Category: International

France & Iran Combine Forces to Defend Iran Nuclear Deal to U.S.A.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French leader Emmanuel Macron launched a joint defence of the Iranian nuclear deal on Monday but expressed differences on how to move forward as US President Donald Trump weighs up whether to scrap it.

The Kremlin said Putin and Macron were both calling for “strict observance” of the hard-fought 2015 agreement after a phone call between the two leaders.

Macron’s office however said that while the pair agreed on the need to “preserve the gains from the agreement”, the French leader was also pushing for international talks on a potential wider deal.

“The president expressed his desire for discussions on controlling (Iran’s) nuclear activity after 2025, in close cooperation with Russia, other permanent members of the UN Security Council, European and regional powers,” the French statement said.

Trump has a May 12 deadline to decide on whether or not to walk away from the deal, which he has derided as “insane” partly because its restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities begin expiring in 2025.

Moscow has previously said there was “no alternative” to the agreement and that Tehran’s position on the issue was paramount. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has rejected any suggestion of rewriting the deal.

The agreement, thrashed out between Tehran and six world powers after fraught negotiations, saw Iran agree to freeze its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.

But Trump has called for it to be altered or scrapped.

Macron has positioned himself as an emissary for European officials seeking a compromise that would keep the deal intact. He has previously suggested an additional deal that extends Iran’s nuclear restrictions.

But after a state visit to the US this week, he admitted he had failed to secure any promise from Trump to keep the deal alive.

Major European powers Britain, France and Germany all remain committed to the pact, saying it is the best way to keep Tehran from getting a nuclear bomb.

– ‘Hi, Vladimir’ –

Along with urging fresh negotiations on Iran, Macron called for international talks on the wars in Syria and Yemen with the support of Russia.

He “indicated his wish for Russia to play a constructive role in all of these questions to avoid tensions mounting in the region”, the statement said, in a nod to increasingly cold relations between Russia and the West.

The French president, who has argued for keeping European communications open with Moscow despite tensions over the war in Syria, is due to visit Russia on May 24 and 25.

A video posted to Macron’s official Twitter account showed him calling Putin from his plane en route to Australia, in which he addresses the Russian leader warmly as “Vladimir” using the informal form of “you”.

“Hi Vladimir, how are you?” he is heard saying. “Thanks for agreeing to this phone call, I wanted to talk to you to take stock of the situation.”

Aside:  Trump and Macron planted a tree — but where did it go?
The photograph was seen around the world: US President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron, gilded spades in hand, shovelling dirt over a young sapling.

A week ago, at the beginning of Macron’s visit to Washington, the French president joined his American counterpart to throw handfuls of soil on the roots of a young oak tree as the their respective first ladies looked on

It was a symbolic gesture: the tree came from a northern French forest where 2,000 US Marines died during the First World War.

But a few days later, the plant was nowhere to be seen.

Amid fervent speculation, France on Sunday came through with an explanation: the tree, now not just a plant but a symbol of US-French relations, had been placed in quarantine.

“It is a quarantine which is mandatory for any living organism imported into the US,” Gerard Araud, French ambassador to America, wrote on Twitter.

“It will be replanted afterwards.”

When a follower fired back that the caution seemed a bit late — given that the tree had already been planted — the diplomat went on to confirm that the roots had been enclosed in plastic.

 

Photo: Iran’s Atomic Energy Research Center at Bonab is investigating the applications of nuclear technology in agriculture.

Saudis Destroy New Missile In Attack By Yemen On Saudi Civilians

Saudi air defences intercepted a missile fired by Yemeni rebels at the kingdom’s southern city of Jizan on Thursday, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the rebels said, the latest in a series of such attacks.

“The missile was fired at Jizan indiscriminately with the aim of hitting civilian areas,” a coalition spokesman told the official Saudi Press Agency.

“It was successfully intercepted… and the debris fell on a residential neighbourhood… but no casualties or damage was reported.”

A missile was launched from Sadaa, the stronghold of Iran-backed Huthi rebels in northern Yemen, the coalition added.

The attack was claimed by the rebels via their news outlet Al-Masirah.

The strike comes after Saudi forces on Wednesday said they intercepted rebel ballistic missiles fired at Riyadh and the south of the kingdom, where two drones were also shot down.

Yemen’s Shiite Huthi rebels have said their cross-border barrage marked the launch of what their leadership has dubbed “the year of ballistics”.

Saudi Arabia has since March 2015 led a coalition of Arab states fighting to roll back the Huthi rebels in Yemen and restore its neighbour’s internationally-recognised government to power.

Riyadh has repeatedly accused arch-rival Tehran of providing the missiles and threatened retaliation against Iran.

Tehran has denied making any arms deliveries and has said the Saudi accusations are a smokescreen intended to divert attention from its deadly bombing campaign against rebel-held areas.

Nearly 10,000 people have since been killed in the conflict, in what the United Nations has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Civilian casualties from coalition air strikes have drawn criticism from human rights groups, and in October the UN placed the coalition on a blacklist for killing and maiming children.

Aussies Seek Information About Interstellar Visitor

A telescope in outback Western Australia has been used to listen to a mysterious cigar-shaped object that entered our solar system late last year.

The unusual object – known as ‘Oumuamua – came from another solar system, prompting speculation it could be an alien spacecraft. So astronomers went back through observations from the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) telescope to check for radio transmissions coming from the object between the frequencies of 72 and 102 MHz – similar to the frequency range in which FM radio is broadcast.

While they did not find any signs of intelligent life, the research helped expand the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) from distant stars to objects closer to home.

When ‘Oumuamua was first discovered, astronomers thought it was a comet or an asteroid from within the solar system. But after studying its orbit and discovering its long, cylindrical shape, they realised ‘Oumuamua was neither and had come from interstellar space.

Telescopes around the world trained their gaze on the mysterious visitor in an effort to learn as much as possible before it headed back out of the solar system, becoming too faint to observe in detail.

John Curtin Distinguished Professor Steven Tingay, from the Curtin University node of the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR), said the MWA team did not initially set out to find ‘Oumuamua.

“We didn’t set out to observe this object with the MWA but because we can see such a large fraction of the sky at once, when something like this happens, we’re able to go back through the data and analyse it after the fact,” Professor Tingay said.

“If advanced civilizations do exist elsewhere in our galaxy, we can speculate that they might develop the capability to launch spacecraft over interstellar distances and that these spacecraft may use radio waves to communicate. Whilst the possibility of this is extremely low, possibly even zero, as scientists it’s important that we avoid complacency and examine observations and evidence without bias.”

The MWA is located in Western Australia’s remote Murchison region, one of the most radio-quiet areas on the planet and far from human activity and radio interference caused by technology. It is made up of thousands of antennas attached to hundreds of “tiles” that dot the ancient landscape, relentlessly observing the heavens day after day, night after night.

Professor Tingay said the research team was able to look back through all of the MWA’s observations from November, December and early January, when ‘Oumuamua was between 95 million and 590 million kilometres from Earth.

“We found nothing, but as the first object of its class to be discovered, `Oumuamua has given us an interesting opportunity to expand the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence from traditional targets such as stars and galaxies to objects that are much closer to Earth. This also allows for searches for transmitters that are many orders of magnitude less powerful than those that would be detectable from a planet orbiting even the most nearby stars.”

‘Oumuamua was first discovered by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii in October. Its name loosely means “a messenger that reaches out from the distant past” in Hawaiian, and is the first known interstellar object to pass through our solar system.

Combining observations from a host of telescopes, scientists have determined that ‘Oumuamua is most likely a cometary fragment that has lost much of its surface water because it was bombarded by cosmic rays on its long journey through interstellar space.

Researchers have now suggested there could be more than 46 million similar interstellar objects crossing the solar system every year. While most of these objects are too far away to study with current technologies, future telescopes such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) will enable scientists to understand more about these interstellar interlopers.

“So once the SKA is online,” said Professor Tingay, “we’ll be able to look at large numbers of objects and partially balance out the low probability of a positive detection.”

Pentagon Weighs Military Response After Syrian ‘Chemical Attack’ On Its Own People

Global outrage is mounting over an alleged chemical attack on a rebel-held town in Syria, as the Pentagon weighs America’s options for a retaliatory strike.

Military action against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad seemed likely, after President Donald Trump warned of a “big price to pay” and spoke of imminent “major decisions” within the next 48 hours.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he won’t rule anything out militarily.

But thanks to the Trump administration’s whipsawing messaging over whether America will even stay in Syria, and the dangerous complexities of the multi-national conflict, the Pentagon’s options appeared limited.

The attack on the rebel-held Syrian town of Douma killed at least 48 people Saturday after a “poisonous chlorine gas attack” in Eastern Ghouta, rescuers and medics said.

By Monday, the United States and France had promised a “strong, joint response” and Britain, too, joined a growing chorus demanding action.

Syria and its ally Russia have dismissed allegations that the attack was carried out by Syrian forces as “fabrications” and have warned against using them to justify military action.

– Russia risks –

Perhaps the biggest risk for Pentagon planners is Russia, and its large presence which since late 2015 has been deeply enmeshed with Assad’s military.

 

Trump made a rare personal criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin following Saturday’s attack, a break from his reluctance to single out the strongman by name as he has sought better coordination with Moscow in the Syria crisis.

“President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad,” Trump wrote in a tweet.

– Past as prelude? –

After a deadly sarin gas attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun that killed scores of people in April last year, Trump quickly ordered a retaliatory strike.

The US military blasted 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria’s Shayrat air base, which the Pentagon said Assad’s jets had used to launch the deadly chemical attack.

The action won Trump bipartisan praise because it was seen as limited in scope and designed to respond to a specific incident, rather than pulling America deeper into Syria’s civil war.

“The president responded decisively when Assad used chemical weapons last year,” Republican Senator John McCain, a frequent Trump critic said.

“He should do so again, and demonstrate that Assad will pay a price for his war crimes.”

– What is the goal? –

Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria analyst for the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said Trump’s administration needs to figure out what its long-term goal is in Syria as it weighs its military options.

She described a few potential military responses, including a tactical strike such as the one last year, or a broader attack on Assad’s air forces including taking out his radar and air-defense systems, and hitting multiple air bases.

“I expect the question from the Pentagon to the civilian leadership is what is the goal,” Cafarella said.

She also said another option likely under consideration is to tackle Iranian-backed militias in Syria.

Such a move would not be in direct response to the latest alleged chemical attack, but would signal a willingness to curtail Iranian influence in Syria.

“We want to ask whether the president is going to broaden his response in order to also punish Assad’s backers Russia and Iran,” she explained.

Another possibility is Trump asking an ally to conduct military action against the regime.

On Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron said he and Trump had shared information “confirming” toxic weapons were used in Douma, without elaborating.

– Hawk at Trump’s side –

Trump on Monday began working with his new national security advisor, John Bolton, a staunch hawk on Iran and American military intervention in general, so the president’s outlook on Syria — and whether he still wants to withdraw the roughly 2,000 US forces — may soon morph again.

The US personnel in Syria belong to a coalition providing weapons, training and other support to forces fighting Islamic State jihadists in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Daniel Davis, a retired army lieutenant colonel and fellow at the Defense Priorities military think tank, cautioned against US military action.

“The absolute worst policy option for the United States is to get deeper involved in Syria’s civil war, which however brutal, has no bearing on our security or prosperity — especially when further intervention risks a clash with nuclear-armed Russia,” he said.

Iran’s Rial Hits New Record-Low On Fears Administration Will Alter Nuclear Deal

Iran’s currency fell more than six percent against the US Dollar in Sunday, hitting a record low, as fears of a US withdrawal from the nuclear deal negotiated by former President Barack Obama continues to drive speculation.

The rial reached 55,200 to the dollar at the close on the open market — a drop of nearly a third in the past six months — according to the Financial Informing Network, considered the most reliable for fluctuations in the free rate.

“There is a clearly an increase of people buying dollars because they think the United States will pull out of the nuclear deal,” said the head of an exchange office in Tehran, on condition of anonymity.

The gap with the government’s official rate, which stood at 37,814 on Sunday, has continued to widen, threatening a return of high inflation which the government has battled to bring under control.

“The government can’t do anything when there is this much panic. If the US exits the agreement, the Iranian currency could collapse even further and reach 70,000 to the dollar,” said the exchange dealer.

The head of the central bank, Valiollah Seif, and Economy Minister Masoud Karbasian were summoned to parliament to discuss the issue last Monday.

Long queues have been seen outside exchange offices for weeks as uncertainty mounts over the nuclear deal which Iran reached with world powers in 2015.

President Donald Trump has threatened to walk away from the deal and reimpose sanctions by May 12 — the next deadline for confirming US involvement — unless new restrictions are placed on Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes.

The rial stood at around 40,000 to the dollar in October, when Trump said he would no longer certify Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, and has been falling steadily since.

Iran’s government took drastic measures in February to stem the decline, arresting unlicenced exchange dealers and freezing speculators’ accounts, but they have had little impact.

President Hassan Rouhani, who has staked his legacy on trying to revive the economy by rebuilding ties with the West, sought to play down the decline earlier this year, saying Iran was bringing in plenty of dollars through oil sales.