More Uranium Found in the Iranian Nuclear Horns: Daniel 8

Uranium particles found at Iranian sites

Mar 5, 2021

Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, Rafael Mariano Grossi from Argentina, addresses the media during a news conference behind plexiglass shields after a meeting of the IAEA board of governors at the International Center in Vienna, Austria, Monday, March 1, 2021. Due to restrictions related to COVID-19, it will be organised as a virtual meeting from the IAEA. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Ronald Zak

BERLIN (AP) — Iran has agreed to sit down with international technical experts investigating the discovery of uranium particles at three former undeclared sites in the country, the head of the UN atomic watchdog said Thursday, after months of frustration at Tehran’s lack of a credible explanation.

The agreement came as three of the remaining signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — France, Germany and Britain — backed off the idea of a resolution criticizing Iran for its decision to start limiting access by International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to current facilities.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi told reporters in Vienna it was not up to him to say whether Iran’s move to hold talks with his technical experts was linked to the decision of the so-called E3 group, but suggested it was difficult to separate the political side of Iran’s nuclear program from the technical side.

The E3 had floated the idea of the resolution after Iran began restricting international inspections last week. After a last-minute trip to Tehran by Grossi, however, some access was preserved.

Russia and China — the other members of the nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — were reportedly against the resolution, saying it could antagonize Iran further.

Germany’s Foreign Ministry told The Associated Press it was common to “discuss all possible options for action” ahead of such meetings, and that despite dropping the resolution, the E3 still had concerns about Iran’s “serious violations” of the nuclear deal.

“Above all, we would like to support the Director General of the IAEA in his efforts to start talks with Iran regarding the open safeguards issues,” the ministry said.

Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA, Kazem Gharibabadi, tweeted after the decision that “wisdom prevails” and that the E3 had prevented unnecessary tension.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry applauded the move.

“Today’s development can maintain the path of diplomacy opened by Iran and the IAEA, and pave the way for full implementation of commitments by all parties to the nuclear deal,” spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.

The nuclear deal promised Iran economic incentives in return for the curbs on its nuclear program. President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal unilaterally in 2018, saying it needed to be renegotiated.

Pope Meets the Antichrist

Pope, top Iraq Shiite cleric deliver message of coexistence

Pope Francis thanked Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during violent times in Iraq.

NAJAF, Iraq — The video above is a message from Pope Francis for the people of Iraq released prior to his visit there.

Pope Francis walked through a narrow alley in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf for a historic meeting with the country’s top Shiite cleric, and together they delivered a powerful message of peaceful coexistence in a country still reeling from back-to-back conflicts over the past decade.

In a gesture both simple and profound, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani welcomed Francis into his spartan home. Afterward, he said religious authorities have a role in protecting Iraq’s Christians, and that Christians should live in peace and enjoy the same rights as other Iraqis. The Vatican said Francis thanked al-Sistani for having “raised his voice in defense of the weakest and most persecuted” during some of the most violent times in Iraq’s recent history

Al-Sistani, 90, is one of the most senior clerics in Shiite Islam, and his rare but powerful political interventions have helped shape present-day Iraq. He is a deeply revered figure in Shiite-majority Iraq and his opinions on religious and other matters are sought by Shiites worldwide.

Later in the day, the pope met with Iraqi religious leaders in the shadow of a symbol of the country’s ancient past — the 6,000-year-old ziggurat in the Plains of Ur, also the traditional birthplace of Abraham, the biblical patriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Such interfaith forums are a staple of Francis’ international trips. But in strife-torn Iraq the televised gathering of figures from across the country’s religious spectrum was nearly unheard of: From Shiite and Sunni Muslims to Christians, Yazidis and Zoroastrians and tiny, lesser known, ancient and esoteric faiths like the Kakai, a sect among ethnic Kurds, Mandaeans and Sabaean Mandaeans. Missing from the picture was a representative of Iraq’s once thriving, now nearly decimated Jewish community, though they were invited, the Vatican said.

Together, the day’s two main events gave symbolic and practical punch to the central message of Francis’ visit, calling for Iraq to embrace its diversity. It is a message he hopes can preserve the place of the thinning Christian population in the tapestry.

Still, it faces a tough sell in a country where every community has been traumatized by sectarian bloodshed and discrimination and where politicians have tied their power to sectarian interests.

In al-Sistani, Francis sought the help of an ascetic, respected figure who is immersed in those sectarian identities but is also a powerful voice standing above them.

Their meeting in al-Sistani’s humble home, the first ever between a pope and a grand ayatollah, was months in the making, with every detail painstakingly negotiated beforehand.

Early Saturday, the 84-year-old pontiff, travelling in a bullet-proof Mercedes-Benz, pulled up along Najaf’s narrow and column-lined Rasool Street, which culminates at the golden-domed Imam Ali Shrine, one of the most revered sites in Shiite Islam.

He then walked the few meters (yards) down an alley to al-Sistani’s home. As a masked Francis entered the doorway, a few white doves were released in a sign of peace. He emerged just under an hour later, still limping from an apparent flare-up of sciatica nerve pain that makes walking difficult.

A religious official in Najaf called the 40-minute meeting “very positive.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.

The official said al-Sistani, who normally remains seated for visitors, stood to greet Francis at the door of his room — a rare honor. The pope removed his shoes before entering al-Sistani’s room and was served tea and a plastic bottle of water.

Al-Sistani and Francis sat close to one another, without masks. Al-Sistani spoke for most of the meeting, the official said. Al-Sistani, who rarely appears in public or even on television, wore black robes and a black turban, in simple contrast to Francis’ all-white cassock.

The official said there was some concern about the fact that the pope had met with so many people the day before. Francis has received the coronavirus vaccine but al-Sistani has not. The aging ayatollah, who underwent surgery for a fractured thigh last year, looked tired.

After the meeting ended, Francis paused before leaving the room to have a last look, the official said.

In a statement issued by his office afterward, al-Sistani affirmed that Christians should “live like all Iraqis, in security and peace and with full constitutional rights.” He pointed out the “role that the religious authority plays in protecting them, and others who have also suffered injustice and harm in the events of past years.”

Al-Sistani wished Francis and the followers of the Catholic Church happiness and thanked him for taking the trouble to visit him in Najaf, the statement said.

Iraqis cheered the meeting, and the prime minister responded to it by declaring March 6 a National Day of Tolerance and Cooexistence in Iraq.

”We welcome the pope’s visit to Iraq and especially to the holy city of Najaf and his meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” said Najaf resident Haidar Al-Ilyawi. “It is a historic visit and hope it will be good for Iraq and the Iraqi people.”

Iraq’s Christians, battered by violence and discrimination, hope a show of solidarity from al-Sistani will help secure their place in Iraq and ease intimidation from Shiite militiamen against their community.

Al-Sistani’s voice is a powerful one, often for moderation.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, his opinions forced American administrators to alter their transition plans, and his approval opened the way for Iraq’s Shiites to participate in force in post-Saddam Hussein elections. In 2019, as anti-government demonstrations gripped the country, his sermon led to the resignation of then-prime minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi.

But his word is not law. After 2003, he repeatedly preached calm and restraint as the Shiite majority came under attack by Sunni extremists. Yet brutal Shiite reprisals against Sunni civilians fed a years-long cycle of sectarian violence.

His 2014 fatwa, or religious edict, calling on able-bodied men to join the security forces in fighting the Islamic State group helped ensure the extremists’ defeat. But it also swelled the ranks of Shiite militias, many closely tied to Iran and now blamed for discrimination against Sunnis and Christians.

Later, Pope Francis evoked the common reverence for Abraham to speak against religious violence at the inter-faith gathering at the Plains of Ur, near the southern city of Nasiriyah.

“From this place, where faith was born, from the land of our father Abraham, let us affirm that God is merciful and that the greatest blasphemy is to profane his name by hating our brothers and sisters,” Francis said. “Hostility, extremism and violence are not born of a religious heart: they are betrayals of religion.”

The Vatican said Iraqi Jews were invited to the event but did not attend, without providing further details. Iraq’s ancient Jewish community was decimated in the 20th century by violence and mass emigration fueled by the Arab-Israeli conflict, and only a handful remain.

Ali Thijeel, a Nasiriyah resident who attended the event, said he hoped the pope’s visit would encourage investment in the area to attract pilgrims and tourists. “This is what we were waiting for,” he said. “This is a message to the government and politicians. They should take care of this city and pay attention to our history.”

Francis’ visit — his first international trip since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in Iraq. Despite concern about infections, Francis celebrated Mass in a packed, stuffy Chaldean Catholic Cathedral later Saturday in Baghdad that featured chanted Scripture readings and a maskless choir singing hymns.

“Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here too have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus,” Francis told the faithful, who did wear masks.

___

Abdul-Zahra reported from Baghdad. Associated Press journalists Anmar Khalil in Najaf, Iraq, and Samya Kullab in Baghdad contributed.

The Pope Visits the Iraqi Horn

Mar 5, 2021,

09:04am EST

Photos: Pope Francis Arrives In Iraq, Marking The Nation’s First Papal Visit

Palash GhoshForbes Staff

TOPLINE Pope Francis arrived in Baghdad on Friday—the first ever papal visit to Iraq—despite the Covid pandemic and ongoing violence in a country with a dwindling Christian population.

ROME, ITALY – MARCH 05: Pope Francis waves as he

Pope Francis, 84, arrived in Baghdad at 2 pm local time, along with his security detail, aides and about 75 journalists, for the three-day trip.

To protect the pontiff, the Iraq government has deployed thousands of security personnel, a few days after the al-Asad airbase in western Iraq which hosts U.S. and coalition troops was targeted by at least 10 rocket attacks by Iran-backed militias

Babylon the Great’s Nuclear Triad Looming

Joe Biden’s Nuclear Triad

Looming choices on doomsday weapons

March 04, 2021

By Mark Thompson Filed under analysis

An unarmed Minuteman III ICBM, one of the three legs of the U.S. nuclear triad, being tested off California last year. (Photo: U.S. Dept of Defense / Air Force Senior Airman Clayton Wear)

Believe it or not, we’re currently amid a triad of nuclear triads. How President Joe Biden juggles them will make clear if the atomic status quo continues on autopilot, as it has for 70 years, or if he’s willing to put his hand on the tiller and lighten the nuclear shadow that most of us have lived under our entire lives.

The U.S. nuclear triad is a Cold War construct, consisting of three “legs”—bombers, submarines, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). It is capable of delivering nuclear weapons pretty much anywhere in the world at any time. Now there’s a second triad consisting of the world’s big-league nuclear players. Originally limited to the U.S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia), the Trump administration pushed hard to incorporate China into the superpower arms control club. But with only an estimated 320 warheads, compared to the 5,800 held by the U.S. and 6,375 held by Russia, China wasn’t interested. Nonetheless, China’s push for a more capable nuclear force makes it a major nuclear player.

Finally, there’s Biden’s nuclear triad, which consists of three major upcoming choices that could act as a brake on nuclear business-as-usual—or speed up the arms race among Washington, Moscow, and Beijing.

Pentagon plans on spending $140 billion for a new crop of ICBMs, another $100 billion for B-21 bombers, and $128 billion for new submarines.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s triad seems frozen in place. Its backers assert that each leg is vital to deterrence. Scrapping any leg reduces deterrence, they say, and therefore makes nuclear war more likely. No. What makes the horror of nuclear war more likely are arsenals of nuclear weapons crammed into missiles and bombs, linked by good, but not perfect, command-and-control systems, operated by humans as fallible as you or me.

Unfortunately, the nation has treated its nuclear force the same way it has treated its infrastructure: Both are falling apart. So, after decades of kicking the warheads down the road, the Pentagon wants to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad simultaneously. It plans on spending up to $140 billion for a new crop of ICBMs, nearly $100 billion for B-21 bombers, and $128 billion for new submarines. The cost of buying and operating these weapons: Nearly $1.7 trillion through 2046, according to the independent Arms Control Association.

Biden could take a step back from the abyss by scrapping one leg of the nuclear triad. There is consensus that the land-based ICBMs are the weakest leg of the triad, and one that can safely be lopped off. (Even former Defense Secretary William Perry says so.) But ICBM boosters, sensitive to that domestic threat, have launched a campaign to make sure that the 400 Minuteman III ICBMs now sprinkled across Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming are replaced with 400 Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles. Northrop Grumman landed a $13.3 billion contract in September to begin developing the new ICBM. They are supposed to start replacing the 1970s-era LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBMs in 2029. That award has raised eyebrows among the too-many-eggs-in-one-basket crowd, seeing as Northrop is also building the new bomber leg of the triad and the solid-rocket motors that power the Navy’s nuclear-tipped missiles.

Airmen ready a Minuteman III ICBM at Vandenberg Air Force Base for test firing. (Photo: U.S. Dept of Defense / Air Force Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)

The new ICBM’s biggest supporters are those who build it and their Capitol Hill chorus. In fact, Northrop has assembled a nifty list of its backers, including the Senate ICBM Coalition. “You’re going to get a lot of pressure … to delay the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent and maybe even shrink it,” Senator Kevin Cramer, a North Dakota Republican, told now-Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at his January 19 confirmation hearing. “Do you think we can extend the life of the Minutemen III even if that means unilaterally decreasing our nuclear deterrent?”

Austin was non-committal. “I really need to sit down,” he responded, “and take a look at where we are in that modernization effort.”

U.S. ICBM silos are sitting ducks for enemy attack. But that’s their purpose: They serve as a “nuclear sponge” designed to force the enemy (Russia or China) to destroy them in the opening volley of a nuclear war. That would prevent their use against the attacking state (China or Russia). It also would force the attacking state (Russia or China) to waste precious warheads across the vast expanse of the American High Plains instead of raining them down on more critical military targets or on heavily populated cities. The ICBMs are also on high alert, ratcheting up the pressure to “use or lose them” if an alert of incoming enemy missiles, false or otherwise, is detected.

There is a consensus that the land-based ICBMs are the weakest leg of the triad, and one that can safely be lopped off.

This is the strange calculus of nuclear deterrence, which is rooted in a bizarre war game no one hopes ever plays out. Yes, it is as stupid as it sounds. And the U.S. public agrees. A recent poll by the Federation of American Scientists showed that most of those surveyed support alternatives to replacing the ICBMs: 30% supported upgrading the current ICBMs, 20% wanted to do away with the ICBMs entirely, and 10% called for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Barely one in four, 26%, backed replacing the existing ICBMs with new missiles. Unfortunately, those who want to scale back the U.S. nuclear arsenal don’t seem to care as much about the issue as those who have vested interests in it and are dedicated to seeing it continue.

The military-industrial-congressional-think-tank complex asserts that any decision not to replace the Minutemen would hurt U.S. nuclear deterrence (that’s why “Deterrent” is in its name, although that’s sure to be replaced with a friendlier official nickname before long). Like the boy who cried wolf, triad backers have been saying for decades that an enemy might be able to hunt down and destroy the U.S. Navy’s “boomers,” those mammoth subs that silently carry their nuclear weapons beneath the waves. Yet the subs remain hidden, and there is no threat to them on the horizon. And the bombers remain flexible. Unlike the ICBMs, they can be dispatched worldwide amid global tensions—and recalled after launch.

That’s why there’s a growing realization that the triad is a relic that can safely be trimmed to a sub-and-bomber dyad. If that’s deemed too radical, the existing Minuteman force can be upgraded. That’s what has been done in the past and is currently being done now at one of the three bases where the ICBMs stand alert. But the Pentagon is not interested. “You cannot extend the life of the Minuteman III,” Admiral Charles Richard, the Pentagon’s top nuclear warfighter, flatly said January 5.

All the more reason, then, to amputate this leg.

Although the fate of the ICBMs is center stage, there are two smaller recent nuclear decisions that Biden could reverse. In 2019, the Navy deployed a new low-yield nuclear warhead aboard its sub fleet (the USS Tennessee was the first submarine to carry it, according to the Federation of American Scientists). This new W76-2 warhead has an explosive yield of about five kilotons, a third of the power that destroyed Hiroshima, and is deployed atop Trident missiles, whose other warhead options are 90 or 455 kilotons. “This supplemental capability strengthens deterrence and provides the United States a prompt, more survivable low-yield strategic weapon,” a top Pentagon civilian said a year ago.

The USS Tennessee reportedly was the first U.S. Navy submarine deployed with a small nuclear warhead aboard. (Photo: U.S. Navy / Navy Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber)

That language suggests the U.S. seeks a nuanced nuclear war-fighting capability, where adversaries can lob warheads of various sizes at one another. Backers maintain it deters war by showing the Russians they can’t “escalate to de-escalate”—use small nuclear weapons to end a war on terms favorable to them, confident that the U.S. wouldn’t respond with big nuclear warheads. “Fielding the W76-2 is designed to close a capability gap that threatened to give Vladimir Putin an opportunity to back the United States into a corner where capitulation or full-scale nuclear war would be a president’s only options,” a nuclear expert argued last March.

Finally, the Air Force is developing a Long Range Stand Off (LRSO) nuclear missile in an effort to keep its B-52 bombers in the nuclear fight (they are far too big, slow, and un-stealthy to actually drop bombs on enemy targets without being shot down). This long range missile, slated to start replacing the AGM-86B cruise missile in about a decade, is expected to have a range of more than 1,500 miles. It is supposed to do a better job at reaching targets because of its radar-eluding stealthiness, and to find the targets even if GPS signals are jammed. Like the Navy’s mini-nuke, the long range missile’s W80-4 warhead would be relatively puny. “We need the targeting flexibility and lower-yield options that the LRSO provides,” a Pentagon official has said.

A team at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico work on the W80-4 warhead program for the Air Force’s Long Range Stand Off missile. (Photo: Sandia National Laboratory / Randy Wong)

But the U.S. already has plenty of pint-sized nuclear weapons, beyond these two new additions to its arsenal. What the new additions really do is highlight the inanity of viewing a prospective nuclear war as a tit-for-tat deterrence exercise, where fakes and feints can be counted on to keep the big guns holstered forever. “We don’t care about a fair fight. We’re going to kick their ass if they take us on,” said Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “So, why we’re obsessing about a proportional response, I don’t know.”

The post-Cold War triad bolsters the notion that nuclear war is deterrable, or—failing that—winnable, so long as the nation continues to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into it. But every day that delusion persists, the chances grow that our long-standing nuclear shadow could explode into a war pitching the world into an even darker atomic eclipse.

Too dramatic? No more so than a handful of terrorists destroying a pair of the country’s tallest skyscrapers. Or one of the world’s richest nation’s having one of the poorest showings in handling a global pandemic. Or U.S. citizens storming the Capitol seeking to overturn an election whose outcome they don’t like.

That’s hardly a reassuring track record. In fact, it should make one wonder how long can the world’s A-bomb luck last. Candidate Biden declared that President Biden “will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.”

Your move, Mr. President.

US Airbase Hit by Rockets in Iraq

Rockets Hit Iraqi Base Where U.S. Troops Are Stationed

At least 10 rockets were fired on the Ayn Al Asad air base one week after U.S. airstrikes on Iran-backed militia positions along the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The Ayn Al Asad air base in Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2019. It is one of the last remaining bases in Iraq where U.S. troops are stationed.

Nasser Nasser/Associated Press

By Jane Arraf and Helene Cooper

March 3, 2021
Updated 2:59 p.m. ET

DOHUK, Iraq — A barrage of rockets was fired on Wednesday at the Ayn Al Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar Province — one of the last remaining Iraqi bases where U.S. forces are stationed.

An Iraqi security statement and one released by the Pentagon said 10 rockets were launched toward the sprawling base.

A senior Defense Department official said a U.S. contractor had died of an apparent heart attack during the rocket barrage. Officials in Washington did not identify the group responsible for the attack.

The Pentagon said in a statement that the missile defense system at Al Asad “engaged in defense of our forces” and added, “We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the individual who died.”

President Biden was briefed on the attacks, his top spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, told reporters at the White House on Wednesday.

Ms. Psaki said officials were leaving their options open, pending an investigation of the incident, but she acknowledged a caution against making “a hasty or ill-informed decision” that “plays into the hands of our adversaries.”

Even though the contractor who died did so of a heart attack, Mr. Biden may feel he needs to respond, officials said. “If we determine a response is necessary, we will do so at a time and manner of our choosing,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.

The Sabareen news outlet, which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias, said three U.S. soldiers had been killed in the attack — a report completely at odds with the official Defense Department account.

The assault came just under a week after the United States attacked Iran-backed militia targets at the Syria-Iraq border. Those airstrikes, ordered by the Biden administration, hit a collection of buildings on the Syrian side of a border crossing. Mr. Biden had originally approved two targets inside Syria, administration officials said.

The Iran-backed militia Kataib Hezbollah said one of its fighters had been killed in those airstrikes. It identified him as a member of Popular Mobilization Forces that are officially part of Iraqi security forces helping prevent infiltration by the Islamic State.

The second strike Mr. Biden approved was aborted at the last minute after American forces learned that there were women and children at that site, also in Syria, administration officials said. Two F-15E Strike Eagles dropped seven 500-pound satellite-guided bombs on nine buildings at Abu Kamal, the first site, the officials said.

Mr. Biden chose targets in Syria to avoid political blowback on the Iraqi government, officials said.

The assault on the base on Wednesday came just days before a visit by Pope Francis to Iraq beginning on Friday — the first ever papal visit to the war-ravaged country.

Iraqi security forces are on heightened alert, with Baghdad going into full lockdown on Friday. Security forces have been deployed in large numbers to all of the cities Francis plans to visit on his three-day trip.

The attackers who targeted the base on Wednesday used BM-21 “Grad” rockets, fired from about five miles from the base, officials said.

A local paramilitary leader near the base said he had heard the impact of the rockets and then gone to investigate. The leader, Sheikh Qutri Kahlan al-Obeidi, said he had found “a burned vehicle — a Mitsubishi pickup,” rigged with rocket launchers, that appeared to have been used in the attack.

No group took responsibility, but any additional deaths will add pressure to the Biden administration to respond, even as the pope’s visit could complicate any immediate military escalation.

The last major assault on the base was a little over a year ago, when dozens of U.S. soldiers and support personnel were injured in a missile attack. That assault was in retaliation for the U.S. drone killing of Iran’s top security and intelligence commander, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, who led the powerful Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

Jane Arraf reported from Dohuk, and Helene Cooper from Washington. Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, and Eric Schmitt and Glenn Thrush from Washington.

The Obama Deal Won’t Be Restarted Soon

Former U.S. ambassador doesn’t see Iran nuclear deal happening this year as escalations mount

Natasha Turak

A series of back-and-forth retaliatory moves and antagonizing statements between Washington and Tehran are putting the Biden administration’s plans for a return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal into greater peril by the day.

“You can’t act with impunity. Be careful,” President Joe Biden told reporters Friday, describing his message to Iran after he ordered airstrikes against buildings in eastern Syria that the Pentagon says were being used by Iranian-backed militia.

The strikes were in retaliation for a Feb. 15 attack that saw rockets hit Erbil International Airport in Iraq, which houses coalition military forces. The attack, which Western and Iraqi officials attribute to Iranian-backed militia forces, killed one contractor with the U.S.-led coalition and injured several others, including an American service member. Iran rejects accusations of its involvement.

None of this bodes well for what the Biden administration considers a foreign policy priority: a return to the Iranian nuclear deal, also known as the JCPOA, that was penned under the Obama administration with several world powers and lifted economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.

The deal has all but collapsed since the Trump administration unilaterally ditched it in 2018 and re-imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran that have crippled its economy.

Whether or when the deal can be revived is a critical question for the Biden team’s foreign policy and legacy in the Middle East. Former U.S. diplomat Joseph Westphal, who served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia during Obama’s second term, doesn’t see it happening in the near or even medium term.

“I don’t think we’ll see a deal” this year, Westphal told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Monday. “I think we may see the start of negotiations to get to a deal. The end of the year is coming fast. And I think these things take a lot of time.”

An invitation and a rejection

Earlier in February, the Biden team took a major step in offering to start informal negotiations with Tehran, signaling the first U.S. diplomatic outreach in more than four years. Iran’s leadership over the weekend rejected the invitation.

The attempt at some sort of rapprochement is a tricky one for Biden. He faces substantial domestic opposition on the Iran deal and doesn’t want to appear “soft” on the country’s regime, especially at a time when Iran is ramping up its uranium enrichment and stockpiling in violation of the deal, moves that bring it closer to bomb-making capability.  

Tehran insists that this is in response to U.S. sanctions, and that its actions can be reversed if the sanctions are lifted first; Biden, meanwhile, says he’ll only lift the economic penalties if Tehran walks back its violations. So the two are at an impasse.

Tehran last week limited the U.N. nuclear watchdog’s access to its nuclear activities, putting the deal in further peril, though the inspectors still retain some access. And on Monday, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of being behind an attack on one of its tankers off the coast of Oman on Friday. Iran denies any involvement.

Attempts to level the playing field

Still, not everyone believes a return to the JCPOA can’t happen this year. Ayham Kamel, Middle East practice head at political risk consultancy the Eurasia Group, sees the current escalations as an attempt to even the playing field.

“There is no easy path for JCPOA plus. I think whatever is happening now in the region — some of the escalation in Iraq, some of the escalation in Iran, even the Iranians rejecting the first offer for direct negotiations with the U.S. — I think that’s all pre-negotiation negotiation,” Kamel said.

“It’s an effort to really balance the field, the Iranians trying to get the maximum that they could out of this process. The JCPOA will happen, re-entry will happen at some point this year in my view, but it will be tough.”

Kamel added that the Iranian leadership itself remains divided over returning to the accord, as it weighs the need for economic relief from sanctions and its opposition to cowing to U.S. demands.

“The supreme leader wants a deal, but many in the IRGC (Revolutionary Guard Corps) do not necessarily want to see a weak negotiation start,” he said, referencing Iran’s powerful and ideological parallel military force. “They want negotiations to start from a strong position, and the regional escalation is all part of that.”

Others believe a return to the deal is inevitable simply because Iran’s economy has been so devastated by the sanctions. Its currency is in free fall, its exports have been slashed, and Iranians are struggling to afford food and medicine.

“I think, ultimately, a deal is possible,” Richard Goldberg of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told CNBC earlier this month, “because the Iranians need money.”

Pope Prepares to go to the Iranian Horn

Intense preparations before pontiff meets Iraqi ayatollah

By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA and SAMYA KULLAB , Associated Press

March 03, 2021 – 7:40 AM

BAGHDAD — In Iraq’s holiest city, a pontiff will meet a revered ayatollah and make history with a message of coexistence in a place plagued by bitter divisions.

One is the chief pastor of the world-wide Catholic Church, the other a pre-eminent figure in Shiite Islam whose opinion holds powerful sway on the Iraqi street and beyond. Their encounter will resonate across Iraq, even crossing borders into neighboring, mainly Shiite Iran.

The Iran Deal is Dying

Iran Refuses U.S. Nuclear Talks As Tensions Rise in Persian Gulf, Syria and Iraq

By David Brennan On 3/1/21 at 5:51 AM EST

Fresh violence in the Persian Gulf and Syria is ratcheting up regional tensions as the U.S. and Iran remain locked in a stalemate over the revival of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action nuclear deal.

This weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for last week’s explosion aboard an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman. His accusation came just after Syria reported an Israeli missile attack launched from the annexed Golan Heights at targets around the capital Damascus on Sunday night.

The incidents follow tit-for-tat actions by Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups and U.S. forces in the region over the past month, which threatened to hamstring the multilateral efforts to revive the JCPOA.

The spike in violence comes as Tehran continues to refuse talks with the U.S. over the JCPOA, demanding instead that all sanctions are lifted before any further negotiations.

Netanyahu said on Monday that Thursday night’s attack on the MV Helios Ray vehicle-carrier “was indeed an operation by Iran. That is clear.” Asked whether Israel would retaliate, he replied: “You know my policy. Iran is Israel’s biggest enemy. I am determined to fend it off. We are striking at it all over the region.”

Iran denied the claim, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Saeed Khatibzadeh telling reporters Monday: “The security of the Persian Gulf is extremely important for Iran.” But Tehran has been implicated in similar attacks in recent years, and international shipping in the strategic waterways off its coast offer Iran easy and high-profile targets for limited escalation and retaliation.

Israel is already staunchly opposed to the revival of the JCPOA, claiming the deal is deeply flawed and will only embolden the regime in Tehran to expand its weapons research programs and use of regional proxy militias. Netanyahu said last week: “With or without an agreement we will do everything so [Iran is not] armed with nuclear weapons.”

But the Biden administration is pushing ahead with its plans to return to the deal despite opposition from regional allies and conservatives in the U.S. The White House and Tehran have both said they want the deal to succeed, but the two sides are stuck in a stalemate over who will take the first step.

Iran has expanded its nuclear program beyond what is allowed under the JCPOA since Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and began applying ever-harsher sanctions on the country.

Iran wants Biden to lift these Trump-era sanctions before it scales back its nuclear activity. But the Biden administration says it will not lift any sanctions until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA.

The Biden administration has said it is now willing to meet with JCPOA signatories to find a way to resurrect the deal. The White House hopes the JCPOA can become the basis for a “longer and stronger” agreement placing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional militia network; two key concerns among JCPOA critics.

The European Union has also suggested unofficial talks between the parties as a prelude to full negotiations. The EU and the three European signatories of the deal—Germany, France and the U.K.—could serve as referees for a phased return to the deal for both the U.S. and Iran.

But Khatibzadeh said Sunday that it is too early for talks. “In view of the recent stances and measures taken by the United States and the three European countries, the Islamic Republic of Iran believes this is not a good time for holding an unofficial meeting on the accord,” he said in a statement.

“There has been no change in the United States’ stances and behavior, and the Biden administration has not only failed to abandon Trump’s failed policy of maximum pressure, but has also failed to declare its commitment to the implementation of all its obligations under the JCPOA,” the spokesperson added.

“The path forward is quite clear: the U.S. must end its unlawful and unilateral sanctions and return to its JCPOA commitments,” Khatibzadeh said.

This picture taken on February 28, 2021 shows a view of the Israeli-owned Bahamian-flagged MV Helios Ray cargo ship docked in Dubai’s Mina Rashid cruise terminal. GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

Iran Enriches More Uranium: Daniel 8

Iran enriching uranium in second set of centrifuges in Natanz: IAEA

Updated 03 February 2021 Arab News February 02, 2021 16:33

JEDDAH: Iran has again increased enrichment of uranium at its Natanz underground nuclear plant, UN atomic watchdog inspectors reported on Tuesday.

And Tehran boasted that it now had two clusters of advanced centrifuges running at the site that would almost quadruple its ability to produce fissile material.

“Thanks to our diligent nuclear scientists, two cascades of 348 IR2m centrifuges with almost four times the capacity of IR1 are now running successfully in Natanz,” said Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  “Installation of two cascades of IR6 centrifuges has also been started in Fordow. There’s more to come soon.”

The increased enrichment is the largest breach so far of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of economic sanctions. Donald Trump withdrew the US from the deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, since when Iran has gradually ramped up its violations of the accord’s terms.

Tehran has started enriching uranium to higher purity, returning to the 20 percent it achieved before the deal from a previous maximum of 4.5 percent. The deal sets a limit of 3.67 percent, far below the 90 percent required to build a weapons.

Under the agreement, Iran can refine uranium only at Natanz, with first-generation IR1 centrifuges with uranium hexafluoride (UF6) feedstock. Last year it began enriching there with a cluster of much more efficient IR2m machines and in December said it would install three more.

“Iran has completed the installation of one of these three cascades, containing 174 IR2m centrifuges, and on Jan. 30 it began feeding the cascade with UF6,” the IAEA said on Tuesday.

The agency later confirmed that enrichment had begun with the second cascade.

The increased uranium enrichment ramps up pressure on the new administration in Washington over the future of the JCPOA. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have said the US would return to compliance with the deal if Iran did too, but the US also wants a “longer and stronger” agreement that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile program and other issues.

The Trump administration had “seriously damaged Iran’s nuclear project,” Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Tuesday. “In terms of enrichment, they are in a situation of breaking out in around half a year,” he said. “As for nuclear weaponry, the range is around one or two years.”

Iran Blows Up Israeli Ship

Israel says initial assessment is Iran behind explosion on its ship

February 28, 2021

JERUSALEM: Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday his “initial assessment” was that Iran was responsible for an explosion on an Israeli-owned ship in the Gulf of Oman.

The ship, a vehicle-carrier named MV Helios Ray, suffered an explosion between Thursday and Friday morning. A US defence official in Washington said the blast left holes above the waterline on both sides of the hull. The cause was not immediately clear and no casualties were reported.

“Iran is looking to hit Israeli infrastructure and Israeli citizens,” Gantz told the public broadcaster Kan. “The location of the ship in relative close proximity to Iran raises the notion, the assessment, that it is the Iranians.”

“Right now, at an initial assessment level, given the proximity and the context – that is my assessment,” Gantz said, adding a deeper investigation still had to be carried out.

There was no immediate comment from Iranian officials.

The ship is owned by a Tel Aviv company called Ray Shipping through a company registered in the Isle of Man, according to a UN shipping database.

Israeli Channel 13 News said defence officials believed the Iranian navy had launched a precision strike to avoid casualties, firing two missiles at a part of the ship that if damaged would not have sunk the vessel.

It added an Israeli delegation was en route to Dubai, where the ship was docked, to investigate.

Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the report.

Kan named the owner as Rami Ungar and quoted him on Friday as saying: “The damage is two holes, diameter approximately 1.5 metres, but it is not yet clear to us if this was caused by missile fire or mines that were attached to the ship.”

Iran said in November it would make a “calculated” response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist, which it blamed on Israel.

Tensions have risen in the Gulf region since the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 after then-president Donald Trump withdrew Washington from a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.

Washington has blamed Iran for a number of attacks on shipping in strategic Gulf waters, notably on four vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers, in May 2019. Iran has denied carrying out those attacks.