Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at ‘bomb-making levels’: IAEA chief

Rafael Grossi, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), speaks during a press conference at the agency's headquarters in Vienna, Austria on May 24, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 26 May 2021

Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at ‘bomb-making levels’: IAEA chief

  • UN’s nuclear watchdog chief says Tehran’s enrichment program is ‘very concerning’ and cautions it will require a ‘vigilant eye’
  • World powers are in Vienna to negotiate with Iran on a return to full compliance with Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed in 2015

LONDON: Iran is enriching uranium at purity levels that “only countries making bombs are reaching,” the UN’s nuclear watchdog chief warned.

Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Tehran’s enrichment program was “very concerning” and cautioned that it requires a “vigilant eye” in an interview published by the Financial Times on Wednesday.

“A country enriching at 60 percent is a very serious thing — only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” Grossi told the newspaper. “60 percent is almost weapons grade. Commercial enrichment is two or three (percent).”

While most measures the regime has taken to this point are easily reversible, the level of research and development that had taken place was an “issue,” Grossi said.

“You cannot put the genie back into the bottle. Once you know how to do stuff, you know, and the only way to check this is through verification,” he said.

“The Iranian program has grown, become more sophisticated so the linear return to 2015 is no longer possible. What you can do is keep their activities below the parameters of 2015.”

World powers are currently in Vienna to negotiate with Iran on a return to full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal signed in 2015, which the US withdrew from in 2018.

Since the American withdrawal, Iran has consistently overstepped on limits set out in the deal. Which has prompted fears Tehran is developing a nuclear weapon, a charge it has denied.

Grossi said a return to the original JCPOA was not a “feasible” option and pointed to the need for a more nuanced agreement considering the knowledge the Iranian program had accumulated since 2015.

“It is not possible,” he said. “Iran has accumulated knowledge, has accumulated centrifuges and has accumulated material. They have many options. They can dismantle, they can destroy, they can put in a cupboard. What we need to be able to do is to verify in a credible and timely manner.

Grossi says Iran has already extended research and development that was not allowed by the original JCPOA.

“It has happened and now the issue is how to deal with the results,” he said. “What you absolutely need is a way to verify that if they have that knowledge it is not being used to make bombs.”

Grossi also said Iran’s failure to provide explanations for traces of uranium found at two of its undeclared sites was “a big problem.”

Inspectors have been prevented from carrying out full monitoring on Iran’s program since Tehran imposed restrictions on IAEA in February, but a compromise agreement extension into June has allowed some monitoring to take place.

Grossi said the extension period was a “bridge,” but that the arrangement would ultimately be “unsustainable,” the Guardian newspaper reported.

“We are entering a phase where we have to take . . . one week at a time, and see how the other process (the Vienna negotiations) evolves,” he said. “It is obvious that a program with the degree of ambition, sophistication that Iran has, you need a very robust, very strong verification system . . . otherwise it becomes very fragile.”

Grossi said he has warned Iran about how restricting access will affect its credibility in negotiations, but that it is not his role to reprimand Tehran directly.

“They know they have to provide explanations. We are asking them to come clean with all these things because it can only help them,” he said.

“My responsibility is the credibility and integrity of the nonproliferation regime, I could say ‘do not say anything,’ but then five years down the line something happens, and then it is a dereliction of duty on our part.”

Grossi, who was in London on Tuesday, discussed challenges to the global nuclear non-proliferation regime and the need to monitor Iran’s activity with British foreign secretary Dominic Raab.

“We discussed how to ensure safe and peaceful uses of nuclear technology and prevent its misuse,” Raab said. “We also spoke about UK support for IAEA's monitoring and verification in Iran and North Korea.”

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

Updated 13 sec ago

French FM applauds Middle East diplomacy, warns of Iranian transgressions

  • Le Drian lauds August’s Baghdad Convention but warns Iran has repeatedly breached its nuclear commitments under the JCPOA
  • Minister laments ‘breach of trust’ by the UK and US over scuppering of a French submarine deal with Australia

NEW YORK: French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has celebrated progress in diplomacy in the Middle East and promised that France will continue to take an active role in ensuring the region remains stable.

In a wide-ranging press conference held on Monday and attended by Arab News, Le Drian also lamented the recent “breach of trust” by the UK and US over the sale of submarines to Australia.

France had originally been slated to supply submarines to Australia as part of that deal, but Canberra did a U-turn in favor of an agreement with the US and UK, in what some have called an embarrassment for the French.

“In the Middle East, stability and security shall be the heart of our priorities. These require a regional dialogue, including in the unprecedented format of the Baghdad Conference on Aug. 28,” Le Drian said.

The Baghdad Conference for Cooperation and Partnership brought together many of the key powers in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Qatar, and Iran for dialogue aimed at easing security tensions in the region. France also attended the summit and has taken an active role in mediating conflict and disputes in the Middle East, in some form, for centuries.

“It was an exceptional meeting because those who attended were not used to sitting at the same table,” said Le Drian, who is currently in New York for the UN General Assembly’s week of high-level meetings.

“We managed to launch some sort of new spirit and to gather some support for a willingness to reduce regional tensions in an unprecedented format.”

Iran’s presence at the conference, he continued, may be seen as a “positive signal,” but he said that he would convene a meeting of the joint commission of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) because, “regarding Iran, we note that the negotiations were interrupted at the request of Iran and we need to make sure that, this week, we try to launch some positive momentum or negotiations to resume.”

The JCPOA, widely referred to as the Iran nuclear deal, saw heavy restrictions and monitoring placed on Tehran’s nascent nuclear program in return for much-needed sanctions relief. Iran and the US, which also left the deal, have been in negotiations for years over a bilateral return to the deal, but those have stalled in recent months.

“In the meantime, Iran keeps breaching some commitments that they made within the JCPOA,” said Le Drian, who also warned that “time is playing against the potential (nuclear) agreement because, as time goes by, the Iranian authorities are speeding up their nuclear activities.”

The minister also addressed the latest developments in Afghanistan, recently seized by the Taliban after 20 years of US presence in the country.

He said that France and its European partners had sent across a number of “very clear requirements” of the Taliban. Those include allowing people to leave the country if they wish, preventing the country from becoming a haven for terrorists, facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance in the country, and ensuring the rights of minorities, women, and journalists are upheld.

“Should the Taliban fail to meet these requirements, they will ban themselves from the international community,” Le Drian said.

He also supported the allocation by the UN of €100 million ($117,289,000) to Afghanistan and pointed out that the Europeans had already pledged over €600 million in humanitarian aid for Afghans.

Much of Le Drian’s attention throughout the conference, however, was focused on the recent news that Australia would scrap a lucrative deal with France to buy French-made submarines, and instead form a pact with the UK and US to purchase nuclear submarines.

That deal has proved highly controversial in France and across mainland Europe, and resulted in a diplomatic row between the longtime allies.

Le Drian said that Presidents Macron and Biden will “discuss the matter very frankly” when they speak.

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

Updated 21 September 2021

Syrian migrants allowed in by Merkel vote to choose her successor

  • Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017

BERLIN: Tarek Saad is keen to help other Syrian refugees who have fled the war in their homeland to make a new home in Germany and he sees the federal election on Sept. 26 as an opportunity to do just that.

Saad is campaigning in his adopted state of Schleswig-Holstein on the Baltic coast for the Social Democrats (SPD), a party he joined in 2016, just two years after he arrived in Germany bearing two gunshot wounds he had survived in Syria.

“I thought the things making my life difficult must be tormenting others as well. To overcome them as quickly as possible, one should be in a political party,” said the 28-year-old student of political science.

“Our parents lived under a different political system for long years (in Syria) ... This is an opportunity to develop a new generation (in Germany),” said Saad, who like many refugees will vote for the first time as a German citizen.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in 2015 was a defining issue of Germany’s last federal election campaign in 2017.

Not all newly naturalized refugees are as clear as Saad about their voting intentions.

“I am happy to have this opportunity but I am being cautious and maybe I won’t vote,” said Maher Obaid, 29, who lives in the town of Singen near the Swiss border.

Obaid, naturalized in 2019, said a lack of clarity among the parties on foreign policy issues, especially Syria, was behind his hesitation.

The number of Syrians who have acquired German citizenship rose by 74 percent in 2020 to 6,700, federal statistics show. The total number of Syrian refugees is estimated to be much higher, at over 700,000, but getting citizenship requires time and effort.

A 2020 study by the Expert Council on Integration and Migration (SVR) found that only 65 percent of Germans with a migration background voted in 2017, against 86 percent of native-born Germans.

Language fluency and socio-economic situation were two factors determining migrants’ participation, along with the length of their stay, the study found.

“The longer a person stays in Germany ... the more likely they are to feel they understand and can participate in political life,” it said.

Historically, migrants from southern Europe and Turkey who came as guest workers saw the Social Democrats as the party that best represented their interests, a study by the DIW research institute showed.

By contrast, Syrians were more likely to support Merkel’s conservatives who shaped the migration policy from 2013 to 2016 when the majority of them arrived in Germany, the study found.

But with Merkel bowing out of politics after 16 years at the helm, many Syrians are now making different calculations.

“Syrians should be very smart ... What Merkel did was right but what is her successor doing?” asked Abdulaziz Ramadan, head of a migrant integration organization in Leipzig who was naturalized in 2019.

An informal poll among members of a Syrian migrants’ group on Facebook showed most would now vote for the SPD, followed by the Greens, if they were entitled to vote. The option “I don’t care” was the third choice.

Mahmoud Al Kutaifan, a doctor living in the south-western city of Freiburg, is among the few Syrians who were naturalized in time to vote in the 2017 election.

“Out of emotion, I voted then for the party of Mrs. Merkel because she supported refugees,” he said.

While he has not regretted that decision, he, like many other German voters pondering the post-Merkel era, is unsure how to cast his ballot this time round.

“The election date is approaching but I honestly haven’t decided yet.”

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

Updated 21 September 2021

EU joins outcry over Houthis’ execution of nine men

  • Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
  • The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”

ADEN: The European Union joined a chorus of international criticism on Monday over the execution of nine men by the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen following their conviction for involvement in the killing of the group’s top civilian leader.
Saleh Al-Samad, who held the post of president in the Houthi-controlled administration which runs most of northern Yemen, was killed in April 2018 by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in the port city of Hodeidah on Yemen’s west coast.
A Houthi court found the nine men, including one who was a minor when he was arrested, guilty of spying and sharing sensitive information with the Saudi-led coalition. They were executed on Saturday by firing squad.
Pictures and videos of the executions have been widely shared on social media, which showed military officers shooting the nine men in the back in Sanaa’s central public square.
In a statement condemning the executions, an EU spokesperson said there had also been reports of irregularities in the judicial process and allegations of mistreatment.
“The European Union strongly opposes the death penalty at all times and in all circumstances. It is a cruel and inhumane punishment ...” said the statement.
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a similar statement in which he also called for a moratorium on use of the death penalty in Yemen and for a peaceful negotiated settlement of the conflict there.
The US Embassy in Yemen condemned what it called “a sham trial following years of torture and abuse” by the Houthis. Britain said the executions demonstrated “indifference to human dignity & blatant disregard for fair trial & due process.”
The Houthis’ Foreign Ministry dismissed the criticism as “interference in domestic affairs” and accused the United Nations and the West of turning a blind eye to the “coalition’s crimes.”
Samad was the most senior official to be killed by the coalition in the years-long war in which the Houthis are fighting forces loyal to the internationally-recognized government based in the southern port city of Aden.


Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

Updated 21 September 2021

Two militant commanders killed in Syria drone strikes

  • The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north

BEIRUT: Drone strikes Monday killed two militant commanders close to Al-Qaeda in the Idlib region of northwest Syria, a war monitor said.
The raids were carried out by the US-led international coalition battling militants in Syria and Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
But the coalition told AFP it had not carried out any strikes in Idlib province on Monday.
The strikes targeted a vehicle on the road leading from Idlib city to Binnish further north, the observatory said.
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that one of the commanders killed was Tunisian while the other was from Yemen or Saudi Arabia, without identifying the group they belonged to.
The Idlib region is dominated by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but rebels and other militants are also present.
Militant factions have been the target of Syrian, Russian, US and international coalition strikes in the past. Nine militants were killed in October 2019 in Russian airstrikes on Idlib province, while a US strike a month earlier killed at least 40 militant leaders.
Syria’s war has killed around half a million people since starting in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests, spiralling into a complex battlefield involving foreign armies and militants.

Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

Updated 20 September 2021

Palestinian artist depicts the ‘ticking bomb’ of Gaza

  • Abeer Jebril paints ballet dancers because ‘I see her as an icon of beauty and power’

GAZA CITY: Palestinian artist Abeer Jebril’s paintings show ballerinas chained in barbed wire, dancing on rocks, or facing barricades to mirror what she calls the “ticking bomb” reality of women in Gaza.
Jebril, 35, hopes her portraits will bring attention to the social and political problems women face in Gaza, home to two million people and devastated by wars and economic restrictions.
“The reason I chose the ballet dancer is that I see her as an icon of beauty and power,” said Jebril, who is inspired by Degas, the French Impressionist.
“It shows what the woman feels, lives, faces and how she is chained, it shows what she feels in Gaza to the audience.” she said.
One of her paintings depicts a dancer with her feet chained in barbed wire. Another is stepping on rocks while a third woman wraps her body around a grenade. “Men and women are both in chains under the occupation,” Jebril said.
She said her paintings also shed light on how “women suffer from the dominance of men and the inability to have a say on issues that matter.” Men and women, Jebril said, “live in a ticking bomb in Gaza,” not knowing what will happen next.
Jebril said she got ideas for her paintings from moves by international ballet dancers and those of her 11-year-old daughter Maya, who dances ballet.
Her portaits, created using painter’s knives, have been displayed in galleries in some European and Arab countries.
“I felt despair seeing paintings displayed outside Gaza when I couldn’t be there. I so much had hoped to have stood next to them,” she said.