Iran detains 2 Europeans; EU envoy in Tehran about nuke deal

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Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister and Chief nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani welcoming Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service Enrique Mora in Tehran on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Enrique Mora, the European Union coordinator of talks to revive Iran’s nuclear accord with world powers, shakes hands with Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, in Tehran on Wednesday. (AP)
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Updated 11 May 2022

Iran detains 2 Europeans; EU envoy in Tehran about nuke deal

  • Photos surfaced of the EU coordinator of the nuclear talks, Enrique Mora, looking stern as he shook hands awkwardly with Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, who beamed and waved
  • The Europeans were held on vague charges of planning to cause “chaos, social disorder, and instability,” authorities said

TEHRAN: Shortly before the European Union envoy met Iran’s nuclear negotiator in Tehran on Wednesday in a last-ditch attempt to salvage Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry announced it had detained two Europeans.
Photos surfaced of the EU coordinator of the nuclear talks, Enrique Mora, looking stern as he shook hands awkwardly with Iranian negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani, who beamed and waved.
The Intelligence Ministry gave scant details about the detained Europeans, saying only that they shared the same unidentified nationality and sought to “take advantage” of the protests springing up in several Iranian provinces as laborers and teachers press for better wages. The Europeans were held on vague charges of planning to cause “chaos, social disorder, and instability,” authorities said.
The provocation came as Tehran vows to execute an imprisoned Swedish researcher later this month — a case that coincides with a landmark war crimes trial of an Iranian official in Sweden.
And, in yet another escalation, Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard reportedly shelled Kurdish targets in northern Iraq. A local official confirmed the strike, saying it caused no casualties.
The events could have obviated negotiations with the visiting EU coordinator. Nonetheless, the schedule proceeded. There were no immediate details from Kani’s meeting with Mora, who has sought to break the deadlock that has prevailed since talks to revive the nuclear deal paused in late March.
Four years ago, former President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal, which granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for strict curbs on its nuclear program. Talks in Vienna to revive the accord have apparently stalled over an Iranian demand that Washington lift a terrorist designation on the paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Despite the deadlock, officials say the urgency to close the deal has grown. Iran’s nuclear program has rapidly advanced, with its stockpile of enriched uranium at some 3,200 kilograms (7,055 pounds) earlier this year compared to 300 kilograms (661 pounds) under the nuclear deal.
Some of that uranium has been enriched up to 60 percent purity — a short technical step from weapons-grade levels. Iran has stopped the International Atomic Energy Agency from accessing its surveillance camera footage, worrying nuclear nonproliferation experts.
Meanwhile, Russia’s war on Ukraine has increased European interest in sanctioned Iranian crude. Punitive sanctions on Moscow are driving the continent to seek alternatives to Russian oil to curb rising energy prices. Iran says it’s selling its crude despite sanctions and benefiting from the windfall.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian offered his support for ongoing negotiations.
“Talks for the lifting of sanctions will be pursued in the right direction with the aim of reaching a good, strong and lasting agreement and observing Iran’s red lines,” he wrote on Twitter. However, Iran’s hard-liners have criticized any concessions on the designation of the Guard.
Despite repeated Iranian claims that a separate but closely linked deal would unfreeze billions of dollars in assets tied up abroad and result in a prisoner swap with America, the State Department has repeatedly said that no such agreement is imminent.
The reported imprisonment of the two Europeans on Wednesday has revived long-standing accusations from rights groups that Iran uses foreigners and dual nationals as diplomatic pawns to gain leverage in its negotiations with the West. Tehran denies this.
As Swedish prosecutors reported they would seek life imprisonment for Hamid Nouri over Iranian war crimes allegedly committed during the final phase of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, Iran announced plans to execute Ahmad Reza Jalali, the imprisoned Swedish researcher, and separate reports emerged that authorities arrested a Swedish tourist in the country.
It was not immediately clear whether the Swedish tourist was one of the two Europeans detained Wednesday.
Iran’s Intelligence Ministry alleged the two Europeans were “expert” foreign agents hired by the unnamed European country, adding that Iranian authorities had pursued them from the “moment of their arrival” and tracked their attempts to mobilize teachers’ protests and assist illegal unions.
Meanwhile, Iran’s Guard said it struck a “terrorist base” near Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, according to the semiofficial Tasnim news agency. Projectiles struck uninhabited areas in northern Iraq home to Iranian Kurdish opposition parties, Ihsan Chalabi, a local official told the Irbil-based Rudaw news agency. No damage or injuries were reported from the strike, he said.
The Guard in the past has fired missiles at Kurdish opposition groups in the north of Iraq, stoking regional tensions.


Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.

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Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Last month, he pushed through a new constitution formalising many of the expanded powers he has assumed in a referendum. Official figures showed that 31 percent of Tunisians took part, but opposition groups have rejected the figure, calling it inflated.


Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
The first repatriation of Iraqi families from Al-Hol, involving around 300 people, took place in May last year.
Iraq should repatriate 500 families in total from Al-Hol this year, the official Iraqi New Agency announced on Wednesday.
In addition to the returned family members, the Iraqi government also received this week about 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters and leaders who were detained by the Syrian Democratic Forces, according to the Observatory.
The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
In April, a senior Iraqi security official said the Al-Hol camp is a security threat and should be dismantled.
It houses around 55,000 people, the UN reported in June.


Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 12 August 2022

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
His new foes, however, are fellow Shiite leaders and parties mostly aligned with Iran, as Sadr has positioned himself as a nationalist who rejects foreign interference. Those groups, like Sadr, are backed by heavily armed militias, but do not hold the same sway as he does over masses of fanatical followers.


Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

Updated 12 August 2022

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

  • Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
  • Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria

SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.