The Coast Guard is taking a frontline role against US foes on the other side of the world

Coast Guard Hamilton Bosphorus Turkey Black Sea
US Coast Guard cutter Hamilton in the Bosphorus on its way to the Black Sea, April 27, 2021.

  • In April, Coast Guard cutters had close encounters in the Persian Gulf and sailed into the Black Sea.
  • Those missions are indicative of the Coast Guard’s growing role overseas, but that increase further strains limited resources.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Encounters far from home in April underscored the US Coast Guard’s growing overseas role, which is set to expand as more attention and resources are dedicated to countering China.

On April 2, an Iranian ship repeatedly sailed in front of Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy at “an unnecessarily close range” as they operated in the Persian Gulf, which the US deemed “unsafe and unprofessional” actions.

Three weeks later, Iranian vessels again approached US ships – Navy patrol boat Firebolt and Coast Guard patrol boat Baranof – in the Gulf. After verbal warnings to the Iranian ships went unheeded, Firebolt fired warning shots.

Wrangell, Monomoy, and Baranof are all based in Bahrain as part of Patrol Forces Southwest Asia, the Coast Guard’s largest unit outside the US, which was set up in 2002 to support operations in the Middle East.

Hours after Baranof’s encounter, the Coast Guard cutter Hamilton sailed into the Black Sea, where longstanding tensions increased this spring, amid a Russian military buildup on the border with Ukraine.

Coast Guard Monomoy Persian Gulf Iran
Iranian ship Harth 55, left, crosses the bow of US Coast Guard patrol boat Monomoy, right, in the Persian Gulf, April 2, 2021.

Hamilton had escorted two cutters sailing from the US to join Patrol Forces Southwest Asia but remained in Europe, sailing into the Black Sea on April 27. Russia’s Defense Ministry said that day that its Black Sea Fleet was monitoring Hamilton’s “actions.”

Hamilton is the first Coast Guard vessel to enter the Black Sea since 2008 and is “emblematic of our presence in the Black Sea,” Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia, said in response to a question from Insider at an Atlantic Council event on April 29.

The Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security, not the Defense Department, but it often works with other branches of the military and with foreign militaries.

“We particularly appreciate the Coast Guard’s ability to cooperate with other equivalent services … around the world, but in this case in the Black Sea,” Cooper said.

Cooper echoed Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, who said in March that while the service hadn’t operated in Europe “in a good number of years,” the deployment suited its ability to cooperate and compete.

“I think the Coast Guard brings access. The Coast Guard brings a different look. The Coast Guard brings some unique, complimentary capabilities,” Schultz told reporters after his annual address to the service.

Coast Guard Hamilton Turkey Mediterranean Sea
A Turkish coast guard boat escorts the Hamilton in the Mediterranean Sea, April 27, 2021.

‘We’re going to push them out’

The Coast Guard often ventures long distances to enforce US laws and help other countries assert their own.

Coast Guard ships patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean to intercept drug smugglers. Cutters were deployed to Africa’s Atlantic coast to assist countries there in 2019 and 2020 for the first time in nearly a decade. In late 2020, a cutter was deployed on a South Atlantic patrol for the first time “in recent memory.”

The Coast Guard’s presence in the western Pacific Ocean is also increasing amid broader competition with China.

Since mid-2020, the service has stationed three new fast-response cutters in Guam, a US territory. Those ships have “about a 10,000-mile reach,” Schultz said in March.

“We’re going to push them out to some of the outer reaches of Oceania. We’re going to team them up with national security cutters on occasion,” Schultz added, referring to the service’s largest cutters, which include Hamilton.

Many recent Coast Guard operations have focused on countering illegal fishing, a growing source of friction with China. In December, a Coast Guard cutter helped Palau apprehend a Chinese vessel suspected of illegal fishing.

Japan Coast Guard
US Coast Guard Cutter Kimball and Japanese Coast Guard ship Akitsushima during an exercise near Japan’s Ogasawara Islands, February 21, 2021.

Coast Guard ships also work with the US Navy in the region. In May 2019, a Coast Guard cutter transited the Taiwan Strait for the first time, sailing alongside a Navy destroyer.

“I just think those lines are going to thicken,” Schultz said of Navy-Coast Guard cooperation.

The Navy’s operational tempo “has been very high for a considerable period … so it’s not surprising that they’d reach out and try to supplement” the Coast Guard, said Michael Desch, a professor and international-security expert at Notre Dame.

But the Coast Guard’s more overt role comes as military branches balance resources between current missions and modernization.

The Coast Guard has a number of domestic responsibilities and a growing role in the increasingly accessible Arctic but didn’t see the same budget increases as other branches did during the Trump administration.

While the Coast Guard is very capable and often better suited than the Navy to work with foreign forces, the growing workload should raise questions about the scope of US commitments, Desch said.

The recent encounters “seem to be indicative of the fact that we’re being stretched by all the things that we’re doing,” Desch told Insider. “Rather than throwing everything we’ve got but the kitchen sink at some of these missions, we ought to ask ourselves, are these missions really essential?”

Read the original article on Business Insider

As Biden seeks to revive Iran nuclear deal, Israel is trying out its own version of ‘maximum pressure’ on Tehran

biden netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, with then-Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem, March 9, 2010.

  • Since taking office, President Joe Biden’s has tried to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal or craft a new one.
  • Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Iran have escalated, with an undeclared naval war and continued Israeli strikes on Iran and its proxies.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

While tensions between Israel and Iran have been omnipresent in the Middle East for decades, the prospect of open military conflict between the two countries has never seemed closer than it does now.

Over the past few months, the two rivals have escalated an undeclared naval war featuring unclaimed attacks on Israeli- and Iranian-owned ships. At the same time, Israel has continued its air strikes on Iranian weapons shipments transiting across Syria, and a damaging explosion on April 11 at Iran’s Natanz nuclear facility was widely attributed to Israel.

All of this comes against the backdrop of US President Joe Biden’s efforts to hold talks with Iran in order to explore the possibility of reviving the 2015 nuclear deal or crafting a new agreement to rein in Iran’s nuclear program.

iran deal
Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in 2016.

With a delegation of senior Israeli national security and intelligence officials in Washington this week for talks with the Biden administration on Iran, the spotlight is shining brightly on Israel’s current approach to countering Iran and whether or not its disagreements with the US on this issue can be managed.

The last time friction arose in the US-Israel alliance over Iran, it was in the leadup to the Obama administration’s eventually successful negotiations that led to the crafting of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the multilateral nuclear deal is formally known.

Israeli officials’ concerns at the time were about both substance and process; they complained about being kept in the dark about the secret American overtures to Iran that preceded the formal negotiations, and the Israeli security establishment was almost uniformly of the view that the deal fell short in a number of critical areas.

Israel was concerned primarily about the JCPOA’s sunset clauses – which allowed some of the deal’s restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment and overall uranium stockpile to expire over a 15-year period and progressively loosened the inspection and verification measures between years 10 and 25 – as well as the lack of restrictions in the deal on Iranian research and development for key nuclear and ballistic missile technologies.

In the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his advisers, the deal’s formula meant eventually assenting to an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, not blocking it.

Netanyahu iran
Netanyahu with a graphic of a bomb during his address at the UN General Assembly, September 27, 2012.

The Israelis also believed that negotiating solely over Iran’s nuclear program was mistaken, as the deal did not address Iran’s non-nuclear regional aggression and support for terrorism, and that any deal that did not counter what they saw as Iranian belligerence writ large was inadequate.

Some in Israel, including Netanyahu, went even further, arguing that no deal with Iran was acceptable irrespective of its contours. Netanyahu made this point clear in his address to a joint session of the US Congress in March 2015, warning against the US entering the JCPOA.

With the advent of the Trump administration, the US and Israel were brought into alignment on Iran and the JCPOA. One of Donald Trump’s signature moves as president was to withdraw from the JCPOA and enact a campaign of “maximum pressure” on Iran in the form of increased sanctions, policies that were supported by Netanyahu.

But while the JCPOA commanded little support within the Israeli security establishment, once it was finalized, the predominant view was that Israel was better off with the US remaining in the deal than withdrawing from it.

The deal was panned as widely flawed and there was no confidence in complete Iranian compliance, but Israel still found that the temporary reprieve from worrying about an imminent Iranian breakout capability allowed it to focus to great effect on countering Iran’s non-nuclear activities.

The facts that Iran dramatically expanded its nuclear capability during the period after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, and that the US maximum pressure policy did not cause the fall of the regime in Tehran, also gave some Israeli security officials pause.

As a result, the Israeli national security establishment is not as uniformly opposed to the US engaging in talks with Iran as it was when Obama embarked on a similar venture.

Israeli soldiers look out towards Syria from an observation next to the Syrian border on July 23, 2018 in Golan Hights, Israel. Russian planes bombed the Israeli-Syrian border as part of the continued fighting in Syria.
Israeli soldiers look towards Syria from an observation post in the Golan Hights, July 23, 2018.

One camp, led by Netanyahu, still views any deal with Iran as foolhardy and wants to do everything possible to arrest Iranian nuclear ambitions through direct action.

While most Israeli security experts view recent actions that have been attributed to Israel – such as the multiple explosions at Natanz and the assassination of Iran’s leading nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, last November – as legitimate and necessary to roll back Iranian nuclear gains, for Netanyahu, they may have the concurrent benefit of raising the stakes for Iran in a way that makes it harder for the regime to negotiate with Washington.

Entering talks are more politically difficult for Iran’s leaders if they are seen as capitulation to pressure. This in turn leads Iran to make demands, such as removing all sanctions before it agrees to talks, that are designed to get a political win but are unlikely to be met by the US

Other Israeli security figures, such as Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, appear to prefer working with the US and trying to improve any theoretical new deal while dissuading a return to the JCPOA.

This camp has been influenced by the benefits Israel felt during the JCPOA’s abbreviated tenure. As such, it is focusing on improving the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, specifically by urging the US to eliminate any sunset clauses and negotiate hard limits on Iranian nuclear research rather than focusing solely on enrichment levels and centrifuge deployment. (Of course, whether Iran would agree to such stringent terms is another matter.)

Their thinking is that the Israel government’s open confrontation with the US during the Obama era was a tactical mistake that did not end up benefiting Israel’s interests vis-à-vis Iran, and that if Biden is determined to negotiate a deal, Israel’s aim should be shoring up the cracks that characterized the last one.

israel iran missile battle syria
Missile fire seen from Damascus, Syria, May 10, 2018.

There is yet another group within Israel’s security establishment that is alarmed at Iran’s shortened breakout time since the US exited the JCPOA, and thus advocates reviving the deal immediately in order to address an imminent crisis.

This camp, which includes former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, favors following up the JCPOA with a new, stronger agreement that has a longer time horizon. This approach is motivated not only in wanting to put Iran’s nuclear program back into a box – even if it is a rickety one – as quickly as possible, but also in wanting to stay in America’s good graces and work with the US rather than against it.

So far, the US and Israeli governments have worked hard to avoid the type of fallout between the two allies that occurred in 2015. The Biden administration has made a concerted effort to keep Israeli officials in the loop and to improve regular coordination and consultation at high levels, despite its grumbling about Israeli military action that is raising the temperature in the region.

Israel, meanwhile, has made a concerted effort to cut off public criticism of the Biden administration’s approach and its desire to explore a deal, despite Israel’s disappointment that Trump’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran has been abandoned and its clear skepticism about what it views as the Biden administration’s naivete.

Whether the two sides can continue to manage their differences is an open question; what is certain is that the US and Israeli approaches will remain misaligned. That means Israeli actions against Iran’s nuclear program are likely to continue, no matter the status of US-Iranian negotiations.

Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.

Read the original article on Business Insider

A US Navy ship fired warning shots after Iranian fast-attack boats got too close in the Persian Gulf

FILE PHOTO: Four Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) vessels, some of several to maneuver in what the U.S. Navy says are "unsafe and unprofessional actions against U.S. Military ships by crossing the ships’ bows and sterns at close range" is seen next to the guided-missile destroyer USS Paul Hamilton in the Gulf April 15, 2020. U.S. Navy/Handout via REUTERS
Four Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy vessels alongside US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf

  • A US Navy ship fired warning shots after Iranian fast-attack boats came too close with “unknown intent.”
  • The Iranian vessels did not alter their behavior after US forces radioed warnings, the Navy said.
  • The speed boats withdrew after warning shots were fired.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A US Navy ship fired warning shots after three armed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) fast-attack boats came “unnecessarily close” to it and another American ship in the Persian Gulf on Monday evening, 5th Fleet said Tuesday.

At around 8 pm on Monday, the IRGCN speed boats closed rapidly with the US Navy coastal patrol ship USS Firebolt and the US Coast Guard patrol boat USCGC Baranoff, which were conducting maritime security operations in international waters.

The US Navy said in a statement that the Iranian vessels closed to within 68 yards with “unknown intent.”

The American vessels issued warnings over the radio to the IRGCN boats, but there was no change in behavior. The US Navy ship then fired warning shots. The IRGCN fast-attack vessels moved away after the shots were fired.

The US Navy said in a statement that US forces maintained communication with the IRGCN vessels and “executed pre-planned responses to reduce the risk of miscalculation, avoid a collision, and to de-escalate the situation.”

The service said that the “IRGCN’s actions increased the risk of miscalculation and/or collision,” adding that while the US “is not an aggressor,” US forces are trained “to conduct efffective defensive measures when necessary.”

News of this latest incident follows reports of another incident earlier this month involving IRGCN vessels and two US Coast Guard ships.

Three Iranian IRGCN fast-attack boats and one larger support vessel, Harth 55, swarmed US Coast Guard patrol boats Wrangell and Monomoy during maritime security operations in international waters on April 2.

The US Navy said that the Harth 55 “repeatedly crossed the bows of the US vessels at an unnecessarily close range,” at one point coming within 70 yards of the US ships.

One “unsafe and unprofessional” approach, as the Navy described it, was captured on video.

The Iranian vessels responded to bridge-to-bridge communications but did not alter their behavior. They harassed the US ships for around three hours before finally withdrawing.

That incident was the first time since April 15, 2020 that US forces had an unpleasant encounter with the IRGCN at sea.

During that interaction, which lasted about an hour, 11 IRGC boats “conducted dangerous and harassing approaches” toward US Navy and Coast Guard ships conducting operations in international waters. At one point, one of the Iranian boats came within 10 yards of one of the Coast Guard cutters.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Iran’s recent deal with China looks a lot like business as usual

China Iran deal Javad Zarif Wang Yi
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, right, and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, after signing documents in Tehran, March 27, 2021.

  • A deal between Iran and China has attracted concern abroad, mainly in the US, about ties between Beijing and Tehran.
  • Beyond the optics of the deal, the substance follows the same playbook that the two countries have developed over decades.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The recently finalized 25-year comprehensive cooperation agreement between Iran and China has been referred to in the media as a “game-changer,” a “breakthrough” and a “major geopolitical shift,” but in reality, it is much ado about nothing.

Signed with great fanfare on March 27, during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Tehran, the deal does provide Iran with a political and rhetorical win in the context of its ongoing negotiations over the revival of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Beyond the optics of the agreement with China, though, the substance follows the same playbook that Beijing and Tehran have developed over decades of bilateral relations: agreeing to deepen ties but on vague terms that are scant on details and concrete commitments.

The deal itself has not been made public, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif took pains to highlight that the agreement with China was not a treaty, removing the requirement for parliamentary approval. He also denied that it outlined any specific figures – despite reports of $400 billion in promised Chinese investments – or obligations for either side.

Leaders of the two countries first publicly discussed their growing partnership when Chinese President Xi Jinping went to Iran in 2016. During the visit, Xi and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, pledged to expand their bilateral ties and to boost two-way trade from $32 billion to $600 billion over the next 10 years – an ambitious goal.

Xi agreed to increase Chinese investments in Iran’s energy, infrastructure and even nuclear sectors. The plan also covered greater defense and military cooperation, something Iran was starved for after a decade-long arms embargo. But notwithstanding these pledges, progress on building ties remained slow.

china iran
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with Chinese President Xi Jinping at a summit in Shanghai, May 21, 2014.

Reports of a formal 25-year strategic partnership to deepen relations between the two countries first emerged last July.

A leaked 18-page draft document reportedly outlined a vast expansion of Chinese investments in various sectors in Iran, including telecoms, transport, infrastructure and banking, with Beijing receiving a guaranteed supply of discounted Iranian oil in return. The document also referred to the potential deployment of Chinese forces to Iran to protect their investments, as well as a Chinese lease of the strategically located Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The leaked document caused an uproar inside and outside Iran. Some Iranians equated the draft agreement with the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, under which Tehran conceded several territories to Russia and which has become a symbol of bitter defeat to Iranians.

2021 is a fitting year for a major deal between the two countries, as it marks the 50th anniversary of Iran-China diplomatic relations. Following Western efforts to isolate Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Beijing became an important player for Tehran.

The Iranian leadership valued China for its ability to block coercive action through its veto power at the United Nations Security Council – though it never actually used it on Iran’s behalf – and its willingness to expand economic, political and military relations with Iran at a time when most other countries were not.

From the start, Sino-Iranian relations always had a few key premises: They would not come at the expense of the two countries’ relations with other major powers, the US in particular; they would be transactional, based on mutual interests and necessities; they would be mutually convenient, with Chinese and Iranian leaders working together only when it suited them; and there would be no strings attached.

China chinese navy sailors Iran Chabahar
Chinese sailors wave during naval drills held by Iran, China, and Russia in the Gulf of Oman, December 27, 2019

The relationship has had its ups and downs, though. China’s economic involvement in Iran increased as sanctions around it were tightened throughout the 2000s, making it an invaluable partner to Tehran. But many Iranians had reservations about Beijing.

For example, they believed Chinese products to be of poor quality, and lamented that the Chinese dragged their feet when it came to implementing projects that they had pledged to support. In 2013, Iran expelled the state-owned China National Petroleum Corp., or CNPC, from development work on the flagship South Pars natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, alleging the company had failed to carry out promised work.

From Tehran’s perspective, China also wasn’t always reliable when it came to standing up to the West’s sanctions on Iran: China supported every UN Security Council resolution on Iran that came up for a vote between 2006 and 2010 and reduced its imports of Iranian oil during Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. In 2019, CNPC, which had earlier returned to work on the South Pars project under a new contract, pulled out of the project, likely to avoid US sanctions.

Today, the relationship between the two countries is on the same trajectory. It is fundamentally transactional and growing, but slowly, and with some hiccups along the way.

China, like Iran, has been careful not to put all its eggs in one basket. After all, it can’t afford to risk its ties with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states that are key to its energy and economic growth needs.

Iranian officials may not like this, but they have also made peace with the idea that they must work with the Chinese. From their perspective, the past five years proved that the US and Europe couldn’t be counted on, not even to deliver on their obligations in a deal they agreed to.

This led Tehran to build what it refers to as its “resistance economy,” and to “look East,” a view now shared by both conservative politicians and more pro-Western Iranian officials.

Given its apparently vague terms, the deal is best seen as a roadmap for improving bilateral relations between the two countries, outlining areas for cooperation and exchanges in energy, infrastructure, cultural endeavors, and defense and counterterrorism, to name a few.

Iran Biden Trump protest
Protesters burn pictures of President-elect Joe Biden and President Donald Trump at a demonstration in Tehran, November 28, 2020.

Much of the promised deepening of economic ties will remain somewhat dependent on the lifting of US unilateral sanctions, as China doesn’t want to openly flout them. Sino-Iranian relations can only reach their intended potential if the nuclear crisis between Iran and the US is resolved.

All of this suggests that the deal is unlikely to have much of a concrete impact on the nature of Iran’s relationship with China.

Despite Zarif’s insistence that that deal does not concede any territory, basing rights or exclusive access to Iranian territory to China, many Iranians remain suspicious of Beijing, with some protesting that the new cooperation pact will sell their country out. Many will also read the lack of concrete figures as signaling a relatively loose commitment.

While discussing the agreement on the Clubhouse app, Zarif defended the deal against criticism, but also added, “I don’t believe in the [policy] of looking to the East or the West.” Rather, he said, Iran would have to engage all, based on its interests and goals.

But the new pact with China may nevertheless prove useful to Iranian leaders in demonstrating that isolating Iran is not so simple anymore. It is a political win for Tehran, at a time when efforts to revitalize the 2015 nuclear deal by bringing Washington back into the fold are stuck in limbo.

The pact also signals to Washington and its allies that there will likely be limits on their ability to impose another “maximum pressure”-style campaign. After all, sanctions are most effective when they’re universal, not when a military and economic powerhouse such as China stands outside them.

Perhaps for this reason, Tehran has also looked to deepen ties with Russia, announcing the signature of a military cooperation agreement on April 10.

Ultimately, Iran’s recent cooperation pact with China gives Tehran a political and rhetorical boost vis-à-vis the outside world, and the US in particular. It formalizes the growth in Iran-China ties and could establish the groundwork for protection against future international isolation.

But for now, the fundamentals remain the same: The two promise to work together, based on mutual interests and necessities in a compartmentalized manner and with no strings attached – the same way they’ve dealt with each other over the past 50 years.

Dr. Dina Esfandiary is a senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa Program at the International Crisis Group. Follow her on Twitter @DEsfandiary. This article is part of a regularly occurring series of briefings by analysts of the International Crisis Group.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Iran calls blackout at underground atomic facility ‘nuclear terrorism.’ Israeli outlets blame an Israeli cyberattack.

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, centrifuge Natanz uranium enrichment facility
This file photo released Nov. 5, 2019, by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, shows centrifuge machines in the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in central Iran. The facility lost power Sunday, April 11, 2021, just hours after starting up new advanced centrifuges capable of enriching uranium faster, the latest incident to strike the site amid negotiations over the tattered atomic accord with world powers. Iran on Sunday described the blackout an act of “nuclear terrorism,” raising regional tensions.

  • Iran blames a Sunday blackout at a nuclear facility on “nuclear terrorism.”
  • The country hasn’t assigned blame, but Israeli media has reported an Israeli cyberattack is responsible.
  • The attack comes as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, described a Sunday morning blackout at its Natanz uranium enrichment facility as an act of “nuclear terrorism.” The country fell short of assigning blame for the blackout, which occurred while negotiations continue between Iran and US-aligned nations over reinstating the nuclear deal.

Multiple Israeli media outlets, including Haaretz, claimed that the blackout was caused by an Israeli cyberattack on the eve of Israel’s independence day. On Sunday night, embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to security chiefs, such as Mossad head, Yossi Cohen, asking them to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands.”

If Israel is responsible, the act threatens to continue to heighten regional tensions between Iran and America’s ally. Netanyahu also met with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Sunday along with his Dfeense Minister, Benny Gantz.

The blackout came hours after the facility began to operate new centrifuges that can enrich uranium more quickly.

Salehi did not expand on how the blackouts had affected the atomic facility but said that the country plans to “seriously improve” its nuclear technology while trying to also lift international sanctions. Nuclear spokesperson Behrouz Kamalvandi told Iranian state television that “there was no casualty or damage and there is no particular contamination or problem”

Iran’s nuclear program has seen many previous acts of international sabotage. In July,the Natanz plant experienced a mysterious explosion, and in November, a leading Iranian nuclear scientist was killed by a remote-controlled machine gun. Iran blames Israel for both and is now building a new facility underground, which was targeted in Sunday’s attack.

In 2010, the facility was attacked by the Stuxnet computer virus, destroying centrifuges at the Natanz plant. The virus is widely considered to be created by the US and Israel.

Israeli media reports, such as public broadcaster Kan, said that “experts” assume that Sunday’s attack shut down much of the facility. The reports did not cite their sources for the information.

After the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Iran has stopped following formal limits on its uranium stockpile, now enriching up to 20% purity. This is still below the 90% purity needed to build weapons.

Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Earlier this week, an Iranian cargo ship that was connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard off the coast of Yemen was hit by an explosion. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast, which occurred in a hot zone near the conflict between Saudi Arabian forces and the Iranian- aligned Houthis in Yemen. The Wall Street Journal reported that Israeli cover operations are responsible for over a dozen oil tanker attacks in recent years.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The US is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran that are ‘inconsistent’ with the 2015 nuclear deal

Iran Rouhani capitol
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called Western Democracy “fragile.”

  • The US is prepared to lift sanctions on Iran “inconsistent” with the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • The State Department did not offer specifics on what sanctions might be lifted.
  • The US and Iran are involved in indirect talks in Vienna as part of an effort to revive the deal.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The State Department on Wednesday said that the US is willing to lift sanctions on Iran that are “inconsistent” with the 2015 nuclear deal.

“We are prepared to take the steps necessary to return to compliance with the JCPOA, including by lifting sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPOA. I am not in a position here to give you chapter and verse on what those might be,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, per Reuters. Prince was employing the acronym for the formal name of the 2015 pact – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

The White House did not offer comment and deferred to the State Department when contacted by Insider.

Price’s comments came as US and Iranian officials are participating in indirect talks in Vienna – communicating through European intermediaries – as part of an effort to revive the nuclear pact.

In Vienna, the US and Iran agreed to establish working groups with the goal of bringing both parties back into compliance with the deal in a synchronized fashion. This agreement was viewed by experts as a sign of progress in terms of restoring the deal, albeit incremental.

“This is an important positive step but it’s not going to be easy to get back into the JCPOA,” Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East Security Director at the Center for New American Security in Washington, DC, said of the news via Twitter. “It’s going to take time and tough negotiations and it would be better if the US & Iran can talk directly. But still. Important progress.”

“Good news,” Matt Duss, foreign policy advisor to Sen. Bernie Sanders, tweeted in response to the development.

The 2015 nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. Critics of the deal said it did not go far enough to prevent Tehran from becoming a nuclear power, and also contended the pact was weak in terms of addressing Iran’s regional behavior and missile program.

Then-President Donald Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Iran and setting off a series of events that raised tensions between Washington and Tehran to historic heights – sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East. The Trump administration unsuccessfully sought to squeeze Iran into negotiating a more stringent version of the 2015 deal via harsh economic sanctions as part of a “maximum pressure” campaign.

Before Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, Iran’s breakout time to a nuclear weapon was roughly a year, but US officials now say it’s closer to a few months. Iran remained in compliance with the pact for nearly a year after the US pulled out, but gradually took steps away from the agreement before effectively abandoning it altogether after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed the country’s top general, Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020.

President Joe Biden on the campaign trail pledged to revive the deal. But Iran has maintained it would not return to compliance until the US lifts sanctions. Meanwhile, the Biden administration has insisted Iran prove it’s complying with the pact before the US moves forward with sanctions relief. The Vienna talks are the first substantive effort in the Biden era at breaking the impasse.

Read the original article on Business Insider

US and Iran to hold indirect talks on the nuclear deal in Vienna, a first step toward a major goal for Biden

FILE PHOTO: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif gestures upon his arrival at the airport in New Delhi, India, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrives in New Delhi

  • The US and Iran will participate in talks in Vienna about the 2015 nuclear deal.
  • But US and Iranian officials will not hold direct talks.
  • Regardless, this is a major step toward restoring the deal – a top priority for Biden.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US and Iran will send officials to Vienna next week to participate in talks aimed at restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, but they will not communicate directly.

“Iran and the US will be in the same town, but not the same room,” a European diplomatic source told Reuters.

The Joint Commission of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name of the 2015 nuclear deal, held a virtual meeting on Friday and agreed that all parties would participate in talks in Vienna next week “in order to clearly identify sanctions lifting and nuclear implementation measures,” according to an EU statement.

“In this context, the coordinator will also intensify separate contacts in Vienna with all JCPOA participants and the United States,” the statement added.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price in a statement provided to Insider confirmed the US had agreed to participate in talks to “identify the issues involved in a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA with Iran.”

“These remain early days, and we don’t anticipate an immediate breakthrough as there will be difficult discussions ahead. But we believe this is a healthy step forward,” Price added. “These talks will be structured around working groups that the EU is going to form with the remaining participants in the JCPOA, including Iran.”

Price said the primary issues to be discussed will be steps Iran would need to take to return to compliance with the deal, and sanctions relief steps the US would also need to take to return to compliance.

“We do not anticipate presently that there will be direct talks between the United States and Iran through this process, though the United States remains open to them,” Price said.

Iran’s top diplomat, Javad Zarif, in a tweet also said there would be no US-Iran meeting. “Unnecessary,” Zarif said.

Regardless, this marks a major step toward one of President Joe Biden’s top foreign policy goals. Though the US and Iran will not meet directly, the talks will mark the first significant discussions on reviving the deal since Biden took office. The Obama era deal was designed to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon in exchange for relief from economic sanctions.

Against the wishes of US allies, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Iran. The move saw tensions between the US and Iran escalate to historic heights, sparking fears of a new war in the Middle East – particularly after Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iran’s top general in January 2020.

On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to restore the deal. But making good on this pledge has proved complicated, with US and Iran at a diplomatic impasse over reviving the pact.

Tehran has called on Washington to lift sanctions before it makes a move, insisting that since the US initially pulled out of the deal it should be the first to return to compliance. Meanwhile the US, has said Iran should return to full compliance with the nuclear restrictions under the agreement before it receives any sanctions relief. Iran remained in compliance with the deal for roughly a year after Trump withdrew from it, but has effectively abandoned the pact in the time since.

The Biden administration has expressed a willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but Iranian leaders have rebuffed these offers. That said, the agreement to hold talks in the Austrian capital – albeit indirectly – is a sign of progress.

The talks in Vienna are set to begin on Tuesday, and top officials from all participants in the 2015 agreement – Iran, France, Germany, the UK, Russia, China, the US, and the European Union – will be involved.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The highest-scoring F-14 Tomcat pilot ever set his record while flying for Iran

GettyImages 143817260
Iranian F-14 fighter jets fly during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran, April 17, 2012.

  • Jalil Zandi joined the Iranian Air Force when it was still the Imperial Iranian Air Force and the country was close to the US.
  • The Iranian Revolution changed that political relationship, but the Iran-Iraq war soon followed, meaning pilots like Zandi were badly needed.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Jalil Zandi’s Air Force legend almost never made it off the ground. He joined the Iranian Air Force when it was still the Imperial Iranian Air Force, under Shah Reza Pahlavi.

After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Zandi stayed blue – a risky move at a time when Iranian military officers were being executed for doing their duty to one’s country.

But fighter pilots need to be bold and take risks. Zandi did spend some time in a prison cell, sentenced to 10 years for … whatever. Does it matter?

In September 1980 – less than a year after the revolution in Iran – Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops invaded Iran, whose military was woefully undermanned.

So Zandi was back in the pilot’s seat within six months.

Jalil Z f 14

It was a good thing too. Then-Maj. Zandi had some serious skills at the controls of his F-14 Tomcat.

Forget what you think about the governments of Iran and Iraq in this time period, you have to admire a pilot who fought Iraqis in the skies for eight straight years to keep them from shooting chemical weapons at playgrounds.

Zandi survived the brutal eight-year-long war, and according to the US Air Force’s intelligence assessments, he took down 11 Iraqi aircraft – four MiG-23s, two Su-22s, two MiG-21s, and three Mirage F-1s.

His last engagement of the war saw him go up against eight enemy Mirage F1s over Iraq in 1988. He scored two unconfirmed kills but was badly shot up in the dogfight and had to break off. He was able to fly back to his base in Iran and the war ended that very same year.

He received the Order of Fath 2nd Class for his time in the skies over enemy territory. The Fath Medal is one of the highest awards an Iranian military member can receive and is personally presented by the Supreme Leader.

Jalil Zandi’s 11 kills in the F-14 make him the highest-scoring Tomcat pilot ever. Zandi died in a car accident near Tehran in 2001, having reached the rank of brigadier general.

The F-14 was retired from the US military arsenal in 2006 but is still in use in Iran.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Biden and Europe allies worry Israel is preparing a substantial attack on Iran

israel oil
An Israeli soldier holds a clump of tar cleaned from the sand after an offshore oil spill deposited tar along Israel’s Mediterranean shoreline, at a beach in Atlit, February 22, 2021.

  • Israel has not yet responded to a suspected Iranian oil spill on its shores in February.
  • The lack of response could be a sign it is preparing a substantial strike against Iran, sources tell Insider.
  • Biden and allies in Europe are worried a revenge attack might scuttle nuclear talks with Iran.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

Israel suspects Iran intentionally dispatched a ship to dump hundreds of tons of crude oil onto its beaches, the area’s worst ecological disaster in decades, in revenge for the November assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist, according to Israeli officials and media.

But Israeli officials tell Insider the statement from the environmental minister directly blaming Iran released Wednesday was premature as the military and intelligence services have yet to make a final determination on both Iranian culpability and the appropriate level of response to what would be the most brazen act of environmental terrorism in recent history. 

“That statement should have never been made,” a former Israeli intelligence official, who still consults for the government and therefore cannot be named, told Insider. “The IDF and Mossad are responsible for investigating attacks on the Israeli homeland, determining the responsibility and suggesting a course of action to respond. That process is underway and it is not the portfolio of the environmental minister to start wars with Iran.”

For the past two weeks, tons of crude oil have washed ashore on Israel and Lebanon’s beaches destroying wildlife and causing ecological damage that could take years to restore, according to environmental experts. But after the minister directly accused Iran of a complex operation to drop the oil offshore, the issue took on a new dimension as fears in Washington ands Europe rose over the possibility of an Israeli response.

When pressed on whether Israeli military and intelligence services suspect an Iranian operation as described by the minister – who said a Libya-flagged ship sailed from Iran to Israel and dumped the oil offshore before stopping in Syria and returning to Iran – the former official conceded that was the case.

“Well yes, it does look that way but there’s a process for gathering all the intelligence and evidence and synthesizing into useful information that can help decision-making,” said the official. “It’s being treated as a direct attack on Israel by a foreign enemy, the most potentially serious since 2006 [attack by Hezbollah to kidnap two Israeli soldiers]. The [prime minister’s office] was already undergoing determination about the attack by Iran on [the ship]. Strike options were already being considered on that alone.”

There is a concern that Israel is working on a substantial response, ‘which would be a problem for those of us who want a nuclear deal’

On February 26, two blasts struck an Israeli owned cargo ship operating in the Gulf of Oman. Officials immediately blamed Iranian forces, who have been long accused of ongoing, sporadic attacks on shipping in the area. That attack, the first time Iran has directly targeted Israeli-linked shipping in the region, had already sparked a heated debate in Israel about the need to respond against Iranian targets

With that attack firmly blamed on Iran, there is growing concern that Israeli intelligence will make the same determination as the environmental ministry – that the oil spill is an Iranian operation. Israel could use the double provocations as a reason to strike Iran just as Europe and the United States hope to re-start nuclear talks with Iran in exchange for a reopening of economic trade and more peaceful relations.

“Iran is very good at managing escalation, but if both incidents were their work this represents a gamble because both operations have made the Israelis substantially angrier than normal provocations,” said a European diplomat in the region, who refused to be named because of extreme sensitivity. 

“Iran must know that Israel is looking for a good reason to escalate things themselves because of fears that Biden will ignore them in cutting a new deal on the nuclear program,” said the diplomat. “And while I normally welcome nations not rushing to conclusions, I suspect I’d prefer if [Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] would go on television shouting and waving pictures of dead sea turtles. Until he gives that performance there’s a concern it means the planners are working on a substantial response, which would be a problem for those of use who want a nuclear deal.”

An official at the US National Security Council – who does not speak to the media for attribution – said the concern of an Israeli response was real but frustration with Iran’s provocations was mounting in both DC and Europe.

“Everyone knows Bibi wants to slow down any resumption of talks on the nukes and is looking for an excuse to force some action that can’t be undone,” said the official. “But obviously there are hardliners in Tehran who agree and keep offering him excuses. It’s hard to preach patience when Iran is acting in this aggressive manner.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

Top US general in the Middle East says troops were evacuated at just the right moment before a ballistic missile attack so Iran wouldn’t know they left

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, meets with troops at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2019, where America has recently deployed fighter jets, Patriot missile batteries, troops and other systems. (AP Photos/Lolita Baldor)
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East.

A top US general says that the evacuation of US troops at a military base in Iraq before an Iranian ballistic missile attack last year was carefully planned so that Iran would not know that roughly half the troops on base had moved out, but at least one expert says the story is a bit questionable.

On Jan. 8, 2020, just days after then-President Donald Trump ordered the airstrike that killed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian military fired a barrage of ballistic missiles at bases in Iraq hosting US and coalition troops, specifically Al Asad and Irbil.

Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of US Central Command, recently told “60 Minutes” reporter David Martin that “the blood of many Americans is on the hands of Qassem Soleimani.”

The general said that not only had Soleimani been connected to past attacks on US civilian and military personnel, but there was intelligence that he was preparing to strike again at the time a drone struck his convoy.

“I never take killing anyone as an easy decision,” McKenzie said, “but I think the risk of not acting in this case outweighed the risks of acting.” He said that he was “good with the decision” to kill Soleimani.

But, when Soleimani died just outside Baghdad International Airport on Jan. 3, 2020, there was no celebration because McKenzie knew what was likely to follow. “There was no backslapping, no cheering because now I have to prepare to deal with the consequences of the action,” he said.

The risks of retaliation, if not outright war, contributed to the decision of previous administrations not to kill Soleimani.

The US learned of Iranian preparations for an attack hours beforehand, with at least one intelligence assessment indicating that Iran intended to level Al Asad Airbase, but McKenzie, who was monitoring the tense situation from Tampa, Florida, did not immediately start evacuations.

“There’s a bit of an art there, how you do it,” McKenzie said on “60 Minutes,” adding that “if you go to early, you risk the problem that the enemy will see what you have done and adjust his plans.”

The general acknowledged that there is a danger of not acting fast enough though. “If you move too late, you look like (the commanders) at Pearl Harbor,” he said.

The US military says that Iran was collecting commercial satellite imagery of the airbase to monitor US activity the day of the attack, Martin reported.

McKenzie is said to have purposefully waited to evacuate troops on base and reposition aviation assets until the US military had determined that Iran had pulled its last image for the day to ensure Iran’s intelligence was outdated. 

McKenzie said that the Iranians “would have seen airplanes on the ground and people working” in the satellite imagery, but when Iran fired its missiles, that was not the situation on base at all.

Around half the troops at Al Asad had been evacuated and many of the aircraft had been moved. Many of the troops that stayed behind to defend the base took up positions in hardened bunkers.

The US military recently released a new video of the attack taken by an unmanned aerial vehicle. The missiles can be seen slamming into the base one after the other. A total of 11 ballistic missiles hit Al Asad.

US troops who were on the ground thought they were going to die, according to service members who were there and have since shared their experiences, but the attack ended without loss of life.

More than 100 service members were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries of varying severity, and 29 troops who were wounded during the attack received Purple Hearts.

Although Iran said it purposefully avoided killing US service members, McKenzie told “60 minutes” that had Al Asad Airbase not been properly evacuated, anywhere from 20 to 30 aircraft might have been destroyed and 100 to 150 Americans might have been killed.

McKenzie said that because of the intelligence Iran was relying on for the execution of the missile attack, he believes that “they expected to destroy a number of US aircraft and to kill a number of US service members.”

Jeffrey Lewis, a well-known open-source intelligence analyst who relies heavily on commercial satellite imagery for his research, questioned the Marine general’s story on Twitter Tuesday, calling McKenzie’s claims “bulls–t.”

He argued that the timeline of the general’s story makes little sense, as there is often a significant delay between when photos are taken by commercial satellites and when they are made available, and while aircraft can sometimes, although not often, be seen at Al Asad Airbase, the resolution is not good enough to see people.

Lewis further explained that he cannot find any evidence that any commercial satellite company sold a picture of the base immediately prior to the strike. In Iranian briefings after the attack, Iran showed photos of the base from before the attack, but the satellite images were at least 11 days old.

“Generals make up stories all the time,” Lewis wrote. “I don’t know whether McKenzie made up his tall tale himself or just embellished one that was going around.”

Read the original article on Business Insider