Archive for February 22, 2021

Rare visit to Israel by Egypt’s oil minister sends signals to Biden, Erdogan

February 22, 2021

The trip, following similar delegations of Greek and Cypriot leaders, is intended to show that the regional allies are united and coordinated, both against friends and foes

By LAZAR BERMANToday, 3:02 am  0

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla meet in Jerusalem, February 21, 2021 (photo credit: MFA)

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi meets Egyptian Petroleum Minister Tarek El-Molla meet in Jerusalem, February 21, 2021 (photo credit: MFA)

Although the visit of Egypt’s Petroleum and Mineral Resources Minister to Israel on Sunday had the trappings of a routine discussion about energy cooperation by regional partners, it also sent a message to rivals and to the United States.

Tarek el-Molla’s trip was noteworthy for the mere fact that he was the first Egyptian minister to visit Israel since foreign minister Sameh Shoukry met with Netanyahu in 2016.

And El-Molla is no minor player. “El-Molla is very close to Sisi,” pointed out Gabriel Mitchell of the Mitvim Institute, an Israel-based think tank. “He is arguably one of the most visible Egyptian ministers outside the presidency.”

There is certainly no shortage of weighty energy issues for El-Molla to discuss with Israel. Israel and Egypt agreed Sunday to link up Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field with Egyptian liquid natural gas facilities through an underwater pipeline, from which it can be exported to European markets.

What’s more, a UAE-Israel plan to pump oil from Eilat on the Red Sea to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean concerns Egypt, but Cairo has largely refrained from publicly criticizing the project. A deal to provide Israeli natural gas to Gaza is nearing approval, and anything that happens in the coastal enclave could have a direct impact on Egyptian security.

And analysts say that one of the key purposes of the meetings — beyond the energy discussions —  was to send a message to Turkey, and its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a news conference, in Ankara, Turkey, October 26, 2020. (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

For the better part of a decade, Turkey has been engaged in a bitter rivalry with Egypt that began when Erdogan backed the Muslim Brotherhood after the group was ousted from power in Cairo

In the Mediterranean, Egypt has aligned itself with Greece and Cyprus, which accuse Turkey of illegally drilling for natural gas in their exclusive economic zones. Together with Israel, the countries formed the EastMed Gas Forum, headquartered in Cairo, and have conducted joint military exercises.

“A meeting between Israel and Egypt, even if it isn’t the primary purpose of the visit, does send a message to Turkey, especially in the context of the other meetings that are taking place this month,” said Mitchell.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis visited Israel on February 8,  and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades met with Netanyahu on February 14.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hosts Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Jerusalem on February 8, 2021 (Haim Zach / GPO)

“There s a clear message of unity, that these partners are working together, that they have their diplomatic ducks in a row, they have their energy ducks in a row.”

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), which comprises Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, and the Palestinian Authority, was formally launched in September. The forum intends to cooperate on the establishment of a natural gas pipeline connecting Israel, Greece and Cyprus to Italy and on to Europe. The eventual aim is to supply the continent with ten percent of its gas.

Israel joined the EMGF last September in a development formally establishing the brainchild of Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and el-Molla as a regional intergovernmental organization, based in Cairo.

The visit was also meant to send a message to the Biden Administration.

Egypt anticipates increased pressure from the US government over its human rights record.

“We won’t tolerate assaults or threats by foreign governments against American citizens or their family members,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week after President Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s government arrested the family of a political activist who is also a US citizen.

As a presidential candidate, Biden tweeted “No more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator.

“I have no doubt that the Egyptians have worries about the Biden Administration,” said Eran Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and past deputy director of Israel’s National Security Council.

“The Egyptians understand well how important expressions of normalization like this are for Israel,” said Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies. “Therefore the hidden message is that Egypt is working with Israel, and expects Israel to help it with the US; and a message for the US, who will see Egypt cooperating with Israel.”Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (C), his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Cypriot President Nikos Anastasiadis pose in Athens on January 2, 2020, ahead of the signing of an agreement for the EastMed pipeline project designed to ship gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

“All the eastern Mediterranean is arranging itself so that Biden hears a unified position from us,” argued Lerman.

Lerman sees the visits by the Greek and Cypriot leaders as part of the regional coordination process directed partially at Biden. “They weren’t here just to talk about tourism,” he said.

The visit, during which el-Molla visited Palestinian officials in Ramallah, also allowed Egypt to present itself as an invaluable mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, as it has sought to do since Biden’s electoral victory. In December, Sisi said that Cairo was working to advance the two-state solution. A week before Biden took office, Egypt hosted the Jordanian, French, and  German foreign ministers to discuss reviving Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The more Egypt can present itself as a source of stability and cooperation in the region, the logic goes, the less pressure it will face from the US over its human rights record.A crane vessel makes its way to Israel to help set up the Leviathan natural gas platform. (Noble Energy)

In their comments, Israeli leaders sought to emphasize Egypt’s positive influence in the Middle East. “Egypt plays a vital role in the region promoting security, stability, and peace,” said Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

He was also sure to play up the appearance of increasing normalization with Egypt. “Egypt was the first country to sign a peace agreement with Israel,” said Ashkenazi, “and we hope that the paradigm shift of the Abraham Accords and all the normalization, we will be able together to expand the peace circle around the region.”

Mitchell believes that relations between Israel and Egypt are noticeably warmer than they have been in the past. “Cooperation has never been so diverse, and never been so meaningful in the entire history of bilateral relations,” he argued.

“There is a trend of normalization,” Lerman agreed. “I’ll remind you that the Egyptians gave their support for the Abraham Accords.”

Albo is unconvinced that the Egyptians are trying to show that they intend to pursue noticeably warmer relations with Israel. “Egypt is presenting the visit internally as one that advances Egypt’s interests, one of its commitments as part of Egypt’s vision for the EastMed, in which el-Molla is meeting both the Palestinian and Israeli energy ministers.”

UN nuclear chief concedes Iran to grant ‘less access’ to inspectors at its sites

February 22, 2021

After meeting with officials in Tehran, IAEA head says watchdog will continue necessary monitoring and verification of Iranian program

By AGENCIES and TOI STAFF21 February 2021, 11:44 pm  1

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi addresses media after his arrival at Vienna International Airport on February 21, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Mariano Grossi addresses media after his arrival at Vienna International Airport on February 21, 2021. (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The head of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog said that Iran will begin offering its inspectors “less access,” but will still allow the agency to monitor its atomic program.

Rafael Grossi made the comments on arrival in Vienna late Sunday night after holding talks with officials in Tehran. He was careful to say that there still would be the same number of inspectors, but there would be “things we lose.”

“What we agreed is something that is viable — it is useful to bridge this gap that we are having now, it salvages the situation now,” Grossi told reporters.

“There is less access, let’s face it. But still, we were able to retain the necessary degree of monitoring and verification work,” he said.

Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament passed a law in December demanding the country suspend some inspections if the US failed to lift sanctions.

The law is due to go into effect on Tuesday.

“This law exists, this law is going to be applied, which means that the Additional Protocol, much to my regret, is going to be suspended,” Grossi said, referring to a confidential inspections agreement between Tehran and the IAEA reached as part of the nuclear deal.

Grossi did not give details of precisely which activities the IAEA would no longer be able to do, but confirmed that the number of inspectors in Iran would not be reduced and that snap inspection could continue under the temporary arrangement.

In a joint statement, the IAEA and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said that “a temporary bilateral technical understanding” had been reached “whereby the IAEA will continue with its necessary verification and monitoring activities for up to three months.”

The two sides further agreed to keep the understanding under regular review to “ensure it continues to achieve its purposes.”Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif listens to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during talks in Moscow, Russia, January 26, 2021. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who under President Hassan Rouhani helped reach the nuclear deal, said the cameras of the International Atomic Energy Agency would be shut off despite Grossi’s visit.

“This is not a deadline for the world. This is not an ultimatum,” Zarif told the government-run, English-language broadcaster Press TV in an interview aired before he met Grossi Sunday. “This is an internal domestic issue between the parliament and the government.”

“We have a democracy. We are supposed to implement the laws of the country. And the parliament adopted legislation — whether we like it or not.”

Zarif’s comments marked the highest-level acknowledgement yet of what Iran planned to do when it stopped following the so-called “Additional Protocol.”

Under the protocol with Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the agency said in 2017. The agency also said then that it had placed “2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment.”

In his interview, Zarif said authorities would be “required by law not to provide the tapes of those cameras.” It wasn’t immediately clear if that also meant the cameras would be turned off entirely as Zarif called that a “technical decision, that’s not a political decision.”

“The IAEA certainly will not get footage from those cameras,” Zarif said.

Grossi made his trip to Tehran as Iran has been trying to pressure Europe and the new Biden administration into returning to the 2015 nuclear deal, which former US president Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from in 2018, before imposing punishing sanctions on Iran that ravaged its economy.

Iran’s conservative-dominated parliament months ago demanded that, if the US does not lift sanctions by this Sunday, Iran will suspend some IAEA inspections from Tuesday.

But Iran has stressed it will not cease working with the IAEA or expel its inspectors.

Grossi met earlier Sunday with Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, later tweeted that “Iran and the IAEA held fruitful discussions based on mutual respect, the result of which will be released this evening.”

Uranium particles found

According to a report Friday, International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors last summer found uranium particles at two Iranian nuclear sites that Iran tried to block access to.

Iranian authorities had stonewalled the inspectors from reaching the sites for seven months before the inspection, and Iranian officials have failed to explain the presence of the uranium, the Reuters news agency reported, citing diplomats familiar with the UN agency’s wor.

The inspections took place in August and September of 2020, the report said. The IAEA keeps its findings secret and only shared the details of the find with a few countries.

The Wall Street Journal reported the suspicious findings earlier this month, without identifying the material.

The Reuters report did not identify the sites. Earlier reports said one of the sites was in Abadeh, south of Isfahan — a location that in September 2019 was flagged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the site of an alleged secret nuclear facility. Iran denies that it seeks nuclear weapons; Netanyahu is adamant that the regime is fooling the world, and has said that a trove of nuclear documents concerning its rogue program, smuggled out of Tehran by the Mossad two years, proves Iran’s duplicity.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealing what he says is a nuclear weapons development site in Abadeh, Iran, at the Prime Ministers Office, on September 9, 2019. (Screenshot: YouTube)

Walking away

Already, Iran has slowly walked away from all the nuclear deal’s limitations on its stockpile of uranium and has begun enriching up 20%, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels.

It also has begun spinning advanced centrifuges barred by the deal, which saw Iran limit its program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.This photo released November 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

An escalating series of incidents since Trump’s withdrawal has threatened the wider Mideast. Over a year ago, a US drone strike killed a top Iranian general, causing Tehran to later launch ballistic missiles that wounded dozens of American troops in Iraq.

A mysterious explosion also struck Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility, which Iran has described as sabotage. In November, Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who founded the country’s military nuclear program some two decades earlier, was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.

Zarif brought up the attacks in his interview with state TV, saying the IAEA must keep some of its information confidential for safety reasons.

“Some of them may have security ramifications for Iran, whose peaceful nuclear sites have been attacked,” Zarif said. “For a country whose nuclear scientists have been murdered in terrorist operations in the past — and now recently with Mr. Fakhrizadeh — confidentiality is essential.”