Tehran's chief negotiator downplays hopes of a deal to end long-running nuclear dispute, saying there are 'major differences' between Iran and world powers.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif (2nd-R) and his deputy Seyyed Abbas Araghchi (R) meeting with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (C), Helga Maria Schmid, deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and James Morrison (L), head of Ashton's cabinet, during talks over Iran's nuclear programme in Geneva Photo: EPA
By Hannah Strange
9:24AM GMT 21 Nov 2013
Iran will only sign up to an international deal on its nuclear programme if it is guaranteed the right to continue enriching uranium "from start to finish", the country's chief negotiator at talks in Geneva said on Thursday.
"No deal that does not include the right to uranium enrichment from start to finish will be accepted," Abbas Araghchi said ahead of negotiations in the Swiss capital aimed at ending the decade-old nuclear dispute. Iran could discuss volumes, levels and locations but "the principle of enrichment is not negotiable", he insisted.
As representives of Iran and six world powers - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany - prepared for the two days of talks, the negotiator downplayed hopes of agreement. He said there were "major differences" between Iran and world powers, adding: "There is a chance of a deal by tomorrow (Friday) but it's a difficult task."
Mr Araghchi told state television that the main obstacle to agreement was a "lack of trust because of what happened at the last round" - referring to November talks when world powers toughened up the terms of a draft deal - insisting that "as long as trust is not restored, we cannot continue constructive negotiations".
In the run-up to the talks, the key players, including Iran, have expressed optimism that an agreement is within reach. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, said on Wednesday that the remaining differences between the parties were small. "It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy," he said.
But Washington and Tehran reverted to a tougher tone on the eve of the talks on Wednesday, as Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader, delivered a bellicose speech insisting there would be no retreat on the country's nuclear "rights" and Washington warned it would be "very hard" to produce a deal.
Ayatollah Khamenei also stoked the ire of two of Iran's negotiating partners, saying America "considered itself superior to mankind" and denouncing France for "kneeling" before Israel – a reference to the fact that French calls for a tougher deal, as demanded by Israel, reportedly scuppered agreement at the last round of talks.
The Ayatollah's tirade drew an angry response from Francois Hollande, the French president, who demanded Iran "provide answers and not provocations" over its disputed nuclear programme.
"It is clear that Khamenei's proposal's could not lead to calm and understanding. Iran must provide answers and not provocations," Mr Hollande said.
Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, sounded a more conciliatory note, saying nuclear development was not "about joining a club or threatening others" and insisting the country's programme was for peaceful energy purposes only.
But it was perhaps partly in response to the Ayatollah's bullish rhetoric that a senior Obama adminstration official warned last night that a deal would be difficult.
"We will have to see because it is hard," the official said. "It is very hard... If it was easy to do, it would have been done a long time ago."
Diplomats say a deal has already been outlined that would freeze Iran's nuclear programme in return for some sanctions relief, a "first step" agreement that would establish a six-month diplomatic window for a long-term settlement to be negotiated.
But it faces vehement opposition from Israel, whose prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday flew to Moscow to lobby President Vladimir Putin to tighten up the terms of the deal, as well as conservative US congressmen who have defied President Obama to push for fresh economic sanctions against Iran.
Tuesday, November 19, 2013
(Reuters) - An exiled opposition group said on Thursday it had obtained information about a secret underground nuclear site under construction in Iran, without specifying what kind of atomic activity it believed would be carried out there.
The dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) exposed Iran's uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water facility at Arak in 2002. But analysts say it has a mixed track record and a clear political agenda.
In 2010, when the group said it had evidence of another new nuclear facility, west of the capital Tehran, U.S. officials said they had known about the site for years and had no reason to believe it was nuclear.
The latest allegation comes less than a month after the election of a relative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's new president raised hopes for a resolution of the nuclear dispute with the West, and might be timed to discredit such optimism.
The Islamic Republic says its nuclear energy program is entirely peaceful and rejects U.S. and Israeli accusations that it is really seeking the capability to make nuclear weapons.
But its refusal to curb sensitive nuclear activity, and its lack of full openness with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, have drawn tough Western sanctions and a threat of pre-emptive military strikes by Israel.
The NCRI said members of its affiliated People's Mujahideen Organisation of Iran (PMOI) inside the country had "obtained reliable information on a new and completely secret site designated for (Iran's) nuclear project".
The NCRI, which seeks an end to Islamist theocratic rule in Iran, is the political wing of the PMOI, which fought alongside Saddam Hussein's forces in the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
The NCRI said the site was inside a complex of tunnels beneath mountains 10 km (6 miles) east of the town of Damavand, itself about 50 km northeast of Tehran. Construction of the first phase began in 2006 and was recently completed, it said.
The group released satellite photographs of what it said was the site. But the images did not appear to constitute hard evidence to support the assertion that it was a planned nuclear facility.
A spokesman for the dissidents said he could not say what sort of nuclear work would be conducted there, but that the companies and people involved showed it was a nuclear site. The group named officials it said were in charge of the project.
"The site consists of four tunnels and has been constructed by a group of engineering and construction companies associated with the engineering arms of the Ministry of Defense and the IRGC (Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards force)," the NCRI said.
"Two of the tunnels are about 550 meters (600 yards) in length, and they have a total of six giant halls."
Asked about the report, International Atomic Energy Agency spokeswoman Gill Tudor said in Vienna: "The agency will assess the information that has been provided, as we do with any new information we receive."
A Western diplomat accredited to the IAEA told Reuters: "I have heard nothing. My first suspicion is that it is like the 2010 revelation - a tunnel facility the Iranians are keeping quiet, but no known link to the nuclear program."
Iran said in late 2009 that it planned to build 10 more uranium enrichment sites on top of its underground Natanz and Fordow plants, but has provided little additional information.
Refined uranium can provide fuel for nuclear power plants, which is Iran's stated aim, but can also be used to make atomic bombs, which the West fears may be Tehran's ultimate goal.
U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, (r.), is offering assurances to Israelis that America has her back. (Reuters)
HAIFA, ISRAEL – America's ambassador to Israel has been in damage control mode after his boss, Secretary of State John Kerry, wondered rhetorically if Jewish opposition to peace negotiations with Palestinians was driven by a desire for "a third Intifada."
The flap comes amid diplomatic tension between the two allies. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly lobbied against a U.S.-backed resolution to Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons last week. And this week has seen U.S. Ambassador Daniel Shapiro doing his best to smooth things over and assure Israel that the U.S. still stands with her in the wake of Kerry’s controversial recent remark in a joint Palestinian-Israel TV interview.
“The alternative to getting back to the [peace] talks is the potential of chaos," Kerry said. "Does Israel want a third Intifada?"
The remark was seen as giving Palestinian factions a green light to go on the offensive should the foundering Kerry-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians fail to make any progress.
"Does Israel want a third Intifada?"
- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry
Intifada is an Arabic word for uprising and was the term given to intensified Israeli–Palestinian violence from 1987-1993 and again from 2000 to 2005. In each, hundreds of Israeli soldiers and citizens were killed by Palestinian terrorism and rocket attacks, and thousands of Palestinians were killed in reprisals by Israeli security forces.
Speaking earlier in the week in Jerusalem at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, Shapiro moved to calm rising tensions.
“It is as close as it has ever been and at its heart is an iron-clad American commitment to Israel’s security,” Shapiro said of the U.S.-Israel relationship. “The U.S. is proud to stand with Israel. President Obama underscored this fact during his historic visit to Israel last March. We know that in doing so - because we face common threats in the Middle East from terrorism to proliferation to instability that effect both of us - it means we are enhancing our own security as well.
“That commitment includes strongly supporting Israel’s goal...to achieve a two states for two people resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have no illusions about the challenges, but we will not be daunted in pursuit of this goal.”
Kerry’s “third Intifada” remark came on the day when two Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces at the scene of two separate attacks on Israelis in the West Bank. The following day an Israeli mother and daughter were lucky to suffer only minor injuries after their car was firebombed while driving near Bethlehem.
Despite Shapiro’s comments, tension in Israel and the Palestinian territories appears to be rising, fueled anew by the Israeli Housing Ministry’s announcement on Tuesday of the construction of as many as 20,000 new homes in the disputed West Bank. That figure included a proposal for 1,400 homes in the contentious E1 district that Netanyahu’s office moved quickly to annul in an apparent attempt to dampen international criticism. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, however, announced Wednesday in an interview on Egyptian TV that his negotiating team had resigned.
Earlier Wednesday, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier was stabbed to death by a 16-year-old Palestinian passenger on a bus in the northern Israeli town of Afula. The murder of Eden Attias has sparked a series of demonstrations around Israel against negotiations with the Palestinians which have been taken place as Israel has continued releasing scores of convicted Palestinian murderers and terrorists as a gesture of good faith. It transpired that the teenage murder suspect is the cousin of a convicted Palestinian murderer.
“There is an atmosphere in the [Palestinian] territories that the tactic that [Yasser] Arafat encouraged in the past...is being given the nod by the Palestinians even while the talks have been continuing,” regional analyst Zvi Yehezkeli said on Israel’s Channel 10 in response to the murder of the young soldier.”
The Obama Administration's reaching out to Iran, America's cold shoulder policy to the interim Egyptian regime and Kerry’s “third Intifada” comment, have left many in Israel pondering the true direction of U.S. policy in the region. They are already wondering if the backlash from such policies and statements is already being felt, thanks to newly emboldened Palestinian militants.
“This isn’t an Intifada yet, this is something new," Israeli political commentator Alon Ben David observed Wednesday. "There is an atmosphere that appears to be encouraging these incidents.”
Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster and at www.paulalster.com
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
By ISABEL KERSHNER
JERUSALEM — A Palestinian teenager fatally stabbed a 19-year-old Israeli soldier on a bus in northern Israel on Wednesday, according to the police, shocking Israelis who have grown unused to such killings in their cities and further clouding a peace process that was already severely strained by Israeli settlement plans in the West Bank.
The latest crisis was set off by reports on Tuesday that Israel’s housing minister, Uri Ariel, had initiated planning for about 20,000 new settlement homes. But some officials suggested that talk of a possible collapse of the negotiations amounted to posturing, especially after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered Mr. Ariel to “reconsider” his new settlement plans, essentially putting them on hold.
“If the Palestinians want to create an artificial crisis, that’s unfortunate,” a senior Israeli official said on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the peace talks in public. Dismissing Mr. Ariel’s plans as having no legal standing or practical significance, the Israeli official said the Palestinians were “going through the motions.”
Arik Ben-Shimon, an aide to Mr. Ariel, said on Wednesday that the new settlement planning was “frozen” but not canceled. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, who offered his resignation two weeks ago, said Mr. Ariel “needs to revoke the orders,” indicating that the issue was far from resolved.
The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, confirmed in an interview with Egyptian CBC television this week that the Palestinian negotiating team had resigned. He said he was trying to convince the negotiators to continue, adding, “If they don’t accept, I will form another team.” The interview was recorded two days before the Palestinians learned of the new settlement plans, according to Mr. Erekat.
The stabbing of the soldier on Wednesday also prompted calls for a rethinking on the Israeli side. Right-wing Israeli politicians have demanded a re-examination of Israel’s agreement to release 104 long-serving Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons in four batches as part of a deal to resume peace talks. Two of the four groups have already been released.
In a post on her Facebook page, Tzipi Livni, the minister leading the negotiations for the Israeli government, wrote: “I wrote here earlier and harshly criticized the damage in announcing settlement construction, but I took the post off because the profound political debate about the future of our life here will certainly continue, but not now. Now I would like to pay my respects to the memory of the soldier and express sorrow to the family and to clarify one more thing: violence will not bring political achievements. And we will fight terrorism and extremists decisively and without compromise.”
The stabbing took place when the bus, traveling from upper Nazareth to Tel Aviv, pulled into a station in the northern town of Afula.
The Israeli military said that the recently conscripted soldier, Eden Atias, 19, was in uniform at the time of the attack and that he had been on his way to an army base. He was stabbed several times in the upper body, according to Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the police. Mr. Rosenfeld said that a 16-year-old Palestinian, from the Jenin area of the West Bank, was apprehended at the scene and that he told security personnel under questioning that he had acted to avenge at least one relative serving time an Israeli prison.
The Palestinian news media identified the suspect as Hussein Ghwadreh and said he had two cousins serving terms in Israeli prisons, one of them a life term.
The attack came after a string of violent episodes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank in recent months that ended a period of relative calm. Since September, an Israeli soldier has been killed in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian sniper; an off-duty soldier has been killed by a Palestinian acquaintance who had lured him to the West Bank; and a retired colonel has been bludgeoned to death outside his home in the Jordan Valley.
In the last week, an Israeli couple escaped from a burning car after it was hit by a firebomb on a West Bank road and a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli soldiers after he opened fire at a bus stop with a homemade handgun.
Israeli security officials have attributed the rise in attacks to unrelated individuals rather than an orchestrated campaign backed by militant groups. A number of Palestinians have also been killed recently in clashes with Israeli soldiers. Three were killed in one arrest raidthat turned violent in August.
Mr. Netanyahu and several of his ministers have blamed incitement against Israelis and Jews in the Palestinian Authority-sponsored news media and schools for the violence. Yuval Steinitz, the Israeli minister of strategic affairs, said Wednesday that the main obstacle to peace was “a culture of hatred sponsored by the government, sponsored by the Palestinian Authority.”
“Israelis find it more and more difficult to believe that even if they will make concessions what they will get in return is a genuine peace,” he added.
A Palestinian official involved in the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss them publicly, accused the Israeli government of “playing games.” The attack on the soldier was “an isolated incident by an individual,” he said, adding, “Those trying to torpedo the negotiations on the Israeli side are in the government.”
Jodi Rudoren and Said Ghazali contributed reporting.
The Obama administration began softening sanctions on Iran after the election of Iran’s new president in June, months before the current round of nuclear talks in Geneva or the historic phone call between the two leaders in September.
While those negotiations now appear on the verge of a breakthrough the key condition for Iran—relief from crippling sanctions—began quietly and modestly five months ago.
A review of Treasury Department notices reveals that the U.S. government has all but stopped the financial blacklisting of entities and people that help Iran evade international sanctions since the election of its president, Hassan Rouhani, in June.
On Wednesday Obama said in an interview with NBC News the negotiations in Geneva “are not about easing sanctions.” “The negotiations taking place are about how Iran begins to meet its international obligations and provide assurances not just to us but to the entire world,” the president said.
But it has also long been Obama’s strategy to squeeze Iran’s economy until Iran would be willing to trade relief from sanctions for abandoning key elements of its nuclear program.
One way Obama has pressured Iran is through isolating the country’s banks from the global financial sector, the networks that make modern international commerce possible. This in turn has led Iran to seek out front companies and cutouts to conduct routine international business, such as selling its crude oil.
In this cat and mouse game, the Treasury Department in recent years has routinely designated new entities as violators of sanctions, forcing Iran to adjust in turn. In the six weeks prior to the Iranian elections in June, the Treasury Department issued seven notices of designations of sanctions violators that included more than 100 new people, companies, aircraft, and sea vessels.
Since June 14, however, when Rouhani was elected, the Treasury Department has only issued two designation notices that have identified six people and four companies as violating the Iran sanctions.
When an entity is designated as a sanctions violator it can be catastrophic. Banks and other investors almost never take the risk of doing business with the people and companies on a Treasury blacklist because of the potential reputational harm and the prospect they could lose access to U.S. financial markets.
“Sounds like Obama decided to enter the Persian nuclear bazaar to haggle with the masters of negotiation.”
A Treasury spokesman contacted by The Daily Beast said the effectiveness of sanctions should be measured by their results and not the number of entities designated. (A White House spokesman declined to comment, directing inquiries to the Treasury.) The Treasury spokesman also said that the significant financial pressure on Iran in recent years changed the calculus of the country’s leaders and led to the election of Rouhani, who is a former nuclear negotiator and is considered more moderate than his predecessor.
“In the months since the Iranian election we have continued to pursue our unwavering goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” the spokesman said. “We have not let up on vigorous sanctions enforcement one iota. This includes new designations of sanctions evaders as well as other steps to address potential sanctions evasion.”
But the enforcement of sanctions, experts said, is very different than the process of designating new violators. To start, sanctions enforcement means the levying of fines or other legal measures against those people and entities already designated by the Treasury Department as a violator.
The designation process is more proactive. “The designations are important because they identify illicit actors that are abusing the international financial sector in addition to signaling the U.S. intention to isolate Iran’s economy,” said Avi Jorisch, a former U.S. Treasury official who has worked closely on Iran sanctions and has advocated for toughening these sanctions since leaving government.
Advocates of sanctions relief also acknowledge that the administration has pursued a policy of quietly lessening financial pressure on Iran. They argue that was a logical policy when married to the process of renewing diplomatic negotiations with Iran, which according to the Wall Street Journal this week, has been going on for several months.
“Before the election there were a lot of these designations,” said Trita Parsi, the executive director of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has advocated for ending sanctions on Iran since. “Their impact was probably not decisive, but it was a way for the White House to signal to the Iranians and Congress they were going forward with the sanctions train.” Parsi continued: “After the election [the Obama administration] wanted to give the opposite signal, a pause. The last thing you would want to do is let the sanctions train go forward and potentially scuttle an opportunity that could have been there.”
Following the Iranian elections, there were also a lot of changes inside the Iranian government, making the task of designating officials and entities a bit more tricky, Parsi said. But a significant part of the administration’s decision, in Parsi’s opinion, was the belief that continuing a high pace of designations would “undermine the signal that they were trying to send, that there was an opening.”
Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, an organization that has worked closely with Congress and the administration on devising the current Iranian sanctions, said the slow pace of designations was only one kind of sanctions relief Obama has been offering Iran.
“For five months, since Rouhani’s election, the United States has offered Iran two major forms of sanctions relief,” Dubowitz said. “First there’s been a significant slowdown in the pace of designations while the Iranians are proliferating the number of front companies and cutouts to bust sanctions.”
The second kind of relief Dubowitz said the White House had offered Iran was through its opposition to new Iran sanctions legislation supported by both parties in Congress.
By Dubowitz’s estimates, Iran is now selling between 150,000 and 200,000 barrels of oil per day on the black market, meaning that Iran has profited from the illicit sale of over 35 million barrels of oil since Rouhani took office, with little additional measures taken by the United States to counter it.
“Sounds like Obama decided to enter the Persian nuclear bazaar to haggle with the masters of negotiation and has had his head handed to him,” Dubowitz said.
BETHLEHEM, West Bank — Secretary of State John Kerry, seeking to quell a dispute over Jewish settlements that threatens to poison peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, pressed the Israeli government on Wednesday to limit its approval of new construction.
Mr. Kerry’s efforts to steady the talks got off to a bumpy start, with the Palestinians seething over recent building announcements and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel bluntly criticizing Palestinian leaders for inciting trouble and evading tough decisions.
The prime minister’s comments, which came days after the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, lamented the lack of progress, underscored the depth of the challenge facing Mr. Kerry as he tries to prevent the latest round of talks from slipping into a familiar cycle of recrimination.
Adding to the potential hurdles for diplomacy was the acquittal Wednesday on corruption charges of Israel’s former foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, whose hard-line views and polarizing style could disrupt the talks. Mr. Lieberman, who is expected to return to the foreign minister’s post, has said he views a peace deal with the Palestinians as being “decades away.”
Mr. Kerry, who thrust himself back into the talks to recapture momentum, instead found himself dealing with anger on both sides. Under pressure from Mr. Abbas, he declared that the Palestinians had not agreed to the continued building of settlements in the West Bank as a condition for resuming direct negotiations with the Israelis.
“That is not to say that they weren’t aware, or we weren’t aware, that there would be construction,” Mr. Kerry said here after meeting Mr. Abbas. “But that construction, importantly, in our judgment, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively.”
In Jerusalem, Mr. Netanyahu aired his dissatisfaction with the state of the talks even before the start of his meeting with Mr. Kerry, saying, “I see the Palestinians continuing with incitement, continuing to create artificial crises, continuing to avoid, run away from the historic decisions that are necessary to make a genuine peace.”
At the heart of the current tempest is whether the Palestinians accepted that Israel would announce new settlement construction as it released Palestinian prisoners. The Israelis say it was understood; the Palestinians reject that. On Tuesday, officials said, the dispute led to a shouting match between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Some analysts said that the public display of outrage by Palestinian leaders, including an offer of resignation last week by the chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, was more likely about appeasing the Palestinian street than a reflection of what is happening inside the negotiating room. But that need to show steadfastness, on both sides, is a hint of the broader hurdles Mr. Kerry faces in bridging the significant gaps.
For his part, Mr. Kerry professed to be undaunted. “There are always difficulties, always tensions,” he said. “I’m very confident of our ability to work through them. That’s why I’m here.”
Standing in a sun-splashed square next to the Church of the Nativity, Mr. Kerry announced that the United States would contribute an additional $75 million in aid to a Palestinian Authority fund to build roads, hospitals and schools in the West Bank — a program that is designed to create jobs and build Palestinian support for the peace process.
Anat N. Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the statements by Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas, as well as a series of negatives leaks, indicated the talks were at a nadir. But that, she said, could present Mr. Kerry with an opening.
“If I want to be optimistic, I would say that in the face of the crisis, maybe the administration will step in,” said Ms. Kurz, whose current research focuses on the conflict. “That would force the two sides to come up with something realistic.”
Still, Palestinian leaders continued to accuse Israel of sabotaging the talks with leaks and settlement announcements, and they have taken strong positions on core issues that make a deal seem like a distant dream. Nimr Hamad, a political adviser to Mr. Abbas, said on Voice of Palestine radio that “any proposal that doesn’t include full withdrawal from East Jerusalem” — something Mr. Netanyahu has said will never happen on his watch — means “there will not be a peace agreement.”
Wasel Abu Yousif, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, said Mr. Abbas planned to tell Mr. Kerry that “we can’t continue with the negotiations with what Israel is doing” with settlements, and that continued construction would lead the Palestinians to pursue sanctions against Israel in international forums.
In his remarks, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that he viewed nuclear talks with Iran, which resume Thursday in Geneva, as his top priority. He called for the United States and other major powers to tighten, not reduce, sanctions against Iran while the talks are underway.
Mr. Kerry repeated his pledge that the West would not make a bad nuclear deal with Iran, saying no deal was preferable. Some analysts said the parallel negotiations could strengthen Mr. Kerry’s hand to the extent that he is able to use pledges of American resolve on Iran to entice Mr. Netanyahu into making concessions in the peace talks.
But there is little sign of that, and the return of Mr. Lieberman to the government raises questions about whether Mr. Netanyahu will instead take a harder line in the negotiations with the Palestinians.
“The sense of urgency is less acute than it was,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. “I’m not saying negotiations are doomed to fail; I’m saying I’m not surprised that there is no progress. It definitely will take more time and will require not just tenacity but also ingenuity on the part of the secretary of state.”
Friday, November 1, 2013
By Crispian Balmer
JERUSALEM | Fri Nov 1, 2013 2:30pm EDT
(Reuters) - Israel said it would not allow advanced weapons to fall into the hands of Hezbollah, after a raid on Syria that opposition sources said had hit an air force garrison believed to be holding Russian-made missiles destined for the militant group.
Israel has a clear policy on Syria and will continue to enforce it, officials said on Friday, after U.S. and European sources said Israel had launched a new attack on its warring neighbor.
Israel declined to comment on leaks to U.S. media that its planes had hit a Syrian base near the port of Latakia, targeting missiles that it thought were destined for its Lebanese enemy, Hezbollah.
"We have said many times that we will not allow the transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah," said Home Front Defense Minister Gilad Erdan, a member of the inner security cabinet which met hours before the alleged Israeli attack.
"We are sticking to this policy and I say so without denying or confirming this report," he told Israel Radio.
Israel is believed to have attacked targets in Syria on at least four occasions this year, the last time in July, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he would not let sophisticated anti-aircraft, anti-ship and long-range missiles move from the hands of Syria to its Hezbollah ally.
One U.S. official and two European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel was understood to have carried out the latest air strike on Wednesday.
The officials did not identify the target in Syria, but the U.S. official and one of the European officials noted that in the past such Israeli operations have destroyed missiles to prevent their transfer to Hezbollah.
A Latakia activist told Reuters that an explosion had rocked a garrison area that houses an air force brigade loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad near Snobar Jableh village mid-afternoon on October 30.
Ambulance sirens were heard rushing to the scene, however, the activist, who calls himself Khaled, said there was a "total media blackout" about the incident.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights quoted sources as saying there were four or five explosions at the base, but only limited damage reported. Al-Arabiya news network said SAM 8 anti-aircraft missiles were destroyed.
Former Syrian intelligence agent Afaq Ahmad, a defector now in exile in France, told Reuters on Thursday that contacts of his inside Syria, including in Latakia province, told him Russian-made ballistic missiles had been kept at the site that was attacked.
Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, are battling rebels in a civil war that has killed well over 100,000.
Khaled said Assad loyalists were frustrated about Israel's apparent impunity, recalling that the Syrian president had previously indicated Syria would respond to further attacks.
"Yet Israel keeps hitting us and there's no retaliation. So even the staunchest loyalists are getting very upset," he said.
IRRITATION BETWEEN ALLIES
Israel deliberately remains silent over its actions in Syria to keep a lid on tensions and try to avoid pushing Assad into a corner where he would feel compelled to respond.
Locals said they did not hear warplanes at the time of the blasts and there was initial confusion about who was behind the attack. One source, who declined to be named, said the limited damage on the ground suggested pinpoint missile strikes.
A foreign diplomat said that in the past the Israelis had succeeded in creating such confusion by using stand-off ordnance - missiles or gliding bombs that can be released many miles (kilometers) from the target.
There was clear irritation in Israel about the U.S. leaks, which analysts said might signal irritation in Washington over Israeli action at a time when Syria had bowed to international pressure and was dismantling its large chemical weapons arsenal.
"Washington is selling our secrets on the cheap," said top-selling Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Still, the White House and Pentagon declined to comment on reports of the strike.
Israel has grown increasingly frustrated by U.S. policy in the Middle East, worried that President Barack Obama had been too soft on Assad and anxious over his rapprochement with Iran.
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University, said Israel had to make many calculations before approving attacks on Syria.
"Israel is sending a message to Assad, saying 'don't play games with us'. But Israel must also realize that the situation is becoming much more delicate than ever before because this is going against the U.S. diplomatic agenda," he said.
Rabi said the "working assumption" in Israel was that Assad was so focused on battling rebels that he could not afford to retaliate. However, he expected that Syria would seek international support to prevent Israeli air strikes.
A senior Israeli official, while declining to confirm any Israeli attack, did not expect Syria to respond.
"Assad is disarming (his chemical weapons) out of his own interests. He knows how to make the necessary distinctions," said the official, who declined to be named.
Technically at war with Syria, Israel spent decades in a stable standoff with Damascus while the Assad family ruled unchallenged. It has been reluctant to intervene openly in the 33-month Islamist-dominated insurgency rocking Syria, however is determined not to see Hezbollah profit from the unrest.
Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill in a 34-day war six years ago. Israel has warned that any future conflict will be much more brutal.
(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Erika Solomon in Beirut, Khaled Oweis in Amman, and Phil Stewart and Mark Hosenball in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood and Vicki Allen)
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
By Nicole Gaouette - Oct 29, 2013
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that failing to pursue diplomacy on Iran’s disputed nuclear program would be irresponsible and urged Congress to become more involved in efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons.
Kerry addressed the Obama administration’s nonproliferation efforts as the U.S. and partners prepare to meet again on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva and a U.S. research institute said North Korea has renewed construction at its main missile site.
“We will not succumb to fear tactics” against holding talks with Iran, Kerry said last night in remarks at the United States Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded, nonpartisan policy group in Washington. While Kerry didn’t elaborate, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faulted the administration’s willingness to engage with Iran.
President Barack Obama made nuclear nonproliferation a priority for his administration early in his first term, signing an arms-reduction treaty with Russia. Negotiations with Iran now represent an opportunity to stem the spread of nuclear weapons in the Persian Gulf, where Iran’s enemies could start their own nuclear programs should talks fail.
“Iran is so crucial in the health of the whole nonproliferation regime and policy, it’s kind of the centerpiece,” said Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington policy group.
Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said earlier yesterday that his country was “hopeful of a good result” in talks with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors that continue today. Araghchi met for an hour yesterday with IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. The IAEA’s nuclear inspectors are seeking wider access to people and places suspected of conducting undeclared nuclear activities.
Iran will be offering a “new approach” in higher level talks with the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia and China that take place Nov. 7-8 in Geneva, Araghchi said. Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes, such as medical research, a claim that countries including the U.S. and Israel dispute.
The prospect for a negotiated solution to the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program has sharpened differences between Israel and the U.S. on what, if any, atomic activities Iran should be allowed to continue under tighter restrictions. Netanyahu last week said it would be a “tragic mistake” to ease pressure before Iran agrees to dismantle its nuclear program.
Abandoning the diplomatic process now under way with Iran “would be the height of irresponsibility,” Kerry said last night. Even so, he said, “no deal is better than a bad deal.”
The secretary also expressed concern that partisanship in Congress risked undermining non-proliferation efforts. He cited the arms-reduction accord reached with Russia, known as the New START Treaty, which passed the Senate in December 2010 over the objections of some Republican lawmakers who favored delaying its approval and reopening talks with the Russian government.
“As the nation that ushered in the nuclear age, we have an obligation to usher it out,” Kerry said. He warned budget-minded lawmakers that containing the spread of nuclear weapons “does not come cheap.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence at Brookings, said the “progress on Iran is extraordinary, though it’s also bipartisan, dating back to the Bush years.” With talks continuing, O’Hanlon said it’s so far an “incomplete success.”
“There has been little to no headway with North Korea or Pakistan, unfortunately, but the road was very difficult with both, in different ways,” he said.
Efforts to restart international disarmament talks with North Korea remain stalled as President Kim Jong Un refuses U.S. and South Korean demands that the country first show signs of rolling back its weapons development.
North Korea is instead building a possible new launch pad for mobile missiles that could be complete by mid-2014, according to a report issued yesterday by the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The institute reported Oct. 24 that North Korea has also built two new tunnel entrances at its atomic test site in a sign the regime is preparing future underground blasts to bolster its nuclear arsenal.
Pyongyang stepped up its arms program this year, holding its third nuclear test in February followed by a threat in March of first strikes against the U.S. and South Korea. South Korea’s intelligence chief confirmed this month the North had restarted its main nuclear reactor.
Israel too is awash with cyber concerns with a flurry of recent reports underscoring the challenges posed by cyber warfare in areas including national security, industrial secrets and private finances.
In the small-scale department, hackers have recently defrauded dozens of Israelis of hundreds of thousands of dollars by hacking their Gmail accounts to uncover information about overseas bank accounts, Israeli mediareported Tuesday. Such attacks, of course, are not uncommon and not specific to Israel.
Other attacks aim much higher.
Earlier this month, the Israeli military's Chief of Staff Benny Gantz warned that the next war could start in any number of ways, including a cyber attack on civilian infrastructure that could paralyze the country.
The month before, a computer malfunction shut down the Carmel Tunnels, a toll road serving a key traffic artery to Haifa and Israel's north, causing a massive snarl and heavy financial losses.
This week, Associated Press reported that the shutdown was the result of a cyber attack that gave hackers control over the tunnel.
The managing company, however, denied the report, claiming the malfunction originated in an internal component disconnected from external systems.
Also this week, Israeli media reported an attempted attack on 140 senior figures in the country's leading security and defense industries, who received emails containing malware programmed to steal and copy information. The emails appeared to originate from a German company known in the field but were tracked back to Chinese defense industries, the reports said.
But whether the Carmel Tunnels mishap was an attack or not, targeting Israel's critical infrastructure is a concrete, constant concern. In addition to various government authorities entrusted with cyber defense already in place, state-owned utility operator Israel Electric Corp. is launching a cyber-training facility.
Dubbed the "CyberGym", the center is designed to teach cyber defense to strategic companies including those in the energy and infrastructure industries.
Employing what Israel Electric calls "the best hackers in Israel and abroad" to practice real-time events, the center will be inaugurated Wednesday in Hadera, home to a major power plant.
The utility company alone fights off as many as 20,000 attempted cyber attacks every day and is on the critical infrastructure list along with water, communications and other facilities undergoing a security upgrade overseen by Israel's military.
In April, an attack threatening to "erase Israel from cyber space" disrupted Israeli government and other websites but caused little permanent damage.
JERUSALEM — Israel announced Monday that it would free another 26 Palestinian prisoners convicted of killing Israelis, saying it was fulfilling its commitment to U.S. diplomats as part of ongoing peace negotiations, despite intense opposition within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet.
Netanyahu agreed months ago to free 104 Palestinian militants as part of a deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry to get the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, to the negotiating table. Many of the prisoners were serving life sentences for killings of Israeli civilians that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The Palestinians slated to be freed this week were all convicted of killing Israelis and have spent between 19 years and 28 years incarcerated in Israeli prisons. The majority are from the West Bank. Five are from the Gaza Strip, now governed by the Islamist group Hamas, which does not recognize Israel.
Among the prisoners to be freed is Omar Issa Masoud, convicted of murdering Ian Feinberg, a lawyer who had been working in Gaza to help improve the economic conditions of Palestinians. Feinberg, 30, was slain in April 1993, when gunmen stormed an aid meeting in Gaza City he was attending.
Another prisoner on the list is Hazem Kassem Shbair, convicted of murdering Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg at a construction site where the two worked together. The Almagor Terror Victims Association in Israel said that most of Rotenberg’s family had been killed during World War II but that he managed to escape, arriving in Israel in 1947. Rotenberg was bludgeoned to death with an ax in 1994, when he was 67 years old.
Economy and Trade Minister Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Jewish Home party and the third most powerful member of Netanyahu’s government, tried to stop the prisoner release, saying it was “a dubious privilege” to have Israeli negotiators sit with their Palestinian counterparts.
But Netanyahu said the government must abide by its commitments. “The decision to free prisoners is one of the most difficult I made as prime minister,” Netanyahu said, according to accounts in the Israeli media. “This decision was necessary in our current reality. We have to navigate through a complex international arena full of challenges.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is planning to welcome the freed prisoners in a celebration in Ramallah late Tuesday, officials said.
Critics of the release were given fresh ammunition after two missiles were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel early Monday. No one claimed responsibility, and no one was injured. One missile was intercepted by Israel’s U.S.-funded Iron Dome missile defense system above the coastal city of Ashkelon. The other rocket landed in an uninhabited patch of ground nearby.
The Israeli air force retaliated with an attack against two clandestine rocket launchpads north of Gaza City.
Hard-line politicians opposed to the prisoner release — and to negotiations that would give away land for a future Palestinian state — said the rocket fire showed there was no trustworthy partner for peace on the Palestinian side.
On Sunday, two mortars were fired at Israel from inside Gaza. And earlier this month, Israel’s military shut down a “terror tunnel” that led from the Palestinian territory into the Jewish state.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces, said the tunnel was designed to facilitate attacks on Israel, such as the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier, the planting of explosive devices or the moving of militants across the border.
Israel’s decision to strike the concealed rocket-launch sites Monday “shows our capability and our knowledge,” Lerner said, and puts Hamas on notice of Israel’s intent to respond to any provocations with force.
Matthew Levitt, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Hamas and Hezbollah, said Israel usually holds Hamas responsible for rockets fired from Gaza and described a retaliatory strike as “par for the course.”
Israeli aircraft pounded rocket-launch sites in response to rocket fire Aug. 14, Israeli officials said, and hit targets in Gaza on June 24, April 28 and April 3.
“The real question,” Levitt said, is why the rockets continue to be fired from Gaza, despite the relative calm in the area. He said the answer might be linked to Gaza’sincreasing isolation, following the ouster of the Islamist government of president Mohamed Morsi in neighboring Egypt.