Archive for January 3, 2021

Iran warns Lebanon, Gaza terror groups can ‘level Haifa, Tel Aviv to the ground’

January 3, 2021


Revolutionary Guards’ commander says proxies ready for ‘confrontation,’ with their missile capabilities supported by Tehran

By TOI STAFFToday, 12:59 pm  0

Israeli civilians under cover following a Hezbollah rocket attack in Haifa, August 11 , 2006. (photo credit: Flash90)

Israeli civilians under cover following a Hezbollah rocket attack in Haifa, August 11 , 2006. (photo credit: Flash90)

A top Iranian commander said Saturday that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had given an order for Tehran-backed terror groups to destroy Haifa and Tel Aviv if “any foolishness is committed against Iran,” warning that the Islamic Republic has been working for years on developing the capabilities of its proxies in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip.

“We teach the Resistance Front to make fishing rods, instead of providing fish, and Lebanon and Gaza possess the technology to manufacture missiles,” Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force told the state-run Al-Manar TV channel.

“All the missile capabilities of Gaza and Lebanon have been supported by Iran, and they are the front line for confrontation,” he said.

Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition by email and never miss our top storiesFREE SIGN UP

Noting that “the capabilities of the resistance axis” are much advanced from what they were ten years ago Hajizadeh said, “today, the Palestinians fire rockets instead of throwing stones.”

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guard’s aerospace division, attends a mourning ceremony for general Qassem Soleimani on January 9, 2020, a day after his forces shot down a Ukrainian airliner, in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

“We have a general order from the guide, Ali Khamenei, to level Haifa and Tel Aviv to the ground, in case any foolishness is committed against Iran, and we have worked over the past years to be able to do so,” he said.

Iran provides support to Hamas and more direct backing to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, all of which are sworn to Israel’s destruction.

Haifa and Tel Aviv have been threatened in the past by both Iran and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently suggested striking Haifa’s stores of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer that fueled the deadly Beirut port blast in August that killed 193 people and wounded 6,500 others.

The comments came as the Israeli military is preparing for the possibility of a strike by Iran-backed militias in Iraq or Yemen, according to a Friday report. The Israel Defense Forces held discussions last week about possible attacks, including missile and drone strikes, from the Iraqi militias and Houthi groups in Yemen, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Iran on Sunday marked one year since the death of General Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike in Baghdad, amid fears in Washington that Tehran could retaliate for the killing on the anniversary.

US officials have expressed concern that Iran may be planning attacks against US-allied targets in neighboring Iraq or elsewhere in the region to coincide with the date. In recent weeks the US military has taken a range of steps designed to deter Iran, while publicly emphasizing that it is not planning, and has not been instructed, to take unprovoked action against Iran.

US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against any attack, and the US has flown strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf in a show of force meant to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East. A US nuclear submarine crossed the Strait of Hormuz and an Israeli submarine reportedly openly crossed the Suez Canal in a show of force directed at Iran a few days earlier.

Iranian officials have issued a stream of threats against the US and Israel as the anniversary of Soleimani’s death approached, while accusing Trump of seeking a “pretext” for war.Supporters of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitary pose before a banner showing a montage of (L to R) slain Iraqi PMF commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iranian Quds Force Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Lebanese Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh during a demonstration outside the entrance to the Iraqi capital Baghdad’s highly-fortified Green Zone on November 7, 2020, demanding the departure of remaining US forces from Iraq. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP)

The US killed Soleimani, who oversaw the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, and others in the January 3, 2020, strike near Baghdad International Airport. It came after months of incidents raising tensions between the two countries and ultimately saw Iran retaliate with a ballistic missile strike targeting American troops in Iraq.

Iran has also threatened to attack Israel since the assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in late November, in a raid blamed on the Jewish state.

Israel has long been suspected of carrying out a series of targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists nearly a decade ago, in a bid to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran says has ‘finger on trigger’ to enrich uranium to 20% ‘as soon as possible’

January 3, 2021


Tehran nuclear chief issues warning amid heightened tensions day ahead of one-year anniversary of Soleimani’s killing in US drone strike

By AGENCIES and TOI STAFF2 January 2021, 12:07 pm  0

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)

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)

Iran said Saturday it plans to enrich uranium up to 20 percent at its underground Fordo nuclear facility “as soon as possible,” pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels as it increases pressure on the West over the tattered atomic deal.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the US-educated head of the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, offered a military analogy to describe his agency’s readiness to take the next step.

“We are like soldiers and our fingers are on the triggers,” Salehi told Iranian state television. “The commander should command and we shoot. We are ready for this and will produce [20% enriched uranium] as soon as possible.”

The move comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US in the waning days of the administration of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal in 2018, and ahead of the Sunday anniversary of a US drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad a year ago, that has American officials now worried about possible retaliation by Iran.

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)

Iran informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that it intends to produce uranium enriched to up to 20% purity, well beyond the threshold set by the 2015 Vienna accord, the UN nuclear watchdog said Friday.

“Iran informed the agency of its intention to enrich uranium at a rate of up to 20 percent in its Fordo underground plant, to comply with a law recently passed by the Iranian parliament,” an IAEA spokesperson said.

The letter dated December 31 “did not state exactly when this enrichment activity would begin,” the spokesperson added.

Iran has not enriched to such levels since it entered into the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which capped its enrichment at 3.67%. Tehran has recently broken that limit as the nuclear deal has disintegrated, reaching 4.5%.

Uranium enriched to 20% is far below the 90% needed to construct nuclear bombs, but the jump from 20% to 90% is actually rather quick compared to the work needed to move from 4% to 20%.

Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and his comrades, who were killed in Iraq in a US drone strike, in the city of Kerman, Iran, January 7, 2020. (Erfan Kouchari/Tasnim News Agency via AP)

Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the US drone killing of Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. That attack later saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic missile strike injuring dozens of US troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.

As the anniversary approached, the US has sent B-52 bombers flying over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.

On Thursday, sailors discovered a limpet mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. No one has claimed responsibility for the mining, though it comes after a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being involved.

In this Feb. 3, 2007 file photo, a technician works at the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, Iran (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)

Tensions have been increasing since Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018 and began imposing a host of sanctions against Tehran as part of a so-called maximum pressure campaign aimed at buckling Iran and convincing it to agree to a more favorable agreement, in Washington’s eyes.

But Iran has not done so, instead choosing to enrich uranium to numbers far beyond what the deal allowed. The Islamic Republic’s stockpile of enriched uranium is more than 2.4 tons, 12 times the JCPOA limit, though still less than the more than eight tons Iran had enriched before signing the deal.

Military personnel stand near the flag-draped coffin of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an assassinated top nuclear scientist during his funeral ceremony in Tehran, Iran, November 30, 2020. (Iranian Defense Ministry via AP)

Since the assassination in late November of Iranian nuclear physicist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which Iran has blamed on Israel, hardliners in Tehran pledged a response and parliament passed a controversial law calling for the production and storage of “at least 120 kilograms per year of 20 percent enriched uranium” and to “put an end” to the IAEA inspections intended to check that the country is not developing an atomic bomb.

The Iranian government opposed the initiative which was also condemned by the other signatories to the accord who called on Tehran not to “compromise the future.”

Iran has indicated some willingness to return to compliance with the agreement if the US, under incoming president Joe Biden, lifts the sanctions that were put in place after Trump’s withdrawal.

Biden has vowed to re-enter the nuclear agreement if Iran first returns to compliance with it. He has also expressed a desire to negotiate a “longer and stronger” follow-up agreement that would extend the time-limited provisions on the JCPOA, while also addressing Iran’s missile program and curbing the influence of Tehran’s regional proxies.US President-elect Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Queen Theater on December 28, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. (Mark Makela/Getty Images/AFP)

Iran has rejected any such negotiations.

The remaining countries that signed the agreement with Iran — Germany, France, Britain, China and Russia — have been trying to keep it from collapsing after the unilateral withdrawal of the United States in 2018.

In late December the countries agreed to “positively address” the possibility of a US return to the accord. Germany’s foreign minister urged Iran not to waste what he called a final window of opportunity.

The three European powers have expressed hope that with the change of administrations in Washington, the US could be brought back into the deal, whose goal is to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear bomb — something Tehran insists it doesn’t want to do.

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

The deal promises Iran economic incentives in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, but with the reinstatement of American sanctions, the other nations have been struggling to provide Iran the assistance it seeks.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has said that Iran would “rapidly reverse” its violations of the nuclear accord when the United States and the three European powers “perform their duties.”

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles during talks in Moscow, Russia, September 24, 2020. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Despite Iran’s violations, the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that Tehran continues to give inspectors full access to its nuclear sites — a key reason the JCPOA member nations say it is worth preserving.

In December, photos obtained by The Associated Press showed that Iran has begun construction on a site at its underground nuclear facility at Fordo.

Iran has not publicly acknowledged any new construction at Fordo, whose discovery by the West in 2009 came in an earlier round of brinkmanship before world powers struck the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran.

While the purpose of the building remains unclear, any work at Fordo will likely trigger new concern. Already, Iran is building at its Natanz nuclear facility after a mysterious explosion in July there that Tehran described as a sabotage attack.

“Any changes at this site will be carefully watched as a sign of where Iran’s nuclear program is headed,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Iran.

This Nov. 4, 2020, satellite photo by Maxar Technologies shows Iran’s Fordo nuclear site (Maxar Technologies via AP)

The IAEA as of yet has not publicly disclosed if Iran informed it of any construction at Fordo.

Under the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran agreed to stop enriching uranium at Fordo and instead make it “a nuclear, physics and technology center.”

“This location was a major sticking point in negotiations leading to the Iran nuclear deal,” Lewis said. “The US insisted Iran close it while Iran’s supreme leader said keeping it was a red line.”

Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment there.

US, Iran locked in tense standoff on 1-year anniversary of Soleimani killing

January 3, 2021


American officials fear the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks on date of assassination of its top general

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIESToday, 6:14 am  0

People carry portraits of late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, in Baghdad on January 2, 2021, at the site of their killing (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

People carry portraits of late Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani at Baghdad Airport, in Baghdad on January 2, 2021, at the site of their killing (AHMAD AL-RUBAYE / AFP)

Iran on Sunday marked one year since the death of General Qassem Soleimani in an American drone strike in Baghdad, amid fears in Washington that Tehran could retaliate for the killing on the anniversary.

US officials have expressed concern that Iran may be planning attacks against US-allied targets in neighboring Iraq or elsewhere in the region to coincide with the date. In recent weeks the US military has taken a range of steps designed to deter Iran, while publicly emphasizing that it is not planning, and has not been instructed, to take unprovoked action against Iran.

US President Donald Trump has warned Iran against any attack, and the US has flown strategic bombers over the Persian Gulf in a show of force meant to deter Iran from attacking American or allied targets in the Middle East. A US nuclear submarine crossed the Strait of Hormuz on Monday.

Get The Times of Israel’s Daily Edition by email and never miss our top storiesFREE SIGN UP

Iranian officials have issued a stream of threats against the US as the anniversary of Soleimani’s death approached, while accusing Trump of seeking a “pretext” for war.

Iranian judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of the first anniversary of death of former Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani in Tehran, on January 1, 2021. (STR / AFP)

The US killed Soleimani, who oversaw the Revolutionary Guard’s expeditionary Quds Force, and others in the January 3, 2020, strike near Baghdad International Airport. It came after months of incidents raising tensions between the two countries and ultimately saw Iran retaliate with a ballistic missile strike targeting American troops in Iraq.

Iran has also threatened to attack Israel since the assassination of its top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, in late November, in a raid blamed on the Jewish state.

The Israeli military is preparing for the possibility of a strike by Iran-backed militias in Iraq or Yemen, according to a Friday report. The Israel Defense Forces held discussions last week about possible attacks, including missile and drone strikes, from the Iraqi militias and Houthi groups in Yemen, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Further ratcheting up tensions, the UN nuclear watchdog said Friday that Iran intends to produce uranium enriched up to 20 percent purity, well beyond the threshold set by the 2015 Vienna accord and a short jump from weapons-grade material.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaks outside the Lebanese Foreign Ministry, August 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed Saturday that Israeli agents were planning to attack American targets in order to instigate an aggressive US reaction against Iran and spark armed conflict, warning Trump to avoid such a “trap.” And he warned that any attack against the Islamic Republic by the US would “backfire badly” on Washington’s “BFFs” (an initialism for “best friends forever”), in an apparent reference to the Jewish state.

“New intelligence from Iraq indicate (sic) that Israeli agent-provocateurs are plotting attacks against Americans — putting an outgoing Trump in a bind with a fake casus belli,” Zarif tweeted.

Top Iranian authorities, including supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had previously said that all those involved in Soleimani’s killing would face retribution.

Mourners gather to pay homage to slain Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, Iraqi paramilitary chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and other victims of a US attack, in the capital Tehran on January 6, 2020. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Days after Soleimani’s killing, Iran launched a volley of missiles at Iraqi bases housing US and other coalition troops, with Trump refraining from any further military response.

The Iranian leadership has called the strikes a “slap” and vowed that “severe revenge” awaits.

CNN on Friday reported disagreements within the Pentagon as to the threat level from Iran. Some officials said the threat was the highest it’s been since Soleimani’s killing, with US forces in the region in real danger of attack, while others insisted this was an exaggeration.

“We do see several planning efforts underway and if even some of them are true and they execute they could kill several Americans,” one military official said.

Tensions between Washington and Tehran have soared since 2018, when Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions.

The two sides have twice come to the brink of war since June 2019, especially following the killing of Soleimani, who headed the foreign operations arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.