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France says Iran is building nuclear weapons capacity, urgent to revive 2015 deal

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Iran is in the process of building up its nuclear weapons capacity and it is urgent that Tehran and Washington return to a 2015 nuclear agreement, France’s foreign minister was quoted as saying in an interview published on Saturday (16 January), writes .

Iran has been accelerating its breaches of the nuclear deal and earlier this month started pressing ahead with plans to enrich uranium to 20% fissile strength at its underground Fordow nuclear plant. That is the level Tehran achieved before striking the deal with world powers to contain its disputed nuclear ambitions.

The Islamic Republic’s breaches of the nuclear agreement since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from it in 2018 and subsequently imposed sanctions on Tehran may complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden, who takes office on Jan. 20, to rejoin the pact.

“The Trump administration chose what it called the maximum pressure campaign on Iran. The result was that this strategy only increased the risk and the threat,” Le Drian told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

“This has to stop because Iran and - I say this clearly - is in the process of acquiring nuclear (weapons) capacity.”

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it so chose, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

Western diplomats have said Iran’s repeated breaches have already reduced the “breakout time” to well below a year.

Iran denies any intent to weaponise its nuclear programme.

With presidential elections in Iran due in June, Le Drian said it was urgent to “tell the Iranians that this is enough” and to bring Iran and the United States back into the accord.

Biden has said he will return the United States to the deal if Iran resumes strict compliance with it. Iran says sanctions must be lifted before it reverses its nuclear breaches.

However, Le Drian said that even if both sides were to return to the deal, it would not be enough.

“Tough discussions will be needed over ballistic proliferation and Iran’s destabilisation of its neighbours in the region,” Le Drian said.

France

US and allies respond to Iranian 'provocations' with studied calm

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In the week since Washington offered to talk with Tehran about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran has curbed UN monitoring, threatened to boost uranium enrichment and its suspected proxies have twice rocketed Iraqi bases with US soldiers, write Arshad Mohammed and John Irish.

In return, the United States and three allies, Britain, France and Germany, have responded with a studied calm.

The response - or lack of one - reflects a desire not to disrupt the diplomatic overture in hopes Iran will return to the table and, if not, that the pressure of US sanctions will keep taking its toll, US and European officials said.

Iran has repeatedly demanded the United States first ease the US sanctions imposed after former President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. It would then wind down its own violations of the pact, which began a year after Trump’s withdrawal.

“However much they believe the US should lift sanctions first, that’s not going to happen,” said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

If Iran wants the United States to resume compliance with the deal “the best way and the only way is to get to the table where those things will be discussed,” the official added.

Two European diplomats said they did not expect the United States, or Britain, France and Germany - informally known as the E3 - to do more to pressure Iran for now despite what one described as “provocations.”

One of the diplomats said the current policy was to condemn but avoid doing anything that could close the diplomatic window.

“We have to tread carefully,” said the diplomat. “We have to see whether the E3 can juggle Iran’s headlong rush and the U.S. hesitance to see whether we even have a path forward.”

The “headlong rush” was a reference to Iran’s accelerating violations of the agreement.

In the last week, Iran has reduced cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, including by ending snap inspections of undeclared suspected nuclear sites.

A report by U.N. nuclear watchdog also said Iran has begun enriching uranium to 20%, above the 2015 deal’s 3.67% limit, and Iran’s supreme leader said Tehran could go to 60% if it wished, bringing it closer to the 90% purity needed for an atomic bomb.

The crux of the deal was that Iran would limit its uranium enrichment program to make it harder to amass the fissile material for a nuclear weapon - an ambition it has long denied - in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

While the United States says it is still investigating rockets fired at Iraqi bases last week that house U.S. personnel, they are suspected of having been carried out by Iranian proxy forces in a long-standing pattern of such attacks.

In a demonstration of the restrained US stance, State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday that Washington was “outraged” by the attacks but would not “lash out” and would respond at a time and place of its choosing.

The second European diplomat said US leverage was still in place because President Joe Biden had not lifted sanctions.

“Iran has positive signals from the Americans. It now needs to seize this opportunity,” this diplomat said.

On Wednesday (24 February), spokesman Price told reporters the United States would not wait forever.

“Our patience is not unlimited,” Price said.

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French city of Nice asks tourists to stay away amid COVID surge

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The mayor of Nice in southern France called on Sunday (21 February) for a weekend lockdown in the area to reduce the flow of tourists as it battles a sharp spike in coronavirus infections to triple the national rate, writes Geert De Clercq.

The Nice area has France’s highest COVID-19 infection rate, with 740 new cases per week per 100,000 residents, according to Covidtracker.fr.

“We need strong measures that go beyond the nationwide 6 p.m. curfew, either tighter curfew, or a partial and time-specific lockdown. A weekend lockdown would make sense,” Mayor Christian Estrosi said on franceinfo radio.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said on Saturday the government would decide this weekend on tightening virus control measures in the Mediterranean city.

Before ordering a second national lockdown in November, the government imposed curfews some cities and closed restaurants in Marseille, but it has generally refrained from regional measures due to protest from local politicians and businesses.

“We do not rule out local lockdowns,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said on LCI television.

He added that the trend in new cases was not good in recent days and that there was no case for loosening curfew.

“The weather is nice, everybody rushes to come here. A weekend lockdown would put a stop to that, without halting economic activity in the city,” Estrosi said.

Estrosi said infection rates had leapt due to the massive inflow of tourists over the Christmas holiday. International flights to the city had jumped from 20 a day before Christmas to 120 over the holiday - all this without people having virus tests in their country of origin or on arrival.

“We will be happy to receive lots of tourists this summer, once we win this battle, but it is better to have a period while we say ‘do not come here, this is not the moment’. Protecting the people of Nice is my priority,” he said.

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West must help vaccinate Africa's healthworkers now, says Macron

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Europe and the United States should without delay send enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to Africa to inoculate the continent’s health-care workers or risk losing influence to Russia and China, French President Emmanuel Macron (pictured) said on Friday (19 February), writes Michel Rose.

Earlier this week, Macron urged Europe and the United States to allocate up to 5% of their current vaccine supplies to developing countries in an effort to avoid an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference after U.S. President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron said the first step should send 13 million doses to Africa - enough, he said, to inoculate all its healthworkers.

“If we announce billions today to supply doses in 6 months, 8 months, a year, our friends in Africa will, under justified pressure from their people, buy doses from the Chinese and the Russians,” Macron told the conference. “And the strength of the West will be a concept, and not a reality.”

Macron said 13 million doses amount to 0.43% of all vaccine shots ordered by Europe and America.

Group of Seven leaders earlier in the day reaffirmed their support to the most vulnerable countries.

Oxfam France urged the G7 countries to break the monopoly held by their pharmaceutical companies. That would be the “fastest, fairest and most effective way to boost vaccine production so that countries don’t have to compete for doses,” the charity said in a statement.

The World Health Organization on Thursday urged nations producing COVID-19 vaccines not to distribute them unilaterally but to donate them to the global COVAX scheme to ensure fairness.

Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates told the conference the politically sensitive gap between vaccinating people in wealthy and developing countries could narrow to half a year if authorities take proper action.

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