Archive for February 25, 2021

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.