BAGHDAD, May 5 (Reuters) - Iraq has hosted more than one round of talks between regional foes Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iraqi President Barham Salih said on Wednesday.
Salih made his remarks during an interview broadcast live online with the Beirut Institute think tank. He gave no more details.
Diplomats hope the opening of direct channels between Iran and Saudi Arabia will signal a calming of tensions across the Middle East after years of hostilities that have brought the region close to a full-scale conflict.
Baghdad hosted talks between officials from its two neighbours and mutual adversaries on April 9 in the only round of talks to have been previously reported.
Asked how many rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks Iraq had hosted, Salih replied: "More than once."
Washington and Tehran have engaged in indirect talks in Vienna that seek to revive an international pact reached in 2015 that constrained Iran's nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.
Iraqis hope for a general regional detente that would allow their country to rebuild instead of being used as an arena for U.S., Gulf Arab and Iranian score-settling.
Iraq is trying to rein in powerful Iran-backed militias and deal with a resurgent Islamic State - the Sunni hardline Islamist group that took over a third of Iraq in 2014 and was beaten militarily in 2017 by U.S. forces, the Iraqi military, Kurdish fighters and Iran-aligned paramilitaries.
He added that he wished to see a solution to the Iran-U.S. rivalry that has fuelled violence in Iraq.
Swiss Hail Cooperative US Approach To Iran After Biden Talks
GENEVA, June 15 (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden voiced support on Tuesday to speed up approval of the financial transfers needed to deliver more food and medicines to Iran through a Swiss humanitarian channel, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis said.
Cassis, speaking to a news conference after the 30-minute talks with Biden in Geneva, said: "The trouble is it hasn't been used enough, and why? Because there are transfers of funds that still require approval, and I think on this the U.S. is willing to accelerate their decisions so that this channel can be used to its full effect."
Only a trickle of deals has gone through so far.
Neutral Switzerland has represented U.S. interests in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, often serving as an intermediary for prisoner exchanges between the two foes.
Biden and Swiss President Guy Parmelin also discussed ongoing negotiations to revive a big power agreement on Iran's nuclear programme that Washington ditched under former President Donald Trump, Cassis said.
"We talked about this nuclear agreement, about the intention of the United States to do everything it can to move things forward," he said.
"The situation is very difficult at the moment, you know that (presidential) elections will be held in Iran very soon and I think one should not have too high expectations.
"However it is clear that the intention of this American administration is to try to find a new path, which won't be easy, because there has been a long history of feuds," he added.
Iran Says It Produced 6.5 kg Of Uranium Enriched To 60%
Iran has made 6.5 kg (14 lb) of uranium enriched to up to 60%, the government said on Tuesday, detailing a move that rattled the country's nuclear talks with world powers by taking the fissile material a step towards nuclear weapons-grade of 90%.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the country had also produced 108 kg of uranium enriched to 20% purity, indicating quicker output than the rate required by the Iranian law that created the process.
Iran said in April it would begin enriching uranium to 60% purity, a move that would take the uranium much closer to the 90% suitable for a nuclear bomb, after Tehran accused arch-foe Israel of sabotaging a key nuclear site.
Tuesday's disclosure came as Tehran and Washington hold indirect talks in Vienna aimed at finding ways to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers.
Iran’s hardline parliament passed a law last year to oblige the government to harden its nuclear stance, after the assassination of its top nuclear scientist and the election of Joe Biden, who had pleadged to return to the nuclear agreement president Donald Trump had abandoned in 2018.
Trump’s withdrawal prompted Iran to steadily overstep the accord’s limits on its nuclear program designed to make it harder to develop an atomic bomb - an ambition Tehran denies.
"Under parliament's law..., the Atomic Energy Organization was supposed to produce 120 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium in a year. According to the latest report, we now have produced 108 kg of 20% uranium in the past five months," Rabiei was quoted as saying.
"In the area of 60% uranium production, in the short time that has elapsed..., about 6.5 kg has been produced," Rabiei added.
Reporting by Reuters
Iran Candidate Says 'Positive Coexistence' May Pave Way To US Talks
Iranian pro-reform presidential candidate Abdolnaser Hemmati said on Tuesday Iran could hold talks with arch-foe the United States if Washington adhered to "positive coexistence" with Tehran.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state, has repeatedly ruled out negotiations with the United States. But Tehran is holding indirect talks with Washington and world powers on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, abandoned by Washington in 2018.
"We have to see how America acts on the nuclear deal..., then we have to see whether America wants to continue its meddling in the region through Israel and its elements," Hemmati, a former central bank chief, told a news conference ahead of the Friday election. Hemmati early in June had a brief surge in polls, but latest surveys show him below the 5 percent range among likely voters.
"There is a chain of issues in need of confidence-building... If we really feel that America moves towards a positive coexistence to advance world and regional peace, then there should be no problem to hold talks," Hemmati said.
Hemmati, who in presidential debates called for good relations with the world, has had limited success in gaining support from reformists amid calls to boycott the vote.
Opposition leader cleric Mehdi Karoubi, under house arrest since 2011, has said he would vote for Hemmati, Iranian news agencies on Tuesday quoted Karoubi's son as saying.
But Karoubi's ally Mirhossein Mousavi, also under house arrest since 2011, has joined the boycott called by dissidents both at home and abroad.
Reporting by Reuters
Iran Official Warns: 'Bluntly Speaking There Is No Water'
A top official of Iran’s meteorological organization’s center for drought has said that “bluntly speaking there is no water” and “in many regions there are serious shortages.”
Ahad Vazifeh told ISNA news website on Tuesday that since September 2020 precipitation has been 130 millimeters or about four inches, adding that “This level compared with the long-term average in the country is 40 percent less.”
Different Iranian officials, including the energy ministry. Have warned of severe water shortages this year, with dams at far less than 50 percent capacity. Iran has been suffering from drought in the past ten years as temperatures rise.
Vazifeh said that in some regions in the south, east central and east there has been a 50-85 percent reduction in precipitation this year. He added that high temperatures have reduced snow caps and rivers are drying up. Temperatures have been 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer this spring compared with the long-term averages, the expert said, warning that the same trend will continue in the summer.
Vazifeh predicted that precipitation will start late in the fall this year, which would prolong the current drought, extending it well into 2022.
The drought has contributed to power shortages in the hot season as dams are not able to produce sufficient hydroelectric power and high temperatures lead to more use of cooling systems.
COVID Vaccines Smuggled From Iraq Are Sold For $2,600 In Iran
A newspaper in Iran has reported that a black market for Covid-19 vaccines is in full swing in Iran, with vaccines brought illegally from the Iraqi Kurdistan and sold for up to $2,600 a dose to wealthy Iranians.
Hamshahri newspaper reported Tuesday that several unnamed centers in Tehran inject Pfizer vaccines for $1,100-2,600, depending on who introduces the customer and at which center. This is an incredibly high amount for Iranian wage earners who make $100-300 a month, due to the depreciation of the Iranian currency since 2018.
The vaccine merchants work in secret and only people recommended by trusted middlemen can pay and be inoculated at these establishments, which are said to be equipped with special freezers able to handle the temperature requirement of the Pfizer vaccine.
Iran failed to place orders for Western vaccines last year, and early this year Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned the importation of American and British vaccines. As a result, Iran has administered just four million doses and vaccinated around two percent of its 84-million population, with Russian and Chinese variants.
In recent days, local officials in several provinces announced a halt to vaccinations as supplies dried up and one health ministry official accused Chinese companies of reneging on their promises to deliver additional doses.
According to Hamshahri, each vaccine dose is designated for a specific citizen in Kurdistan, which means medical corruption also in Iraq, allowing vaccines for Iraqi citizens to be smuggled to in Iran.
Israel's New Foreign Minister Says He Will Do Everything To Stop Iran Nukes
Israel’s new foreign minister and alternate prime minister Yair Lapid has said Monday that he and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will work together not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Lapid stated that Israel must be prepared for a possible agreement between the United States and Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, adding that Israel must “prepare quickly.” He emphasized that the new coalition government will “do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.”
The new foreign minister said he was always opposed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). “It was a bad deal,” he said and added, “I opposed it. Israel could have, with a different approach, influenced it far more.”
Criticizing former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s very close ties with President Donald Trump, Lapid emphasized that Israel’s traditional policy was equally close ties with both US political parties. He pledged to restore relations between Israel and the Democratic Party, while underlining that “The Republicans are important to us.”
Netanyahu was a staunch opponent of the JCPOA and once Trump was elected his relations with new administration is believed to have helped crystalize a tough policy toward Tehran that led to the US withdrawal from the agreement and the imposition of sanctions.
Saudi Arabia Says It Intercepted Another Houthi Armed Drone
Saudi Arabian air defenses intercepted and destroyed an armed drone launched by Yemen's Houthi group towards the southern Saudi city of Khamis Mushait, state television said on Monday.
It cited the Saudi-led military coalition, which has been battling the Houthis for over six years, as saying it was taking operational measures to protect civilians from such assaults.
On Sunday, Saudi state media said a drone rigged with explosives fell on a school in the kingdom's Aseer province but that no injuries were reported.
The Iran-aligned Houthis have frequently launched cross-border missile and drone attacks on Saudi cities in the war. The coalition has in the past responded with air strikes on Houthi military targets in Yemen.
The Houthis have not responded to calls by the Biden administration and the United Nations to engage in ceasefire talks and possibly peace negotiations.
Iran and Saudi Arabia announced in April that held talks in Iraq aimed at improving their relations and stability in the region, but these talks have not continued as Iran is geared to elect a new president on Friday.
Reporting by AP
Iran Covid Spokesman Mocks Candidates’ Flippancy On Vaccines
Alireza Raeesi, spokesman of Iran’s coronavirus task force, has chided presidential candidates over promises on the speed of Covid-19 vaccinations. “They think the vaccine is an ice cream,” Raeesi told a government event Monday.
“They wake up in the morning and say they will vaccinate Iran’s population in three months,” the spokesman said. “Perhaps they do not know how to count.” He added that more powerful countries had encountered problems and that Iran would achieve nothing through slogans.
Iran has been slow to vaccinate its 84-million population, with 4.5 million doses administered and 2.7 percent of people covered. John Hopkins figures – tracking Covid-19 globally – give a 0.77 percent of Iranians, or 638,000, as “fully vaccinated.”
Iran rejected Western vaccines and has relied on a limited quantity of Chinese and Russian vaccines, while saying its pharmaceutical companies are working on several domestic vaccines. Reports in recent days say that vaccination in some provinces has stopped due to shortages.
Official government figures report over 3 million cases of coronavirus with 82,000 deaths, while health officials, some politicians, and some media all say real numbers are much higher.
Several candidates in the June 18 presidential election have promised to speed up nationwide vaccination, partly by allowing the private sector to import vaccines. It was reported in April that the government had approved a number of private companies to begin imports, but it has remained unclear how these vaccines would be distributed and how they might square with United States sanctions.
Iran Red Crescent Requests Money From Red Cross For Drought Victims
Iran’s Red Crescent announced Monday that it has requested financial assistance from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) societies to fight the impact of drought.
Hassan Esfandyar, the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society’s humanitarian projects, told local media that his organization has requested one million Swiss francs from IFRC to deal with the impact of drought in four provinces.
Iran has faced a long drought for at least a decade, but the crisis has worsened this year with minimal precipitation. Iranian officials have said that thousands of villages face serious water shortages, while the government is in financial crisis mainly due to US sanctions.
Critics and opponents of the Islamic Republic say money should be spent on helping people in the country instead of supporting allies and proxies in the region.
Esfandyar said that the request for assistance has been submitted for an emergency aid fund for the four provinces most affected by the drought. He added that if IFRC donates funds it will be spent on assistance to needy families, supply of drinking water and developments of water transfer infrastructures. He also announced that the Iranian Red Crescent is planning to ask for more international assistance.
As Netanyahu Exits, Iran Nuclear Deal Remains An Israeli Issue
Benjamin Netanyahu's 12-year run as Israel's prime minister ended on Sunday with parliament approving a new "government of change" led by nationalist Naftali Bennett.
Bennett said renewing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal would be a mistake and reiterated that Iran should not be allowed to become a nuclear power.
In a day-long raucous session at the Knesset Bennett’s coalition won the right to form a government by a narrow vote. The long-time former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Bennet is not capable of standing firm against US pressure on Iran nuclear talks.
Heading into opposition, Netanyahu, 71, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, pledged he would soon return to power.
A former defense minister and a high-tech millionaire, Bennett, 49, was due to be sworn in shortly after the vote.
With little in common except for a desire to end the Netanyahu era and political impasse that led to four inconclusive elections in two years, the coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties is likely to be fragile.
The new government, formed after an inconclusive March 23 election, plans largely to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians, and to focus on domestic reforms.
Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.
Under a coalition deal, Bennett will be replaced as prime minister by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, in 2023.