Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Conflicting Reports from Lausanne on Nuclear Deal

As of 6am local time on Wednesday, conflicting reports were emerging from Lausanne on what exactly has been agreed to. The Russians said "all" major issues have been agreed on and a framework agreement will be drafter on Wednesday. Iran's foreign minister said that "majority" of the issues have been resolved. And a Western diplomat was quoted as saying that no agreement had been agreed upon as of yet.

- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lovrov said in Lausanne that Iran and the six world powers have agreed on main issues during the latest talks. A framework agreement will be drafted and presented on Wednesday, Lavrov said.

- Lavrov added that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini will give a joint statement about the agreement on Wednesday.

- A short time after Lavrov's announcement, Reuters, citing a diplomat close to the talks, reported that such an agreement, as described by Lovrov, had not been reached and there were issues still unresolved.

- A French official also told Reuters that Foreign Mimister Laurent Fabius was leaving the talks and would return from France when it was "useful."

Tikrit Not Yet Fallen - UPDATE

The news of the liberation of Tikrit appears to have been a bit exaggerated. Earlier on Tuesday, Iraqi state-run Iraqiya had announced, “Tikrit has fallen to us.” The Iraqi prime minister also reportedly spoke of the liberation of Tikrit. What has happened, however, is that the Iraqi security forces and Shia militia fighters have entered the city center, raised the Iraqi flag on provincial government building, but ISIL insurgents have remained in other parts of the city. The city is contested, the fight is continuing.

UPDATE (Wednesday 1 April): Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the liberated areas in the center of Tikrit on Wednesday, hailing the victory by Iraqi security forces and the militia over ISIL.

Photo credit: Iraqi security forces and militia celebrated Tuesday in central Tikrit (NYTimes)

State of Iran Talks

- The talks have been extended until Wednesday.

Reuters reported tonight that the six major powers have told the Iranians they have to make up their minds on whether to accept a framework agreement before dawn on Wednesday. A diplomatic source told Reuters that the P5+1 had told Iran they wouldn’t be playing “extra time.”

- Other reports, citing a senior U.S. official involved in the talks, say the world powers have not given Iran a hard morning deadline.

- The Chinese foreign minister has already left Lausanne. The French foreign minister will leave at 5 AM for Geneva to return to Paris in the morning. It was also announced that the German foreign minister will also leave Lausanne in the morning. It's crunch time!

- Iran, P5+1 plenary session ongoing (nearly 1am on Wednesday in Lausanne). A U.S. official is quoted as saying this might be an all nighter.

- The plenary session of FMs was halted at around 1am, will resume at 8am.

- 1:30am: Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told reporters that "solutions to most issues have been found." He said drafting (presumably of final agreement) will start from tomorrow.

- Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted as saying that the framework agreement will be announced (in the morning) by Foreign Minister Zarif and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini.

Iran, World Powers Near Preliminary Nuclear Deal

UPDATE: Talks Extended Until Wednesday
UPDATE: Negotiators from Iran and P5+1 extended their deadline until Wednesday as they struggled to agree on a framework for a comprehensive deal on Iran’s nuclear program, The New York Times reported.


Iran and world powers are closing in on a declaration of accord detailing areas of agreement they have reached so far and giving themselves until 30 June to resolve the remaining tough issues. The Lausanne declaration is expected to be released before the midnight deadline tonight. The sides would have then three months to draft a comprehensive final accord.

Iraqi Forces Dislodge ISIL from Tikrit Government Complex

UPDATE: Tikrit Liberated

UPDATE: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that Tikrit is now liberated from ISIL, state-run Iraqiya TV reported late afternoon Tuesday (2 PM GMT).


Iraqi security forces have retaken the Salaheddin provincial government complex in Tikrit from ISIL insurgents, a significant advance in the battle to recapture the city, AFP reported today. Some major Shia militia groups, like Badr Organization, took part in the fighting today alongside the Iraqi forces. But Iran’s Quds Force advisers and personnel, including General Soleimani, and some other major Shia militia groups stayed away from the offensive in protest to U.S. airstrikes over Tikrit.

Gen. Soleimani, who planned and commanded the Battle of Tikrit that began on 2 March, and was frequently photographed at the frontlines near Tikrit, with the pictures widely published in the social media, has not been seen lately. His photos attending state functions in Iran emerged last week, suggesting that the general and probably his top advisers might not have returned to Iraq since the U.S.-led coalition began its airstrikes over Tikrit.

Photo credit: Iraqi security forces and militia fighters fly the country's flag on the provincial government building in Tikrit; 31 March 2015 (Twitter)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Saudi-led Forces Blockade Yemeni Ports

Saudi-led coalition navies on Monday imposed a blockade on all Yemen’s ports to stop flow of weapons to the Houthis. The coalition has also bombed rebel-held airports to slow or stop the flow of weapons and fighters into Yemen. The land border with Oman now becomes the insurgents’ main access to the outside world. Coalition military spokesman, Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed Asiri, told reporters in Riyadh on Monday that the naval blockade would “prevent weapons and fighters from entering or leaving Yemen.” (Christian Science Monitor, 30 March)

Meanwhile, the airstrikes over Yemen continued. Gen. Asiri said the airstrikes focused on slowing Houthi advance on Aden. The Huthis and security forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh had launched a fresh offensive against Yemen, shelling it and battling local militias loyal to President Hadi, known as Popular Committees, but were pushed back by airstrikes. They are now positioned 30 kilometers (19 miles) east of Aden. (CSM, 30 March)

A series of airstrikes also targeted fighter jets, air defense systems and SCUD missile launch pads in Sanaa. Later the strikes hit weapons depot on the Faj Attan mountain overlooking Sanaa, causing the explosions of SCUD missiles and sending balls of fire into the sky.

The Houthi-run TV network said the coalition bombed a displaced persons camp in the northern rebel stronghold of Saada, killing 40 people, including women and children. The Associated Press quoted witnesses, however, who said the camp was from an earlier conflict in the country that ended five years ago and was now being occupied by Houthi forces. It was not yet possible to resolve the conflicting account.

Photo credit: Saudi-led coalition airstrikes destroyed SCUD missile depot on the Faj Attan mountain overlooking Sanaa, sending balls of fire into the sky; 30 March 2015 (Reuters)

Iran Says U.S. Drone Kills 2 Advisers in Iraq – U.S. Denies

IRGC says a U.S. drone strike killed two of its advisers near Tikrit, where a major offensive is underway against ISIL, but the U.S. said today its coalition conducted no airstrikes in the area during the time of the incident.

U.S. Central Command said it didn’t target the area around Tikrit from 22 to 24 March, the window when the IRGC said the two men were killed. IRGC said on its sepahnews.ir website that the strike happened on 23 March, as the men supported Iraqi forces trying to retake Tikrit. It identified the dead advisers as Ali Yazdani and Hadi Jafari, no ranks given, saying they were buried on Sunday. (sepahnews.ir/AP)

The U.S.-led coalition began surveillance around Tikrit on 21 March at the request of the Iraqi government, and the airstrikes began the night of 25 March.

“No strikes by coalition aircraft, manned or unmanned, in the vicinity of Tikrit from 22 to 24 March,” said Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for U.S. Air Force Central Command (AFCENT), the air force component of CENTCOM. (AP, 30 March)

Photo credit: Funeral services for two IRGC-Quds Force advisers killed in Iraq; Tehran, 29 March 2015 (AP)

Intensive Talks in Lausanne

Reports from Lausanne indicate that the crucial round of nuclear talks are going down to proverbial wire. Diplomats speaking to reporters say “some quite important gaps” still remain. Two apparently main disputes continues to be the sequence of lifting of sanctions, and what kind of nuclear R&D Iran can still pursue. The issue of disposal of Iran’s current stockpile of enriched uranium has also not been resolved yet. Iran said on Sunday that it will not ship out the stockpile to Russia, as has been suggested in the past as a viable solution.

With the self-imposed deadline of 31 March looming, the foreign ministers of Iran and the six major powers today held their first plenary session since the talks were extended last November. No breakthrough was reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will leave for Moscow later this afternoon to attend a state function. Sources tell reporters that Lavrov will return to Lausanne on Tuesday “if needed.”

As Russian deputy foreign minister told reporters today, all parties have the intention to reach a deal. But they need to make tough decisions by tomorrow.

Photo credit: The plenary session of foreign ministers of Iran, P5+1 and EU; Lausanne, 30 March 2015 (Reuters)

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Iran, P5+1 Explore Compromises Aimed at Breaking Nuclear Impasse - UPDATES

UPDATE: Iran and the six world powers also need to overcome two core issues still under consideration in order to reach a political framework agreement, Laura Rosen of Al-Monitor reported Sunday night from Lausanne. They involve the scope of research and development that Iran could conduct in years 11-15 of a 15-year agreement, and what happens on UN Security Council resolutions.

UPDATE: Iran’s senior nuclear negotiator Abbas Araqchi told reports on Sunday in Lausanne that Iran will not send its current stockpile of enriched uranium abroad for conversion into power reactor fuel. The transfer of enrich uranium abroad, most probably Russia, has been among key demands of all members of P5+1.  If Iran sticks to its position, then to ensure that the breakout capability is not shorter than one year, Iran would need to agree to much lower number of centrifuges that would be allowed to operate. Tough choices.


Western reporters at Iran talks in Lausanne are reporting as of Sunday afternoon local time that the two sides are seriously exploring compromises to break an impasse in nuclear talks. A plenary session of foreign ministers of Iran and six major powers will convene later today to approve possible compromises that would form the basis of a political framework agreement, with technical details worked out before 30 June deadline for a joint comprehensive accord.

FWIW, there are reports of compromises in the making this afternoon, which include Iran’s acceptance of having fewer than 6,000 centrifuges and shipping nearly all its current stockpile of enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into nuclear reactor fuel. The P5+1 would in return allow continued operation at Fordo enrichment facility, albeit limited to R&D work for medical purposes under close monitoring of IAEA.  The duration of the agreement, the so-called sunset clause, is said to be 11-15 years, containing different duration for different elements of a deal, with additional protocol and modified code 3.1 to NPT obligations lasting forever.

UPDATE: AFP quoted Iran's senior negotiator Abbas Araqchi as saying that Iran would never accept the demand by the P5+1 to send its stockpile of enriched uranium abroad. With the stockpile kept intact in Iran, the P5+1 might demand much lower number of operating centrifuges allowed, which Iran might not be willing to accept. In the last hours of negotiations, they are taking one step forward and one backward, the German foreign minister observed.

UPDATE: P5+1 and EU tonight held meeting among themselves for the first time since November extension of interim agreement, JPOA.

UPDATE: The plenary session of foreign ministers of Iran and six major powers will be held on Monday morning at 9 AM local time. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held tonight.

Enemy Fires, Booby-Traps Slows Iraqi Forces’ Advance in Tikrit

Iraqi security forces battled ISIL insurgents in central Tikrit on Sunday, amid warning by local officials that the battle to retake the city would not be quick.

“A rapid advance in a city where the ground is littered with bombs and booby-traps is too tough to achieve,” said Mayor Osama al-Tikriti. (Reuters, 29 March)

On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition continued airstrikes against ISIL positions in and around the city. But most of Iran-backed Shia militia groups boycotted the offensive in protest to U.S. airstrikes, which began on Thursday at the request of the Iraqi government.

Today, an Iraqi attempt to infiltrate Tikrit from the southern district of Shishseen was thwarted by ISIL militants. They used anti-tank missiles to destroy an armored bulldozer being used by the military to clear path around booby-trapped roads, and Iraqi official said. The setback underscored that even areas under government and militia control south of Tikrit remain vulnerable to attacks by ISIL fighters.

Photo credit: Iraqi security forces check their weapons in Tikrit, 28 March 2015 (Thaier al-Sudani/ Reuters

Threat of Ground Incursion Looms Over Yemen - CNN

On a video distributed by Reuters, Saudi military transporters are seen hauling main battle tanks late Saturday in the Saudi town of Jazan, 20 miles away from the Yemeni border. There are increasing sign of an impending ground incursion by the Saudi-led coalition into Yemen. The Saudis have said that if troops go in, they won’t leave until “they have degraded the Huthis’ ability to do battle,” CNN reported. But the Huthis are apt guerrilla fighters and any ground war could prove to be bloody and lengthy.

Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have hit Yemeni air defenses, which are under AnsarAllah (Huthi) control, attempting to establish near total air superiority over Yemeni airspace. But on Saturday the Huthis said they had shot down a Sudanese fighter jet and captured the pilot. The strikes have also crumbled key infrastructure that links major towns with the capital, Sanaa, a Saudi official said today. Army weapon caches, military facilities and commercial and military airports have been hit. Saudi naval special forces have also rescued dozens of diplomats trapped in Sanaa, the Saudi official said. (CNN, 29 March)

Saudi Brig. Gen. Hasan Asiri, the military spokesman for the coalition, said in a statement on Saturday evening that the airstrikes have destroyed Yemen's entire fleet of fighter jets. Rebels are "no longer in possession of a jet fighter," Asiri said. (Washington Post, 29 March)

Saudi-led coalition includes militaries of the Kingdom as well as the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.

File photo: Saudi tanks during a military drill; April 2014 (Al Nasser/Reuters)

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Arab Summit Approves Joint rapid Response Military Force - UPDATE

Arab Leaders Adopted Initiative Amid Saudi-led Coalition Attack in Yemen
UPDATE:The Arab summit on Sunday adopted the resolution to form a joint rapid response military command. The force would be used to counter security threats. Historic moment for the Arab World. 


The Arab foreign ministers meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh before Sunday’s summit of the heads of states of the 22-member Arab League unanimously approved the text of a proposal to establish a joint Arab rapid response military command. The leaders are expected to adopt the proposal on Sunday.

“This is the first time in our history that a joint Arab military force will be created and work under the name of Arab states,” said Nabil al-Arabi, the general secretary of the Arab League. (AFP, 29 March)

The creation of a joint Arab force has come to the fore amid Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen. King Salman of Saudi Arabia told the gathering that the military intervention led by his country against Shia rebels in Yemen will continue until it brings security to the country. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim said the Huthi militias should disarm and recognize the legitimacy of Yemen’s President Hadi.

Photo credit: King Salman of Saudi Arabia addressing the Arab League summit in Sharm el-Shaikh, Egypt; 28 March 2015 (Al Arabiya)

Islamist Militants Capture Syrian City of Idlib

Syria’s Islamist rebels, including Ahrar al-Sham, Jund al-Aqsa and Nusra Front fighters, today captured the major northwestern Syrian city of Idlib. The city is the second provincial capital to fall into rebel hands. The first, Raqqa, is under control of ISIL. (BBC, 28 March)

Idlib, with a population of 100,000, is close to the main strategic highway linking Damascus to Aleppo, and close to coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of President Assad.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the rebels entered the city from several sides, with major push from north and west. The Syrian state television said before the fall of the city that the Syrian army was engaged in fierce fighting with the insurgents.
Photo credit: 
Top photos: By Ahrar al-Sham published on Twitter on Saturday show control of Idlib’s city center and market by the rebels (Twitter/@Charles_Lister)

Bottom photo: Rebels deface Assad's statue after capturing Idlib (Twitter/@markito0171)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Iran, P5+1 Deal ‘Close to Final Step’ – Report

Iran and six major powers are about to agree on a framework agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed senior Iranian official familiar with the talks.

“The sides are very, very close to the final step and it could be signed or agreed upon verbally,” the Iranian source said. (Reuters, 27 March)

The framework agreement would form the basis of a long-term accord after a 12-year standoff between Iran and the West over the country’s nuclear program.

Iranian Officials ‘Fuming’ over Iraq-U.S. Partnership at Battle of Tikrit - Report

Fox News, citing a senior U.S. intelligence official, said today that the Iranian officials are “fuming” over Iraq joining forces with the U.S. in the fight for Tikrit.

“They are really pissed that Iraq is choosing to partner with the U.S. in the battle for Tikrit,” the official said. (Fox News, 27 March)

Iran-led Shia militia groups Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) and Kataib Hezbollah (KH) have already withdrawn from the fight, protesting U.S. airstrikes. Fox News, citing the official, said Iran has ordered other Shia militia groups, including Badr Organization, out of the area, and in some cases out of Iraq.

“They will probably send them to Yemen,” said the official.

It was not clear whether Iran has also pulled out its own advisers, operators and military equipment from Tikrit area. Before the U.S. involvement, Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, aided by senior Quds Force officers, was personally in command of the operations in Tikrit and Iran had deployed sizable military equipment, such as artillery, to the theater.  

File photo: Iraqi security forces prepare to attack ISIL positions in Tikrit; 26 March 2015 (AP/Fox News)

Ground Offensive Resumes in Tikrit

After Two Days of U.S.-led Coalition Airstrikes against ISIL Positions
Several thousands Iraqi security forces and fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), composed primarily of Shia militia fighters, have resumed their offensive on the ground in Tikrit after a two-week pause, the Pentagon spokesman COL Steve Warren said today.

Three Shia militia groups, KH, AAH and Peace Brigades, have withdrawn from the battlefield in protest to U.S. airstrikes of the past 48 hours against ISIL positions in Tikrit. Pentagon said their withdrawal was welcome.

“There are primarily the Shia militia units that we had no interest in being on the battlefield in the first place,” Warren said. “These are the Shia militia that are clearly linked or often infiltrated by Iran, so their departure from the battlefield is welcome.” (Defense.gov, 27 March)

The forces that remain on the battlefield are loyal to the government of Iraq and under the direct control of Iraq’s Ministry of Defense, Warren said.

Meanwhile, U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against ISIL targets continued in the area today. They began on 25 March at the request of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Photo credit: Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaidi (center) announcing the pending resumption of offensive operations on the ground in Tikrit; 26 March 2015 (Reuters/Washington Post)

Shia Militias Boycott Battle of Tikrit, Protesting U.S. Airstrikes - UPDATE

On Wednesday, President Obama approved a U.S. airstrike campaign in support of Iraqi forces battling to retake Tikrit after receiving a request from Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi. On Thursday, thousands of Shia militiamen, belonging to three militia groups, boycotted the fight in protest of U.S. participation in the battle, The New York Times reported.

General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, told a Senate hearing in Washington on Thursday that no Shia militias remained in Tikrit. There are now about 4,000 Iraqi army troops, special operations forces and federal police fighting on the ground in Tikrit, Austin said, supported by U.S. and Iraqi air forces.

American military officials said they were stepping into Tikrit fight only after the Iranian-led offensive by Shia militias and Iraqi forces had stalled, and they welcomed working closely with Iraqi government forces. 

The sudden withdrawal of Iranian-led Shia militia groups from the battle, however, could risk leaving Iraqi ground forces shorthanded.

“It’s going to require the kind of hammer and anvil approach of ground forces forcing ISIL to respond in ways that they’re targetable by air power,” a senior Pentagon official told the Times.

The Shia groups have had some 25,000 fighters in the fight, compared to about 4,000 Iraqi forces. Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), one of the boycotting groups, said they don’t trust the U.S. The other two groups which have announced their boycott are Kataib Hezbollah (KH) and the Sadrist Peace Brigades.

Badr organization, the largest of Shia militia groups, said they don’t need the American help and might also pull out.

“We have not yet decided if we will pull out or not,” Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of Badr Organization, and a longtime Iranian operative, told Iraqi state TV on Thursday. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who had requested the U.S. airstrikes, has travelled to Tikrit to persuade Amiri to keep his fighters in the field.

The American airstrikes in Tikrit began late on Wednesday night and continued for eight and a half hours, subsiding at dawn on Thursday, the Times said. Today, the Iraqi Air Force jets further bombed Tikrit in a succession of daytime raids.

This week, Iraqi field commanders had called for U.S. help. Today, Gen. Anwer Hamid, the commander of Iraqi Air Force, said the American airstrikes would continue, with the Americans concentrating their attacks during the night for operational reasons.

UPDATE: Iraq’s Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, today called for unity among Iraqi fighting forces after Iran-led Shia militias pulled out of the fight in Tikrit in protest of U.S. participation in the battle. Sistani’s spokesman said that the Grand Ayatollah considers coordination between the military, Shia militias, and Sunni tribes necessary for the success of the operation in Tikrit. (AP, 27 March)

File photo: Iraqi Shia militia near Tikrit; 5 March 2015 (PA/janes.com)

Arab Coalition Jets Continue to Hit Huthi Targets in Yemen

Fighter jets from Saudi-led Arab coalition have continued bombing Houthi targets in Yemen for a second day, including the Shia insurgent group’s stronghold of Saada in northern Yemen.

Saudi Brig. Gen. Ahmed al-Asiri, a spokesman for the coalition, said in Riyadh on Friday that the military operation against the insurgents would continue “as long as necessary.” He added that “at the moment” there were no plans to the deployment of ground forces, but troops are “ready for all the circumstances.”

The Arab coalition has said its goal is to roll back Houthi advances since February, when they captured the capital Sanaa and overthrew the government of President Hadi. It would be hard, however, to imagine that the coalition could succeed in pushing out the Houthis with airstrikes only.

Meantime, President Hadi arrived in Riyadh on Friday, after leaving his embattled country. He will joined other Arab heads of state in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, on Saturday for a two-day Arab League summit on Yemen.

The summit convenes at a historic moment in Arab history. The long-held dream and aspiration of the Arabs to establish a unified military force is becoming a reality in the operation in Yemen, bringing together all major Arab militaries to stop the Houthis.

File photo: Saudi Arabia fighter jets. (Reuters)