Iran has stopped dismantling nuclear centrifuges, senior official says


Iran has stopped dismantling centrifuges in two uranium enrichment plants, state media reported on Tuesday, days after conservative lawmakers complained to President Hassan Rouhani that the process was too rushed.

Last week, Iran announced it had begun shutting down inactive centrifuges at the Natanz and Fordow plants under the terms of a deal struck with world powers in July that limits its nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

Iran's hardliners continue to resist and undermine the nuclear deal, which was forged by moderates they oppose and which they see as a capitulation to the West.

“The (dismantling) process stopped with a warning,” Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of the National Security Council, was quoted as saying by the ISNA student news agency.

Only decommissioned centrifuges were being dismantled to begin with, of which there were about 10,000 at Natanz and Fordow, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has said. 

Shamkhani did not specify what he meant by “warning”, but the head of parliament's nuclear deal commission, Alireza Zakani, told Mehr news agency that the dismantling had stopped in Fordow because of the lawmakers' letter to Rouhani.

Zakani, who was not one of the signatories of the letter, did not mention activities at Natanz.

A group of 20 hardline parliamentarians wrote to the president last week complaining that the deactivation of centrifuges contradicted the directives of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei has said that the deal should only be implemented once allegations of past military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program had been settled.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to announce its conclusions on PMD by Dec. 15.

Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to increase the ratio of the fissile isotope in uranium. Low-enriched uranium is used to fuel nuclear power plants, Iran's stated goal, but can also provide material for bombs if refined much further. 

Iran denied Western suspicions it was aiming to build a nuclear bomb.

Washington Post says Iran’s conviction of its reporter is ‘contemptible’


The Washington Post on Monday denounced the conviction in Iran of the newspaper's U.S.-born Tehran correspondent in an espionage case as an “outrageous injustice” and urged Iranian leaders to overturn it.

Jason Rezaian, who was arrested in July 2014, had 20 days to appeal the verdict, the Iranian news service ISNA said, citing an Iranian judiciary spokesman.

The case is a sensitive issue in Washington's contentious relationship with Tehran and it played out as the United States and other major powers forged a deal in July with Iran to curb its nuclear program in return for relief from sanctions.

Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said the verdict against Rezaian was indefensible and that no sentence had been announced.

“The guilty verdict announced by Iran in the trial of the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian represents an outrageous injustice,” Baron said.

“Iran has behaved unconscionably throughout this case … The contemptible end to this 'judicial process' leaves Iran's senior leaders with an obligation to right this grievous wrong.”

Post officials said Rezaian had been used as a bargaining chip. The newspaper's foreign editor, Douglas Jehl, told Fox News that Rezaian's wife, mother and lawyer had gone to court in Tehran seeking an explanation of the court's action but were turned away after being told no translators were available.

Iran accused Rezaian, 39, of collecting confidential information and giving it to hostile governments, writing a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama and acting against national security.

The Post and his family denounced the charges against Rezaian, who holds both U.S. and Iranian citizenship, as absurd.

A watchdog group, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, said Rezaian's trial, which concluded in August, was a “judicial farce” and challenged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to correct it.

“Rouhani's unwillingness to address this miscarriage of justice calls into question his stated commitment to ensure Iran is a country ruled by law,” said Hadi Ghaemi, the group's executive director.

A senior Iranian official dismissed in August speculation that Iran was considering a prisoner exchange with the United States. Iran holds other U.S. citizens, and said at the time that the United States holds some 16 Iranians for bypassing sanctions and around 60 prisoners for other crimes.

The other U.S. citizens detained in Iran are Christian pastor Saeed Abedini and Amir Hekmati, a former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Robert Levinson, a private investigator, disappeared in Iran in 2007.

West ‘unimpressed’ with Iran’s new proposal in nuclear talks


Iran has offered “constructive solutions” to resolve disputes in nuclear talks with six major powers, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported on Wednesday, but Western officials suggested they had heard nothing new from Tehran.

Iran and the powers are in the last stretch of talks to reach a final agreement to end a more than 12-year standoff over Iran's nuclear program. The aim is to lift sanctions in exchange for at least a decade of curbs on the program.

“Iran has presented constructive solutions to overcome the remaining differences. We will not show flexibility regarding our red lines,” an Iranian diplomat, who was not identified, told ISNA.

But Western officials indicated they had yet to see substantive new proposals. The biggest sticking points include issues such as a United Nations arms embargo, U.N. missile sanctions, the speed of sanctions relief, and research and development on advanced nuclear centrifuges.

“I haven't seen anything new from Iran,” a Western diplomat close to the talks told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Another Western official echoed the remarks.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have stayed behind in Vienna, along with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, in an attempt to break the logjam while most of the other foreign ministers returned to their capitals.

Air-conditioning systems in the luxurious Palais Coburg hotel are struggling with outside temperatures approaching 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), and some negotiators have found it hard to keep their cool during the discussions, officials say.

TENSE EXCHANGE

Kerry and Zarif were involved in a tense exchange over U.N. sanctions on Monday night, diplomats said. Tehran says conventional weapons and missiles have nothing to do with the nuclear issue and embargoes should therefore be removed.

“There was no slamming of doors but it was a very heated exchange of views,” one of the senior Western diplomats said.

Iran's official news agency IRNA quoted unnamed residents at the Palais as saying Kerry and Zarif could be heard shouting at each other during a one-on-one meeting on Monday. A Kerry aide had gone in to tell them that they could be heard clearly.

Western countries accuse Iran of seeking the capability to build nuclear weapons, while Tehran says its program is peaceful.

A successful deal could be the biggest milestone in decades towards easing hostility between Iran and the United States, foes since Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

It would also be a political success for both U.S. President Barack Obama and Iran's pragmatic President Hassan Rouhani, both of whom face scepticism from powerful hardliners at home.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China have given themselves at least until Friday, but a source from one of the powers said on Tuesday they had to wrap up in the next 48 hours.

A senior U.S. official told reporters on Tuesday: “I believe we will in the near term either get this deal or find out we can't.”

The disagreements over U.N. Security Council sanctions are among the most difficult.

Russia and China, which have never hidden their dislike of sanctions, had indicated they would support the termination of the United Nations arms embargo and missile sanctions on Iran, both of which date back to 2006.

MIXED MESSAGE

In the end, however, they agreed not to break ranks with the Americans and Europeans, who want to maintain the measures given the instability in the Middle East.

“In the current context, it would be pretty obscene as a political message if we resolve the nuclear issue but then give them money and the capacity to import and export arms,” a senior Western official said.

Russia is especially sensitive about sanctions, Western officials say, due to the fact that it itself is under U.S. and European Union sanctions over allegations that it is supporting pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine, which it denies.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond were expected to return to Vienna on Wednesday evening.

U.S. and European officials have indicated that they are prepared to walk away if there is not a deal soon, while the Iranians have said they are happy to continue negotiating.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the power to block a deal, last month ruled out either a long freeze of sensitive nuclear work or opening military sites to inspectors. Western officials say Khamenei's “red lines” have made things more difficult for the Iranian delegation.

“There is a sort of 'good-cop/bad-cop' between Zarif and the supreme leader,” a Western official said. “Zarif is under a lot of pressure.”

The latest extension of the talks to Friday left open the possibility an agreement would not arrive in time to secure a 30-day review period by the Republican-dominated U.S. Congress.

If a deal is sent to Congress after July 9, the period grows to 60 days, increase the chance that the deal could unravel.

Netanyahu’s office says his attack on Rohani’s based on bad translation


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office blamed an erroneous translation for his earlier call on westerners who believe Iranian President-elect Hassan Rohani is a moderate to abandon their “illusion.”

Netanyahu’s office late Friday removed from the Twitter social media website tweets reflecting the statement and told the BBC that it was “based on a Reuters report with an erroneous translation.”

Netanyahu had reacted earlier in the day to statements picked up by wire services and originally attributed to Rohani by Iran’s semi-official ISNA and Mehr news agencies, which quoted him as saying, “The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.”

Netanyahu’s original statement said that Rohani had “revealed his true face sooner than expected.”

“This statement should awaken the world from the illusion some have taken to entertaining since the elections in Iran,” his statement said. “The president was replaced but the goal of the regime remained obtaining nuclear weapons to threaten Israel, the Middle East and the safety of the world. A country which threatens to destroy Israel must not have weapons of mass destruction.”

A number of news sites, quoting Rohani directly, rendered his statement differently, without the call for removal. ISNA soon retracted its original report.

“The day of Quds, which is one of the mementos of the Imam [Khomeini], may he be admitted to God’s paradise, is the day that the people display the unity of the Islamic world against any form of tyranny and aggression,” Rohani said, according to a New York Times translation. “In any case, in our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the Holy Land of Palestine and the dear Quds. This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forgot their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.”

Netanyahu’s blast could be seen as being aimed at U.S. President Obama and a number of U.S. lawmakers who have said Rohani’s expressed willingness to make Iran’s nuclear program more transparent should be tested.

A number of pro-Israel groups that had attacked Rohani in social media based on the misstatement, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee and The Israel Project, did not retract their attacks by midday Friday. One group, the AJC-affilaited U.N. Watch, corrected its statement.

International Quds Day, held annually since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, drew hundreds of thousands of participants in Tehran, according to news agencies.

Rohani, who is scheduled to be inaugurated in two days, is believed to have garnered the votes of Iran’s more reform-minded voters, although he is a veteran of the ruling clerical establishment and his candidacy was authorized by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In his own Quds Day remarks, Khamenei vowed that “Palestine will be free” and predicted the emergence of a new “Islamic Middle East.”

Last year, Ahmadinejad used a Quds Day event to call for the elimination of the “insult to all humanity” that is Israel, and said that confronting it constitutes an effort to “protect the dignity of all human beings.” He too expressed confidence in the emergence of “a new Middle East” with no trace of Americans or of Zionists.

Quake hits near Iran’s nuclear city Bushehr, 30 dead


A powerful earthquake struck close to Iran's only nuclear power station on Tuesday, killing 30 people and injuring 800 as it devastated small villages, state media reported.

The 6.3 magnitude quake totally destroyed one village, a Red Crescent official told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA), but the nearby Bushehr nuclear plant was undamaged, according to a local politician and the Russian company that built it.

“Up until now the earthquake has left behind 30 dead and 800 injured,” said Fereydoun Hassanvand, the governor of Bushehr province, according to ISNA.

Many houses in rural parts of the province are made of mud brick, which can easily crumble in a quake.

Across the Gulf, offices in Qatar and Bahrain were evacuated after the quake, whose epicenter was 55 miles southeast of the port of Bushehr, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The early afternoon shock was also felt in financial hub Dubai.

Abdulkarim Jomeiri, a member of parliament for Bushehr, told IRNA that “the distance between the earthquake focal point and the Bushehr nuclear power plant was about 80 km and, on the basis of the latest information, there has been no damage to the power plant.”

The Russian company that built the nuclear power station,  11 miles south of Bushehr, said the plant was unaffected.

“The earthquake in no way affected the normal situation at the reactor. Personnel continue to work in the normal regime and radiation levels are fully within the norm,” Russian state news agency RIA quoted an official at Atomstroyexport as saying.

One Bushehr resident said her home and the homes of her neighbors were shaken by the quake but not damaged.

“We could clearly feel the earthquake,” said Nikoo, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “The windows and chandeliers all shook.”

Tuesday's quake was much smaller than the 9.0 magnitude one that hit Japan two years ago, triggering a tsunami that destroyed back-up generators and disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant's cooling system. Three of the reactors melted down.

Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that does not belong to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, negotiated after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl which contaminated wide areas and forced about 160,000 Ukrainians from their homes.

Western officials and the United Nations have urged Iran to join the safety forum.

REPEATED WARNINGS

Tehran has repeatedly rejected safety concerns about Bushehr – built in a highly seismic area – that began operations in September 2011 after decades of delays.

Iran sits on major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 which flattened the southeastern city of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. In August more than 300 people were killed when two quakes struck the north west.

A report published last week by U.S. think-tanks Carnegie Endowment and the Federation of American Scientists said that “ominously” the Bushehr reactor sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates.

“Iran's sole nuclear power plant is not at risk of a tsunami similar in size to the one that knocked out the electricity and emergency cooling systems at Fukushima. But, repeated warnings about the threat of earthquakes for the Bushehr nuclear plant appear to have fallen on deaf ears,” the report said.

The quake happened on National Nuclear Technology Day when Iran's leaders celebrate the technological advances they say will reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels, leaving more of its abundant oil for export.

Israel, Gulf Arab states and many Western countries fear Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability and the Islamic Republic is under international sanctions aimed at forcing it to curb some of its atomic work.

Iran denies it wants nuclear arms and says its atomic work is for electricity generation and other peaceful uses.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Regan Doherty in Doha, Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Hemming

Iran says Palestinians should be equipped to defend themselves


Palestinians should be “equipped” to defend themselves against Israel as it carries out air strikes on Gaza, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman said on Tuesday, adding that Tehran's alliances with Palestinian Islamist groups remained strong.

Israel began air strikes on Gaza on Wednesday, with the declared goal of deterring Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years.

Iran says the Israeli strikes are “organized terrorism.”

A senior Iranian lawmaker nonetheless denied on Sunday that Tehran had supplied the group with Fajr-5 rockets which Hamas said it had fired on Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial centre.

But on Tuesday, Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast refused to comment directly on whether Iran was supplying Hamas with the Fajr-5 rockets.

“The question of which country has produced these missiles is best discussed by military officials who have expertise in this matter,” Mehmanparast was quoted as saying by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA).

“What is important is that the people of Palestine must be equipped to defend themselves, and it is the responsibility of all countries to defend the rights of the people of Palestine.”

Mehmanparast also rejected the idea that the relationship between Hamas and Iran has deteriorated over possible differences in views over the crisis in Syria, where Tehran's ally Bashar al-Assad is fighting an armed rebellion. The Emir of Qatar, who supports the Syrian rebels, visited Gaza last month in a landmark trip and met Hamas leaders.

Western-allied Gulf Arab states are trying to lure Hamas away from its alliance with Iran, whose nuclear energy program has raised the prospect of a war with Israel.

“There are very good relations between Iran and Hamas,” Mehmanparast said. “We now and have always stood by the people of Palestine and support all the Palestinian fighters, especially Hamas and the Islamic groups.”

Israel's military on Tuesday targeted about 100 sites in Gaza, including ammunition stores and the Gaza headquarters of the National Islamic Bank.

Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Jon Hemming