US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that the United States lacks precise figures and is unable to confirm the number of Russian military units reportedly stationed in eastern Ukraine. WASHINGTON (Sputnik) — The United States lacks precise figures and is unable to confirm the number of Russian military units reportedly stationed in eastern Ukraine, US State Department spokesperson Marie Harf stated at a press briefing. “It is really hard to get precise information about Russian troop numbers specifically, but we know there is a substantial Russian presence,” Harf said on Thursday. It is difficult for the United States to verify figures, Harf claimed, because Russia deliberately camouflages its involvement in the region. On Wednesday, the US State Department accused Russia of violating the Minsk agreement by sending weapons and forces and conducting joint training exercises with pro-Russian “separatists” in eastern Ukraine. Last week, the US Army announced that some 300 US paratroopers arrived in the western Ukraine city of Yavoriv to train Ukrainian troops, which the Russian Foreign Ministry has said is a violation of the Minsk agreement. On Thursday, the Russian Defense Ministry expressed concern over the training of the Ukrainian National Guard by US military instructors along the separation line between Kiev-led forces and armed militia in eastern Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Friday re-iterating that the arrival of US paratroopers could signal a first step toward supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons, and the support of Ukrainian war hawks could lead to new bloodshed. Kiev is planning to hold three joint exercises with US troops. Besides Fearless Guardian 2015, which is underway in Yavoriv and planned to last for six more months, Ukrainian and US army will have joint drills dubbed Sea Breeze 2015 and Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident 2015 later this year. The armed conflict in Ukraine began in April 2014 when Kiev launched a military operation against independence supporters in the country’s southeast. Relations between the West and Russia soured amid the Ukrainian crisis as Western countries accused Russia of meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Moscow has repeatedly denied the allegations.
The Fars news agency on Wednesday quoted security official Shahriar Heidari as saying the troops were killed on Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among those killed.
Heidari says an unspecified “terrorist group” was behind the attack. No other details were immediately available.
Iran has boosted border security amid the blitz offensive in neighboring Iraq by Sunni militants from the al-Qaida breakaway Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The militants have snatched much of northern and western Iraq from Baghdad‘s control.
In the past, sporadic clashes have taken place between Iranian troops and opposition groups in western Iran.
The US is getting ready for an open dialogue with Iran to discuss Iraq’s security concerns and ways of responding to radical Sunni militia that have been gaining ground in western Iraq, The Wall Street Journal quoted senior US officials as saying.
The talks are likely to begin as early as this week. This unlikely cooperation is to take place as world leaders try to negotiate an agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
Iraq’s security concerns are the central aspects common to both parties. Radical Sunni militants of Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) have been advancing and capturing cities in the northwest of Iraq. The jihadists have declared the capture of the capital Baghdad as their top objective.
It is not yet clear which diplomatic channel the Obama administration will be using, the report said.
Reuters also cited a senior US official as saying that Washington is considering the discussion with Tehran.
One option for the US is to go through Vienna, where US and Iranian officials are scheduled to meet with other world powers to discuss Iran’s nuclear program. Earlier, the US State Department announced that the No. 2 US diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, will be going to Vienna to participate in those talks.
US Senator Lindsey Graham stated on Sunday that Washington needs Iran to avoid a government collapse in Iraq. “We are probably going to need their help to hold Baghdad,” Graham told CBS’ ‘Face the Nation.’
Iran has also spoken out in support of cooperation. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday that Tehran may consider cooperating with Washington to battle the extremist threat.
“We have said that all countries must unite in combating terrorism. But right now regarding Iraq we have not seen the Americans taking a decision yet,” Rouhani said at a press conference.
When asked if Tehran would work with its old adversary the United States in tackling advances by Sunni insurgents in Iraq, Rouhani replied, “We can think about it if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.”
Israel’s Defense Ministry has successfully launched Ofek 10, a next-generation satellite that will provide highly-targeted surveillance of specific locations – such as Iran’s nuclear sites.
“We continue to increase the vast qualitative and technological advantage over our neighbors,” said Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon at the launch at a test site in central Israel, Israeli media reported.
“Our ability to continuously reach new levels of accomplishment, as with this launch, is what allows us to live a productive and prosperous life. Blessed is the state, and its people.”
Ofek 10 is the seventh Israeli satellite currently in space, and the first launched by the Defense Ministry since its predecessor, Ofek 9, four years ago.
But it functions in a fundamentally new way – instead of automatically sweeping through vast swathes of territory with its cameras, it can momentarily switch between different locations.
This is due to the fact that its operators can alter the orbit of the 330 kilogram satellite between 400 kilometers and 600 kilometers from the Earth’s surface in its 90-minute circumnavigation of the planet, while zooming in to take high-resolution images of objects as small as 18 inches across.
“The satellite has exceptional photographic ability,” said Ofer Doron, CEO of the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Space Division, which was responsible for developing the satellite. “It’s designed to deliver very precise, high quality images under all conditions.”
Apart from Israel, other countries that operate surveillance satellites include the US, Russia, China, France, Italy, Britain, South Korea, India, Japan, Ukraine and Iran.
Of these nations, Iran poses the greatest threat to security in the eyes of Israeli officials, who have repeatedly insisted that Tehran is on the verge of developing a prototype nuclear weapon. Israel also says it plans to use the new satellite to monitor hostile militant groups, presumably such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
In fact, for security reasons, Israel launches its satellites to the west, and not to the east, sacrificing payload, but making sure that no technologically sensitive debris fall on the territory of its rivals, particularly if any satellite fails to reach orbit and plunges to Earth.
But Ofek 10 avoided this fate, and has already begun relaying visuals and information from orbit. It is expected to become fully operational within three months.
Iran has announced it has successfully test-fired two ballistic missiles capable of “great destruction” ahead of new nuclear talks with world powers. However, the so-called defense-related “red line” is not expected to be discussed at the meeting.
“The new generation of long-range ground-to-ground ballistic missile with a fragmentation warhead and the laser-guided air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missile dubbed Bina [Insightful] have been successfully test-fired,” state television quoted Defense Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan as saying.
Dehqan said that one of the weapons tested is a long-range missile with radar-evading capabilities, designed to cause a “great destruction.”
“The Bina missile is capable of striking important targets such as bridges, tanks and enemy command centers with great precision,” he said.
Iran’s military already possesses surface-to-surface missiles with a range of up to 2,000 kilometers, capable of reaching a number of possible targets in the region – including Israel.
Following the successful test, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued a congratulatory statement, also reminding that Iran was “serious” about the P5+1 talks scheduled for February 18-19 in Vienna.
“Iran is ready to enter negotiations with the P5+1 to reach a comprehensive and final agreement,” Rouhani said.
However, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi stated that Tehran’s ballistic missile program would not be up for negotiation at the next round of talks. “We will not allow such issues to be discussed in future talks,” he said, adding that “defense-related issues are a red line for Iran.”
“We will not discuss any issue other than the nuclear dossier in the negotiations,” Araqchi told state TV.
Last week, Wendy Sherman – the US negotiator in the talks – told the US Senate hearing that Tehran’s ballistic missile program would be discussed in the comprehensive deal. Sherman had also maintained that Iran does not need a heavy water reactor in Arak, nor does the country need the Fordow uranium enrichment facility.
But another Iranian nuclear negotiator, Majid Takhte Ravanchi, stated on Monday that Iran would not accept the closure of “any of its nuclear sites.” Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he anticipates the talks in Vienna to be “difficult,” as the biggest challenge is the “lack of trust.”
Meanwhile, Iran has already begun to see the positive effects of the historic November nuclear deal, which was finalized in Geneva on January 20. On February 1, Tehran received its first US$550 million installment of a total $4.2 billion in frozen funds in return for the halting of its highly enriched uranium production.
(Reuters) – Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough deal early on Sunday to curb Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in what could be the first sign of an emerging rapprochement between the Islamic state and the West.
Aimed at ending a dangerous standoff, the agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia was nailed down after more than four days of tortuous negotiations in the Swiss city of Geneva.
Halting Iran’s most sensitive nuclear work, it was designed as a package of confidence-building steps to ease decades of tensions and confrontation and banish the specter of a Middle East war over Tehran’s nuclear aspirations.
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the major powers, said it created time and space for talks aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution to the dispute.
“This is only a first step,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference. “We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction in which we have managed to move against in the past.”
In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama said that if Iran did not meet its commitments during a six-month period, the United States would turn off sanctions relief and “ratchet up the pressure.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu’s government denounced the agreement as “a bad deal” that Israel did not regard itself as bound by.
Before Sunday’s agreement, Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear power, said the deal being offered would give Iran more time to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.
The West fears that Iran has been seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. The Islamic Republic denies that, saying its nuclear program is a peaceful energy project.
The United States said the agreement halted progress on Iran’s nuclear program, including construction of the Arak research reactor, which is of special concern for the West as it can yield potential bomb material.
It would neutralize Iran’s stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is a close step away from the level needed for weapons, and calls for intrusive U.N. nuclear inspections, a senior U.S. official said.
Iran has also committed to stop uranium enrichment above a fissile purity of 5 percent, a U.S. fact sheet said.
Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran’s stated goal – but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further.
REVERSIBLE SANCTIONS RELIEF
Diplomacy with Iran was stepped up after the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iranian president in June, replacing bellicose nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Rouhani aims to mend fences with big powers and get sanctions lifted. He obtained crucial public backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keeping powerful hardline critics at bay.
On a Twitter account widely recognized as representing Rouhani, a message said after the agreement was announced, “Iranian people’s vote for moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons.”
The Geneva deal has no recognition of an Iranian right to enrich uranium and sanctions would still be enforced, the U.S. official said.
But Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said Iran’s enrichment program had been officially recognized.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the agreement would make it harder for Iran to make a dash to build a nuclear weapon and would make Israel and other U.S. allies safer.
Kerry also told a news conference that while Obama would not take off the table the possible use of force against Iran, he believed it was necessary first to exhaust diplomacy.
He said the limited sanctions relief could be reversible.
After Ashton read out a statement on the deal to the cameras at the United Nations in Geneva, ministers appeared elated. Ashton and Kerry hugged each other, and Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov shook hands. Minutes later, as the Iranian delegation posed for photos, Zarif and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius approached each other and embraced.
A White House fact sheet detailed what Iran could obtain:
– Potential access to $1.5 billion in revenue from trade in gold and precious metals and the suspension of some sanctions on Iran‘s auto sector, and its petrochemical exports;
– Allow purchases of Iranian oil to remain at their currently significantly reduced levels. “$4.2 billion from these sales will be allowed to be transferred in installments if, and as, Iran fulfils its commitments,” the fact sheet said;
– License safety-related repairs and inspections inside Iran for certain Iranian airlines.
Most of the sanctions, Kerry said, would remain in place.
“The approximately $7 billion in relief is a fraction of the costs that Iran will continue to incur during this first phase under the sanctions that will remain in place,” the White House said. “The vast majority of Iran’s approximately $100 billion in foreign exchange holdings are inaccessible or restricted.”
Kerry and the foreign ministers of the five other world powers joined the negotiations with Iran early on Saturday as the two sides appeared to be edging closer to a long-sought preliminary agreement.
The Western powers’ goal was to cap Iran’s nuclear energy program, which has a history of evading U.N. inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran covertly refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a Twitter message that it was an “important and encouraging” first-stage agreement with Iran, whose nuclear program “won’t move forward for 6 months and parts rolled back.”
France’s Fabius said, “After years of blockages, the agreement in Geneva on Iran’s nuclear program is an important step to preserving security and peace.”
Tehran, whose oil-dependent economy has been severely damaged by tightening Western sanctions over the past few years, denies it would ever “weaponise” enrichment.
The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is trying covertly to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.
“This is the first time in 33 years that Washington and Tehran have concluded a formal agreement. Even six months ago, few would have imagined this outcome,” said senior fellow Suzanne Maloney of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.
- Iran nuclear deal reached in Geneva (cjonline.com)
- World powers reach deal on Iran nuclear program (yakimaherald.com)
- Iran agrees to limits on nuclear program if sanctions are eased, officials say (al.com)
- French, Iranian FMs: Iran nuclear deal reached (seattletimes.com)