US Navy fires warning shots in new tense encounter with Iran

The USS Firebolt fired warning shots when vessels of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a recent patrol in the Arabian Gulf, the U.S. Navy said Wednesday, April 28, 2021. (File/AP)
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Updated 28 April 2021

US Navy fires warning shots in new tense encounter with Iran

  • The Navy said the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Firebolt fired the warning shots after three fast-attack Guard vessels came within 62 meters of it
  • The last time a Navy vessel fired warning shots in the Arabian Gulf in an incident involving Iran was in July 2017

DUBAI: An American warship fired warning shots when vessels of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard came too close to a patrol in the Arabian Gulf, the US Navy said Wednesday. It was the first such shooting in nearly four years.
The Navy released black-and-white footage of the encounter Monday night in international waters of the northern reaches of the Arabian Gulf near Kuwait, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In it, lights can be seen in the distance and what appears to be a single gunshot can be heard, with a tracer round racing across the top of the water.
Iran did not immediately acknowledge the incident.
The Navy said the Cyclone-class patrol ship USS Firebolt fired the warning shots after three fast-attack Guard vessels came within 68 yards (62 meters) of it and the US Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff.
“The US crews issued multiple warnings via bridge-to-bridge radio and loud-hailer devices, but the (Guard) vessels continued their close range maneuvers,” said Cmdr. Rebecca Rebarich, a spokeswoman for the Mideast-based 5th Fleet. “The crew of Firebolt then fired warning shots, and the (Guard) vessels moved away to a safe distance from the US vessels.”
She called on the Guard to “operate with due regard for the safety of all vessels as required by international law.”
“US naval forces continue to remain vigilant and are trained to act in a professional manner, while our commanding officers retain the inherent right to act in self-defense,” she said.
The last time a Navy vessel fired warning shots in the Arabian Gulf in an incident involving Iran was in July 2017, when the USS Thunderbolt, a sister ship to the Firebolt, fired to warn off a Guard vessel. Regulations issued last year give Navy commanders the authority to take “lawful defensive measures” against vessels in the Mideast that come within 100 meters (yards) of their warships.
While 100 meters may seem far to someone standing at a distance, it’s incredibly close for large warships that have difficulty in turning quickly, like aircraft carriers. Even smaller vessels can collide with each other at sea, risking the ships.
The incident Monday marked the second time the Navy accused the Guard of operating in an “unsafe and unprofessional” manner this month alone after tense encounters between the forces had dropped in recent years.
Footage released Tuesday by the Navy showed a ship commanded by the Guard cut in front of the USCGC Monomoy, causing the Coast Guard vessel to come to an abrupt stop with its engine smoking on April 2.
The Guard also did the same with another Coast Guard vessel, the USCGC Wrangell, Rebarich said.
The interaction marked the first “unsafe and unprofessional” incident involving the Iranians since April 15, 2020, Rebarich said. However, Iran had largely stopped such incidents in 2018 and nearly in the entirety of 2019, she said.
In 2017, the Navy recorded 14 instances of what it describes as “unsafe and or unprofessional” interactions with Iranians forces. It recorded 35 in 2016, and 23 in 2015.
The incidents at sea almost always involve the Revolutionary Guard, which reports only to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Typically, they involve Iranian speedboats armed with deck-mounted machine guns and rocket launchers test-firing weapons or shadowing American aircraft carriers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow mouth of the Arabian Gulf through which 20% of all oil passes.
Some analysts believe the incidents are meant in part to squeeze President Hassan Rouhani’s administration after the 2015 nuclear deal. They include a 2016 incident in which Iranian forces captured and held overnight 10 US sailors who strayed into the Islamic Republic’s territorial waters.
The incident comes as Iran negotiates with world powers in Vienna over Tehran and Washington returning to the 2015 nuclear deal. It also follows a series of incidents across the Mideast attributed to a shadow war between Iran and Israel, which includes attacks on regional shipping and sabotage at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility.


What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory mean for Iran and the world?

Updated 8 min 26 sec ago

What does Ebrahim Raisi’s election victory mean for Iran and the world?

  • US-sanctioned judge becomes new president after election viewed as rigged in his favor
  • Whether Raisi can improve life for ordinary Iranians will be the determinant of its legacy

MISSOURI, US / IRBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan: A popular Persian music video from several years back features a long line of sullen-looking people waiting to be served at a cafeteria. When their turn comes to choose, we see the grim-faced chef offer them the option of maggot-filled mystery meat or slime filled with flies.

Many Iranian artists engage in such oblique attacks on the clerical ruling class since direct criticism of the basic parameters of the political system remains forbidden. The victory of ultraconservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi in Friday’s presidential election highlighted Iranians’ lack of choice in such matters more than ever.

While it is not uncommon for voters in many countries to complain of lack of meaningful choice in elections, the Iranian case takes this phenomenon to new heights. The Guardian Council, an unelected body of clerics and jurists (three of whom were appointed by Raisi), vets would-be political candidates.

By many estimates, the council rejects more than 90 percent of applicants who go through the trouble of applying to run for political office. This year it rejected the candidacy of not only popular reformist candidates allied with outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, but also of populist hardliners as well.

The list of candidates forbidden to run in the election thus included current vice-president Eshaq Jahingiri, Speaker of the Parliament Ali Larijani (both allied with Rouhani), and the rightwing populist former president Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. These are former political leaders of Iran, among the few allowed to run in previous elections and whose support for the basic tenets of the Islamic Republic seems beyond doubt.

Yet the Guardian Council still deemed them too much of a threat and disqualified their candidacy (along with that of any women, who are all barred from running in such elections). Unsurprisingly in such a climate, voter turnout appeared to have been the lowest in decades. 

How to judge the legitimacy of the Iranian presidential election then?

“That depends on how you define ‘legitimate’,” Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, told Arab News. “The Guardian Council has always vetted out any candidates seen as insufficiently loyal to the system, although never before had the definition of ‘loyal’ contracted as much as it seemed to have for this election.”

Much less charitable than Slavin is Arash Azizi, author of “The Shadow Commander: Soleimani, the US, and Iran’s Global Ambitions.” “Raisi won pretty much the same number of votes in 2021 as he had in 2017 as the losing candidate. But he won this time because the majority of people boycotted the elections,” Azizi told Arab News.

“Even if we believe the official figure, this is the lowest turnout in the history of the Islamic Republic, and the first time a majority have not voted in a presidential election. Not to mention the nearly four million voters who spoiled their ballots.”

Aside from the lack of choice in political candidates, the most important decision-making posts in the country are not elected in any case. The supreme leader — currently Ayatollah Khamenei, who took over from Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988 — is selected by the Guardian Council. The heads of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are likewise not elected but make many of the most important policy decisions in the country.

“Iranians were frustrated at the lack of choice and pessimistic about the prospects for a better life under this regime,” Slavin told Arab News. “For 25 years, they have turned out in large numbers in presidential elections in hopes of achieving peaceful evolutionary change.

“But while Iranian society has progressed, the system has become more repressive and less representative. Also, not voting is a form of protest in a system that regards voting as a patriotic duty.”

IRAN’S POLITICAL ECONOMY IN NUMBERS 

40 percent - Iran’s inflation rate in 2019.

5 percent - Jump in poverty rate over past two years.

3.7 million - People added to poverty roll in this period.

83 million - Population of Iran in 2019.

In the past, Khamenei and IRGC commanders preferred to allow limited choice in presidential elections and refrained from intervening too directly or obviously in the political process.

They would use the very restricted electoral system to gauge the popular mood, try and gain some legitimacy by claiming a democratic mandate, and sit back to see what political cards various elites in Iranian society would try to brandish.

Only when he perceived Iran to be veering too far off course would Khamenei step in publicly to make a correction.

Behind the scenes, of course, such unelected leaders played an active role in nearly everything, from economic policy and directives regarding executions of political prisoners to the strategy of Iran’s nuclear negotiations and other matters such as covert operations abroad and funding of various Iranian proxy forces in the region.

An economy in crisis and a growing number of popular protests in recent years seem to have rattled the regime, however. Under such conditions, the real leadership fears allowing Iranians even a semblance of choice in this year’s election.

Raisi’s appointment to the presidency therefore probably represents a message to the Iranian people most of all. A protege of Khamenei, Raisi was responsible for mass executions of tens of thousands of Iranian dissidents during the past three decades. He headed “death committees” in 1988 that buried slain political prisoners in mass graves.

According to the Center for Human Rights in Iran, at that time Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, who was then the heir apparent to Ayatollah Khomeini, even condemned the death committees, saying: “I believe this is the greatest crime committed in the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution and history will condemn us for it … . History will write you down as criminals.”

Even today, Iran stands second only to China — a much larger country — in the number of executions it carries out every year. These are carried out after closed-door kangaroo trials in which defendants are not allowed to even see the evidence against them or confront their accusers, with a disproportionate number of accused coming from ethnic and religious minorities in Iran. Iranian Kurds make up roughly half of those executed, although they constitute less than half of Iran’s population.

Raisi takes up the post of president after serving as chief of the judiciary that oversaw this system and its mass executions of dissidents. Before becoming chief justice in 2019, he served as attorney general (2014–2016), deputy chief justice (2004–2014), and prosecutor and deputy prosecutor of Tehran in the 1980s and 1990s.

He is the first Iranian official to enter the presidency while already under US and European sanctions for his past involvement in human rights abuses.

The message to the Iranian people would therefore seem quite clear: You must behave and stay in line or else.

“Khamenei and the clerical establishment have long made a conscious decision to drive out all political competition. The reformists were drowned in blood once the 2009 Iranian Green movement was crushed, with many of its leaders sent to jail for years and its main political parties banned,” Azizi told Arab News.

“The centrist wing of the regime, represented by Rouhani, was also subsequently pushed out of major positions of power. The pro-Khamenei conservatives now control the iudiciary, the parliament and the presidency. The latter two became possible only after all major electoral rivals were thrown out by the Guardian Council.” 

Comparing the present situation to the abolition in 1975 of the multi-party system by the shah of Iran, Azizi said: “This is  very much the Islamic Republic’s 1975 one-party state moment as some historians have pointed out. The regime might come to regret the day it turned itself into an ever more monolithic entity.”

Looking to the future, the Atlantic Council’s Slavin says a more pertinent question now than the presidential election’s legitimacy is whether the Raisi administration can improve life for ordinary Iranians as “that will be the determinant of its legacy.”

“Iranians may hope to see a slightly better economy if Tehran comes back into compliance with the nuclear deal and sanctions are lifted again,” she said.

“But much depends on the competence or lack thereof of Raisi’s team and the appetite or lack thereof of foreign companies to invest in Iran. I would expect repression of dissent to continue and even accelerate.”

Azizi believes Raisi’s election will not lead to quick changes in people’s lives or a sharp turn in policies. “He will tread carefully as his main goal is to prepare for the day when Khamenei’s death brings a succession crisis and he can be in line to become the supreme leader,” he told Arab News.

“Interestingly enough, Rouhani’s chief of staff Mahmod Vaezi recently speculated that people’s lives might improve under Raisi since there will be dealings with the West, possibly even a deal before Raisi takes office, which should take some pressure off the economy.”

That being said, what might Raisi’s elevation to the presidency mean for Iran’s relations with other countries?

Compared with the more affable and moderate Rouhani, Raisi seems less likely, able or willing to lead an Iranian charm offensive abroad. The style of Iranian diplomacy may therefore change a bit, but the substance or Iranian policy will likely differ little from that of the previous administration.

Rouhani was not the one making the most important Iranian foreign policy choices in any case. He was, along with his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, just the messenger.

“Iran’s policy in the Arab world was neither made nor implemented by the Rouhani administration, so a change in presidency won’t bring an immediate change on this count,” Azizi told Arab News. “But the IRGC will find more unrestricted access to state structures it doesn’t already control and will have a freer hand in regional adventures.”

Slavin takes a more nuanced view of Iranian ambitions under Raisi’s watch. “I see him as risk averse in foreign affairs in part because he hopes to succeed Khamenei,” she told Arab News.

“I think he will focus on stabilizing the economy and try to reduce tensions with the neighbors. However, he is not in charge of relations with the various militia groups. That will remain within the purview of the Quds Force.”

Tellingly, Raisi has made statements in the past indicating his ready willingness to accept international sanctions on Iran. He views such sanctions as an opportunity for Iran to further develop its own independent, “resistance” economy.

For ultraconservatives like him, too deep an integration with the world economy risks cultural and political perversion of Iran, so anything short of an American military invasion may be perfectly fine for Raisi and his mentor, Khamenei.

The Biden administration, which remains very much interested in resuming the nuclear accord, may thus find it difficult to negotiate with someone who does not seem to mind sanctions and a certain amount of isolation.

However, Azizi thinks the regime will try to seal a deal to get Washington to rejoin the 2015 nuclear accord before Raisi takes office in August. “Raisi will thus inherit this deal and maintain it,” he said, although some IRGC elements will be pushing him to permit “more adventurous stuff in the region” and reject Gulf states’ reconciliation and talks offers.

“How amenable he is to such pressure is an open question,” Azizi told Arab News.


Biden to host Israeli President Rivlin on June 28 — White House

Updated 19 June 2021

Biden to host Israeli President Rivlin on June 28 — White House

  • Rivlin will visit shortly before he is due to end his seven-year term in July

WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden plans to host Israel’s new president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on June 28, the White House said on Saturday.
“President Rivlin’s visit will highlight the enduring partnership between the United States and Israel and the deep ties between our governments and our people,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Rivlin will visit shortly before he is due to end his seven-year term in July.
Isaac Herzog was elected the country’s new president this month in elections that marked the end of the era of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu era in Israel.
The role of president is largely ceremonial but also meant to promote unity among ethnic and religious groups.
The government changed after last month’s fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza also touched off rare mob violence among the Jewish majority and Arab minority within Israeli cities.
“President Rivlin approaches the end of his term, this visit will honor the dedication he has shown to strengthening the friendship between the two countries over the course of many years,” Psaki said.


Israel says Iran’s Raisi extreme, committed to nuclear program

Updated 20 June 2021

Israel says Iran’s Raisi extreme, committed to nuclear program

  • Foreign minister Yair Lapid calls Iran's new president the 'butcher of Tehran'
  • Says Ebrahim Raisi is committed to the regime’s nuclear ambitions and to its campaign of global terror

JERUSALEM: Israel on Saturday condemned Iran’s newly-elected president Ebrahim Raisi, saying he was its most extreme president yet and committed to quickly advancing Tehran’s nuclear program.
“Iran’s new president, known as the Butcher of Tehran, is an extremist responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians. He is committed to the regime’s nuclear ambitions and to its campaign of global terror,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said on Twitter.
A separate statement from the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Raisi’s election should “prompt grave concern among the international community.”
Israel’s new government, sworn in on Sunday, has said it would object to the revival of a 2015 nuclear deal between world powers and its arch-foe, Iran.
Israel sees a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat. Tehran denies seeking nuclear weapons.
Toeing the policy line set by the administration of Israel’s former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the foreign ministry said: “More than ever, Iran’s nuclear program must be halted immediately, rolled back entirely and stopped indefinitely.”
“Iran’s ballistic missile program must be dismantled and its global terror campaign vigorously countered by a broad international coalition.”
Raisi, a hard-line judge who is under US sanctions for human rights abuses, secured victory as expected on Saturday in Iran’s presidential election after a contest marked by voter apathy over economic hardships and political restrictions.

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Parties to Iran nuclear deal to hold formal meeting on Sunday: EU

Updated 19 June 2021

Parties to Iran nuclear deal to hold formal meeting on Sunday: EU

  • The meeting comes amid the sixth round of indirect talks between Washington and Tehran
  • These formal meetings are usually an indication that the latest round will be adjourned

PARIS: Parties negotiating a revival of the Iran nuclear deal will hold a formal meeting in Vienna on Sunday, the European Union said on Saturday.
Iran and six world powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for Washington and Tehran to take. The United States withdrew in 2018 from the pact, under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for a lifting of many foreign sanctions against it.
Sunday's formal meeting comes more than a week after this round of talks resumed and is an indication that the talks are likely to be adjourned.
Officials over the week have indicated that differences remain on key issues.
"The Joint Commission of #JCPOA will meet on Sunday, June 20," Mikhail Ulyanov Russia's envoy to the talks said on Twitter.
"It will decide on the way ahead at the #ViennaTalks. An agreement on restoration of the nuclear deal is within reach but is not finalised yet."
The remaining parties to the deal - Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union - meet in the basement of a luxury hotel.
The US delegation to the talks is based in a hotel across the street as Iran refuses face-to-face meetings, leaving the other delegations and EU to work as go-betweens.
Since former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran, Tehran has embarked on counter measures, including rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, a potential pathway to nuclear bombs.


UAE to suspend entry of travelers on flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Namibia

Updated 19 June 2021

UAE to suspend entry of travelers on flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Namibia

CAIRO: The United Arab Emirates will suspend travelers from entering the country from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Namibia on national and foreign flights from Monday, June 21, Emirates News Agency (WAM) said on Saturday.
WAM said the restrictions would also include transit passengers, with the exception of transit flights traveling to the UAE and bound for those countries.