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An Iranian navy boat fires a missile in a drill in the sea of Oman on Friday. Iran's navy chief has reiterated for a second time in
less than a week that his country can easily close the strategic Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, the passageway
through which a sixth of the world's oil flows. Source: AP
Iran fires missile near Hormuz, oil supply fears over Iran bank sanctions
The Australian
Carol Lee, Keith Johnson, Honolulu
The Wall Street Journal, AFP
Monday, January 2, 2012

IRAN said last night it tested a new medium-range missile during war games near a vital Gulf oil transit channel, hours after US President Barack Obama signed a law tightening sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program. A military spokesman also announced that Iranian ships and submarines would today carry out manoeuvres designed to allow them to shut the Strait of Hormuz, if Tehran so wishes.

The show of military muscle underlined a threat by Iran to shut the narrow strait — a through-point for 20 per cent of the world's oil — and came as Tehran said its scientists had produced the nation's first nuclear fuel rod, a feat of engineering the West doubted the Islamic republic was capable of.

While Iran's navy could theoretically disrupt tanker traffic through the Strait of Hormuz, sending oil prices skyrocketing, in reality it would be almost impossible to block the waterway. Iran has long threatened to close the strait because of its huge importance to the global economy. Last night's announcement came after Iran said it was compelled to manufacture fuel rods on its own since international sanctions banned Tehran from buying them on foreign markets.

Mr Obama on Saturday signed into law sanctions against Iran's central bank, marking the sharpest economic confrontation between Washington and Tehran yet. The measure, passed as part of the 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act, penalizes foreign financial institutions that do business with Bank Markazi. Some US officials believe that Tehran will view the bill-signing itself as an act of war.

Mr Obama has some flexibility in determining the strength and scope of the sanctions, which are intended to make it more difficult for Iran to sell its oil, but the administration intends to implement the law in a way that does not damage the global economy. "We believe we can do this," a senior administration official said. "The president will consider his options, but our intent, our absolute intent, is to — in a timed and phased way — implement this legislation so it can have the impact that Congress intended and the president agrees with."

The mammoth defence bill includes, among many other controversial measures, the toughest sanctions yet to pressure Iran over its alleged development of a nuclear weapon. The bill specifically targets anyone doing business with Iran's central bank, an attempt to force other countries to choose between buying oil from Iran or being blocked from any dealings with the US economy. Certain sanctions would take effect in 60 days, including purchases not related to petroleum and the sale of petroleum products to Iran through private banks. The toughest measures will not take effect for at least six months, including transactions from governments purchasing Iranian oil and selling petroleum products.

Iranian officials view the sanctions as a serious assault on the country's economic lifeline and had vowed to retaliate if Mr Obama signed them into law. Iran's Vice-President said last week that "not a drop of oil" would pass through the strait if tougher sanctions were imposed. Pentagon officials said they would not tolerate any disruption in the strait.

The $US662 billion ($648bn) National Defence Authorisation Act includes several controversial provisions regarding the detention of suspected terrorists. The White House raised strong objections to some of the provisions that could allow terrorism suspects to be held in detention indefinitely without a trial, including US citizens. Mr. Obama sought to clarify his interpretation of the law in his signing statement, saying his administration "will not authorise the indefinite military detention without trial of American citizens." The act includes limits on counter-insurgency funds for Pakistan, requiring the administration to report on the effectiveness of the spending. "The fact that I support this bill as a whole does not mean I agree with everything in it," Mr. Obama said in his signing statement.

The sanctions on Iran's central bank will have the most widespread repercussions. A senior administration official said Saturday more were in the works. "This isn't the end of the road," the official said. "There are many other sanctions we can put in place and that our multilateral partners around the world can put in place."

The administration has been reluctant to sanction Iran's oil exports or central bank because of concerns about driving up global energy prices, but Congress forced Mr Obama's hand when it tucked a provision sanctioning the central bank into the defence bill. Officials played down the notion that the sanctions may escalate tensions in the region. One said the situation "will probably be up and down, and there will be some volatility in comments." But the official said the administration would not be backing down.

Iran test fires a missile on Monday near the Strait of Hormuz Source: Supplied
Iran missile test raises the heat
The Australian
Tuesday, January 3, 2012

TEHRAN: Iran yesterday successfully tested a Ghader ground-to-ship cruise missile on the last day of navy war games near the Strait of Hormuz, the official news agency IRNA quoted a navy spokesman as saying. "This missile built by Iranian experts successfully hit its target and destroyed it," Commodore Mahmoud Mousavi was quoted as saying. He said it was "the first time" a Ghader missile had been tested. The announcement came a day after Iran test-fired a new radar-evading medium-range missile and claimed it had successfully produced its first nuclear fuel rod.

The Ghader missile is said to have a range of 200km, which is generally considered medium-range or even short-range for a cruise missile, even though IRNA described it as "long-range". Commodore Mousavi earlier said that "the Ghader is an ultra-modern missile with an integrated, ultra-precise radar whose range and intelligent anti-detection system have been improved over previous generations".

The navy tested two other types of missiles late yesterday, a surface-to-surface Nour missile, also with a range of 200km, and a Nasr anti-ship missile with a shorter range. The Nasr is based on China's C-704 missile and has a range of 35km. Iran has them mounted aboard patrol boats.

Commodre Moussavi was quoted as saying that Syrian military observers would watch the tests.

Iran faces new Western efforts to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including US sanctions signed into law on Sunday by President Barack Obama and a possible EU ban on imports of oil from Iran, the world's third-largest oil exporter. Iran denies seeking to build atomic weapons.


Same Day
Jordan bid to revive Mid-East peace talks

AMMAN: Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will meet today for the first time in more than a year to revive stalled peace talks. "Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh on Tuesday will host a meeting including the Quartet as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials," ministry spokesman Mohammad Kayed said. "The minister will also host a separate meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials." Mr Kayed said the meeting in Amman would be "a serious effort to find common ground to resume direct talks" between the Palestinians and Israel.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and his Israeli counterpart Yitzhak Molcho will meet in Jordan under the auspices of the Quartet of diplomatic players. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said the meeting did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks but expressed hope it would be a springboard which would "allow the Palestinians to return to negotiations". "We were not asked to make declarations at the preliminary talks," Mr Meridor said, indicating that only in the context of actual negotiations would Israel lay out its positions.

Mr Erakat stressed the same point. "This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations," he said.

Talks ground to a halt shortly after they resumed in 2010, when an Israeli freeze on most settlement construction in the occupied West Bank expired and Israel declined to renew it. Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas has said he would not hold talks unless Israel halted settlement construction and agreed to negotiations towards a two-state solution based on 1967 borders. The Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the UN and the US — has been trying to draw the two sides back into talks.

Tehran threatens US carrier over the Strait of Hormuz
The Australian
Wednesday, January 4, 2012

IRAN'S army chief last night warned an American aircraft carrier not to return to the Persian Gulf in Tehran's latest tough rhetoric over the strategic waterway. "We recommend to the American warship that passed through the Strait of Hormuz and went to Gulf of Oman not to return to the Persian Gulf," General Ataollah Salehi said.

The sabre-rattling from Tehran came as French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he was convinced that Iran was developing nuclear weapons and called for the EU to impose tougher sanctions on Tehran. "Iran is pursuing the development of its nuclear arms, I have no doubt about it," he told French television i-Tele. He said French President Nicolas Sarkozy has proposed a freezing of assets of Iran's central bank and an embargo on exports of Iranian oil, a move also being considered by the European Union. US President Barack Obama signed into law sanctions targeting Iran's central bank on Saturday, triggering three Iranian missile tests.

General Salehi spoke as a 10-day Iranian naval exercise ended near the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, — a show of strength at a time when Iranian officials had warned they could try to shut down the vital oil passage if Mr Obama signed the new sanctions. The US Navy's 5th Fleet has said that USS John C. Stennis and another vessel headed out from the Gulf and through the strait last Tuesday, after a visit to Dubai's Jebel Ali port. On Thursday Iran said its surveillance planes and vessels recorded video and photographed a US aircraft carrier during the exercise.

General Shahrokh Shahram, an air defence commander, said Iranian forces had warned off several foreign aircraft that he claimed entered Iranian airspace during the drill. He did not say which country the aircraft belonged to. A leading Iranian parliamentarian said on Sunday the manoeuvres served as practice for closing the strait if the West enacts sanctions blocking Iranian oil sales. Top Iranian officials made the same threat last week.


Also Same Day
South Sudan repays Israel's favour
The Australian
Daniel Pipes

IT'S not every day the leader of a new country makes his first foreign voyage to Jerusalem, besieged capital of Israel, but President Salva Kiir of South Sudan, accompanied by his foreign and defence ministers, did just that. Israeli President Shimon Peres hailed the visit last month as a "moving and historic moment". The trip spurred talk of South Sudan putting an embassy in Jerusalem, which would make it the only government anywhere in the world to do so.

This unusual development results from an unusual story. Today's Sudan took shape in the 19th century when the Ottoman Empire controlled its northern regions and tried to conquer the south. The British, ruling out of Cairo, established the outlines of the modern Sudan in 1898, and for the next 50 years ruled separately the Muslim north and the Christian-animist south. But in 1948, succumbing to northern pressure, the British merged the two in Sudanese administrations in Khartoum under northern control, making the Muslims dominant and Arabic Sudan's official language.

Independence in 1956 led to civil war, as the southerners fought to fend off Muslim rule. Fortunately for them, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion's "periphery strategy" translated into Israeli support for non-Arabs in the Middle East, including the southern Sudanese. During the first Sudanese civil war, lasting until 1972, Israel served as the primary source of backing, diplomatic help and arms for the southern Sudanese.

Kiir acknowledged this contribution in Jerusalem, saying: "Israel has always supported the South Sudanese people. Without you, we would not have arisen. You struggled alongside us in order to allow the establishment of South Sudan." In reply, Peres recalled his presence in Paris in the 1960s, when the then prime minister and he initiated Israel's first link with the southern Sudanese leaders.

Sudan's civil war continued intermittently from 1956 until 2005. The Muslim northerners became increasingly vicious to their southern co-nationals, culminating in the 1980-90s with massacres, slavery and genocide. Given Africa's many tragedies, such problems might not have made an impression on compassion-weary Westerners except for an extraordinary effort led by two US activists. Starting in the mid-1990s, John Eibner of Christian Solidarity International redeemed tens of thousands of slaves in Sudan, while Charles Jacobs of the American Anti-Slavery Group led a "Sudan Campaign" in the US that brought together a coalition of organisations. As most Americans abhor slavery, the abolitionists formed an alliance of Left and Right, including Democrat Barney Frank and Republican Sam Brownback, the Congressional Black Caucus and media mogul and TV preacher Pat Robertson, black pastors and white Evangelicals. In contrast, US Islamic leader Louis Farrakhan was exposed by his attempts to deny slavery in Sudan.

The abolitionist effort culminated in 2005 when the George W. Bush administration pressured Khartoum to sign the peace agreement that ended the war and gave southerners the chance to vote for independence. They enthusiastically did so in January last year, when 98 per cent voted for secession from Sudan, leading to the formation of the Republic of South Sudan, an event hailed by Peres as "a milestone in the history of the Middle East".

Israel's long-term investment has paid off. South Sudan fits into a renewed periphery strategy that includes Cyprus, the Kurds, the Berbers and (perhaps one day) a post-Islamist Iran. South Sudan offers access to natural resources, especially oil. Its role in the Nile River water negotiations offers leverage against Egypt. Beyond practical benefits, the new state represents an inspiring example of a non-Muslim population resisting Islamic imperialism through its integrity, persistence and dedication. In this sense, the birth of South Sudan echoes that of Israel.

If Kiir's Jerusalem visit is truly to mark a milestone, South Sudan must travel the long road from international protectorate with feeble institutions to modernity and genuine independence. This requires the leadership not to exploit the new state's resources or dream of creating a "New Sudan" by conquering Khartoum but to lay the foundations for successful statehood. For Israelis and other Westerners, this means helping South Sudan with agriculture, health and education, and urging it to stay focused on defence and development while avoiding war. A successful South Sudan could become a regional power and stalwart ally of Israel and the West.

Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University


Also Same Day
US 'not looking' for Iran scrap in Strait
The Australian Online

THE United States is not looking for a "confrontation" with Iran over the Strait of Hormuz and wants to see an easing of tensions, the Pentagon has said. "No one in this government seeks confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz. It's important to lower the temperature," Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters. Tensions have soared as Iran faces a fresh round of punitive sanctions from Western governments over its nuclear program, prompting threats by Tehran to choke off oil shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz or to go after American naval ships.

Iran's military warned Tuesday it will not allow a US aircraft carrier to return through the Strait of Hormuz, but the Pentagon said it had no plans to pull warships out of the Gulf region. The White House and State Department said Tehran's reaction showed that diplomatic pressure was having an effect on Iran's leadership. The Islamic republic's latest warning "reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters, adding that Tehran's threats suggest "a measure of the impact that the sanctions have been having on Iran."

"We see these threats from Tehran as just increasing evidence that the international pressure is beginning to bite there and that they are feeling increasingly isolated," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said. Iran's leaders "are trying to divert the attention of their own public from the difficulties inside Iran, including the economic difficulties as a result of the sanctions," she said.

Iran's military chief warned Tuesday that an American aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, not to try to return to the Gulf. The Stennis passed through the Strait of Hormuz from the Gulf last week and is now in the Arabian Sea providing air support with its fighter jets to NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, according to the US Navy. It was not clear when the carrier and accompanying warships would travel back through the strait.


Also Same Day
Israelis, Palestinians return to table

ISRAELI and Palestinian negotiators have held a "positive" first face-to-face meeting in more than 15 months, saying they remain committed to a two-state solution but that full-blown talks are still some way off. "The talks and atmosphere were positive," Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters after the talks in Amman between Israel's chief negotiator Yitzhak Molcho, his Palestinian counterpart Saeb Erakat and Palestinian negotiator Mohammed Shtayyeh. Washington too welcomed what it described as a "positive development" after months of deadlock in peace talks over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal in 2010 to renew a freeze on most settlement construction in the occupied West Bank.

Judeh, who hosted the meeting in the Jordanian capital, voiced cautious optimism. "The two sides expressed their commitment to a two-state solution. We do not want to raise the level of expectations, but at the same time we do not want to minimise the importance of this meeting," he said. "The Palestinians submitted a paper on borders and security. The Israeli side received it, promising to study it and respond," he said. The minister said Jordan, which has a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, will host further talks between the two sides. "Any announcement about the meetings will be made by Jordan. You might hear about the meetings and you might not," he said, expecting "progress and things to be positive by the end of this month."

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said the outcome of the meeting would soon be clear. "We will know today or in the coming two days," he said, indicating that they were looking to find "the right foundation" to resume talks with Israel. "This is a good thing and we hope Jordanian efforts work," he was quoted as saying by Jordan's state-run Petra news agency.

Earlier this week, Israeli cabinet minister Dan Meridor said the fact that a meeting was taking place was "a positive development" but that it did not in itself constitute a return to direct talks. Erakat made the same point in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio. "This meeting will be devoted to discussing the possibility of making a breakthrough that could lead to the resumption of negotiations. Therefore, it will not mark the resumption of negotiations," he said on Monday.

Direct talks ground to a halt in September 2010, when an Israeli freeze on new West Bank settlement construction expired and Netanyahu declined to renew it. "We will see what the quartet's position will be in this meeting and if it is willing to seriously address the obstacles to the peace process and negotiations put by Israel," PLO secretary general Yasser Abed Rabbo told Voice of Palestine. Abbas met with US envoy David Hale in Ramallah late on Monday and told him there would be no resumption of talks unless Israel froze settlement construction and accepted the 1967 borders as the basis for peace talks, a Palestinian official told AFP.

The Quartet, which comprises the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States, has been trying to draw the two sides back to the negotiating table, asking them for comprehensive proposals on territory and security. White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged the difficulties President Barack Obama faced in getting a resumption of talks. "He is doing everything he can to bring them together at the table," Carney said. "And this is obviously a challenging issue — it has been so for a long time. But the president's very focused on doing what he can to make it happen." Abed Rabbo said Washington wanted the talks to restart "without any preconditions or promises on settlement expansion. "This does not fulfil the conditions for a resumption of negotiations nor does it enable any negotiations to succeed," he said.

The meeting sparked an angry reaction from the Islamist Hamas movement which has controlled the Gaza Strip since ousting Abbas's forces in 2007. "Going to such a meeting is only betting on failure," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told AFP on Monday. The leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine also criticised the meeting, calling it a "fatal error" which would force the Palestinians back into another pointless waiting game.

Iran repeats Gulf threat to US
The Australian Online
Thursday, January 5, 2012

IRAN has renewed its warning to America against keeping a US naval presence in the oil-rich Gulf, underlining a threat Washington has dismissed as a sign of "weakness." Meanwhile, diplomats said the European Union was on target to impose a threatened embargo on oil imports from Iran, which France said could come by the end of January and which drew US praise.

"The presence of forces from beyond the (Gulf) region has no result but turbulence. We have said the presence of forces from beyond the region in the Persian Gulf is not needed and is harmful," Defence Minister Ahmad Vahidi said, according to state television's website. "The long-term presence of the United States in the region increases insecurity and the possibility of tensions and of confrontation," the deputy chief of Iran's forces, Masoud Jazayeri, said, according to the Revolutionary Guards website. "As a result … the United States must leave the region."

Jazayeri noted last week's departure of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis from the Gulf, saying: "Since you've gone, don't come back, otherwise you'll be responsible for any problems." His comments echoed a warning that Iran would unleash its "full force" if a US carrier is redeployed to the Gulf. "We don't have the intention of repeating our warning, and we warn only once," armed forces chief Brigadier General Ataollah Salehi said.

The White House said the warning "reflects the fact that Iran is in a position of weakness" as it struggles under international sanctions. The US Defence Department said it would continue rotating its 11 carriers to the Gulf to support regional military operations and keep the Strait of Hormuz open. "We are committed to protecting maritime freedoms that are the basis for global prosperity; this is one of the main reasons our military forces operate in the region," it said.

Iran has just finished 10 days of naval exercises near the strategic strait at the entrance of the Gulf, aimed at showing it can control the channel and closing it if necessary. Twenty per cent of the world's oil ships through the strait. On Monday, the exercises saw the test-firing of three types of anti-warship missile. The head of Iran's parliamentary national security and foreign policy commission, Aladdin Borujerdi, was quoted by Fars news agency as saying Washington's description of Iran as weak "is a completely illogical stance." "The US talks about sanctioning our oil but they should know that if Iran's oil exports from the Persian Gulf are sanctioned, then no one will have the right to export oil through the Strait of Hormuz," he added.

The developments helped send oil prices soaring, though they pulled back a little on today. New York's main contract, West Texas Intermediate (WTI) for February delivery, spiked to $103.74, a level last touched on May 11. The contract fell back to $102.61, down 35 cents from Tuesday's close. Brent North Sea crude for February jumped to $113.97 per barrel—its highest since November 14. It later stood at $112.82, up 69 cents from Tuesday.

"The situation with Iran remains worrisome," said Nick Trevethan, a senior commodities strategist at ANZ Research in Asia. "The consequences of any military action in the Middle East will be enormous. A spike in crude prices will kill off any recovery in the US."

In Brussels, diplomats said EU governments had reached preliminary agreement on an oil embargo against Iran and are now debating when it should come into force. "There is an agreement in principle to forge ahead" with an embargo, a diplomat told AFP, but "there is still a lot of work" to agree on its timing for a foreign ministers' meeting on January 30. The EU had been divided over an oil ban, but reached a breakthrough in late December after Greece, Spain and other nations that buy Iranian crude lifted their objections. Speaking of the January 30 meeting, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said in Lisbon: "It's at this occasion I hope that we can adopt this embargo on Iranian oil exports. We have to reassure some of our European partners who purchase Iranian oil. We have to provide them with alternative solutions. But these alternative solutions exist and I think we can attain the objective by the end of January."

US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Washington hoped for even broader sanctions. "So these (EU measures) are the kinds of steps that we would like to see not just from our close allies and partners in places like Europe but from countries around the world," she said. "Because we do believe that this is consistent with tightening the noose on Iran economically," she said. "We think that the place to get Iran's attention is with regard to its oil sector."

Amid the tension, Iran saw turmoil on its domestic currency market, with authorities trying to shore up the rial following its slide to a record low on Monday days after Washington enacted new sanctions targeting the central bank. In a related development, the US Treasury said Secretary Timothy Geithner will travel to China and Japan next week to discuss tougher sanctions against Iran, after China said it opposed unilateral US measures. The United States and other Western nations have imposed sanctions over Tehran's controversial nuclear programme, which they believe is being used to develop atomic weapons. Iran denies that allegation, saying the programme is entirely peaceful.

Former Israeli PM charged over bribes
The Australian
Friday, January 6, 2012

JERUSALEM: Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was yesterday indicted for allegedly taking bribes in a massive property scandal. The allegations stem from Mr Olmert's tenure as Jerusalem mayor and will add to the woes of the former premier, who is already on trial on three unrelated counts of fraud and bribery.

Mr Olmert is accused of accepting bribes to smooth the way for the construction of the huge Holyland residential complex in Jerusalem during his tenure as mayor in the 1990s. "An indictment has been served on Olmert and others," a spokeswoman for the court said. The indictment named Mr Olmert, his former aide Shula Zaken and his successor as mayor, Uri Lupolianski, with several city hall officials, prominent businessmen and property developers.

The Justice Ministry said last March prosecutors were prepared to file charges against 18 people, including Mr Olmert, for allegedly taking bribes during the time he was mayor of Jerusalem. "From the evidence, it appears a long list of public servants at the Jerusalem municipality received bribes to promote the Holyland project and the interests of its developers," the ministry said. In April last year, prosecutors named Mr Olmert as a key suspect in the Holyland affair, in which he is suspected of having taken bribes totalling about 1.5 million shekels ($379,000). The bribes were allegedly paid during construction of the complex in the 1990s. Mr Olmert has denied all the charges.

Mr Olmert resigned under pressure in September 2008 after police recommended he be indicted in several other cases of graft, all related to the time before he became premier in 2006. He is accused of unlawfully accepting cash-stuffed envelopes from a Jewish-American businessman.

Iranian war fears spark closure of Israel reactor
The Australian
The Sunday Times
Monday, January 9, 2012

TEL AVIV: Israel is preparing to shut its nuclear reactor at Dimona, where it makes nuclear weapons, because of the site's vulnerability in a war with Iran. The decision, taken by the Israel Atomic Energy Commission and the country's civil defence authorities, follows a realisation that the facility could be vulnerable to a missile attack.

The Haaretz newspaper quoted officials last week as saying they had concluded the reactor was no longer impenetrable in the event of war. Deactivating the reactor in the southern Negev desert would minimise the dangers of nuclear fallout in the area "should it be targeted by missiles from as far away as Iran". The official explanation is that work on the reactor is conducted for research and does not need to be carried out around the clock. According to defence sources, the shutdown at Dimona would begin before the launch of any Israeli or US assault on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Whistleblowing technician Mordechai Vanunu, who first revealed Israel's nuclear arsenal to London's The Sunday Times in 1986, worked at Dimona. Uzi Even, one of the founders of Israel's nuclear program and now a professor in Tel Aviv, said it would take a long time, many weeks, to cool down a nuclear reactor and lower the level of radioactivity. He said the Dimona reactor, built in 1964, was probably the second oldest active reactor in the world. It was dangerous and "should have been closed a long time ago", he said.

Dimona, constructed with French help, was used to make plutonium for nuclear weapons and experts say the reactor produces tritium for H-bombs. The defence of Dimona is a top priority. Huge air defence batteries ring the site, but this is no longer considered sufficient. An Israeli intelligence officer said last week that in the event of war with Iran "no fewer than 15,000 rockets and missiles will land on Israel".

The decision to close Dimona follows Iranian warnings that the site is a legitimate target. Iran's deputy chief of staff Brigadier-General Massoud Jazzayeri has warned that Dimona would be targeted in retaliation to an Israeli attack. A leaked defence department report suggested security arrangements at Dimona had been "severely deficient" for years. Dimona is within range of Iranian and Syrian missiles, and some of those possessed by the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Cross the red line and we'll strike, US warns Tehran
The Australian
Martin Fletcher, The Times, MCT
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

THE confrontation between the US and Iran escalated yesterday with a claim that Iran had begun to enrich uranium at a new underground facility. Tensions rose further as Washington pledged military action if Tehran closes the Strait of Hormuz. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said the US would react quickly if Iran began to develop a nuclear weapon. "We know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, 'Do not develop a nuclear weapon.' That's a red line for us."

Mr Panetta and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said the US had the military capability to stop any attempt by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, although neither would offer details. General Dempsey said Iran could block the narrow waterway for a time, but added: "We would take action and reopen the strait." The formidable US Fifth Fleet is based in nearby Bahrain. "We've invested in capabilities to ensure that if that happens, we can defeat that," he said. "I think they need to know that … if they take that step, that they're going to get stopped," Mr Panetta said, adding that he was not taking any options off the table. He would not say whether the US would oppose a military strike by Israel, which has in the past launched pre-emptive air attacks against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria.

The claim that Iran had started enriching uranium at the Fordo facility near the holy city of Qom came in the conservative Kayhan newspaper, which has close ties to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It could not be confirmed but if true, it would mark another milestone in the Islamic Republic's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons. "The transfer of uranium enrichment to Fordo means that the option of a military threat against the nuclear program of Iran is taken off the table for good," the Kayhan daily said in a front-page report yesterday. "The West will have to gradually accept the immunity of the program against any interference by foreigners."

The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, Fereydoun Abbasi, told the semi-official Mehr news agency on Saturday that the Fordo facility would start "in the near future", according to a report on the agency's English language site. But Kayhan, which is close to Iran's ruling clerics, said Iran had begun feeding uranium gas into upgraded centrifuges at Fordo, a step towards creating enriched fuel. The facility is buried beneath a mountain to protect it from airstrikes. For several months, the regime has been installing centrifuges there. They will enable Iran to triple its capacity to enrich uranium to 20 per cent, leaving it a short step away from producing weapons-grade material.

The increasingly bellicose exchange of threats between Iran and the US continued yesterday when an Iranian military commander said the regime had decided to order the closure of the Strait of Hormuz if the West blocked Iranian oil exports to punish its nuclear program. "The supreme authorities … have insisted that if enemies block the export of our oil, we won't allow a drop of oil to pass through the strait," Ali Ashraf Nouri, deputy commander of the Revolutionary Guard, said after his force announced that it would hold a second set of military manoeuvres near to the strategic sea lane next month.

US President Barack Obama has already approved legislation allowing the US to blacklist foreign entities buying Iranian oil. EU foreign ministers are expected to approve an embargo in principle on January 30. The rescue by a US warship last week of 13 Iranian fishermen who had been kidnapped by Somali pirates has done little to ease the tensions. The Iranian Foreign Ministry finally acknowledged what it called a "humanitarian and positive act" at the weekend, but the hardline Fars news agency dismissed the rescue as a Hollywood-style propaganda stunt.

Israel prepares for Iran nuke test
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, January 11, 2012

ISRAELI experts have begun planning for Iran to test a nuclear bomb within 12 months, according to leaked Israeli documents. The Times reported that leading Israeli military and defence experts last week conducted a simulation of scenarios likely to occur in this event. The experts are from Israel's Institute for National Security Studies, which has close connections to the government. Their report has been sent to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The simulation exercise was conducted in Tel Aviv last week by several of Israel's former defence and intelligence officials. Its conclusions suggested that a nuclear test by Iran would radically shift the power balance of the Middle East.

The report came as the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency said Iran had begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site to 20 per cent — the required level for a nuclear weapon. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, but analysts say enrichment is required only to 3 per cent for energy purposes. The Iranian envoy at the IAEA said last night that Western expressions of alarm over uranium enrichment just started at Fordow were "politically motivated". "These reactions are exaggerated and politically motivated and have been made over previous years," Ali Asghar Soltanieh was quoted as saying by the ISNA news agency.

The US yesterday repeated its warnings to Iran to cease activity related to nuclear weapons. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said: "We call on Iran once again to suspend enrichment activities, co-operate fully with the IAEA and immediately comply with all Security Council and IAEA board of governors resolutions". Britain also reacted to the latest IAEA report, joining the US in its condemnation of Iran. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "(The Fordow plant) is a provocative act which further undermines Iran's claims that its program is entirely civilian in nature."

Critics of Iran's claim that its program is only for civilian purposes argue that as the second-largest producer of oil Iran does not need nuclear energy. Iran will not allow IAEA inspectors access to its nuclear plants, some of which have only been revealed due to surveillance by Western powers. The EU will bring forward to January 23 a meeting to vote on an oil embargo on Iran.

US and Israeli officials have for the past two years been discussing an Israeli military strike on Iran. One Israeli official familiar with those talks told The Australian that during that time the US had urged Israel not to make any strike while the US still had troops in Iraq for fear US troops would be hit with a backlash by Iranian-backed fighters in Iraq. While the official played down any imminent strike, he conceded that no Israeli prime minister would want to be the leader at a time when Iran became a nuclear power. Iran's leaders have repeatedly called for Israel to be "wiped from the map". Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei yesterday said Iran would resist "the demands and bullying of superpowers and their allies. The strong decision of the sacred Islamic republic is not being diverted from the path it has taken," he said.

The Israeli specialists involved in the simulation exercise detailed by The Times assumed the US would try to restrain Israel from military retaliation and propose a formal defence pact, including possibly inviting Israel to join NATO. They concluded Russia would propose a defence pact with the US to stop nuclear proliferation in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear arms program; Egypt would push for military action against Iran while Turkey would be likely to avoid a showdown with Tehran; and if Israel were to become a member of NATO, Turkey would withdraw. And although Israel would come under pressure to abandon military plans against Iran, it would retain this option.

Tensions peak as Iran eyes Israel over N-scientist kill
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Thursday, January 12, 2012

IRAN last night accused Israel of assassinating another of its nuclear scientists in a dangerous escalation of tensions between the two bitter enemies. An Iranian scientist was killed yesterday when two men on motorbikes drove alongside his car in Tehran and attached bombs which had magnets on them. It was the fifth attack on Iranian scientists in the past two years, four of which have been fatal. A key scientist in Iran's atomic energy agency survived an assassination attempt in 2010.

Iran has blamed the attacks on Israel, which has made no official comments on the attacks. Last night, Iranian officials claimed the latest killing was the work of "the Zionists". Iran's official news agency Fars quoted Tehran's deputy governor Safarali Baratloo as saying: "The bomb was a magnetic one and the same as the ones previously used for the assassination of scientists, and is the work of the Zionists." Fars said the scientist, Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, 32, was a supervisor at the Natanz Uranium Enrichment Facility.

Israel made no official comment but a former director of the Iranian department in the intelligence branch of the Israeli Defence Forces, Mickey Segall, told Army Radio that pressure was being brought to bear on the Iranian regime. "Many bad things have been happening to Iran in the recent period," Lieutenant Colonel Segal said. "Iran is in a situation where pressure on it is mounting, and the latest assassination joins the pressure that the Iranian regime is facing."

Iran claims its nuclear program is for civilian purposes but the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, now believes Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. This week the IAEA said it had evidence that Iran had begun enriching uranium up to 20 per cent — a weapons-grade level — at an underground site at Fordow. Enrichment for energy purposes is usually only required to 3 per cent.

Iran announced last week that it had begun enrichment work at Fordow. The site is believed to be underground to protect it against airstrikes. The US this week warned Iran to stop the enrichment, with State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland saying: "The fact that the IAEA has made clear that they are enriching to a level that is inappropriate at Fordow is obviously a problem." The European Union will meet on January 23 to consider whether to impose an embargo on oil imports from Iran. The Iranian regime is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran passes.

Israelis have been engaged in a major debate over whether Israel should launch an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities. Those in favour say Israel cannot allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon due to threats from its leaders to "wipe Israel from the map". Those against, such as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, say an airstrike would lead to a retaliation by Iran and its supporters, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In 1981, the then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin ordered an airstrike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad in an operation that disabled Iraq's nuclear program for several years. Military analysts say any such strike now against Iran's nuclear facilities would be more difficult as there are several of them and many of them are underground, so the success of airstrikes would be uncertain. Also, Iran would probably react by trying to enlist its allies, Syria and Lebanon, into a war against Israel. Apart from the attacks on scientists, Iran's nuclear program was seriously disrupted in 2010 when it was hit with the Stuxnet computer virus.

US, Turkey 'ready to strike Mid-East'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, January 13, 2012

RUSSIA claimed last night that the US and Turkey were planning possible military strikes on Iran and Syria. The prediction of a dramatic deterioration in the Middle East came as the US, EU and Japan prepared to cut oil imports from Iran.

The secretary of Russia's influential Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, predicted a US strike against Iran and possibly a Turkish strike against Syria. "There is a real danger of a US military strike on Iran," Mr Patrushev said. "There is a likelihood of military escalation of the conflict, and Israel is pushing the Americans towards it."

The comments came as Russia and China rejected US efforts to impose an oil embargo on Iran. However, Japan said it would cut oil imports from Iran and the EU indicated it would agree to a partial embargo on January 23.

Yesterday, in an interview with Russia's Kommersant website, Mr Patrushev reflected on Russia's continued defence of Iran. "For years we have been hearing … that the Iranians are going to create an atomic bomb. Still nobody has proved the existence of a military component of Iran's nuclear program," he said. Claiming that the West wanted to punish Syria for not breaking ties with Iran, Mr Patrushev said: "There is information that NATO members and some Arab states of the Persian Gulf, acting in line with the scenario seen in Libya, intend to turn the current interference with Syrian affairs into a direct military intervention." He predicted that the main strike force against Syria could be supplied by Turkey.

Meanwhile, Agence France Presse news agency reported that Iran said it had evidence that "foreign quarters" were behind the killings of Iranian nuclear experts. On Wednesday, Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Roshan, who worked at the Natanz uranium facility, was killed as he drove to work. Two men on motorcycles drove by his car and attached bombs with magnets, which exploded shortly after. He was the fourth Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed in two years. Iran immediately blamed Israel and the US. Some hardline newspapers have called for retaliatory action, with one, Keyhan, saying in an editorial that "assassinations of Israeli officials and military are achievable".

The US condemned the killing and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "categorically" denied any US involvement in the killing. The only official reaction from Israel came from Israeli Defence Forces spokesman Brigadeer General Yoav Mordechai, who wrote on Facebook: "I don't know who settled the score with the Iranian scientist, but I am certainly shedding no tears."

Tensions are already high in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened to block the strait, which would jeopardise oil from Saudi Arabia and Iran. The UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed this week that Iran was enriching uranium to the level of 20 per cent of weapons-grade level. Iran insists its program is for civilian purposes but nuclear energy needs just a 3 per cent enrichment.

The US is attempting to garner support for an oil embargo on Iran to add to economic sanctions. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said: "We are exploring ways to cut off the central bank from the international financial system, and to reduce the earnings Iran derives from its oil exports." Iran is the world's second-largest oil exporter. Mr Geithner failed to get China to agree this week to an embargo and the Tass news agency reported that Russia also rejected any embargo. But Japan's Finance Minister, Jun Azumi, said yesterday: "The nuclear problem is a problem that the world cannot ignore."

Benjamin Netanyahu warns that Israel won't be the only country endangered by an Iran with nuclear weapons. AP
Making his case on Iran's menace
Weekend Australian
Greg Sheridan
Saturday, January 14, 2012

THE Prime Minister's modest office in Jerusalem is a small, functional room of some tranquillity amid a blur of activity outside. Next door is the National Security Adviser, always a civilian. Across the hall is the Prime Minister's military secretary, always a full general. These are all small offices in a slightly spruced up corner of a building Condoleezza Rice once said looked like a rundown American public school. Israeli government offices are even shabbier than Australian government offices as Israeli taxpayers are even more allergic to the idea of politicians spending money on themselves, or, heaven forbid, enjoying too much luxury.

Benjamin Netanyahu is cast as the ultimate "heavy" of the Middle East. But after a long discussion in this small office, a discussion sandwiched between meeting the Indian foreign minister in the morning and a delegation of powerful US congressmen in the afternoon, Netanyahu extends our time together for a few minutes because there's one thing he likes to show visitors. He leads me over to his window. "You see this," he points to a small collection of stones taken from an archeological dig. The stones are dated from nearly 3000 years ago. This is the signet ring of a Jewish official of that time. And the official's name was Netanyahu." The Israeli leader never misses an opportunity to emphasise the long, deep connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.

I've met Netanyahu four or five times over the years, once for lunch, once for breakfast, and most recently this week for a long discussion about the immediate issues confronting the Jewish state, and the deeper questions of identity that still surround it. He is, I suspect, all the things he is said to be: tough, ruthless, determined, qualities it is hardly surprising that an Israeli Prime Minister will possess. But he is also intensely self-aware, full of irony and humour, constantly making jokes he then rules off the record. He is, in his own words, committed to peace and a fair settlement with the Palestinian people. But, for the moment, he is most of all concerned with the threat from Iran. At last, he believes, international pressure is starting to bite.

"For the first time I see Iran wobble," he declares, in words that will surely shake the Middle East. Tehran is wobbling, in Netanyahu's view, "under the sanctions that have been adopted and especially under the threat of strong sanctions on their central bank". Netanyahu believes they just might work: "If these sanctions are coupled with a clear statement from the international community led by the US to act militarily to stop Iran if the sanctions fail, Iran may consider not going through the pain. There's no point in gritting your teeth if you're going to be stopped anyway. In any case, the Iranian economy is showing signs of strain."

A few days before we meet, Iran announces it is moving a big nuclear facility underground. This would make it harder to hit. Netanyahu is trenchant, but measured, in response: "Iran is brazenly violating international law and its own commitments. It's trying to sneak underground its nuclear weapons program. "It's enriching uranium now in two facilities. I believe this is a great danger to the peace of the Middle East and the world as a whole."

Netanyahu wants to stress that it is not only Israel that would be endangered by an Iran with nuclear weapons: "The greatest threat facing humanity is that nuclear weapons will meet up with a radical Islamic regime, or that a radical Islamic regime may meet up with nuclear weapons. The first will happen if the Taliban takes over Pakistan. The second will happen if the ayatollah regime were to acquire nuclear weapons. Either one would be a catastrophic development for peace, for the supply of oil to the world, for the peace and safety of many countries, first of all my own, but also many others."

A day after we meet, Iran accuses Israel of assassinating a high-level nuclear scientist. Israeli officials, and indeed American officials, will never discuss these matters. But it does seem there is a covert campaign, possibly Israeli, possibly American, possibly both, to disrupt Iran's nuclear program Whether this includes killing scientists is unclear.

If Iran is the most acute issue Israel faces, the agonising effort to find a modus vivendi with the Palestinian populations in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem is the most chronic and pathological. Shortly after he became Prime Minister for the second time three years ago, Netanyahu surprised many by declaring his commitment to a Palestinian state. "My vision of peace is a demilitarised Palestinian state that recognises the Jewish state of Israel," he said.

For much of the past three years the Palestinians have demanded that Israel stop all construction beyond the 1967 borders, that is, in the West Bank, and in the Jewish suburbs of East Jerusalem, and said it would not enter peace negotiations without that pre-condition being met. Israel responded that East Jerusalem occupied a different status from the West Bank and that within the West Bank it would not occupy any more land for Jewish settlements, but would not stop construction within existing settlements. This week, for the first time in a very long time, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators met in Jordan to talk directly. What does Netanyahu hope these talks can achieve '

"The most important thing to come out of them is a commitment to have continuing negotiations in order to achieve an agreement. We're prepared to do that, the Palestinians aren't. They keep piling on pre-conditions for the beginning of such negotiations. I think this is a mistake. Israel is prepared to sit down without pre-conditions, the Palestinians are not. There's a simple way to prove it. I'm willing to get in a car and travel the eight minutes, 10 minutes, from here to Ramallah and sit down to negotiations immediately with (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas. He is not prepared to do the same thing with me. This may not be the fashionable international perception, but sometimes it's important to cut through the accepted perception and get to the truth."

But could a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians really be practical in today's environment '

"We can't know until we do it. Obviously much has changed in the last year with the convulsions that have rocked the Arab world. This increases our concerns for our security because we are concerned that any territory we vacate will be taken over by radical Islamic forces. That has happened already twice — Lebanon taken over by Iran's proxy, Hezbollah. And when we left Gaza and it was taken over by Iran's proxy, Hamas. We cannot let this happen a third time, to have the Judean and Samarian (West Bank) mountains taken over by Iran. Israel would be left in a tiny corridor — 10 miles wide by the sea, and have over 100,000 rockets targeting our cities, our air fields, our vital installations. So, naturally, we are concerned about having security safeguards."

When a nation is absorbed with as many immediate threats and issues as Israel is, it can be easy to lose sight of the longer term, the more fundamental questions. But Netanyahu is deeply absorbed in both Jewish tradition and the wider world of ideas. He recently read Gertrude Himelfarb's study, The People of the Book, which recounts the tale of pro-Jewish sentiment within British history, what Netanyahu calls "philo-Semitism". It is perhaps typical of Netanyahu's robust outlook that he likes to take consolation from the existence of philo-Semitism as much as he is sobered by the evidence and legacy of anti-Semitism. Nonetheless, I ask him why there is so much hostility to Israel in the world. "First of all, it's not so uniform as one might think. I just had breakfast with the Indian foreign minister. We talked about great projects of co-operation. It was a very positive conversation. We have similar experiences with China, which we feel has a desire for greater co-operation with Israel. Both countries express a real appreciation for Israeli technology. Israel has become a world power in technology: in agriculture, in medicine, in irrigation, in telecommunications, in IT, in cyber and in many other areas.

"Our president just went to Vietnam. Israel, I would say, is quite popular in Asia. People judge that it makes sense to have a close collaboration with Israel in the 21st century, the century of knowledge. I said in jest to the Indian foreign minister that together our two countries comprise about one sixth of humanity. We're small, but we punch above our weight."

Netanyahu is actually making a profound point here. Israel is making very big gains in Asia, which an Atlantic-centric Western media and the Arab world both tend to miss. Israel is making significant progress in Asia diplomatically, economically, in all measures of trade and in military-to-military exchanges. And it's not just in Asia that Netanyahu has something positive to talk about: "The same thing is happening in Africa. I'm going there soon, but I just had visits from the leaders of Uganda, Kenya and South Sudan. They're concerned with the Islamist tide above them".

"We have excellent relations with many countries of central Europe. They're concerned with the Islamist tide to the south. Canada is like the other Australia, or Australia is like the other Canada, an extraordinary country. I would also mention that small, little-known country called the United States of America. The support for Israel in the US has skyrocketed. It has always been high, but it has gone up year by year." Netanyahu cites a plethora of polls to bolster this claim, and continues: "An overwhelming swath of the American public identifies with Israel because they view it as sharing the same values and ideals as the US. So the description of Israel as isolated in the world is not correct. I didn't even talk about certain connections we have in the Arab world where there is concern with the directions things might go."

Nonetheless, Netanyahu certainly acknowledges a deep hostility to Israel in parts of the Western press and in parts of the Arab world: "Where you have this antagonism to Israel, it is intensified in certain segments of Western European opinion, not necessarily European opinion as a whole, but Western European opinion. Obviously you have bastions of friendship there for Israel, but you also have an amalgam, a strange union between radical Islamists and radical people on the fringe of European politics. It's almost as if the Anarchists join the Islamists. These radicals speak often of being progressive, of being for gay rights, women's rights and so on. The only point of common cause they make with radical Islamists is animosity to Israel and to the US. Israel is seen as representing the US. It's the most anti-Western forces in the West that cause the problem. They can sometimes even shape the positions of some governments."

Is traditional anti-Semitism a part of this '

"There is traditional anti-Jewish feeling in the Islamist movements. That is different from traditional European anti-Semitism. There are two forces in the West — traditional anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism. In the 19th century philo-Semitism won. There was a shift in the inter-war years. The pendulum has swung from very strong support for Zionism in British intellectual circles to opposition. In general the European vision of Israel is different from the American. The formative European experience in foreign affairs was colonialism. The formative American experience was nation-building. Some Europeans wrongly conceive of Israel as a foreign implantation in someone else's land. We don't view ourselves as foreign interlopers in our own land."

The wearer of the signet ring, that earlier Netanyahu officiating in Jerusalem those millennia ago, no doubt felt the same.

Israel, US call off military exercise
The Australian
Abraham Rabinovich, Jerusalem
Additional reporting: The Times
Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A LONG-PLANNED US-Israeli joint military exercise has been called off because of "broad operational considerations that include preparation of the Israel Defence Forces for weighty missions", according to the Tel Aviv daily Ma'ariv. The newspaper last night attributed the announcement to Israeli security sources. There was no suggestion as to what the "weighty missions" might entail or whether they were imminent.

The report contradicts other Israeli media, which earlier in the day said the exercise, originally scheduled for early this year, had been put off until the end of the year because of Washington's desire not to overdo the pressure on Tehran at a time when tensions between the US and Iran were rapidly escalating. There has thus far been no official explanation from Washington or Jerusalem about the postponement.

The planned drill, called "Austere Challenge 12", was labelled a "missile defence exercise" in which the Arrow anti-ballistic missile system, jointly developed by Israel and the US as a defence against Iranian missiles, was to be tested together with the American Patriot system. The drill was also scheduled to include the firing of new missiles as well as other exercises. About 3000 American and Israeli soldiers were to participate in the exercise, the largest ever held jointly by the two countries. Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld said the joint exercise was intended "to show Iran that Israel and the US are ready to counterattack".

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama spoke by telephone late last week about Iran, according to their respective spokesmen. It is possible that the postponement of the joint exercise was among the items discussed. Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai wrote on Y-Net yesterday that the postponement was due to Washington's desire to defuse tensions in the hope that economic and diplomatic pressures on Iran already in the pipeline would bring Tehran to negotiations on its nuclear program. US Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is scheduled to arrive in Israel this week for talks with Israeli Chief of Staff General Benny Gantz.

In Tehran, Iranian authorities yesterday warned Gulf states not to facilitate the worldwide embargo on Iranian oil for which the US and Europe are pressing. A top official said its Arab neighbours would be "held responsible" if they increased their oil production to offset the loss of Iranian oil and prevent prices soaring. "We would not consider these actions to be friendly," said Mohammad Ali Khatibi, the Iranian representative at OPEC. "One cannot predict the consequences." EU foreign ministers are expected to approve a ban on Iranian oil imports on January 23.

Saudi Arabia privately shares the West's alarm at the apparent pursuit of nuclear weapons by Iran. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi told a Saudi newspaper yesterday that his country can "produce 12.5 million barrels a day to meet the needs of the world market and satisfy any increase in demand from consumer countries".

Saudi Arabia steps into Iran-US Hormuz row
The Australian
John Lyons
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

SAUDI Arabia has bluntly warned Iran not to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which much of the world's oil is shipped. This follows a similar warning from the US that closing the Strait would be "a red line" that Washington would not tolerate. Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi also said his country would strive to stabilise the oil price at about $US100 a barrel. The oil price has become volatile due to the growing tensions between Iran and the West over possible sanctions.

"I do not believe that the Strait, if it were shut, would be shut for any length of time," Mr Naimi told CNN. "The world cannot stand for that." Saudi Arabia is the world's second-largest oil producer after Russia and Iran is the fourth largest. Mr Naimi said Iran's "pronouncements" about closing the Strait were damaging the international oil market.

Last weekend, Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta said the US would not tolerate the blocking of the Strait, calling it a red line. The International Atomic Energy Agency said last week that Iran was enriching uranium to 20 per cent, which is weapons-grade level. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, but the generation of nuclear energy usually only requires a enrichment level of 3 per cent.

The European Union is set to support at least a partial embargo on Iranian oil next week, but Russia and China are resisting any action by the UN Security Council. Iran has called on other oil producers to support it in the event of an oil embargo by not increasing production. But Mr Naimi made it clear Saudi Arabia would do the opposite, promising it could increase production by up to two million barrels a day at short notice. "Our wish is that we can stabilise this oil price and keep it at a level around $US100," he said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the confirmation by the IAEA that Iran is enriching uranium to 20 per cent "once again demonstrates the Iranian regime's blatant disregard for its responsibilities, and that the country's growing isolation is self-inflicted".

Commentary: Troubled waters ahead for Iran in Strait of Hormuz
The Australian
David Ignatius, Washington Post Writers Group
Thursday, January 19, 2012

THE squeeze is already beginning on Iran's oil exports — and guess which nation quietly reduced its purchases from Tehran this month ' Why, that would be China, Iran's supposed protector. The Chinese cut their imports from Iran roughly in half for this month, trimming 285,000 barrels a day from their daily average last year of about 550,000 barrels, says Nat Kern, publisher of industry newsletter Foreign Reports. Iran's reduced sales to China, its biggest oil customer, resulted from a dispute over payment terms, Kern explains. But it's an early sign of what may be significant reductions in Iranian exports to Europe and Asia as buyers there hedge against the likelihood of tighter sanctions.

Here's how Kern and other oil industry analysts add up the potential dents in Iran's exports, which were 2.2 million barrels a day last year.

First, US allies are considering sanctions: Europe has agreed on an embargo that by year-end could cut about 450,000 daily barrels; Japan is talking about cutting 100,000 barrels; South Korean officials have discussed a reduction of 40,000 barrels. Even non-aligned countries are getting nervous about Iran's reliability: Indian refineries, for example, bought extra oil from Saudi Arabia this month "just in case". The oil market action shows how pressure by the US and its allies is affecting the Iranian economy. Analysts reckon that even if sanctions are only partly successful, Iran is likely to lose about 20 per cent of oil export volume and 25 per cent of its revenues. For an economy that is already weak, that loss of revenue will be painful.

What's driving this new squeeze is legislation signed on December 31 by President Barack Obama, which authorises him to ban dealings with the Iranian central bank. These new sanctions would prevent Iran from selling or shipping oil through normal channels. The Iranians and their buyers might find alternate financial arrangements — "special purpose vehicles" to handle the transactions — yet buyers would probably demand discounts, reducing Iran's revenues. Iran could also smuggle oil through Iraq, but again, only at a discount.

The payments haggle between Iran and China illustrates Tehran's new vulnerability. According to Kern, the Chinese cut imports when Iran refused a request for better credit terms. The difference amounted to just 50c a barrel, but the Iranians apparently feared that if they gave China a discount, other purchasers would want one, too. As China puts the screws on Iran, it is warming its relations with Saudi Arabia, which can cushion the market by tapping its 2 million barrels a day of spare capacity. A symbol of closer Sino-Saudi contact was the visit to Riyadh last weekend by Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, who signed a $9.6 billion joint refinery project.

"We are supplying our crude, but receiving the money with some difficulty — for sure," said Mohsen Qamsari, director of international affairs for the Iranian national oil company, in an interview this month with Reuters cited by Kern. Kern says Iran probably won't be able to restore the lost exports to China until March or April. "At that time, the Obama administration could point to a substantial reduction in China's imports of Iranian crude as a basis for excepting Chinese banks from the punitive measures," explains Kern's current newsletter. Administration officials say they hope to avoid sanctioning China, which among other things is the US's biggest creditor.

Can the US-led effort cripple Iran's oil exports without triggering a panicky price rise in the market ' The problem is eased in part by Saudi Arabia's extra capacity. Saudi officials have said they aren't seeking to replace Iranian oil, but to supply what the market needs — still, the effect is the same. Meanwhile, increased production from Libya and Iraq will likely add another 500,000 barrels a day. All told, experts reckon there's a buffer of about 3 million barrels a day — making for a thin cushion of spare capacity if all 2.2 million barrels of Iran's exports were somehow curtailed.

And what will Tehran do if Europeans and Asians reduce purchases of Iranian oil ' Probably load it in tankers — carrying 40 million barrels or more — and park them outside the Strait of Hormuz. The Iranians might imagine they'd be sitting pretty if they tried to close the strait — but experts note their floating reserve would also be hard to protect, and vulnerable to seizure. And all that extra oil afloat might have a downward effect on prices, Kern notes. Almost any way you look at it, Iran is likely to have an oil problem this year.

US, Israel move to ease tension in Gulf
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Friday, January 20, 2012

THE US and Israel yesterday played down any looming confrontation with Iran in an apparent attempt to ease tensions in the Middle East. The US said it remained open to talks with Iran about its nuclear program while Israel said any possible military strike on Iran was "very far off". This came as the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, was to fly into Israel to discuss Iran.

Doubts were cast last night on Iran's claim that it was engaged in discussions about formal talks on its nuclear program. Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar said Iran was prepared to resume negotiations about its nuclear program: "Negotiations are going on about venue and date." But the US and the EU said they had received no such indications from Iran. Iran claims its nuclear program is for civilian purposes, but the International Atomic Energy Agency says it has evidence that Iran is enriching uranium to 20 per cent — the level required for a nuclear weapon.

Yesterday, the former head of the intelligence branch of the Israeli Defence Forces, Amos Yadlin, told Maariv newspaper: "If the Iranians meet this evening and decide that they are developing a bomb in secret, they have all the means and components to do this."

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US had uncovered an effort by Iran to help Syria mask its oil exports and evade an American and European embargo on Syria in a new sign of Tehran's campaign to bolster Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The paper reported that US officials investigating the Iranian operation said it was designed to quietly ship Syrian crude oil to Iran where it could be sold on the international market. Syria is currently subject to an oil embargo and Iran is likely to be hit next week with an embargo by the EU. Iran is subject to financial sanctions and the US is leading a push for an embargo on its oil exports. Saudi Arabia has said it will increase oil production to make up for any shortfalls due to an embargo on Iran.

Tensions are high in the Strait of Hormuz, through which Saudi and Iranian oil is shipped to world markets. Iran has threatened to close the strait, which the US says it will not tolerate. This week, Iranian speedboats have been coming alongside US naval ships and taunting them.

Egypt's Islamists sweep polls
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Monday, January 23, 2012

ISLAMIST parties in Egypt have won at least 67 per cent of the seats in the country's new parliament, but now comes the real contest: the Islamists versus the military. After a remarkable uprising of its population last February that forced dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, Egyptians have spent the past two months voting for a new parliament.The results were announced yesterday: the Muslim Brotherhood, running as the Freedom and Justice Party, won 38 per cent of the seats in the new People's Assembly and the conservative Salafist party Al Nour won 29 per cent.

This election was all about which of two sides had the support of most Egyptians: the Islamists, who want a government with an Islamic nature that supports sharia law, or those who want a Western-style regime that keeps religion out of government. The Islamists have had a clear win. Now, in the battle for the future of Egypt, they will take on the all-powerful armed forces, which, with Mubarak's backing, ran Egypt for the past 30 years and continue to run Egypt. This election of itself will not change Egypt. It is what comes next that will be crucial.

Firstly, the Muslim Brotherhood itself is hardly a uniform organisation. It has many divisions, including a generational one. Young members of the Muslim Brotherhood tend to be more focused on issues of education, healthcare and jobs. Employment is notoriously scarce for young people in Egypt. Older members tend to be more focused on the old battles of the group, particularly those relating to Israel. It was from the Muslim Brotherhood that Hamas — the militant group which runs the Gaza Strip — developed. There is a strong push among elements of the Muslim Brotherhood to either end or renegotiate the peace agreement with Israel and to cancel a major deal to sell it natural gas.

When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood and the military, there are also major differences. The military, for example, has strongly restated its support for the peace agreement with Israel. The last thing it wants is a war with Israel. The Egyptian generals know their military would not stand a chance. Also, given that the US, Israel's key ally, also largely funds and trains the Egyptian military, they would overnight lose Washington's support should they initiate any war with Israel.

The real power of the new parliament will be to draw up a new constitution. The military has made clear that it wants certain protections written into a new constitution, such as details of its funding and how it spends its money being kept secret. The Muslim Brotherhood will need to decide whether it is prepared to agree to such a protected status for the army in return for some of its demands.

On top of this power dynamic will be a new president, to be elected in June. Former head of the Arab League Amr Moussa is expected to win the presidency, and whoever is elected will choose a new government. Somehow, amid all these unpredictable currents, Egypt needs to find some stability on its path to democracy.

Same Day
Iran puts US and Israel on 'collision course'
Uzi Mahnaimi, The Times

ISRAEL has warned the US's top general that it will give Washington just 12 hours' notice if it decides to launch a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. The refusal to give more advance warning, which would prevent the US blocking the raid, is the latest sign of a breakdown of trust between the two allies over Israel's response to Iranian ambitions to develop nuclear weapons.

The impasse was highlighted after a meeting in Tel Aviv between General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, and Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, last week. This followed a stormy transatlantic conversation between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in which Mr Netanyahu turned down Mr Obama's request for early warning of an attack on Iran. Mr Netanyahu suspects that Mr Obama, fearful of soaring energy prices, will go to any lengths to stop an attack going ahead before the US presidential election in November.

The US and the EU have opted for tighter sanctions to deter Iran from building a bomb. EU foreign ministers meeting today are expected to ban Iranian oil imports. But the Israeli Prime Minister is concerned that military action may ultimately be necessary. The Israeli army has already undertaken intensive training and its elite 35th Paratroopers Brigade is preparing for long-range operations.

Publicly the Americans and Israelis are playing down their differences. But Ron Ben-Yishai, a leading defence commentator, wrote last week on the Ynet website that "Israel and the US are on a head-on collision course unheard of in recent history." A large joint anti-missile exercise planned for April has already been cancelled, officially for "technical and logistical reasons". "All lies," said an Israeli defence official, who claimed that Washington had pulled out as an expression of its displeasure. "We were shocked," the official said. "It's been planned for the last two years."

Iran threatens harm over EU oil sanctions
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies
Wednesday, January 25, 2012

IRAN has reacted with fury to a decision by the EU to place an embargo on its oil, threatening a range of responses. Its threats include "making the world unsafe for Americans in the shortest possible time". It also warned it may act immediately to try to push up the price of oil.

The 27 countries of the EU agreed in Brussels on Monday night to ban new contracts with Iran and to cease all existing contracts by June 30. The decision is the toughest sanction yet delivered against Iran because EU countries buy about 20 per cent of Iran's oil. China, Russia and India have said they will not place limits on the amount of Iranian oil they buy. The EU also agreed to freeze any assets in their own countries owned by Iran's central bank.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, welcomed the new sanctions but said "as of today, Iran is continuing to develop nuclear weapons without hindrance".

Key Iranian officials fanned out on state media to make a range of threats ranging from closing the Strait of Hormuz to a pre-emptive move to cut oil exports to the EU countries. The US has made it clear that it will consider a military response if Iran closes the strait. The deputy head of the Iranian parliament's foreign affairs and national security committee, Mohammed Kossari, said yesterday: "If any disruption happens regarding the sale of Iranian oil, the Strait of Hormuz will definitely be closed. If America seeks adventures after the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, Iran will make the world unsafe for Americans in the shortest possible time." A member of Iran's Assembly of Experts, Ali Falliahian, said Iran should immediately halt exports to the EU countries to deny them time to find other sources.

The US has been leading an escalation of sanctions against Iran after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that it had evidence that Iran was enriching uranium to 20 per cent. In moves that underline the difficulties Western governments face as they try to isolate Tehran without harming their own energy security, and profits, it was reported yesterday that British and EU officials were working to persuade the US congress to exempt a $US20 billion ($19bn) BP project from sanctions aimed at stopping Iran's nuclear program.

Israel talks war in Gaza after Hamas increases attacks
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Thursday, January 26, 2012

ISRAEL is preparing for another war in Gaza and a refugee problem on its border with Syria following the fall of the Assad regime, a senior Israeli security source said yesterday. He made it clear Israel would have no hesitation in its soldiers re-entering Gaza if it were "dragged" into another conflict with Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. "If Hamas will drag us in, we will go in," he said.

In a briefing to foreign journalists in Tel Aviv, the source said the Israeli Defence Forces were currently preparing for such a contingency. Asked about a new war with Gaza, he said: "We have had two or three years of relative quiet and if it is ended again, we have to do it again. It's as simple as that. We would prefer to stay here." The source said the IDF had the capability for a new war: "We have to plan, we have our capability, we are training our forces at this minute for this possibility."

The briefing was given on a background basis — the condition was that journalists could quote what the official said as long as he was not named. The source is part of the inner circle of Israel's defence and security establishment.

As part of the briefing, he presented graphs showing a recent increase in the number of attacks from Gaza into Israel. The graphs showed that in 2010 there were 139 rockets, 245 mortars and three grads fired into southern Israel. This increased last year to 439 rockets, 292 mortars and 75 grads. It is this increase that is leading planners in the IDF to consider another war with Hamas.

Israelis and Palestinians disagree about the death toll from the 2009 three-week Gaza war. Israel says 1166 Palestinians were killed, including 295 civilians, while the Palestine Centre for Human Rights says 1417 Palestinians were killed, including more than 900 civilians. Thirteen Israelis were killed.

On a broader strategic assessment regarding the current instability in the Middle East, the source said Israel's present assessment concluded that there was "a low likelihood of an initiated military campaign against Israel". He said the Palestinian Authority, which runs the West Bank under Israeli military occupation, was doing "a good job" in terms of security and that security co-operation between Israel and the PA was good. However, he said the current reconciliation efforts between Hamas, which runs Gaza, and Fatah, which forms the PA, were making any peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians more difficult. The Australian asked about a view often expressed by senior IDF and intelligence officials that Israel should have continued the 2009 Gaza war in an effort to make "regime change", that is, dislodge Hamas. "The strategy is to be decided at the political level," he said. "Once that is decided, we turn that into operational activity."

The current upheaval, the source said, was presenting Israel with several possible scenarios. For example, Israel was planning for the possibility of a large number of Syrian refugees trying to cross into Israel as the crisis in Syria deepened. He said Israel's current assessment was that Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, was "bleeding to death" and would certainly fall. "It could be weeks, it could be months, but it is our expectation that he will collapse," he said. Israel was preparing to work with the UN on dealing with any refugee problem. The source said Israel was not intending to allow the refugees into Israel but would initially deal with them in the UN Disengagement Observer Force de-militarised zone between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights.

Since the beginning of the uprising in Arab countries a year ago, Israel has sought to strengthen its borders with both Egypt and Syria by building new fences. Last year, Israel was heavily criticised for firing on people trying to cross the border from Syria. The source said this would not occur again because of a strengthened border.

Border talks have failed: Abbas
The Australian
Friday, January 27, 2012

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK: Low-level talks between Israelis and Palestinians about a future border have ended without a breakthrough, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says, reflecting the impasse that has hindered negotiations for years. He said he would consult Arab allies next week to discuss how to proceed. While frustrated with the lack of progress, Mr Abbas is under pressure to extend the Jordanian-mediated exploratory talks, which the international community hopes will lead to a resumption of long-stalled formal negotiations on establishing a Palestinian state.

Israel said yesterday it was willing to continue the talks. Mr Abbas did not close the door to continued meetings, saying he would decide after Arab League talks on February 4. A Palestinian walkout could cost Mr Abbas international sympathy at a time he is seeking global recognition of a state of Palestine in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem.

The gaps between the leaders are vast. Mr Abbas believes there is no point in returning to formal negotiations without assurances, such as marking the pre-1967 war lines as a basis for border talks and halting the building of Israeli settlements on occupied land. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says everything should be discussed in negotiations and he wants to find a solution by year's end.

Observer mission in Syria suspended
The Australian
Monday, January 30, 2012

DAMASCUS: The Arab League has suspended its controversial observer mission in Syria as the bloodshed in a crackdown on anti-regime protests spiked and the death toll in four days topped 210. The announcement came as the opposition Syrian National Council said yesterday its leader would travel to New York to press the UN Security Council for protection from President Bashar al-Assad's regime. SNC chief Burhan Ghaliun's trip comes amid a new bid by Arab and European states for UN action, opposed by staunch Syria ally Russia, over the nearly 11-month-old deadly crackdown on dissent. It also comes as Gulf states and Turkey called in Istanbul for global efforts to bring the bloodshed to an "immediate end" and pave the way for a political transition.

Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi said "the decision to suspend the observer mission was taken after a series of consultations with Arab foreign ministers because of the upsurge of violence whose victims are innocent civilians". He said it also came "after the Syrian government chose the option of escalation, which increased the number of victims".

The monitoring mission head, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, said unrest had soared "in a significant way" since Tuesday, especially in the central cities of Homs and Hama and in the northern Idlib region. According to a tally taken from reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and official Syrian media, 212 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since Tuesday. That adds to the UN figure of more than 5400 last month since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.

The 165 League observers were deployed a month ago after Syria agreed to a League plan foreseeing a halt to the violence, prisoners freed, tanks withdrawn from built-up areas and free movement of observers and foreign media. British Foreign Secretary William Hague said: "Now is the time for the international community to unite, including by agreeing a United Nations Security Council Resolution this week, to make clear to President Assad and his regime that the killing must stop". German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for the UN to quickly issue a resolution on Syria, while France said it "vigorously condemns the dramatic intensification of violence" urging a speedy UN accord.

Undeterred, Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar said yesterday the authorities were determined to crush the revolt. "The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws … to restore safety and security," state news agency SANA quoted him as saying. Syria also said it was "surprised and regrets the decision taken by Arabi to suspend the observer mission after having decided (last week) to extend it for a month," SANA reported. An unidentified official accused Mr Arabi of acting at the request of Qatar, which heads the League's committee on Syria. "This decision is aimed at increasing the pressure for foreign intervention," SANA quoted him as saying.

The SNC, meanwhile, has "decided to head to the Security Council tomorrow, led by Burhan Ghaliun, to present the Syrian case … and demand protection," executive committee member Samir Neshar said in Istanbul. He spoke after Gulf states and Turkey called on Mr Assad to accept a League proposal to step down and turn over power to his deputy before formation of a unity government. Syria rejects the proposal. Damascus insists it is fighting "terrorist groups" seeking to sow chaos as part of a foreign-hatched conspiracy.

As the violence rages, wrangling continues over the wording of a draft Security Council resolution its supporters want put to the vote in the next week. Russia made clear the Arab and European draft submitted by Morocco on Friday crossed "our red lines". A previous European draft that would have threatened "targeted measures" against Mr Assad's regime was vetoed by Beijing and Moscow in October. The new text "fully supports" the Arab League plan and "encourages" all states to follow sanctions adopted by the pan-Arab bloc last November, but contains no mandatory action.

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses a UN Security Council meeting, as Western diplomats tried to
overcome Russia's rejection of a draft UN resolution demanding Syrian President Bashar Assad halt violence and yield power. AP
Clinton leads western charge at UN to topple Syria's Assad
The Australian Online
Wednesday, February 1, 2012

WESTERN allies brought out their diplomatic big guns at the UN Security Council to try to overcome Russian opposition to a resolution demanding Syrian President Bashar al-Assad halt a crackdown and resign. The showdown at the United Nations came as fighting escalated between Syrian government forces and rebels and a senior US official predicted that Mr Assad would be toppled. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was leading the charge for UN action in Syria, backed by allies British Foreign Secretary William Hague and French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe.

Ms Clinton warned that inaction on Syria would "shake the credibility of the United Nations," and accused opponents of a draft resolution of complicity in the violence. Appearing before the UN Security Council, Ms Clinton urged support for an Arab League-backed resolution that calls for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, in the face of steadfast opposition from Russia. "We all have a choice: Stand with the people of Syria and the region or become complicit in the continuing violence there," Ms Clinton said, without mentioning Russia by name. The alternative — spurning the Arab League, abandoning the Syrian people, emboldening the dictator — would compound this tragedy and would mark a failure of our shared responsibility and shake the credibility of the United Nations Security Council," she said.

The proposed UN resolution, crafted by the Western powers and the Arab League, seeks to stop a Syrian crackdown that the United Nations says has killed more than 5400 people in the past 10 months. Under the resolution, Mr Assad would be ordered immediately to halt violence and hand power to his deputy. While there is no threat of use of force in the resolution, Russia says it amounts to regime change. "I don't think Russian policy is about asking people to step down. Regime change is not our profession," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, arguing that while the Syrian president was not an ally of Moscow, it was not up to other nations to interfere.

The text of the resolution calls for the formation of a unity government leading to "transparent and free elections," while stressing there will be no foreign military intervention in Syria, as there was in Libya during the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi. Mr Assad's government has already flatly rejected a similarly worded resolution proposed by the Arab League. Russia's deputy foreign minister, Gennady Gatilov, has said that the resolution would be a "path towards civil war" in the increasingly divided country. But in Washington, US intelligence chief James Clapper said the fall of the Assad government was inevitable already. "I do not see how he can sustain his rule of Syria," Mr Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told senators. "I personally believe it's a question of time but that's the issue, it could be a long time."

The opposition Syrian National Council deplored the international community's lack of "swift action" to protect civilians "by all necessary means," in a statement on Facebook. The SNC, the most representative group opposed to Mr Assad, reaffirmed the "people's determination to fight for their freedom and dignity," stressing they "will not give up their revolution, whatever the sacrifices." The head of the now-defunct Arab League observer mission to Syria, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, said there had been a marked upsurge in violence since last Tuesday. On Monday alone, almost 100 people, including 55 civilians, were killed during a regime assault on the city of Homs, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Tuesday, at least 22 people were killed, all but one of them civilians, the Observatory said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army said half of the country was now effectively a no-go zone for the security forces. "Fifty percent of Syrian territory is no longer under the control of the regime," its Turkey-based commander Colonel Riyadh al-Asaad said. He said the morale of government troops was extremely low. "That's why they are bombing indiscriminately, killing men, women and children," he said. However, Syria's foreign ministry expressed outrage over "the aggressive American and Western statements against Syria (that) are escalating in a scandalous manner," and blamed violence on "armed terrorist groups." A report from the state news agency SANA said Assad had visited wounded servicemen and praised their "unique will, bravery."

CIA director David Petraeus told senators in Washington that Mr Assad now faced challenges in Damascus and Aleppo, two cities that had been seen as insulated from the unrest. "I think it has shown indeed how substantial the opposition to the regime is and how it is in fact growing and how increasing areas are becoming beyond the reach of the regime security forces," Mr Petraeus said. Amid the escalating violence, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for unity at the Security Council. The Council must be "united this time, speak and act in a coherent manner, reflecting the wishes of the international community and reflecting the urgent wishes and aspirations of the Syrian people, who have been yearning for freedom," Mr Ban said.

Barack Obama in Washington with Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. Source: AFP
Israel to strike Iran within months: US
Weekend Australian
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: The Times, Agencies
Saturday, February 4, 2012

THE US Defence Secretary believes Israel is poised to attack Iran in the first half of this year to stop Tehran's nuclear program, according to undisputed reports yesterday. The prospect of war in the Middle East emerged after Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Defence Secretary Leon Panetta saw "a strong likelihood" that Israel would strike Iran as early as April. Ignatius appears to have written the report after a background briefing in Brussels with Mr Panetta. Mr Panetta was asked yesterday to confirm whether this was his view, and he said he was not disputing it, but then added: "What I think and what I view, I consider that to be an area that belongs to me and nobody else."

The growing likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities was echoed by a range of Israeli officials, including Defence Minister Ehud Barak. "If sanctions don't achieve the desired goal of stopping (Iran's) military nuclear program there will be a need to consider taking action," Mr Barak said. "A nuclear Iran will be more complicated to deal with, more dangerous and more costly in blood than if it were stopped today." Israel's vice-premier, Moshe Ya'alon, rejected suggestions that because many of Iran's facilities were underground they were not able to be hit. "From my military experience, human beings will know how to penetrate any installation protected by other human beings," he said. "Ultimately, all the facilities can be hit."

Mr Ya'alon was in the US last week for discussions on Iran's nuclear program, as was Tamir Pardo, the head of Israel's intelligence service, Mossad. Israel's greatest concern is that Iran will start to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level, which is 90 per cent, but in an underground facility that Israeli bunker-busting missiles will be incapable of reaching. At this point only the US, which has more penetrating bunker-busters, would be able to reach and damage the most deeply buried Iranian facilities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated his reluctance to leave Israel's fate dependent solely on US action.

The US intelligence community has stated that Iran is yet to decide whether to build a bomb. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a Senate committee hearing this week that the first sign of such a decision would be Iran's progress in enriching uranium to the 90 per cent grade. Iranian scientists have successfully enriched uranium to a 20 per cent level. Israel has said it is not prepared to wait for this decision. Ignatius wrote: "Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a 'zone of immunity' to commence building a nuclear bomb."

Mr Panetta and President Barack Obama had cautioned Israel that the US opposed an attack believing that it would derail an increasingly successful international economic sanctions program, but that the White House had yet to decide how the US would respond if Israel did attack. He said Israel believed a strike could be "limited and contained" and that Israel would bomb the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz and other targets. Iran, Ignatius wrote, would retaliate but Israel doubted it would be an overwhelming barrage, with rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon. One estimate by the Netanyahu government said Israel might have to "absorb" 500 casualties.

Iran has repeatedly insisted its program is for civilian purposes, but enrichment is required to only 3 per cent for such purposes. A week ago the EU agreed to ban all imports of Iranian oil from July. The EU imports about 20 per cent of Iran's oil exports. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg yesterday expressed concern about a possible military option. "Of course I worry that there will be a military conflict and that certain countries might seek to take matters into their own hands," he told Britain's The House magazine.

While in Israel there appears strong support for a military strike, there are also prominent voices of dissent. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan is leading these voices, warning against any such action for fear of its consequences. Over the past two years US officials have asked Israel not to take any such action while US combat troops remained in Iraq. The US combat mission ended last year.

Meanwhile, the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported yesterday that Iran had launched an observation satellite into space.

Iran steps up tension with Gulf war games
The Australian
Hugh Tomlinson, The Times
Tuesday, February 7, 2012

IRAN has launched fresh war games at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in a show of defiance towards the West. The Revolutionary Guard has begun air and land exercises in the south of the country and naval manoeuvres are scheduled to begin in the coming days — the second round of Iranian military exercises in as many months. Amid heightened tension over Iran's nuclear program, the move is certain to be seen as a threat to allied forces in the region and to the narrow shipping lane out of the Gulf that is vital for oil traffic. Mohammad Pakpour, commander of the Revolutionary Guard's ground forces, said the war games would showcase new Iranian weaponry and tactics.

Meanwhile, an Iranian naval fleet docked in the Red Sea port of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on Sunday . The vessels are engaged in a counter-piracy mission unrelated to the war games, but Tehran could not resist stirring tensions yesterday. Rear-Admiral Habibollah Sayyari said the mission aimed "to prove Iran's naval might and to counter Iranophobia".

Speculation that Israel could launch an airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities continues to mount. US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is reported to have said last week that an Israeli attack could be expected between April and June. General Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Revolutionary Guard, warned yesterday that Iran would retaliate against any country whose territory was used to attack its nuclear sites. The comments will be interpreted as a veiled threat to Gulf Arab states hosting US military bases.

Tehran conducted 10 days of naval exercises at the mouth of the Gulf in January, threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Defying the threat, the US sent USS Abraham Lincoln through the strait late last month, accompanied by the Royal Navy frigate HMS Argyll and a French warship. USS Abraham Lincoln has joined USS Carl Vinson, doubling the usual US carrier deployment in the Gulf. The two carriers' air power far outweighs that of the Iranian air force.

Despite the military build-up, the West remains focused on curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions through economic sanctions. Two weeks ago, the EU froze Iranian central bank assets and imposed a phased embargo on oil imports. The military exercises in January prompted a spike in oil prices, earning Tehran an estimated $US250 million ($233m) in increased revenues. Prices can be expected to rise with each new round of war games. President Barack Obama yesterday showed concern at how the issue was sending up oil prices. In comments that appeared to be sending a message of deterrence to both Iran and Israel, he said he believed an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear installations was unlikely. "We're going to make sure that we (the US and Israel) work in lockstep, as we proceed to try to solve this — hopefully diplomatically," he said.

Asked if he believed Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations, Mr Obama replied: "I don't think Israel has made a decision." The US President cautioned that "any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us. It can affect oil prices".

Same Day
Extract: Russia to meet Assad over crisis
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent

RUSSIA is under pressure to make a decisive move this week to resolve the crisis in Syria after what it called "hysterical" condemnation from the West for blocking a resolution at the UN to censure the nation. Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, and intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov will fly to Damascus tomorrow, Australian time, for an emergency meeting with Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad.

"Some comments from the West on the UN Security Council vote … are indecent and bordering on hysteria," Mr Lavrov told reporters in Moscow last night, saying there was "more than one source of violence" in Syria. The Foreign Ministry had earlier said Moscow "strongly intends to achieve a rapid stabilisation of the situation in Syria through the rapid implementation of much-needed democratic reforms". Moscow rejected the UN resolution because it "called for regime change, pushing the opposition towards power and not stopping their provocations, and feeding the armed struggle".

Russia and China have been widely censured for their vetos in the UN Security Council at the weekend of a Western-backed resolution condemning the Syrian regime's crackdown on the protest movement. The US has branded the vetos "disgusting" and "a travesty" and Turkey has said the Russian and Chinese vetos were "a reflexive attitude against the West". US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said: "Those countries that refused to support the Arab League plan bear full responsibility for protecting the brutal regime in Damascus." China yesterday denied that it and Russia were protecting the Syrian regime. "China does not accept the accusations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said. "We don't shelter anyone."


Extract: Commentary by Rodger Shanahan following day

The inability of a united international (or even regional) response to Syria should come as little surprise. There are four key reasons why the Syrian case is so difficult to solve multilaterally.

First, Russia and China feel used by the West in the UN (or say they do - Steve). They feel that what they signed up for (or abstained from) and what they got regarding the Libyan intervention were two vastly different things. Rather than a defensive no-fly zone to protect civilians, they got a NATO air campaign that took the fight to the Libyan military and provided close air support to the Libyan rebels, thereby ensuring the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Russia and China will not let that happen again.

Second, Syria still has friends in the Arab world. While the unusually forward-leaning position taken by the usually intervention-shy Arab League has surprised many, not all its members agree on what to do about Syria. Neither Lebanon nor Iraq voted in favour of punitive action against Syria. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah allied government has stood fast in supporting the Assad regime politically. Economically, the country relies on Damascus for the security of its regional exports. Iraq has also decided to support the Assad regime; because Saudi Arabia doesn't and because Baghdad is fearful that any rise in Sunni power in its western neighbour could provide succour to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and further destabilise the Shia majority government in Baghdad.

Third, Russia likes the Assads. Like his father, Bashar al-Assad enjoys good relations with the Russians. Syria has provided the Russian navy with a logistics support base on its coast as Moscow's Mediterranean bridgehead and, as the traditional arms supplier to the Syrians, Moscow has sold $4 billion of arms to Damascus this financial year, with nearly $2bn of additional purchases under discussion. With the fall of Gaddafi, a $4bn export market dried up overnight, which leaves Syria as the only Arab ally in town for Moscow. The fact that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and intelligence chief Mikhail Fradkov will visit Damascus this week is indicative of the closeness of the relationship and a further indication that Russia is keen to see the crisis solved on its, rather than the West's terms.

Finally, doubts remain about the Syrian opposition. Unlike the successful overthrow of regimes in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, sectarianism is a major issue in Syria. The main opposition movement, the Syrian National Council, has been heavily criticised for being unrepresentative because its members have been outside the country while lives have been sacrificed inside and, more importantly, because it is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Sunni Islamist dominance in a country where 25 per cent of the population are from religious minorities is not something that many middle-class supporters of the regime are too happy about. It is also something that Lebanon, Iraq and even Jordan, with its enmity towards the brotherhood, do not feel comfortable about. The Free Syrian Army, if it is not destroyed by the regime, may also be wary of ceding authority to the council when it feels that it has shed all the blood for the cause.

Same Day
Abbas will lead unity government
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies

AFTER years of bitter division the rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas have agreed to an interim government for both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In a surprise announcement, the two sides agreed that Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, would be head of the new unity government in the lead-up to elections at the end of this year. The deal was brokered between Mr Abbas and Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, by Arab negotiators in Doha, Qatar. Although the two signed an agreement last year in Cairo, they have been unable to agree on the personnel to head a government. Mr Abbas had wanted Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to head the government, but Hamas had objected.

The new government presents an immediate issue for the US, which is a major funder of the Palestinian Authority, as is the EU. The US and Europe regard Hamas as a terrorist organisation and the US congress has made it clear it will not continue funding any Palestinian government that Hamas is involved in. Palestinian sources said that to avoid this Mr Abbas would choose people aligned to neither Hamas nor Fatah but regarded as independent, and for that he is likely to search in the realm of academia. Mr Meshaal, who has been based in Damascus, announced last month that he was retiring from politics after an apparent rift with Hamas leaders in Gaza.

The US is likely to demand that Mr Abbas, as the new leader of a unity government, immediately renounce violence or else have the PA's funding withdrawn.

In recent years the two Palestinian factions have been separated geographically and ideologically. Fatah, considered the more moderate, is in control of the West Bank from Ramallah while Hamas controls the Gaza Strip. The Palestinian Authority has security agreements with Israel regarding the West Bank while Hamas not only refuses to acknowledge Israel's legitimacy, but is publicly committed to its destruction. But within Hamas there are divisions: Mr Meshaal, who is looking for a new home since the upheaval in Syria, is a stronger advocate of rocket attacks on Israel than some of the Hamas leadership in Gaza, who have to live with Israel's military responses.

Announcing the deal yesterday, Mr Abbas said: "The Palestinian reconciliation is no longer a Palestinian interest but also an Arab interest." Mr Meshaal told al-Jazeera television: "We are serious, both Fatah and Hamas, in healing the wounds and ending the chapter of division and reinforcing and accomplishing reconciliation. Both parties are serious in moving forward to fold the page of strife between both parties and to strengthen the Palestinian national unity government."


Later same morning
US flies embassy staff out of Syria
The Australian Online

THE United States has closed its embassy in Syria and pulled out all its staff amid deteriorating security as President Bashar al-Assad's government intensified its bloody crackdown. Britain also recalled its envoy, but US President Barack Obama stressed the importance of diplomacy and said it was a very different situation from Libya, where Western military intervention helped oust Muammar Gaddafi.

"The United States has suspended operations of our embassy in Damascus as of February 6. Ambassador (Robert) Ford and all American personnel have now departed the country," a State Department statement said. "The recent surge in violence, including bombings in Damascus on December 23 and January 6, has raised serious concerns that our embassy is not sufficiently protected from armed attack," it said, referring to attacks linked to Al-Qaeda. We, along with several other diplomatic missions, conveyed our security concerns to the Syrian government but the regime failed to respond adequately."

Mr Obama said a negotiated solution with Syria was still possible and defended his administration's handling of crisis, saying the US had been "relentless" in demanding that Assad leave power. "It is important to resolve this without recourse to outside military intervention and I think that's possible," he said in an NBC interview. "My sense is you are seeing more and more people inside of Syria recognizing that they need to turn a chapter and the Assad regime is feeling the noose tightening around them. This is not a matter of if but when."

Western powers have vowed to seek new ways to punish Assad's government amid growing outrage over vetoes by Russia and China of a UN resolution condemning Syria for a deadly crackdown that has claimed the lives of more than 6000 people since March, according to rights groups. "Russia and China will, I think, come to regret this decision which has aligned them with a dying dictator, whose days are numbered, and put them at odds with the Syrian people and the entire region," Washington's UN ambassador Susan Rice said. She added that the vote on Saturday, which came just hours after Syrian forces bombed the city of Homs, killing hundreds of civilians, "put a stake in the heart of efforts to resolve this conflict peacefully." The resolution on the table "would have given political backing to an Arab League plan to begin a negotiated transition," Ms Rice told CNN.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had earlier called the double veto on the Syrian resolution a "travesty" and said those who opposed the vote were protecting Assad's regime. White House spokesman Jay Carney followed up by warning Syria's allies that backing Assad was a "losing bet" because the Syrian leader's hold on power was "very limited at best."

At least another 66 civilians were killed across Syria overnight and scores injured as regime troops pounded the city of Homs with mortars and launched an assault on Zabadani, near the capital, activists said. "The deteriorating security situation that led to the suspension of our diplomatic operations makes clear once more the dangerous path Assad has chosen and the regime's inability to fully control Syria," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a written statement. "It also underscores the urgent need for the international community to act without delay to support the Arab League's transition plan before the regime's escalating violence puts a political solution out of reach and further jeopardises regional peace and security."

Senior State Department officials told CNN that two embassy employees left by air last week and 15 others, including Ford, departed overland via Jordan overnight. "The government is getting stretched beyond its ability to control the various elements of violence in the country," one senior official was quoted as saying. The State Department stressed that Ford remains the ambassador and "will maintain contacts with the Syrian opposition and continue our efforts to support the peaceful political transition which the Syrian people have so bravely sought." The Polish government is to provide emergency consular services to any American citizens remaining in Syria.

Extract: Abbas's choice: 'peace or Hamas'
The Australian
John Lyons, Middle East correspondent
Additional reporting: agencies
Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ISRAEL has warned that a new agreement between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas amounts to a choice by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to abandon the peace process. The warning comes only days after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said time was running out for any peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a sharp response to a deal signed this week in Qatar, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Mr Abbas must choose between Hamas and Israel. "Hamas is a terrorist organisation that aspires to destroy Israel and relies on Iranian support," he said. "I have said many times in the past that the Palestinian Authority must choose between an alliance with Hamas and peace with Israel." Mr Ban, meanwhile, urged Mr Abbas to continue peace efforts with Israel despite the new agreement.

Washington reacted tentatively to the agreement. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the US would not interfere in internal Palestinian matters, but that it would not work with any Palestinian government that did not recognise the three principles of the Middle East Quartet: the renunciation of violence, the recognition of Israel and recognition of previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Iranian bomber bungles attack
The Australian
John Lyons and Amanda Hodge
Additional reporting: AP
Wednesday, February 15, 2012

AN Iranian man carrying explosives blew off his own legs and wounded four other people in two blasts last night in Bangkok. One of the blasts damaged a taxi, and a grenade detonated as the assailant carried it down a sidewalk outside a school. Police general Pansiri Prapawat said a passport found at the scene indicated the man was Saeid Moradi from Iran. Security forces found more explosives in the man's rented house in the Thai capital.

A day earlier, an Israeli diplomatic car was bombed in New Delhi, and Israel blamed Iran for that attack. Authorities did not immediately say if a link was suspected, but Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said in Jerusalem: "We can't rule out any possibility." Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran for the attack on New Delhi and the attempted car bombing in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. "Iran is behind these attacks. It is the biggest exporter of terror in the world," Mr Netanyahu told his Likud party in Jerusalem. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast rejected the accusations. "Iran condemns all acts of terrorism," he told al-Alam TV.

In New Delhi, bystanders dragged Israeli diplomat Tal Yehoshua Koren, 42, and her Indian driver from their burning car on Monday after police said that a hitman on a motorbike fixed a suspected magnet bomb to the silver Toyota as it slowed for a junction. Ms Koren is the wife of Israel's defence attache and was on her way to collect her children from school. Doctors at Delhi's Primus hospital said she was in a stable condition, but had partial paralysis in her left leg as a result of spinal injuries. India's Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, condemned the attack, but said authorities were not yet "pointing a finger at any particular group or organisation", adding India had friendly relations with Israel and Iran.

The second attack, in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, was foiled when an embassy worker noticed a suspicious device taped to the underside of his car and called police. They found a grenade, which was later defused.

The attacks were seen in Israel as linked to the anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah's chief of operations, Imad Mughniyeh, four years ago. The method used in this week's attacks — magnetic bombs on vehicles — was similar to plots targeting Iranian nuclear scientists. Three scientists and a physicist have been killed in the past two years in murders blamed by Iran on Israeli and US secret services.

Israel has hotly debated whether to launch a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman joined the chorus in Israel blaming Iran for this week's plots. "We can identify exactly who is responsible for these attacks, but as diplomats will only say we will not let it pass," he said.

The simultaneous attacks were almost certainly linked and were probably the work of Iran and Lebanese ally Hezbollah using a local sleeper cell, said Danny Yatom, a former Mossad chief. He said al-Qa'ida-linked groups, sponsored by Iran in the past, may have been involved. Israel yesterday stepped up its already high security across the country.

Bungled Bankok bombing raises spectre of Tehran hit squads
The Australian
James Hookway in Bangkok and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv, The Wall Street Journal
Friday, February 17, 2012

The botched bombing in Bangkok has raised fears that a series of suspected assassination attempts involving Israel and Iran could spread, as Tehran announced progress in a nuclear program the West has tried to curb. Several Iranian nationals face charges of attempted murder and possessing explosives after a bizarre series of blasts in Bangkok on Tuesday that left one suspect with his legs blown off and waving for help on a busy street. Thai National Police Chief Priewpan Damapong said the bombers were planning to strike Israeli diplomats in the city.

Israeli officials said explosives stockpiled by the bombers in their rented house resembled those used to target Israeli diplomats in India and Georgia on Monday. "Such aggression, if not stopped, will ultimately spread," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. Ilan Weitzman, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok, said: "There have been three incidents in two days, in New Delhi, Tbilisi, and now here. We don't know where it could happen next."

Malaysian authorities arrested a suspect on Wednesday, after he fled there. Two others were arrested in Thailand on Tuesday. Israel has called the attacks an international terrorist campaign by Iran, as Tehran comes under pressure from financial sanctions and the threat of a possible military strike by Israel or the US if it proceeds with alleged efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

The apparent Thai plot is the latest in a series of bombing and assassination attempts that began on January 11, when Iran accused Israel and the US of assassinating a scientist working on its nuclear program. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was killed with a car bomb in Tehran similar to bombs used to kill other Iranian scientists in recent years. Authorities in Azerbaijan arrested two men with links to an Iranian national for allegedly plotting to attack the Israeli ambassador in Baku and a rabbi. Thai police last month charged a Swedish man with alleged ties to the pro-Iranian paramilitary group Hezbollah for stockpiling explosives that could be used in a terrorist strike.

"We are getting into a war of accusations from both sides, and this is going to make compromise over the nuclear program more difficult," said Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran expert. Some terrorism analysts experts, such as Will Hartley, head of the Terrorism & Insurgency Centre at IHS Jane's, question whether Iran really is behind all of the attacks. He noted that the attacks appeared amateurish and inconsistent with campaigns masterminded by the Iranian military's elite Quds Force. Others, though, suggest the recent wave of bombings shows that Iran is willing to use any means possible to demonstrate to Israel and the US that it is willing to strike anywhere in the world. "This is Iran's way of responding to pressure," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "These are low-tech, unsophisticated attacks and sometimes poorly executed. But they are designed to show that the reach of Iran and its proxies is increasing. I think we will see further attacks."

In the lead-up to Tuesday's explosions, two of the suspects, Mohummad Hazaei, 42, and Saied Moradi, 28, arrived on the resort island of Phuket before traveling to the Pattaya beach resort. They stayed in a hotel with another Iranian, Zedhaghat Zadech Masoud, before moving to a rented house in Bangkok. Investigators and intelligence officials say the trio began preparing plastics explosives for attacks on Israeli diplomats. On Tuesday, a premature explosion ripped off part of the roof of their house, forcing the three men to flee.

Mr Moradi attempted to flag down a taxi and then flung an explosive device at it when the driver refused to stop. He then attempted to throw another bomb at a police patrol, but it bounced off a passing car and detonated, blowing off his legs. Mr. Hazaei was arrested at Bangkok's international airport, where he tried to take a flight to Malaysia. Mr. Masoud was arrested in Malaysia on Wednesday.


Source: The Australian
Same Day
Iran flexes nuclear muscle with homemade fuel rod
John Lyons, Middle East Correspondent
Additional reporting: Agencies

TENSIONS between Iran and Israel intensified yesterday as a defiant Tehran vowed "our nuclear path will continue" while offering to return to talks with world powers. The triumphant declaration came after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad unveiled the first of its Iranian-made nuclear fuel rods. In a live television broadcast, Mr Ahmadinejad was shown overseeing the rods being inserted into a research reactor in northern Tehran. The Fars news agency reported that a "new generation" of Iranian centrifuges — used to enrich uranium toward nuclear fuel — had gone into operation at the country's main enrichment facility at Natanz, in central Iran.

"The era of bullying nations has passed," Mr Ahmadinejad said, referring to international efforts to stop his government's nuclear program before Iran is capable of building atomic weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for energy and medical research but many analysts argue that one of the largest oil producers in the world does not need nuclear energy. Uranium for civilian purposes needs to be enriched to 3 per cent, not the 20 per cent Iran is pursuing. "The arrogant powers cannot monopolise nuclear technology," Mr Ahmadinejad said. "They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed. Our nuclear path will continue."

Hours later, Iran continued its pattern of being simultaneously hostile and conciliatory. The country's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, wrote to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton that Iran was ready to return to talks with the US and other world powers. "We voice our readiness for dialogue on a spectrum of various issues which can provide ground for constructive and forward looking co-operation," Mr Jalili wrote.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak played down Iran's claim of dramatic nuclear advancements yesterday, saying Tehran was "presenting a situation as better than what it really is". The Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth cited senior Israeli sources saying Iran was "much less advanced than they would like, but they are much more advanced than we want them to be". The newspaper said Israeli officials believed it would be six to nine months before Iran reached the "immunity zone" — the point at which its nuclear facilities would be dispersed underground, concealing their fissile material.

The US dismissed Mr Ahmadinejad's claims. "We frankly don't see a lot new here," the State Department's Victoria Nuland said. "This is not big news. In fact, it seems to have been hyped." White House press secretary Jay Carney said Iran's "defiant acts" sought to "distract attention" from the damage brought by international sanctions.

Last month, the European Union agreed to ban all imports of Iranian oil from July. The US and EU have tried to rein in Iran's nuclear program with new boycotts and banking restrictions targeting Iran's crucial oil exports, which account for about 80 per cent of the country's foreign revenue. The Obama administration is now considering an even harsher blow: seeking Iran's removal from SWIFT, an independent financial clearing-house that is crucial to the country's overseas oil sales. But such a move could push oil prices higher and undercut fragile Western economies.

Iran pushed back at Europe yesterday. State television quoted foreign ministry official Hasan Tajik as saying that six European diplomats were summoned to be told Iran had no problem replacing customers — an implied warning that Tehran would carry out plans to cut off EU countries immediately to pre-empt sanctions set to go into effect in July. Conflicting information about the cut-off was relayed by Iranian media throughout the day: first the full blockade on six countries, then a report carried by the semi-official Mehr agency saying exports were cut to France and The Netherlands with four other European countries receiving ultimatums to sign long-term contracts with Iran. Iranian officials say a cut-off will hit European nations before they can line up new suppliers.

Iran hosts talks on nuclear programs, under the spectre of war
The Australian Online
Monday, February 20, 2012

IRAN is to host a high-level team from the UN nuclear watchdog today as part of efforts to defuse dire international tensions over its atomic activities through dialogue. But other words being spoken in Israel, the United States and Britain — and Iran's defiant moves to boost its nuclear activities — underlined the prospect of possible Israeli military action against the Islamic republic.

Iran also signalled yesterday that it is ready to hit back hard at sanctions threatening its economy, by announcing it has halted its limited oil sales to France and Britain. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said his country was keen to quickly resume mooted talks with world powers, once a place and date were agreed. The last talks collapsed in Istanbul in January last year, but Tehran has responded positively to an EU offer to look at reviving them. "We are looking for a mechanism for a solution for the nuclear issue in a way that it is win-win for both sides," Mr Salehi said. But he added that Iran remained prepared for a "worst-case scenario."

Such a scenario — war — remained very much the subtext of visit to Israel yesterday by US National Security Adviser Tom Donilon. Israel has been gripped by speculation that it is closer to mounting a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear program, although it has denied reaching such a decision. The United States, while not ruling out its own possible military option against Iran, appeared to be holding back its main Middle East ally. "I think it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option was upon us," the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told CNN. "The US government is confident that the Israelis understand our concerns," The Jerusalem Post newspaper quoted Mr Dempsey as telling CNN. British Foreign Secretary William Hague warned on the BBC yesterday: "I don't think the wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran."

Israeli calculations will take into account an announcement on Wednesday by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that Iranian scientists are boosting uranium enrichment by adding 3,000 more centrifuges to a facility at Natanz. Iran also appeared to be about to install thousands of new centrifuges in another, heavily fortified enrichment facility near Qom, a diplomat accredited to the UN nuclear watchdog told the BBC. Iran says the enrichment is part of a purely peaceful civilian nuclear program. Western nations and Israel, though, fear it is part of a drive to develop the ability to make atomic weapons. A November report by the UN nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency strongly suggested Iran's program included nuclear weapons research.

The IAEA delegation due in Tehran today is to hold two days of talks with officials after a previous visit at the end of January yielded no breakthrough. "Importantly we hope for some concrete results from this trip… This is of course a very complex issue that may take a while," IAEA chief inspector Herman Nackaerts told reporters in Vienna before leaving for Iran. Mark Fitzpatrick of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies told AFP he was not optimistic. He said this was "because I think any honest answers to the IAEA's questions would confirm that Iran had been involved in weapons-related development work and Iran wouldn't want to admit that for fear of being penalised."

The West has ramped up its economic sanctions on Iran in an effort to force it to halt the enrichment. "But so far they haven't worked and we've been seeing a regime that breaks all the rules," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week. Iran yesterday underlined its defiance by declaring that no more crude was being exported to France and Britain, in retaliation for an EU-wide ban on its oil that will come into full effect from July 1.

Meanwhile, Iran and Israel have shown a willingness to tangle, at least covertly. Bomb plots to kill Israeli diplomats in India, Georgia and Thailand emerged on February 13 and 14, using similar methods to those in the murders of Iranian nuclear scientists in the past two years attributed to Israeli agents. Iran denied any involvement in the plots against the Israeli diplomats — one of whom was gravely wounded when her car was targeted in New Delhi. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied being behind the Tehran hits.

Both countries have also made preparations for open conflict. Israel in 2009 reportedly purchased 55 US bunker-busting bombs, and this year called off its biggest-ever joint military manoeuvres with the United States that were scheduled for around now. Iran has been conducting manoeuvres — the most recent, land-based ones announced yesterday in central Iran — and flaunting its ballistic and cruise missiles. Two Iranian warships also entered the Mediterranean Sea at the weekend, and were within striking distance of Israel.

Iran faces its last chance on nukes
The Australian
Roger Boyes, London, The Times
Additional reporting: agencies
Tuesday, February 21, 2012

IRAN has entered the Last Chance Saloon. If the UN inspectors who arrived there yesterday find the Tehran regime has been hiding or denying access to a weapons-related nuclear program, Israel will move closer to an attack, despite heavy pressure from Washington. "I'm confident that they (Israel) understand our concerns that a strike at this time would be destabilising and wouldn't achieve their long-term objectives," US General Martin Dempsey said recently. The arrival of White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon in Israel yesterday was the latest in a series of high-level meetings between Israel and the US. Last month, General Dempsey visited Israel — and left grim-faced — and next month, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to visit the White House.

As far as Israeli military planners are concerned, three factors are decisive on the road to a possible war: a report from International Atomic Energy Authority monitors due next month; the effectiveness of EU and US sanctions against Iran, the last of which takes effect at the end of June; and any credible sign from Iran that, under international pressure, it is shifting resources from atomic energy. The inspection team will have the most sway on Israeli decision-making. Officials made quite plain that they did not trust the former IAEA head, Mohammed El Baradei, but Yukiya Amano, the present director-general, enjoys their trust.

Any attempt at deception by Tehran will certainly bring calls for even tighter sanctions, but they already fall just short of economic warfare with Iran. The US has the ability to cut off foreign banks, including central banks, from the American financial system if they conduct petroleum-related transactions with Iran's central bank, the main clearing house for oil exports. Israeli intelligence experts are suspicious about the effectiveness of even these very strict measures. Iran has developed over the years a spider's web of shell and dummy companies that will allow them to sell at least some oil and receive payment for it. It has become difficult and more costly for Iran to sell oil but it is likely to continue. The ban on oil sales to Britain and France announced by Iran at the weekend was an act of bravado. Neither country imports significant amounts.

For Israel, the political decision to strike Iran has boiled down to proving that Tehran is capable of producing nuclear weapons and establishing that it will continue the program. There does not seem to be much doubt about the latter: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has just announced the installation of 3000 new centrifuges. According to the Iranian Fars News Agency, a nuclear energy department is to be set up at Tehran's Elm Sanat university.

Much depends on the substance and the tone of the IAEA report and Iran's behaviour over the next few days. The US is piling pressure on the Israelis to hold fire. While Israel is concerned Iranian nuclear sites could soon become invulnerable to attack, the US military is not.

UN atomic agency team 'denied access' to suspected Iran nuclear site
The Australian Online
Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The UN atomic agency said Wednesday that "intensive efforts" by its team visiting Iran on the way forward failed, and that they were denied access to a key military site. "Intensive efforts were made to reach agreement on a document facilitating the clarification of unresolved issues in connection with Iran's nuclear programme," the International Atomic Energy Agency said. "Unfortunately, agreement was not reached on this document."

The team requested access both during this visit and during a first trip in late January to the Parchin military site where it suspects suspicious nuclear activities are carried out, but Iran "did not grant permission," it said. "It is disappointing that Iran did not accept our request to visit Parchin during the first or second meetings," IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said in the statement. "We engaged in a constructive spirit, but no agreement was reached."

The high-ranking IAEA team led by Herman Nackaerts, the Vienna-based agency's chief inspector, was due back in Vienna later today. The visit was the second in less than a month and was aimed, the IAEA had said, at clarifying all "outstanding substantive issues" surrounding Tehran's nuclear programme, in particular what it called "possible military dimensions." Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was quoted by the Iranian news agency ISNA as saying the talks had been intensive and covered "cooperation and mutual understanding between Iran and the IAEA." "These negotiations will continue in the future," Soltanieh said.

The trip was also seen as an important precursor to a possible resumption of talks between Iran and the P5+1 powers, the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany, which broke down in Turkey 13 months ago. A watershed report from the IAEA in November said that Iran had carried out activities in a number of areas "relevant to producing" a nuclear weapon. Iran denies it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons and said the report was based on forgeries. Since its publication, the United States and the European Union have ramped up sanctions on Iran's oil sector, and speculation has grown that Iran's arch rival Israel might launch military attacks this year.

Cause for Israel stronger after boycott attempts
The Australian
Yuval Rotem
Thursday, February 23, 2012

Yuval Rotem is the Israeli ambassador. This is an edited extract of a speech given to the NSW Parliamentary Israeli Friendship Group on Tuesday.

IN NSW, you enjoy Israeli technology, Israeli trade, Israeli tourism, as we do your own. The state has produced some of Australia's greatest leaders, from Gough Whitlam, whose unparalleled skill in a parliament I only regret not seeing face a parliamentarian's greatest test: our Knesset. And John Howard, who stood firm for freedom across the world at every opportunity, and led his country and its modern economy for 11 prosperous years.

Even to Doc Evatt, the former Labor leader and president of the UN General Assembly, who helped to negotiate the re-foundation of the state of Israel and cast the first vote in the assembly for that cause. The defining feature of NSW's leaders, both today and in the past, is their unwavering sense of values. Your leaders have embodied a firm knowledge of what they know to be right, with the courage and confidence to pursue it.

Today's leaders, when faced with the wrong of the boycott, divestments and sanctions movement last year, also called on these values in their courageous response. It has been close to a year since the state election, since Marrickville, and since the BDS issue found a national stage. It was one of the achievements of not just the Australian Jewish community, but the Coalition and the Labor Party, that BDS faced an abrupt rejection from that stage. Since the departure of BDS from our newspapers, I can say with confidence that the cause for Israel in NSW is stronger.

The concern throughout NSW that arose during the BDS debates was expected: common sense does not comply with vigilante local councils wreaking self-imposed economic sanction on one nation that is locked in a struggle for peace. Where senator Lee Rhiannon's Greens looked likely to pick up a cluster of seats in the NSW election, they left demoralised, finishing behind Labor on primary votes in the only seat they ended up winning. The candidate for Marrickville, Fiona Byrne, tripped over herself in many public statements, confused that her utopian vision of a world with a weakened Israel was poorly received outside her urban hamlet. BDS in Australia has since become a media byline, like the S11 and G20 protests before it, for another failed movement of radical activists which, shamefully, attached itself to a municipal council for a few months.

This humiliating public defeat of BDS was an achievement of the people in this room, the politicians, Liberal, National, Labor and, indeed, some Green, who refused to let the debate in the state election descend to a schoolchildren's view of foreign conflict. When we hear about BDS now, it's not coming from the mouths of prominent politicians and mayors or respected journals of record. It's being shouted from poorly attended protests, or from the back of police cars, or from the former communists who stayed with Stalin even after the Wall fell. One year on, and the movement in NSW to economically undermine the Middle East's only democracy is as dead as Byrne's brief career in international diplomacy.

I thank all involved who have helped see off anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment in our community, in our newspapers, on our streets. It was heartening to see you were also thanked by the voters of NSW.

As for Marrickville Council, which has reversed its boycott, and has a new mayor, I encourage its member to learn more about my tiny, miraculous country in the Middle East, awash with the principles of democracy, values of freedom and the colours of culture not enjoyed by the subjects of autocratic and theocratic regimes that surround us. In June last year, we brought some of that culture to Marrickville.

The embassy co-hosted a visit by a chart-topping Israeli jazz singer, and she played her one show in Marrickville. I wasn't there, but I'm told the audience was filled with Jews and non-Jews, locals and out-of-towners, forgetting Israeli politics and enjoying Israeli music. It was another example of the way we defeat Israel's detractors in the West: using our minds, appealing to common sense and exhibiting that of which we are truly proud: our culture, our innovation, our way of life, our language, our technology, our teachings, our art — unleashing our contribution to the world.

US bolsters its Gulf forces to take on Iran
The Australian
Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, Washington, The Wall Street Journal
Monday, February 27, 2012

The Pentagon is beefing up US sea- and land-based defences in the Persian Gulf to counter any attempt by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz. The US military has notified congress of plans to position new mine-detection and clearing equipment and expand surveillance capabilities in and around the strait, according to defence officials briefed on the requests, including one submitted earlier this month. The military also wants to quickly modify weapons systems on ships so they could be used against Iranian fast-attack boats, as well as shore-launched cruise missiles, the defence officials said.

The readiness push is spearheaded by the military's Central Command, which oversees US forces in the Gulf region, these officials said. It shows the extent to which war planners are taking tangible steps to prepare for a possible conflict with Iran, even as top White House and defence leaders try to tamp down talk of war and emphasize other options.

The changes put a spotlight on what officials have singled out as potential US shortcomings in the event of conflict with Iran. The head of Central Command, Marine General James Mattis, asked for the equipment upgrades after reviews by war planners last northern spring and autumn exposed "gaps" in US defence capabilities and military preparedness should Tehran close the Strait of Hormuz, officials said. The Central Command reviews, in particular, have fuelled concerns about the US military's ability to respond swiftly should Iran mine the strait, through which nearly 20% of the world's traded oil passes. "When the enemy shows more signs of capability, we ask what we can do to checkmate it," a US military officer said. "They ought to know we take steps to make sure we are ready."

Tensions with Iran have soared as the US and its allies have tightened sanctions against the country over its nuclear program. Tehran has responded by threatening to close the strait. Israel has accused Iran of being behind a recent series of botched bombing plots targeting Israeli diplomats, a charge Iran denies. Iranian officials, in turn, accuse Israel and the US of conducting a secret campaign to assassinate scientists working on Iran's nuclear program. The US has denied the accusation, while Israel has declined to comment.

New suspicions over Iran's nuclear ambitions emerged over the weekend. In a report, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's nuclear watchdog, said Iran had increased its stockpile of uranium enriched beyond the level needed for civilian power reactors, and begun producing it under a mountain that some US and Israeli officials say could be immune from attack.

Iran denies it is trying to build atomic weapons. It refused last week to allow UN inspectors access to suspected weapons sites. The US is concerned that Israel — which believes that Tehran will soon be able to assemble a weapon — may choose to strike Iran by this northern autumn to stymie such a program. That, defence officials worry, could provoke retaliation that could prompt US military action to defend its troops and allies, and to keep the Strait of Hormuz open.

The US moves outline the potential shape of a conflict between Iran and the West: Iran could rapidly mine the strait and use heavily armed speedboats to attack or ram Western ships trying to clear the waterway. A successful Iranian attack on a US warship could drag America into a larger conflict. According to defence officials, the Pentagon submitted a request to Congress on February 7 on behalf of Central Command seeking to reallocate $US100 million ($93m) in defence funding to "bridge near-term capability gaps" in the Persian Gulf.


US forces are beefing up to face a possible threat from Iran. Among the upgrades the military has requested:

Torpedoes, torpedo defences

Fast-boat defence

Mine defence

Improve surveillance capability

Source: US Department of Defence, WSJ

Israel 'won't warn US' on any strike
The Australian Online
Tuesday, February 28, 2012

ISRAELI officials say they won't warn the US if they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, setting a tense tone ahead of high-level meetings in the coming days in Washington. A US intelligence official says Israel warned that it will keep the Americans in the dark, to decrease the likelihood that Americans would be held responsible for failing to stop Israel's potential attack.

Israel's prime minister and defense minister delivered the message to top-level U.S. visitors to Israel in recent weeks, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House national security adviser and the director of national intelligence. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive strategic talks. The White House and Israeli Embassy both declined comment.

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