Opinion

Jerusalem the cornerstone of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Jerusalem the cornerstone of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The exchange of attacks between Hamas and Israel notwithstanding, the most important takeaway from the events of the last week is that Jerusalem is and will continue to be the center of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Politicians and even revolutionaries and militants will continue to use the city as a lightning rod for specific purposes, but that will not reduce its importance. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may have wanted to get out of an election whose results he was unable to guarantee by using the Israeli refusal to allow Jerusalemites to participate, but the very fact he used Jerusalem to get out of the difficult poll goes to show how important the holy city is in Palestinian politics.
Even Hamas, which might have a different motivation for its actions, couldn’t help but respond to the calls for help. What forced the initial barrage of rockets — that for the first time reached the outskirts of west Jerusalem — was the fact that the Israeli provocation and refusal to respect and deal with the Palestinians and their holy sites had reached unprecedented levels.
Israelis violently breaking into Al-Aqsa Mosque, where devout Muslims were spending the last days of the holy month of Ramadan, showing little respect for the sanctity of the place and the worshippers within, brought appeals from the besieged and attacked Palestinians for help from any and all who could. Palestinian citizens of Israel were the first to respond and, even though Israeli police barred them from entering Jerusalem near the village of Abu Ghosh, they decided to walk the remaining 20 km to the Old City. As news of these restrictions spread online, hundreds of Palestinians went out in their cars and drove to the city. Meanwhile, local restaurants provided iftar fast-breaking meals free of charge to those who had come to show solidarity.
But the Israeli security forces’ aggression and their insistence on allowing the radical, anti-Arab Jews to complete their flag-waving and provocative visit to Jerusalem produced hundreds of injured Palestinians and yet another call for help. Thus came the first siren blast in the Jerusalem area to announce impending rocket fire — an act that appeared, at least temporarily, to change the balance of power. Israelis ran for cover and the sirens seemed to expose the many civilian security guards who were pretending to be part of the local scene in order to spy on the Palestinians, who had earlier broken the hundreds of cameras that were monitoring their every move inside and outside the Old City.
A debate will certainly take place as to the wisdom of introducing Hamas rockets into the conflict and whether this diverted attention from Jerusalem’s largely unarmed protests, both in Al-Aqsa and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where tens of Palestinian families are threatened with eviction.
Regardless of this or that argument, there is no doubt that the city of Jerusalem and the preservation of its Arab identity continues to be the most important aspect in the entire Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Ariel Sharon’s defiant entry to Al-Aqsa Mosque in the fall of 2000 produced a similar reaction by Palestinians, which was brutally put down, leaving tens of martyrs — an act that triggered what became known as the Al-Aqsa or Second Intifada. Now, Jerusalem and its most prominent site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, is again the center of the conflict and the trigger that causes all other activities and acts of resistance.
With Israel knowing the potential reaction to their violent efforts against the Palestinian people and their holy place, it remains unclear what its motivation was for escalating the situation. Did the Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu amid his failure to form a government, want to instigate a conflict in order to get the support of the Israeli public thanks to their expected handling of this issue, which has equal emotional and religious meaning to devout Jews? Netanyahu, who is not a devout Jew but is politically dependent on the political and religious Jewish parties, needed to have this drama around Jerusalem and the revered location of Al-Aqsa in order to gain the sympathy of the public and possibly to derail the attempts of his opponents to form a government that could replace him and his right-wing allies.

The city and its most prominent site, Al-Aqsa Mosque, is again the trigger that causes all other activities and acts of resistance.

Daoud Kuttab

Regardless of the motivations or whether it was Abbas or Hamas, the only game in town continues to be that of the status of Jerusalem and its identity. Courageous Palestinian youths have succeeded in standing up to the powerful Israeli military machine and have defended their Al-Aqsa with their bare chests and determination, coupled with the new fad of smiling as they are being arrested to show they have no fear of the Israelis.
The city of Jerusalem has been claimed as the capital of both the Israelis and the Palestinians. The question remains whether the Israeli side will be allowed to continue to crush the other side or whether a formula will be found to allow Palestinians and Israelis to share the city and allow its residents — whether Muslims, Christians or Jews — to live and pray in peace and without fear or intimidation.

  • Daoud Kuttab is a resident of Jerusalem. Twitter: @daoudkuttab
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Gaza death toll tops 100 as Israeli air strikes, Hamas rocket fire continue

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A ball of fire engulfing the Al-Walid building which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza city early in the morning. (STR / AFP)
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Palestinians walk after performing Eid al-Fitr prayers amidst debris near the Al-Sharouk tower. (AFP)
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Palestinians gather to pray around the bodies of 13 Hamas militants, killed in Israeli air strikes, during their funeral at the al-Omari mosque in Gaza City. (AFP)
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Palestinians carry the body of a child found in the rubble of a house belonging to the Al-Tanani family, that was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip on Thursday. (AP)
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Updated 14 May 2021

Gaza death toll tops 100 as Israeli air strikes, Hamas rocket fire continue

  • Palestinian officials say 27 children are among the dead in four days of Israeli bombardment
  • Seven people have been killed in Israel, its military said

GAZA/JERUSALEM: Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.
Four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time.” Israeli officials said Gaza’s ruling Hamas group must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any cease-fire.
Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.
At least 103 people have been killed in Gaza, including 27 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. On Thursday alone, 49 Palestinians were killed in the enclave, the highest single-day figure since Monday.

Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.
Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States was sending in an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had yet to deliver a sign of progress.
US President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wanted to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.
Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.
Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv on Thursday.

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Three rockets were also fired from Lebanon toward Israel but landed in the Mediterranean Sea, the military said. It appeared to be a show of solidarity with Gaza by Palestinian groups in Lebanon rather than the start of any offensive.
In Gaza, Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building that it said belonged to Hamas. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.
Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.
Diplomats said the United States, a close ally of Israel, objected to a request by China, Norway and Tunisia for a public, virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss the violence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters such a meeting would be better next week to allow time for diplomacy in hopes of achieving a de-escalation.
Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”
In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.
“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
A number of foreign airlines have canceled flights to Israel because of the unrest.




Palestinians gather to pray around the bodies of 13 Hamas militants, killed in Israeli air strikes, during their funeral at the al-Omari mosque in Gaza City. (AFP)

Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities,” but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.
“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.
He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.
Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border,” a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.
Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.




Palestinians walk after performing Eid al-Fitr prayers amidst debris near the Al-Sharouk tower. (AFP)

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.
“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.
So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel,” and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.
School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.




Palestinians carry the body of a child found in the rubble of a house belonging to the Al-Tanani family, that was destroyed in Israeli airstrikes in town of Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip on Thursday. (AP)


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.
The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21 percent Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.
Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.
One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness.”
Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
On the Israeli political front, Netanyahu’s chances to remain in power after an inconclusive March 23 election appeared to improve significantly after his main rival, centrist Yair Lapid, suffered a major setback in efforts to form a government.


Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

Updated 18 June 2021

Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Israeli jets launched air strikes on Gaza overnight Thursday to Friday after militants in the Palestinian territory again set off incendiary balloons into southern Israel, the army and AFP journalists said.
The fire balloons and air strikes are the latest violence heaping pressure on a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers that came into place on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting.
“Over the past day, arson balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” Israel’s military said in a statement.
“In response... fighter jets struck military compounds and a rocket launch site belonging to the Hamas terror organization.”
AFP journalists in the Palestinian enclave also reported hearing explosions, which the army said hit sites in both Gaza City and in Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza, home to some two million people.
Soon after the strikes, Hamas militants opened fire with heavy machines guns toward the Jewish state, as Israeli warning air raid sirens rang out.
US Secretary of State Blinken spoke on Thursday with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and discussed “the need to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways,” the State Department said in a statement.
“They also shared opinions on opportunities to deepen normalization efforts as well as on regional security issues, including Iran,” the State Department said.
Palestinian militants in Gaza launched balloons for a third day running on Thursday, according to Israeli firefighters battling the blazes sparked by the devices.
The balloons are basic devices intended to set fire to farmland and bush surrounding Gaza.


Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Updated 18 June 2021

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

  • Khamenei’s ally Raisi likely to succeed succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani

JEDDAH: Iranians vote on Friday in a race that is seen by the regime’s critics as not democratic, fair, or free by any means.

The election, tightly managed by the nation’s top authorities, is likely to hand the presidency to a judge sanctioned by Washington for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners.

Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, an ally and protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the favorite to succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

“The regime will attempt to project that it enjoys legitimacy during this election. Government employees will be instructed to go to the ballots in order to show the popularity of the regime, while the authorities may manipulate the statistics in order to show a high voter turnout,” Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, writes in Opinion.

Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to turn out and vote, but a record number of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic hardship and frustration with hard-line rule.

Another potential deterrent for voters is a hard-line vetting body’s disqualification of hundreds of would-be candidates, including many advocating more freedoms.

For an overwhelmingly young population chafing at political restrictions, the lack of choice at the ballot box means a vote serves little purpose, analysts of Iranian politics say.

Soraya, a student at Tehran University, told Arab News: “The government is telling people to vote. But I see voting as an insult. We are not going to vote in order to show the world that we Iranians are frustrated with this clerical establishment.

“We are not with a government that shoots down a passenger plane (Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was downed by the IRGC in January 2020), lies repeatedly, and kills and tortures its own citizens.

“We are not with a government that steals the nation’s natural resources and spends it on its militias. The old game of moderate or hard-liner is over. They are all the same.”

Within Iran’s mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, including nuclear and foreign policies. But the elected president will be in charge of tackling an economy hammered by US sanctions.

Over 50 percent of Iran’s 85 million population has been pushed under the poverty line since 2018 when then US President Donald Trump ditched a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions that have squeezed Tehran’s oil income.

Aware of its vulnerability to anger over the economy, the leadership fears a revival of street protests that have erupted since 2017, in which protesters called for “regime change.”


Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Updated 18 June 2021

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

  • Threat to military ‘leaves entire country at risk,’ defense ministers warn summit

BEIRUT: Lebanese army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun on Thursday expressed confidence that the military will overcome what he described as a “crucial and delicate period” facing Lebanon.

The military chief warned of an increasingly untenable situation, but said that the institution remains strong.

“We believe that we will overcome this crucial and delicate period thanks to the strong will of our soldiers, and to the support of the Lebanese people and the friendly countries,” Gen. Aoun said.

His remarks came as 20 members of the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG), in addition to European and Arab countries, the UN, EU and other international organizations attended a virtual conference on Thursday to support the army.

Discontent is brewing among Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash that has wiped out most of the value of their salaries. Lebanon’s pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar since late 2019.

The conference, organized by France in collaboration with Italy and the UN, aimed to mobilize support through in-kind aid for the Lebanese Army such as food, medicine and spare parts for its military equipment, in light of the collapse of the pound and the effect of the country’s struggling economy on the military.

Lebanon is facing a political deadlock and the biggest economic crisis in its history, and there are expectations that the army will step in to protect public safety in the event of a full collapse — much feared by the international community.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said: “We are concerned that the Lebanese army remains capable of fulfilling its duties in maintaining security and stability.”

Her Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerrini, highlighted the importance of “quickly responding to the needs of the army by providing it with basic support requirements.”

Joana Wronecka, UN special coordinator for Lebanon, said that the army must be kept “cohesive and operative.”

Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s caretaker defense minister, said: “Taking into consideration the unstable environment — full of upheaval and uncertainty — that surrounds Lebanon, the army is a guarantee for stability and for the security of the Lebanese people.”

The minister said the army is facing the same problems as the Lebanese people.

“Its purchase power is eroding and it needs strong support to keep performing its duties. The army’s personnel need support in order to provide livelihood for their families.”

Gen. Aoun reviewed the army’s requirements at Thursday’s talks, saying that there is “an incremental need today to support it so that it remains tenacious and capable of doing its duties.”

He said that the depreciation of the Lebanese pound had stripped military salaries of 90 percent of their value.

Gen. Aoun warned that “the continuous retreat of the economic and financial situation in Lebanon will eventually lead to the collapse of institutions, including the military institution, which will render the whole country vulnerable on the security level.”

Soldiers “need support as individuals to overcome this precarious period,” he added.

“The army is the guarantee for security and stability in Lebanon and the region. Jeopardizing its role will lead to the collapse of Lebanon and to the spread of chaos.”

France, which has led international efforts, has sought to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after failed attempts to agree a new government and launch reforms.

“The participants highlighted the dire and steadily degrading economic and social conditions in Lebanon. In this context, they stressed that the Lebanese army, though overstretched, remains a crucial pillar of the Lebanese state,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

“Their cohesiveness and professionalism remain key to preserving the country’s stability.”


How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

Updated 18 June 2021

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

  • Iran-backed groups willing to kidnap, kill to protect corrupt revenue streams: Experts
  • Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.

At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad Al-Hakim, senior advisor on economic reform to Iraq’s prime minister, said the country’s corruption crisis extends back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but is now systemic, politically sanctioned and backed by the threat of violence by Iran-backed groups.

“There’s a deep problem with the structure of the Iraqi state. This is very much a legacy that needs to be addressed,” Al-Hakim said. “The Iraqi state system has been deteriorating over 50 years.”

Iraq ranks in the bottom 20 countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government employees from the bottom to the top of Iraqi governance are engaging in systematic corruption, said Al-Hakim.

At the highest levels of the Iraqi state, civil servants have developed relationships with politicians that they use to line their own pockets and make money for their political allies.

Maya Gebeily, Middle East correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said one of the underpinnings of this system is the PMF, which operates as a “cartel,” using violence to suppress any opposition or attempt to upturn the status quo.

“It’s important to think about this corruption as a cartel. There are players in the cartel who agree with each other on how to divvy up the spoils that are coming in either from tariffs, from a specific project, or into the ministry,” she added.

“That’s why there are no ‘turf wars’ … because everyone is benefitting from this system. As soon as the bodies start showing up, that means an economic loss.”

But that has not deterred the militias from violence, Gebeily said. They just do not use it against each other.

“What they’re doing is using violence against anybody who’s trying to root out corruption. Researchers, activists and others who’ve been extremely vocal about corruption have been kidnapped, murdered or otherwise harassed,” she said.

Law-abiding officials have been physically threatened, beaten up or had their families attacked when they refused to be complicit in corruption.

“Armed groups use violence as an enforcement mechanism to make sure their economic interests are secured,” said Gebeily.

“Let’s say you want to import cigarettes. Cigarettes are extremely lucrative to import, so you need an extremely powerful group — and the one I discovered was importing them was Kata’ib Hezbollah — to be involved in that import.”

Iraq’s most powerful armed militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly attacked US forces in the country.

It is also widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations and kidnappings, including that of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a journalist who described the Iran-backed group as “the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.”

Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said: “If we’re talking about power and where it lies in the Iraqi state, you only need look at the attempt by the prime minister to arrest Qasem Muslih, the leader of a brigade in the PMF, and why the prime minister was unable to keep someone who he accused of having a role in assassinations in jail.”

Mansour added: “Actually, these aren’t just militias. They have more connectivity to Iraq’s Parliament, to Iraq’s judiciary, than the prime minister does. They’re effectively connected to power in a more central way than the traditional and formal heads of state.”

This reveals the true and farcical nature of power in Iraq, Mansour said. “Those sitting on top of the system struggle with access to the state that they’re meant to be head of,” he added.

“Those apparently sitting outside the state actually have more connectivity to the essence, the power, the core of the state.”


Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

Updated 17 June 2021

Iran says nuclear talks closer to deal, Russia says time-consuming work remains

DUBAI: Indirect talks between Tehran and Washington on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal have come closer than ever to an agreement, but essential issues remain to be negotiated, the top Iranian negotiator said on Thursday.
The Islamic Republic and six world powers have been negotiating in Vienna since April to work out steps for both sides to take. The United States withdrew in 2018 from the pact, under which Iran accepted curbs on its nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of many foreign sanctions against it.
“We achieved good, tangible progress on the different issues .... we are closer than ever to an agreement but there are still essential issues under negotiations,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi was quoted as telling Al Jazeera television.
Araqchi said Iran’s presidential election on Friday would have no effect on the negotiations and the Iranian negotiating team will continue the talks regardless of domestic policy.
The sixth round of talks resumed on Saturday with the remaining parties to the deal — Iran, Russia, China, France, Britain, Germany and the European Union — meeting 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.
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.
“We want to make sure that what happened when Trump pulled out of the deal will not be repeated by any other American president in the future,” Araqchi told the pan-Arab satellite TV network.
Russia’s envoy to the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, added a note of caution, saying progress had been made in the last few days but talks were tough.
“Some difficult and time-consuming topics still remain unresolved,” he said.
France’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday there were still significant disagreements.
Iran’s new president is expected to name his Cabinet by mid-August. Current President Hassan Rouhani’s term ends on Aug. 3, a government spokesman said.