Iran’s flagship nuclear plant crippled by ‘Israeli sabotage’

This file image released on November 5, 2019 by the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency shows several centrifuges at the uranium enrichment plant in Natanz, central Iran. (AP/File)
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Updated 12 April 2021

Iran’s flagship nuclear plant crippled by ‘Israeli sabotage’

AMMAN, Jordan: Iran’s flagship Natanz nuclear research plant was crippled on Sunday by what was claimed to be an Israeli sabotage cyberattack.

The attack took place a day after Iran launched new advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges at the desert site in the central province of Isfahan.

The plant suffered a catastrophic loss of power in what Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said was an act of “nuclear terrorism.”

The attack was carried out by “opponents of the country’s industrial and political progress, who aim to prevent development of a thriving nuclear industry,” he said.

Iranian officials said no one had been injured in the attack, and there was no leak of radioactive material.

Israeli media said the Mossad spy agency had carried out the cyberattack, and the damage was more extensive than Iranian authorities had admitted.

The Natanz plant was also hit by a fire in July last year, which Iran said was an attempt to sabotage its nuclear program.

The Stuxnet computer virus, widely believed to have been developed by the US and Israel, was discovered after it was used to attack Natanz in 2010.

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Iran has also blamed Israel for last year’s killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, who Western intelligence services believe was the mastermind of a covert Iranian nuclear weapons program.

The new attack on Natanz comes amid efforts by Tehran and Washington to revive Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with major powers after Donald Trump abandoned it three years ago and reimposed sanctions.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Israel on Sunday in an attempt to calm Israeli unease over the revival of the deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Israeli officials have long threatened military action against Iran if they believe diplomacy has failed.

Analysts told Arab News the visit was aimed at helping the US return to the JCPOA. “President Joe Biden is worried that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to escalate the situation in the Gulf, with the aim of torpedoing the eventual return to the Iran nuclear deal,” said Lamis Andoni, an analyst in Amman.

Maamoun Abu Nawwar,  a former Jordanian air force general, said: “The fact that the first senior official from the Biden administration to visit Israel is a military man is a clear sign that they are hoping he will address the potential of a dangerous escalation … between Israel and Iran.”

Barak Ravid of the US news website Axios said: “Austin will try to make sure there is a ‘no surprises’ policy when it comes to Iran, and will try to reassure the Israelis about the nuclear talks. The Biden administration wants to make sure tensions in the region do not escalate in a way that sabotages the nuclear talks.”

 

 

DUBAI: Iran on Sunday described a blackout at its underground Natanz atomic facility an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions as world powers and Tehran continue to negotiate over its tattered nuclear deal.
While there was no immediate claim of responsibility, suspicion fell immediately on Israel, where its media nearly uniformly reported a devastating cyberattack orchestrated by the country caused the blackout.
If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.
Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.
He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.
Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.
“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.
The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.
However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint US-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.
Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.
While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”
It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.
Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.
“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”
Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.
Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.
Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.
“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”
The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.
The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20 percent purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90 percent. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.
The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.
On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.

Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.
“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”
The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.
The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”

(With AP)


Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

Updated 20 June 2021

Israel launches official probe into deadly festival stampede

  • Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival despite coronavirus restrictions
  • Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds
JERUSALEM: Israel’s government approved Sunday the establishment of an independent state commission of inquiry into a deadly disaster at a Jewish holy site in April that left 45 people dead.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the commission would investigate major safety shortcomings that led to a deadly stampede at Lag Baomer celebrations on Mount Meron.
It will be headed by a current or former senior judge, and its members selected by the country’s chief Supreme Court justice.
Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for the April 29 holiday festival in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller’s office had previously issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.
Hundreds of people funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain’s holy site during the festival. A slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall, precipitating a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
The police launched an investigation into the disaster, but to date have yet to make any arrests.
The government said the commission would investigate the officials “who made the decisions that led to approving the event and determining the framework that was approved and its terms.”
Powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions at the religious festival.
Experts had long warned the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
Netanyahu’s political allies, including ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, walked out on a Knesset committee hearing that discussed forming an investigation last month. Families of the mostly ultra-Orthodox victims of the disaster had called on Netanyahu to take action and form an independent state commission to investigate the incident.
Bennett said at the start of his newly formed government’s first Cabinet meeting that “the responsibility is on our shoulders to learn the lessons to prevent the disaster to come.”
“The commission cannot bring back those who died, but the government can do everything to prevent an unnecessary loss in the future,” he said.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, one of the ministers who advanced the motion to launch the commission, said in a statement: “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

Updated 20 June 2021

New compensation offer made over Suez Canal blockage — lawyer

  • The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches since it was dislodged on March 29
  • The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation before lowering it to $550 million

ISMAILIA: The owners of a giant container ship that blocked the Suez Canal in March have made a new offer in a compensation dispute with the canal authority, a lawyer for the authority said on Sunday.
The Ever Given container ship has been anchored in a lake between two stretches of the canal since it was dislodged on March 29. It had been grounded across the canal for six days, blocking hundreds of ships and disrupting global trade.
The Suez Canal Authority (SCA) demanded $916 million in compensation to cover salvage efforts, reputational damage and lost revenue, before publicly lowering the request to $550 million.
The Ever Given’s Japanese owners Shoei Kisen and its insurers have disputed the claim and the ship’s detention under an Egyptian court order.
Negotiations had been continuing until Saturday, SCA lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr told a court hearing in Ismailia over the ship’s detention.
The ship’s owners had put in a new offer, he said, without giving details. The SCA’s chairman previously said Shoei Kisen had offered to pay $150 million.
The court had been due to rule on the case on Sunday but Shoei Kisen’s legal team asked for a postponement to allow more time for negotiations, one of their lawyers said.
This week UK Club, one of the ship’s insurers, said it was engaged in “serious and constructive negotiations” with the SCA, and was “hopeful of a positive resolution to these negotiations in the near future.”

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Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

Updated 20 June 2021

Lebanon’s Hezbollah hails Raisi’s election win in Iran

  • Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election

BEIRUT: The head of Lebanon’s powerful Shiite movement Hezbollah on Sunday congratulated ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi on winning Iran’s presidential election, describing him as a “shield” against Israel and other “aggressors.”

Raisi, a former judiciary chief, won nearly 62 percent of the vote in Friday’s election on turnout of 48.8 percent, after his most prominent rivals were either disqualified or pulled out of the race.

“Your victory has renewed the hopes of the Iranian people and the people of the region who see you as a shield and a strong supporter... for the resistance against aggressors,” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah said in a statement.

Hezbollah, long designated a terrorist organization by the United States, forms an “axis of resistance” against Israel together with Iran and Syria.

The Lebanese movement fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006, and its fighters have also battled against rebels trying to oust the regime of Syria’s President Bashar Assad.

Assad, whose government counts Iran as one of its top allies, wished Raisi “success in his new responsibilities... and steering the country in the face of external pressure.”

Hezbollah, a powerful force in Lebanese politics, also has close ties with the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas which rules the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said “Iran has always been a main, strong and real supporter of the Palestinian resistance and our national cause” as he congratulated Raisi.


Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

A demonstrator carries a national flag during a protest against mounting economic hardships, in Beirut. (Reuters/File)
Updated 21 June 2021

Bassil attacks attempts to form the Lebanese govt

  • The politician criticizes Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and the head of the Lebanese Forces Party, Samir Geagea

BEIRUT: The head of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanese MP Gebran Bassil made a speech on Sunday attacking all attempts to form a government. He declared his rejection of the “three-eight formula that is being worked on to form a government of 24 ministers.”

Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah, said that “actual parity between Muslims and Christians is through having 12 ministers named by Christians and 12 ministers named by Muslims, not eight ministers named by Christians and 16 ministers named by Muslims.”
Bassil, who was described by the British newspaper The Times as “the most hated man in Lebanon,” strongly criticized Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Hezbollah’s main ally, as well as the head of the Lebanese Forces (LF) Party, Samir Geagea, the rival Christian party on the Lebanese political scene, accusing him of failing to defend the Christian interests.
Bassil said he had decided “to seek help from his friend Hassan Nasrallah, secretary-general of Hezbollah,” as he accepts what Nasrallah believes about forming a government.
“Bassil seemed to open the battle for the parliamentary and possibly presidential elections by presenting himself as a sole defender of the Christian community’s rights.”
The coordinator of the Rally for Sovereignty, Naufal Daou, said that “Bassil’s request for Nasrallah’s assistance is ... rather an attempt to bully through weapons and a recognition of Nasrallah’s authority in exchange for some positions and quotas.”

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Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.

Daou addressed Bassil by saying: “Isn’t it better ... to seek the assistance of the Lebanese constitution and Lebanon’s true Arab friends in the interests of the Lebanese people instead of resorting to arms? The constitution is a reference, not a party that owns weapons.”
A member of the parliamentary Strong Republic bloc, MP Wehbe Qatisha, said that Bassil “has entrenched himself in sectarianism.”
Former MP Fadi Karam said that Bassil and his team “ruined the country, destroyed the state, and devastated the people through their alliances with the enemies of freedom and with the axis of humiliation and backwardness.”
Bassil affirmed that “our intention is to restore the role they took from us between 1990 and 2005,” referring to reducing the powers of the presidency in accordance with the Taif Agreement for the benefit of the Council of Ministers. He accused the other parties of not respecting the text of the agreement.
A few hours before Bassil’s speech, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Al-Rahi in his Sunday sermon called on “the Lebanese people to be vigilant.”
He strongly criticized “the ruling political group ... for its inability to rule the people and the country. Officials are blocking the formation of the government under the pretext of powers. What powers are you looking for? ... Our problem is not a lack of powers, but a lack of responsibility,” he said.
Al-Rahi stressed that “our army is always ready to confront any breach of security, and the time has come for the state to clarify its position and recognize the army as the sole legitimate party that is responsible for Lebanon’s security, sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity.”
Meanwhile, Hezbollah activists celebrated on social media the victory of Ebrahim Raisi in the Iranian presidential elections.


Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

Updated 20 June 2021

Libya’s Haftar closes border with Algeria

  • The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone
  • Most of the country is still controlled by armed groups

TRIPOLI: Forces loyal to Libya’s eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar have closed the border with Algeria, they said on Sunday, after major deployments of his forces to the south underscored his continued role despite efforts to unify the country.

Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) last week sent troops into the southern city of Sebha, which was already allied to eastern forces, and then on Saturday to a southern border crossing with Algeria.

“The armed forces has closed the Libyan-Algerian border and declared it a military zone in which movement is prohibited,” said the Moral Guidance Department, an LNA media unit.

The nearly 1,000-kilometer (620 miles) border between Algeria and Libya cuts through mostly uninhabited desert and has few crossings.

Haftar was put onto the back foot last year after the collapse of his 14-month offensive against Tripoli, while a new unity government backed by a UN-facilitated peace process has called into question his political position.

However, despite progress toward a political solution for Libya after a decade of violence and chaos, most of the country is still controlled by armed groups, corruption is rampant and the outside powers involved in the conflict have not withdrawn.

Progress is expected on Sunday in implementing the terms of a military cease-fire in place since September, with the planned reopening of the main coast road across front lines, and foreign powers will convene in Berlin this week for Libya talks.

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