Archive for April 14, 2021

Netanyahu to visiting US defense secretary: We won’t let Iran obtain nukes

April 14, 2021

Following attack on Iran’s Natanz facility, which has been blamed on Israel, PM says US-Israeli cooperation is ‘crucial’ to combat threats facing both countries

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on April 12, 2021. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Hosting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at his office in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel and the US agree on never allowing Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

“As you know, the US-Israel defense partnership has continually expanded over successive administrations and our cooperation is crucial in dealing with the many threats confronting both the United States and Israel,” Netanyahu said at a press conference alongside Austin.

“In the Middle East, there is no threat more dangerous, serious and pressing than that posed by the fanatical regime in Iran,” said Netanyahu, citing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, arming of terror groups, and calls for Israel’s annihilation.

“Mr. Secretary, we both know the horrors of war. We both understand the importance of preventing war. And we both agree that Iran must never possess nuclear weapons. My policy as prime minister of Israel is clear — I will never allow Iran to obtain the nuclear capability to carry out its genocidal goal of eliminating Israel.

Speaking days after an apparent attack on the Iranian Natanz nuclear facility, which Tehran has blamed on Israel, Netanyahu concluded by saying that “Israel will continue to defend itself against Iran’s aggression and terrorism,” the prime minister added.

Austin, speaking after Netanyahu, refrained from explicitly mentioning Iran but said he had decided to travel to Israel to “express our desire for earnest consultations with Israel, as we address shared challenges in the region.”

With his two-day visit, the first official visit to the Jewish state by an American secretary of defense since 2017, Austin is the first member of US President Joe Biden’s administration to pay an official visit to Israel.

Affirming the Biden administration’s support for Israel’s security and qualitative military edge in the region, Austin said he and Netanyahu discussed “ways to deepen our longstanding defense relationship in the face of regional threats and other security challenges, and I affirm the department’s support for our ongoing diplomatic efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Arab and Muslim-majority nations,” he says.

“I am confident that together we can chart a path toward enduring peace in this region and advance open and stable order — now, and in the years ahead,” Austin said.

Austin’s visit comes amid ongoing talks in Vienna regarding a return to the 2015 nuclear deal by both Iran and the United States, a move that is staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly by Netanyahu.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu warned that Israel will not be bound by a revitalized nuclear deal between world powers and Iran. Israeli defense analysts have warned that there is a growing rift between Jerusalem and Washington on the issue of Iran and its nuclear program, which may have significant ramifications on Israel’s security.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Austin arrived in Israel Sunday as reports emerged from Iran that its Natanz nuclear site had suffered a total power cut in what was widely assumed to be the result of an Israeli cyberattack. Jerusalem refused to comment on the matter, while Iran has blamed Israel, with its foreign minister vowing on Monday to “take revenge on the Zionists.”

The electrical glitch came hours after Tehran began using a new, more powerful centrifuge that could reportedly enrich uranium at a much faster rate than its existing equipment.

Just a day earlier, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said in a report released that Iran had again violated limits on its stockpile of enriched uranium, according to Reuters.

Austin’s visit also comes amid indications the Israel-Iran conflict was increasingly being waged at sea, marking a change in the conflict that previously took place primarily via airstrikes, cyberattacks, alleged espionage activities, and on land.

Israeli officials have refused to comment on the matter, in line with a longstanding policy of ambiguity regarding its military actions against Iran in the region, save for those that are direct, immediate retaliations for attacks on Israel.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

Blast at Natanz was caused by bomb planted near main electric line – Israeli TV

April 14, 2021

Report says enrichment facility entirely stopped functioning since blast, nuclear program set back by at least 6 months; separate report says advanced centrifuges damaged

FILE: Iran's nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)

FILE: Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, 300 kilometers (186 miles) south of the capital Tehran, on April 9, 2007. (Hasan Sarbakhshian/AP)

A blast at Iran’s Natanz nuclear enrichment facility that has been attributed to Israel was caused by a bomb planted at the site in advance, an Israeli television report said Monday.

According to Channel 13 news, the bomb went off Sunday at 4 a.m., when some 1,000 workers were at Natanz. The facility was reportedly evacuated immediately after the blast over fears of further bombs, but no other explosives were found.

The report, which did not cite a source, said the explosive was placed near the main electricity line at Natanz and that when it detonated, the entire facility stopped functioning. The facility remains non-functional, the report said, with the program set back by months.

“All the signs point to this being the worst attack that Iran’s nuclear program has suffered… at the most important Iranian nuclear facility,” said Alon Ben-David, the network’s military analyst.

Natanz has previously been targeted, including by an explosion that rocked the facility last summer, in what was also said to have been an Israeli attack aimed at disrupting uranium enrichment and research at the site. In 2010, the United States and Israel allegedly halted Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet virus, which caused Iranian centrifuges to tear themselves apart, reportedly destroying a fifth of the country’s machines.

Israel is anticipating Iran will respond to the latest attack but not necessarily right away, according to Ben-David. He said such retaliation could come in the form of a cyberattack on civilian infrastructure, an attack on Israeli-owned ships, missile fire from Syria or Yemen, or cruise missile or drone attacks on strategic Israeli targets.

“Yesterday signifies that the faceoff between Israel and Iran has escalated to a higher level,” he said.

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

The network also said Iran may now try to expand its operation at the underground Fordo plant, where it has over 1,000 centrifuges. There were some 6,000 centrifuges at Natanz.

Separately, the Kan public broadcaster reported that advanced centrifuges were damaged in the blast at Natanz. The report, which cited an intelligence source, did not specify which model of centrifuges were targeted. Iran publicly inaugurated the advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges at the facility on Saturday.

The television reports came after the Iranians downplayed the extent of the attack, with a spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran saying Monday that the blast was caused by a “small explosion” but insisting the damage could be quickly repaired.

Iran initially reported a power blackout had hit Natanz on Sunday, a day after it announced it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges banned under the 2015 deal limiting its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Iran blamed Israel for the incident at Natanz, which according to The New York Times was caused by a massive blast at the centrifuges’ power supply. Israeli and US media quoted unnamed intelligence sources as saying it was believed to have caused significant damage to the centrifuges and set back Iran’s uranium enrichment ability by at least nine months.

FILE: The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

The Islamic Republic has called the attack an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowed “revenge on the Zionist regime.”

Sunday’s incident came as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin landed in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The US, Israel’s main security partner, is seeking to reenter the 2015 atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapon — a move staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly Netanyahu.

The US denied Monday that it was involved in the incident at Natanz.

With Natanz sabotage, will Iran’s powerful Guards finally face scrutiny?

April 14, 2021

Attack on nuclear site seen as latest in a string of failures for IRGC; criticism of paramilitary force leaks out ahead of election

Revolutionary Guard troops attend a military parade marking the 39th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Revolutionary Guard troops attend a military parade marking the 39th anniversary of the start of the Iran-Iraq war, in front of the shrine of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, just outside Tehran, Iran, September 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The recent sabotage at Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facility is just the latest setback for the country’s Revolutionary Guard, though the paramilitary force is rarely publicly criticized due to its power.

But with some of its leaders now considering vying for the presidency, the Guard’s influence and failures could become fair game.

In just over the last year, the Guard shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner, killing 176 people. Its forces failed to stop both an earlier attack at Iran’s Natanz facility and the assassination of a top scientist who started a military nuclear program decades earlier. Meanwhile, its floating base in the Red Sea off Yemen suffered an explosion.

Then on Sunday, the nuclear facility, of which the Guard is the chief protector, experienced a blackout that damaged some of its centrifuges. Israel is widely believed to have carried out the sabotage that caused the outage, though it has not claimed it.

This satellite photo from Planet Labs Inc. shows Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility on April 7, 2021 (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

No one in Iran has directly called out the Guard for these failures — and that isn’t surprising. The force created after its 1979 Islamic Revolution has an extensive intelligence apparatus rivaling those of Iran’s civilian government — and it is brutal in its clampdown on dissent. Former detainees at Tehran’s Evin prison describe the Guard as running an entire ward of the facility housing politically sensitive prisoners. Local journalists can face arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment for their work.

Around the edges, however, criticism is beginning to leak out.

Eshaq Jahangiri, President Hassan Rouhani’s top vice president and a reformist, lamented that “nobody is ready to be responsible” for what happened at Natanz in remarks that appeared aimed at the Guard.

“Which body is responsible to identify and prevent the country’s enemies from doing something in the country? Has anyone ever been held accountable, or been held responsible or reprimanded, for what the biggest enemy of this country is doing here?” Jahangiri asked in a video shared widely on social media.

In this Feb. 28, 2020 photo, released by official website of the Office of the Iranian Vice-President, Senior Vice-President Eshaq Jahangiri sits in front of a painting of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini during a top-level meeting on prevention and combating the coronavirus, in Tehran, Iran. (Office of the Iranian Vice President via AP)

Separately quoted by the hardline newspaper Kayhan, Jahangiri added: “People need to know what the resources, credibility, and prestige of the country are being spent on.”

That’s another apparent dig at the Guard, whose business interests through construction and other industries reach into the billions of dollars. The exact scope of all its holdings remains unclear, though experts’ estimates run from 15% to as much as 40% of Iran’s overall economy.

This new willingness to point the finger — however carefully — in the direction of the Guard may in part be due to the upcoming June presidential election.

Rouhani, a relatively moderate cleric within Iran’s theocracy whose administration struck a 2015 nuclear deal that brought Iran relief on sanctions, cannot run again due to term limits. That’s created a potential free-for-all filing period for candidates when it opens in May.

Within Iran, candidates exist on a political spectrum that broadly includes hardliners who want to expand Iran’s nuclear program and confront the world, moderates who hold onto the status quo, and reformists who want to change the theocracy from within. Those calling for radical change find themselves blocked from even running for office by Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council.

A soldier has yet to serve as Iran’s top civilian leader since the Islamic Revolution, in part over the initial suspicion that its conventional military forces remained loyal to the toppled shah. However, a line of former Guard leaders have begun raising their profiles ahead of the vote, and many may try to run.

They include Mohsen Rezaei, an outspoken former top commander; Hossein Dehghan, an adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; Rostam Ghasemi, a former oil minister; and Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, the speaker of Iran’s parliament known for his support of a bloody crackdown on students in 1999.

The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

A young generation of Guard leaders is in the mix as well, led by Saeed Mohammad, who once headed the Guard’s powerful Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters that is one of Iran’s biggest business conglomerates.

The debate over how much power the Guard should wield in Iran’s politics is as old as the Islamic Republic itself. Yet the force has been able to portray itself as the country’s defender through mass media on Iranian state television. Private local channels don’t exist.

That includes the Iranian spy TV show “Gando,” a fever dream of conspiracy theories in line with the Guard’s worldview. Its second season just aired, drawing more criticism for its depiction of Iran’s civilian government as being weak and overwhelmed by foreign powers.

But there’s a clear line between their idealized television version and the reality of these recent attacks striking the heart of one of Iran’s most powerful forces.

“We spent our resources and capabilities for the production of a TV series to portray ourselves as powerful in the fields of security and intelligence, as well as accusing our officials of spying,” wrote the hardline daily Jomhuri Eslami, asking why recent attacks hadn’t been thwarted.

The election may soon see more people soon asking that question publicly.

Iran’s Zarif: Israel made ‘a very bad gamble’ with blast at nuclear plant

April 14, 2021

Iranian FM says Tehran can now legitimately use any capacity it has at Natanz after ‘terrorist stupidity’; Russia’s Lavrov says Moscow expects nuke deal to be saved

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif addresses a conference in Tehran, Iran, February 23, 2021.  (Vahid Salemi/AP)

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

Iran’s foreign minister said Tuesday that Israel made a “very bad gamble” if it believed its alleged sabotage at the Natanz nuclear plant would stop efforts to lift US sanctions on Tehran.

“If [Israel] thought that they can stop Iran from following up on lifting sanctions from the Iranian people, then they made a very bad gamble,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told a joint press conference with his visiting Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov.

“What they did in Natanz, they thought it would reduce Iran’s leverage” in the talks on bringing the US back into the deal, Zarif said. “But it makes it possible for Iran to legally, legitimately, and in order to make up for this terrorist stupidity, use any capacity it has at Natanz.”

He said the enrichment plant would be made “more powerful” with advanced centrifuges.

Zarif additionally said that “acts of sabotage” and sanctions will give the United States no extra leverage in talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, which are set to resume on Wednesday.

“We have no problem with returning to implementing our JCPOA commitments,” he said, referring to the deal with major powers, which Washington quit in 2018.

“But the Americans should know that neither sanctions nor acts of sabotage will give them negotiation tools and these acts will only make the situation more difficult for them,” Zarif told a press conference alongside Lavrov.

File: Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility in Natanz, Iran (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

The US, Israel’s main security partner, is seeking to reenter the 2015 atomic accord aimed at limiting Tehran’s program so that it cannot pursue a nuclear weapon — a move staunchly opposed by Israel, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US has said it is prepared to lift or ease sanctions that are “inconsistent” with the nuclear deal along with sanctions that are “inconsistent with the benefits” that Iran expected to get from agreeing to the accord.

However lawmakers in Tehran have called for the discussions to be suspended in the wake of the incident at Natanz, although the US denied Monday that it was involved.

According to The New York Times, US officials said they did not know if their Iranian counterparts would show up in Vienna on Wednesday when the talks on the agreement were set to resume.

But Lavrov on Tuesday said Moscow expected the Iranian nuclear deal to be saved.

“We expect that it will be possible to preserve the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Lavrov said after the talks with Zarif in Tehran.

In this photo released by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, pose for photos after the ceremony of signing documents, in Tehran, Iran, April 13, 2021 (Iranian Foreign Ministry via AP)

“As far as we understand, our partners in Tehran have expressed their readiness to immediately move in that direction” if Washington upholds agreements on its end, Lavrov added.

Russia’s top diplomat also criticized recent EU sanctions on Iran, saying they raised “a huge number of questions” while talks aimed at reviving the agreement on curbing Tehran’s atomic ambition were ongoing. On Monday, the EU added eight Iranian security officials, including the chief of the powerful Revolutionary Guard, and three notorious prisons to a sanctions blacklist over a 2019 protest crackdown.

The Sunday attack on the Natanz nuclear facility is casting a major shadow over the resumption of indirect talks between the US and Iran over resurrection of the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

The Times reported Monday that the blast that Tehran has blamed on Israel was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli.

According to the official, the blast took out the primary electrical system as well as its backup.

The claim was apparently confirmed by the former head of Iran’s atomic energy organization in an interview with Iranian state television.

Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, Iran's vice president and head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization (photo credit: Ronald Zak/AP)

Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, Iran’s vice president and head of the country’s Atomic Energy Organization (Ronald Zak/AP)

“From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” said Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, now head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee. “They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

Although the extent of the damage remains unknown, the Times said intelligence officials believed it would take many months for the damage to be undone.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that emergency power was already restored at the plant and enrichment was continuing, although it was unclear to what level. “A large portion of the enemy’s sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped,” he told Iranian media, according to the Times.

An unsourced Israeli Channel 13 TV report Monday said the plant was still non-functional, however.

FILE: The aftermath of an explosion and a fire at an advanced centrifuge assembly plant at Iran’s Natanz nuclear site, July 5, 2020. (Planet Labs Inc. via AP)

Channel 13 said the bomb went off Sunday at 4 a.m., when some 1,000 workers were at Natanz. The facility was reportedly evacuated immediately after the blast over fears of further bombs, but no other explosives were found.

The Channel 13 news report, which did not cite a source, said the explosive was placed near the main electricity line at Natanz and that when it detonated, the entire facility stopped functioning. The facility remains nonfunctional, the report said, with the program set back by months.

Natanz has previously been targeted, including by an explosion that rocked the facility last summer, in what was also said to have been an Israeli attack aimed at disrupting uranium enrichment and research at the site. In 2010, the United States and Israel allegedly halted Iran’s nuclear program with the Stuxnet virus, which caused Iranian centrifuges to tear themselves apart, reportedly destroying a fifth of the country’s machines.

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

The network also said Iran may now try to expand its operation at the underground Fordo plant, where it has over 1,000 centrifuges. There were some 6,000 centrifuges at Natanz.

Separately, the Kan public broadcaster reported that advanced centrifuges were damaged in the blast at Natanz. The report, which cited an intelligence source, did not specify which model of centrifuges were targeted. Iran publicly inaugurated the advanced IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges at the facility on Saturday.

Iran blamed Israel for the attack, a day after it announced it had started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges banned under the 2015 deal, calling it an act of “nuclear terrorism” and vowing “revenge on the Zionist regime.”

Back at military cemeteries, Israelis grieve fallen soldiers, terror victims

April 14, 2021

Two-minute siren commemorating 23,928 troops and victims of terror brings country to a halt; Netanyahu to address official state ceremony at Mount Herzl

This picture taken on April 13, 2021, on Yom HaZikaron (Israel's Memorial Day) shows an aerial view of female Israeli soldiers performing salutes by graves at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

This picture taken on April 13, 2021, on Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) shows an aerial view of female Israeli soldiers performing salutes by graves at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Israel came to a standstill on Wednesday morning with a two-minute memorial siren at 11 a.m. commemorating 23,928 fallen soldiers and terror victims, including 43 soldiers and civilians killed since last Memorial Day.

During the siren, traffic around the country came to an abrupt halt, as Israelis stopped driving to stand beside their cars and people at home bowed their heads in somber silence.

At 11:02 a.m., the official commemoration ceremony began at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl with a prayer for the dead by IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Eyal Karim.

Israel’s Memorial Day is marked annually with candle-lighting ceremonies, melancholy music on the radio, and newspaper features and TV programs about those who died. This year sees a return of Israelis visiting the country’s 52 military cemeteries and hundreds of smaller military sections in civilian cemeteries nationwide after they were closed during last year’s commemorations due to coronavirus restrictions.

Israeli soldiers visit graves of fallen soldiers in Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem, on April 13, 2021, ahead of Israeli Memorial Day, which begins tonight. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Wednesday morning official ceremony was joined by families of the fallen, soldiers from across the army’s units and divisions, as well as the nation’s leaders, President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, chief rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau, IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, Supreme Court chief justice Esther Hayut, Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman and Mossad head Yossi Cohen.

The prime minister will deliver his main Memorial Day address at the ceremony.

A separate official ceremony honoring the 4,176 people who died in acts of terror will begin at 1 p.m. at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem.

Female soldiers place Israeli national flags showing black sashes atop with the Hebrew word “Remembrance” on graves, at the Kiryat Shaul military cemetery in the Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on April 13, 2021, as they pay respects to fallen soldiers on Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day). (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

Since last Memorial Day, 112 new names were added to the roster of those who died defending the country since 1860. Forty-three were IDF soldiers, police officers, and civilians, and 69 were disabled veterans who passed away due to complications of injuries sustained during their service.

The figures include all soldiers and police who died during their service over the past year, including as a result of accidents, suicide, or illness.

Screen capture from video of IDF disabled veteran Itzik Saidyan talking about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. (Channel 12 News)

In a stark reminder of the toll of Israel’s wars, a former soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder set himself on fire on Monday outside the Defense Ministry’s rehabilitation center, setting off a national reckoning. Itzik Saidyan, 26, remains in critical condition.

Memorial Day is one of Israel’s few national, non-religious holidays, during which large swaths of the Israeli public typically visit the graves of loved ones and comrades.

Unlike last year, when the pandemic saw all Memorial Day ceremonies held without audiences and smaller events planned for municipal cemeteries across the country were canceled, this year’s events will be held under few health restrictions.

The general public has nonetheless been encouraged to visit the graves of fallen soldiers earlier this week to avoid crowding on Memorial Day itself when close relatives visit.

On Wednesday, ministers approved removing some Memorial Day rules, including allowing relatives of the fallen who do not have the Green Pass to attend ceremonies. The Green Pass is given to those who are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the coronavirus, granting them entry to public venues not open to others.

People stand for a two-minute silence in Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda market on Memorial Day, Yom Hazikaron, April 28, 2020 April 28, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The new measures include raising the number of people allowed to gather outdoors from 50 to 100.  The current limit of 20 people indoors remains in place.

The Memorial Day events officially began at the Yad LaBanim center in Jerusalem on Tuesday afternoon, with Netanyahu, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin and Chief Justice Hayut in attendance.

Speaking at the ceremony, Netanyahu said Israel will make “every effort” to return its captives, which include two civilians and the bodies of two IDF soldiers believed to be held by the Hamas terror group in Gaza.

“This is a sacred mission that we’re not letting go of,” he said.

President Reuven Rivlin speaks at a ceremony marking Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and victims of terror, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City, on April 13, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Speaking at the official state ceremony held at the Western Wall, President Reuven Rivlin said the message of the day was that citizens of the Jewish state must not take it for granted.

“From here, I want to speak to you, the commanders, the soldiers, those soon to enlist, the young generation. I grew up as a child at a time when we did not have a state. For me, for those of my generation, the State of Israel is not something to be taken for granted. This strong and powerful country you see was established by the heroism and dedication of young people of your age,” Rivlin said.

The commemoration day, established in 1951 by then-prime minister and defense minister David Ben-Gurion, was set for the 4th of Iyar on the Jewish calendar, the day before Independence Day, which begins immediately after Memorial Day.

At 7:45 p.m. Wednesday evening, Memorial Day will end with the national torch-lighting ceremony at Mount Herzl that will usher in Israel’s 73th Independence Day.

Biden to approve $23 billion sale of F-35s to UAE that followed Abraham Accords

April 14, 2021

New administration had been reviewing foreign arms sales made by Trump, including deal to supply advanced stealth jets reached as part of Israel normalization

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to reporters at Israel's Nevatim air base Monday, with an Israeli F-35 fighter jet in the background, on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Israel. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks to reporters at Israel’s Nevatim air base Monday, with an Israeli F-35 fighter jet in the background, on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Israel. (AP Photo/Robert Burns)

The Biden administration has told Congress it will move ahead with a massive arms deal to the United Arab Emirates, including advanced F-35 aircraft, that was signed in the wake of Israel’s normalization deal with the Gulf nation, congressional aides told Reuters on Tuesday.

A State Department spokesperson said the administration would move forward with the proposed sales to the UAE, which also include armed drones and other equipment, “even as we continue reviewing details and consulting with Emirati officials” related to the use of the weapons.

In January, the new administration put a temporary hold on several major foreign arms sales initiated by former US president Donald Trump, including the deal to provide 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates, which was fast-tracked by Washington after Abu Dhabi agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

The State Department spokesperson told Reuters that estimated delivery dates to the UAE were for after 2025.

In addition to the massive $23 billion transfer of stealth F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates, another deal being paused is the planned major sale of munitions to Saudi Arabia. Both sales were harshly criticized by Democrats in Congress.

It was not immediately clear if the Saudi deal was also going ahead.

“When it comes to arms sales, it is typical at the start of an administration to review any pending sales, to make sure that what is being considered is something that advances our strategic objectives and advances our foreign policy,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said after putting the review in place in January.

From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan are seen on the Blue Room Balcony after signing the Abraham Accords during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, September 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The Trump administration’s announcement on the F-35 sale came shortly after the Republican president lost the November 6 election to now-President Joe Biden and followed the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, under which the Arab states agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

Trump had explicitly backed arms sales on commercial grounds, saying that the Saudis were creating US jobs by buying from US manufacturers.

Congressional critics have expressed disapproval with such sales, including the deal with Saudi Arabia, that then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed through after bypassing lawmakers by declaring an emergency required it. The critics have alleged the weapons could be used to aid Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which is the home of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Less than a month after the UAE sale was announced, an effort to block the deal fell short in the Senate, which failed to halt it.

Senators argued the sale of the defense equipment had unfolded too quickly and raised too many questions. The Trump administration billed it as a way to deter Iran, but the UAE would have become the first Arab nation — and only the second country in the Middle East, after Israel — to possess the stealth warplanes.

The deal was approved by the UAE during Trump’s final hour in the White House, a US official said.

The exact nature of the agreement signed that day was not clear though, nor whether it represented the contract itself. A contract would be more binding and could place financial penalties on parties who fail to follow through with the deal.

Then-Vice President Joe Biden (left) and then-Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, June 30, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“We very much support the Abraham Accords. We think that Israel normalizing relations with its neighbors and other countries in the region is a very positive development,” Blinken said in January.

“We’re also trying to make sure that we have a full understanding of any commitments that may have been made in securing those agreements, and that’s something we’re looking at right now,” he added.

In a November interview with The Times of Israel, Blinken panned the apparent “quid pro quo” nature of the F-35 sale that immediately followed the normalization agreement.

“The Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region,” said Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser, deputy national security adviser to the president and deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

Israel and the UAE signed a US-brokered normalization deal in September. The Trump administration formally notified Congress of its planned weapons sale to Abu Dhabi two months later.

Despite the review, Israel-UAE normalization has moved ahead without any adverse effects over the last few months.

On the record, the three countries have insisted that the arms deal was not part of negotiations that brought about the so-called Abraham Accords.

But Trump officials have acknowledged that the agreement put Abu Dhabi in a better position to receive such advanced weaponry, and a source with direct knowledge of the talks told The Times of Israel that both the US and Israel knew that the arms deal was “very much part of the deal.”

Israel announced in October that it would not oppose the sale, an about-face from its previous opposition to the deal on the grounds that it would harm the Jewish state’s military edge in the region. That decision came after meetings held between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his US counterpart at the time, Mark Esper, at the conclusion of which the sides signed an agreement further codifying Washington’s commitment to maintaining Israel’s federally-protected military edge in the region.

From left, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin stand in front of an Iron Dome missile defense system at the Nevatim Air Base in southern Israel on April 12, 2021. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Tuesday’s news that the US would move ahead came a day after Gantz met current US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Tel Aviv. It was not clear if the sale to the UAE was a focus of their talks.

Gantz is also believed to have secured an American commitment to a substantial military package to compensate for the weapons that the Pentagon was preparing to sell to one of Israel’s neighbors.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report

Senior Iran official confirms ‘thousands of centrifuges damaged and destroyed’

April 14, 2021

Admission of scale of damage at Natanz casts doubts on Tehran’s ability to ramp up uranium enrichment to 60%, as threatened; Israeli report says whole plant still out of commission

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

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

A senior Iranian official confirmed Tuesday that the blast at the Natanz nuclear facility, which Tehran blames on Israel, destroyed or damaged thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Alireza Zakani, the hard-line head of the Iranian parliament’s research center, referred to “several thousand centrifuges damaged and destroyed” in a state TV interview. However, no other official has offered that figure and no images of the aftermath have been released.

His comments came as Iran said it was stepping up uranium enrichment to an unprecedented 60% — bringing Iran closer to the 90% purity threshold for military use, and shortening its potential “breakout time” to the bomb — and installing new centrifuges in response to the Sunday attack.

The remarks appear to confirm Israeli reports indicating the damage was widespread and Iran will have significant difficulty restoring its enrichment to previous levels in the coming months.

An Israeli TV report on Tuesday night said that Iran will only be able to enrich very small quantities of uranium to 60% since Natanz is still out of commission following the Sunday attack.

Channel 13 analyst Alon Ben David said that despite Iranian officials’ vow to start preparing Wednesday to begin the higher enrichment process, they cannot do it at Natanz, since the 6,000 centrifuges there remain “out of action.”

There are 1,000 centrifuges at Iran’s Fordo nuclear facility that can enrich to 60% in very small quantities, the Israeli analyst said, describing the Iranian threat of higher enrichment, therefore, as unlikely to be significant.

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

The weekend attack at Natanz was initially described only as a blackout in the electrical grid feeding above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls — but later Iranian officials began calling it an attack.

On Monday, an Iranian official acknowledged that the blast took out the plant’s main electrical power system and its backup. “From a technical standpoint, the enemy’s plan was rather beautiful,” Fereydoon Abbasi Davani, the head of the Iranian parliament’s energy committee, told Iranian state television on Monday.

“They thought about this and used their experts and planned the explosion so both the central power and the emergency power cable would be damaged.”

The comments from Davani, the former head of Iran’s atomic energy organization, came as reports in Israel and the US provided new details of the early Sunday bombing and its consequences, with assessments that the blast would set back the Iranians by 6-9 months.

The New York Times reported that the blast was caused by a bomb that was smuggled into the plant and then detonated remotely. The report cited an unnamed intelligence official, without specifying whether they were American or Israeli. This official also specified that the blast took out Natanz’s primary electrical system as well as its backup.

Behrouz Kamalvandi, spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, is interviewed from his hospital bed on April 12, 2021, after being injured the day before in a reported fall at the Natanz nuclear facility. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The report said that Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, said the explosion inside the bunker had created a hole so big that he fell into it when trying to examine the damage, injuring his head, back, leg and arm.

Nevertheless, other Iranian officials tried to play down the damage in the underground facility.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, claimed earlier Monday that emergency power had already been restored at the plant and enrichment was continuing.

“A large portion of the enemy’s sabotage can be restored, and this train cannot be stopped,” he told Iranian media, according to the Times.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry said it damaged some of Iran’s first-generation IR-1 centrifuges, the workhorse of its nuclear program.

Enrichment to 60% marks a significant escalation and is a short technical step away from weapons-grade uranium. Iran had been enriching up to 20%, and even that was a short step from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said its atomic energy agency will initiate preparatory steps to ramp up enrichment on Tuesday night. The report said the damaged IR-1 centrifuges will be replaced with new machines that have a higher capacity.

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in a statement that Iran warned it will start enriching uranium up to 60% purity.

In a report to member states, the IAEA’s director-general, Rafael Mariano Grossi, “said Iran had informed the Agency that the country intends to start producing UF6 enriched up to 60 percent,” the statement said.

Israel has hinted at being involved, but not officially confirmed any role in the attack. However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed never to allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon and Israel has twice preemptively bombed Mideast nations to stop their atomic programs.