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Blowback: Iran abandons nuclear limits after US killing


TEHRAN, Iran – The blowback over the U.S. killing of a top Iranian general mounted Sunday as Iran announced it will no longer abide by the limits contained in the 2015 nuclear deal and Iraq’s Parliament called for the expulsion of all American troops from Iraqi soil.

The twin developments could bring Iran closer to building an atomic bomb and enable the Islamic State group to stage a comeback in Iraq, making the Middle East a far more dangerous and unstable place.

Iranian state television cited a statement by President Hassan Rouhani’s administration saying the country would not observe limits on fuel enrichment, on the size of its enriched uranium stockpile and on its research and development activities.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran no longer faces any limitations in operations,” a state TV broadcaster said.

In Iraq, meanwhile, lawmakers voted in favour of a resolution calling for an end to the foreign military presence in the country, including the estimated 5,200 U.S. troops stationed to help battle Islamic State extremists. The bill is subject to approval by the Iraqi government but has the backing of the outgoing prime minister.

In yet another sign of rising tensions and threats of retaliation over the deadly airstrike, the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq said it is putting the battle against IS on hold to focus on protecting its own troops and bases.

The string of developments capped a day of mass mourning over Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad on Friday. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in the cities of Ahvaz and Mashhad to walk alongside the casket of Soleimani, who was the architect of Iran’s proxy wars across the Mideast and was blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Americans in suicide bombings and other attacks.

The U.S. State Department had no immediate comment on Iran’s announcement.

As for Iraq, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked before the vote the whether the U.S. would comply with a troop-withdrawal request but would not answer directly. He said the U.S. “is prepared to help the Iraqi people get what it is they deserve and continue our mission there to take down terrorism from ISIS and others in the region.”

Iran insisted that it remains open to negotiations with European partners over its nuclear program. And it did not back off from earlier promises that it wouldn’t seek a nuclear weapon.

However, the announcement represents the clearest nuclear proliferation threat yet made by Iran since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018 and reimposed sanctions. It further raises regional tensions, as Iran’s longtime foe Israel has promised never to allow Iran to produce an atomic bomb.

Iran did not elaborate on what levels it would immediately reach in its program. Tehran has already broken some of the deal’s limits as part of a step-by-step pressure campaign to get sanctions relief. It has increased its production, begun enriching uranium to 5% and restarted enrichment at an underground facility.

While it does not possess uranium enriched to weapons-grade levels of 90%, any push forward narrows the estimated one-year “breakout time” needed for it to have enough material to build a nuclear weapon if it chose to do so.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations watchdog observing Iran’s program, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. However, Iran said that its co-operation with the IAEA “will continue as before.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi earlier told journalists that Soleimani’s killing would prompt Iranian officials to take a bigger step away from the nuclear deal.

“In the world of politics, all developments are interconnected,“ Mousavi said.

In Iraq, where the airstrike has been denounced as a violation of the country’s sovereignty, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi said that the government has two choices: End the presence of foreign troops or restrict their mission to training Iraqi forces. He called for the first option.

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The majority of about 180 legislators present in Parliament voted in favour of the troop-removal resolution. It was backed by most Shiite members of Parliament, who hold a majority of seats. Many Sunni and Kurdish legislators did not show up for the session, apparently because they oppose abolishing the deal.

A U.S. pullout could not only undermine the fight against the Islamic State but could also enable Iran to increase its influence in Iraq, which like Iran is a majority-Shiite country.

Soleimani’s killing has escalated the crisis between Tehran and Washington after months of back-and-forth attacks and threats that have put the wider Middle East on edge. Iran has promised “harsh revenge“ for the U.S. attack, while Trump has vowed on Twitter that the U.S. will strike back at 52 targets “VERY FAST AND VERY HARD. ”

The U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia warned Americans “of the heightened risk of missile and drone attacks.” In Lebanon, the leader of the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah said Soleimani’s killing made U.S. military bases, warships and service members across the region fair game for attacks. A former Iranian Revolutionary Guard leader suggested the Israeli city of Haifa and centres like Tel Aviv could be targeted should the U.S. attack Iran.

Iranian state TV estimated that millions of mourners came out in Ahvaz and Mashhad to pay their respects to Soleimani.

The casket moved slowly through streets choked with mourners wearing black, beating their chests and carrying posters with Soleimani’s portrait. Demonstrators also carried red Shiite flags, which traditionally symbolize both the spilled blood of someone unjustly killed and a call for vengeance.

The processions marked the first time Iran honoured a single man with a multi-city ceremony. Not even Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who founded the Islamic Republic, received such a processional with his death in 1989. Soleimani on Monday will lie in state at Tehran’s famed Musalla mosque as the revolutionary leader did before him.

Soleimani’s remains will go to Tehran and Qom on Monday for public mourning processions. He will be buried in his hometown of Kerman.

___

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates and Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad, Sarah El Deeb in Beirut and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.





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North Korea conducts new test at rocket site, aims to ‘overpower U.S. nuclear threats’


SEOUL — North Korea said it had successfully conducted another test at a satellite launch site, the latest in a string of developments aimed at “restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.,” state news agency KCNA reported on Saturday.

The test was conducted on Friday at the Sohae satellite launch site, KCNA said, citing a spokesman for North Korea’s Academy of Defence Science, without specifying what sort of testing occurred.

In a later statement carried by KCNA, Chief of the General Staff Pak Jong Chon said the tests were designed to bolster North Korea’s defenses by developing new weapons.

“The priceless data, experience and new technologies gained in the recent tests of defense science research will be fully applied to the development of another strategic weapon of the DPRK for definitely and reliably restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.,” he said, using the initials of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

It was the second test at the Sohae facility in the space of a week.


North Korean leader Kim Jong Un oversees a super-large multiple launch rocket system test in this undated picture released by North Korea’s Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 28, 2019.

KCNA via REUTERS

KCNA on Sunday said that North Korea had carried out a “very important” test on Dec. 7 at the satellite launch site, a rocket-testing facility that U.S. officials once said North Korea had promised to close.

That KCNA report called the Dec. 7 event a “successful test of great significance.” South Korea’s defense minister Jeong Keong-doo said it was an engine test.

The reported tests come ahead of a year-end deadline North Korea has put forth for the United States to drop its insistence on unilateral denuclearisation by Pyongyang.

U.S. President Donald Trump has invested considerable time trying to persuade North Korea to give up a nuclear weapons program that has grown to threaten the United States, but progress has been scant in spite of his three meetings with Kim Jong Un.

“ARMY READY”

North Korea would be ready to respond to all political and military provocations by hostile forces while being “familiar with both dialog and confrontation,” Pak said.

“Genuine peace can be safeguarded and our development and future be guaranteed only when the balance of power is completely ensured,” he said.

Pak warned that the United States and others should avoid provoking North Korea if they wanted a peaceful end-of-year period.

“Our army is fully ready to thoroughly carry out any decision of the Supreme Leader with action,” he said.

Pyongyang has warned it could take a “new path” amid the stalled talks with the United States.

The top U.S envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, U.S. special envoy for North Korea, is due in Seoul on Sunday for meetings with South Korean officials.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday said the United States would be “tested soon” on bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table.

“They (North Korea) are still doing training, they do short range ballistic missile tests that we are also concerned about.

“We watch closely as do South Korea and Japan … the State Department is trying to get them to the table, because the only way forward is through a diplomatic and political agreement,” Esper said at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The State Department is trying to get them to the table, because the only way forward is through a diplomatic and political agreement

REMINDER

Analysts said such tests could help North Korea build more reliable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

“The point seems to be to remind the United States that North Korea still has space to qualitatively advance its program,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Federation of American Scientists.

“We had a good hint that whatever they were doing at Sohae was military in nature when the Academy of Defence Science took charge of the announcement, as opposed to NADA, their space agency,” Panda added.

Tension has been rising in recent weeks as Pyongyang has conducted weapons tests and waged a war of words with U.S. President Donald Trump, stoking fears that tensions between the two countries could return.

“Considering the fact that North Korea said the 7-minute test conducted last night was to bolster the strategic nuclear deterrence, the test would likely be related to ICBMs, which North Korea considers a strategic weapon to defend itself from adversaries including the United States,” Koh Yu-hwan, a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, told Reuters.

“North Korea is close to issuing an ultimatum towards the United States to come to the negotiating table with new calculations or to return to developing nuclear weapons,” Koh added.





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North Korea says US must chose “Christmas gift” as nuclear diplomacy deadline for Donald Trump administration nears


kim-jong-un-missile.jpg
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via

Kcna


Seoul, South Korea — North Korea on Tuesday repeated its assertions the Trump administration is running out of time to salvage nuclear negotiations. A statement attributed to a senior diplomat said it was entirely up to the United States to choose what “Christmas gift” it gets from the North.

The statement came as North Korea continues to dial up pressure on Washington and Seoul ahead of leader Kim Jong Un’s end-of-year deadline for the U.S. to offer mutually acceptable terms for a deal.

Negotiations have faltered since a February summit between Kim and President Donald Trump broke down after the U.S. rejected North Korean demands for broad sanctions relief in exchange for a partial surrender of its nuclear capabilities.

Working-level talks held in Sweden in October broke down over what the North Koreans described as the Americans’ “old stance and attitude.”

Ri Thae Song, a vice foreign minister handling U.S. affairs, accused Washington of repeating talk offers aimed at buying time without offering real solutions. Ri reiterated earlier North Korean statements that the country has no intentions to continue the nuclear diplomacy unless it gets something substantial in return.

“The dialogue touted by the U.S. is, in essence, nothing but a foolish trick hatched to keep the D.P.R.K bound to dialogue and use it in favor of the political situation and election in the U.S.” Ri’s comments in state media referred to North Korea by its formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

North Korea launches short-range projectiles toward Japan, South Korea says

“What is left to be done now is the U.S. option and it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.”

Kim has said he would seek a “new path” if the United States persists with sanctions and pressure. The North has tested a series of new solid-fuel missile systems in recent months, which experts say potentially expands its ability to strike targets in South Korea and Japan. It has also threatened to lift a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and resume launches over Japan.

Kim and Trump exchanged crude insults and war threats amid a provocative run in North Korean nuclear and missile tests in 2017, but both leaders have described their personal relationship as good since they began their high-stakes nuclear summitry in 2018.

After the North tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile in July 2017, Kim called the missile a “package of gifts” to the Americans for their Fourth of July holiday.



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Pope Francis Lashes Nuclear Weapons As ‘Immoral’ During Trip To Japan



In a somber visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki Sunday, Pope Francis condemned nuclear weapons as “immoral” and called for a world without them.

“The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral — as is the possession of atomic weapons,” he said at the peace memorial in Hiroshima, where an American atomic bomb attack in 1945 — the first in the world — killed at least 140,000 people. 

“We will be judged on this,” he warned.

Francis spoke with survivors there, one of them who was a 14-year-old factory worker at the time.

“No one in this world can imagine such a scene of hell,” Yoshiko Kajimoto said as she described fleeing the scene, The Associated Press reported. Victims’ “bodies were so burned and totally red. Their faces swollen to double size, their lips hanging loose, with both hands held out with burnt skin hanging from them. They no longer looked human.”

Earlier in the day, the pontiff visited Nagasaki, which the U.S. attacked three days after Hiroshima, killing some 74,000 people.

“Peace and international stability are incompatible with attempts to build upon the fear of mutual destruction or the threat of total annihilation,” the Catholic leader said in remarks there in the driving rain.

The pope emphasized that resources wasted creating nuclear weapons could far better be used helping humanity.

“In a world where millions of children and families live in inhumane conditions, the money that is squandered and the fortunes made through the manufacture, upgrading, maintenance, and sale of ever more destructive weapons are an affront crying out to heaven,” he said.

Francis’s trip was the first papal visit to Japan in nearly 40 years. On the last trip in 1981, Pope John Paul II also visited Nagasaki.

Francis is the first pope to speak out against nuclear weapons, even for “deterrence.”





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