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TEHRAN: Iran will break the uranium stockpile limit set by Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers in the next 10 days, the spokesman for the country's atomic agency said yesterday. Behrouz Kamalvandi also warned that Iran had uranium enriched levels up to 20 per cent, just a step away from weapons-grade levels.
The announcement indicated Iran's determination to break from the landmark 2015 accord, which has steadily unravelled since the Trump administration pulled the US out of the deal last year and reimposed tough economic sanctions on Iran, sending its economy into free fall. "Today the countdown to pass the 300kg reserve of enriched uranium has started and in 10 days' time … we will pass this limit," Mr Kamalvandi said at Iran's Arak heavy water facility.
On May 8, President Hassan Rouhani announced that Iran would stop observing restrictions on its stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water agreed under the deal. He said the move was in retaliation for the unilateral US withdrawal from the accord a year earlier, which saw Washington impose tough economic sanctions on Tehran.
Iran has threatened to go even further by July 8 unless remaining partners to the deal — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — help it circumvent US sanctions and especially enable it to sell its oil.
Under the agreement, Iran pledged to reduce its nuclear capacities for several years and allow international inspectors inside the country to monitor its activities in return for relief from international sanctions. The deal set a limit on the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges, and restricted its right to enrich uranium to no higher than 3.67 per cent, well below weapons-grade levels of around 90 per cent.
TEHRAN: Iran's top paramilitary force is maintaining support for armed groups in the Middle East and finding new sources of funding, defying US efforts to curb its activities abroad as tensions between Washington and Tehran soar following fresh attacks in the Gulf of Oman.
Iran's government has struggled to support an economy under pressure from US sanctions, but its elite defence force has found new sources of revenue, including recently signed infrastructure contracts in Syria and Iraq as well as expanded smuggling networks, according to advisers to the Guard and the US government.
The clout of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a group founded to protect the nation's security but which has expanded to include construction, banking and smuggling, appears to be growing in Iran as it helps to prop up the economy and keeps more powerful adversaries off balance.
"Everything you see today contributing to the Islamic Republic of Iran's defence power has been achieved under sanctions," the group's commander, Major General Hossein Salami, then a brigadier general, said in December.
The risk of a bigger conflict has come into sharp relief, as the Trump administration blames the Guard for explosions that crippled Japanese and Norwegian oil tankers on Thursday. Tehran denied involvement in these and previous attacks on tankers in the Persian Gulf last month. Iranian officials have accused the US and its allies in the region of trying to create a false pretext to drag Iran into war.
The US has rolled out an unprecedented array of sanctions, designating the Guard a terrorist organisation to prevent foreign companies from doing business with it, and making it illegal for Iran's oil buyers to import its crude.
In March, the US Treasury banned dealings with the Guard-owned Ansar Bank, saying it was the key vehicle to pay salaries of the group's Quds Force — which directs Tehran's Middle East operations — and of its Pakistani and Afghan mercenaries in Syria. In addition, Ansar Bank extended the equivalent of millions of dollars as a loan to a front company controlled by Quds Force, it said.
But corporate records show Ansar Bank's cash deposits increased by 4 per cent over the past two months as it maintained higher returns on savings accounts. The Guard generates funds from construction works through its engineering arm, Khatam al-Anbia. In Syria, Khatam has in the past year signed contracts for construction and power equipment, a Guard adviser said. Khatam has built oil and gas pipelines in Iraq between Baghdad and the oil port of Basra, as well as a water-treatment plant in the country.
It also earns funds from smuggling fuel out of Iran, and taking consumer appliances and cigarettes back into the Islamic Republic, a former Guard official and the adviser to the force said.
The group has gained influence in western Iraq with a powerful Sunni clan and a local Shia group, a person familiar with US intelligence in the region said. In the past two months, the force has assisted the purchases of abandoned houses to benefit the groups, that person said. In return, the groups have allied politically and militarily with the Guard.
The wages of Iraqi militias — some trained by the Quds Force — are funded by the Iraqi government, so they aren't affected by sanctions on the Guard. The Iraqi embrace of militias hostile to the US is a source of tension between Washington and Baghdad. On Wednesday, the US Treasury Department blacklisted an Iraqi company it said had trafficked arms valued at hundreds of millions of dollars for Quds Force.
The Guard continue to send bags of cash by plane to the group's Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in Syria, said Hanin Ghaddar, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute who studies the group. Hezbollah hasn't commented.
Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen, who also tax food, fuel and tobacco, have stepped up attacks on Saudi Arabia's energy facilities and military airports.
Iranian military leaders say its network of allies around the region are offering Tehran a new advantage. When Iran fought Iraq in the 1980s, senior Guard commander Gholam Ali Rashid told parliament last month, the Islamic Republic was on its own. "Now it has allies all over the region," he said. "The enemy will pay a heavy price" if Iran is attacked.
The prime minister will chair the government's emergency committee Cobra on Monday after a British-flagged tanker was seized by Iran in the Gulf. Theresa May is expected to receive updates from ministers and officials and discuss maintaining the security of shipping in the area.
It comes amid reports ministers are considering freezing Iranian assets. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is expected to update MPs later on further measures the government will take.
On Sunday, ministers denied domestic politics meant the government had taken its "eye off the ball". Defence minister Tobias Ellwood said it was "impossible" to escort each individual vessel and suggested more money should be invested in the Navy if Britain wanted to continue to play a role on the international stage.
On Friday, 19th July, the Stena Impero was seized by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the key shipping route of the Strait of Hormuz after Tehran said it was "violating international maritime rules". A recording emerged of radio exchanges between HMS Montrose and Iranian armed forces vessels moments before the tanker was seized.
Iranian vessel can be heard telling the British frigate it wants to inspect the Stena Impero for security reasons. HMS Montrose was too far away to stop the seizure.
Iran's state-run IRNA news agency said the tanker was captured after it collided with a fishing boat and failed to respond to calls from the smaller craft. Mr Hunt said it was illegally seized in Omani waters and forced to sail into Bandar Abbas port in Iran.
The seizure of the Stena Impero comes two weeks after Royal Marines helped seize Iranian tanker Grace 1 off Gibraltar, because of evidence it was carrying oil to Syria in breach of EU sanctions. Mr Hunt said the Grace 1 was detained legally, but Iran said it was "piracy" and threatened to seize a British oil tanker in retaliation.
What happened to the tanker and its crew?
The Stena Impero is still being held in the port of Bandar Abbas, in southern Iran. The tanker's Swedish owner, Stena Bulk, has made a formal request to visit the 23 crew members, who are Indian, Russian, Latvian and Filipino. They have all been taken off the ship for "questioning", Iran's Press TV reported.
A relative of one Indian crew member, who did not want to be identified, told the BBC on Sunday the family was concerned and had not received any messages from him since the vessel was detained. But they said the family was being kept well informed by the Swedish company and felt reassured about diplomatic efforts to free the ship after meeting company officials on Sunday.
Although the crew and owners are not British, the Stella Impero carries the UK flag. "Historically speaking it means that the UK owes protection to the vessel," explained Richard Meade, from maritime publication Lloyds List.
What has Iran said?
Iran's foreign minister Javad Zarif tweeted on Saturday that the UK "must cease being an accessory to #EconomicTerrorism of the US". He said Iran guarantees the security of the Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz, and insisted its action was to "uphold international maritime rules". Iran's ambassador to London has warned the UK against escalating tensions, tweeting: "This is quite dangerous and unwise at a sensitive time in the region."
What's the background to tensions in the Gulf?
Relations have been deteriorating between Iran and the UK and US.
In April, the US tightened sanctions it had re-imposed on Iran after withdrawing from a 2015 nuclear deal.
The US blamed Iran for attacks on tankers since May, which Tehran denies. On Friday, the US claimed to have destroyed an Iranian drone in the Gulf.
The UK government has remained committed to the deal, which curbs Iran's nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions. However, the UK's help in seizing the Iranian tanker Grace 1 infuriated Iran.
Last week, the UK said Iranian boats also attempted to impede a British oil tanker in the region before being warned off by HMS Montrose. Iran denied any attempted seizure.
The White House said Friday's incident was the second time in more than a week the UK had been "the target of escalatory violence" by Iran. US Central Command said it was developing a multinational maritime effort in response to the situation. The Pentagon said US troops are being deployed to Saudi Arabia to defend American interests in the region.
On Sunday, the Foreign Office confirmed Mr Hunt spoke with his French and German counterparts, who have both condemned Iran's actions. France's Jean-Yves Le Drian and Germany's Heiko Maas agreed that safe passage through the Strait of Hormuz is a top priority for European nations, while avoiding any possible escalation.
Latest News Tuesday 23rd July
The crew of a British-flagged tanker that was seized in the Gulf are "safe", the vessel's owner has said after speaking to them for the first time. The British-flagged Stena Impero and its 23 crew were taken by Iran's Revolutionary Guard on Friday.
The owner, Stena Bulk, made contact on Tuesday with the ship's master who said they were safe and there was good co-operation with the Iranians on board.
LONDON: The Iranian tanker impounded by Gibraltar sailed out of the British overseas territory on Sunday over the objections of the US, a Gibraltar official said, raising hopes that Iran would reciprocate and release a British-flagged tanker in the Persian Gulf. The ship, renamed the Adrian Darya 1 and given an Iranian flag, left Gibraltar's waters around 11 pm local time after the territory's Justice Ministry rejected a US Justice Department warrant seeking the seizure of the Iranian vessel and its 2.1 million barrels of crude oil. Gibraltar officials said the territory follows the European Union's laws, not the US's.
The US warrant and difficulty finding a crew had delayed the ship's departure. Gibraltar had already decided to release the ship last week after receiving assurances from Iran that the ship's oil wouldn't go to Syria. The EU bans oil exports to Syria as part of a sanctions regime against President Bashar al-Assad, but it doesn't prohibit Iranian oil sales in general, as the US does.
The Adrian Darya's release is expected to pave the way for Iran to free the British-flagged tanker, Stena Impero, which it captured in the Persian Gulf last month on accusations that it broke international maritime rules. The UK and Iran didn't say if the release of the Iranian tanker was linked to the British-flagged vessel's freedom. But Iranian officials have previously indicated such a move would help end the Stena Impero's detention.
The two tankers have become important pieces in the escalating tensions between Iran and the US, and by extension allies and partners like the UK and Saudi Arabia. The conflict stems from the American withdrawal from a nuclear deal with Tehran and reimposing sanctions in a bid to force Tehran to pull back militarily and politically in the Middle East.
Iran has responded this year by reducing its commitments to the nuclear deal still in effect with European countries, Russia and China and downing an American drone over the Strait of Hormuz. The US also says Iran has harassed and attacked commercial vessels in the area, which Iran denies.
Gibraltar's release of the Iranian tanker is a setback for the US's attempts to enforce American sanctions in international maritime waters. Since deciding on a total ban on Iran's crude exports, the Trump administration has put pressure on both Iran's oil buyers and those providing services to its tankers. American officials say they have succeeded in getting more than 80 Iranian tankers stripped of maritime flags provided by other countries, including the Adrian Darya, previously named the Grace 1, which lost its Panama flag under US pressure, according to a person familiar with the vessel.
But Gibraltar's decision shows US sanctions aren't universally accepted. China imported 200,000 barrels a day of Iranian crude in June, according to its customs data. In the case of the Adrian Darya, the US said the tanker was assisting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which it has designated a terrorist organization, by transporting oil from Iran to Syria. As a result, the US would bar its crew members from entry into the US.
The Adrian Darya turned off its satellite-tracking systems after leaving Gibraltar, according to FleetMon, the ship-tracking service. The Iranian tanker is likely to sail to Moroccan waters as its owners hold talks with potential Portuguese and Spanish buyers, a person familiar with its plans said. Iranian-controlled TNC Group, which owns the vessel, couldn't be reached for comment. Washington bans all purchases of Iran's crude and has warned any buyer of its oil could be cut off from the US financial system.
A top Iranian commander said the Islamic Republic's navy would be ready to protect the Adrian Darya if needed, though it had no plans to do so at this stage. "If top authorities ask the navy, we are ready to escort out tanker Adrian," Rear Adm Hossein Khanzadi was quoted as saying by Mehr news agency.
After a meandering journey eastwards, she arrived off the coast of Lebanon on September 1. She then turned north towards Syria and her AIS signal disappeared. Satellite imagery consultancy TankerTrackers confirmed that she remained in place off the port of Tartus in laden condition throughout the month of September.
Satellite imagery showed the blacklisted Iranian VLCC Adrian Darya 1 finally offloading her cargo at the port of Baniyas, Syria, despite US and EU sanctions.
According to the US State Department, a satellite image dated October 2 shows the Adrian Darya 1 rafted up with the Iranian LR1 Jasmine for an apparent ship-to-ship transfer. An image from October 4 shows the Jasmine at the offshore terminal for the Baniyas refinery.
"Oil from the Adrian Darya 1 has been offloaded in Syria, proving that Iran lied to the UK and Gibraltar," said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a Twitter post. "This terrorist oil will fund Assad's war and Iran's sectarian violence. EU members should condemn this action, uphold the rule of law, and hold Iran accountable."
Washington: The US is weighing sending up to 14,000 more troops to the Middle East in the face of a perceived threat from Iran. The expansion of its military footprint would include dozens more ships and other military hardware, US officials say.
The deployment could double the number of American military personnel who have been sent to the region since the start of a troop build-up in May. Donald Trump is expected to make a decision on the new deployments as soon as this month, the officials said. The US President, facing an election next year, has long sought to exit foreign entanglements and avoid new conflicts, but on Iran — and partly at the behest of Israel — he is convinced of the need to counter the threat his aides say Tehran poses.
There is growing fear among US military and other administration officials that an attack on US interests and forces could leave the US with few options in the region. By sending additional military resources to the region, the administration would be presenting a more credible deterrent to Tehran, blamed for a series of attacks, including one in September against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. Iran has denied involvement.
On Wednesday, France, Germany and Britain announced they believed Iran had developed nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, which goes against a UN Security Council call on Tehran not to undertake any activity related to such missiles. Ambassadors from the three countries urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to inform the council in his next report that Iran's ballistic missile activity was "inconsistent" with the call in a council resolution endorsing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Mr Trump withdrew from the nuclear agreement in May last year, but it is still supported by the five other parties — France, Britain, Russia, Germany and China.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday the country was willing to return to the negotiating table over its nuclear program if the US dropped sanctions, which have hampered the country's economy and may have contributed to recent domestic turmoil sparked by fuel price hikes.
Feeding US fears was a "significant cache" of suspected Iranian guided missile parts seized by a US Navy warship last week headed to rebels in Yemen. It was the first time such sophisticated components have been taken en route to the war there. Officials said the incident illustrated the continuing illegal smuggling of weapons to Houthi rebels and came as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met, with Iran as the main topic.
The proposed new US deployment would also be designed as a deterrent against possible Iranian retaliation for mounting sanctions under the administration's economic-pressure campaign. Some officials worry, however, that adding more American military resources to the mix could provoke another attack, or put the region on track for a dangerous and unpredictable conflict.
The additional forces would join about 14,000 US service members sent to the region since May, when American intelligence identified a threat from Iran, and US Central Command commander Marine General Frank McKenzie requested extra ships, missile-defence platforms and troops.
President Donald Trump has said the US killed Iran's top military commander Qasem Soleimani "to stop a war, not to start one".
He said Soleimani's "reign of terror is over" after the strike at Baghdad airport in Iraq on Friday. Soleimani spearheaded Iran's Middle East operations as head of the Quds ("Holy") Force for 21 years. Iran has vowed "severe revenge" on those responsible for his death.
The killing marks a major escalation in tensions between the two countries. US officials have said 3,000 additional troops will be sent to the Middle East as a precaution.
Iraqi state television says there has been another air strike in the country, 24 hours after the killing of Soleimani. However, there has been no comment on this from Washington. An Iraqi army source told Reuters news agency that six people have been killed in the fresh strike, which hit a convey of Iraqi militia in the early hours of Saturday morning (local time).
What did President Trump say?
Speaking at a news conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Mr Trump said of Friday's attack: "The United States military executed a flawless precision strike that killed the number one terrorist anywhere in the world Qassem Soleimani." He said: "Soleimani was plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel but we caught him in the act and terminated him."
How has Iran and Iraq reacted?
In a statement following Soleimani's death, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said: "His departure to God does not end his path or his mission, but a forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands."
Iraq's parliament will hold an emergency meeting on Sunday. Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi labelled the missile strike as a "brazen violation of Iraq's sovereignty and a blatant attack on the nation's dignity".
Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was also killed in the strike. He commanded the Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah group, blamed by Washington for a rocket attack that killed a US civilian contractor in northern Iraq last Friday (a week ago).
The US State Department has warned Americans in Iraq to leave "immediately".
Who was Qasem Soleimani?
The 62-year-old was widely seen as the second most powerful figure in Iran, behind Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported directly to the ayatollah and Soleimani was hailed as a heroic national figure.
Under his 21-year leadership of the Quds Force, Iran bolstered Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militant groups in Lebanon, expanded its military presence in Iraq and Syria, and orchestrated Syria's offensive against rebel groups in that country's long civil war.
How did the strike take place and who was killed?
Soleimani and officials from Iran-backed militias were leaving Baghdad airport in two cars at 1:12am Friday morning (local time) when they were hit by several missiles from a US drone strike near a cargo area. The commander had reportedly flown in from Lebanon or Syria. Iran's Revolutionary Guard said 10 people were killed, including five of its members and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.
Some Background to the Attack
Extract from The Times
January 6th 2020
On Sunday 29th December, US airstrikes hit Kataeb Hezbollah posts in eastern Syria and western Iraq, killing 25 fighters and wounding dozens. Washington said the strikes were in retaliation for an attack on a base in northern Iraq that killed an American contractor and wounded four others.
The following Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr Trump was watching television and saw pro-Iranian militias lead crowds of supporters, from the mass funeral of the Kataeb Hezbollah fighters who had been killed by that presidential order, into the centre of Baghdad, storming unchallenged into the supposedly secure international green zone.
They broke into the US embassy, setting fire to the reception. This happened on both days, before they withdrew. For some TV commentators, and Mr Trump, this was all too reminiscent of the capture of the US embassy and its diplomats in Tehran in 1979 and the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in September 2012 when the US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.
Mr Trump and his Republican backers had repeatedly castigated then president Barack Obama over that. He could not allow himself to appear weak now. No matter that the "protesters" in Baghdad restrained themselves and withdrew on both days: in the meantime, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader, appeared to be goading him.
"Iran will be held fully responsible for lives lost, or damage incurred, at any of our facilities," Mr Trump tweeted. The response on the ayatollah's Twitter account read: "That guy has tweeted that we see Iran responsible for the events in Baghdad and we will respond to Iran … You can't do anything."
The speed of the events that followed happened largely by chance.
Soleimani used to operate in the shadows but has made himself increasingly a public figure. During the battle against Islamic State in Iraq, he often appeared in photographs with leading Iraqi militia leaders. He was said to be confident enough to use scheduled flights on a Syrian airline, Cham Wings, to travel to Damascus. In what now seems an extraordinary lapse in personal security, he did the same again. On New Year's Day, he was driven, apparently from Damascus, to Beirut for a meeting with Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. Nasrallah said he warned his friend that he could be assassinated. "He laughed and told me, I hope so, pray for me," Nasrallah recounted in a speech on Sunday.
Later, he travelled back by road to Damascus, a two-hour trip, and then on Thursday evening caught the late-night Cham Wings flight that took off for Baghdad at 10.28pm local time.
All of this was being watched by the CIA and the National Security Agency, who realised the Pentagon had a golden opportunity but only if it acted fast, with little time for consultations.
It remains unclear whether the Pentagon realised that it would also be killing Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, the Kataeb Hezbollah leader and deputy head of the Iraqi government body that oversees the militias, or whether it cared.
Two MQ-9 Reaper drones were launched from the US al-Udeid military base in Qatar for Baghdad 1100km away. When Soleimani landed at 12.34am local time, they were waiting.
Extract - CCTV captures moment plane was downed as Iran makes 'first arrests'
Rob Gillies and Babak Dehghanpishneh, AP
January 15th 2020
CCTV footage has emerged of the moment Ukrainian airliner was shot down in Tehran last week, as Iran announces its first arrests after a third night of protests over the outrage. The video shows two separate missile launches that targeted and ultimately brought down the commercial flight. This came after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the victims of the missile attack that killed 176 people, including 57 Canadians, would be alive right now if tensions had not escalated in the region.
He was speaking as protesters were taking to the streets of Iran to denounce the country's clerical rulers and riot police deployed to face them in a third day of demonstrations after authorities acknowledged shooting down Ukraine International Airlines Flight PS752 by mistake.
The crash came at 6:14am (local time) on Wednesday 8th January, about four hours after Iran launched retaliatory missile strikes on US positions in Iraq for the killing of Major General Qasem Soleimani on 3rd January. There were no survivors.
For days, Tehran denied Western claims based on US intelligence that the Boeing 737-800 had been downed by a missile. It came clean on Saturday when Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps aerospace commander Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh acknowledged that a missile operator had mistaken the plane for a cruise missile and opened fire independently.
At a televised news conference, the judiciary announced the first arrests had been made over the blunder, without specifying how many. "Extensive investigations have been carried out and some people have been arrested," said spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili.
The announcement came shortly after President Hassan Rouhani said everyone responsible for the disaster must be punished. "For our people it is very important in this incident that anyone who was at fault or negligent at any level" face justice, Mr Rouhani said. "Anyone who should be punished must be punished. The judiciary must form a special court with a high-ranking judge and dozens of experts … The whole world will be watching. It cannot be that only the person who pressed the button is at fault. There are others, and I want this to be explained to the people explicitly."
Mr Trudeau has been careful to avoid blaming Donald Trump for the deaths of the passengers after the US President ordered the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike in Baghdad. "If there was no escalation recently in the region, those Canadians would be right now home with their families. This is something that happens when you have conflict and war. Innocents bear the brunt of it," he told Global News Television.
Some Canadians, including a leading business figure, blame Mr Trump in part for the deaths. Mr Trudeau has spoken to the US President. "I've talked about the tremendous grief and loss that Canadians are feeling and the need for clear answers on how this happened and how we're going to make sure it never happens again," he said. Mr Trudeau added that he would have "obviously" liked a warning before Trump ordered the killing of the Iranian general. Canada has troops in Iraq as part of a NATO training mission.
Canada's Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, said Iranian officials had invited it to participate in analysis of the voice and flight data recorders from the Ukrainian jetliner. Natacha Van Themsche, the director of investigations, said Canadian experts also had been invited to inspect the wreckage and the crash site – an unusual step since the plane was not produced in Canada and the crash did not occur in Canada.
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