Archive for September 3, 2019

TV: Israel was ready to destroy Hezbollah missile program if soldiers were hit

September 3, 2019

Source: TV: Israel was ready to destroy Hezbollah missile program if soldiers were hit | The Times of Israel

Air force jets were airborne over the Mediterranean in preparation for massive retaliation, but missile attack Sunday narrowly missed its targets

F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom take part in an aerial exercise over the Mediterranean Sea, on June 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

F-35 fighter jets from Israel, the United States, and the United Kingdom take part in an aerial exercise over the Mediterranean Sea, on June 25, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel was ready to launch a massive retaliation against Hezbollah’s precision missile system in Lebanon, and only opted against carrying out that plan because no Israeli soldiers were hurt in a Sunday cross-border attack by the terror group, according to a report Monday evening.

“The fact that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah missed and didn’t kill any Israelis saved Hezbollah from the destruction of its precision missile program,” an Israel Defense Forces source was quoted as saying by Channel 12 news. “The planes were already in the air.”

According to the report, air force jets were flying over the Mediterranean Sea armed with dozens of tons of explosives in preparation for a counter-strike.

The source was quoted as saying the warplanes were ready to bomb many targets linked to Hezbollah’s missile production, and were waiting for a green light from Jerusalem.

The report came shortly after a Hezbollah-affiliated TV network published footage it said depicted the terror group’s missile strike on an Israeli military vehicle the day before, which did not cause casualties and led to a relatively limited Israeli retaliation. The footage showed two anti-tank missiles apparently narrowly missing an IDF vehicle on the road between Moshav Avivim and Kibbutz Yir’on near the northern border.

The footage from Al-Manar TV shows a Hezbollah fighter launching a Kornet guided missile at what appears to be a moving Israeli armored personnel carrier patrolling along the border fence. An additional launch at the APC is seen from further away. While the Hezbollah-affiliated network stated that the two strikes destroyed the APC, the footage does not show that the military vehicle sustained a direct hit; it shows billows of smoke surrounding it as the missiles land.

The APC itself was not in fact hit by either projectile, according to findings from an IDF analysis published earlier Monday. Rather, a piece of shrapnel from the explosion of one of the projectiles hit a tire, forcing the vehicle to stop on the side of the road, the military said.

“The mannequins that were placed in the Israeli military vehicles were not of use in misleading the resistance in choosing the target of its response,” Al-Manar reported, referencing a psychological war tactic that Lebanese media caught the IDF employing last week, when the military parked a jeep along the northern border with uniformed dummies inside.

A man fixes a Hezbollah flag at the ‘Garden of Iran’ Park in the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras on September 1, 2019, as fires blaze on the Lebanese side along the border following an exchange of fire with Israel. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

The IDF said that no Israelis were injured in Sunday’s attack, but Hezbollah has maintained that its strike killed and injured Israeli soldiers.

Pictures and videos showing injured soldiers being evacuated via helicopter from the scene had been a ploy meant to trick Hezbollah into thinking it had caused casualties, Israeli sources said.

Jacob Magid and Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.


France seeks $15b letter of credit for Iran to keep nuclear deal alive 

September 3, 2019

Source: France seeks $15b letter of credit for Iran to keep nuclear deal alive | The Times of Israel

Iranian delegation in Paris for talks as Tehran spokesperson says ‘our views have come closer together’

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he delivers a speech during the annual French ambassadors conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris on August 27, 2019. (Yoan VALAT / POOL / AFP)

France has reportedly offered to extend a $15 billion letter of credit to Iran in exchange for the Islamic Republic’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

According to The New York Times, which cited a US official and Iranian reports, the proposed sum was aimed at salvaging the accord after US President Donald Trump withdrew from the pact last year and reimposed biting sanctions on Iran, including on its oil sector.

The $15 billion package would make up for about half of Iran’s annual oil sales, the report said, and ease some of the economic pressure on it.

On Sunday, a conservative Iranian lawmaker said French President Emmanuel Macron had proposed a $15 billion line of credit on condition Iran returns to the fold.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron, left, meets his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in New York, September 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/ Ludovic Marin)

“Macron has proposed Iran stop its third step for now in exchange for this sum, and maybe retreat from its first and second steps to the initial situation,” said Ali Motahari, quoted late Sunday by Tasnim news agency.

He was referring to Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal in recent months. It has been threatening to take a third step in reducing its commitments to the deal, reportedly on Friday, after already increasing its uranium enrichment and stockpile.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has had a series of phone calls with Macron in recent weeks aimed at retaining the nuclear deal.

The French leader has been trying to convince the United States to offer Iran some sort of relief from sanctions.

“In the past few weeks, there have been serious negotiations” between Rouhani and Macron, as well as talks with other European nations, said Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei.

In this April 9, 2018 file photo, released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani listens to explanations on new nuclear achievements at a ceremony to mark ‘National Nuclear Day,’ in Tehran, Iran. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP, File)

“Fortunately, in many areas, our views have come closer together,” the government spokesman told a news conference.

A French foreign ministry spokeswoman indicated Monday that, underpinning Macron’s efforts to make progress on the issue, including at last week’s G7 summit in France, “discussions are continuing with Iran on reaching a deescalation of tensions.

“A meeting is taking place to this end in Paris today between French and Iranian experts,” she added without giving further details.

The Iranian delegation was headed by deputy foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi.

Also Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov joined visiting Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in welcoming French efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal while criticizing Washington’s stance.

“We are hoping that this useful initiative of the French president will bear fruit,” Lavrov told reporters.


Iran said hindering IAEA probe at alleged nuclear warehouse exposed by Netanyahu

September 3, 2019

Source: Iran said hindering IAEA probe at alleged nuclear warehouse exposed by Netanyahu | The Times of Israel

Tehran is obstructing inspectors, refusing to provide answers after radioactive traces reportedly found at site, report says

Iran's alleged 'atomic warehouse' in Turquzabad, Tehran (YouTube screenshot)

Iran’s alleged ‘atomic warehouse’ in Turquzabad, Tehran (YouTube screenshot)

Iran is obstructing a UN investigation into a site first identified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last year as a secret nuclear warehouse used to store radioactive material, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday night.

Unidentified diplomats told the newspaper Iran was refusing to provide answers to questions posed by the International Atomic Energy Agency, in what was apparently the first instance of Tehran failing to cooperate with inspectors.

The diplomats said there were internal disagreements in the IAEA on how severely Iran should be censured over the issue. A recent IAEA report on Iran’s growing breach of the 2015 nuclear deal reportedly made only vague reference to Tehran’s lack of cooperation with inspectors, saying “Ongoing interactions between the Agency and Iran relating to Iran’s implementation of its Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol require full and timely cooperation by Iran.”

A July report on Israel’s Channel 13 claimed inspectors had visited the site several times after Netanyahu identified it in an address to the UN General Assembly last September, took soil samples, and had since definitively concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” there.

The diplomats told the WSJ that the traces were likely remains from Iran’s past experimentation in nuclear weapons development. Iran has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons, though Israeli and Western intelligence disbelieve those assertions.

The diplomats said the material’s existence at the site was unlikely to indicate new work on weapons development, but would be a breach of Iran’s commitment to non-proliferation.

Iran has denied that the site was a nuclear facility or served any secretive purpose. In an initial response to Netanyahu’s UN speech, Iranian state media claimed the warehouse was actually a recycling facility for scrap metal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a placard showing a suspected Iranian atomic site while delivering a speech at the United Nations during the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2018 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP)

Speaking at the United Nations last September, Netanyahu called on the IAEA to inspect what he said was the “secret atomic warehouse” in the Iranian capital.

He claimed some 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of radioactive material had been recently removed from the atomic warehouse and squirreled away around Tehran, endangering the capital’s residents. The site may have contained as much as 300 tons of nuclear-related equipment and material in 15 shipping containers, Netanyahu added. He did not specify what nuclear material was contained at the site.

That speech came months after Israel’s disclosure that it had spirited away what it said was a “half-ton” of Iranian nuclear documents from Tehran, with Netanyahu saying both the archive and the warehouse were proof that Iran continues to seek atomic weapons despite the 2015 international agreement to limit its nuclear program. “Iran has not abandoned its goal to develop nuclear weapons…. Rest assured that will not happen. What Iran hides, Israel will find,” Netanyahu told the UN.

Following Netanyahu’s UN appearance, the late IAEA head Yukiya Amano said at the time that nuclear inspectors had visited “all the sites and locations in Iran which it needed to visit,” while pushing back against the prime minister’s assertion that the organization had failed to act on intelligence provided by Israel on the warehouse.

Diplomats quoted in April, however, said the IAEA later visited the site in Tehran’s Turquzabad district multiple times.

Referring to Netanyahu’s statements as “ridiculous,” an Iranian state TV report said the country was committed to nonproliferation and noted Iran’s nuclear program was under surveillance of the IAEA. A state TV website briefly reported the Netanyahu accusation and called it an “illusion.”

A Tasnim News reporter who visited the warehouse last October was told by a worker from inside the facility that it was not a military site, and that the Israeli leader was “a stupid person” for believing it was a nuclear warehouse. The reporter did not enter the facility, only speaking to the worker via intercom from outside the locked gate.

Also Monday an Iranian government spokesperson warned Tehran would “take a strong step” away from its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers if Europe cannot offer the country new terms by a deadline at the end of this week, as top Iranian diplomats traveled to France and Russia for last-minute talks.

The comments from Ali Rabiei reinforced the deadline Iran had set for Friday for Europe to offer it a way to sell its crude oil on the global market. Crushing US sanctions imposed after US President Donald Trump withdrew America from the deal over a year ago have halted those sales.

The IAEA report last week said Iran’s stockpile of low-enriched uranium still exceeds the amount allowed by the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA as the deal is known.

The UN agency also said Iran continues to enrich uranium up to 4.5%, above the 3.67% allowed.

Enriched uranium at the 3.67% level is enough for peaceful pursuits and is far below weapons-grade levels of 90%. At the 4.5% level, the uranium can help power Iran’s Bushehr reactor, the country’s only nuclear power plant.

It remains unclear what further step Iran will take, though it could involve restarting advanced centrifuges prohibited by the deal or further bumping up its enrichment of uranium. Iran insists the steps it has taken so far are easily reversible.

Iran’s government spokesman Ali Rabiei speaks in his regular news briefing, July 22, 2019 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Rabiei also claimed Monday that Iran’s views have been converging with those of France on ways to save the nuclear deal.

He suggested President Hassan Rouhani could meet US counterpart Donald Trump if it served Iran’s interests, while cautioning there was no need to meet an “agitator” in the current circumstances.

Rouhani has had a series of phone calls with French President Emmanuel Macron in recent weeks aimed at salvaging the 2015 nuclear deal.

The French leader has been trying to convince the United States to offer Iran some sort of relief from sanctions it has imposed on the Islamic republic since pulling out of the deal in May last year.

“In the past few weeks, there have been serious negotiations” between Rouhani and Macron, as well as talks with other European nations, said Rabiei.

“Fortunately, in many areas, our views have come closer together,” the government spokesman told a news conference.

Agencies contributed to this report.


Iran’s Rouhani says no intention of holding bilateral talks with US

September 3, 2019

Source: Iran’s Rouhani says no intention of holding bilateral talks with US | The Times of Israel

President tells lawmakers offers have been made over the years, but he never responds to them, threatens to further reduce commitment to 2015 nuclear deal in coming days

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks at parliament in the capital Tehran on September 3, 2019. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, speaks at parliament in the capital Tehran on September 3, 2019. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday again ruled out holding any bilateral talks with the United States, saying the Islamic republic is opposed to such negotiations in principle.

In an address to parliament, Rouhani also said Iran was ready to further reduce its commitments to a landmark 2015 nuclear deal “in the coming days” if negotiations with other world powers yield no results by Thursday.

Rouhani’s remarks came as France has said its diplomatic efforts were bridging the gap between the US and Iran, leading to US President Donald Trump to say he would be willing to meet with Rouhani for direct talks.

“We’ve said it before time and again, and we say it again: We have no intention to hold bilateral talks with the United States,” Rouhani said, according to a report from Iran’s Mehr news agency. “We never did and never will. It has been the case in the past year and a half, and even in previous years.”

“There have been calls for talks, but we never responded to them,” Rouhani added in comments broadcast live.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani speaks at parliament in the capital Tehran on September 3, 2019. (ATTA KENARE/AFP)

The Iranian president reiterated that Iran will not enter talks with the United States unless Washington lifts its sanctions against Tehran first.

Rouhani also said European nations are failing to implement their commitments following the US pullout from the 2015 nuclear deal.

Iranian state TV quoted Rouhani as saying that the Europeans “did not carry out their task.”

The comments come as Iranian diplomats are in France for last-minute talks.

Iran on Monday threatened to “take a strong step” away from the deal if Europe cannot offer new terms by a deadline at the end of this week.

Iran’s oil exports have been curbed and its economy has faced freefall following crushing US sanctions imposed after Trump withdrew the US from the deal.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif holds talks in Biarritz on August 25, 2019 with France’s President Macron and Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian (Handout photo via AFP)

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has been one of the leading voices in the European Union for dialogue with the Islamic Republic. Last week he arranged the surprise arrival of Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, and proposed a summit between Trump and Rouhani.

Trump showed openness to the notion, a fact that reportedly caused intense concern in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke Friday with Macron, urging him not to negotiate with Iran at the present time.

According to a readout from his office, the premier said that, with Tehran increasing its regional aggression and threatening Israel and others, “now is “precisely not the time” to hold conciliatory talks with the regime.


New US-led patrols in Persian Gulf raise stakes with Iran 

September 3, 2019

Source: New US-led patrols in Persian Gulf raise stakes with Iran | The Times of Israel

Coalition to safeguard oil shipping in strategic route could stumble into ‘accidental escalation’ with Tehran, analysts warn

Multinational ship in formation in the Persian Gulf May 21, 2013, during an International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. (Michael Sandberg/US Navy)

Multinational ship in formation in the Persian Gulf May 21, 2013, during an International Mine Countermeasures Exercise. (Michael Sandberg/US Navy)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — As the US tries a new way to protect shipping across the Persian Gulf amid tensions with Iran, it finds itself sailing into uncertain waters.

For decades, the US has considered the waters of the Persian Gulf as critical to its national security. Through the gulf’s narrow mouth, the Strait of Hormuz, 20% of all crude oil sold passes onto the world market. Any disruption there likely will see energy prices spike.

The US has been willing to use its firepower to ensure that doesn’t happen. It escorted ships here in the so-called 1980s “Tanker War. ” America fought its last major naval battle in these waters in 1988 against Iran.

Now, the US Navy is trying to put together a new coalition of nations to counter what it sees as a renewed maritime threat from Iran.

But Tehran finds itself backed into a corner and ready for a possible conflict it had 30 years for which to prepare. It stands poised this week to further break the terms of its 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, over a year after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord and imposed crippling sanctions on the country.

Mines aboard the ship Iran Ajr are inspected by a boarding party from the USS LaSalle in the Persian Gulf, Sept. 1987. (AP/Mark Duncan)

“It is plausible to imagine a scenario where these forces stumble into some type of accidental escalation,” said Becca Wasser, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp. who studies the region.

The US-led Sentinel Program’s strategy aims to secure the greater Persian Gulf region in a multipart strategy. It includes surveillance of the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, another narrow strait that connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden off Yemen and East Africa. Smaller patrol boats and other craft will be available for rapid response.

The plan also allows for nations to escort their own ships through the region, said Cmdr. Joshua Frey, a spokesman for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet, which oversees the region. For now, the Bahrain-based 5th Fleet is not escorting US-flagged ships through waters, though that remains a possibility, he said.

So far, only Australia, Bahrain and the United Kingdom have said they’ll join the US program. India has begun escorting its own ships independently of the US coalition, while China has suggested it could get involved as well.

Some of what the US plan calls for already falls under the routine operations of the 5th Fleet, which has been in the region since 1995.

US Navy ships coming in and out of the Persian Gulf often find themselves shadowed by Iranian Revolutionary Guard vessels. Some incidents have seen the US fire warning shots or Iranian forces test-fire missiles nearby.

But the new forces, as well as Iran facing growing financial pressure from US sanctions, have raised the stakes for conflict, said Michael Stephens, a senior research fellow who focuses on the Mideast at London’s Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies.

“When you change the chessboard, you are effectively permanently changing the conditions under which you’re operating,” Stephens said. “How you cannot make that look like an escalation is anyone’s guess because it is an escalation.”

Iran itself hasn’t sat still. The Guard, a paramilitary force answerable only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pilot speedboats through the Strait of Hormuz and run drills practicing swarming larger warships. It possesses shore-to-ship missiles. It also, according to US officials, has special forces capable of sneaking up on unsuspecting ships to plant explosive mines.

A pilot speaks to a crew member by an F/A-18 fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea on June 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

One of the immediate dangers is in the response to Iran itself. During the Somali piracy crisis of the 2000s, the rush of navies to the region saw fishermen wrongly targeted for attack in at least one incident, said Salvatore R. Mercogliano, a former merchant mariner and associate professor of history at North Carolina’s Campbell University.

While the Strait of Hormuz is just 33-kilometers (21-miles) wide at its narrowest point, there is a lot of surrounding area to cover for such a force. Trying to run convoys of ships through the areas also would slow down traffic and delay shipments. Meanwhile, the small fast boats of Iran’s Guard easily can be missed among the fishermen and traditional dhow ships moving through the busy waters.

“It’s very easy to get lured one way or another and miss something,” Mercogliano said.

Meanwhile, US authorities warn that ships in the region have reported “spoofed bridge-to-bridge communications from unknown entities falsely claiming to be US or coalition warships.” Ships also have reported interference with their GPS systems, according to the US Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration. That could see ships accidentally enter Iranian territorial waters and offer a pretense for its forces to board.

For mariners in the region, the Strait of Hormuz has been declared a temporary extended risk zone, qualifying them for a bonus and higher death and disability coverage. And while the mariners may be on Western-owned or -flagged vessels, many come from poorer countries in Eastern Europe or Asia.

“The normal seafarers are the ones being caught up in this geopolitical game,” said Jacqueline Smith, the maritime coordinator for International Transportation Workers’ Federation.


IRGC, Al Qods and Hizballah chiefs plot anti-Israel drive at secret Beirut summit – DEBKAfile

September 3, 2019

Source: IRGC, Al Qods and Hizballah chiefs plot anti-Israel drive at secret Beirut summit – DEBKAfile

DEBKAfile Exclusive:  Only an extraordinary errand would have brought two top Iranian generals, IRGC chief Maj. Gen, Hossein Salami and Al Qods’ Qassem Soleimani, flying to Beirut for a secret conclave with Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah. But DEBKAfile reports exclusively that this is what happened on the night of Aug. 22, shortly after the thwarting of Iran’s first attempt to launch 4 killer drones into Israel from Syria.

Our sources report the two key Iranian Guards generals, who were never before known to have flown out of Iran together, spent three and-a-half hours talking to the Hizballah chief before leaving the Lebanese capital as quietly as they came. The content of this singular meeting has not been established for sure by any intelligence agency, but it is generally believed to have been called as a counsel of war to set out a joint program of operations against US and Israeli Middle East targets in the coming weeks.

A partial parallel may be drawn between this event and a meeting 12 years ago.  On July 19, 200, Nasrallah travelled to Damascus to sit down with then Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Syrian President Bashar Assad. They met to outline a common Iranian-Hizballah-Syrian plan of action against Israel as a sequel to the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. This time, Assad was conspicuously absent from the deliberations, evidence of his decision in recent weeks to draw some distance from Tehran and deepen his cooperation with Moscow.

It is also worth noting that Moscow hastened to step into the exchange of fire between Hizballah in Lebanon and the IDF on Sunday, Sept. 1, Russian commanders in Syria carried messages between the warring sides to keep the flareup in check and prevent it escalating into all-out war. This would have damaged Russian interests in Syria.

This and other incidents in the region in the last 10 days were evidently the outcome of last month’s extraordinary summit in Beirut. The process they set in motion is clearly only at its outset.