North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un arriving for a military parade in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. The picture was released the following day by the state’s Korean Central News Agency. Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images

What the North Korea crisis tells us about the Iran nuclear deal


The Trump administration last week endorsed a narrative long promoted by critics of the Iran nuclear deal: It’s North Korea all over again.

“An unchecked Iran has the potential to travel the same path as North Korea, and take the world along with it,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Thursday at a press availability. He was explaining why President Donald Trump had ordered a review of the Iran nuclear deal reached by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

“The United States is keen to avoid a second piece of evidence that strategic patience is a failed approach,” Tillerson said.

“Strategic patience” is a rubbery term that critics have applied loosely to presidents – Republican and Democratic – who do not strike back swiftly at evidence of nascent rogue weapons-of-mass-destruction programs, instead preferring diplomatic and economic pressure.

It has been applied to North Korea and the policy first instituted by the Clinton administration in 1994, when it signed the Agreed Framework with that country, but also to how President George W. Bush attempted to renegotiate a North Korea deal in the mid-2000s, and to the chemical weapons removal pact Obama negotiated with Russia and Syria in 2013.

The North Korea framework collapsed in the early 2000s, during the Bush administration, and in 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear device. Syria’s apparent use of sarin gas in an attack earlier this month that killed 89 civilians in rebel-held territory suggested that the 2013 removal of chemical weapons was not fully implemented.

Tillerson’s implication: Without a thorough review of the nuclear deal, Iran could also one day surprise the world with a nuclear test.

Is he right? It’s obviously too soon to say. But here are some ways the Iran deal is similar to its failed North Korea predecessor – and ways it is different.

Sanctions relief

In both the North Korea and Iran cases, some sanctions relief was up front – critics say that was a recipe for failure. With North Korea, the United States agreed to deliver 500,000 tons of oil to the cash-starved nation. (There were other goodies, but these were attached to progress in the dismantling of its nuclear capacity.)

In the Iran deal, the U.S. agreed to unfreeze American-based Iranian assets held since the 1978 revolution, amounting to $400 million, and to lift secondary sanctions targeting businesses in other countries that deal with Iran. (Bans on U.S. business with Iran mostly remain in place.)

It’s not clear yet what benefit Iran accrues from the lifting of the secondary sanctions – estimates vary wildly between $40 billion and $150 billion.

In addition, non-nuclear sanctions – relating to Iran’s backing for terrorism and its human rights abuses – remain in place.

“Tillerson is reflecting concerns that the Iran deal has many of the same inherent flaws as the Agreed Framework and may end up in the same scenario,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the preeminent think tank opposing the Iran deal.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which backed the Iran deal, said that unlike in the North Korea deal, the Iran agreement has “snap-back” provisions that allow the United States to reimpose the sanctions should Iran ever be in violation.

Critics of the Iran deal counter that while the United States may snap back the sanctions, many other nations that were part of the alliance that imposed international sanctions on Iran in 2011 would not. Deal defenders say the prospect of the United States reimposing sanctions on Iran, even if it does so alone, is enough to keep Iran from breaking the agreement.

Inspections

The North Korea deal required the dismantling of three nuclear reactors, one completed and two under construction.

The Iran pact requires 24/7 access to known enrichment facilities and allows inspectors to demand access – albeit with a waiting period of 24 days – at any other facility they suspect of nuclear weapons activity. Tillerson on the day he announced the review of the deal also affirmed that Iran was in compliance.

The North Korea agreement referred only in vague terms to inspections beyond the three facilities and did not explicitly count out weapons-enriched uranium, although its ban was certainly implied in the endgame — a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (The reactors that were shut down enriched plutonium.) The North Koreans fiercely resisted inspections beyond the three facilities.

The difficulty is not in detecting whether a nation is violating the agreement – intelligence agencies and satellite surveillance have been proficient at tracking down violations. It was North Korea’s attempt to secretly enrich uranium in the early 2000s that precipitated the collapse of the deal, and the Obama administration exposed the existence of a secret uranium enrichment plant in Fordow, Iran, in 2009 based on intelligence reports.

Instead, problems could occur in attempts to inspect sites where inspectors do not have easy access.

Dubowitz said the provision allowing inspectors to demand access to suspected sites may be unenforceable: Hard-liners in the Iranian leadership have said repeatedly that access to military sites would be a no-go.

“It’s the covert sites that are the big problem,” he said. “If you’re not getting into the military sites, the deal is deeply flawed.”

Heather Hurlburt, the director of New Models of Policy Change at New America, a think tank that backed the Iran deal, said the inspections regime is much more intrusive in the Iranian case.

“It’s like comparing the security check at a Manhattan office tower with the security check at Ben Gurion,” she said, referencing the Israeli airport known for its stringent measures.

Neighbors

Iran is a diverse nation with an ancient tradition of multilateral ties with its neighbors. North Korea is a secretive Stalinist regime and has just one significant relationship – with China.

Kimball said the world powers that negotiated the Iran deal granted Iran considerable leverage: Iran does not have the self-contained system that allows Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, to retain power even as his people starve. In order to survive, he suggested, the regime must allow Iranians to trade and thrive.

“The Iranians highly, highly value the removal of nuclear sanctions and access to oil markets,” Kimball said. “There was no similar incentive for North Koreans.”

Iranians “deeply fear” losing access to the outside world, he said.

“As time goes on they will be more accustomed to this liberal environment of trade and investment,” Kimball said, “and that will make it more appealing to them to continue to comply.”

Dubowitz said it was Iran’s ambitions in the region that made it more dangerous, adding that Kim was unlikely to strike unless he felt his regime was threatened. The Iranians, Dubowitz argued, could one day use nuclear leverage to support their expansionist claims in the Middle East, including in Syria, where they are backing the Assad regime in quelling the rebellion, in Yemen, in the Persian Gulf – and against Israel.

“North Korea is an isolationist pariah nation with a Stalinist ideology that appeals to no one,” he said. “Iran sees itself as guardian of the Islamic world.”

Deadlines

The goal of the Framework Agreement was a “nuclear-free Korean peninsula” – no nukes, period. North Korea was to be allowed to get light-water reactors, which are proliferation resistant.

Iran, beginning eight years after the 2015 agreement, will be allowed in increments to reactivate centrifuges that could conceivably enrich uranium to weapons grade.

That has been a key concern of critics of the Iran deal, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

“The JCPOA fails to achieve the objective of a non-nuclear Iran,” Tillerson said in his press availability. “It only delays their goal of becoming a nuclear state.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking about Iran and North Korea at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on April 19. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaking about Iran and North Korea at the State Department in Washington, D.C., on April 19. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Kimball sounded exasperated at what has become a common misperception.

“The deal obliges Iran to never pursue nuclear weapons in the future,” he said.
While it is true that the agreement allows Iran to enhance its enrichment capabilities over time, and decreases the breadth of the inspections regime, Iran remains a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. As part of the deal, it signed on again to the “additional protocol” that allows International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors expanded access to sites in perpetuity. (Iran had previously shucked off the additional protocol.) The protocol has no sunset clauses.

Why can’t we be friends?

It wasn’t just bad actions by North Korea that killed the deal – it was bad faith and distrust on all sides. President Bill Clinton signed the deal in 1994, but by the time of implementation, an adversarial Republican Congress was in place and frustrated the deliveries of promised heating oil.

In both the North Korea and the Iran cases, missile development has been an obstructing factor. Neither deal touched ballistic missiles, but testing the devices, capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, has exacerbated tensions.

The United States in the late 1990s began to sanction North Korea for its ballistic missile tests, but North Korea defiantly kept testing them and said the sanctions were eroding the framework agreement.

A similar scenario is playing out now. The Obama administration last year and the Trump administration this year issued new sanctions following Iranian missile tests; Iran has said it sees the sanctions as undermining the agreement.

Trump made clear he sees the missile tests as the problem, saying this week of Iran that “they are not living up to the spirit of the agreement.”

President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase on April 6. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

On Trump’s order, U.S. missiles target Syrian airbase


U.S. warships launched 50-60 missiles at an airbase in northern Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in President Donald Trump’s first major intervention in the Middle East.

The Tomahawk missiles hit Shayrat airfield on Thursday, north of Damascus, CNN reported, citing Pentagon sources. The Bashar Assad regime is believed to have launched the chemical attacks on Iblid province in northern Syria earlier this week which killed at least 82 civilians, including many children.

Trump ordered the attack from his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, where he is spending the weekend.

“It is in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said in a short statement to the media at Mar-A-Lago.

As a result of Assad’s repression and use of chemical weapons among other means, Trump said, “the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and allies.” Trump has said he sees the exodus of refugees from Syria as a threat to the West because of terrorists who may be among them. He has twice sought to bar their entry into the United States; both bids were stayed by the courts.

Trump had indicated earlier that he was considering action.

“Yesterday, a chemical attack — a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria, against innocent people, including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies,” Trump said Wednesday during a press opportunity with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a U.S. ally whose nation borders Syria. “Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”

The Assad regime has denied responsibility and its ally, Russia, has resisted U.N. Security Council action, saying that it is premature to blame Assad for the attack. Trump, in his short statement to the press on Thursday, said there was “no dispute” Assad was behind the attack.

The missile launch represents a sharp departure from the policies of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who resisted targeting the Assad regime while maintaining some U.S. involvement in the efforts to push back the Islamic State, the terrorist group that is among Assad’s enemies.

It is also a dramatic departure from how Trump campaigned for president, when he lacerated Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, for deepening U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and called for a pullback of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.

Just last week, Trump officials suggested that the United States was withdrawing from what was for years a U.S. policy of seeking Assad’s removal.

At his Wednesday press conference, Trump said he was flexible in how he approached policy. “I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.

CNN reported that Trump informed other countries prior to the attack, although it did not specify whether Israel was among those countries. Israel is concerned about any escalation north of the Golan Heights, which Israel controls; that area, in southwest Syria, is not near the targeted base.

The attack could for the first time in Trump’s presidency rattle what had been warming ties with Russia.

Russia uses Iran as base to bomb Syrian militants for first time


Russia used Iran as a base from which to launch air strikes against Syrian militants for the first time on Tuesday, widening its air campaign in Syria and deepening its involvement in the Middle East.

In a move underscoring Moscow's increasingly close ties with Tehran, long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Iran's Hamadan air base to strike a range of targets in Syria.

It was the first time Russia has used the territory of another nation, apart from Syria itself, to launch such strikes since the Kremlin launched a bombing campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year.

It was also thought to be the first time that Iran has allowed a foreign power to use its territory for military operations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranian deployment will boost Russia's image as a central player in the Middle East and allow the Russian air force to cut flight times and increase bombing payloads.

The head of Iran's National Security Council was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying Tehran and Moscow were now sharing facilities to fight against terrorism, calling their cooperation strategic.

Both countries back Assad, and Russia, after a delay, has supplied Iran with its S-300 missile air defense system, evidence of a growing partnership between the pair that has helped turn the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Relations between Tehran and Moscow have grown warmer since Iran reached agreement last year with global powers to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of U.N., EU and U.S. financial sanctions.

President Vladimir Putin visited in November and the two countries regularly discuss military planning for Syria, where Iran has provided ground forces that work with local allies while Russia provides air power.

TARGET: ALEPPO

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday Iraq, which lies between Iran and Syria, had granted Russia permission to use its air space, on the condition the planes use corridors along Iraq’s borders and not fly over Iraqi cities.

Abadi told a press conference the same permission has been given to air forces of a separate U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State flying to Syria from Kuwait.

Russia also gave advanced notice to the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, complying with the terms of a safety agreement meant to avoid an accidental clash in the skies, the U.S. military said.

“They informed us they were coming through and we ensured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target and then when they passed out again,” said U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S-led coalition.

“They did not impact coalition operations in either Iraq or Syria.”

The Russian Defence Ministry said its bombers had taken off on Tuesday from the Hamadan air base in north-west Iran.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian bombers were believed to have returned to Russia.

The ministry said Tuesday's strikes had targeted Islamic State as well as militants previously known as the Nusra Front in the Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al Zour provinces. It said its Iranian-based bombers had been escorted by fighter jets based at Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province.

“As a result of the strikes five large arms depots were destroyed … a militant training camp … three command and control points … and a significant number of militants,” the ministry said in a statement.

The destroyed facilities had all been used to support militants in the Aleppo area, it said, where battle for control of the divided city, which had some 2 million people before the war, has intensified in recent weeks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said heavy air strikes on Tuesday had hit many targets in and around Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, killing dozens.

Strikes in the Tariq al-Bab and al-Sakhour districts of northeast Aleppo had killed around 20 people, while air raids in a corridor rebels opened this month into opposition-held eastern parts of the city had killed another nine, the observatory said.

The Russian Defence Ministry says it takes great care to avoid civilian casualties in its air strikes.

Zakaria Malahifi, political officer of an Aleppo-based rebel group, Fastaqim, said he could not confirm if the newly deployed Russian bombers were in use, but said air strikes on Aleppo had intensified in recent days.

“It is much heavier,” he told Reuters. “There is no weapon they have not dropped on Aleppo – cluster bombs, phosphorus bombs, and so on.”

Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, is divided into rebel and government-held zones. The government aims to capture full control of it, which would be its biggest victory of the five year conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in rebel areas, facing potential siege if the government closes off the corridor linking it with the outside.

Russian media reported on Tuesday that Russia had also requested and received permission to use Iran and Iraq as a route to fire cruise missiles from its Caspian Sea fleet into Syria, as it has done in the past. Russia has built up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian as part of what it says are planned military exercises.

Russia's state-backed Rossiya 24 channel earlier on Tuesday broadcast uncaptioned images of at least three Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and a Russian military transport plane inside Iran.

The channel said the Iranian deployment would allow the Russian air force to cut flight times by 60 percent. The Tupolev-22M3 bombers, which before Tuesday had conducted strikes on Syria from their home bases in southern Russia, were too large to be accommodated at Russia's own air base inside Syria, Russian media reported.

Iran and Russia move closer but their alliance has limits


When Iran took delivery of the first parts of an advanced Russian air defense system this month, it paraded the anti-aircraft missile launchers sent by Moscow to mark Army Day.

Tehran had cause to celebrate: the Kremlin's decision a year ago to press ahead with the stalled sale of the S-300 system was the first clear evidence of a growing partnership between Russia and Iran that has since turned the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

But the delay in implementation of the deal also points to the limitations of a relationship that is forged from a convergence of interests rather than a shared worldview, with Iran's leadership divided over ideology and Russia showing signs of reluctance to let the alliance develop much more, according to diplomats, officials and analysts interviewed by Reuters.

Some Iranian officials want a strategic alliance, a much deeper relationship than now. But the Kremlin refers only to ongoing cooperation with a new dimension because of the conflict in Syria, in which both back Damascus.

“We are continuously developing friendly relations with Iran, but we cannot really talk about a new paradigm in our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.

Russia agreed to sell the S-300 system to Iran in 2007 but froze the deal in 2010 after sanctions were imposed on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Moscow lifted the self-imposed ban in April last year as Iran and world powers got closer to the deal that led eventually to the nuclear-related sanctions being lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing its atomic program.

Russia is now weighing the financial and diplomatic benefits of arms sales to Tehran against the risk of upsetting other countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, or seeing Iran become too powerful.

“There is a military-economic aspect to this alliance which is beneficial to both sides,” said Maziar Behrooz, associate professor of Mideast and Islamic history at San Francisco State University, who has studied Iran's relationship with Russia.

“But on a geopolitical level, Iran and Russia can only form a tactical short-term alliance, not a strategic one. I think the ideological differences between the two are just too deep.”

BACKING FOR DAMASCUS

The relationship, long cordial, appeared to reach a new level last September when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in Syria in support of Iran's ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran had already deployed its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who had rallied Assad's troops to check the opposition's momentum. But it took Russian air power to break the stalemate and give Assad the upper hand.

Militarily, the two powers proved complementary. Iran brought disciplined ground troops who worked well with their local allies, while Russia provided the first-rate air power that Iran and Assad lack.

Diplomatically, the joint operations have made Tehran and Moscow central to any discussion about the regional security architecture.

That is important for Putin as he has sought to shore up alliances in the region and increase Moscow's influence since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a Russian ally, was killed.

How well Moscow will fare when it comes to winning lucrative business contracts now the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted is less clear. There is little sign so far of Russian companies making new inroads into Iran.

This is partly for ideological reasons. The Iranian establishment is divided, with President Hassan Rouhani's faction more interested in trading with the West than struggling against it, even if many U.S. policies are still condemned.

Russia has little incentive to join the mostly Shi'ite “Axis of Resistance” to Western interests in the region which is championed by the more conservative Iranian faction as this could ruin its relationships with other Middle Eastern powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

SECRET MEETINGS

Russia's first big intervention in the Middle East since the Cold War followed months of secret meetings in Moscow between Putin and Iranian officials, including IRGC commanders and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A close and exclusive alliance with Russia would suit Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure, who has blamed Western influence for Iran's troubles and pushed hard to implement his “Look East” policy.

But it runs contrary to the policy of Iran's government, led by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have courted Western delegations on an almost weekly basis since the nuclear deal was reached with world powers last July.

The Western-educated Rouhani is less inclined toward Russia and has an uneasy relationship with Putin. Last November, during his first visit to Tehran in eight years, Putin went straight from the airport to meet Khamenei, rather than seeing Rouhani first as most visitors do.

“Rouhani and Putin don't get along that great,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Some Iranian officials are also wary of getting too close to Russia, which fought Britain for domination of 19th century Iran and occupied the country during both World Wars.

“Russians have always used us as a tool in their foreign policy. They never stayed committed to their alliance with any country,” Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, who served as spokesman for former President Mohammad Khatami, told Reuters from Tehran.

Putin has worked hard to improve relations with Iran. During the November visit, he presented Khamenei with one of the world's oldest copies of the Koran, which Russia had obtained during its occupation of northern Iran in the 19th century.

The intervention in Syria has served as a distraction from economic problems in Russia, deepened by international sanctions on Moscow over its role in the Ukraine crisis which have forced Moscow to seek new trade partners.

Trade with Iran was only $1.3 billion in 2015, according to Russian data, though there are signs cooperation could pick up.

Russia says it is ready to start disbursing a $5-billion loan to Tehran for financing infrastructure projects. A deal is also being discussed for Russia to send oil and gas to northern Iran, where supply is scarce, and for Iran to send oil and gas from its southern fields to Russia's customers in the Gulf.

But the prospects for cooperation may be limited, sector analysts say, as, to update its energy sector, Iran mainly needs technology and equipment which Russia is also in need of.

Russia is also in talks to help upgrade Iran's dilapidated air force by selling it Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets but the deal would need the approval of the United Nations Security Council and could further strain Moscow's relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Iran says Russia delivers first part of its S-300 defense system


Russia has delivered the first part of an advanced missile defense system to Iran, Iranian media reported on Monday, starting to equip Tehran with technology that was blocked before it signed a deal with world powers on its nuclear programme.

The S-300 surface-to-air system was first deployed at the height of the Cold War in 1979.

In its updated form it is one of the most advanced systems of its kind and, according to British security think tank RUSI, can engage multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles around 150 km (90 miles) away.

Russia's agreement to provide Iran with S-300 has sparked concern in Israel, whose government Iran has said it aims to destroy.

In a recorded transmission, state television showed Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari telling a news conference on Monday: “I announce today that the first phase of this (delayed) contract has been implemented.”

Ansari was replying to reporters' questions about videos on social media showing what appeared to be parts of an S-300 missile system on trucks in northern Iran.

Russia says it cancelled a contract to deliver S-300s to Iran in 2010 under pressure from the West. President Vladimir Putin lifted that self-imposed ban in April 2015, after an interim agreement that paved the way for July's full nuclear deal.

The U.S. military has said it has accounted for the possible delivery of the S-300 to Iran in its contingency planning.

Ship with more than 25,000 pounds of low-enriched uranium leaves Iran for Russia


A ship carrying more than 25,000 pounds (11,000 kg) of low-enriched uranium materials left Iran for Russia on Monday in an Iranian step toward honoring a July 14 nuclear deal with major powers, the United States said.

Under the landmark nuclear accord, certain U.S., European Union and U.N. sanctions are to be removed in exchange for Iran accepting long-term curbs on a nuclear program that the West has suspected was aimed at creating a nuclear bomb.

A key provision of the agreement, negotiated by Iran with the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia and Germany, is Tehran's commitment to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to below 660 pounds (300 kg). If much further refined, low-enriched uranium can yield fissile material for nuclear weapons.

“The shipment included the removal of all of Iran’s nuclear material enriched to 20 percent that was not already in the form of fabricated fuel plates for the Tehran Research Reactor,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a written statement.

“This removal of all this enriched material out of Iran is a significant step toward Iran meeting its commitment to have no more than 300 kg of low-enriched uranium,” Kerry added.

Russia, Iran have signed contract for missile system delivery


Russia and Iran have signed a contract for Moscow to supply Tehran with S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, Sergei Chemezov, the chief executive of Russian state-owned defense conglomerate Rostec, was quoted by the RIA news agency as saying on Monday.

“S-300, the air defense system, the contract has already been signed,” Chemezov was quoted as saying at the Dubai Airshow.

A nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers earlier this deal has put Sunni-ruled Gulf monarchies on edge: They fear Tehran's rapprochement with the West will allow it to pursue an expansionist agenda in the region.

Chemezov said Gulf countries had no reason to feel threatened by the deal.

“This is defense equipment. And we are ready to offer this defense equipment to any country,” Chemezov later told Reuters in Dubai, speaking through interpreters.

“So if the Gulf countries are not going to attack Iran … why should they be threatened? Because this is defense equipment.”

He said that Saudi Arabia, arch-rival of Iran, had approached his firm “several times” requesting that it not deliver the equipment.

“Five years ago … even now, up to now … And we said that the S-300 is not capable to attack … to reach the neighboring countries.”

Obama says Syria deployment doesn’t break no ‘boots on ground’ pledge


President Barack Obama said on Monday the planned deployment of dozens of U.S. special forces to Syria to advise opposition forces fighting Islamic State did not break his promise not to put “boots on the ground” in the Syrian conflict.

“Keep in mind that we have run special ops already and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do,” Obama said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News” in his first public comments on the deployment since it was announced on Friday.

“We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL,” Obama said, using another acronym for the Islamic State militant group. “I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn't solve the problem.”

In announcing the measure, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to “train, advise and assist” and would number fewer than 50.

The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting theSyria mission to air strikes against Islamic State. Before last year, Obama, who has been averse to committing troops to Middle East wars, had ruled out an American presence on the ground inSyria.

In a nationally televised address in September 2013, Obama said: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Over the past year, however, he has emphasized that he would not send U.S. “combat” troops there.

The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up the U.S. effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.

Russia and Iran have increased their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's fight against rebels in the 4-1/2-year-old civil war.

U.S. officials say Russian cruise missiles aimed at Syria crashed in Iran


U.S. officials said four Russian cruise missiles fired at Syria from a warship in the Caspian Sea on Wednesday had crashed in Iran while Russia insisted they had reached their targets in Syria.

The White House declined to comment on the report from the officials, who asked not to be identified, and the State Department said it could not confirm it.

If confirmed, the crashes would be a blow to the military strength Russia aimed to display in launching what it said were 26 missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria some 1,500 km (900 miles) from the Caspian Sea on Wednesday.

The Russian defense ministry denied any of the missiles had fallen short of their targets after reports of crashes first emerged on U.S. television.

“In contrast to CNN, we do not talk with reference to anonymous sources,” the Russian Defence Ministry said. “We show the launch of our rockets and the targets they struck.”

Russia had displayed graphics of the missiles flying over Iran and Iraq on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have already disputed Russian reports that the missiles stuck Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Moscow says it shares the West's aim of fighting the extremists, who have seized much of Syria, but fighters on the ground and western states have accused it of targeting U.S.-backed rebels to support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iran deal: See dealer for details


The more I get into the Iran nuclear deal, the more it feels like the television show “Mad Men” — you know, those slick advertising geniuses who seduce you with promises but downplay the fine print.

It’s like one of those radio commercials for hot new car deals, where the announcer chokes on his breath while reading the qualifiers: “MSRP excludes taxes, title, other options and dealer charges; higher MSRP will affect lease price; dealer sets actual prices; lessee responsible for insurance; closed-end lease offered to approved customers only through participating dealers; additional charges may apply at lease end; supplies limited; offer ends March 1. See dealer for details.” 

Oh my, what a deal.

Well, it certainly reminds me of the Iran deal, which is littered with fine print, some of it quite treacherous. 

“Anytime, anywhere” was a wonderful promise … until we discovered the qualifier that Iran can delay inspections of its nuclear sites by more than 24 days. In fact, the process is so cumbersome and bureaucratic it can easily stretch out, according to The Wall Street Journal, to three months or more.

Three months or more! That’s like telling a drug dealer you’ll be busting his house next Tuesday at noon. As Jackie Mason noted, restaurants in New York City have a much tougher inspections regime than what we negotiated with Iran, because they can be inspected at any time without any notice.

This is not about partisanship or politics. It’s about something we all have in common: We hate getting ripped off, especially by slick Mad Men.

Why is this issue so critical?

Because a super-tough inspections regime was supposed to be our consolation prize for allowing Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure. If you’ll recall, the original goal of diplomacy was pretty straightforward: The United States and its partners would make a major concession — the end of nuclear sanctions — in return for Iran making a major concession — the end of its nuclear program.

When we decided to concede to Iran the right to keep most of its nuclear infrastructure, inspections became the decisive deal point. Anything short of ironclad would seriously weaken the deal. Can anyone argue with a straight face that the inspections regime we negotiated is ironclad?

As bad as that is, though, it gets worse.

“Anytime, anywhere” came with another sexy promise: “snapback sanctions.” In combination, these two promises created an irresistible sales pitch: “We’ll surely catch Iran if it cheats, and when we do, the sanctions will snap right back!”

Irresistible, yes, but wait until you see the fine print.

Simply put, in the unlikely event that we ever do catch Iran cheating and try to “snap back” sanctions, there won’t be many sanctions left to snap back to.

Here is how Washington Institute’s Executive Director Robert Satloff explains it: “Let’s say that the U.N. Security Council does order the reimposition of sanctions. According to my read of the agreement, all contracts signed by Iran up until that point are grandfathered in and immune from sanctions. That means one can expect a stampede of state-to-state and private sector contracts — some real, many hypothetical — all designed to shield Iran from the impact of possible reimposition of sanctions.”

In other words, Iran can quickly rack up a slew of deals with Russia, China and Europe worth more than $100 billion and, even if Iran is caught building a nuclear bomb behind our back, we will have zero power to undo those deals.

I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, this fine print stinks.

The grandfather loophole is especially lethal. Once the Persian mullahs make their irrevocable deals, why should they fear us? It will be difficult enough to catch them cheating — what will restrain them if they’re not even afraid to get caught?

As the emotions are heating up in our community over this deal, I’d like to suggest a less emotional reaction: Study the fine print.

I have, and that’s why I oppose the deal. It’s full of nasty surprises. There are many other examples, such as the sneaky switch from United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, which says Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles; to the current deal, which says only that Iran is called upon not to undertake such activity. From the mandatory “shall not” to the permissive “called upon”— sneaky, indeed.

The Iran nuclear deal may be complex and hard to understand, but, in my book, the real danger is in the fine print. Study it closely. This is not about partisanship or politics. It’s about something we all have in common: We hate getting ripped off, especially by slick Mad Men.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Russia says missile deal with Iran will not happen in near future


Russia will not sell Iran advanced surface-to-air missiles in the near future, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.
Russia earlier this month said it would lift its embargo on the sale of S-300 missile systems to Iran, antagonizing Israel and the United States. The advanced missile defense system could reinforce Iran’s protection of its nuclear facilities.
“I do not think that it is a matter of the near future,” Sergey Ryabkov told Russia’s Tass news service on Thursday. “It is far more important that a political and legal decision has been taken to open up such an opportunity.”
Ryabkov was referring to the framework nuclear deal signed last month between Iran and six world powers, including Russia.
The White House claimed that Russia’s missile sale to Iran could derail the completion of the Iran nuclear deal, and Israel argued that it was evidence of Iran’s aggressive motives in the Middle East. In response to Russia’s sale, Israel floated the idea of selling arms to Ukraine.
“Israel views with utmost gravity the supply of S-300 missiles from Russia to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last Sunday. “Especially at a time when Iran is stepping up its aggression in the region and around the borders of the State of Israel.”
Russia made a deal to sell Iran the missiles in 2007, but backed off off following strong opposition from the United States and Israel.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said that the U.S. could penetrate the S-300 system.
“Our defense budget is somewhere just a little under $600 billion. Theirs is a little over $17 billion,” Obama said of Iran on MSNBC’s “Hardball With Chris Matthews.” “Even if they’ve got some air defense systems, if we had to, we could penetrate them.”

Israel ‘dismayed’ at S-300 missile deal with Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday expressed Israel's “dismay” to Russian President Vladimir Putin at Russia's decision to lift a self-imposed ban on supplying S-300 missiles to Iran.

A statement from Netanyahu's office said he “expressed Israel's dismay at the decision… (and) told President Putin that this step will only increase Iran's aggression in the region and will destabilize security in the Middle East.”

Putin lifted the ban on delivering the air defense system to Iran on Monday.

Russia opens way to missile deliveries to Iran, starts oil-for-goods swap


Russia paved the way on Monday for missile system deliveries to Iran and started an oil-for-goods swap, signalling that Moscow may have a head-start in the race to benefit from an eventual lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

The moves come after world powers, including Russia, reached an interim deal with Iran this month on curbing its nuclear program.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin signed a decree ending a self-imposed ban on delivering the S-300 anti-missile rocket system to Iran, removing a major irritant between the two countries after Moscow cancelled a corresponding contract in 2010 under pressure from the West.

A senior government official said separately that Russia has started supplying grain, equipment and construction materials to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal.

Sources told Reuters more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed and would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day.

Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a deal has been signed, but Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday one was already being implemented.

“I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oil-for-goods deal, which is on a very significant scale,” Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament on the talks with Iran.

“In exchange for Iranian crude oil supplies, we are delivering certain products. This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.”

He declined to give further details. Russia's Agriculture Ministry declined comment and the Energy Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. There was no comment from Iran.


Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system in Moscow on May 4, 2009. Photo by Alexander Natruskin/Reuters

Iran is the third-largest buyer of Russian wheat, and Moscow and Tehran have been discussing the oil-for-goods barter deal for more than a year.

Russia hopes to reap economic and trade benefits if a final deal is concluded to build on the framework agreement reached in the Swiss city of Lausanne between Iran and Russia, the United States, France, Britain, Germany and China.

They have until June 30 to work out a detailed technical agreement under which Iran would curb its nuclear programme and allow international control in exchange for a lifting of economic sanctions.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday raised concerns about the missile system sale with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

She said, however, that U.S. officials do not think Russia's actions will hurt unity between the major powers in the nuclear talks.

TWO TO TANGO

Lavrov said the agreement in Lausanne wiped out the need for Moscow's ban on the delivery of S-300 and that the system was defensive, hence would pose no threat to Iran's foe, Israel.

“As a result of suspending the contract, we did not receive major sums that we were due. We see no need to continue doing this given progress in talks on Iran's nuclear programme and the absolutely legitimate nature of the forthcoming deal,” he said.

The United States and Israel had lobbied Russia to block the missile sale before it did so in 2010, saying the S-300 system could be used to shield Iran's nuclear facilities from possible future air strikes.

Leonid Ivashov, a retired Russian general who now heads the Moscow-based Centre for Geo-Political Analysis think-tank, said the move was part of a race for future contracts in Iran.

“If we now delay and leave Iran waiting, then tomorrow, when sanctions are fully lifted, Washington and its allies will get Iran's large market,” RIA news agency quoted him as saying.

Ryabkov suggested Russia had high hopes that its steady support for Iran would pay off in energy cooperation once international sanctions against Tehran are lifted.

“It takes two to tango. We are ready to provide our services and I am sure they will be pretty advantageous compared to other countries,” he said. “We never gave up on Iran in a difficult situation … Both for oil and gas, I think the prospects for our cooperation should not be underestimated.”

He also reiterated Moscow's view that an arms embargo on Iran should be lifted once a final nuclear deal is sealed.

Sanctions have cut Iran's oil exports to about 1.1 million barrels per day from 2.5 million bpd in 2012. Analysts say Iran is unlikely to see a major boost in exports before next year.

One upper house lawmaker asked Ryabkov whether lifting sanctions on Tehran could undermine Russia's position on global energy markets, including as the main gas supplier to Europe.

“I am not confident as yet that the Iranian side would be ready to carry out supplies of natural gas from its fields quickly and in large quantities to Europe. This requires infrastructure that is difficult to build,” he said.

Kerry appears to take swipe at Netanyahu over Iran nuclear talks


Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday appeared to take a swipe at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying critics of an emerging nuclear deal with Iran did not know what they were talking about.

Speaking to senators, Kerry also said he expected to know soon whether Iran was willing to craft an “acceptable, verifiable” plan that would satisfy major powers that it is not seeking to develop a nuclear weapon.

Netanyahu, who is scheduled to make a speech before a joint session of Congress on March 3, has described the agreement under negotiation with Iran as a “bad deal,” and said he would do what he could to prevent it.

“Anybody running around right now jumping in to say, 'Well we don't like the deal,' or this or that, doesn't know what the deal is. There is no deal yet,” Kerry told a Senate subcommittee. “And I caution people to wait and see what these negotiations produce.”

It was the second time in recent days in which the Obama administration, irked that Netanyahu's speech to Congress was set up initially without their knowledge, appeared to criticize Israel over Iran.

Last Wednesday, the White House accused Israel of distorting its position in the nuclear talks through selective leaks, heightening tensions before Netanyahu's visit to Congress.

The six major powers negotiating with Iran have set the end of March as a deadline to reach a framework accord on the nuclear issue, and Kerry suggested there may soon be clarity on whether one is possible.

“We expect to know soon whether or not Iran is willing to put together an acceptable, verifiable plan,” he told senators at a hearing on the State Department's budget.

The United States and five powers – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – hope to secure an accord to restrain Iran's nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. Washington suspects Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons. Iran, however, has said its program is for peaceful purposes.

At a second Senate hearing, Kerry played down published reports that one idea under discussion would impose strict controls on Iran's uranium enrichment for at least 10 years. If Iran complied, the controls would be gradually lifted over the final five years.

Asked about the reports, including one by the Associated Press, Kerry replied, “Don’t believe what you read.” He declined to provide details on the discussion.

Russia, Iran sign nuclear construction deal


Russia will build two new nuclear power plant units in Iran under an agreement signed in Moscow on Tuesday between subsidiaries of the two countries' state atomic agencies.

The agreement precedes a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal at talks between Iran and world powers that would curb Tehran's nuclear program, which the West says may be aimed at building atomic weapons but Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

Russia, which is involved in those talks, will also cooperate with Tehran on developing more nuclear power units in Iran, and consider producing nuclear fuel components there, according to a memorandum signed by the heads of the state atomic bodies, Sergey Kirienko of Russia's Rosatom and Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI).

Iran already runs one Russian-built reactor in its Bushehr power plant.

Reporting by Andrei Kuzmin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Timothy Heritage

Iran, six powers agree to four-month extension of nuclear talks


Iran and six world powers on Friday agreed to a four-month extension of negotiations on a long-term nuclear deal that would gradually end sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, diplomats close to the talks said.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China had set a July 20 deadline to complete a long-term agreement that would resolve the decade-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. But diplomats said they were unable to overcome significant differences on major sticking points.

“We have reached an agreement to extend the talks,” a senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Several Western diplomats echoed his remarks.

The extension agreed to on Friday begins on July 21 and negotiations on a long-term deal are likely to resume in September, diplomats said. They added that the talks were set to conclude by late November.

It has been clear for days that Iran and the six powers would miss the Sunday deadline to reach an accord due to disagreements on a number of key issues in the discussions.

Among the issues dividing them are the permissible scope of Iran's nuclear fuel production capacity and how to address the country's suspected past atomic bomb research. The negotiations began in February in Vienna.

The talks are taking place because of a preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November 2013 that gave Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for halting some nuclear activities and created time and space for the negotiation of a comprehensive deal to end the decade-long dispute.

But it remains uncertain whether four more months of high-stakes talks will yield a final agreement, since the underlying differences remain significant after six rounds of meetings this year.

Western nations fear Iran's nuclear programme may be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.

The powers want Iran to significantly scale back its nuclear enrichment programme to make sure it cannot yield nuclear bombs. Iran wants sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy to be lifted as soon as possible.

After years of rising tension between Iran and the West and fears of a new Middle East war, last year's election of a pragmatist, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's president led to a thaw in ties that resulted in November's diplomatic breakthrough.

But Iran's new government still insists that the country has a right to develop a nuclear energy programme that includes the production of atomic fuel. The West fears that this fuel, if further processed, could also be used to make bombs.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters earlier this week that Tehran would be willing to delay development of an industrial-scale uranium enrichment programme for up to seven years and to keep the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed so far for this purpose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined the talks last weekend and held several face-to-face meetings with Zarif, but he said before leaving Vienna on Tuesday it was “crystal clear” that Iran keeping all of its existing centrifuges was out of the question.

The United States and its European allies also want Iran to accept restrictions on its nuclear programme for at least 10 years, which Tehran says is excessive.

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and by Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Editing by Louise Ireland and Tom Brown

U.S. sanctions move angers Iran, Russia sees threat to nuclear deal


A breakthrough agreement to end the standoff over Iran's nuclear program appeared to face its first major difficulty on Friday with Russia warning that expanding a U.S. sanctions blacklist could seriously complicate the deal's implementation.

Russia, which, along with the United States, is among the six world powers that negotiated the November 24 interim accord with Tehran, echoed Iranian criticism that it violated the spirit of the deal and could “block things”.

The United States on Thursday blacklisted additional companies and people under existing sanctions intended to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to make nuclear weapons. Iran denies any such aims.

Diplomats said Iran, in what appeared to be a response, interrupted technical talks in Vienna with the six nations over how to implement the agreement, under which Tehran is to curb its atomic activities in return for limited sanctions easing.

The developments highlighted potential obstacles negotiators face in pressing ahead with efforts to resolve a decade-old dispute between the Islamic Republic and the West that has stirred fears of a new Middle East war.

Western diplomats said the inconclusive outcome of the December 9-12 expert-level discussions should not be seen as a sign that the deal hammered out nearly three weeks ago was in trouble.

But Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told Iran's semi-official Fars news agency in reaction to the U.S. decision that it was evaluating the situation and would “react accordingly”, adding, “It is against the spirit of the Geneva deal.”

Russia also made its concerns clear.

“The U.S. administration's decision goes against the spirit of this document,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, referring to the Geneva agreement between Iran and the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany.

“Widening American 'blacklists' could seriously complicate the fulfillment of the Geneva agreement, which proposes easing sanctions pressure.”

In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she did not think the blacklistings announced on Thursday had made the negotiations more difficult.

“No, I don't. I think it was always going to be very complicated,” Harf told reporters, adding the United States had told Iranian officials in Vienna that more designations were coming.

DEAL OPPONENTS

Russia built Iran's first nuclear power plant and has much better ties with Tehran than Western states. It supported four rounds of U.N. Security Council sanctions aimed at reining in Tehran's nuclear program but has criticized the United States and Europe for imposing additional sanctions.

U.S. officials said the blacklisting move showed the Geneva deal “does not, and will not, interfere with our continued efforts to expose and disrupt those supporting Iran's nuclear program or seeking to evade our sanctions”.

The new measure, the first such enforcement action since Geneva, targeted entities that are suspected of involvement in the proliferation of materials for weapons of mass destruction and trying to evade the current sanctions.

Some U.S. lawmakers want further sanctions on the Islamic state. But the administration of President Barack Obama has campaigned to hold off on new measures for now to create space for the diplomatic push to settle the nuclear dispute.

Iran's ambassador to France said expanding the blacklist played into the hands of those opposing the deal – including hardliners in Iran irked by the foreign policy shift and apprehensive that they are losing influence over Iran's most powerful man, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“This agreement has opponents both inside Iran and outside Iran,” Ali Ahani told reporters at a meeting of business and political leaders in Monaco.

“We are determined to keep to our commitments, but we have to be sure that on the other side they are serious, and that we can show to our people that we can trust them and that the West is a viable partner.”

“The contents of this accord are quite clear. It was decided not to add sanctions. This type of decision blocks things,” added Ahani, speaking on behalf of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who pulled out of the World Policy Conference after his mother was taken ill.

'NOT PANICKING'

The Geneva deal was designed to halt Iran's nuclear advances for six months to buy time for negotiations on a final settlement. Scope for diplomacy widened after Iran elected the pragmatic Hassan Rouhani as president in June. He had promised to reduce Tehran's isolation and win sanctions easing.

Under the agreement, Iran will restrain its atomic activities in return for some easing of the international sanctions that have battered the major oil producer's economy.

But one diplomat said the Iranian delegation in Vienna suddenly announced late on Thursday – hours after Washington made its blacklisting decision public – that it had received instructions to return to Tehran: “It was quite unexpected.”

An EU diplomat said he did not believe the decision was linked to the issues under discussion in Vienna, but rather “their reaction to moves in the U.S. on sanctions”.

The hope was that it was a temporary problem: “The Iranians have been committed to making this work. We are not panicking.”

Iranian officials were not available for comment.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he expected the implementation talks to resume in the coming days. “We have been hard at it in Vienna … we are making progress but I think that they're at a point in those talks where folks feel a need to consult and take a moment,” he said during a visit to Israel.

“There is every expectation that the talks are going to continue in the next few days and that we will proceed to the full implementation of that plan.”

A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates the discussions with Iran, also said they were expected to resume soon.

“After four days of lengthy and detailed talks, reflecting the complexity of the technical issues discussed, it became clear that further work is needed,” Michael Mann said.

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Adrian Croft in Brussels, John Irish in Monaco and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Alison Williams

Iran, six powers meet on steps to carry out nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers began expert-level talks on Monday to work out nitty-gritty details in implementing a landmark accord for Tehran to curb its disputed nuclear program in return for a limited easing of sanctions.

The preliminary accord is seen as a first step towards resolving a decade-old standoff over suspicions Iran might be covertly pursuing a nuclear weapons “breakout” capability, a perception that has raised the risk of a wider Middle East war.

Officials from Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia met at the Vienna headquarters of the U.N. nuclear agency, which will play a central role in verifying that Tehran carries out its part of the interim deal.

The outcome of the meeting is expected to determine when Iran stops its most sensitive nuclear activity and when it gets the respite in sanctions that it has been promised in return.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said it would have “some involvement” in the discussions, which are expected to continue on Tuesday. Media were barred from the floor where the meeting, held under tight secrecy, took place.

The talks are aimed at “devising mechanisms” for the Geneva accord's implementation, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted by state Press TV as saying. Iranian nuclear as well as central bank officials would take part, he said.

Western diplomats said detailed matters not addressed at the Nov. 20-24 talks in Geneva must be ironed out before the deal can be put into practice.

These include how and when the IAEA, which regularly visits Iranian nuclear sites to try to ensure there are no diversions of atomic material, will carry out its expanded role.

A start to sanctions relief would hinge on verification that Iran was fulfilling its side of the accord, they said.

The deal was designed to halt Iran's nuclear advances for a period of six months to buy time for negotiations on a final settlement of the standoff. Diplomats say implementation may start in January after the technical details have been settled.

Scope for easing the dispute peacefully opened after the June election of a comparative moderate, Hassan Rouhani, as Iranian president. He won in a landslide by pledging to ease Tehran's international isolation and win relief from sanctions that have severely damaged the oil producer's economy.

ARAK REACTOR

Diplomats caution that many difficult hurdles remain to overcome – including differences over the scope and capacity of Iran's nuclear project – for a long-term solution to be found.

In a sign of this, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed the powers on Sunday to take a hard line with Iran in negotiations on a final agreement, urging them to demand that Tehran abandon all uranium enrichment.

A day after President Barack Obama deemed it unrealistic to believe Iran could be compelled to dismantle its entire nuclear infrastructure, Netanyahu said Tehran should have to take apart all centrifuges used to refine uranium.

Israel sees Iran, which has repeatedly said it seeks only civilian energy from uranium enrichment, as a mortal threat. Iran says it is Israel, widely believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, that threatens peace.

Under last month's pact, Iran will halt the activity most applicable to producing nuclear weapons – enrichment of uranium to a higher fissile concentration of 20 percent – and stop installing components at its Arak heavy-water research reactor which, once operating, could yield bomb-grade plutonium.

In the Vienna talks, government experts will also discuss details of which components Iran is not allowed to add to the Arak reactor under the deal, as well as issues pertaining to the sequencing of gestures by both sides, the diplomats said.

Officials from the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates talks with Iran on behalf of the six powers, were also at the meeting.

Additional reporting by Isabel Coles in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Delay in launch of nukes deal gives Iran an edge, some say


There’s the six-month interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program that trades some sanctions relief for a freeze on Iran’s nuclear program. And then there’s the interim before the interim begins.

Little noticed in the wake of the historic pact reached last month by Iran and the major powers is the fact that technically, the deal is not yet underway. A commission of experts from the United States, Russia, Germany, Britain, China and France, working with Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, first must work out the technical details before the deal officially goes into effect.

The commission is not scheduled to meet until January. And even then it’s not clear how long it might take to reach an agreement.

“Obviously, once that’s — those technical discussions are worked through, I guess the clock would start,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said in a news briefing on Nov. 27.

Under the terms of the deal reached in Geneva last month, Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium to 5 percent, freeze most of its centrifuges and halt construction on its plutonium reactor. In exchange it would receive sanctions relief totaling approximately $7 billion.

President Obama strongly supported the deal, which was intended to provide a six-month window in which to conclude a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Critics, foremost among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the agreement as a historic blunder, arguing that it would advance Iran toward the acquisition of a nuclear weapon.

Some critics say the uncertainty over when the deal kicks in also works in Iran’s favor.

“Every day that goes by where Iran is not bound to roll back its nuclear program but still can benefit from a shift in the market psychology from fear to greed puts money in the regime’s pocket without doing anything to address their growing nuclear weapons capacity,” said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which has helped shape many of the tough sanctions passed in recent years by Congress.

Dubowitz’s colleague, Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president Jonathan Schanzer, on Tuesday tweeted links to Arab media reports that some European oil companies already are considering new business with Iran. The French oil giant Total reportedly said last month that it would resume dealings with Iran if sanctions are revoked.

Ron Dermer, the new Israeli envoy to Washington, also has cast the argument as one of momentum. In briefings to members of Congress and Jewish groups, Dermer has argued that before the deal, tough sanctions and the likelihood of more to come had Iran on the ropes. With a deal in place, however, the momentum could reverse direction — companies that once feared being cut off from the U.S. economy might consider deals with Iran.

Obama administration officials adamantly deny the scenario. The principal sanctions targeting Iran’s energy and banking sectors will stay in place even during the interim deal, they say.

“Right now our sanctions remain in place,” John Sullivan, spokesman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury section that monitors sanctions compliance, told JTA. “More guidance on the relief package will be forthcoming from Treasury and our interagency partners.

“What we agreed to is clear and limited. We will continue to enforce our sanctions aggressively.”

Alireza Nader, an Iran expert at the Rand Corp., a think tank with close ties to the U.S. defense establishment, said that even those nations and companies eager for sanctions relief would not bust sanctions now for fear of alienating the United States. India and China, he said, would risk U.S. waivers granted them on some dealings with Iran should they be seen as planning new business with the country.

“Most countries are still wary of having normal energy ties with Iran,” he said.

Michael Adler, an Iran expert at the congressionally funded Wilson Center, acknowledged that the momentum argument has merit. But he noted that provisions in the deal that would resume sanctions should Iran not comply ultimately are enough to scare companies away from resuming business with the country.

“To say that it will lead to Total resuming contracts with Iran is wrong,” Adler said. “You can be concerned you’re changing from a tightening mode to a lightening mode, but the deal is structured in such a way that all the sanctions are reversible and the money they’re getting is a drop in the bucket.”

World powers, Iran in new attempt to clinch nuclear deal


Big powers resumed talks on Wednesday on a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program with Russia and Britain confident a breakthrough could be clinched and Iran spelling out “red lines” but saying it wanted friendly ties with all nations.

Keen to end a long standoff and head off the risk of a wider Middle East war, the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany came close to winning concessions from Tehran on its nuclear activity in return for some sanctions relief at negotiations in Geneva earlier this month.

Policymakers from the six nations have since said an interim accord on confidence-building steps could finally be within reach, despite warnings from diplomats that differences persist and could still foil an agreement.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the remaining gaps were narrow. “It is the best chance for a long time to make progress on one of the gravest problems in foreign policy,” he told a news conference during a visit to Istanbul.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier: “We hope the efforts that are being made will be crowned with success at the meeting that opens today in Geneva.”

Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong, head of China's delegation in Geneva, told Reuters: “Things are on track.”

Western governments suspect Iran has enriched uranium with the covert aim of developing the means to fuel nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Refined uranium is used to run nuclear power stations – Iran's stated goal – but cam also constitute the core of a nuclear bomb, if enriched to a high degree.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a speech as Western negotiators gathered in the Swiss city that the Islamic Republic would not step back from its nuclear rights and he had set “red lines” for his envoys in Geneva.

But he added, according to his official website: “We want to have friendly relations with all nations and peoples. The Islamic system isn't even hostile to the nation of America, although with regards to Iran and the Islamic system, the American government is arrogant, malicious and vindictive.”

Khamenei also criticized France, which spoke out against a draft deal floated at the November 7-9 round, for “succumbing to the United States” and “kneeling before the Israeli regime”. France said the comments were unacceptable.

TOUGHER TERMS

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Russia on Wednesday to appeal for tougher terms in any accord with Iran after failing to convince the United States that the world powers are pursuing a bad deal.

Israel, assumed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal, sees a nuclear-armed Iran as a mortal threat and wants its arch-enemy's uranium enrichment capabilities dismantled and its enriched uranium stockpile removed.

Israel worries that the interim deal being discussed in Geneva would buy Iran time to pursue nuclear weapons because it would not scrap its nuclear fuel-making infrastructure, while the six powers see it as placing a ceiling on Iran's nuclear activity as a stepping stone towards a broad final settlement.

White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes sought to allay Israeli misgivings, saying negotiators needed the six months an interim solution would provide to strike an comprehensive agreement.

“What we have said to the Israelis is that we have this tactical difference with you on pursuing this first step, but we share the end goal, and that's the point of these whole negotiations, which is to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons,” he told CNN.

The last meeting stumbled over Iran's insistence that its “right” to enrich uranium be explicitly recognized and over its building of a heavy-water reactor near Arak that could yield plutonium, an alternative bomb fuel, once operational.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has since suggested a way around the first sticking point, saying Tehran has the right to refine uranium but is not now insisting others recognize that right.

A U.N. inspector report last week showed Iran had stopped expanding enrichment and had not added major new components at Arak since August, when moderate Hassan Rouhani replaced hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president.

Nuclear analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank said the “body language” showed that the sides were ready for a deal, pointing to Iran slowing its nuclear push and Washington refraining, so far, from imposing more sanctions.

“(They) have demonstrated that they are looking to transform stumbling blocks into stepping stones,” Vaez said.

GOOD FAITH

Zarif, Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, said on the eve of the meeting there was “every possibility” of a successful conclusion provided there was good faith and the political will among all involved to resolve problems.

U.S. President Barack Obama sounded a more cautious note on Tuesday, saying prospects for an imminent deal were uncertain.

American lawmakers urged the Obama administration on Tuesday to take a tougher line with Iran.

The talks started on Wednesday with a meeting between Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who coordinates contacts with Iran on behalf of the powers.

Zarif said their discussion was “good and useful” but gave no details. Senior diplomats from the six nations were due to join him and Ashton later in the day for a plenary session.

After years of confrontation, a shift towards meaningful diplomacy between Iran and the world powers took shape after Rouhani's landslide election victory on a platform to relieve the Islamic Republic's increasing international isolation and get sanctions strangling its oil-dependent economy lifted.

Rouhani wants to move quickly: Western sanctions have reduced Iran's daily oil export revenue by 60 percent since 2011 and caused its currency to collapse.

But diplomats say Iran has so far refused to meet all of the powers' demands. They include suspending enrichment of uranium to 20 percent fissile purity – a significant advance toward the threshold for bomb fuel – as well as limiting its enrichment capacity and mothballing the Arak reactor project.

Western diplomats have kept much of the details of a preliminary deal under wraps but said this would not win Iran relief from the most painful sanctions on oil trade and banking that many believe finally forced it into serious negotiations.

Under an initial deal the OPEC producer is likely to temporarily regain access to precious metals markets and trade in petrochemicals, an important source of export income, and could see the release of some of its oil revenues frozen in oversees accounts.

The Iranian assets that would be unfrozen as part of any deal this week would amount to less than $10 billion, U.S. national security adviser Susan Rice told CNN.

Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau, John Irish and Fredrik Dahl in Geneva, Marcus George and Isabel Coles in Dubai, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Dan Williams in Jeruselem, Sophie Louet in Paris, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Dasha Afanasieva in Istanbul; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Will Santa bring Obama peace for Christmas?


It is too early to tell what will emerge from talks among the new diplomatic triumvirate composed of the United States, Russia and Iran. But one thing is for certain: Even the worst of all agreements is far superior to the current situation. 

Certainly, I understand the problems with Iran. I also know that the benefits, even if only the remote possibility of benefits, are better than the current conflict. Rapprochement, even just a little, between the United States and Iran, just enough to lift the U.S.-imposed sanctions against Iran, is a lot. It would be a positive move, a move in the right direction. It would break the stalemate that has handcuffed the world and dominated foreign policy for too long.

The world will be able to let out a collective breath of relief. The Iranians, the people, the citizens, will realize real relief in the form of an improved lifestyle and improved living conditions. If the only result is a happier Iranian population, it is worth it all. 

The aggressive behavior, both diplomatically and politically, that has emanated from Iran, and which has resulted in their indignant and ferocious race to attain nuclear weapons, has been a response to the isolation that Iran has been feeling these past few years. Once Iran begins talking to the United States and Russia together, the signal will go out that it is all right to deal with them, that it is OK to publicly interact with them in the international community. And once Iran is received by the international community, the immediate nuclear threat will diminish. Iran will no longer fight the conditions that have already been set down for them — they will allow spot inspections and they will limit their uranium enrichment.

None of this means that Iran has already become or is on the road to becoming a peaceful nation, but rather, that their nuclear program and their weapons issues are no longer on their own front burner.

Not everyone will be happy, not every country will be satisfied by the agreement that will be forged by the United States, Russia and Iran no matter what that agreement is. The main bone of contention, for example, between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue is that Israel wants sanctions to remain in place until the Iranians follow through and stop their enrichment. Israel asserts that if sanctions are lifted now, reinstituting them at a later time and Israel believes that that time will come can take years. Rescinding sanctions takes only a few seconds. 

There have been whispers and there is speculation. We are being led to believe that the United States wants a plan in place by the end of December. That’s soon. A name has even been already assigned to the plan. They are calling it a “Christmas plan.”

The essence of the plan, as far as we who are not actually at the negotiating table drafting the plan can determine, would allow Iran to preserve their civilian nuclear development facilities. It permits the Iranians to enrich uranium up to 5 percent. It halts all 20 percent enrichment. It will halt all activity at the plutonium reactor in Arak. And it will transform the Fordo plant into a scientific and medical experimental facility.

That plan seems to have been agreed upon by all parties involved — the United States, which devised it; Russia, which agrees with it; and, most crucially, the Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader of Iran. 

Israel wants one more condition attached to the plan. Israel wants all underground plants brought above ground. As Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, there is no reason for a peaceful plant to be underground. Only a secret military arms plant needs to be hidden. Netanyahu is correct.

Personally, I am more troubled by another issue. Iran is suddenly becoming a different kind of world player.

Suddenly, post agreement, the Iranians will hold much more power than they did before talks began. Then, they held us all in fear, but their actual power was limited. Of course it is still possible that the entire project may fall apart. Iran has its own agenda and objectives that have not changed one iota. Iran wants sanctions lifted at all costs. Iran wants to hold the reins over the entire Muslim world. But since meeting with the United States and Russia, Iran sees the possibility of having it all.

To turn a phrase, now that Iran has been sanctioned by both Russia and the United States, now that it has been given credibility by the great powers of the Western world, it is well on the road to achieving all its goals. If those goals are more important to Iran than the threat of sanctions and its own nuclear desires, the region will be a safer place to live. 

Whatever emerges, it will be for the good. 


Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Rouhani says will present ‘true face of Iran’ at U.N.


President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday he would use his visit to the United Nations this week to present the “true face of Iran” and to pursue talks and cooperation with the West to end Iran's nuclear dispute.

A moderate conservative elected in June, Rouhani was speaking shortly before a five-day trip Western powers hope will show a new readiness on Tehran's part to strike a deal on a nuclear program they fear could yield an atomic bomb.

Iran has repeatedly stated its nuclear activities are peaceful, a message it sought to emphasize on Monday with the phased transfer to Iranian engineers of its only nuclear power plant from its Russian contractors.

“Unfortunately in recent years the face of Iran, a great and civilized nation, has been presented in another way,” Rouhani said, according to comments published on his official website. “I and my colleagues will take the opportunity to present the true face of Iran as a cultured and peace-loving country,”

Rouhani did not make clear who he blames for any distortion of Iran's image. But the comments suggest he is intent on distancing himself from the controversial, outspoken approach to the West adopted by predecessor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The United States and its allies have imposed increasing economic sanctions on Iran in recent years, partly a response to what the West regards as Tehran's failure to open its nuclear program to international inspection. Ahmadinejad had also raised concern with comments on the Holocaust and homosexuality.

Israel has made it clear it could mount a strike against Iran if it felt Tehran were close to acquiring nuclear weapons.

Rouhani, a former nuclear negotiator under reformist president Mohammad Khatami, criticized the West over sanctions he said had inflicted suffering on Iranians.

“On this trip, I will try to deliver the voice of the oppressed people of Iran to the world and we should say that sanctions are an illegal and unacceptable path,” he told journalists before leaving, his official website reported.

“The West should opt for the path of talks and cooperation and consider mutual interests,” he said.

SANCTIONS BITING

Rouhani has vowed to improve Iran's ailing economy, which has suffered deeply from embargoes.

Last week Rouhani's tone was endorsed by Iran's most powerful figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who spoke of “heroic flexibility”, suggesting a new willingness to engage in diplomacy with Iran's adversaries.

U.S. officials have left open the possibility that U.S. President Barack Obama and Rouhani could meet on the sidelines of the U.N. meeting.

Iran's foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was set to meet the European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, formally starting the new era of negotiations between the two sides.

An unnamed source close to Iran's negotiators was quoted by the state news agency, IRNA, as saying talks between the two parties had been “completely transformed” by Rouhani's election.

“This is a new game and it will have new rules and the aim is to reach common points of agreement between both sides,” the source was quoted as saying.

Rouhani described the transfer of the Bushehr nuclear power plant from its Russian engineers as a “blessed event”

Iran's nuclear energy chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Tehran was in talks with Moscow about the construction of more such plants.

Russian experts would remain at the plant under an agreement between the two sides before it is transferred completely to Iran, ISNA news agency quoted him as saying, describing it as an “interim” phase that could last two years.

Bushehr is not considered a major proliferation risk by Western states, whose fears are focused on sites where Iran has defied global pressure by enriching uranium beyond levels needed to fuel power plants.

Reporting by Marcus George, Editing by William Maclean and Ralph Boulton

Report: Russia to sell Iran advanced anti-aircraft missile batteries


Russia will supply Iran with advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile batteries and a new nuclear reactor, a Russian newspaper is reporting.

The Kommersant daily reported Wednesday that “a source close to the Kremlin” said the agreement would be discussed Friday, when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Tehran and meets with new Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

The additional nuclear reactor would be built at the Bushehr nuclear site, according to the newspaper.

The decision to supply Iran with the S-300s would renew an $800 million agreement for five of the anti-aircraft missile batteries cancelled by Russia in 2010, reportedly after pressure from Israel. The deal was originally signed in 2007; its cancellation led to tension between Russia and Iran, the Associated Press reported.

The offer comes as Russia attempts to broker a resolution between Syria and the Western world over Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal and its alleged use of those weapons last month against the country’s citizens.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was pressured by Israel earlier this year to cancel a plan to provide four S-300s to Syria under a $900 million agreement signed in 2010 that also included six launchers and 144 operational missiles, each with a range of 200 miles.

Western nations also pressured Russia to cancel the Syria deal, saying it would complicate international intervention in the country’s two-year civil war.

Russia’s Putin says Iran nuclear push is peaceful


Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation but regional and international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program could not be ignored.

Putin, whose country is among six world powers seeking to ensure that Iran does not seek to develop nuclear weapons, also said Iranian threats to Israel's existence were unacceptable.

His remarks appeared aimed to strike a balance between the interests of Iran, on the one hand, and on the other, Israel and global powers seeking to ensure Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

“I have no doubt that Iran is adhering to the rules in this area. Because there is no proof of the opposite,” Putin, whose country is one of six leading those diplomatic efforts, told Russian state-run English-language channel RT.

But he criticised Iran for rejecting a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Tehran's nuclear programme and took aim at aggressive Iranian rhetoric about Israel, with which Putin has been improving ties in recent years.

“Iran is in a very difficult region and when we hear … from Iran that Israel could be destroyed, I consider that absolutely unacceptable. That does not help,” Putin said.

Putin suggested that Washington was exaggerating dangers posed by Iran, saying “the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat”.

Putin said that concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for peaceful purposes including power generation, must be addressed.

Last week, Russia joined China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany in pressing Iran to cooperate with a stalled investigation by the U.N. nuclear agency into suspected atomic research by the Islamic state.

In a June 5 joint statement intended to signal their unity in the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, the six powers said they were “deeply concerned” about the country's atomic activities.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Michael Roddy

Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

Iran, world powers meet in Kazakhstan on Islamic Republic’s nuclear program


Iran and six world powers are meeting for talks on Iran's nuclear program.

The talks began Tuesday in Kazakhstan. It is the first negotiations to be held in nearly eight months. The world powers are made up of Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: United States, France, Britain, Russia and China.

In advance of the meetings, the United States proposed an easing, but not lifting, of sanctions on Iran in exchange for greater transparency.

Since the last talks eight months ago, Iran reportedly has expanded its nuclear program and is believed to be closer than ever to building a nuclear bomb.

Also during those eight months, the Western powers have levied severe economic sanctions on Iran.

Iran denies Western claims that it has a nuclear weapons program and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

Iran claims new uranium deposits


Iran claimed to have uncovered new deposits of uranium ahead of talks with world powers on its nuclear capacity.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, made the announcement at an annual conference on the nuclear industry, Reuters reported Sunday, quoting Iranian media.

Abbasi-Davani told the conference that Iran will put the raw uranium “to use in the near future.”

Iran was believed to be running out of sources for raw uranium because of tough sanctions aimed at forcing the country to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Representatives of Iran are scheduled to meet this week in Kazakhstan with representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany to advance talks that would ease the sanctions in exchange for greater transparency. Iran denies Western claims that it has a nuclear weapons program and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

The report by Reuters citing Irna, the Iranian news agency, also said that Iran had identified 16 new sites for nuclear power plants.

Separately, The Associated Press reported over the weekend that Iran claimed to have forced down an unmanned drone in its airspace.

Iran has made several such claims; they have not been verified.

The claims are significant because the ability to guide down the aircraft — as opposed to shooting them down — would suggest that Iran has the capability to breach the codes of the Western militaries that have launched the drones.

Powers to offer Iran sanctions relief at nuclear talks


Major powers will offer Iran some sanctions relief during talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this week if Tehran agrees to curb its nuclear program, a U.S. official said on Monday.

But the Islamic Republic could face more economic pain if it fails to address international concerns about its atomic activities, the official said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the central Asian state, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“There will be continued sanctions enforcement … there are other areas where pressure can be put,” the official said, on the eve of the first round of negotiations between Iran and six world powers in eight months.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads the talks with Iran on behalf of the powers, said Tehran should understand that there was an “urgent need to make concrete and tangible progress” in Kazakhstan.

Both Russia and the United States stressed there was not an unlimited amount of time to resolve a dispute that has raised fears of a new war in the Middle East.

“The window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition remain open forever. But it is open today. It is open now,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in London.

“There is still time but there is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the table and negotiate in good faith,” he added in a news conference in London. “We are prepared to negotiate in good faith, in mutual respect, in an effort to avoid whatever terrible consequences could follow failure.”

It was not clear what he meant by “terrible consequences.” Top U.S. officials have repeatedly said the United States will not take any options off the table, code for the possibility of a military strike. They also fear Iran's getting a nuclear weapon could set off an arms race across the Middle East.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said there was “no more time to waste,” Interfax news agency quoted him as saying in Almaty.

The immediate priority for the powers – the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France – is to convince Iran to halt its higher-grade enrichment, which is a relatively short technical step away from potential atom bomb material.

Iran, which has taken steps over the last year to expand its uranium enrichment activities in defiance of international demands to scale it back, wants a relaxation of increasingly harsh sanctions hurting its lifeline oil exports.

Western officials say the Almaty meeting is unlikely to produce any major breakthrough, in part because Iran's presidential election in June may make it difficult for it to make significant concessions before then for domestic reasons.

But they say they hope that Iran will take their proposals seriously and engage in negotiations to try to find a diplomatic settlement.

“No one is expecting to walk out of here with a deal but … confidence building measures are important,” one senior Western official said.

The stakes are high: Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed arsenal, has strongly hinted at possible military action to prevent its old foe from obtaining such arms. Iran has threatened to retaliate if attacked.

GOLD SANCTIONS RELIEF?

The U.S. official said the powers' updated offer to Iran – a modified version of one rejected by Iran in the unsuccessful talks last year – would take into account its recent nuclear advances, but also take “some steps in the sanctions arena”.

This would be aimed at addressing some of Iran's concerns, the official said, while making clear it would not meet Tehran's demand of an easing of all punitive steps against it.

“We think … there will be some additional sanctions relief” in the powers' revised proposal,” the official said, without giving details.

Western diplomats have told Reuters the six countries will offer to ease sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals if Iran closes its Fordow underground uranium enrichment plant.

Iran has indicated, however, that this will not be enough.

Tehran denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs, saying its program is entirely peaceful. It wants the powers to recognize what it sees as its right to refine uranium for peaceful purposes.

The U.S. official said the powers hoped that the Almaty meeting would lead to follow-up talks soon.

“We are ready to step up the pace of our meetings and our discussions,” the official said, adding the United States would also be prepared to hold bilateral talks with Tehran if it was serious about it.

Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, said the updated offer to Iran was “balanced and a fair basis” for constructive talks.

Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Dimitry Solovyov and by Arshad Mohammed and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Jon Hemming

Clinton warns Russia, Iran of Syria conflict spreading


Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Iran and Russia on Thursday to rethink their support for Syria, saying the most dire scenarios of the conflict spilling beyond its borders could come to pass.

Clinton told reporters there are signs Iran is sending more people and increasingly sophisticated weaponry to support Syrian President Bashar Assad in his 22-month battle against rebels seeking to end his family's four-decades of authoritarian rule.

Speaking on the eve of her State Department departure, Clinton also said Russia continues aid to the Syrian government, including financially, and she appeared skeptical that Moscow was easing in its opposition to Assad's departure.

Clinton declined comment on reports Israel had bombed Syria on Wednesday but she voiced fears that the conflict, in which more than 60,000 people are believed to have died, may worsen internally and spread.

“I personally have been warning for quite some time of the dangers associated with an increasingly lethal civil war and a potential proxy war,” Clinton told a small group of reporters a day before she is to be replaced by Senator John Kerry.

“Therefore, I think it's incumbent on those nations that have refused to be constructive players to reconsider their positions because the worst kind of predictions of what could happen internally and spilling over the borders of Syria are certainly within the realm of the possible now,” she added.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and security sources said Israeli jets bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target was a military research center northwest of Damascus and 8 miles from the border.

Syria warned of a possible “surprise” response to Israel over the reported attack while Hezbollah, an Iranian ally that also supports Assad, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

PRAISE FOR ALKHATIB

Clinton said that the United States was worried that Iran had recently increased its support for Assad.

“It appears that they may be increasing that involvement and that is a matter of great concern to us,” she said.

“I think the numbers (of people) have increased,” she added. “There is a lot of concern that they are increasing the quality of the weapons, because Assad is using up his weaponry. So it's numbers and it's materiel.”

She made similar comments about Russia.

“We have reason to believe that the Russians continue to supply financial and military assistance in the form of equipment,” she said. “They are doing it in the recent past.”

Russia has been Assad's most important ally throughout the 22-month-old Syrian conflict, which began with peaceful street protests and evolved into an armed uprising against his rule.

Moscow has blocked three Security Council resolutions aimed at pushing him out or pressuring him to end the bloodshed. But Russia has also distanced itself from Assad by saying it is not trying to prop him up and will not offer him asylum.

Clinton appeared skeptical Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's comment this week that Assad's chances of staying in power were growing “smaller and smaller” might herald a fundamental shift in Russia's stance.

“On the Russians, Medvedev included, we have heard rhetoric before over the last now nearly two years that we thought provided an opening … unfortunately, all of that rhetoric has failed to translate into changes in Russian policy,” she said.

Clinton praised the head of Syria's main opposition coalition, Mouaz Alkhatib, for saying this week that he was ready to hold talks with Assad representatives outside Syria if authorities released tens of thousands of detainees.

“I thought he was not only courageous but smart in saying that if certain conditions are met we will begin discussing a political transition because you have to you know make it clear that there will be something other than hardened fighters when this conflict finally ends,” Clinton said. “Otherwise, it might not ever end in the foreseeable future.”

Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Lisa Shumaker

Syria warns of ‘surprise’ response to Israel attack


Syria warned on Thursday of a possible “surprise” response to Israel's attack on its territory and Russia condemned the air strike as an unprovoked violation of international law.

Damascus could take “a surprise decision to respond to the aggression of the Israeli warplanes”, Syrian ambassador to Lebanon Ali Abdul-Karim Ali said a day after Israel struck against Syria.

“Syria is engaged in defending its sovereignty and its land,” Ali told a website of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Syria and Israel have fought several wars and in 2007 Israeli jets bombed a suspected Syrian nuclear site, without a military response from Damascus.

Diplomats, Syrian rebels and regional security sources said on Wednesday that Israeli jets had bombed a convoy near the Lebanese border, apparently hitting weapons destined for Hezbollah. Syria denied the reports, saying the target had been a military research center northwest of Damascus.

Hezbollah, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as he battles an armed uprising in which 60,000 people have been killed, said Israel was trying to thwart Arab military power and vowed to stand by its ally.

“Hezbollah expresses its full solidarity with Syria's leadership, army and people,” said the group which fought an inconclusive 34-day war with Israel in 2006.

Israel has remained silent on the attack and there has been little reaction from its Western backers, but Syria's allies in Moscow and Tehran were quick to denounce the strike.

Russia, which has blocked Western efforts to put pressure on Syria at the United Nations, said that any Israeli air strike would amount to unacceptable military interference.

“If this information is confirmed, then we are dealing with unprovoked attacks on targets on the territory of a sovereign country, which blatantly violates the U.N. Charter and is unacceptable, no matter the motives to justify it,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Iranian deputy foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdullahian said the attack “demonstrates the shared goals of terrorists and the Zionist regime”, Fars news agency reported. Assad portrays the rebels fighting him as foreign-backed, Islamist terrorists, with the same agenda as Israel.

“It is necessary for the sides which take tough stances on Syria to now take serious steps and decisive stances against this aggression by Tel Aviv and uphold criteria for security in the region,” Abdullahian said.

An aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Saturday that Iran would consider any attack on Syria as an attack on itself, but Abdullahian made no mention of retaliation.

Hezbollah said the attack showed that the conflict in Syria was part of a scheme “to destroy Syria and its army and foil its pivotal role in the resistance front (against Israel)”.

BLASTS SHOOK DISTRICT

Details of Wednesday's strike remain sketchy and, in parts, contradictory. Syria said Israeli warplanes, flying low to avoid detection by radar, crossed into its airspace from Lebanon and struck the Jamraya military research centre.

But the diplomats and rebels said the jets hit a weapons convoy heading from Syria to Lebanon, apparently destined for Assad's ally Hezbollah, and the rebels said they – not Israel – hit Jamraya with mortars.

The force of the dawn attack shook the ground, waking nearby residents from their slumber with up to a dozen blasts, two sources in the area said.

“We were sleeping. Then we started hearing rockets hitting the complex and the ground started shaking and we ran into the basement,” said a woman who lives adjacent to the Jamraya site.

The resident, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity over Israel's reported strike on Wednesday morning, said she could not tell whether the explosions which woke her were the result of an aerial strike.

Another source who has a relative working inside Jamraya reported that a building inside the complex had been cordoned off after the attack and that flames were seen rising from the area after the attack.

“It appears that there were about a dozen rockets that appeared to hit one building in the complex,” the source, who also asked not to be identified, told Reuters. “The facility is closed today.”

Israeli newspapers quoted foreign media on Thursday for reports on the attack. Journalists in Israel are required to submit articles on security and military issues to the censor, which has the power to block any publication of material it deems could compromise state security.

Syrian state television said two people were killed in the raid on Jamraya, which lies in the 25-km (15-mile) strip between Damascus and the Lebanese border. It described it as a scientific research centre “aimed at raising the level of resistance and self-defense”.

Diplomatic sources from three countries told Reuters that chemical weapons were believed to be stored at Jamraya, and that it was possible that the convoy was near the large site when it came under attack. However, there was no suggestion that the vehicles themselves had been carrying chemical weapons.

“The target was a truck loaded with weapons, heading from Syria to Lebanon,” said one Western diplomat, echoing others who said the convoy's load may have included anti-aircraft missiles or long-range rockets.

The raid followed warnings from Israel that it was ready to act to prevent the revolt against Assad leading to Syria's chemical weapons and modern rockets reaching either his Hezbollah allies or his Islamist enemies.

A regional security source said Israel's target was weaponry given by Assad's military to fellow Iranian ally Hezbollah.

“This episode boils down to a warning by Israel to Syria and Hezbollah not to engage in the transfer of sensitive weapons,” the source said. “Assad knows his survival depends on his military capabilities and he would not want those capabilities neutralized by Israel – so the message is this kind of transfer is simply not worth it, neither for him nor Hezbollah.”

Such a strike or strikes would fit Israel's policy of pre-emptive covert and overt action to curb Hezbollah and does not necessarily indicate a major escalation of the war in Syria. It does, however, indicate how the erosion of the Assad family's rule after 42 years is seen by Israel as posing a threat.

Israel this week echoed concerns in the United States about Syrian chemical weapons, but its officials say a more immediate worry is that the civil war could see weapons that are capable of denting its massive superiority in airpower and tanks reaching Hezbollah; the group fought Israel in 2006 and remains a more pressing threat than its Syrian and Iranian sponsors.

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow and Marcus George in Dubai; editing by David Stamp