Archive for February 2021

Israel said very pleased with US strikes in Syria: ‘Biden is not Obama’

February 27, 2021


Officials tell Walla News they see attacks on Iran-backed militia base as a positive signal about new administration’s posture toward Tehran, say US gave Israel advance notice

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIES26 February 2021, 4:00 pm  3

Two US Air Force F-22 Raptors fly over Syria, February 2, 2018, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. (US Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Colton Elliott)

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

Israel is highly pleased with Thursday night’s US airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia base on the Syrian-Iraqi border, Israeli officials told Walla News Friday.

Officials told Walla they see the strikes as a positive signal about the new administration’s posture toward Iran, and believe it will send a message to Tehran that it must restrain itself and its proxies in the region.

They said they had been concerned by growing Iranian provocations in the region, often through its proxies, and had shared this concern with the Americans.

“The Iranians didn’t realize that [US President Joe] Biden is not [Barack] Obama, and that if they will continue down this road of miscalculation they will eventually get hit,” an Israeli official told Walla.

The report added that Washington had notified Israel in advance of the airstrikes. The notice was a routine update that occurs whenever US operations may affect Israel and vice versa.

In the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, the US launched airstrikes in Syria targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The Biden administration had emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1365262329596755968&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timesofisrael.com%2Fisrael-said-very-pleased-with-us-strikes-in-syria-biden-is-not-obama%2F&siteScreenName=timesofisrael&theme=light&widgetsVersion=889aa01%3A1612811843556&width=550px

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Then-Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian-backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Further details were not immediately available.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 22 people were killed after the strike hit three trucks loaded with munitions coming from Iraq near the Syrian city of Bukamal. The British-based war monitor has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.

The group said all the dead were from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi force, the umbrella group over many small militias that have ties to Iran.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1365278331000782850&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.timesofisrael.com%2Fisrael-said-very-pleased-with-us-strikes-in-syria-biden-is-not-obama%2F&siteScreenName=timesofisrael&theme=light&widgetsVersion=889aa01%3A1612811843556&width=550px

Biden administration officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the February 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US  Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

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)

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

Biden says US airstrikes in Syria sent warning to Iran: ‘Be careful’

February 27, 2021


US president says strike meant to tell Tehran, ‘You can’t act with impunity’; several leading Democratic lawmakers denounce attack, Republicans more supportive

By LOLITA C. BALDORROBERT BURNS and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRAToday, 1:34 am  2

US President Joe Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

US President Joe Biden speaks at a FEMA COVID-19 mass vaccination site at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, Feb. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US President Joe Biden said Friday that Iran should view his decision to authorize US airstrikes in Syria as a warning that it can expect consequences for its support of militia groups that threaten US interests or personnel.

“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” Biden said when a reporter asked what message he had intended to send with the airstrikes, which the Pentagon said destroyed several buildings in eastern Syria but were not intended to eradicate the militia groups that used them to facilitate attacks inside Iraq.

Administration officials defended the Thursday night airstrikes as legal and appropriate, saying they took out facilities that housed valuable “capabilities” used by Iranian-backed militia groups to attack American and allied forces in Iraq.

John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesperson, said members of Congress were notified before the strikes as two Air Force F-15E aircraft launched seven missiles, destroying nine facilities and heavily damaging two others, rendering both “functionally destroyed.” He said the facilities, at “entry control points” on the border, had been used by militia groups the US deems responsible for recent attacks against US interests in Iraq.

In a political twist for the new Democratic administration, several leading Congress members in Biden’s own party denounced the strikes, which were the first military actions he authorized. Democrats said the airstrikes were done without authorization from lawmakers, while Republicans were more supportive.

“Offensive military action without congressional approval is not constitutional absent extraordinary circumstances,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. And Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said lawmakers must hold the current administration to the same standards as any other. “Retaliatory strikes not necessary to prevent an imminent threat,” he said, must get congressional authorization.Two US Air Force F-15 Strike Eagles fly over the US Central Command area of responsibility in an undisclosed location, Feb. 10, 2021. (US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Sean Carnes)

But Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, backed the decision as “the correct, proportionate response to protect American lives.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Friday that Biden used his constitutional authority to defend US personnel.

“The targets were chosen to correspond to the recent attacks on facilities and to deter the risk of additional attacks over the coming weeks,” she said.

Among the recent attacks cited was a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

At the Pentagon, Kirby said the operation was “a defensive strike” on a waystation used by militants to move weapons and materials for attacks into Iraq. But he noted that while it sent a message of deterrence and eroded their ability to strike from that compound, the militias have other sites and capabilities. He said the strikes resulted in “casualties” but declined to provide further details on how many were killed or injured and what was inside the buildings pending the completion of a broader assessment of damage inflicted.

An Iraqi militia official said Friday that the strikes killed one fighter and wounded several others.

Kirby said the facilities hit in the attack were near Boukamal, on the Syrian side of the Iraq border, along the Euphrates River.Pentagon spokesman John Kirby speaks during a media briefing at the Pentagon, in Washington, Feb. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

“This location is known to facilitate Iranian-aligned militia group activity,” he said. He described the site as a “compound” that previously had been used by the Islamic State group when it held sway in the area.

The Iraqi militia official told The Associated Press that the strikes against the Kataeb Hezbollah, or Hezbollah Brigades, hit an area along the border between the Syrian site of Boukamal facing Qaim on the Iraqi side. The official was not authorized to speak publicly of the attack and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Speaking to reporters Thursday evening shortly after the airstrikes were carried out, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said, “I’m confident in the target that we went after. We know what we hit.”

Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq and send a message to Iran. The Biden administration in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist.

The US has previously targeted facilities in Syria belonging to Kataeb Hezbollah, which it has blamed for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq. The Iraqi Kataeb is separate from the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the war in Syria, said the strikes targeted a shipment of weapons that were being taken by trucks entering Syrian territories from Iraq. The group said 22 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi umbrella group of mostly Shiite paramilitaries that includes Kataeb Hezbollah, were killed. The British-based war monitor has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.Fighters with Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, wave Iraqi flags while mourners and family members prepare to bury the body of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq, during his funeral procession in Najaf, Iraq, January 8, 2020. (Anmar Khalil/AP)

In a statement, Kataeb Hezbollah confirmed one of its fighters was killed and said it reserved the right to retaliate, without elaborating. Kataeb Hezbollah, like other Iranian-backed factions, maintains fighters in Syria to both fight against the Islamic State group and assist Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in that country’s civil war.

Austin said he was confident the US had hit back at “the same Shia militants” that carried out the February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq.

Kirby credited Iraqis with providing valuable intelligence that allowed the US to identify the groups responsible for attacks earlier this year. The US, he said, then determined the appropriate target for the retaliatory strike.

He said the US also notified Russia shortly before the strike as part of the ongoing deconfliction process of military activities in Syria. A Friday report said the US had also notified Israel of the impending strike as a routine update that occurs whenever US operations may affect Israel and vice versa.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said.

Syria condemned the US strike, calling it “a cowardly and systematic American aggression,” warning that the attack will lead to consequences. Iran and Russia also denounced the attack.

U forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.

Netanyahu on Biden’s Iran strategy: It’s a mistake to rely solely on agreements

February 27, 2021


Asked whether he trusts US president on nuclear issue, premier says he relies on himself; starts singing when asked repeated questions about allegedly illegal acceptance of gifts

By TOI STAFF26 February 2021, 12:23 am  3

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday said he has told US President Joe Biden that he will do whatever it takes to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, regardless of whether Washington reenters the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

“I told him, with or without an agreement, my obligation as the prime minister of Israel, as the prime minister of the Jewish state, is to prevent a recurrence of the terrible things that have been done to our people,” Netanyahu said in an interview with Channel 13.

“There is a regime whose flagship goal is to destroy us. I will do everything I can, everything in my power, to prevent it from attaining nuclear weapons,” he said.

When pressed on whether that includes the use of military force, Netanyahu asserted, “Including whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons.”

Israel will always uphold the military option, he said, while the sanctions are to a great extent dependent on Biden. “I’ll never put Israel’s security in anybody else’s hands,” he repeated.

Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a joint press conference at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

He rejected the premise that the existing deal, which Iran has violated, would be better than no agreement at all.

“An agreement with a state like that? How many times do we need to learn from history. Agreements are made. But if you rely solely on agreements, that’s a mistake,” said Netanyahu.

Asked if he relies on Biden when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, Netanyahu responded: “I rely on myself, on ourselves.”

“I don’t entrust the security of Israel to anybody else… Israel must be able and determined to defend itself, by itself,” he added, clarifying that he has a close relationship with Biden. “We are friends, close friends even. He eulogized my father; I spoke to him after the death of his son.”

The Biden administration is seeking to reenter the 2015 nuclear deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, which former president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from in 2018.

Washington has said it is prepared to reenter the JCPOA if Iran first returns to compliance with the restrictions it has been openly violating for the past several months. While Jerusalem’s priority is the nuclear issue, it is hoping the US will also demand curbs to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and regional aggressions. Biden has said he wants to address those issues in a subsequent agreement after the sides return to the existing JCPOA, but Israel fears the US will lose the leverage that has been built by the Trump administration’s maximum pressure sanctions regime once it returns to the old deal and that Iran will not be willing to negotiate further.

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)

‘I’m sorry’

The combative interview addressed a range of topics, including Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic. The premier insisted that he has handled the crisis well given the country’s world-leading vaccine drive.

However, Channel 13 pushed back against the premier over the rest of his government’s managing of the health crisis and urged Netanyahu to apologize for the thousands of lives lost in Israel thus far.

“Every death…. is terrible. We’re in a joint struggle… I’m sorry that we haven’t succeeded [in preventing the deaths], and together we’ll succeed… We’re the only ones who will succeed because I’ve brought vaccinations,” Netanyahu said, while refraining from answering whether his policies for dealing with the pandemic led to avoidable fatalities.

“Every death is a tragedy. But for a while now, there’s no reason for anybody to die, or at least 97 percent, 95 percent,” he said — a reference to the vaccines’ effectiveness.

“Tens of thousands of businesses are indeed fighting for their lives… When I try to help them [financially], I’m told by politicians and legal advisers that I can’t do that” because of the election campaign, he lamented.

Netanyahu railed at the Israeli media and at legal officials for opposing his spending plans amid the campaign for the March 23 elections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein seen during a visit at COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

He declared his intention to turn Israel into “the fastest growing economy in the world.”

Asked why neighboring Cyprus had a lower death toll proportionately, Netanyahu noted that it is an island.

“We’re not an island. We have the Palestinians in our midst. We can’t close Jenin… Thirty prime ministers have called me to say we congratulate you for the way you have handled this,” he said.

The premier repeated his claim that Israel will be the first country to emerge from the pandemic and denied Australia and New Zealand are already in the clear.

He claimed that local media is always highlighting blunders while international media has recognized Israel’s successes. Much of the international media’s focus of late has also been on the fact that the Palestinians have gone largely unvaccinated as Israel has inoculated roughly half of its citizens.

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Netanyahu denies stoking divisions

Netanyahu denied accusations that he fuels divisions in Israeli society, as he was asked about past comments against Arabs, the left and other divisive rhetoric.

“I am the prime minister of everyone. I bring vaccines to all Israelis, without exception. I bring peace agreements to all Israelis, without exception. I bring economic assistance to all Israelis, without exception. I protect the security, better this year than ever, of all Israelis, without exception…. And I stop the Iranian nuclear armament for all Israelis, without exception,” he told Channel 13.

He dismissed a Thursday poll from the network, which found that 58% of Israelis don’t want him to continue as prime minister. “Wait for the real survey,” he responded, referring to next month’s elections.

Defending his decision to keep schools closed longer than any other country, Netanyahu told the network, “I prioritized life above all else.” The health experts advised against opening schools fully, since this would rapidly spread contagion, with fatal consequences, he explained.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with his lawyer Amir Hadad prior to a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court, February 8, 2021. (Reuven Castro/AP)

‘I attack the media because it deserves it’

Netanyahu was also pressed during the television interview on his corruption cases.

Asked about telephoning Arnon Milchan, who is a prosecution witness in Netanyahu’s trial on graft charges, the premier said he didn’t remember exactly when he called him.

He had told Channel 12 earlier this month that he had spoken to Milchan “once or twice” to wish him happy holidays. When the interviewer noted that there hadn’t been any holidays during the time Netanyahu called, the premier pivoted: “It’s all spin by the prosecution to obscure the fact that the cases against me are collapsing.”

“It is permitted to talk to a prosecution witness,” he added, dismissing the cases against him as “fabricated.”

Arnon Milchan poses for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film ‘Widows’ showing as part of the opening gala of the BFI London Film Festival in London, October 10, 2018. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

Netanyahu said that if he forms a government after the March 23 elections, he won’t use it to evade the trial through legislation or a request for immunity. “I won’t advance those laws,” he said.

He was asked whether his acceptance of expensive gifts from millionaires like Milchan showed he has a “values” problem, and why a wealthy man like him needed to take NIS 700,000-worth gifts of champagne and cigars from Milchan. Netanyahu responded: “I’ll tell you about my values. I dedicate my life, despite the endless false attacks on me, my wife and my children… to public service.” He then spoke about the regime in Iran seeking “to destroy the Jewish state,” and his commitment to prevent this.

Pushed again on the matter, Netanyahu began to sing the chorus of “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” (originally released in 1969 by the group Steam).

He had used the words “na na na na” to dismiss questions by Channel 12 last week regarding his handling of the pandemic and chose to put a tune to them in the Channel 13 interview. Interviewer Udi Segal cut him off by saying he was being contemptuous.

Netanyahu responded that he objected to Channel 13’s efforts to distract the public’s attention from the important issues.

As the interview neared its end Netanyahu was asked about former US president Donald Trump, whom the premier praised as a great friend of Israel.

Netanyahu rejected the notion that Trump lost the presidential elections because he didn’t tell the truth, worked to change the rules of democracy and attacked the media, as the interviewee put it. “You’ve determined the reason why he was defeated. I think there are other interpretations for his loss,” Netanyahu said.

Asked if he views himself as the Israeli version of Trump, in part for the ways he too admonishes the press, Netanyahu said, “I attack the media because it deserves it… While world media praises the Israeli miracle, you’re always attacking, everywhere.”

Israel said to believe Iran behind blast on Israeli-owned cargo ship

February 27, 2021


Vessel’s owner says damage likely caused by missiles or mines, but unlikely it was targeted because of Israeli ownership

By TOI STAFF and AGENCIESToday, 3:04 am  0

Damage is seen in the Israeli-owned ship that hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Damage is seen in the Israeli-owned ship that hit by an explosion in the Gulf of Oman on February 26, 2021. (Screen capture/Channel 13)

Israeli officials believe Iran was behind a blast on an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, according to Friday reports.

Hebrew media quoted unnamed Israeli officials as saying they believe Iran was responsible for the Friday explosion, which did not disable the ship or injure its crew, but forced it ashore for repairs.

The area of the blast, off Iran’s coast at the entrance to the Persian Gulf, saw a series of explosions in 2019 that the US Navy blamed on Iran, against the backdrop of steeply rising threats between former US president Donald Trump and Iranian leaders.

The Friday explosion came amid high tensions between Iran and the Biden administration, which took its first military action Thursday night against Iranian-backed militia in Syria in response to attacks on US forces in the Middle East.

There were conflicting reports on whether Iran would have known the ship was Israeli-owned.

Haaretz and Channel 13 said in unsourced reports that Iran knew the ship was Israeli, but the ship’s owner and other reports said it was unlikely.

Channel 12, in an unsourced report, said the blast was caused by a missile fired from an Iranian vessel.

Dryad Global, a maritime intelligence firm, said it was very possible the blast stemmed from “asymmetric activity by Iranian military.”

As Iran seeks to pressure the United States to lift sanctions, the country may seek “to exercise forceful diplomacy through military means,” Dryad reported.

Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.

The unexplained blast did not injure any of the ship’s 28 crew members, but was forced to the nearby port of Dubai for repairs, the company told The Times of Israel.

The stricken vessel was identified as the MV Helios Ray, a Bahaman-flagged cargo ship carrying vehicles and in transit from Saudi Arabia to Singapore.

A United Nations ship database identified the vessel’s owners as a Tel Aviv-based firm called Ray Shipping Ltd.

Abraham Ungar, 74, who goes by “Rami,” is the founder of Ray Shipping Ltd., and is known as one of the richest men in Israel. He made his fortune in shipping and construction. Hebrew media reported that Ungar is close to Yossi Cohen, head of the Mossad spy agency.

Ungar said he did not know exactly what had hit the vessel, but said it was most likely “missiles or a mine placed on the bow.”

“Israeli authorities will investigate this together with me,” he told the Ynet news site. “I don’t think this deliberately targeted an Israeli-owned ship. That has not happened to me before.”

Ungar said it was most likely linked to previous attacks on shipping in the area.

“I think it is part of the game between Iran and the US, that’s why they are hitting Western ships,” he said.

Ungar told Channel 13, “The crew heard an explosion. There was a blast, there’s a hole, there’s damage. There will be a check when the ship reaches port.”

He said the holes in the side of the ship were around 1.5 meters (yards) in diameter.

The network said US officials will inspect the ship once it reaches Dubai for repairs.

Two American defense officials told AP that the ship had sustained two holes on its port side and two holes on its starboard side just above the waterline in the blast. The officials said it remained unclear what caused the holes. They spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity to discuss unreleased information on the incidents.

The explosion on Friday recalled the summer of 2019, when the US military blamed Iran for suspected attacks on two oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most strategic shipping lanes.

In the preceding months, the US had attributed a series of suspected attacks to Iran, including the use of limpet mines — designed to be attached magnetically to a ship’s hull — to cripple four oil tankers off the nearby Emirati port of Fujairah.

Iran denied the accusations, which came after Trump abandoned Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran.

Israel did not immediately comment on the Friday blast. Since the killing of Fakhrizadeh, the Iranian nuclear scientist, last November, Israeli officials have raised alarms about potential Iranian retaliation, including through its regional proxies like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

A soccer field-sized dig, stories deep: Israel expands Dimona nuclear facility

February 26, 2021


Reactor appears to be getting most extensive new construction work in decades, satellite photos show; reason unclear

By JON GAMBRELL25 February 2021, 11:22 am  4T

This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

his Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — A secretive Israeli nuclear facility, supposedly at the center of the nation’s undeclared atomic weapons program, is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show.

A dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep now sits just meters from the aging reactor at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near the city of Dimona. The facility is already home to decades-old underground laboratories that, according to foreign reports, reprocess the reactor’s spent rods to obtain weapons-grade plutonium for Israel’s nuclear bomb program.

What the construction is for, however, remains unclear. The Israeli government did not respond to detailed questions from the AP about the work. Under its policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel neither confirms nor denies having atomic weapons. It is among just four countries that have never joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a landmark international accord meant to stop the spread of nuclear arms.

The construction comes as Israel — under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — maintains its scathing criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, which remains under the watch of United Nations inspectors unlike its own. That has renewed calls among experts for Israel to publicly declare details of its program.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

What “the Israeli government is doing at this secret nuclear weapons plant is something for the Israeli government to come clean about,” said Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

With French assistance, Israel began secretly building the nuclear site in the late 1950s in empty desert near Dimona, a city some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Jerusalem. It hid the military purpose of the site for years from America, now Israel’s chief ally, even referring to it as a textile factory.

With plutonium from Dimona, Israel is widely believed to have become one of only nine nuclear-armed countries in the world. Given the secrecy surrounding its program, it remains unclear how many weapons it possesses. Analysts estimate Israel has material for at least 80 bombs. Those weapons likely could be delivered by land-based ballistic missiles, fighter jets or submarines.

For decades, the Dimona facility’s layout has remained the same. However, last week, the International Panel on Fissile Materials at Princeton University noted it had seen “significant new construction” at the site via commercially available satellite photos, though few details could be made out.View of the nuclear reactor in Dimona, southern Israel, August 13, 2016. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Satellite images captured Monday by Planet Labs Inc. after a request from the AP provide the clearest view yet of the activity. Just southwest of the reactor, workers have dug a hole some 150 meters (165 yards) long and 60 meters (65 yards) wide. Tailings from the dig can be seen next to the site. A trench some 330 meters (360 yards) runs near the dig.

Some 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) west of the reactor, boxes are stacked in two rectangular holes that appear to have concrete bases. Tailings from the dig can be seen nearby. Similar concrete pads are often used to entomb nuclear waste.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Other images from Planet Labs suggest the dig near the reactor began in early 2019 and has progressed slowly since then.

Analysts who spoke to the AP offered several suggestions about what could be happening there.

The center’s heavy-water reactor has been operational since the 1960s, far longer than most reactors of the same era. That raises both effectiveness and safety questions. In 2004, Israeli soldiers even began handing out iodine pills in Dimona in case of a radioactive leak from the facility. Iodine helps block the body from absorbing radiation.This Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows construction at the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. A long-secretive Israeli nuclear facility that gave birth to its undeclared atomic weapons program is undergoing what appears to be its biggest construction project in decades, according to satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Those safety concerns could see authorities decommission or otherwise retrofit the reactor, analysts say.

“I believe that the Israeli government is concerned to preserve and maintain the nation’s current nuclear capabilities,” said Avner Cohen, a professor of nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, who has written extensively on Dimona.

“If indeed the Dimona reactor is getting closer to decommissioned, as I believe it is, one would expect Israel to make sure that certain functions of the reactor, which are still indispensable, will be fully replaced.”This Sept. 29, 1971, spy satellite photograph, later declassified by the US government, shows what now is known as the Shimon Peres Negev Nuclear Research Center near Dimona, Israel. (US Center for Earth Resources Observation and Science/US Geological Survey, via AP)

Kimball, of the Arms Control Association, suggested Israel may want to produce more tritium, a relatively faster-decaying radioactive byproduct used to boost the explosive yield of some nuclear warheads. It also could want fresh plutonium “to replace or extend the life of warheads already in the Israeli nuclear arsenal,” he added.

A strategy of opacity

Israel built its nuclear weapons as it faced several wars with its Arab neighbors since its founding in 1948 in the wake of the Holocaust. An atomic weapons program, even undeclared, provided it an edge to deter enemies.

As Shimon Peres, who led the nuclear program and later served as prime minister and president of Israel, said in 1998: “We have built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima, but to have an Oslo,” referring to the first US nuclear bomb drop in World War II and to Israel’s efforts to reach a peace deal with Palestinians.

Former Israeli president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

But Israel’s strategy of opacity also draws criticism from opponents. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif seized on the work at Dimona this week as his country prepared to limit access by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency amid tensions with the West over its collapsing 2015 nuclear deal.

“Any talk about concern about Iran’s nuclear program is absolute nonsense,” Zarif told Iranian state television’s English-language arm Press TV. “Let’s be clear on that: It’s hypocrisy.”

The timing of the Dimona construction surprised Valerie Lincy, executive director of the Washington-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.

“I think the most puzzling thing is… you have a country that is very aware of the power of satellite imagery and particularly the way proliferation targets are monitored using that imagery,” Lincy said. “In Israel, you have one known nuclear target for monitoring, which is the Dimona reactor. So you would think that anything that they wanted to keep under the radar would be kept under the radar.”

In the 1960s, Israel used its claims about adversary Egypt’s missile and nuclear efforts to divert attention from its work at Dimona — and may choose to do the same with Iran now.

“If you’re Israel and you are going to have to undertake a major construction project at Dimona that will draw attention, that’s probably the time that you would scream the most about the Iranians,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a professor also teaching nonproliferation issues at Middlebury.

US strikes Iran-backed fighters in Syria, in 1st military action under Biden

February 26, 2021


Pentagon says airstrikes ‘destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point,’ are retaliation for attacks on American targets in Iraq; war monitor claims 17 killed

By AGENCIES and TOI STAFFToday, 2:15 am  1

Illustrative: Explosions are seen in the Syrian town of Salamiyah on June 24 after an airstrike (video screenshot)

Illustrative: Explosions are seen in the Syrian town of Salamiyah on June 24 after an airstrike (video screenshot)

WASHINGTON — The United States launched airstrikes in Syria on Thursday, targeting facilities near the Iraqi border used by Iranian-backed militia groups. The Pentagon said the strikes were retaliation for a rocket attack in Iraq earlier this month that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition troops.

The airstrikes were the first military action undertaken by the Biden administration, which in its first weeks has emphasized its intent to put more focus on the challenges posed by China, even as Mideast threats persist. Biden’s decision to attack in Syria did not appear to signal an intention to widen US military involvement in the region but rather to demonstrate a will to defend US troops in Iraq.

“I’m confident in the target that we went after, we know what we hit,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters flying with him from California to Washington. Speaking shortly after the airstrikes, he added, “We’re confident that that target was being used by the same Shia militants that conducted the strikes,” referring to a February 15 rocket attack in northern Iraq that killed one civilian contractor and wounded a US service member and other coalition personnel.

Austin said he recommended the action to Biden.

“We said a number of times that we will respond on our timeline,” Austin said. “We wanted to be sure of the connectivity and we wanted to be sure that we had the right targets.”

Then Secretary of Defense nominee Lloyd Austin speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 19, 2021. (Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool via AP)

Earlier, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the US action was a “proportionate military response” taken together with diplomatic measures, including consultation with coalition partners.

“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” Kirby said. “At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to deescalate the overall situation in eastern Syria and Iraq.”

Kirby said the US airstrikes “destroyed multiple facilities at a border control point used by a number of Iranian- backed militant groups,” including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada. The US has blamed Kataib Hezbollah for numerous attacks targeting US personnel and interests in Iraq in the past.

Further details were not immediately available.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 17 people were killed after the strike hit three trucks loaded with munitions coming from Iraq near the Syrian city of Bukamal. The British-based war monitor of uncertain funding has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of inflating casualty numbers, as well as inventing them wholesale.

The group said all the dead were from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi force, the umbrella group over many small militias that have ties to Iran.

Biden administration officials condemned the February 15 rocket attack near the city of Irbil in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish-run region, but as recently as this week officials indicated they had not determined for certain who carried it out. Officials have noted that in the past, Iranian-backed Shiite militia groups have been responsible for numerous rocket attacks that targeted US personnel or facilities in Iraq.

Kirby had said Tuesday that Iraq is in charge of investigating the February 15 attack.

“Right now, we’re not able to give you a certain attribution as to who was behind these attacks, what groups, and I’m not going to get into the tactical details of every bit of weaponry used here,” Kirby said. “Let’s let the investigations complete and conclude, and then when we have more to say, we will.”

A little-known Shiite militant group calling itself Saraya Awliya al-Dam, Arabic for Guardians of Blood Brigade, claimed responsibility for the February 15 attack. A week later, a rocket attack in Baghdad’s Green Zone appeared to target the US  Embassy compound, but no one was hurt.

Iran this week said it has no links to the Guardians of Blood Brigade.

The frequency of attacks by Shiite militia groups against US targets in Iraq diminished late last year ahead of President Joe Biden’s inauguration, though now Iran is pressing America to return to Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal. The US under the previous Trump administration blamed Iran-backed groups for carrying out the attacks. Tensions soared after a Washington-directed drone strike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and powerful Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis last year.

Trump had said the death of a US contractor would be a red line and provoke US escalation in Iraq. The December 2019 killing of a US civilian contractor in a rocket attack in Kirkuk sparked a tit-for-tat fight on Iraqi soil that brought the country to the brink of a proxy war.

US forces have been significantly reduced in Iraq to 2,500 personnel and no longer partake in combat missions with Iraqi forces in ongoing operations against the Islamic State group.REA

New Biden policies snub Saudi prince, “uncover” Israel’s reputed nuclear program – DEBKAfile

February 25, 2021

Dimona reactorIsraelJoe BidenSaudi crown prince

The planned release of a declassified US report suggesting the Saudi Crown Prince’s implication in the Khashoggi murder coincides with a spate of “revelations” on extensive building work at Israel’s nuclear center in Dimona.

The two events seem to have nothing in common, except that both appear to derive from a radical switch in the Biden administration’s Middle East policy and its hot pursuit of diplomacy with Iran.

The declassified version of a US intelligence report on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor, who criticized the royal house, was due to be released on Thursday, Feb. 25. It implies that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) approved and may have ordered Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul three years ago. Riyadh eventually admitted that he was killed in a “rogue” extradition operation gone wrong but denied any involvement by the crown prince. Five men given the death penalty for the murder by a Saudi court had their sentences commuted to 20 years in jail after being forgiven by Khashoggi’s family.

Biden has read the report. He is described as having decided to “recalibrate” President Trump’s close relations with Riyadh and cool his friendship with the crown prince. He said pointedly that he would soon speak to the 85-year-old Saudi king, deliberately snubbing the crown prince although the king is in poor health and has made his son de facto ruler of the realm.

The president, a Democrat, is awarding high regard for human rights in his foreign policy. He has also determined to force the Saudis abandon their military intervention against Iran-backed insurgents in the Yemen war.
MbS may not take the American rebuff and demands lying down. His options for counteraction could run to cozying up to Beijing and/or Moscow – or even striking large arms deals with them to replace the huge weapons transactions with the US which President Biden “paused” indefinitely.

In a final break with Washington, Riyadh may even go so far as to go forward and develop its own nuclear weapons program, drawing on help from Pakistan and imported Chinese ballistic missiles for their delivery.

The Biden White House’s first steps in the Middle East already signal the breakup of the pro-American axis fashioned for the region by Trump, which hinged on a set of military and diplomatic pacts binding Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel. All three had come into close military and diplomatic synch with Washington on the Iran issue.

This collaboration is already seriously dented by Biden’s sidelining of the Saudi ruler. The US president also appears to have in his sights, a second member of the trio, Israel. In recently weeks, American media have carried a spate of “revelations” and “analyses” regarding Israel’s nuclear program.

 On Feb. 17, the influential Foreign Policy ran a long article captioned: “Biden Should End US Hypocrisy on Israeli Nukes.” It was followed by the publication of “new discoveries” of extensive building work on the expansion of the Negev Nuclear Research Center at the desert town of Dimona. Then on Thursday, Feb. 25, the Associated Press carried satellite images (see attached image.) of “a dig about the size of a soccer field and likely several stories deep” said to be just meters southwest of the reactor. Foreign sources have long claimed that that it produces plutonium for nuclear bombs, ever since the nuclear center was set up in the 1950s at the remote desert location. Israel has consistently declined to confirm or deny having atom bombs, opting for a policy of ambiguity.

Biden appears to be heeding the calls for Israel to be forced into coming clean on its longstanding nuclear program, in order to cut the ground from under the Netanyahu government’s thunderous assault on the administration\s push for diplomatic re-engagement with Iran on the 2015 nuclear program. Israel is convinced that an Iranian nuclear bomb would confront it with an existential threat and hang a sword over the entire region.

It is also feared, that the hand which is orchestrating these disclosures may be preparing the ground for international negotiations on a denuclearized Middle East, a step that would corner Israel as a hoped-for means of bringing Iran onside.

Nuclear issue key as Iran readies for Rouhani replacement

February 25, 2021


Several conservative candidates are vying for presidency, including former defense minister and head of judiciary; run by moderate FM Zarif also said to be a possibility

By AFPToday, 9:13 am  0I

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks during the official endorsement ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani, right, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

ranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, left, speaks during the official endorsement ceremony of President Hassan Rouhani, right, in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Iran will vote in June for a successor to President Hassan Rouhani and his moderate-reformist government, but politics in the country is dominated by the nuclear issue and no frontrunner has emerged.

Several conservative heavyweights are thought to be considering running in the key June 18 race, with the winner to help set the direction of the Islamic republic.

“For the moment, the electoral atmosphere remains cold,” political analyst Amir Mohebian told AFP, adding that when politicians “try to warm it up, people are not paying attention.”

Following the election of US President Joe Biden, Washington, European powers and Tehran are trying to salvage the troubled 2015 nuclear accord, which granted Iran international sanctions relief in return for restrictions on its nuclear program.

The accord has been nearing collapse since Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran.

Rouhani, who bet on engagement with the West when Barack Obama was president only to see tensions soar under Trump, has shown a willingness to engage with the incoming Biden administration.Technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, Dec. 23, 2019. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP)

But Rouhani will step down after completing the second of his two consecutive four-year terms allowed under the constitution, and, while Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei remains in charge, the new president will direct his own policy course.

Single conservative candidate?

After a record 57 percent of Iranians stayed away from the February 2020 legislative elections, Khamenei recently called for “enthusiastic and revolutionary” participation to elect an “effective” president.

The candidate nomination period runs from May 11 to 15, but so far just one has announced his intention to run, the conservative former defense minister Hossein Dehghan.

In mid-February, the Combatant Clergy Association, a powerful conservative group, said it would back the candidacy of Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s judiciary chief, although he himself has not yet officially declared he is running.

A prominent conservative, Raisi took more than 38% of votes in the 2017 presidential election won by Rouhani.Ebrahim Raisi, Head of Iran’s Judiciary, speaks during a ceremony on the occasion of first anniversary of death of late Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) general Qasem Soleimani, in Tehran, Iran, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Another potential candidate is conservative heavyweight and parliament speaker Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf.

He was recently accused of starting campaigning early, under the cover of numerous official trips across Iran.

“The conservatives’ plan is to agree on a single candidate,” said Hamidreza Taraqi, a top official in the Islamic Coalition Party, part of the conservative alliance that won the legislative elections last year.

But Mehdi Rahmanian, from the reformist Shargh daily newspaper, argues that the conservatives “will certainly not reach” such a deal.

Multiple conservatives could split the vote, giving a helping hand to a moderate candidate, such as former parliament speaker Ali Larijani, who some say seems likely to be keen to run.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has yet to make a clear signal of his intentions, has also been mentioned as a possible moderate contender.Gen. Hossein Dehghan, a military adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, listens to a question during an interview with The Associated Press, in Tehran, Iran, Nov. 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Ending sanctions key

But it is uncertain that the reformists will manage to put forward a candidate at all.

And even if they do, their pick will still have to be run by the powerful conservative Guardian Council.

Ultra-conservative ex-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who held power from 2005 to 2013, is regularly present in the media, potentially preparing the ground to try to return.

Several analysts believe that the Guardians would be unlikely to accept Ahmadinejad as a candidate, having already rejected him in 2017.

The conservatives are dreaming of a double victory after their parliamentary win last year, when they trounced an alliance between Rouhani and the reformists.

But they are careful not to express this out loud, and with candidates yet to declare themselves, politics at the moment boils down to sniping attacks between parliament and the government.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses in a conference in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Conservatives “put the government under a continuous barrage of criticism to nip in the bud” the emergence of a moderate candidate, political analyst Mohebian said.

In turn, Rouhani’s cabinet accuses the deputies of doing everything possible to hinder its diplomatic efforts.

Those efforts aim to rescue the keystone of Rouhani’s presidency — the nuclear deal.

For Tehran, the lifting of US sanctions is critical.

“Rouhani has every interest in a diplomatic victory to polish the end of his mandate,” said Francois Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran.

If the outgoing president manages that, and can end or ease sanctions, the moderates and centrists may be able to “regain their strength,” he said.

Bahrain crown prince calls Netanyahu regarding US-Iran nuclear talks

February 25, 2021


Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa speaks with Israeli PM, says negotiations with Tehran should ‘include broader issues’; Netanyahu once again invited to visit kingdom when pandemic eases

By APToday, 4:02 pm  0

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa​ listens as then-US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa​ listens as then-US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Sept. 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Bahrain’s crown prince spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday about the return to nuclear talks with Iran, Bahrain’s state-run news agency reported, as the new US administration tries to revive the tattered 2015 nuclear accord.

Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, also the country’s prime minister, stressed to Netanyahu “the importance of the participation of regional countries in any negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file” to support “security and stability in the region,” according to the official Bahrain News Agency.

The statement marks the first response from a Gulf Arab leader to US President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this month that he was seeking a return to nuclear negotiations with Iran.

Nearly three years ago, former US president Donald Trump abandoned the landmark accord and reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran. His withdrawal was welcomed by Gulf nations and Israel, Iran’s foes in the region that are most directly threatened and staunchly opposed the deal.

The sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf, along with Israel, were excluded from the last nuclear negotiations and remain highly skeptical of Iran’s intentions. They have indicated they would only be open to a deal if it included limits on Iran’s non-nuclear activities, including missile development and support for rebel groups and militias in the Middle East. A main reason Trump gave for withdrawing from the nuclear deal was that it did not address those issues.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left; United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan; and Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa; at the White House, Sept. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In Thursday’s call, the Bahraini crown prince urged that any nuclear negotiations with Iran “include broader issues,” without elaborating.

The readout from Israel said the crown prince repeated his invitation for Netanyahu to visit Bahrain once the pandemic allows and that the kingdom is interested in investing jointly with other countries in a vaccine production factory planned to be located in Israel.

Following the United Arab Emirates, the island kingdom of Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last fall, an agreement forged out of mutual enmity for Iran.

On Wednesday Axios reported that Jerusalem and Washington will launch strategic discussions on Iran in the coming days that will focus on the two nations’ intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program.

The sides are planning quiet dialogue in a bid to avoid a public fight over US policy on Iran under Biden’s new administration, the news site said.

It said the US and Israel are set to reconvene the working group on Iran, first set up under the Obama administration, which will be led by the national security advisers of both nations — Israel’s Meir Ben-Shabbat and Washington’s Jake Sullivan.

Israel: Iran’s nuclear actions require immediate international response

February 25, 2021


FM Ashkenazi says Tehran ‘crushing the last vestiges of oversight by the IAEA’; Defense Minister Gantz says IDF ‘constantly preparing’ for possibility of military action

By TOI STAFF24 February 2021, 5:39 pm  0I

In this file photo released Nov. 4, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the organization, speaks with media while visiting the Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

n this file photo released Nov. 4, 2019 by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the organization, speaks with media while visiting the Natanz enrichment facility, in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

With Iran moving to limit some UN inspections of its nuclear facilities, Israel on Wednesday said the Islamic Republic’s actions threaten regional stability and require an immediate international response.

“Iran is crushing the last vestiges of oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency and continues to challenge and threaten regional stability,” Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said in a statement.

“Iran’s extreme steps necessitate an immediate international response,” he said.  “The Iranian policy is a statement of intentions as to its desire to continue to clandestinely develop nuclear capabilities.”

“Israel sees this step as a threat and it must not go by without response. We will never allow Iran to control the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon.”

Iran on Tuesday began limiting the International Atomic Energy Agency’s access to sites and other information in response to Washington’s refusal to lift sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump after he pulled the US from the 2015 nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers.

Tehran has steadily stepped away from the deal since Trump withdrew in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It has enriched uranium to 20 percent, a short, technical step away from weapons-grade levels.Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, in Jerusalem on June 10, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Nonetheless, the Biden administration and European countries are seeking to keep the nuclear deal alive. The US is demanding that Iran return to compliance before any sanctions are lifted, while Tehran has conditioned its cooperation on eased sanctions.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz addressed the mounting crisis with Iran in a Wednesday speech at a military ceremony.

“We know that Iran is advancing rapidly in several areas in its nuclear program and accumulating many tools. It is enriching uranium and installing hundreds of advanced centrifuges in secret facilities, and sabotaging efforts by the IAEA to monitor it,” Gantz said.

“Much of Iran’s efforts are irreversible because it is gaining much knowledge and experience. The US, Europe and Middle Eastern countries are well aware of Iran’s steps, which could lead to a wider arms race,” Gantz said.

“Iran is a problem for the region and the whole world, but it is also a great threat to the State of Israel. We must therefore work in coordination with world powers to ensure that if an agreement is signed with Iran, it will halt its nuclear program and bring a stop to its activities in Syria,” Gantz said. “The IDF is constantly preparing for the possibility that it will need to activate operational plans.”Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The IAEA said Tuesday that it was “deeply concerned” by the possible presence of nuclear material at an undeclared site in Iran that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared was a “secret atomic warehouse.” The site in question is in the Turquzabad district of Tehran, previously identified by Israel as an alleged site of secret atomic activity.

Inspectors from the IAEA visited the site several times after Netanyahu identified it in a 2018 address to the UN General Assembly, took soil samples, and later definitively concluded that there were “traces of radioactive material” there, Channel 13 news reported in 2019.

Sources told AFP Tuesday that there is no indication the site has been used for processing uranium, but that it could have been used for storing it as late as the end of 2018.

In a separate report also issued on Tuesday, the IAEA said that Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium is now more than 14 times the limit set down in its 2015 deal with world powers.

The report said that, as of February 16, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile was 2,967.8 kilograms. The limit in the 2015 deal was set at 300 kilos (660 pounds) of enriched uranium in a particular compound form, which is the equivalent of 202.8 kilos of uranium in non-compound form.

Netanyahu on Tuesday vowed Israel would prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, regardless of whether a multilateral accord is in place to prevent Tehran from doing so, hours after Iranian state TV reported that the Islamic Republic has officially begun restricting international inspections of its nuclear facilities.