The United States called Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates “major security partners” early Saturday, a previously unheard of designation for the two countries home to major American military operations.
A White House statement tied the designation to Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates normalizing ties to Israel, saying it “reflects their extraordinary courage, determination and leadership.” It also noted the two countries long have taken part in U.S. military exercises.
It’s unclear what the designation means for Bahrain, an island kingdom off Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, and the UAE, a federation of seven sheikhdoms home to Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, while the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the busiest port of call for American warships outside of the U.S. Bahrain hosts some 5,000 American troops, while the UAE hosts 3,500, many at Al-Dhafra Air Base.
Already, the U.S. uses the designation of “major non-NATO ally” to describe its relationship with Kuwait, which hosts the forward command of U.S. Army Central. That designation grants a country special financial and military considerations for nations not part of NATO. Bahrain also is a non-NATO ally.
The U.S. military’s Central Command and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The 5th Fleet referred queries to the State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The White House designation comes in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration. Trump forged close ties to Gulf Arab countries during his time in office in part over his hard-line stance on Iran. That’s sparked a series of escalating incidents between the countries after Trump unilaterally withdrew from Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
It also comes after Bahrain and the UAE joined Egypt and Saudi Arabia in beginning to resolve a yearslong boycott of Qatar, another Gulf Arab nation home to Al-Udeid Air Base that hosts Central Command’s forward operating base. That boycott began in the early days of Trump’s time in office after he visited Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip.
Turkey launched Thursday the mass vaccination program against COVID-19 with the vaccines developed by China's Sinovac company.
According to the Turkish Health Ministry, the first doses will be given to over 1 million health workers across the country, followed by adults living in nursing homes.
The vaccination of healthcare workers in the country's biggest city Istanbul with a population of 16.5 million is expected to be completed within two days, according to Nurettin Yiyit, the chief doctor of the Feriha Oz Emergency Hospital.
The hospital, which was built in 2020 to treat specifically COVID-19 patients, allocated 30 vaccination rooms to conduct the program in the quickest way possible.
"We can do the injections to up to 1,800 people per day," Yiyit told Xinhua when the vaccination started simultaneously in all the rooms.
"This figure could go up if needed," he noted, adding that the hospital received 1,000 appointments for the first day.
Hale Erisir, who has been working as an anesthetist at the hospital, came to the vaccination center early in the morning to get her jab done after taking her appointment through an online system.
Erisir has been fighting actively at the forefront against the coronavirus since the pandemic erupted in the country in mid-March 2020.
"I have always believed in the positive effects of vaccines, and I am sure that this program has the strength to end the pandemic," Erisir told Xinhua, noting that she expects everyone to get vaccinated.
The entire process is administered in all 81 provinces through an online system and a mobile application, which can also track the long-term side effects of the vaccine.
On Wednesday, the health ministry granted the emergency use authorization for the COVID-19 vaccine produced by Sinovac after completing the necessary safety tests.
Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca and the members of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board have gotten their vaccines during a live broadcast after granting the authorization.
"This vaccination drive is needed to return to our normal, old way of life," Koca said, urging people to get vaccinated. He earlier announced that the Sinovac's vaccines were 91.25 percent effective in trials in the country.
Turkey received the first shipment of 3 million doses of vaccines from China at the end of December, as part of a deal for a total of 50 million, and expects to get the rest in the upcoming period.
Kuwait’s foreign ministry announced Monday that Saudi Arabia will open its air and land borders with Qatar in the first steps toward ending a diplomatic crisis that has deeply divided regional U.S. allies since 2017.
The state-run Kuwait News Agency reported the announcement, saying that Saudi Arabia would open its borders with Qatar starting Monday evening.
Qatar’s only land border has been mostly closed since mid-2017, when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched a blockade against the tiny Gulf state, accusing it of supporting Islamist groups in the region and of having warm ties with Iran. The border has opened just briefly during the past three years to allow Qataris into Saudi Arabia to perform the Islamic hajj pilgrimage.
Kuwait has been mediating between Qatar and the four Arab states. On Monday, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Ahmad Nasser al-Mohammad Al Sabah reportedly traveled to Qatar to deliver a message to Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia paves the way for Qatar’s ruler to attend a summit of Gulf leaders Tuesday that will be held in the kingdom’s desert city of Al-Ula. The summit would traditionally be chaired by the Saudi monarch, King Salman, though his son and heir, the crown prince, may instead lead the meeting.
Kuwait’s foreign minister said in a statement carried on state TV that the Kuwaiti emir had spoken with Qatar’s emir and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The conversations “emphasized that everyone was keen on reunification,” and would gather in Al-Ula to sign a statement that promises to “usher in a bright page of brotherly relations.”
The Gulf Cooperation Council summit will be “inclusive,” leading the states toward “reunification and solidarity in facing the challenges of our region,” Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying in remarks carried by the Saudi state-run news agency.
The decision by the close U.S. allies comes in the final days of the Trump administration’s time in office. Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited Saudi Arabia and Qatar in early December in a final attempt to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.
The decision to end the Saudi blockade of Qatar also comes just ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing in. Saudi Arabia may be seeking to clear contentious files that could prove stumbling blocs to building warm ties with the Biden administration, which is expected to take a firmer stance toward the kingdom’s policies than Trump’s four years in office.
There was no immediate comment by the UAE, Egypt or Bahrain on the announcement. However, in recent days Emirati and Egyptian statements have been made welcoming Saudi efforts to resolving the dispute.
Saudi Arabia on Sunday announced lifting ban on all international flights as well as land and sea entry, the Saudi Press Agency reported.
The two-week ban was part of the precautionary measures against the spread of a mutant variant of coronavirus detected in a number of countries.
The lifting decision becomes effective from 11am local time (0800 GMT) on Sunday, according to the Interior Ministry.
Still, non-Saudi citizens should spend at least 14 days outside the countries identified as places where the new COVID-19 strain has broken out before entry and carry at least one COVID-19 test, the ministry said.
Saudi citizens from those countries should be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival and carry two COVID-19 tests, it added.
Saudi Arabia recorded its first COVID-19 case in February 2020.
After nearly a year of efforts to curb the spread of the virus, the number of daily cases in the kingdom is now reduced to fewer than 200.
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Iran said Saturday it plans to enrich uranium up to 20% at its underground Fordo nuclear facility “as soon as possible,” pushing its program a technical step away from weapons-grade levels as it increases pressure on the West over the tattered atomic deal.
The move comes amid heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. in the waning days of the administration of President Donald Trump, who unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal in 2018.
That set in motion an escalating series of incidents capped by a U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general in Baghdad a year ago, an anniversary coming Sunday that has American officials now worried about possible retaliation by Iran.
Iran’s decision to begin enriching to 20% a decade ago nearly brought an Israeli strike targeting its nuclear facilities, tensions that only abated with the 2015 atomic deal. A resumption of 20% enrichment could see that brinksmanship return.
Even Ali Akbar Salehi, the U.S.-educated head of the civilian Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, offered a military analogy to describe his agency’s readiness to take the next step.
“We are like soldiers and our fingers are on the triggers,” Salehi told Iranian state television. “The commander should command and we shoot. We are ready for this and will produce (20% enriched uranium) as soon as possible.”
The White House had no immediate comment. A spokesman for President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team declined to comment on Iran’s announcement.
Iran’s decision comes after its parliament passed a bill, later approved by a constitutional watchdog, aimed at hiking enrichment to pressure Europe into providing sanctions relief. It also serves as pressure ahead of the inauguration of President-elect Biden, who has said he is willing to re-enter the nuclear deal.
The International Atomic Energy Agency acknowledged Iran had informed its inspectors of the decision by a letter after news leaked overnight Friday.
“Iran has informed the agency that in order to comply with a legal act recently passed by the country’s parliament, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran intends to produce low-enriched uranium ... up to 20 percent at the Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant,” the IAEA said in a statement.
The IAEA added Iran did not say when it planned to boost enrichment, though the agency “has inspectors present in Iran on a 24/7 basis and they have regular access to Fordo.” The parliamentary bill also called on Iran to expel those inspectors, though it appears Tehran still hasn’t decided to take that step.
Salehi said Iran would need to switch out natural uranium in centrifuges at Fordo for material already enriched to 4% to begin the process of going to 20%.
“It should be done under IAEA supervision,” Salehi added.
Since the deal’s collapse, Iran has resumed enrichment at Fordo, near the Shiite holy city of Qom, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Tehran.
Shielded by the mountains, Fordo is ringed by anti-aircraft guns and other fortifications. It is about the size of a football field, large enough to house 3,000 centrifuges, but small and hardened enough to lead U.S. officials to suspect it had a military purpose when they exposed the site publicly in 2009.
The 2015 deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment in exchange for sanctions relief. The accord also called for Fordo to be turned into a research-and-development facility.
Under Iran’s former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Tehran began 20% enrichment. Israel, which has its own undeclared nuclear weapons program, feared Tehran was building a bomb.
After the discovery of Fordo, the U.S. worked on so-called “bunker buster” bombs designed to strike such facilities. As Israel threatened at one point to bomb Iranian nuclear sites like Fordo, U.S. officials reportedly showed them a video of a bunker-buster bomb destroying a mock-up of Fordo in America’s southwestern desert.
Israel, which under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to criticize Iran’s nuclear program, offered no immediate comment Saturday.
As of now, Iran is enriching uranium up to 4.5%, in violation of the accord’s limit of 3.67%. Experts say Iran now has enough low-enriched uranium stockpiled for at least two nuclear weapons, if it chose to pursue them. Iran long has maintained its nuclear program is peaceful.
Iran separately has begun construction on a new site at Fordo, according to satellite photos obtained by The Associated Press in December.
Iran’s announcement coincides with the anniversary of the U.S. drone striking Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad last year. That attack later saw Iran retaliate by launching a ballistic missile strike injuring dozens of U.S. troops in Iraq. Tehran also accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet that night, killing all 176 people on board.
As the anniversary approached, the U.S. has sent B-52 bombers flying over the region and sent a nuclear-powered submarine into the Persian Gulf.
On Thursday, sailors discovered a limpet mine on a tanker in the Persian Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border as it prepared to transfer fuel to another tanker owned by a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. No one has claimed responsibility for the mining, though it comes after a series of similar attacks in 2019 that the U.S. Navy blamed on Iran. Tehran denied being involved.
In November, an Iranian scientist who founded the country’s military nuclear program two decades earlier was killed in an attack Tehran blames on Israel.