US defense, intel warn against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards as terrorist group – media

Top military officials have cautioned the White House against designating Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group, arguing the move would endanger American troops in Iraq, where the Corps is also fighting Islamic State, US media revealed.

The concerns were raised recently by defense and intelligence officials at the highest levels, according to the Washington Post, citing unnamed sources in the administration. 

The news comes amid emerging reports that the White House is preparing to list Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – by far the most powerful national security and defense entity in Iran – as a terrorist organization. The proposal, possibly coming in the form of an executive order by the Trump administration, would prohibit any material support or other kinds of contact with the sanctioned entity.

Given the extraordinary nature of the proposal and its potential impact on Middle Eastern affairs, the issue was still under debate, a senior administration official told the newspaper.

Despite pressure from hardliners in the Trump administration who champion a tough stance against Iran, dissenting voices are still making themselves heard. “I don’t think it’s so much defense and intelligence; I think it’s ourselves,” the official said.

“There are so many second, third and fifth order of facts with every decision, as we see it, and so I think that this is an area where, rightly so, we have to be very smart,” the official added. “This all has to do with [Iran’s] behavior. What we have to do is figure out what are the right things to consider. We consider a lot of things. What we actually decide to do is different.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to comment on the report, telling journalists on Wednesday that “there is no one who can question the president’s commitment to fully attacking and addressing the threat that we face from radical Islamic terrorism… The first step is knowing and proclaiming who the enemy is.”

With that in mind, US defense officials are concerned that the designation could affect the uneasy contact the US military maintains with Shiite militias in Iraq that are organized by the Quds Force unit of the Revolutionary Guards.

According to the Washington Post, there is a tacit agreement – negotiated through the Iraqi government – between the US contingent in Iraq and the Shiite militias, allowing them to avoid clashes. However, the agreement is fragile and could possibly lead to attacks on American forces, officials said.

While the designation could favor rulers in the Gulf – with many of them accusing Tehran of forming a ‘Shia crescent’ to undermine the Sunni monarchies – it would also strengthen Iranian hardliners in their internal dispute with moderate President Hassan Rouhani, whose cabinet negotiated the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal with several major world powers, including the US.

If issued, the executive order would create the first known instance of designating a foreign government institution as a terrorist entity. The IRGC is the guardian of Iran’s internal security and a powerful yet independent military organization that includes its own army, navy and air forces as well as special forces and intelligence units.

Created by Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution to safeguard the ruling regime, the Corps is said to comprise more than 120,000 active personnel. Throughout the past years, the Revolutionary Guard has been deployed abroad, including in neighboring Iraq and Syria, where it is engaged in fighting Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL).

The Corps’ elite Quds Force has already been designated as a terrorist organization by the US Department of Treasury, prohibiting transactions between the group and US nationals, and freezing any assets under American jurisdiction. While little is reliably known about the Quds Force, the group is believed to conduct high-risk intelligence, sabotage and special operations against Iran’s adversaries.

Last week the US administration imposed new sanctions against 25 Iranian nationals and entities in response to a ballistic missile test. Iran itself is one of three countries on the State Department’s notorious list of so-called ‘state sponsors of terrorism.’ The other nations on the list are Sudan and Syria.

Somewhat ironically, Iran is contributing military advisers, troops and materiel to the armed forces of Syria, where a bloody war against Islamist extremists has been raging since 2011.

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Iran’s Khamenei: Trump ‘shows real face of America’

In his first speech since the inauguration of Donald Trump as US president, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Republican has shown the real face of America to the world.

“We are thankful to [Trump] for making our life easy as he showed the real face of America,” Khamenei told a meeting of military commanders in Tehran, according to his website.

“During his election campaign and after that, he confirmed what we have been saying for more than 30 years about the political, economic, moral and social corruption in the US ruling system,” he added.

Khamenei blasted Trump days after he imposed new sanctions against Iran over its development of ballistic missiles. Trump has also criticized a nuclear deal with Iran negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama, which the new administration reportedly seeks to renegotiate to be more to its liking.

The Iranian leader was skeptical about the deal in the first place, but still endorsed sealing the agreement. Khamenei has since criticized the US for continuing pressure on Iran, which he believes violates the spirit of the nuclear accord.

The speech on Tuesday came in preparation for the celebration of the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran later this week. Khamenei said Trump’s America will not be able to force Tehran into submission.

“No enemy can paralyze the Iranian nation,” he said. “[Trump] says 'You should be afraid of me.' No! The Iranian people will respond to his words on February 10 and will show their stance against such threats.”

Trumps’ first move as US president met condemnations from many Americans as well as foreign politicians. Critics say moves like banning entry from seven predominantly Muslim nations, including Iran, which had been imposed by the White House, are inherently un-American.

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German Federal Chancellor Criticizes Trump's Migration Measures

German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the temporary veto imposed by US President Donald Trump on the arrival of citizens of several Muslim-majority nations.

'Merkel is convinced that the determined war against terrorism does not justify putting people under general suspicion based on a particular provenance or religion,' said on Sunday German Cabinet spokesman Steffen Seibert.

According to Seibert, who published a statement by the chancellor on Twitter, Merkel regrets the decision of the US government and expressed this in the 45-minute telephone conversation held on Saturday with the new occupant of the White House.

The German spokesman explained that his government will now analyze the consequences that the measures imposed by Trump have for German citizens with dual nationality.

On Friday, the US president signed an executive order banning refugees from entering the country for four months, as well as delivering visas to citizens of Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days. The goal, in his view, is to keep radical terrorists outside the United States.

The provisions now generate rejection by the international community.

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Kerry’s Mid-East speech will ‘ensure chaos lasts after Obama admin’ – Israeli minister

The outgoing US secretary of state is to remark on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday. Israel’s security minister called the intention “pathetic” and accused John Kerry of “trying to make chaos” that will last past his tenure.

The US State Department announced on Tuesday night that Kerry will deliver remarks on the state of the Middle East peace process and why America abstained during a UN Security Council vote on a resolution criticizing Israel’s construction of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Delivered less than a month before President Barack Obama steps down, the speech is expected to be the last work from his administration on the decades-old conflict. After Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton as secretary of state in 2003, he made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority and pushed for direct negotiations. However, they didn’t last the nine months they were expected to, collapsing in April 2014 without any tangible result. In June of that year, Israel launched a 50-day military campaign in Gaza.

Commenting on the upcoming speech, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said it was “pathetic to present a [peace] plan at the last minute when [Kerry] hasn't managed in changing anything for his entire time in office.”

“It's unfortunate that the Obama Administration, that erred for years in the Middle East, is trying to make sure that the chaos will last far past its tenure,” Erdan said late on Tuesday night, as cited by the Jerusalem Post.

“Kerry's speech on parameters right before the end of his tenure will make sure that the Palestinians won't agree to any sort of negotiations [with Israel] in the coming years and will [put] off chances of advancing peace.”

The spat comes days after the US abstained at a UN Security Council vote, allowing other members pass a resolution criticizing Israel for the continued construction of settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

Washington’s failure to veto the draft, as it routinely did with other UNSC votes targeting Israel over the decades, angered the Israeli government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the Obama administration of orchestrating the passage of the damning resolution.

The US denied the accusation, saying there was “nothing pre-cooked” about it.

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Saudis, Iran Dash Hopes for OPEC Oil Deal in Algeria

The Saudi and Iranian economies depend heavily on oil, but Iran is seeing the pressure easing as it emerges from years of sanctions.

Saudi Arabia and Iran on Tuesday dashed hopes that OPEC oil producers could clinch an output-limiting deal in Algeria this week as sources within the exporter group said the differences between the kingdom and Tehran remained too wide.

RELATED: Algeria Will Not Leave OPEC 'Empty Handed'

"This is a consultative meeting ... We will consult with everyone else, we will hear the views, we will hear the secretariat of OPEC and also hear from consumers," Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih told reporters.

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said: "It is not the time for decision-making." Referring to the next formal OPEC meeting in Vienna on Nov. 30, he added: "We will try to reach agreement for November."

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries will hold informal talks at 2:00 p.m. GMT on Wednesday. Its members are also meeting non-OPEC producers such as Russia on the sidelines of the International Energy Forum, which groups producers and consumers.

Brent crude oil prices have more than halved from 2014 levels due to oversupply, prompting OPEC producers and rival Russia to seek a market rebalancing that would boost revenues from oil exports and help their crippled budgets.

The predominant idea since early 2016 among producers has been to agree to freeze output levels, although market watchers have said such a move would fail to reduce unwanted barrels.

Sources told Reuters last week that Saudi Arabia had offered to reduce its output if Iran agreed to freeze production, a shift in Riyadh's position as the kingdom had previously refused to discuss output cuts.

On Monday, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said expectations should be modest and several OPEC delegates said the positions of Saudi Arabia and Iran remained too far apart. Oil prices were down more than 1 percent in Tuesday trade. [O/R]

Three OPEC sources said Iran, whose production has stagnated at 3.6 million barrels per day, insisted on having the right to ramp that up to around 4.1-4.2 million barrels per day, while OPEC Gulf members wanted its output to be frozen below 4 million.

"Don't expect anything unless Iran suddenly changes its mind and agrees to a freeze. But I don't think they will," an OPEC source familiar with discussions said.

What Iran Wants

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak was due to meet Zanganeh on Tuesday in what sources said was a new attempt to persuade Tehran to play ball.

RELATED: Latin America Oil Producers Push to Bolster Prices

Iranian oil sources said Tehran wanted OPEC to allow it to produce 12.7 percent of the group's output, equal to what it was extracting before 2012, when the European Union imposed additional sanctions on the country for its nuclear activities.

Sanctions were eased in January 2016.

Between 2012 and 2016, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf OPEC members have raised output to compete for market share with higher-cost producers such as the United States.

As a result, Iran believes its fair production share in OPEC should be higher than its current output, which it says should rise once Tehran agrees to new investments with international oil companies.

"Iran believes this is a just volume of production, which it had prior to the sanctions. This has been discussed more than once," Novak said on Tuesday.

The Saudi and Iranian economies depend heavily on oil, but Iran is seeing the pressure easing as it emerges from years of sanctions. Riyadh, on the other hand, faces a second year of record budget deficits and is being forced to cut the salaries of government employees.

Falih said he was, nevertheless, optimistic about the oil market although rebalancing was taking longer than expected.

"The market is trending in the right direction, slower than what we had hoped for a few months ago but the fundamentals are moving in the right direction," Falih told reporters.

"From that aspect we are feeling good about the market and I think the rebalancing is here but taking (longer) than what we had hoped."

He said record global stocks of oil had started to decline: "How fast will it take place, it also depends on the production agreement. If there is a consensus on one in the next few months, Saudi Arabia will be with the consensus view."

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Final Destination of Eastern European Weapons is Syrian War

BELGRADE – Several countries from central and eastern Europe have exported weapons and munitions worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.3 billion) since 2012, mostly to Saudi Arabia, amid fears that the final destination of these weapons is Syria and other conflict countries in the Middle East.

The findings were released on Thursday by the media, from the research of the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, a consortium of research centers and media of Eastern Europe and Central Asia and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Montenegro, Serbia and Romania have signed most of these agreements to export arms and ammunition to Saudi Arabia with 829 million euros ($918.6 million).

During the same period, weapons were also exported to Jordan at 155 million euros ($171.7 million), the United Arab Emirates with 135 million euros ($149.5 million) and to Turkey valued at 87 million euros ($96.4 million).

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Nearly 3,000 Migrants Have Died This Year in Mediterranean: IOM

Europe has been facing an unprecedented influx of refugees who are fleeing conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East.

Nearly 3,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2016, while almost 250,000 have reached Europe, the International Organization for Migration said on Friday.

RELATED: 22 Refugees Found Dead on Raft in the Mediterranean

IOM spokesman Joel Millman told Reuters that the death toll stands at an estimated 2,977, adding that the 3,000 benchmark had been reached earlier than in previous years of this four-year crisis.

"This is the earliest, it was September 2014 and October 2015," he said.

Europe has been facing an unprecedented influx of refugees who are fleeing conflict zones in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Syria. Most of the conflicts are fueled by support that some Western countries and their regional allies give to militants operating in those countries.

The European Union signed a deal with Turkey earlier this year to deport refugees from Greece. However, asylum seekers continue reaching European coasts, mainly landing in Greece and Italy. The IOM says at least 20 migrants are dying everyday in the Mediterranean.

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22 Refugees Found Dead on Raft in the Mediterranean

Almost 3,000 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean this year, according to the International Organization for Migration.

The bodies of 21 women and one man were found on a rubber dinghy adrift near the Libyan coast on Wednesday, just hours after they had set sail for Italy, humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres said.

RELATED: EU Will Create Its Own Autonomous Border Control Force

An MSF ship patrolling the central Mediterranean came to the rescue of two dinghies that were sailing close together and managed to pull 209 people, including 50 children, to safety.

However, 22 refugees were found dead at the bottom of the first dinghy, lying in a pool of fuel.

"It is still not entirely clear what happened, but they died a horrible death. It is tragic," said Jens Pagotto, MSF Head of Mission for Search and Rescue Operations.

"It seems that water and fuel mixed together and the fumes from this might have been enough for them to lose consciousness," he told Reuters.

The survivors, most of them from West African states such as Nigeria and Guinea, were being brought to Sicily along with the dead and were due to reach the port of Trapani on Friday.

Italian authorities have reported a jump in the number of migrants who have left Libya this week on overcrowded boats in search of a better life in Europe, as people smugglers take advantage of calm seas and hot summer weather.

Oxfam revealed in a report released Monday that the six wealthiest nations host less than 9 percent of the world’s refugees.

RELATED: Poor Refugees Are Being Sold and Killed for Their Organs

More than 2,500 people were rescued Tuesday and one body was recovered, Italy's coast guard said. Almost 600 people were saved on Wednesday.

As of Monday, 79,861 migrants had arrived in Italy by sea so far in 2016. compared with 83,119 during the same period last year. Almost 3,000 migrants have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean this year according to the International Organization for Migration.

"The survivors had been on the boat with the bodies of these women for hours on end. Many are too traumatized from what they have endured to be able to talk about what had happened," said Pagotto.

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