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Iran fails to explain uranium traces found at several sites - IAEA report

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Iranian flag flies in front of the UN office building, housing IAEA headquarters, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Iran has failed to explain traces of uranium found at several undeclared sites, a report by the UN nuclear watchdog showed on Monday (31 May), possibly setting up a fresh diplomatic clash between Tehran and the West that could derail wider nuclear talks, writes Francois Murphy.

Three months ago Britain, France and Germany scrapped a US-backed plan for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors to criticize Iran for failing to fully explain the origin of the particles; the three backed off as IAEA chief Rafael Grossi announced fresh talks with Iran.

"After many months, Iran has not provided the necessary explanation for the presence of the nuclear material particles at any of the three locations where the Agency has conducted complementary accesses (inspections)," a report by Grossi to member states seen by Reuters said.

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It will now be up to the three European powers to decide whether to revive their push for a resolution criticising Iran, which could undermine wider negotiations to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at talks currently under way in Vienna. Grossi had hoped to report progress before the board meets again next week.

"The Director General is concerned that the technical discussions between the Agency and Iran have not yielded the expected results," the report said.

"The lack of progress in clarifying the Agency's questions concerning the correctness and completeness of Iran's safeguards declarations seriously affects the ability of the Agency to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear programme," it added.

In a separate quarterly report also sent to member states on Monday and seen by Reuters, the agency gave an indication of the damage done to Iran’s production of enriched uranium by an explosion and power cut at its Natanz site last month that Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Iran's quarterly increase in its stock of enriched uranium was the lowest since August 2019 at just 273 kg, bringing the total to 3,241 kg, according to an IAEA estimate. It was not able to fully verify the stock because Iran has downgraded cooperation.

That total is many times the 202.8 kg limit set by the nuclear deal, but still well below the more than six tonnes Iran possessed before the deal.

At Iran's main enrichment plant, which is underground at Natanz, the agency verified on May 24 that 20 cascades, or clusters, of different types of centrifuges were being fed with uranium hexafluoride feedstock for enrichment. A senior diplomat said that before the explosion that figure was 35-37.

After Washington pulled out of the nuclear deal in 2018 under President Donald Trump and re-imposed crippling economic sanctions against Tehran, Iran began breaching the deal's restrictions on its nuclear activities as of 2019.

One of its more recent breaches, enriching uranium to 60%, a big step towards weapons-grade from the 20% it had previously reached and the deal's 3.67% limit, continued. The IAEA estimated that Iran had produced 2.4 kg of uranium enriched to that level and 62.8 kg of uranium enriched to up to 20%.

Iran’s production of experimental quantities of uranium metal, which is prohibited under the deal and has prompted protests by Western powers because of its potential use in the core of nuclear weapons, also continued. Iran produced 2.42 kg, the IAEA reported, up from 3.6 grams three months ago.

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Incoming Iran president says he will take steps to lift 'tyrannical' US sanctions

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Iran will take steps to lift "tyrannical" sanctions imposed by the United States, hardline Shi'ite cleric Ebrahim Raisi (pictured) said on Tuesday (3 August) after winning the endorsement of the country's supreme leader to become president, writes Parisa Hafezi, Reuters.

Former US President Donald Trump ditched Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with six powers three years ago and reimposed sanctions that have devastated Iran's economy.

"We will seek to lift the tyrannical sanctions imposed by America," Raisi, who takes office on Thursday (5 August), said in a televised speech, adding that his government would try to improve living conditions which have suffered under the sanctions.

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Iran and six powers have been in talks since April to revive the nuclear pact. But Iranian and Western officials have said that significant gaps remain.

The sixth round of indirect talks between Tehran and Washington adjourned on June 20, two days after Raisi was elected president. Parties involved in the negotiations have yet to announce when the next round of talks in Vienna will resume.

The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word on all matters of state, but the change of president will remove the moderating influence on policy-making exercised by Raisi's pragmatist predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, since 2013.

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Bennett: Iran behind attack on Israeli-managed ship near Oman coast, UK and US join Israel in blaming Tehran

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has blamed Iran for the attack that left two dead on the Israeli-managed oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea last week, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday (1 August), Bennett said: ‘’The world recently received a reminder of Iranian aggression, this time on the high seas. The Iranians, who attacked the ship ‘Mercer Street’ with unmanned aerial vehicles, intended to attack an Israeli target. Instead, their act of piracy led to the deaths of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen. From here, I send condolences to Britain and Romania and, of course, to the families of the victims.’’

He added: ‘’I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to evade responsibility for the event. They are denying this. Then, I determine, with absolute certainty that Iran carried out the attack against the ship. Iran’s thuggishness endangers not only Israel, but also harms global interests, namely freedom of navigation and international trade.’’

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He concluded: ‘’The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake. In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way.’’

The Japanese-owned ship Mercer Street is managed by Zodiac Maritime Ltd., a London-based company owned by Israeli tycoon Eyal Ofer. It sails under a Liberian flag.

According to Zodiac Maritime’s website, when the incident occurred the vessel was in the northern Indian Ocean, en route to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with no cargo aboard.

The United States and the United Kingdom joined Israel in accusing Iran for carrying out the attack, putting further pressure on Tehran as it denied being involved in the assault.

Calling it an “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was “no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior.”

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks previously, which crash into targets and detonate their explosive payloads.

In his statement, Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones.

“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” said Raab. “Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”

Blinken similarly described the US as “confident” Iran carried out the attack, using multiple drones.

“These actions threaten freedom of navigation through this crucial waterway, international shipping and commerce, and the lives of those on the vessels involved,” he said in a statement.

On Monday (2 August), Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said that his country will work with international partners on a response to the Iranian attack.

“Based on the available info, Romania strongly condemns the Iranian drone attack against Mercer Street, during which a Romanian citizen was killed,” Aurescu tweeted. “There is no justification whatsoever for deliberately attacking civilians.”

The Iranian threat remains the Israeli government’s highest priority, both in their ambition to become a nuclear threshold state and their plans for regional hegemony and supporting proxies against Israel in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip

Israel hopes this latest attack and the clear intelligence that Iran was responsible will strengthen the resolve of the international community to recognise the dangers inherent within the Iranian regime

Iran will likely be the top agenda item when Prime Minister Bennett travels to the US to meet President Biden later this month.

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Time to investigate the 1988 massacre in Iran and the role of its next president - Ebrahim Raisi

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On 5 August, the Iranian regime will inaugurate its new president, Ebrahim Raisi, trying to whitewash his history of human-rights abuses. In 1988, he played a key role in the regime’s massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, most of whom were activists with the main opposition movement, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (or MEK).

Based on a fatwa by then-Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, “death commissions” throughout Iran ordered the execution of political prisoners who refused to abandon their beliefs. Victims were buried in secret mass graves, the locations of which were never revealed to relatives. In recent years, the regime has systematically has destroyed those graves to hide any evidence of the crime, which has been described by renowned jurists throughout the world as one of the most tragic crimes against humanity to take place in the second half of the 20th century.

The massacre has never been independently investigated by the UN. The perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity, with many of them occupying the most senior government positions. Raisi is now the most notable example of this phenomenon, and he has never denied his role as a member of the Tehran Death Commission.

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On 3 September 2020, seven United Nations Special Rapporteurs wrote to Iranian authorities stating that the 1988 extrajudicial executions and forced disappearances “may amount to crimes against humanity”. In May, a group of more than 150 rights campaigners, including Nobel laureates, former heads of state and former UN officials, called for an international investigation into the 1988 killings.

As the UN experts’ letter confirms, families of the victims, survivors and human rights defenders are today subject of persistent threats, harassment, intimidation, and attacks because of their attempts to seek information on the fate and whereabouts of the victims. With Raisi’s rise to the Presidency, an investigation into the 1988 massacre is more vital than ever.

On June 19, 2021, Amnesty International’s secretary-general said in a statement: “That Ebrahim Raisi has risen to the presidency instead of being investigated for the crimes against humanity is a grim reminder that impunity reigns supreme in Iran. In 2018, our organization documented how Ebrahim Raisi had been a member of the ‘death commission’ which forcibly disappeared and extrajudicially executed in secret thousands of political dissidents in Evin and Gohardasht prisons near Tehran in 1988. The circumstances surrounding the fate of the victims and the whereabouts of their bodies are, to this day, systematically concealed by the Iranian authorities, amounting to ongoing crimes against humanity.”

Javaid Rehman, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, said on 29 June that over the years his office has gathered testimonies and evidence of the state-ordered executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. He said his office was ready to share them if the UN Human Rights Council or another body sets up an impartial investigation, adding: “It’s very important now that Raisi is the president-elect that we start investigating what happened in 1988 and the role of individuals."

On Tuesday (27 July) it was announced that prosecutors in Sweden had charged an Iranian with war crimes over the mass execution of prisoners in 1988. The suspect was not named but is widely believed to be 60-year-old Hamid Noury.

Documents registered with the Swedish Prosecution Authority include a list of 444 PMOI prisoners who were hanged in Gohardasht prison alone. A book entitled “Crimes against Humanity” names more than 5,000 Mojahedin, and a book entitled “Massacre of Political Prisoners” published by the PMOI 22 years ago, names Hamid Noury as one of many known perpetrators of the massacre, and the memoirs of a number of PMOI members and sympathizers.

Prosecutors were invoked the principle of "universal jurisdiction" for serious crimes in order to bring the case. In a statement released on Tuesday, Sweden's Prosecution Authority said the charges related to the suspect's time as assistant to the deputy prosecutor at Gohardasht prison in Karaj. Noury was arrested at Stockholm airport on 9 November 2019 upon his arrival from Tehran. He has been held behind bars ever since and his trial is scheduled for 10 August.

According to documents in the case, Noury exchanged emails with an Iranian-Swedish dual national by the name of Iraj Mesdaghi 10 months prior to his trip to Sweden. Ironically, Mesdaghi is one of the plaintiffs in the case against Noury and testified against him. The War Crimes Unit (WCU) of the National Operations Department (NOA) of the Swedish Police found Iraj Mesdaghi’s email address on Hamid Noury's phone and noted that he had sent two emails to that address on January 17, 2019. This has created questions about Mesdaghis true role and objective.

When faced with questioning, Noury did his utmost to evade answering investigating officers, and Mesdaghi said he could not remember the email exchange. But the evidence draws attention to investigation which confirmed that Mesdaghi had been summoned to Evin Prsion by Noury years ago and he practically acceptedto collaborate with the regime. 

Iran policy has always been a vexing issue for the West but come August 5, the West has to make a decision: Whether to call for a UN investigation of the 1988 massacre and role of the Iranian officials including Raisi, or to join the ranks of those who have violated their principles and turned their backs on Iranians by engaging with the Iranian regime. What is at the stake is no longer just Iran policy, but also the sacred values and moral principles that the West has fought for generations.

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