Archive for January 25, 2020

Iranian FM: We’re still willing to negotiate with US 

January 25, 2020

Source: Iranian FM: We’re still willing to negotiate with US | The Times of Israel

Zarif says despite tensions with Washington, Tehran not ruling out ‘possibility that people will change their approach and recognize the realities’

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addressees a gathering at the All India Association of Industries (AIAI) in Mumbai on January 17, 2020. (Punit PARANJPE / AFP)

Iran is not ruling out negotiations with the United States even after an American drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, the country’s foreign minister said in an interview released Sunday.

Mohammad Javad Zarif told Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine that he would “never rule out the possibility that people will change their approach and recognize the realities,” in an interview conducted Saturday in Tehran.

There has been growing tension between Washington and Tehran since 2018, when President Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran. The US has since reimposed tough sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

But Zarif suggested Iran was still willing to talk, though he reiterated his country’s previous demand that first the US would have to lift sanctions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during talks in Moscow, Russia, December 30, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

“For us, it doesn’t matter who is sitting in the White House, what matters is how they behave,” he said, according to Der Spiegel. “The Trump administration can correct its past, lift the sanctions and come back to the negotiating table. We’re still at the negotiating table. They’re the ones who left.”

Trump has maintained that the 2015 nuclear deal needs to be renegotiated because it didn’t address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its involvement in regional conflicts. The other signatories to the nuclear deal — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — have been struggling to keep it alive.

Following the US drone strike on January 3 that killed Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, Iran announced it would no longer abide by any of the deal’s limitations to its enrichment activities. It then retaliated on January 8, launching ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq housing American troops, causing injuries but no fatalities among soldiers there.

Zarif did suggest Iran was also still prepared for conflict with the US, though he was not specific.

“The US has inflicted great harm on the Iranian people,” he said. “The day will come when they will have to compensate for that. We have a lot of patience.”

A warning from the US

Meanwhile, on Friday, America’s top Iran policy official warned of a repeat of its January 3 killing of Soleimani if the latter’s successor follows in his footsteps and kills Americans.

Esmail Ghaani, who took over command of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force the very day Soleimani was killed, has repeatedly promised to exact “revenge” on the US for the assassination, including in a Tuesday speech where he vowed to “hit his enemies in a manly fashion.”

“If he follows a similar path of killing Americans, he will meet the same fate,” Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, said of Ghaani in an interview published Thursday with the Asharq al-Awsat Arabic-language daily.

“The president has made clear for years that any attacks against American personnel or interests in the region will be met with a decisive response, and the President demonstrated that on January 2nd,” Hook said, according to an English transcript posted by the newspaper.

“So this is not a new threat. The president has always said that he will act decisively in defense of American interests. And I think the regime now understands that they cannot attack America at will and expect to get away with it. So we will hold the regime and its proxies accountable for any attacks on Americans, or on American interests in the region,” Hook said.

US special representative on Iran Brian Hook at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, November 18, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

An Iranian spokesman responded to Hook’s warning by calling it “governmental terrorism.”

“These words are an official announcement and a clear unveiling of America’s targeted and governmental terrorism,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said Thursday, according to Reuters, citing the official IRIB news agency.

Mousavi also urged the international community to condemn the American official’s comments.

In his interview, conducted at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Hook defended the killing of Soleimani and Trump’s combative policies toward the Islamic Republic.

“We took the world’s most dangerous terrorists off the battlefield… and as a consequence, the region is going to be safer because Soleimani was the glue that held together the proxies, and his death will create a void that the regime will not be able to fill,” he said.

Worshipers in Iran chant slogans during Friday prayers ceremony by a banner showing slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani, left, and Iraqi Shiite senior militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone attack on January 3, and a banner which reads in Persian: ‘Death To America,’ at Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

He also insisted Iran had been weakened by US sanctions and pressure.

“Iran is not able to get away with the kind of terrorist attacks that they used to. That doesn’t mean that we’ve eliminated Iran’s ability to conduct asymmetric attacks, but our new policy is making a difference,” Hook said. “The regime has never been weaker financially in its 40-year history, and it has never been under more domestic political unrest than it is now. And this is a consequence of the president’s new approach to Iran.”

In his Monday speech, Ghaani lashed the US strike as a “cowardly act,” saying “there are freedom-seekers across the world who want revenge for him with God’s help, and God willing, we will hit his enemy chivalrously.

“Our enemy understands no language but force and therefore, we should stand against them strongly,” he added, according to the Fars news agency.

The Quds Force is part of the 125,000-strong Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary organization that answers only to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Guard oversees Iran’s ballistic missile program, has its naval forces shadow the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and includes an all-volunteer Basij force.

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, in which Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

Trump ordered the drone strike in Iraq that killed Soleimani. At the time, Trump said the Quds Force head was planning attacks against US troops in the region, though he later stepped back from that assertion.

In response to the drone strike, Iran fired volleys of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases housing US troops. There were no reported casualties at the time but it has since been revealed that 34 US troops suffered traumatic brain injuries.


Pentagon now says 34 troops suffered brain injuries in Iran missile strike

January 25, 2020

Source: Pentagon now says 34 troops suffered brain injuries in Iran missile strike | The Times of Israel

Casualty total at odds with Trump’s claim following attack on bases in Iraq that no US personnel were harmed; army previously said 11 service members suffered concussions

US soldiers stand amid damage at a site of Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base, in Anbar, Iraq, January 13, 2020. (AP/Qassim Abdul-Zahra)

AP — The Pentagon disclosed on Friday that 34 US service members suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iran’s missile strike this month on an Iraqi air base, and although half have returned to work, the casualty total belies US President Donald Trump’s initial claim that no Americans were harmed. He later characterized the injuries as “not very serious.”

Eight of the injured arrived in the United States on Friday from Germany, where they and nine others had been flown days after the January 8 missile strike on Iraq’s Ain al-Asad air base. The nine still in Germany are receiving treatment and evaluation at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest US military hospital outside the continental United States.

Jonathan Hoffman, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said the eight in the US will be treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, or at their home bases. The exact nature of their injuries and their service and unit affiliations were not disclosed.

Trump had initially said he was told that no troops had been injured in the strike, which Iran carried out as retaliation for a US drone strike in Baghdad that killed Iran’s most powerful general, Qassem Soleimani, on January 3. The military said symptoms of concussion or traumatic brain injury were not immediately reported after the strike and in some cases became known days later. Many were in bunkers before nearly a dozen Iranian ballistic missiles exploded in their area.

The question of American casualties took on added importance at the time of the Iranian strike because the degree of damage was seen as influencing a US decision on whether to counterattack and risk a broader war with Iran. Trump chose not to retaliate, and the Iranians then indicated their strike was sufficient for the time being. Tensions have since eased.

After the Pentagon reported on January 17 that 11 service members had been evacuated from Iraq with concussion-like symptoms, Trump said, “I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things… and I can report it is not very serious.” He said he did not consider the injuries to be as severe as those suffered by troops who were hit by roadside bombs in Iraq.

Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and former Army Ranger, called on Trump to apologize.

“TBI is a serious matter,” Reed said in a statement. “It is not a ‘headache,’ and it’s plain wrong for President Trump to diminish their wounds. He may not have meant to disrespect them, but President Trump’s comments were an insult to our troops. He owes them an apology.”

US soldiers stand at the site of an Iranian bombing at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar, Iraq, Monday, Jan. 13, 2020. (AP/Qassim Abdul-Zahra)

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, has become a growing concern for the military in recent years as medical science improves its understanding of the injury’s causes and effects on brain function. It can involve varying degrees of impairment of thinking, memory, vision, hearing and other functions. The severity and duration of the injury can vary widely.

The US Defense Department has said more than 375,000 incidents of TBI occurred in the military between the years 2000 and 2018.

Jefferson Kinney, a neuroscience researcher at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he is chair of the department of brain health, said Friday that much remains to be learned about TBI, including its effects on behavior.

“It depends a lot on how severe the damage is and where the damage is,” among other factors, he said. “There is huge variability across individuals. Some people will undergo a trauma that they seem to recover from very quickly, and others seem to be much more impacted by it for a longer duration.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a severe TBI may lead to death or result in an extended period of coma or amnesia.

Hoffman’s disclosure that 34 had been diagnosed with TBI was the first official update of the number injured since the Pentagon announced the evacuation of the first 11. On January 21, officials said more had been sent out of Iraq for further diagnosis and treatment, but the Pentagon declined to provide firm figures or say whether any had been returned to duty.

US Marines prepare to deploy from Kuwait in support of a crisis response mission, December 31, 2019. (US Marine Corps/Sgt. David Bickel)

Hoffman said that of the 34 with TBI, 18 were evacuated from Iraq to US medical facilities in Germany and Kuwait, and 16 stayed in Iraq. The one American sent to Kuwait has since returned to duty in Iraq. All 16 who stayed in Iraq have since returned to duty there, Hoffman said.

No one was killed in the attack on Ain al-Asad, even though the US had no missile defense systems there to protect from potential attack. Hoffman said Friday that deploying one or more Patriot anti-missile systems to Iraq is among options now being weighed by military commanders. The US had deployed numerous Patriot systems to other countries in the region as protection against Iranian missile attack, including in Saudi Arabia, but a strike on Iraq was seen as less likely.

Some members of Congress this week pressed the Pentagon for more clarity on the scope of the TBI cases resulting from the Iranian attack. Representative Bill Pascrell, a New Jersey Democrat and founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, wrote to senior Pentagon officials on Thursday requesting additional details on casualties from the attack.

On Friday morning, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper directed the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Matthew Donovan, to begin working with the staff of the Joint Chiefs to review how military injuries are tracked and reported — not just TBI cases but battlefield injuries of all kinds, Hoffman told reporters.

“The goal is to be as transparent, accurate, and to provide the American people and our service members with the best information about the tremendous sacrifices our war fighters make,” Hoffman said.


Under Trump deal, Israel said to retain security control over Palestinian state 

January 25, 2020

Source: Under Trump deal, Israel said to retain security control over Palestinian state | The Times of Israel

Offering ostensible new details of imminent plan, TV report says US expects Palestinians to reject it, would encourage them to rethink; Trump says reports on content ‘speculative’

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas pose for a photograph during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Under the terms of the soon-to-be released Trump administration peace plan, Israel would retain overall security control of the entire West Bank even if a Palestinian state is established in parts of it, Israeli TV reports said Friday night.

Adding fresh ostensible details regarding the content of the plan, Channel 13 said it ultimately provides for a demilitarized Palestinian state in some 80 percent of the West Bank, under overall Israeli control. That state would not be empowered to maintain an army and sign military treaties, and Israel would control its borders, further reports on Friday said.

The Channel 13 report said the US expects the Palestinians to reject the plan, but would encourage them to think again, and would say that the 80% of West Bank territory intended for their state would be kept for them for several years.

The various Israeli reports on the plan to date have made no mention of the intended fate of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

US President Donald Trump, who said Thursday that he has invited Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and rival Benny Gantz to the White House next Tuesday to discuss the plan, and that he would likely release it before that meeting, has dismissed reports on its ostensible content as “purely speculative.”

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at cornerstone laying ceremony for the new town Ramat Trump, named for US President Donald Trump in the Golan Heights, June 16, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Israeli reports have described the deal as the “most pro-Israel plan ever presented” by a US administration.

In the Clinton era, prime minister Ehud Barak offered to relinquish over 90% of the West Bank to the Palestinians; in 2008, prime minister Ehud Olmert offered what amounted to 100% of the West Bank with one-for-one land swaps, a capital in East Jerusalem, and the Old City under international control.

US President Clinton, center, accompanied by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, right, walk on the grounds of Camp David, Md. in this July 11, 2000 file photo, during a Mideast summit. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)

Based on what it said were briefings given by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman to various Israeli politicians in recent days, the Channel 13 report also said the Jordan Valley will be defined in the plan as Israel’s eastern security border. If Israel wants to annex that area, however, it would have to give the Palestinians territory in return in the Negev close to the Gaza Strip.

Elaborating on a Channel 12 report Thursday, the Channel 13 item said Israel would annex all 100-plus settlements, but that minor settlements among them would not expand further; building there would be frozen. Dozens of illegal outposts would be evacuated.

Again echoing Thursday’s report, Channel 13 said Israel would be sovereign in Jerusalem — though it added that several Arab neighborhoods formally inside Jerusalem that are located on the West Bank side of the security barrier would go to the Palestinians.

Israel would be sovereign at the Temple Mount and other Old City holy sites, but the Palestinians would have a role in their administration, it said.

Quoting sources in Gantz’s Blue and White party, Channel 13 reported that Israel would not be allowed to start annexing West Bank settlements and other areas unless it accepted the full plan.

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz (R) meets with US Vice President Mike Pence in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (Courtesy)

Gantz, who initially was inclined to accept Trump’s invitation to the White House, is now leaning against going, Friday night TV reports said, regarding the timing of the plan’s release as a “trap,” with the trip likely to be utilized to boost Netanyahu and undermine him ahead of the March 2 elections. Gantz is to make a statement on the issue on Saturday evening.

The Palestinian Authority has preemptively rejected the plan, and is reportedly threatening to cancel its security coordination with Israel in the West Bank if it moves ahead. The PA has had no substantive dealings with the US administration since Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

The US is seeking to encourage allied Arab foreign ministers to attend Tuesday’s White House meeting, thus far to no avail, Channel 12 said.

In its report on the plan Thursday, Channel 12 said it provides for full Israeli sovereignty throughout Jerusalem, for Israel to annex all 100-plus West Bank settlements, and for no significant “return” to Israel of Palestinian refugees. It provides for the establishment of a Palestinian state, but on condition that the Hamas terror group gives up its weapons and the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.

It also said if Israel accepts the plan and the Palestinians reject it, Israel would have US support to begin annexing settlements unilaterally — a detail contradicted in Friday’s Channel 13 report.


US builds up Mid-East strength against rising tension over “Deal of the Century and Iran – DEBKAfile

January 25, 2020

Source: US builds up Mid-East strength against rising tension over “Deal of the Century and Iran – DEBKAfile

The USS Bataan strike group and the 2,400-strong 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit are being deployed to the Mid-East ready for unexpected trouble arising from spiraling tension with Iran and potential reactions to the release of Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” – a plan for an Israel-Palestinian peace –  early next week.

On Friday, Jan. 24, the USS Bataan amphibious assault ship, escorted by two other battleships, had reached the Red Sea opposite the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. They had taken part in a naval exercise with Morocco, which was interrupted for their new mission.

US intelligence watchers believe that Iran is getting ready to expand its assaults on US and allied targets, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, in escalating payback for the US assassination of Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Jan. 3.

On Friday, the Pentagon revealed that 34 US servicemen had suffered “traumatic brain injury” from Iran’s missile strikes on the US Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq on Jan. 8. Earlier, only 11 were reported injured, while President Trump had stated initially that no US troops had been hurt in the attack.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command in the Middle East, speaking from the deck of the Bataan, said, “Although the Soleimani killing was a deterrent, Iran continues to pose a very real threat.”

DEBKAfile’s military sources additionally attribute the latest American military movements to a reassessment of the tasks assigned to the US forces stationed in Iraq. Their new focus has moved to the semiautonomous Kurdish Republic (KRG) in northern Iraq. The three US airbases in other parts of the country, Ain al Asad, Balad and Taiji, will remain in place. However, three new American bases are under construction in Kurdistan.