Archive for October 2020

Trump approves selling F-22 Raptor to Israel — report

October 31, 2020

Newspaper says US is okaying sale of the advanced stealth aircraft to maintain the Jewish state’s military superiority, after announcing plans to sell F-35s to UAE

Illustrative: Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Air National Guard/ Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott via Department of Defense)

Illustrative: Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018. (Air National Guard/ Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott via Department of Defense)

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper told Israeli officials during a visit to Israel this week that the Trump administration has approved selling F-22 stealth fighters to the Jewish state, according to a Friday report.

US President Donald Trump okayed the sale of the F-22 Raptor and precision-guided bombs to Israel, the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported, citing senior sources in Tel Aviv.

Israeli defense officials requested to buy the F-22 — one of the world’s most advanced fighter jets — to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region after the US agreed to sell F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates, Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Israel had previously expressed interest in buying the F-22, but the US declined, the report said. The US halted production of the fighter in 2011 and legally barred its sale to foreign countries.

Esper and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have met three times in just over a month, including Esper’s visit to Tel Aviv on Thursday. Esper also met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Ministry Director-General Amir Eshel and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi during the trip.

“They discussed the imperative to maintain regional security and stability and to confront Iran,” Gantz’s office said.

A source familiar with the meeting, who requested anonymity, told AFP that Gantz and Esper built on the discussions held in Washington last week on “making progress toward upgrading Israel’s qualitative military edge” following “developments in the region.”

US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meet at the Israel Aerospace Industries in Tel Aviv on October 29, 2020. (Paul Handley/AFP)

Last week and in late September, Gantz traveled to Washington for high-level meetings with Esper and other American defense officials on ways to offset the damage to Israel’s military edge by the proposed sale of the state-of-the-art, fifth-generation aircraft to the UAE.

Esper and Gantz signed an agreement in Washington last week that reaffirmed American commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, the technical term for military superiority in the Middle East, in light of the proposed sale of American F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE.

Though the US has agreed generally to maintain Israeli military supremacy in the region, no deals have yet been signed for specific weapon systems or defense programs. These will likely focus on the sale of additional fighter jets, helicopters and air defense systems to Israel, a senior defense official familiar with the negotiations told reporters last week.

The White House updated Congress on Thursday of its intent to sell F-35s to the UAE.

The informal notification to the House Foreign Affairs Committee revealed that the White House plans to sell as many as 50 units of the Lockheed Martin-made jets for roughly $10.4 billion, a senior congressional staffer told The Times of Israel. Israel has ordered the same number of F-35s from the US, though not all of them have been transferred yet.

Reports of the US intention to sell the aircraft to the UAE began days after Abu Dhabi agreed to normalize ties with Israel following negotiations brokered by the White House.

Israeli and American F-35 fighter jets take part in a joint exercise over southern Israel on March 29, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

US and Israeli officials have asserted the F-35 sale was not directly tied to normalization, but White House officials have acknowledged that the peace deal signed last month placed the UAE in a better position to purchase the advanced aircraft, which only Israel has in the Middle East.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially voiced opposition to the sale, but last Friday reversed his position, issuing a statement saying it would not oppose US plans to provide “certain weapon systems” to the UAE.

Asked to comment on the Congressional notification, Netanyahu told reporters Thursday that it followed extensive talks between the US and Israel during which Jerusalem received “more than just security” in the assurances from the US that its military superiority in the region would be maintained.

“We are facing a joint threat,” he said, apparently suggesting that the US could sell such weapons to the UAE with Israel’s blessing, given their common enemy of Iran.

The proposed sale of the F-35 to Abu Dhabi has become a hot-button issue in Israel in light of allegations that Netanyahu had told the United States that Jerusalem would not oppose such a move as part of a normalization agreement with the UAE brokered by the White House. Netanyahu has repeatedly denied that the F-35 sale was part of the deal with the Emiratis.

Gantz has publicly accused Netanyahu of holding negotiations regarding the sale of advanced weapons by the US to countries in the region behind the back of the Defense Ministry.

UN watchdog says Iran building new underground nuclear facility

October 27, 2020

IAEA says centrifuge structure meant to replace Natanz plant hit by mysterious explosion over summer; Tehran had promised to replace site with more secure one in mountains

Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/ AP/File)

Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April, 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/ AP/File)

BERLIN, Germany (AP) — Inspectors from the UN’s atomic watchdog have confirmed Iran has started building an underground centrifuge assembly plant after its previous one exploded in what Tehran called a sabotage attack over the summer, the agency’s head told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

Iran also continues to stockpile greater amounts of low-enriched uranium, but does not appear to possess enough to produce a weapon, Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told the AP in an interview in Berlin.

Following the July explosion at the Natanz nuclear site, Tehran said it would build a new, more secure, structure in the mountains around the area. Satellite pictures of Natanz analyzed by experts have yet to show any obvious signs of construction at the site in Iran’s central Isfahan province.

“They have started, but it’s not completed,” Grossi said. “It’s a long process.”

He would not give further details, saying it’s “confidential information.” Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Iran said last month it had identified those responsible for the sabotage at the Natanz facility, but did not provide further details. Foreign media reports have attributed the explosion, which they said badly damaged an advanced centrifuge development and assembly plant, to Israel or the US.

The explosion was one of a series of mysterious blasts at Iranian strategic sites around the same time, which were largely attributed to either Washington, Jerusalem, or both.

Reports in August had indicated that Iran was moving to boost uranium enrichment at Natanz. A document from the International Atomic Energy Agency said new advanced centrifuges were being moved from a pilot facility to a new area of the nuclear facility.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear department, last month told state television the destroyed above-ground facility was being replaced with one “in the heart of the mountains around Natanz.”

Natanz hosts the country’s main uranium enrichment facility. In its long underground halls, centrifuges rapidly spin uranium hexafluoride gas to enrich uranium.

Natanz became a flashpoint for Western fears about Iran’s nuclear program in 2002, when satellite photos showed Iran building an underground facility at the site, some 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, Tehran. In 2003, the IAEA visited Natanz, which Iran said would house centrifuges for its nuclear program, buried under some 7.6 meters (25 feet) of concrete. That offers protection from potential airstrikes on the site, which also is guarded by anti-aircraft positions.

Natanz had been targeted by the Stuxnet computer virus previously, which was believed to be a creation of the US and Israel. Iran has yet to say who it suspects of carrying out the sabotage in the July incident. Suspicion has fallen on Israel as well, despite a claim of responsibility by a previously unheard-of group at the time.

Under the provisions of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with world powers known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran is allowed to produce a certain amount of enriched uranium for non-military purposes.

In return, Iran was offered economic incentives by the countries involved.

Since US President Donald Trump pulled the US unilaterally out of the deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, however, the other signatories — Germany, France, Britain, Russia and China — have been struggling to keep the deal alive.

Rafael Grossi, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, prepares for the opening of the IAEA Board Meeting at the agency’s headquarters in Vienna, Austria on March 9, 2019. (Joe Klamar/AFP)

Meanwhile, Iran has been steadily exceeding the deal’s limits on how much uranium it can stockpile, the purity to which it can enrich uranium and other restrictions to pressure those countries to come up with a plan to offset US sanctions.

Iran has continued to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities, including Natanz, Grossi said.

In the latest IAEA quarterly report, the agency reported Iran as of Aug. 25 had stockpiled 2,105.4 kilograms (4,641.6 pounds) of low-enriched uranium, well above the 202.8 kilograms (447.1 pounds) allowed under the JCPOA. It was also enriching uranium to a purity of 4.5%, higher than the 3.67% allowed under the deal.

In the next report, due in coming weeks, Grossi said: “We continue to see the same trend that we have seen so far.”

According to a widely cited analysis by the Washington-based Arms Control Association, Iran would need roughly 1,050 kilograms (1.16 tons) of low-enriched uranium — under 5% purity — in gas form and would then need to enrich it further to weapons-grade, or more than 90% purity, to make a nuclear weapon.

The IAEA’s current assessment is, however, that Iran does not at the moment possess a “significant quantity” of uranium — defined by the agency as enough to produce a bomb — according to Grossi.

“At the moment, I’m not in contact with my inspectors, but by memory, I wouldn’t say so,” he said.

“All of these are projections and the IAEA is not into speculation,” he added. “What may happen? What could happen? We are inspectors, we say the amounts that we see.”

Iran insists it has no interest in producing a bomb, and Grossi noted that before the JCPOA, Iran had enriched its uranium up to 20% purity, which is just a short technical step away from the weapons-grade level of 90%. And in 2013, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium was already more than 7,000 kilograms (7.72 tons) with higher enrichment, but it didn’t pursue a bomb.

Centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran, November 5, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

“The idea of a ‘significant quantity’ is a technical parameter… that applies in the context of the safeguards agreement to indicate amounts which could be theoretically used for the development of a nuclear weapon,” he said.

“The fact that there could be such an amount would not indicate automatically that a nuclear weapon is being fabricated, so I think we have to be very careful when we use these terms.”

Grossi personally visited Tehran in late August for meetings with top officials and managed to break a months-long impasse over two locations thought to be from the early 2000s where Iran was suspected of having stored or used undeclared nuclear material and possibly conducted nuclear-related activities.

Inspectors have now taken samples from both of those sites, and Grossi said they are still undergoing lab analysis.

“It was a constructive solution to a problem what we were having,” he said. “And I would say since then we have kept the good level of cooperation in the sense that our inspectors are regularly present and visiting the sites.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Iran says UN arms embargo on Tehran has ended

October 18, 2020

5 years after nuclear deal took effect, ‘all restrictions on transfer of arms terminated,’ Islamic Republic says, hailing world’s position ‘in defiance of US regime’s efforts’

A Shahab-3 surface-to-surface missile is on display at an exhibition by Iran's army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

A Shahab-3 surface-to-surface missile is on display at an exhibition by Iran’s army and paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran — A longstanding UN embargo on arms sales to and from Iran expired early Sunday in line with a 2015 landmark nuclear deal, the Iranian foreign ministry said.

“As of today, all restrictions on the transfer of arms, related activities and financial services to and from the Islamic Republic of Iran … are all automatically terminated,” the ministry said in a statement.

The embargo on the sale of arms to Iran was due to start expiring progressively from Sunday, October 18, under the terms of the UN resolution that blessed the 2015 nuclear deal between the Islamic republic and world powers.

“As of today, the Islamic Republic may procure any necessary arms and equipment from any source without any legal restrictions, and solely based on its defensive needs,” the ministry added in the statement sent out on Twitter.

This photo released by the semi-official Fars News Agency shows Iranian troops participating in a military drill near the strategic Strait of Hormuz, Iran, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020. Units from the navy, air force and ground forces are participating in a nearly 2 million-square-kilometer (772,200-square-mile) area of the Gulf of Oman. (Mehdi Marizad/Fars News Agency via AP)

It insisted that under the terms of the deal, struck with the United States, China, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union, “the lifting of arms restrictions and the travel ban were designed to be automatic with no other action required.”

US President Donald Trump withdrew his country from the deal in 2018 and has unilaterally begun reimposing sanctions on Iran.

But Washington suffered a setback in August when it failed to win support from the United Nations Security Council to indefinitely extend the arms embargo.

In this July 20, 2015, file photo, members of the Security Council vote at United Nations headquarters on the landmark nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers. (AP/Seth Wenig, File)

It was “a momentous day for the international community,” the Iranian ministry said on Sunday, adding the world had stood with Tehran “in defiance of the US regime’s efforts.”

But it stressed that “unconventional arms, weapons of mass destruction and a buying spree of conventional arms have no place in Iran’s defense doctrine.”

Despite pulling out of the deal, the Trump administration insists it is still a “participant” and can therefore go ahead with reimposing sanctions.

Washington has said it has decided to unilaterally reinstate virtually all of the UN sanctions on Iran lifted under the accord.

But the US legal argument has been rejected by almost the entire UN Security Council, with European allies of the United States saying the priority is to salvage a peaceful solution to Iran’s nuclear program.

Moscow said in September that it was ready to boost its military cooperation with Tehran, while Beijing has also spoken of its willingness to sell arms to Iran after October 18.

Washington maintained it will seek to prevent Iran from purchasing Chinese tanks and Russian air defense systems.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said in a tweet that the international community had “protected” the nuclear deal and Sunday marked the “normalization of Iran’s cooperation with the world.”

Iran’s nuclear chief has COVID-19; country sees highest daily virus death toll

October 11, 2020

Ali Akbar Salehi said to be in good condition at home; Tehran announces 251 fatalities in 1 day with nearly 4,500 critical patients, as currency crashes to record low

By AGENCIESToday, 3:20 pm  0File: The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi delivers his speech at opening of the general conference of the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, September 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

The head of Iran’s atomic energy organization is the latest senior official to test positive for the coronavirus, the semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported Sunday.

According to the report, Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also a vice president of Iran, confirmed positive for the virus last week and has been in home quarantine since. The news agency reported that his health condition is currently good.

Meanwhile, a separate report by Tasnim news agency said the country’s vice president in charge of budget and planning, Mohammad Bagher Nobakht, had also tested positive for the virus.

Iran has seen several top officials contract the virus over past months, including senior Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri and Vice President Massoumeh Ebtekar. A number of Cabinet ministers have also tested positive, including Tourism Minister Ali Asghar Mounesan and the former Industry Minister Reza Rahmani.

The head of an Iranian government task force on the coronavirus who had urged the public not to overreact about its spread was among the first senior officials to contract the virus in late February.

People wearing protective face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walk on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Sept. 20, 2020 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Iran announced on Sunday its highest single-day death toll from the coronavirus with 251 confirmed dead, the same day the nation’s currency hit a record low.

Health Ministry spokesperson Sima Sadat Lari said the total confirmed death toll now stands at 28,544, making it the hardest-hit country in the region. Iran had previously recorded its highest daily death toll four days earlier with 239 new fatalities.

A further 3,822 new cases were confirmed over the past 24-hour period, raising recorded nationwide cases to 500,075. Nearly 4,500 patients are in critical condition.

A woman wearing mask and gloves prays at the grave of her mother who died from the coronavirus, at a cemetery in the outskirts of the city of Babol, in northern Iran, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

The virus first appeared in Iran at the same time the government was trying to shore up support for the country’s parliamentary elections, which saw the lowest voter turnout since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought its clerical leadership to power.

Iran has struggled to contain the spread of the virus across the nation of 80 million people, initially beating it back only to see a spike in cases again, beginning in June.

President Hassan Rouhani announced on Saturday that the country would start imposing fines for breaches of health regulations in Tehran. Iran had previously held back from using fines to enforce mask-wearing in public and other health protocols.

The government has largely resisted imposing wide-scale lockdowns as the economy teeters from continued US economic sanctions that effectively bar Iran from selling its oil internationally.

Money exchange shops in Tehran sold the US dollar at 315,000 rials on Sunday, compared to what was 32,000 rials to the dollar at the time of Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.405An Iranian woman checks a display board at a currency exchange shop as she walks by in the capital Tehran, on September 29, 2020 (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

The currency plummeted further on Sunday days after the Trump administration’s decision to blacklist 18 Iranian banks that had so far escaped the bulk of re-imposed sanctions.

The move subjects non-Iranian financial institutions to penalties for doing business with them, effectively cutting the banks off from the international financial system.

US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2018 and reimposed crushing economic sanctions.