2013, researchers at Symantec Corp uncovered a version of the Stuxnet that was used to attack the Iranian nuclear program in 2007.

Tehran agreed under a 2015 deal with world powers to curb the program but U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of it last year, with Israel’s backing, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.


Iran’s president is being targeted by hard-liners

May 16, 2019

Source: Iran’s president is being targeted by hard-liners –

When Hassan Rouhani succeeded Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, he was seen as an establishment figure. Two years later, he signed the nuclear deal, and now his authority is waning.

When he succeeded firebrand leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2013, Rouhani was seen as an establishment figure who would do little to end Iran’s long standoff with the West. Two years later, his administration signed the nuclear deal with six world powers that spurred hopes for wider political change.

Rouhani’s authority is now waning: his brother, a key adviser on the 2015 deal, has been sentenced to jail on unspecified corruption charges, a hard-line rival heads the judiciary and his government is under fire for responding too softly to U.S. President Donald Trump’s sanctions squeeze.

Trump has said lifting sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program did not stop Tehran meddling in neighboring states or developing ballistic missile capabilities and Rouhani’s outreach to the West was a fig leaf.

Yet the U.S. pullout from the nuclear deal a year ago and subsequent attempts to end Iran’s oil exports have led to a sharp increase in regional tension: the U.S. military said on Tuesday it was braced for “possibly imminent threats to U.S. forces” from Iran-backed forces in neighboring Iraq.

Rouhani has urged opposing factions to work together and noted limits on his power in a country where an elected government operates under clerical rule and alongside powerful security forces and an influential judiciary.

“How much authority the government has in the areas that are being questioned must be examined,” the presidency’s website quoted Rouhani as saying on Saturday, an apparent attempt to fend off public anger at plummeting living standards.

Ebrahim Raisi, who became head of the judiciary in March and is a contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, retorted that all branches of government had sufficient authority to carry out their duties.

Local media interpreted the statement as a direct rebuke from Raisi, who ran against Rouhani in the 2017 presidential election.

On May 4, Rouhani’s brother Hossein Fereydoun was sentenced to prison. The judiciary has not given details of the charges against him and attempts by Reuters to seek comment were unsuccessful. The judiciary has said it has no political motivation for the cases it tries.

Rouhani has two years until his term ends, but if he is seen by Iranians as responsible for their problems, his successor is more likely to take a hard line with the West, some analysts say.

“Couldn’t ask for a better ally than the Trump administration,” said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran project at the Crisis Group.

When Rouhani announced last week that Iran would roll back some of its commitments under the international nuclear deal a year after Trump withdrew, the hard-line daily Kayhan newspaper called the move “late and minimal.”

“If Mr. Rouhani’s government had reacted reciprocally from the beginning to the broken promises of America and Europe, they [the Americans and Europeans] would not have reached this level of offensiveness and arrogance,” an article in the newspaper said on Thursday.

Restrictions on social media, championed by hard-line officials and clerics, are putting further political pressure on Rouhani, who promised in his 2017 and 2013 election campaigns to lift such curbs.

Telegram, a messaging app popular in Iran, was banned last year. Twitter is also banned and hard-liners have set their sights on Instagram, used by some 24 million Iranians.

In his comments on Saturday, Rouhani said the government does not have full authority over the cyberspace, underlining the limits to his powers.

He and other officials, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have active Twitter accounts despite the ban.

Last month, Instagram shut down several accounts under the names of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, the country’s most powerful military and economic force, after Washington declared the Guards a foreign terrorist organization.

Some lawmakers are now seeking a complete ban on Instagram, one of the few social media platforms yet to be blocked.

Javad Javidnia, the deputy in charge of cyberspace affairs at the prosecutor general’s office in Tehran, said last month Instagram would be blocked unless the government found an effective way to monitor its content, Fars news agency said.

Telecoms Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi told Reuters in an interview last month that he used social media actively, including Twitter, and wanted fewer restrictions. But he said filtering usually takes place with a judicial decree.

“Ayatollah Raisi has recently started his work in this area and we will have to see what his view will be,” he said.

The Guards have used authorities response to heavy flooding in March to criticize the government and promote their effectiveness.

A video of the head of the Guards’ ground forces lambasting the government after visiting a flood-stricken area in western Iran in early April was widely circulated on social media.

“There are a lot of problems. There is no management. No government official has the courage to go there,” Brig. Gen. Mohammad Pakpour said in the video. “It’s horrible.”

Hard-line news sites posted pictures of members of the Guards helping remote villages, with their uniforms covered in mud.

Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, a Rouhani ally who has tried to attract investment, has been accused by hard-line politicians of giving away the nation’s wealth and criticized for not doing more to bypass sanctions.

The Guards have developed expertise in bypassing sanctions through years of experience and are now eyeing opportunities arising from the new U.S. economic restrictions.

Khatam al Anbia, the Guards’ huge engineering and construction arm controls over 800 affiliated companies worth billions of dollars. Its head, Saeed Mohammad, said at an oil and gas exhibition in Tehran on May 2 that the firm has the ability to develop a phase of South Pars, the world’s largest gas field, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

“Our goal is to fill the empty spot left by foreign companies,” he said.