Archive for November 25, 2020

Israeli military prepares for possibility Trump will strike Iran – Axios

November 25, 2020

Barak Ravid, author of from Tel Aviv

Featured image

Defense Minister Benny Gantz attends a cabinet meeting. Photo: Abir Sultan/POOL/AFP via Getty

The Israel Defense Forces have in recent weeks been instructed to prepare for the possibility that the U.S. will conduct a military strike against Iran before President Trump leaves office, senior Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: The Israeli government instructed the IDF to undertake the preparations not because of any intelligence or assessment that Trump will order such a strike, but because senior Israeli officials anticipate “a very sensitive period” ahead of Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

  • The IDF’s preparedness measures relate to possible Iranian retaliation against Israel directly or through Iranian proxies in Syria, Gaza and Lebanon, the Israeli officials said.

Flashback: Last week, the New York Times reported that Trump raised the possibility of attacking Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz in a meeting with senior members of his national security team.

  • Trump raised the idea after being briefed on an International Atomic Energy Agency report about Iran’s growing stockpiles of enriched uranium, but top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — warned about the risks of regional escalation, per the Times.
  • Trump seemed convinced that it would be too risky to strike Iran directly, but has considered other options, the Times reports.

What’s happening: Israeli minister of defense Benny Gantz spoke twice in the last two weeks with Christopher Miller, Trump’s acting defense secretary. They discussed Iran as well as Syria and defense cooperation.

  • Last Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Saudi Arabia with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. One of the main issues discussed was Iran, Israeli officials say.
  • Pompeo visited Israel and several Gulf countries last week to discuss Iran. State Department officials traveling with Pompeo told reporters “all options are on the table.”
  • While Pompeo was in the Gulf, U.S. Central Command announced that B-52 strategic bombers conducted a “short-notice, long-range mission into the Middle East to deter aggression and reassure U.S. partners and allies.” That was seen as another signal to Iran.
  • Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Iran’s leader and a possible candidate in Iran’s upcoming presidential elections, told AP last week that a U.S. military strike against Iran could set off a “full-fledged war” in the Middle East.

What’s next: Senior Israeli officials tell me they expect Israel will get prior notice ahead of any U.S. strike against Iran. But they’re concerned that won’t be sufficient to fully prepare. Thus the order to the IDF to start taking preparatory steps under the assumption that such a scenario is possible.

Netanyahu, Mossad chief fly to Saudi, hold first known meet with crown prince

November 25, 2020


Groundbreaking meeting said held in presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is seeking to persuade Riyadh to normalize ties with Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish New Year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

By TOI STAFF23 November 2020, 9:42 amUpdated at 2:11 pm  3Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad head Yossi Cohen during a toast for the Jewish New Year on October 2, 2017. (Haim Zach/GPO)

In the first visit of its kind, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Saudi Arabia on Sunday, where he met with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Israeli and Saudi officials said Monday.

Netanyahu was on the ground in Neom, a Red Sea city, for more than three hours for the first known high-level meeting between an Israeli and Saudi leader. He was accompanied by Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen, Hebrew media reports said.

News of the meeting was confirmed early Monday afternoon by Education Minister Yoav Gallant. “I congratulate the prime minister on this amazing achievement,” Gallant said on Army Radio. “The fact that the meeting took place and was made public — even if it was in only a semiofficial way — is something of great importance.” He said it indicated the growing “warm acceptance of Israel by the Sunni world,” and that this was “something our ancestors dreamed about.”

Two Saudi advisers also confirmed the talks.

Pompeo earlier on Monday said he had held a “constructive” meeting with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince the night before, as he wrapped up a seven-nation tour that included stops in Israel and Gulf nations. He made no mention of the presence of the Israeli leader.

“Pleasure to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Our security and economic partnership is strong and we’ll continue to harness it to advance efforts to counter malign Iranian influence in the Gulf, economic goals under the Vision 2030 plan, and human rights reform,” tweeted the top American diplomat, describing the meeting as “constructive.”US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John Abizaid, left, and Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan, second from left, greet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan as they arrive at Neom Bay Airport in Neom, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 22, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

There was no formal announcement by the participants about the meeting. However, in a hint at the trip, an aide to Netanyahu tweeted a report about Defense Minister Benny Gantz launching a probe into a naval acquisitions scandal, writing that “Gantz is playing politics while the prime minister is making peace.”

Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri demanded an explanation from Saudi Arabia, calling the alleged visit “an insult to the nation and an invitation to attack Palestinian rights.”

The Kan public broadcaster reported that the talks focused on Iran and the incoming Biden administration.

Netanyahu and Cohen traveled to Saudi Arabia on the private plane of businessman Ehud Angel — the same jet that the prime minister used for a covert visit to Oman last year, according to Kan.

First reports of Netanyahu’s trip came after Twitter users noticed that a private jet had made a rare trip between Tel Aviv and Neom on Sunday evening, sparking speculation of a high-level meeting.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1330738145667772416&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timesofisrael.com%2Fnetanyahu-mossad-chief-said-to-travel-to-saudi-arabia-meet-with-crown-prince%2F&siteScreenName=timesofisrael&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

ABSOLUTELY rare Israeli flight direct to new Saudi mega-city Neom on Red Sea shore

It was Bibi’s ex-fav bizjet t7-cpx. Back to Tel Aviv after 5 hours on ground pic.twitter.com/Ty9aedYbsK

— avi scharf (@avischarf) November 23, 2020

Netanyahu had originally been slated to hold a meeting of his coronavirus cabinet meeting on Sunday night but pushed it off by a day, saying groundwork still needed to be completed.

Gantz, who was kept in the dark about efforts to establish ties with the UAE and Bahrain, had complained earlier on Sunday that he was not informed about the coronavirus cabinet meeting being moved.

An Israeli official told Hebrew media that neither Gantz nor Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, also of the Blue and White party, were given advance notice of Netanyahu’s trip to Saudi Arabia.

The  trip by the Israeli leader to Saudi Arabia marked a watershed moment in shifting Gulf ties with Israel, which have been bolstered in recent months at the urging of the Trump administration.

Netanyahu in May 2019 made a secret visit to Oman, another Gulf country with which Israel does not have diplomatic ties.

Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia are believed to have been growing in recent years. The shift in policy has reportedly been led by the crown prince, who sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

The Trump administration has hoped Saudi Arabia would join the UAE and Bahrain in recognizing Israel and forging diplomatic ties, a move seen as increasingly distant in the wake of Joe Biden’s election as US president. But Saudi leaders have hitherto indicated that Israeli-Palestinian peace will have to come first.

“We have supported normalization with Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians,” Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said on Sunday.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1330480027239149569&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timesofisrael.com%2Fnetanyahu-mossad-chief-said-to-travel-to-saudi-arabia-meet-with-crown-prince%2F&siteScreenName=timesofisrael&theme=light&widgetsVersion=ed20a2b%3A1601588405575&width=550px

#SaudiArabia: ‘We have supported normalization with #Israel for a long time, but one very important thing must happen first: a permanent and full peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians,’ says Prince @FaisalbinFarhan, Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs: pic.twitter.com/nKVDJfnxUX

— i24NEWS English (@i24NEWS_EN) November 22, 2020

In late October, when President Donald Trump announced that Israel and Sudan would be making peace, he predicted that Saudi Arabia would soon follow. During a call with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sudan Sovereign Council president General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, Trump brought reporters into the Oval Office, announced that “The State of Israel and the Republic of Sudan have agreed to make peace,” and told reporters there were another five countries “that want to come in.”

“We expect Saudi Arabia will be one of those countries,” Trump added, as he praised the country’s “highly respected” rulers King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.In this May 20, 2017, file photo, US President Donald Trump (right) shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

When the White House announced in August that the United Arab Emirates and Israel had agreed to establish full diplomatic ties — a move matched by Bahrain weeks later — Saudi Arabia refrained from criticizing the deal or hosting summits condemning the decision, despite Palestinian requests to do so. The Palestinians have slammed the agreements as a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause,” but government-controlled Saudi media hailed them as historic and good for regional peace.

The kingdom also approved the use of Saudi airspace for Israeli flights to the UAE, a decision announced the day after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with the crown prince in Riyadh. Kushner has been pushing Arab states to normalize ties with Israel and has said that the Jewish state could eventually enjoy fully normalized relations with Saudi Arabia.

The outgoing US administration and Israel are also seeking to step up pressure on Iran in the final days of the Trump White House.

Trump has yet to concede to Biden.

‘We can’t trust foreigners’: Khamenei warns against hopes of ‘opening’ with West

November 25, 2020

Iran’s supreme leader suggests Islamic Republic can’t rely on new US administration, despite Biden pledge to reenter 2015 nuclear accord

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the Eid al-Adha holiday, in Tehran, Iran, July 31, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

By AFP and TOI STAFF24 November 2020, 6:29 pm  0Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addresses the nation in a televised speech marking the Eid al-Adha holiday, in Tehran, Iran, July 31, 2020. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader cautioned Tuesday against hopes of a diplomatic “opening” with the West, after President Hassan Rouhani’s government signaled a willingness to engage with US President-elect Joe Biden.

Biden, who defeated Donald Trump at the ballot box on November 3, has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under the departing US president.

At a meeting with Rouhani, parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf and judicial chief Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “we can’t trust foreigners and hope for an opening on their part.”

“We tried to lift sanctions once and negotiated for several years, but to no avail,” his office quoted him as saying, in reference to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

The agreement that gave Iran relief from sanctions in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program has been hanging by a thread since 2018 when Trump unilaterally withdrew and reimposed punitive measures.

In response, the Islamic Republic has gradually reduced its commitments to the deal.

Since Biden’s election victory, the Rouhani government has sent out signals on multiple occasions indicating it is ready to open up with the incoming US administration.US President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, speaks at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware, Nov. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

But Khamenei warned that “the situation in the United States is not clear and the Europeans are constantly taking a stand against Iran,” according to the statement from his office.

Biden, who was vice president to Barack Obama when the 2015 accord was signed, has said that he plans to return to the agreement as a basis for further negotiations with Iran.

He has argued that Trump’s withdrawal from the deal signaled to American allies that it could not be trusted to hold agreements and that while the accord may not have been perfect, it had been effective in blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

Since Trump pulled out of the accord and began imposing crushing economic sanctions on Tehran, the Islamic Republic has retaliated by producing more and more highly enriched fissile material in violation of the agreement, getting closer and closer to a bomb, while still leaving room for a return to negotiations.Iran’s uranium conversion facility near Isfahan, which reprocesses uranium ore concentrate into uranium hexafluoride gas, which is then taken to Natanz and fed into the centrifuges for enrichment, March 30, 2005. (AP/Vahid Salemi)

The UN’s atomic watchdog agency said earlier this month that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium far beyond the limits set in the accord and to enrich it to a greater purity than permitted.

Earlier this week, Iran’s foreign minister said that Tehran was willing to return to the deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on against reengaging with Iran on the nuclear deal, saying, “There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.”

His comments echoed his bitter opposition to the 2015 deal when it was being negotiated by the Obama administration, and contrast starkly with Biden’s pledge to “rejoin” the accord.

Israel demands UN Security Council action against Iranian presence in Syria

November 25, 2020

Following border incidents blamed on Tehran’s Quds Force, UN envoy Erdan says attacks violate 1974 agreement, risk regional escalation

A combat engineer removes three anti-personnel mines that Israel says were planted inside Israeli-controlled territory along the border with Syria, on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

By TOI STAFFToday, 9:07 am  2A combat engineer removes three anti-personnel mines that Israel says were planted inside Israeli-controlled territory along the border with Syria, on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

By TOI STAFFToday, 9:07 am  2A combat engineer removes three anti-personnel mines that Israel says were planted inside Israeli-controlled territory along the border with Syria, on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel’s UN Ambassador Gilad Erdan on Tuesday night demanded that the Security Council take action against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, following several incidents in which improvised explosive devices were planted on the Israeli side of the border, allegedly by forces controlled by Tehran.

The Israel Defense Forces has blamed a unit in Iran’s elite Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, for planting three anti-personnel mines in Israeli territory along the border with Syria on November 17, drawing retaliatory Israeli strikes.

The uncovered mines were planted within Israeli territory, but on the Syrian side of the security fence, an area where Israeli troops routinely conduct patrols, indicating that the explosives were meant to be used against those soldiers. IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters last week that the mines were planted by Syrian nationals who live near the border, at the instruction of the IRGC Quds Force.

The military has said that Quds Force’s Unit 840 was also behind a similar attempt in August by four armed men to plant explosives inside an unmanned military outpost along the border. The four were killed by IDF troops when they crossed into Israeli territory.

On Tuesday, Erdan wrote an official letter to Security Council President Inga Rhonda King and to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, charging that the actions were in “direct violation” of a 1974 Disengagement Agreement between Israel and Syria, which ended the Yom Kippur War and created a buffer zone along the border.

Then-public security minister Gilad Erdan, at a press conference on January 2, 2019. (Flash90)

Erdan said that the deputy commander of UNDOF, the UN peacekeeping force along the Israel-Syria border, has been provided with details and evidence of the attempted attacks.

“These incidents, conducted by Iran’s proxies in Syria (IRGC Quds Force, Unit 840), prove once again that Syrian territory, including the Area of Separation (AOS), is being abused by hostile elements,” Erdan wrote.

“The Syrian regime continues to allow Iran and its proxies to use its territory, including military facilities and infrastructure, to entrench its presence in Syria and undermine efforts to maintain stability in the region,” he added.

“These activities constitute a serious and blatant violation of the Disengagement Agreement (1974); carry the potential for serious escalation in the region; and pose a risk not only to the local civilian population, but also to the UN personnel on the ground.

“Israel expects a thorough investigation of these incidents by UNDOF and an appropriate report to the Security Council Members,” Erdan said.

“Israel calls upon the Security Council to condemn these recurring dangerous acts and demands a total rollback of Iran and its proxies from Syria and the removal of Iranian military infrastructure from Syrian territory.”Three anti-personnel mines that Israel says were planted inside Israeli-controlled territory along the border with Syria, which were uncovered on November 17, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel views a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria as an unacceptable threat, which it will take military action to prevent.

The IDF has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.

Alexander Fulbright and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

Iran’s parliament demands construction of heavy water reactor

November 25, 2020


In defiance of international sanctions on nuclear program and amid European criticism, bill also calls for operating metal uranium production plant

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIESToday, 10:07 am  1Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the nuclear site, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, December 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

Iran’s parliament on Tuesday passed a bill requiring the country’s atomic agency to build a new heavy water reactor and operate a metal uranium production plant as part of efforts to challenge international sanctions on its nuclear program, state media reported.

The parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission spokesman, Abolfazl Amouei, was quoted by various Iranian news outlets as saying the bill was officially called “Strategic Action to Lift Sanctions.”

He said the law requires the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran to redesign and optimize a new 40-megawatt heavy water reactor in Arak within four months.

Since US President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal with world powers and began imposing crushing economic sanctions on Tehran, the Islamic Republic has retaliated by producing more and more highly enriched fissile material in violation of the agreement, getting closer and closer to a bomb, while still leaving room for a return to negotiations.

The UN’s atomic watchdog agency said earlier this month that Iran continues to increase its stockpile of low-enriched uranium far beyond the limits set in the accord and to enrich it to a greater purity than permitted.

German Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Andrea Sasse said this week that Iran was systematically violating the accord, ahead of a meeting between the German, French and British foreign ministers on the matters.

In this November 10, 2020 photo, US President-elect Joe Biden at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

US President-elect Joe Biden has said he hopes to return the US to the accord, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear activities in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions.

Biden has argued that Trump’s withdrawal from the deal signaled to American allies that the US could not be trusted to stick to agreements and that while the accord may not have been perfect, it had been effective at blocking Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon.

Taking a step back from the brink, Iran’s foreign minister said last week that Tehran was willing to return to the deal if Biden lifts sanctions on Iran after entering the White House.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned against reengaging with Iran on the nuclear deal, saying, “There can be no going back to the previous nuclear agreement. We must stick to an uncompromising policy of ensuring that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons.”

His comments echoed his bitter opposition to the deal when it was being negotiated by the Obama administration, and contrast starkly with Biden’s pledge to “rejoin” the accord.