Greece returns to talks with Libya but ties still strained by Tripoli’s deal with Ankara

Libya's interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (R) and Greece's Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) hold a joint press conference in Libya's capital Tripoli on April 6, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 07 April 2021

Greece returns to talks with Libya but ties still strained by Tripoli’s deal with Ankara

  • The Greek PM spoke about the prospects for bilateral cooperation in sectors such as energy, construction, health and maritime transport

The visit by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to Tripoli on April 6, and his meetings there with Libya’s interim political leadership, marked a return by Greece to engagement with the North African nation.

Relations deteriorated in November 2019 to their lowest point in years when Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Turkey on the delimitation of maritime zones in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece responded by expelling the Libyan ambassador and approaching Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army based in Eastern Libya.

At the same time, Athens watched with great unease the growing influence, politically and militarily, of Turkey in Tripoli. Ankara had become the strongest international supporter of the GNA, sending military advisers, military equipment (especially drones) and mercenaries to assist the UN-recognized government in its fight against Haftar’s forces.

However, with the election last month of the interim Government of National Unity (GNU) at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, under the auspices of the UN, the Greek government understood that it needed to rebuild its bridges with Tripoli.

“The visit of Prime Minister Mitsotakis marks the interest of Greece in revisiting ties with the Libyan interim government,” George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre Internationale de Formation Europeenne and a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies told Arab News.

Mitsotakis, who was accompanied by Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, met Chairman of the Presidential Council Mohammed Al-Menfi (a diplomat who served as the Libyan ambassador in Athens before he was expelled in December 2019) and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh.

The Greek PM spoke about the prospects for bilateral cooperation in sectors such as energy, construction, health and maritime transport. However the main topic for discussion during his meetings with the new Libyan leadership was the future of the maritime delimitation agreement with Turkey, and the prospect of restarting negotiations between Athens and Tripoli about the delimitation of their own maritime zones, which stalled in 2010-2011 before the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

“Greece seeks to present its position on maritime zones in the Eastern Mediterranean and prevent a situation in which the Turkish-Libyan MoU will be realized in the designated Libyan area,” Tzogopoulos said.

He believes that Athens “also considers the reconstruction of Libya as a good opportunity for investments by Greek companies, which had been active in Libya before the outbreak of the civil war. While Greece’s policy is in line with the EU framework, and relevant visits of other European leaders, its political return to the Middle East and North Africa region has been carefully planned for some time now.”

Mitsotakis has described the Turkish-Libyan MoU not only as null and void but also illegal. Greece argues that the agreement ignores crucial provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, in particular those concerning the rights of islands in all maritime zones, which is something Ankara does not accept. Athens is concerned that it might be ratified by the Libyan House of Representatives, which the GNA failed to do because it did not control the parliament.

Greek diplomatic sources said that the GNU has been reminded that this issue of maritime delimitation could affect not only bilateral relations, but also the relationship between Tripoli and the EU.

Dbeibeh avoided going into any detail about the future of the MoU with Turkey. Instead, he highlighted the possibility of a Greek-Libyan committee to discuss maritime delimitation.

In the meantime Athens is willing to increase its presence in Libya. The Greek embassy in Tripoli has been renovated and reopened, on a charge d’affaires level, while a new consulate general is due to open soon in Benghazi.

“The reopening of Greece’s embassy in Tripoli should not be viewed as an isolated move as it complements the May 2020 decision to appoint a special envoy for Syria,” said Tzogopoulos.


Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

Updated 50 min 38 sec ago

Pentagon chief to visit Israel amid Iran talks

  • US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday

JERUSALEM: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is due to arrive in Jerusalem on Sunday, the highest ranked member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Israel.
The two-day visit comes as the Biden administration attempts to return to an Iran nuclear deal abandoned by its predecessor — a deal Israel opposes.
Austin is expected to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and armed forces chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi.
The trip will also include a tour of the Nevatim air force base and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and to a Jerusalem memorial to fallen soldiers.
Austin arrives days after representatives of the remaining parties to the troubled 2015 nuclear deal launched talks in Vienna on bringing the United States back into it.
Then president Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.
The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.
All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.
Israel opposes the US attempt to rejoin the accord.
Speaking last week, Netanyahu said Israel would not be bound by its terms.
“An agreement with Iran that would pave the way to nuclear weapons — weapons that threaten our extinction — would not compel us in any way,” Netanyahu said in a speech on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Iran and Israel have both recently attacked each other’s commercial shipping, reports say.
Austin will also visit Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium on his tour, according to the Pentagon.

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Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

Updated 10 April 2021

Iran orders 10-day shutdown amid 4th wave of coronavirus pandemic

  • The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi says
  • Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East

Iran imposed a 10-day lockdown across most of the country on Saturday to curb the spread of a fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic, state media reported.
The lockdown affects 23 of the country’s 31 provinces, health ministry spokesman Alireza Raisi said. Businesses, schools, theaters and sports facilities have been forced to shut and gatherings are banned during the holy fasting month of Ramadan that begins on Wednesday.
Iran’s coronavirus cases have surpassed 2 million with a new daily average of over 20,000 infections over the past week, according to the health ministry. It has reported more than 64,000 fatalities.
“Unfortunately, today we have entered a fourth wave,” President Hassan Rouhani said in televised remarks. He blamed the surge foremost on the variant that first emerged in the UK which spread to Iran earlier this year from neighboring Iraq.
Other factors included widespread travel, weddings, and celebrations during the Iranian New Year holidays that began on March 20, he said.
The UK variant is now predominant in the country, and 257 cities and towns are in red alert, Raisi said.
Iran has been the epicenter of the pandemic in the Middle East. In February, it closed several crossing points with Iraq in an effort to stem the spread of the UK variant.
The country’s vaccination drive has also been slow going. Tehran says it has received more than 400,000 of 2 million Sputnik V vaccines on order from Russia, and that it is awaiting delivery of 4.2 million AstraZeneca shots.
It has also received 250,000 doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine and part of an order of 500,000 doses of India’s COVAXIN.
With a population of 83 million, Iran had hoped to secure over 2 million vaccines by March 20 to vaccinate mainly health care workers. It is developing at least four local vaccine candidates, one in cooperation with Cuba, which are expected to reach production in a few months.


Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

Updated 10 April 2021

Iran starts up advanced centrifuges in new nuclear deal breach

  • President Hassan Rouhani inaugurates cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant

TEHRAN: Iran announced Saturday it has started up advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges in a breach of its undertakings under a troubled 2015 nuclear deal, days after talks on rescuing it got underway.

President Hassan Rouhani officially inaugurated the cascades of 164 IR-6 centrifuges and 30 IR-5 devices at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant in a ceremony broadcast by state television.

The television aired no images of the cascades but broadcast a link with engineers at the plant who said they had introduced uranium hexafluoride gas to the cascades after receiving the order from Rouhani.

Iran’s latest move to step up uranium enrichment follows an opening round of talks Tuesday with representatives of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal on bringing the United States back into the deal.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018.

The Vienna talks are focused not only on lifting crippling economic sanctions Trump reimposed, but also on bringing Iran back into compliance after it responded by suspending several of its own commitments.

All sides said the talks, in which Washington is not participating directly but has the European Union as intermediary, had got off to a good start.

The IR-5 and IR-6 centrifuges allow uranium to be enriched more quickly and in greater amounts than the Iran’s first-generation devices, which are the only ones that the 2015 deal allows it to use.

Rouhani again underlined at the ceremony, which coincided with Iran’s National Nuclear Technology Day, that Tehran’s nuclear program is solely for “peaceful” purposes.

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Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

Updated 10 April 2021

Guelleh re-elected president of Djibouti with 98.58% of vote: official count

DJIBOUTI: Ismail Omar Guelleh was re-elected for a fifth term as president of Djibouti with more than 98 percent of the vote, according to provisional results announced by Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick Friday night.
“President Ismail Omar Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes, which is 98.58 percent,” he told public broadcaster RTD, adding that confirmed results would be released soon by the Constitutional Council.


US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

Updated 10 April 2021

US put forward ‘very serious’ ideas to Iran on reviving nuclear deal: official

WASHINGTON: The United States offered “very serious” ideas to Iran on how to revive a nuclear deal during talks in Vienna but is waiting for Iran to show the same “seriousness,” a US official said Friday.
“The United States team put forward a very serious idea and demonstrated a seriousness of purpose on coming back into compliance if Iran comes back into compliance,” the official told reporters as talks broke for the weekend.
But the official said the United States was waiting for its efforts to be “reciprocated” by Iran.
“We saw some signs of it but certainly not enough. There’s still question marks about whether Iran has the willingness to... take the pragmatic approach that the United States has taken to come back into compliance with its obligations under the deal,” he said.
President Joe Biden supports a return to the 2015 agreement trashed by his predecessor Donald Trump under which Iran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.
Iran has demanded that the United States first lift all sanctions imposed by Trump, which include a sweeping unilateral ban on its oil exports, before it falls back in line with obligations it suspended.
The US official indicated that the major stumbling block in the initial talks was not the order of compliance but rather which sanctions were under discussion as Iran is demanding an end to all US restrictions.
Iran’s position is “not consistent with the deal itself because under the deal the US retains the right to impose sanctions for non-nuclear reasons, whether it’s terrorism or human rights violations or interference with our elections,” the official said.
“All sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPOA we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate sanctions,” he said, using the acronym for the accord’s official name.
Iran refused to meet directly with US negotiator Rob Malley during the talks led by the European Union, whose envoys shuttled between the two sides in different hotels. Talks are set to resume in the same format next week.