United Nations, Sep 25 (AP/UNB) — Five world powers and Iran agreed late Monday to establish a financial facility in the European Union to facilitate payments for Iranian imports and exports including oil, a key move sought by Tehran following the U.S. pullout from the 2015 nuclear deal and its re-imposition of sanctions.
Foreign ministers from Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and Iran said in a joint statement that the so-called "Special Purpose Vehicle" will "assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran."
The nuclear agreement is meant to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons, but U.S. President Donald Trump announced in May he was unilaterally pulling out because he felt it wasn't strong enough and didn't cover other issues of concern to the U.S. and its allies, such as Iran's military influence in the Middle East and ballistic missile program. The U.S. has also accused Iran of promoting international terrorism, which Tehran vehemently denies.
Iran's economy is already suffering from the sanctions that Washington re-imposed after walking away from the nuclear agreement, and the U.S. has threatened to punish companies from other nations that continue doing business with Iran.
In sharp contrast, the five other world powers who signed the nuclear deal remain strongly committed to it, and the new financial facility is almost certain to anger the Trump administration.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told reporters after the closed-door ministerial meeting that the financial facility is also aimed at preserving the nuclear agreement. The EU and Iran say the deal is working, and the joint statement notes that the International Atomic Energy Agency has now certified 12 times that Iran is in compliance with its obligations.
"In practical terms," Mogherini said, "this will mean that EU member states will set up a legal entity to facilitate legitimate financial transactions with Iran and this will allow European companies to continue to trade with Iran in accordance with European Union law and could be open to other partners in the world. "
She said the agreement follows extensive exchanges and announced that a meeting of technical experts will be held to "operationalize" the new financial facility.
The joint statement said the six countries that signed the 2015 nuclear agreement "reconfirmed their commitment to its full and effective implementation in good faith and in a constructive atmosphere." They called the agreement "a key element of the global non-proliferation architecture and a significant achievement of multilateral diplomacy."
The participants reaffirmed their joint statement on July 6, "in particular to pursue concrete and effective measures to secure payment channels with Iran."
New York, Sep 25 (AP/UNB) — The Trump administration is warning Russia that supplying Syria with an advanced missile defense system would be a "major mistake" and should be reconsidered. It also says U.S. forces will not leave Syria until Iran leaves.
National security adviser John Bolton said Monday that delivery of the Russian S-300 would be a "significant escalation" in already high tensions in the region and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he would raise the matter this week with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at the U.N. General Assembly.
"We think introducing the S-300s to the Syrian government would be a significant escalation by the Russians and something that we hope, if these press reports are accurate, they would reconsider," Bolton said.
Russia announced earlier Monday that it would give Syria's government more modern, S-300 missile defense systems after last week's downing of a Russian plane by Syria in a friendly fire incident. The military's reconnaissance Il-20 was shot down by the Syrian government missile defense systems responding to an Israeli airstrike. Russia laid the blame on Israel, saying Israeli fighter jets had pushed the plane into Syria's line of fire.
"We have American forces in the area we're concerned about," Bolton said. "The Israelis have a legitimate right to self-defense against this Iranian aggressive behavior, and what we're all trying to do is reduce tensions, reduce the possibility of major new hostilities. That's why the president has spoken to this issue and why we would regard introducing the S300 as a . major mistake."
Syria's skies, where regional and international powers back different parties in the conflict, are increasingly crowded.
Shortly before the downing, Israeli strikes had hit targets inside Syria, reportedly preventing an arms shipment to the Iranian-backed militant Hezbollah group.
Russia launched its campaign in Syria to support President Bashar Assad in 2015, and though the involvement turned the tide of war in favor of Syrian government forces, Moscow has tried to play a careful balancing act, maintaining good ties both with Iran and Israel. For its part, Israel is wary of Iran's growing influence in Syria.
Bolton said the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria until Iran is no longer active there.
"We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," he said.
Asked about Bolton's statement that U.S. troops will stay in Syria as long as Iran forces and proxies are there, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon, "Right now our troops inside Syria are there for one purpose, and that's under the U.N. authorization about defeating ISIS." He said this includes training local Syrian forces to prevent an ISIS comeback.
Mattis did not explicitly support or dispute Bolton's statement, although his description of the role and mission of U.S. troops in Syria did not include outlasting Iran.
Pressed to say whether he agreed with Bolton's statement, Mattis said, "I'll let Ambassador Bolton speak for himself," but added later that he had spoken to Bolton twice Monday. "I think we're on the same sheet of music," which he said means supporting U.N.-brokered efforts to reach a political settlement. "There is no daylight between his appreciation of the situation and mine."
Berlin, Sep 24 (AP/UNB) — Leaders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition reached a deal Sunday to resolve a standoff over the future of the country's domestic intelligence chief, a dispute that has further dented the image of their fractious six-month-old alliance.
The center-left Social Democrats have insisted that Hans-Georg Maassen be removed as head of the BfV spy agency for appearing to downplay recent violence against migrants, but conservative Interior Minister Horst Seehofer has stood by him.
Last week, coalition leaders agreed to replace Maassen as head of the BfV but give him a new job as a deputy interior minister, a promotion with a hefty pay increase. The move prompted a backlash from furious Social Democrats, prompting party leader Andrea Nahles to call for the deal's renegotiation.
On Sunday, coalition leaders agreed instead to make Maassen a "special adviser" at the interior ministry with responsibility for "European and international issues," Seehofer said. He will remain at his current pay level.
In addition, a deputy interior minister and expert on construction issues, Social Democrat Gunther Adler, will now keep his job rather than making way for Maassen. Nahles will have to sell the new compromise to her party's leadership on Monday.
"I think it is a very good signal that we took the criticism of our decision on Tuesday evening seriously and were able to correct it," Nahles told reporters. She declared that "overall, the foundation has been laid for us to return to substantive work."
A left-leaning Social Democrat deputy leader, Ralf Stegner, described it as "a good solution."
The dispute has clouded the government's future at a time when the three parties face major challenges in upcoming state elections, in Seehofer's home state of Bavaria on Oct. 14 and in neighboring Hesse on Oct. 28.
The infighting appears to be weighing down their support, which hasn't recovered since a national election a year ago in which all three coalition parties lost ground and the far-right Alternative for Germany entered parliament.
The coalition of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, Seehofer's Bavaria-only Christian Social Union and the Social Democrats took office in March after Nahles' party decided reluctantly to join up.
It has already been through one crisis that threatened its survival, when Merkel and Seehofer — a conservative ally, but a longtime critic of her initially welcoming approach to refugees in 2015 — faced off in June over whether to turn back some migrants at the German-Austrian border.
Responding to violent right-wing protests following the killing of a German man, allegedly by migrants, in the eastern city of Chemnitz, Maassen said his agency had no reliable evidence that foreigners had been "hunted" down in the streets — a term Merkel had used.
A video posted by a left-wing group showed protesters chasing down and attacking a foreigner but Maassen questioned its authenticity.
Seehofer, Maassen's boss, has insisted that Maassen is a "highly competent" employee who hasn't violated any rules and said he won't outright dismiss him. He accused the Social Democrats of running a "campaign" against Maassen.
Seehofer, who leads the CSU, became interior minister after giving up his previous job as Bavarian governor following last year's national election. There is widespread speculation that a poor election performance in Bavaria next month could threaten his political future.
Liverpool, Sep 24 (AP/UNB) — Britain's main opposition Labour Party confirmed Sunday it will hold a major debate on Brexit at its party conference this week, buoying Labour members hoping to stop the country from leaving the European Union.
With the U.K. and the European Union at an impasse in divorce talks, many Labour members think the left-of-center party has the power — and a duty — to force a new referendum that could reverse Britain's decision to leave the 28-nation bloc.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has long opposed that idea, but he and other party leaders are under pressure to change their minds. As delegates gathered in Liverpool, one message was emblazoned on hundreds of T-shirts and tote bags: "Love Corbyn, Hate Brexit."
Ever since Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU, Labour has said it will respect the result, although it wants a closer relationship with the bloc than the one Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative government is seeking.
Now, with divorce negotiations stuck and Britain due to leave in March, many Labour members think the party must change its course.
"Labour have to come to a decision. The time has gone for sitting on the fence," said Mike Buckley of Labour for a People's Vote, a group campaigning for a new Brexit referendum.
To drive home the message, several thousand People's Vote supporters marched through Liverpool on Sunday, waving blue-and-yellow EU flags alongside Union Jacks and holding signs reading "Exit from Brexit" and a few ruder slogans.
More than 100 local Labour associations submitted motions to the conference urging a public plebiscite, with a choice between leaving on terms agreed upon by the government or staying in the EU.
Party chiefs said Sunday that members and affiliated unions had selected Brexit as one of the priority issues delegates will consider, with a debate scheduled for Tuesday. But what exactly they will vote on has yet to be decided, and will be crucial.
Margaret Mills, a delegate from Orpington in southern England, said her local party had passed a motion calling on Labour to "stop Brexit by any means — well, short of physical violence."
"I think the time for vagueness is over," she said.
Corbyn — a veteran socialist who views the EU with suspicion — has long been against holding a second public vote on Brexit, although his opposition appears to be softening.
He said Sunday that he would prefer a general election rather than a referendum, but added: "Let's see what comes out of conference."
"Obviously I'm bound by the democracy of our party," Corbyn told the BBC.
Still, Labour faces a major political dilemma over Brexit. Most of the party's half a million members voted in 2016 to remain in the EU, but many of its 257 lawmakers represent areas that supported Brexit.
"For Labour to adopt a second referendum policy would spell political disaster in all those Labour seats that voted leave," said Brendan Chilton of the pro-Brexit group Labour Leave.
Since the 2016 referendum, Labour has stuck to a policy of "constructive ambiguity" in a bid to appeal to both "leave" and "remain" voters. The party opposes May's "Tory Brexit" plan but not Brexit itself. It calls for Britain to leave the EU but remain in the bloc's customs union with "full access" to the EU's huge single market.
Len McCluskey, leader of the Unite trade union, a powerful Labour ally, said British voters had decided to leave the EU and "for us now to enter some kind of campaign that opens up that issue again I think would be wrong."
Yet Pro-EU Labour members, including many lawmakers, say the party's ambiguous stance is becoming increasingly untenable as the risk of an economically damaging "hard Brexit" grows.
The Conservative government's blueprint for future trade ties with the bloc was rejected last week by EU leaders at a summit in Salzburg, Austria. That left May's leadership under siege and Britain at growing risk of crashing out of the EU on March 29 with no deal in place.
Andrew Adonis, a Labour member of the House of Lords who supports holding a second referendum, said Labour can't sit on the sidelines while the country staggers toward political and financial chaos.
"This is as big a crisis as I can remember in my lifetime," Adonis said. "And no one has a clue at the moment what is going to happen.
"That's why I think we now need to take a stand — we the Labour Party and we the country."
Brexit is one of several challenges facing Corbyn, who heads a divided party. He has strong support among grassroots members, many of whom have joined since he was elected leader in 2015. But many Labour lawmakers think his old-fashioned socialism is a turnoff for the wider electorate.
Labour has also been roiled by allegations that Corbyn, a long-time critic of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, has allowed anti-Semitism to fester inside the party. He has denied it and condemned anti-Semitism, but the furor has angered many Jewish party members and their supporters.
Labour backed the "remain" side during the 2016 referendum but Corbyn's support was lukewarm.
"Jeremy Corbyn is a Brexiteer and always has been," said Chilton of Labour Leave. "More and more people now support us leaving the European Union and getting on with it. ... they don't want to re-fight the referendum."
Moscow, Sept 23 (AP/UNB) — The Russian Defense Ministry is again accusing Israel of causing the downing of a Russian military plane over Syria.
Syrian government forces mistook the Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane for an Israeli jet and shot it down Monday, killing all 15 people aboard. While the Russian military initially blamed the plane's loss on Israel, President Vladimir Putin later defused tensions, calling the downing "a chain of tragic, fatal circumstances."
The Russian Defense Ministry on Sunday said an Israeli fighter jet flying over Syria's coastal province of Latakia shortly before the downing deliberately used the Russian plane as a shield. Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov says the Israeli pilot's actions showed "either lack of professionalism or criminal negligence."