Iran’s hardline new president sworn in amid stalled nuclear talks and hopes of Saudi detente

By Frederik Pleitgen, Claudia Otto and Ramin Mostaghim, CNN
Updated 1:32 PM EDT, Thu August 05, 2021

Ebrahim Raisi at his swearing-in ceremony at the Iranian parliament in Tehran on August 5.

Tehran, Iran(CNN)Ebrahim Raisi was inaugurated as Iran’s next president on Thursday, signaling the start of a new harder-line era that could herald major shifts in the Islamic Republic’s policies at home and abroad.

After eight years of Hassan Rouhani’s moderate administration, Iran now turns to Raisi, an ultra-conservative judiciary chief whose views are fully in line with the thinking of the country’s powerful clergy and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the final say on all major matters of state.

Raisi’s inauguration comes at a pivotal time, with Iran currently in indirect negotiations with the United States over how to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement. Raisi will also face the task of reviving his country’s economy, which has been battered in recent years by the previous US administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions. Tensions in the region are also high following a string of maritime provocations blamed by the West on Tehran.

“I swear to safeguard the official religion and the establishment of the Islamic Republic and constitution of the nation,” Raisi said in taking the oath at parliament on Thursday. During the ceremony, tributes were paid to Qassem Soleimani, the top Iranian commander who died in a targeted killing ordered by former US President Donald Trump.

After his swearing in ceremony, Raisi called for US sanctions to be lifted, saying that his government will “support any diplomatic plan that will realize that objective.”

Raisi also said that the aim behind his country’s nuclear program is “peaceful,” and that Iran “rejects the use of nuclear power except for civilian purposes.”Raisi, right, takes his oath as president in Thursday's ceremony. Raisi, right, takes his oath as president in Thursday’s ceremony.

Among the attendees at Thursday’s ceremony were Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Iraqi President Barham Salih and the EU’s Deputy Secretary-General for Foreign Action Enrique Mora, according to state media. Hamas leader Ismail Haniya and Hezbollah’s deputy secretary general Naim Qasem were also in the audience, along with Kuwait’s top diplomat and Qatar’s minister of business and trade.

At another ceremony earlier this week, the Supreme Leader praised the incoming administration as Rouhani silently sat and looked on.

“In a transfer of power, new ideas and new resolve enter the field, and this is a source of hope for all those who are highly motivated to serve the country, in particular the youth,” Khamenei said in a speech Monday about the contentious June elections that brought Raisi to power. The polls were marked by historically low turnout and criticized as largely uncompetitive after an unelected panel of clerics and lawyers barred all the major reformist and centrist candidates from running, all but guaranteeing Raisi’s victory.

Raisi quickly made clear that he is on the same page as the Supreme Leader. The new president also has a strong majority in parliament, which will allow him to quickly push through legislation that could lead to major shifts in Iran’s domestic and foreign policies.Khamenei at an endorsement ceremony to give his official seal of approval to Raisi on August 3.

“You have unity inside the three branches of government, and this reduces infighting, reduces disagreement and that is going to be crucial for him and not having to worry about internal competition is going to be important for him,” says Fouad Izadi, an associate professor at Tehran University.

The most fundamental change could happen in Iran’s economic policy. While Rouhani was keen to open Iran up to foreign investment and attract companies from the West, Raisi subscribes to the notion of a “resistance economy,” a model Iranian hardliners have been propagating for years. It seeks to make Iran’s economy independent from outside forces, allowing it to better weather the impact of international sanctions while trying to foster home-grown industries.

While Rouhani and millions of Iranians had hoped the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement (known as the JCPOA) would lead to a bonanza of foreign investment, those hopes were dashed by the Trump administration’s exit from the deal and its unleashing of the “maximum pressure” campaign that hit Iran with tougher than ever sanctions that continue to cripple the economy to this day.

Dr. Seyyed Mostafa Koshcheshm, a political analyst in Tehran, says Rouhani’s belief in improving relations with the West, even after the Trump administration started its maximum pressure campaign, may have been his biggest mistake.

“Rouhani marginalized ties with other countries. His focal point was the JCPOA, the nuclear deal and removing sanctions. Many Iranians that voted for Raisi believe that Rouhani was compromising Iran’s foreign policy at the behest of comfortable solutions with the US and not having enough care for ties with other countries like China, Russia, Latin America and Africa,” he said.Iran’s hardline presidential frontrunner could take the country back to a dark past, just as Iranians are itching for change

Negotiations are ongoing on how to bring the US back into the nuclear deal and Iran back into full compliance, after Tehran responded to Trump’s sanctions by significantly ramping up both its stock and purity of enriched uranium in recent years. While both sides say they want to reach an agreement, negotiations have recently stalled.

Raisi, like the Supreme Leader and most hardliners, is no fan of the JCPOA. He said in a speech after receiving his presidential credentials that while he was keen to do away with sanctions, he would not return to the deal at all costs.

“We will definitely seek to eliminate and lift the tyrannical sanctions,” Raisi said, but “we will not make people’s livelihood conditional, we will not tie all things to foreigners. We will definitely pursue the matters that are immediate issues for us, that we are facing today.”

Despite Raisi’s plans for a more self-sufficient economy, lifting at least some of the sanctions against Iran will be key as the incoming administration faces a struggling economy, a high unemployment rate and a currency that has been in near freefall, leading to a major spike in consumer prices.

On top of this, Raisi must also come up with a solution to the country’s water shortages, especially in southwestern Iran, which have led to sometimes violent protests with several people killed.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has said he understands those protesting the water shortages and has called on the government to act. Raisi says he has received the message and wants to tackle the problem, which will require big investments in local infrastructure.

“These matters have been detected and I assure the people that the solutions have been delineated and we have benefited from the views of experts and scholars and this will be urgently dealt with,” Raisi said earlier this week.

In foreign policy, Iran’s hard line course could become even more pronounced. A major regional power with widespread influence in the greater Middle East, Iran’s foreign policy will be “active and dynamic,” Raisi promised.Trump dashed dreams of reform in Iran. The country’s new hardline president is living proof

The Rouhani administration, particularly its foreign minister Javad Zarif, had a somewhat strained relationship with Iran’s powerful military and the Revolutionary Guards’ influential Quds Force, which is responsible for foreign operations in countries like Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. With the new president, no such rift exists.

Hossein Amir-Abdollhian, parliament’s foreign affairs adviser and possibly the next foreign minister, told CNN in a recent interview that Iran does not plan to curtail its foreign policy.

Iran will have “a foreign policy that is balanced with an eye towards all countries — with a logical and at the same time strong discourse, a discourse that will be able to secure Iranian rights on all fronts,” Amir-Abdollhian said.

That could lead to major standoffs with the United States. The Biden administration said it wants Iran to enter talks about its ballistic missile program and the country’s “behavior” in the Middle East. Tehran has shot down even the notion of any direct talks with Washington. When asked at his first news conference after his election whether he would ever speak with President Biden, Raisi simply said: “No!”

But while tensions between Iran and the US could further escalate, other conflicts might see at least some de-escalation. Iran has recently been involved in talks with its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia, in a bid to end a long standoff that has contributed to instability in large parts of the Middle East. Political analyst Mostafa Khoshcheshm says he believes détente with Riyadh is key to Iran’s political and economic agenda.

On Wednesday, Raisi said that Iran’s regional presence “creates security,” and that he will extend the hand of “friendship and brotherhood” to neighboring countries.

“Our power in the region creates security, our regional capabilities support stability and peace in various nations, and will only be used to fight hegemonic powers,” he said.

At his first press conference as president-elect, Raisi said he foresaw a reopening of Iranian and Saudi embassies in Riyadh and Tehran. Relations between the two countries have been frozen since 2016.

“Raisi’s ultimate goal is economy,” Khoshcheshm said. “One of the means to do that is foreign trade and when we speak of foreign trade that means de-escalation, that means detente with Saudi Arabia and that means dealing with other countries. That is why in his first press conference after he was elected, he sent a warm welcome to Saudi Arabia.”CNN’s Mostafa Salem contributed to this report from Abu Dhabi

Iran nuclear deal: President-elect Raisi issues warning over talks

Published5 hours agoShareRelated Topics

Ebrahim Raisi speaks to reporters in Tehran, Iran (21 June 2021)
image captionEbrahim Raisi Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional issues were not up for discussion

Iran’s president-elect has welcomed the negotiations with world powers aimed at reviving a 2015 nuclear deal but said they must guarantee national interests.

At his first news conference since his victory in Friday’s election, Ebrahim Raisi promised he would not allow the talks in Vienna to be dragged out.

He also insisted that Iran’s ballistic missile programme was “not negotiable”.

The nuclear deal has been close to collapse since the US abandoned it and reinstated sanctions three years ago.


Iran nuclear crisis: The basics

  • World powers don’t trust Iran: Some countries believe Iran wants nuclear power because it wants to build a nuclear bomb – it denies this.
  • So a deal was struck: In 2015, Iran and six other countries reached a major agreement. Iran would stop some nuclear work in return for an end to harsh penalties, or sanctions, hurting its economy.
  • What is the problem now? Iran re-started banned nuclear work after former US President Donald Trump pulled out of the deal and re-imposed sanctions on Iran. Even though new leader Joe Biden wants to rejoin, both sides say the other must make the first move.

Mr Raisi, a hard-line Shia Muslim cleric who is head of Iran’s judiciary and is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, won Friday’s election by a landslide, with 62% of the vote in the first round.

However, turnout was just under 49% – a record low for a presidential poll in the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution – following calls for a boycott from dissidents and some reformists in response to the disqualification of several prominent candidates who might have provided serious competition.

Supporters of Ebrahim Raisi hold a photo of him at a rally in Tehran, Iran, following his presidential election victory (19 June 2021)
image captionMr Raisi is an ultraconservative cleric and a fierce critic of the West

On Monday, Mr Raisi described Iranians’ participation in the election as a message of “unity and cohesion”, and a sign that they continued to “walk the path” of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

He also said voters had given him a mandate to “fight against corruption, poverty, and discrimination”, which he had accused the moderate President Hassan Rouhani of failing to tackle during the campaign.

Mr Raisi said his approach to foreign policy would not be limited by the nuclear deal negotiated by Mr Rouhani, which saw Iran agree to limit its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief.

On the Vienna talks, he said: “We will not allow negotiations to be for negotiations’ sake. Negotiations should not be dragged out but each sitting should bear results. A result-oriented [negotiation] is important to us and it should have an outcome for the Iranian nation.”

Mr Raisi urged the US to immediately return to the deal and lift all the sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy. When asked if he would meet President Joe Biden if it did so, he replied: “No.” captionIran election: Wariness and welcome for Ebrahim Raisi

He likewise dismissed the possibility of any negotiations over Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its regional policies, including its support of armed groups in several countries, despite calls by Western countries for them to be part of any new agreement reached in Vienna.

On Sunday, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi said representatives in Vienna were “closer than ever to an agreement”, but that bridging the remaining gap was “not an easy job”.

Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, meanwhile warned world powers “to wake up before returning to the nuclear agreement”.

He said Mr Raisi, who was involved in the mass executions of political prisoners in 1988 when he was Tehran’s deputy prosecutor, was part of a “regime of brutal hangmen”.

When questioned about his human rights record on Monday, Mr Raisi said: “I am proud to have defended human rights in every position I have held so far.”



By Kasra Naji, BBC Persian

Ebrahim Raisi’s statements in his first news conference as president-elect are not going to reassure many people, whether about policies at home, or about Iran’s engagement with the outside world. He painted a picture of a hardliner who is set in his ways.

He is best known for his role in signing off on the execution of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988. He is sanctioned by the US for his role in human rights abuses. But he seemed unapologetic, saying he had helped bring security to the nation, and that he should be praised and thanked for what he had done. This issue will not doubt continue to overshadow his presidency.

As the head of the judiciary, he has presided over many cases of gross injustice, particularly relating to human rights activists like Nasrin Sotoudeh. There was nothing in his comments to suggest we will see an improvement in Iran’s human rights record. Mr Raisi said he had always endeavoured to fight for the human rights of the people.

On the indirect talks with the US in Vienna he was ambivalent, although he said they would continue if there were clear achievements. He was softer than expected on Israel, saying nothing except that Iran would continue to support the Palestinians. And he was enthusiastic about expanding relations with China. He said he would regard the implementation of a long-term co-operation agreement with China as a priority.

Mr Raisi projected no particular personal character that would mark the next four years in his image. Already, some observers are saying he will be the executive officer for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who they believe will be driving policies at home and abroad more than before.

Mass Bird Flu Outbreak in Iran Causes Culling of 1.4 Million Hens

1 day ago

By Chelsea Pinkham

Battery hens.

Lead Image Source : Shutterstock / MENATU

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Iranian officials ordered the killing of 1.4 million birds last month after a widespread outbreak of H5N8 bird flu was found on over fifty farms across the country. The virus allegedly spread rapidly around the region after an egg farm failed to report a positive case for nearly three weeks, fearing serious fines. A total of 75 million egg-laying hens currently reside on farms in Iran.

“Highly pathogenic avian influenza has been reported in the European Union, Kazakhstan, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Russia. Now all countries on the path of free-flying birds are affected by the wave of the disease,” said  Ali Safar Maknali, head of the Iran Veterinary Organization.Advertisement

This news comes shortly after the first cases of human-transmittable bird flu were detected in several farmworkers in Russia in February, raising alarm to the World Health Organization. Anna Popova, head of Russia’s Federal Service for Surveillance on Consumer Rights Protection and Human Wellbeing, had said that the early warning “gives us all, the entire world, time to prepare for possible mutations and react in an adequate and timely fashion.”

The past year has served as a rattling wake-up call around pandemics and disease spread; public health experts now know that the risk of another global outbreak is not a matter of “if”, but rather of “when”. The CDC states that approximately 75% of all infectious diseases from humans come from animals, and unsanitary, crowded conditions on industrialized farms only magnify the potential for disaster. 

Animals kept on industrialized farms tend to be incredibly similar genetically, and poor living conditions lead to compromised immune systems. Because of this, a disease outbreak can spread through a herd or flock extremely fast, and mutations spreading to humans are only a matter of time.

“When we overcrowd animals by the thousands, in cramped football-field-size sheds, to lie beak to beak or snout to snout, and there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight — put all these factors together and you have a perfect-storm environment for the emergence and spread of disease,“ said Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, in a 2020 interview with Vox. Advertisement

Source: ThePrint/YouTube

In addition to contagious illnesses such as Avian Influenza and swine fluantibiotic resistance is another major pandemic threat. Because farmed animals are often medicated with antibiotics to supplement their poorly developed immune systems, industrialized farming is the primary source of this deadly issue.Advertisement

“Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations stated in a 2013 report.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread criticism of “exotic” eating practices in addition to increased racist rhetoric towards Asian nations, westerners must reflect on their own contributions to future pandemics. Billions of farmed animals reside on crowded and unsanitary farms throughout the United States and are every bit as great of a threat to public health as “wet markets”- it is only a matter of time until another serious pandemic could strike.Advertisement

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Biden Jeopardizes Nuclear Talks With Iran by Bombing Militias in Syria GoodmanDemocracy Now!PUBLISHEDMarch 1, 2021SHAREShare via FacebookShare via TwitterShare via Email

The Biden administration is facing intense criticism from U.S. progressives after carrying out airstrikes on eastern Syria said to be targeting Iranian-backed militia groups. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 22 people died. The Pentagon called the assault a response to recent rocket attacks on U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Those attacks came more than a year after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel U.S. troops — an order ignored by both the Trump and Biden administrations. “Very quickly the Biden administration is falling into the same old patterns of before, of responding to this and that without having a clear strategy that actually would extract us from these various conflicts and actually pave the way for much more productive diplomacy,” says Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute. We also speak with California Congressmember Ro Khanna, who says President Biden’s recent airstrikes in Syria lacked legal authority. “This is not an ambiguous case. The administration’s actions are clearly illegal under the United States’ law and under international law,” says Khanna.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Syria. The Biden administration is facing intense criticism after U.S. Air Force fighter jets bombed eastern Syria Thursday. The Pentagon claimed the strikes targeted Iranian-backed militant groups. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports at least 22 people died.

Biden ordered the airstrike on the same day he spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch rival in the region. According to the White House, Biden committed on the call to helping Saudi Arabia defend its territory from Iranian-aligned groups.

The Pentagon called the assault a response to recent rocket attacks on U.S. forces in northern Iraq. Those attacks came more than a year after Iraq’s parliament voted to expel U.S. troops — an order that’s been ignored by both Trump and Biden.

On Friday, Biden was asked about the airstrikes.

REPORTER: Mr. President, what message were you sending to Iran with your first military action?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You can’t get — you can’t act with impunity. Be careful.

AMY GOODMAN: Still with us is Democratic Congressmember Ro Khanna of California. We’re also joined by Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the new think tank, the Quincy Institute. His most recent book is titled Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

Trita Parsi, can you respond to the attack, the U.S. bombing of Syria?

TRITA PARSI: Yes. The Biden administration, I think President Biden himself specifically, felt strongly that because of the attacks in Iraq earlier, that a response was warranted. But what I think many people are fearing is that very quickly the Biden administration is falling into the same old patterns of before, of responding to this and that without having a clear strategy that actually would extract us from these various conflicts and actually pave the way for much more productive diplomacy.

The idea that this actually would help us with the diplomacy with Iran, for instance, seems really difficult to understand, mindful of the fact that we are now in a situation in which the Iranians have rejected the offer from the Europeans to come to the talks precisely because of these attacks, because of other measures that have been done, which means that these first two months of the Biden administration, that could have been used for really productively laying the groundwork for new talks, seem to instead have been used to just fall into the old patterns. And this is quite concerning, because, at the end of the day, reviving the JCPOA is another promise that the Biden administration gave during the campaign and said that it would pursue diligently.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by these attacks? And explain exactly where they took place in Syria.

TRITA PARSI: Took place in eastern part of Syria. These are various groups that the Biden administration describes as pro-Iranian, certainly seem to have a degree of support from Iran. Whether they’re under the command of Iran is not as clear.

And at the end of the day, you know, the fact that this was said the same day as the Biden administration decided not to pursue sanctions on MBS, again, seems to suggest that the Biden administration is more concerned at this point of making sure that it doesn’t upset certain allies in the region, doesn’t pay a political cost at home, for pursuing compromise with Iran over the nuclear issue, which I think sends a very, very concerning message, because, at the end of the day, in order for the JCPOA to be revived, both the Iranians and the U.S. side have to give compromises, and they’re going to have to pay a political price at home. The Obama administration did so. The Rouhani government did so. There is no escaping from that. But if at already this stage we’re signaling that we’re not ready to do so and we’re too concerned about those political costs, that really sets a question mark as to whether the political will exists for seeing these negotiations on the nuclear program come to completion.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Ro Khanna, your response to the bombing of Syria?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, this is not an ambiguous case. The administration’s actions are clearly illegal under the United States’ law and under international law. We do not have any authorization of military force to go into Syria. In fact, President Obama tried and then backed off in getting that authorization. We do not have any authorization of military force to attack Iran. The idea that this was an imminent attack on U.S. self-defense is simply not borne out by the facts. And under international law, for self-defense, we have to go to the United Nations. The administration did not do that. So, my concern is that this president ran on ending endless wars, ran on respecting the United States’ and international law, and these actions clearly violate both.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Trita Parsi, if you could talk about the European Union, Iran rejecting an offer by the EU to hold direct talks with the U.S. on the nuclear deal after the U.S. attack on eastern Syria? The significance of this?

TRITA PARSI: It’s a very unfortunate decision by the Iranians. I mean, I think it would have much better if they accepted this invitation.

But at the same time, it is not a surprising decision. In fact, one of President Biden’s own senior officials, Wendy Sherman, who is now going to be confirmed next week or having hearings to become the deputy secretary, said — she was a lead negotiator under Obama for the nuclear deal — said, in 2019, that the idea that the Iranians would come to the table and talk to the United States without some sanctions relief, meaning that the United States would continue to violate the JCPOA and yet the Iranians would come, was extremely unlikely. It’s not clear to me why the Biden administration has chosen a strategy that some of its own senior officials earlier on had deemed to be extremely unlikely to succeed.

So it’s not surprising. It’s very negative. And now we’re in a worse situation. There’s going to be a fight potentially today at the IAEA Board of Governors about whether to censure Iran for some of its reductions of obligations under the JCPOA, while the United States continues to completely disregard all of its obligations.

So, these are all the type of wrong measures and steps that should be taken at this stage of diplomacy. At this stage, there should be goodwill measures, there should be positive signals of intent, in order to create the best possible circumstances for diplomacy to start. Now we’re having the opposite.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Trita, Iran’s demand that the U.S. end sanctions before returning to negotiations? Explain what the U.S. sanctions against Iran are and how they’re affecting the people there.

TRITA PARSI: Well, the Iranians have now suffered tremendously under sanctions that President Trump put in place in 2018 and 2019 and onwards. These have been devastating to the Iranian economy. In fact, President Trump intensified those once COVID broke out, seeing the pandemic as a way to further enhance the impact of sanctions. And this means including blocking Iran’s ability to get IMF loans for the purpose of fighting the virus. So, the Iranians have suffered tremendously under these sanctions for the last couple of years.

I think part of the reason why they’re fearful of going to the table without getting some indication — not all sanctions need to be lifted, from their perspective, but some indication that the U.S. is going to lift sanctions, is that, otherwise, they fear that the talks may not succeed, they will get blamed for the breakdown of talks, they will be seen as being at fault, even though the United States, under Biden, has not changed Trump’s position of maximum pressure. So the U.S. doesn’t even come back into the deal but manages to shift the blame onto the Iranians. I think this is part of their fear.

I think, at the same time, demanding that all sanctions be lifted, which they did earlier on, is completely unrealistic. What is happening right now is that the Iranian demand is that the U.S. side promises that once the U.S. is inside of the deal, it will lift sanctions. But it’s also very difficult to see how the U.S. could reject that, mindful of the fact that once it is inside the deal, it has to lift the sanctions; otherwise, it will be in complete violation of the deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Ro Khanna, if you can talk about the timing of this attack? All week, the buildup to the release of the report on the murder of Khashoggi and the clear connection to MBS, Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, so all of that was building. Then President Biden says he’s speaking with the king, and they talk about defending Saudi’s borders. And just before the release of the report, they bomb Syria, and they talk about attacking Iranian-backed militias, the major enemy of Saudi Arabia. Can you respond to this, this idea that they are releasing a report that proves the murder of Khashoggi is the crown — behind it is the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, but then they do Saudi Arabia’s bidding?

REP. RO KHANNA: Well, Amy, this is why the Constitution says that before a president takes these actions, they have to come to Congress, because those issues would have been debated in Congress. Questions would have been asked: Is this in any way in response to conversations with the Saudis? Why do we need to take this action now? Why is it that suddenly we feel that there’s an imminent threat? Is this action going to be escalatory? They’re saying that the action is deescalatory. I haven’t understood how. How is a military strike deescalatory?

And the main point here is that the maximum pressure campaign has not worked. Iran’s enriched uranium was about 102 kilograms when President Trump took office. It is 2.5 tons now. It is 25 times more. So, repeating this continued strategy not only has implications for our staying entangled in the Middle East, it actually has not worked in the objectives. And the challenge is a naive view in the United States that somehow our actions are going to force regime change in Iran. If anything, they’re entrenching the regime. We need a totally different approach. And I actually think the American people want a totally different approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Trita Parsi, thank you for joining us, with the Quincy Institute. I also want to thank Ro Khanna and ask you to stay with us, because a lot has happened in the House, where you’re a member from California. We want to ask you about the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package. The House has included the $15-an-hour minimum wage, but it will be stripped out. Get your response to that and other issues. Stay with us.

Iran seizes tanker, ramps up uranium enrichment in new escalation with West

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration.

Image: Fordo facility in Iran

A satellite image of the Fordo facility in Iran in 2013.DigitalGlobe / Getty Images fileJan. 4, 2021, 5:42 AM PST / Updated Jan. 4, 2021, 8:25 AM PSTBy Ali Arouzi and Saphora Smith

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has resumed enriching uranium up to 20 percent in the country’s biggest breach yet of its landmark nuclear deal with world powers, a government spokesperson told state-run Mehr News on Monday.

Also Monday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized a South Korean-flagged ship carrying thousands of tons of ethanol in the Persian Gulf, according to the state-linked news agencies IRIB and FARS News.

The U.S. State Department said it was tracking reports that the Iranian regime has detained a Republic of Korea-flagged tanker. “The regime continues to threaten navigational rights and freedoms in the Persian Gulf as part of a clear attempt to extort the international community into relieving the pressure of sanctions. We join the Republic of Korea’s call for Iran to immediately release the tanker,” a spokesman for the department said Monday.

South Korea said that 20 crew members were on board, five of whom are South Koreans.

Raising enrichment puts Iran a technical step away from enriching at 90 percent, the level needed to produce a nuclear warhead. Before the announcement, Iran was enriching uranium at around 4.5 percent, in violation of the nuclear pact but at a significantly lower level.

Image: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani
President Hassan Rouhani visits a nuclear power plant outside Bushehr, Iran, in 2015.Mohammad Berno / AP file

Tensions between the United States and Iran have been simmering in the last days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump unilaterally withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, setting off a series of escalating incidents that culminated in the killing of a top Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq on Jan. 3, 2020. Thousands of people took to the streets in Iraq to protest his death Sunday.

Iranian officials said the uranium is being enriched at the Fordo nuclear facility, which is hidden deep inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom. Under the terms of the nuclear deal, Tehran is allowed to enrich uranium at only around 3.5 percent, and no enrichment is allowed at the Fordo plant.

Iran resumes uranium enrichment up to 20 percent in biggest breach of nuclear deal

JAN. 4, 202103:37

The deal stipulates that in exchange for agreeing to limit its uranium enrichment, world powers would grant Iran sanctions relief.

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

Since the U.S. pulled out of the pact in May 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions, Tehran has steadily breached its commitments, prompting alarm among the five other parties to the deal: France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China.

Iran’s Parliament recently passed a bill to hike enrichment to pressure Europe into relieving sanctions.

Uranium enriched to up to 20 percent can be used to fuel nuclear reactors, said Eric Brewer, deputy director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C.


WORLDSouth Korea to dispatch diplomat for Tehran talks after Iran seizes tanker

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Iran has a research reactor that uses near 20 percent enriched uranium, but the fuel is provided by other countries under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal, Brewer said. It remains unclear what Iran plans to do with the higher-enriched uranium, if anything.

Tehran has long denied seeking to develop a nuclear weapon and says doing so would be against Islam.

Iran tells U.N. agency it plans to enrich uranium up to 20 percent

JAN. 2, 202100:28

The increase will also raise pressure on President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Biden, who was vice president when the U.S. entered the nuclear deal under President Barack Obama in 2015, has said he is willing to return to the pact if Iran abides by the deal, and he has suggested building on the agreement.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani dampened hopes last month that it would be possible to extend the scope of the deal, saying Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional influence were nonnegotiable.

“There is one JCPOA that has been negotiated and agreed — either everyone commits to it or they don’t,” he said, referring to the 2015 nuclear accord’s formal name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

The director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, informed member states Monday that Iran began to feed uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordo plant for further enrichment up to 20 percent, the agency said in an emailed statement.

Iran had previously informed the agency of its intention to start producing uranium enriched up to 20 percent, it said.

Experts Warn Trump May Attack Iran Out of Desperation

Donald Trump
President Trump walks to the Oval Office at the White House on December 31, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

BYKenny StancilCommon DreamsPUBLISHEDJanuary 4, 2021SHAREShare via FacebookShare via TwitterShare via Email

Foreign policy experts are sounding the alarm that U.S. President Donald Trump could launch an assault on Iran in the final weeks of his administration, potentially provoking a full-blown war just days before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Fears of a military confrontation are mounting in the wake of the Pentagon’s announcement Sunday that the USS Nimitz would remain in the Middle East — a reversal of Friday’s decision to signal a de-escalation of hostility toward Tehran by redeploying the aircraft carrier out of the region prior to this past weekend’s one-year anniversary of the Trump-ordered assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

The intensification of tensions between the U.S. and Iran also coincides with Trump’s efforts to retain power despite losing his reelection bid in November 2020.

The right-wing coup attempt has grown increasingly desperate ahead of Wednesday’s expected certification of Biden’s victory by Congress, with many observers calling for Trump to be criminally prosecuted following the emergence of evidence that the president on Saturday tried to intimidate Georgia’s top election official into overturning the results.

“Trump may be planning his biggest — and likely most disastrous — stunt yet,” Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, wrote late last week. “Whatever his calculation may be, there is clearly a risk that the last three weeks of Trump’s presidency may be the most perilous.”

Parsi’s concerns are shared by Danny Postel, assistant director of the Center for International and Area Studies at Northwestern University. “Trump is a very wounded and very cornered animal in an end-game scenario. He’s got a few weeks left, and we know that he is capable of extremely erratic behavior,” Postel told Al Jazeera in an interview this past weekend. “It may be the case that his most erratic, most reckless lashing out is yet to come.”

Parsi said Sunday night that a former U.S. military official told him that Trump starting a war with Iran is “probable.”

According to what the former official told Parsi, “It will relieve the pressure from the Georgia recording leaks.” Trump’s aggression also comes amid what Parsi called “a showdown in the Senate on Jan. 6 with demonstrations and potential for violence in Washington, D.C.”

In his attempted justification of the Pentagon’s about-face on redeploying the warship Nimitz, Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller cited alleged “threats issued by Iranian leaders against President Trump and other U.S. government officials.”

“No one should doubt the resolve of the United States of America,” Miller added ominously.

As Parsi explained last week, “Trump has made more threats of war against Iran than any other country during his four years as President.”

“As late as last month, he ordered the military to prepare options against Iranian nuclear facilities,” Parsi wrote. “Though the New York Times reported that Trump’s aides derailed those plans, U.S. troop movements in the past few weeks may suggest otherwise.” He continued:

Since October, the Pentagon has deployed 2,000 additional troops as well as an extra squadron of fighter planes to Saudi Arabia. It has also sent B-52 bombers on missions in the Persian Gulf three times, kept the USS Nimitz close to Iran, and announced that it is sending a Tomahawk-firing submarine just outside of Iranian waters. Moreover, Israel — whose officials have confirmed to several U.S. newspapers that it was behind the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last month — has sent a nuclear-equipped submarine to the Persian Gulf.

Officially, all of these military maneuvers are aimed at “deterring” Iran, even though Israel assassinated an Iranian official in Iran and not the other way around… Not surprisingly, Tehran has interpreted the measures as threats and provocations, similar to how the United States would perceive Iranian warships posturing off Florida’s coast.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif claimed Thursday that he is aware of intelligence suggesting the Trump administration is engaged in a “plot to fabricate a pretext for war” during its final days in power, as Common Dreams reported last week.

In an apparent reflection of the seriousness of the president’s threats to democracy in the U.S. as well as to diplomacy with Iran, all 10 living former defense secretaries — including former Trump officials James Mattis and Mark Esper, along with Iraq War architects Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — on Sunday penned an op-ed rebuking Trump.

“Could Trump seek to start a military confrontation with Iran in hopes of creating enough chaos as to prevent Joe Biden from taking office in January?” asked Parsi. “There is no reason to believe such a gambit would work, yet the insanity of the idea is not a convincing reason as to why a desperate Trump wouldn’t try it.”

Jared Kushner heads to Middle East amid tensions over Iranian nuclear scientist’s killing

Deirdre ShesgreenUSA TODAY0:021:29

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner will travel to the Middle East this week amid heightened tensions over the assassination of a top Iranian scientist who had been credited with overseeing Tehran’s now moribund covert nuclear program. 

Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law, will travel to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a source familiar with the matter, who was not authorized to comment publicly, told USA TODAY. The trip was first reported by Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal. The official said Kushner’s trip will be focused on healing a long-standing rift between Qatar and its Persian Gulf neighbors, including Saudi Arabia.

But Kushner’s visit to the two Middle East allies comes just days after the targeted killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a nuclear scientist whom Israeli officials referred to as the “father” of Iran’s nuclear program. He led Iran’s “Amad” program, which Israel alleged was a covert military operation to probe the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon.

Senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Aug. 13, 2020.

Tensions over Iran

The International Atomic Energy Agency says that program ended in 2003, and U.S. intelligence agencies concurred with that assessment in a 2007 report. Iran has long maintained its nuclear program is for peaceful, civilian purposes only, a claim that Israel and U.S. officials reject.

Iran has blamed Israel for Fakhrizadeh’s killing and vowed to exact revenge. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called Fakhrizadeh “the country’s prominent and distinguished nuclear and defensive scientist.”

He said Iran’s first priority after the killing was the “definitive punishment of the perpetrators and those who ordered it.”

The attack has renewed fears that Iran may strike back, raising tensions across the region.

In a statement released Monday, the United Arab Emirates, which just reached a historic normalization deal with Israel, condemned “the heinous assassination” of Fakhrizadeh. The UAE’s foreign ministry warned that the killing “could further fuel conflict in the region.”

Iranian scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed Nov. 27.

What it means for the Biden administration

Some Iran experts and senior Iranian officials have speculated that Fakhrizadeh’s killing could be part of a concerted attempt to sabotage diplomacy between Iran and the incoming Biden administration. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is publicly pressuring President-elect Joe Biden to not rejoin the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in 2018. 

Biden’s transition office declined to comment on Fakhrizadeh’s death. But the president-elect has made it clear he wants to revive the nuclear accord, negotiated during the Obama administration, under which Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

“It’s not unlikely that this targeted killing was part of efforts to prevent the Biden administration from reviving diplomacy with (Iran) and going back to the nuclear agreement,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s former prime minister, posted on Twitter after news of the attack emerged.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress specializing in the Middle East, said Fakhrizadeh’s killing highlights the Trump administration’s failed Iran policy. After Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal and reimposed crippling sanctions on the regime, Tehran began ramping up its uranium enrichment. 

“It seems like this assassination that was conducted in an attempt” to lessen the nuclear threat from Iran, Katulis said, but “we need not have been here.”

Even before the assassination, reviving the nuclear agreement was going to be complicated, he said, because Iran is no longer in full compliance. But now he expects Iran to retaliate in some way for Fakhrizadeh’s killing and said he’s concerned the U.S. and Iran could slip into an unintended conflict just weeks before Biden takes office. 

“We’ve got just a few weeks to go, and anything could happen,” he said. 

Israeli and U.S. officials have refused to comment on the attack. But experts say the incident has the hallmarks of an assassination orchestrated by Israeli’s Mossad spy agency. Mossad and the CIA often share intelligence information. 

According to initial reports from Iranian state television, the attack began outside Tehran when a truck laden with explosives and hidden under a load of wood blew up as a car carrying Fakhrizadeh drew near. Fakhrizadeh’s vehicle then came under machine gun fire, according to Iranian state TV and the country’s semiofficial Fars news agency.

But on Monday, a top Iranian security official accused Israel of using “electronic devices” to kill Fakhrizadeh remotely. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the country’s Supreme National Security Council, made the comment at Fakhrizadeh’s funeral


Risk of Nuclear War Rises as US Deploys New Nuke for First Time Since Cold War

The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January that the U.S. Navy had deployed for the first time a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019. The W76-2 warhead, which is facing criticism at home and abroad, is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” We’re joined by William Arkin, longtime reporter focused on military and nuclear policy, author of numerous books, including “Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.” He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for Federation of American Scientists. He also recently wrote a cover piece for Newsweek titled “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” “What surprised me in my reporting … was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world,” Arkin says.


AMY GOODMAN: As the nation focused on President Trump’s impeachment trial, a major story recently broke about a new development in U.S. nuclear weapons policy that received little attention. The Federation of American Scientists revealed in late January the U.S. Navy had for the first time deployed a submarine armed with a low-yield Trident nuclear warhead. The USS Tennessee deployed from Kings Bay Submarine Base in Georgia in late 2019, armed with a warhead which is estimated to have about a third of the explosive power of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima.

The deployment is facing criticism at home and abroad. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, ICAN, called the news “an alarming development that heightens the risk of nuclear war.” On Capitol Hill, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith said, quote, “This destabilizing deployment further increases the potential for miscalculation during a crisis.” Smith also criticized the Pentagon for its inability and unwillingness to answer congressional questions about the weapon over the past few months. Meanwhile, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by saying, quote, “This reflects the fact that the United States is actually lowering the nuclear threshold and that they are conceding the possibility of them waging a limited nuclear war and winning this war. This is extremely alarming,” he said.

We’re joined now William Arkin, longtime reporter who focuses on military and nuclear policy. He broke the story about the deployment of the new low-yield nuclear weapon in an article he co-wrote for the Federation of American Scientists. He also wrote the cover story for Newsweek, which is headlined “With a New Weapon in Donald Trump’s Hands, the Iran Crisis Risks Going Nuclear.” He’s the author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State.

Bill Arkin, it’s great to have you back.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Thanks for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, to say the least, this has been an explosive week of news in Washington, D.C., and your news, which has hardly gone reported, is — should really be one of the top news stories of these last weeks.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, during the very time when the Iran crisis was at its highest, the United States, last December, deployed a new nuclear weapon, the first new nuclear weapon to be deployed, Amy, since the end of the Cold War. So here we have not just a momentous occasion, but a weapon which is intended explicitly to be more usable — and not just more usable against Russia and China, but to be more usable against Iran and North Korea, as well. It seemed to me that looking more deeply at this weapon, looking more deeply at the doctrines behind it, and then, really, what surprised me in my reporting, looking more at Donald Trump and the role that he might play in the future, was a story that was just as important, if not more important, than what was going on in the political world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this — what does it mean, “low-yield” nuclear weapon?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, “low-yield” is actually a little bit wrong. The United States actually possesses nuclear weapons with even smaller yields than five to six kilotons, which is what this is estimated at. That’s 5,000 to 6,000 tons. And so, that would be — if you thought of it in Manhattan terms, it would be probably something on the order of 20 square city blocks obliterated and radiation coming from that area. So, to say “low-yield” is, of course, a little bit wrong. But it is the lowest-yield missile warhead available to the strategic nuclear forces.

And the real reason behind deploying a Trident warhead with this low-yield weapon was that the United States, the nuclear planners, felt that they didn’t have a prompt and assured capability to threaten Russia or threaten other adversaries — “prompt” meaning that it would be quickly delivered, 30 minutes, or even, if a submarine is close, as low as 15 minutes, and “assured” meaning that it isn’t a bomber or an airplane that has to penetrate enemy air defenses in order to get to the target. So, those two things, prompt and assured, is what they really wanted. And putting a warhead on the missiles on the submarines allowed them both covert deployments as well as getting close to the target.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what this means between the United States and Russia.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, between the United States and Russia, I think it really doesn’t change very much. The Russians can denounce the Trident warhead, but the reality is that they have 2,000 of their own small nuclear weapons of this sort opposite Europe. And one of the justifications for the deployment of this new nuclear weapon, Amy, was that the Russians in fact had, if you will, a numerical advantage against NATO, and there was a desire to have a more “usable” nuclear weapon in order to eliminate that advantage. I think the U.S.-Russian situation is certainly tense, but it’s not really what this weapon is about. What this weapon is about is having a more usable nuclear weapon against countries like Iran and North Korea, where in fact a shocking first use of nuclear weapons, a preemptive use of nuclear weapons, would be used to either stop a war or to destroy a very important target, say, for instance, if there were a missile on a launchpad ready to strike at that United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2017, General John Hyten, who’s now vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. already has military capabilities to respond to Russian deployment of nuclear weapons.

GENJOHN HYTEN: The plans that we have right now — one of the things that surprised me most when I took command on November 3rd was the flexible options that are in all our options today. So we actually have very flexible options in our plans. So, if something bad happens in the world and there’s a response and I’m on the phone with the secretary of defense and the president and the entire staff, which is the attorney general, secretary of state and everybody, I actually have a series of very flexible options, from conventional all the way up to large-scale nuke, that I can advise the president on to give him options on what he would want to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Arkin, if you could respond?

WILLIAM ARKIN: Options. That’s what they’re always saying, “options.” They need better options to do this, better options to do that. You have to look at this new weapon and say, “In its most basic terms, what does it give the United States that it doesn’t already have?” And those two things that I already mentioned: a prompt capability, being able to strike at a target in 15 minutes or less, and, second, an assured capability — that is, a missile that’s able to penetrate any enemy air defenses.

That makes it a particularly dangerous weapon in the hands of the current president, because I’ve heard from many people, more than I expected in my reporting, that they were concerned that Donald Trump, in his own way, might be more prone to accept the use of nuclear weapons as one of options when he was presented with a long list of options. One senior officer said to me, “We’re afraid that if we present Donald Trump with a hundred options of what to do in a certain crisis, and only one of them is a nuclear option, that he might go down the list and choose the one that is the most catastrophic.” And that officer said, “In 35 years of my being in the military, I’ve never thought before that I had to think of the personality of the president in presenting military options.”

AMY GOODMAN: So let’s talk about Iran now and what this means for Iran.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Well, the deployment, it happened very quickly. The decision was made in February 2018. The Trident warhead was already on the production line for the strategic submarines. So, at the end of the run of these warheads, they made about 50 new ones that were of the low-yield variety, because the production line was already operating and hot. So it happened very quickly. Ironically, it happened at the very time that the House of Representatives was debating whether or not the weapon should even be deployed. And by the time that was finished and President Trump had signed the defense appropriations bill on 20th of December, the weapon had already been in the field. So, it shows really a disconnect, as well, in the congressional debate between what’s actually happening on the ground and what it is that they’re talking about.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, for this to have been passed, you know, the House isn’t the Senate. The House is controlled by Democrats, so the Democrats passed this.

WILLIAM ARKIN: That’s correct. But in the end, the Senate turned down the House recommendation that the weapon not be deployed. And really, the tragedy here is that all of this occurred while the Tennessee was being loaded with a new missile, while the Tennessee was being prepared to go out on a new patrol, while the Tennessee actually went out into the Atlantic Ocean.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk again about Iran, exactly.

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, Iran is important because in June, when the drone was shot down, the president declined to retaliate militarily. And I think he got a lot of criticism from his party, from his wing, that he had made the wrong decision, that the United States should have retaliated against Iran. I think that stuck with Donald Trump. And I think, in the end, when it came to the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, in Baghdad, killed on the 2nd of January, that strike, people have told me, specifically was approved by Donald Trump, enthusiastically pushed by Donald Trump, because it kind of erased the mistake of him not retaliating in June.

At the same time, the United States was also increasing the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, in the Iran area. B-52 bombers were flown to Qatar. The USS Abraham Lincoln was sailed into the region. And there was a general buildup of defensive forces in places like Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia.

At this very moment when U.S.-Iranian relations are at such a deep, I think, divide and at a time also when Iran is free — and it’s not clear that they will, but free — to continue to pursue the development of nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, I think that we see maybe the beginning of a little bit of a creation of an argument that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction and that the United States is going to have to take action against that. And you’ve seen now from the president a number of very blunt statements that have said, “We will not allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.” That’s not necessarily what anyone I’m talking to in the military is focusing their attention on. They’re much more concerned about Iran in Syria, Iran in Yemen, Iran’s role in Iraq. But in terms of war planning, I think at the highest levels within the U.S. government there’s a general consensus about Iran as being still one of the “axis of evil,” still being in pursuit of nuclear weapons. And the Trump administration, particularly if it’s re-elected, is going to make Iran, I think, the centerpiece of a new defense strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, it is President Trump that set that situation up by pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear accord and decimating it.

WILLIAM ARKIN: Yes, that and also the second decision that was made, which was designating the Quds Force as a foreign terrorist organization. This, ironically, in kind of the bureaucracy of terrorism, triggered a number of decisions and a number of actions, one of which was, with foreign terrorist organizations, the U.S. military then begins the process of targeting their leadership. And that’s what resulted in their starting to track Qassem Soleimani and then ultimately killing him. So it seems to me that we have these two separate tracks kind of converging at the same time: a foreign terrorist organization designation, on the one hand, and weapons of mass destruction, on the other.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently advanced the Doomsday Clock 20 seconds closer to midnight, the clock a symbolic timekeeper that tracks the likelihood of nuclear war and other existential threats. It now stands closer to catastrophe than at any time since its creation in 1947. This is Mary Robinson, former Irish president, former U.N. human rights chief, speaking last month as the clock was set to 100 seconds to midnight.

MARY ROBINSON: The Doomsday Clock is a globally recognized indicator of the vulnerability of our existence. It’s a striking metaphor for the precarious state of the world, but, most frighteningly, as we have just heard, it’s a metaphor backed by rigorous scientific scrutiny. This is no mere analogy. We are now 100 seconds to midnight, and the world needs to wake up. Our planet faces two simultaneous existential threats: the climate crisis and nuclear weapons.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Irish President Mary Robinson. The significance of the Doomsday Clock, Bill?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I think the real significance is the lack of public interaction and public activism on the question of nuclear weapons. Really, that’s the missing ingredient today, Amy. We have a situation where the United States and Russia are engaged in multi-hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of nuclear modernization, at a time when the United States is at a high level of crisis with Iran and North Korea. And where is the public? Where is the public? And where is the anti-nuclear movement? And where even is any candidate speaking up about this subject?

AMY GOODMAN: Well, speaking of the anti-nuclear movement, the nuclear-armed submarine we’re talking about was deployed from Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia. This is the same base where seven Catholic peace activists were recently found guilty on three felony counts and a misdemeanor charge for breaking into the base on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s birth [sic], on April 4th, 2018. This is Plowshares activist Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day. It was actually the anniversary of his assassination. But this is Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, speaking after she was convicted.

MARTHA HENNESSY: The weapons are still there. The treaties are being knocked down one after the next. But we are called to keep trying. And we will do this together. And we have no other choice. Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Martha Hennessy is the granddaughter of the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, one of the seven who were found guilty when they went onto that nuclear base. So, Bill, in this last comment, if you can talk about the significance of their action? And also, when you say “low-yield” nuclear weapon, it must calm people. But this is a third of the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima?

WILLIAM ARKIN: So, “low-yield” is merely the title. It’s like saying that a Hummer is a small truck. I think that what’s important for people to take away from this development is that the United States has a new usable nuclear weapon, what the military itself considers to be more usable. That’s the change. And it’s also a weapon that can be stealthily and covertly deployed in the oceans. And that’s a change. And we do it at a time when, at least against Russia and North Korea and Iran, the United States is engaged in nuclear brinksmanship, at a time when it seems to me that the Congress is out to lunch, and there isn’t really an anti-nuclear movement in the United States, a mass movement, that could take up arms against this.

AMY GOODMAN: And the significance of Martha Hennessy, Liz McAlister, the peace activist and widow of Phil Berrigan, and others getting convicted on their protest at the base?

WILLIAM ARKIN: I started writing about nuclear weapons in 1981, when Ronald Reagan became president. I believe that’s about the time when we met. And then we had marches in which hundreds of thousands of people were in Central Park and in Europe and around the world. And today we have nothing of the sort. So, yes, it’s important that these peace workers continue to do their work and continue to do their important attention operations and exercises, their own, if you will, actions against nuclear weapons. But it’s not enough. The public has to be more engaged. And I believe that the Democratic Party candidates for president need to speak up and say something about nuclear weapons, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, there is a debate tonight in New Hampshire. We’ll see if that question is raised. William Arkin, longtime reporter who’s focused on military and nuclear policy, author of many books, including Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. And we will link to your articles and your cover story in Newsweek magazine.

Trump vows to hit 52 Iranian targets if Iran retaliates after drone strike

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Saturday threatened to hit 52 Iranian sites “very hard” if Iran attacks Americans or U.S. assets after a drone strike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani and an Iraqi militia leader, as tens of thousands of people marched in Iraq to mourn their deaths.

Showing no signs of seeking to ease tensions raised by the strike he ordered that killed Soleimani and Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad airport on Friday, Trump issued a threat to Iran on Twitter. The strike has raised the specter of wider conflict in the Middle East.

Iran, Trump wrote, “is talking very boldly about targeting certain USA assets” in revenge for Soleimani’s death. Trump said the United States has “targeted 52 Iranian sites” and that some were “at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture, and those targets, and Iran itself, WILL BE HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD.”

“The USA wants no more threats!” Trump said, adding that the 52 targets represented the 52 Americans who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days after being seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979 – an enduring sore spot in U.S.-Iranian relations.

Trump did not identify the sites. The Pentagon referred questions about the matter to the White House, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Among the mourners in Iraq included many militiamen in uniform for whom Muhandis and Soleimani were heroes. They carried portraits of both men and plastered them on walls and armored personnel carriers in the procession. Chants of “Death to America” and “No No Israel” rang out.

On Saturday evening, a rocket fell inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone near the U.S. Embassy, another hit the nearby Jadriya neighborhood and two more were fired at the Balad air base north of the city, but no one was killed, Iraq’s military said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Trump referenced an unusually specific number of potential Iranian targets after a senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander had also mentioned a specific number of American targets – 35 of them – for possible retaliatory attacks in response to Soleimani’s killing.

General Gholamali Abuhamzeh was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying late on Friday that Iran will punish Americans wherever they are within reach of the Islamic Republic, and raised the prospect of attacks on ships in the Gulf.

“The Strait of Hormuz is a vital point for the West and a large number of American destroyers and warships cross there. … Vital American targets in the region have been identified by Iran since long time ago. … Some 35 U.S. targets in the region as well as Tel Aviv are within our reach,” he was quoted as saying.

Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah militia warned Iraqi security forces to stay away from U.S. bases in Iraq, “by a distance not less than a thousand meters (six-tenths of a mile) starting Sunday evening,” reported Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV, which is close to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Trump said on Friday Soleimani had been plotting “imminent and sinister” attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. Democratic critics said the Republican president’s action was reckless and risked more bloodshed in a dangerous region.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks following the U.S. Military airstrike against Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, in West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., January 3, 2020. REUTERS/Tom Brenner


Trump’s provocative Twitter posts came only hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote on Twitter that he had told Iraq’s president that “the U.S. remains committed to de-escalation.” Pompeo also wrote on Twitter that he had spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about Iran and “underscored the importance of countering Iran’s malign influence and threats to the region.”

The White House on Saturday sent to the U.S. Congress formal notification of the drone strike – as required by law – amid complaints from Democrats that Trump did not notify lawmakers or seek advance approval for the attack. White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien defended the operation’s legality and said Justice Department lawyers had signed off on the plan.

Democrats sounded unswayed. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the notification document raised “serious and urgent questions about the timing, manner and justification” of the strike.

Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a strident Trump critic, wrote on Twitter that his threat to hit Iranian sites “is a war crime.”

“Threatening to target and kill innocent families, women and children – which is what you’re doing by targeting cultural sites – does not make you a ‘tough guy.’ It does not make you ‘strategic.’ It makes you a monster,” Ocasio-Cortez wrote.

Soleimani, 62, was Iran’s pre-eminent military leader – head of the Revolutionary Guards’ overseas Quds Force and the architect of Iran’s spreading influence in the Middle East. Muhandis was de facto leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) umbrella body of paramilitary groups.

The attack took Washington and its allies, mainly Saudi Arabia and Israel, into uncharted territory in their confrontation with Iran and its proxy militias across the region.

The United States has been an ally of the Iraqi government since the 2003 U.S. invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein, but Iraq has become more closely allied with Iran.

The Iraqi parliament is convening an extraordinary session during which a vote to expel U.S. troops could be taken as soon as Sunday. Many Iraqis, including opponents of Soleimani, have expressed anger at Washington for killing the two men on Iraqi soil and possibly dragging their country into another conflict.


A PMF-organized procession carried the bodies of Soleimani and Muhandis, and those of others killed in the U.S. strike, through Baghdad’s Green Zone.

The top candidate to succeed Muhandis, Hadi al-Amiri, spoke over the dead militia commander’s coffin: “The price for your noble blood is American forces leaving Iraq forever and achieving total national sovereignty.”

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi also attended. Mahdi’s office later said he received a phone call from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and they “discussed the difficult conditions facing Iraq and the region.”

Mourners brought the bodies of the two slain men by car to the Shi’ite holy city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, then to Najaf, another sacred Shi’ite city, where they were met by the son of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and where Muhandis and the other Iraqis killed will be laid to rest.

Soleimani’s body will be transferred to the southwestern Iranian province of Khuzestan that borders Iraq. On Sunday it will be taken to the Shi’ite holy city of Mashhad in Iran’s northeast and from there to Tehran and his hometown Kerman in the southeast for burial on Tuesday, state media said.

The U.S. strike followed a sharp increase in U.S.-Iranian hostilities in Iraq since last week when pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad after a deadly U.S. air raid on Kataib Hezbollah, founded by Muhandis. Washington accused the group of an attack on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor.

The US, Iran, and the fallout of Soleimani’s assassination

The US strategy towards Iran and Iraq may have changed, but the Iranian response will be more of the same. Much more.


Iranian guards hold a picture of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against his killing, in front of the UN office in Tehran, on  January 3, 2020 [WANA/Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters]
Iranian guards hold a picture of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, during a protest against his killing, in front of the UN office in Tehran, on January 3, 2020 [WANA/Nazanin Tabatabaee via Reuters]

The assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has ushered in another turbulent decade for the Middle East. United States President Donald Trump‘s decision to greenlight the assassination of the head of the Quds Force, the paramilitary wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is for all practical purposes a “declaration of war” with far-reaching implications for the region, especially Iraq.

US attempts to portray Soleimani as a master terrorist leader, like say, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levants’s (ISIL, or ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is wrong and misses the big picture. Soleimani may have been controversial, even a bloody “shadow commander”, but he served at the pleasure of Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Hosseini Khamenei, to protect and expand the regime’s interests in the Middle East. The killing of Soleimani is an attack on the Iranian state.

So why did the US resort to his assassination, why now and what is its endgame?

The Trump calculus

Several people in Trump’s close circle like former national security advisors, Michael Flynn and John Bolton, and “unofficial advisors” like Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, have all incessantly urged him to act militarily against Iran and push for regime change.

But for three years, Trump chose to ignore their advice, insisting that the US does not seek war with the Islamic republic. Instead, he slapped Tehran with tough sanctions aimed at crippling its economy, containing its regional ambitions and forcing it back to the negotiations table to sign another deal – a “Trump deal”.  

So, what changed?

Well, basically, the Trump administration realised its “maximum pressure” policy has failed. It may have hurt Iran but it did not isolate or deter a bellicose Iranian leadership.

Iran’s proxy attack on the US embassy in Baghdad earlier this week was a rude reminder of the humiliating 1979 takeover of the US embassy in Tehran that demoralised the Carter administration and the 2012 attack on the US diplomatic compound in Benghazi that bruised the Obama administration.

The Trump administration, which feared a repeat of this scenario in Baghdad, claims its response was meant to safeguard American lives from future attacks, not start war with Iran. Or, according to the sceptics, it was meant to safeguard the Trump presidency by deflecting attention from the impeachment during an election year.

Either way, the assassination is a clear departure from the policy of sanctions, showing Trump’s readiness to use US military might as much as its economic power.

Actions speak louder than words.

Iran’s strategy

From the outset, the Islamic republic rejected Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal and the imposition of sanctions as unacceptable bullying, and refused to sit by idly while US sanctions blocked the country’s vital oil exports, crippled its economy and bankrupted its military.

Tehran expanded its proxy attacks on US assets and allies in the area, including recent attacks on tankers in the Gulf and Saudi oil installations, leading up to this week’s attack on US positions in Iraq.

Tehran has also cultivated new strategic alliances with Russia and China, joining the two for war games in the Gulf of Oman in late December.

The assassination is not going to change any of these policies; in fact, it will merely accelerate them.

If history is any guide, Iran will absorb the attack at first and avoid an all-out war with far superior US military forces. Trump may have challenged Khamenei for a duel, but the supreme leader prefers fighting in the shadows.

So, respond, he will. His options are plentiful and his timetable is open-ended. This includes assassinations, covert operations, low-intensity warfare and oil and maritime disruptions in the Gulf region.

In other words, more of the same – much more.

This will especially be the case in Iraq, where Iran has long exploited US failure and retrenchment in order to shore up its allies and clients and increase its strategic leverage against the US.

And it may well do that again.

Vying for Iraq

Contrary to conventional wisdom and apocalyptical scenarios of World War III starting, the assassination of Soleimani may well prove to be Trump’s ticket out of Iraq, just as the assassination of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi was his ticket out of the Syrian conflict. This fits in perfectly with his desire for strategic redeployment in the Middle East to extract US troops and civilians from the local hotspots and provide the Pentagon with greater freedom to act against its enemies. This means more drone attacks, special forces operations and guided missile strikes with minimum risk for US personnel. 

It is nothing new for the US, which redeployed out of Lebanon following the 1983 bombing of the US Marine barracks, and pulled out of Somalia after the 1993 attack on US troops. Similarly, it is planning a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Of course, Iraq is different. It is a far bigger deal for the US after it invested billions of dollars and lost thousands of lives trying to keep hold of the country over the past 16 years. 

But as a businessman come statesman, Donald Trump is guided by a golden business rule that says: do not throw good money after bad, regardless of pride, oil or partners.

The question is: will Iran exploit this US tendency for retrenchment, or encourage its propensity for war?

Either way, Iraq and the rest of the divided Arab world will continue to suffer as a result, in accordance with the old Swahili proverb: when elephants fight and when they play, it is the grass that gets crushed.