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Last chance saloon for Iran nuclear talks

Time runs out Monday for the biggest chance in years to resolve the Iranian nuclear standoff, as Tehran and world powers make a final push for a deal but with a risky extension looking likely.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany (the P5+1) have been locked in talks with Iran for months, seeking to turn an interim deal that expires at midnight (2300 GMT) on Monday into a lasting accord.

Such an agreement, after a 12-year standoff, is aimed at easing fears that Tehran will develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian activities, an ambition it hotly denies.

But a last-ditch diplomatic blitz in recent days involving US Secretary of State John Kerry and other foreign ministers to secure a deal appears to have failed to bridge the remaining major differences.

As a result, late Sunday a senior US State Department official said for the first time that the powers and Iran were now discussing putting more time on the clock.

The official said it was “only natural that just over 24 hours from the deadline we are discussing a range of options … An extension is one of those options.”

This came after US Secretary of State John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif for the sixth time since Thursday in an attempt to break the deadlock.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said however that the parties would still make a “big push tomorrow (Monday) morning to try and get this across the line”.

“Of course if we’re not able to do it, we’ll then look at where we go from there,” he said.

“We’re still quite a long way apart and there are some very tough and complex issues to deal with”.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was expected in the Austrian capital early Monday, completing the line-up of all the six powers’ foreign ministers.

This included Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a key player in the talks. Earlier in the week he said all the elements were in place for a deal with just “political will” missing.

– Gaps –

Diplomats on both sides say that despite some progress, the two sides remain far apart on the two crucial points of contention: uranium enrichment and sanctions relief.

Enriching uranium renders it suitable for peaceful purposes like nuclear power but also, at high purities, for the fissile core of a nuclear weapon.

Tehran wants to massively ramp up the number of enrichment centrifuges — in order, it says, to make fuel for future reactors — while the West wants them dramatically reduced.

Iran wants painful UN and Western sanctions that have strangled its vital oil exports lifted, but the powers want to stagger any relief over a long period of time to ensure Iranian compliance with any deal.

“What a deal would do is take a big piece of business off the table and perhaps begin a long process in which the relationship not just between Iran and us but the relationship between Iran and the world, and the region, begins to change,” US President Barack Obama in an ABC News interview aired Sunday.

Extension
In view of the difficulties — and of the dangers posed by the alternative of a complete collapse — many experts have long believed that the negotiators would put more time on the clock.

An Iranian source told AFP earlier Sunday, while stressing at that point that adding time was not yet on the table, that the extension “could be for a period of six months or a year.”

Another extension — as happened with an earlier deadline of July 20 — however carries risks of its own,including possible fresh US sanctions that could lead Iran to walk away.

Pushing back the cut-off point will also fuel accusations from Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state, that its arch foe Iran is merely buying time to get closer to the bomb.

Arms Control Association analyst Kelsey Davenport told AFP that an extension of six months to a year “would not fly” with the other parties.

Any extension “will have to be very short because there are too many hardliners, particularly in Washington and Tehran, that want to sabotage this deal,” she told AFP.

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Myanmar Navy and Indonesia’s PT PAL in LPD talks

24 Juli 2014

PAL LPD 125 (photo : PAL)

The Myanmar Navy (MN) and Indonesian naval shipbuilder PT PAL are in talks over the MN’s potential purchase of landing platform docks (LPDs) to bolster sealift and amphibious capabilities, IHS Jane’s understands.

The two parties have recently entered what have been described to IHS Jane’s as “preliminary discussions” about the MN’s acquisition of a small number of vessels based on PT PAL’s Makassar-class LPD, which in turn is based on a design by South Korea’s Dae Sun Shipbuilding and Engineering.

PT PAL has delivered five Makassar-class LPDs to the Indonesian Navy and in June signed a contract to supply the Philippine Navy (PN) with two LPDs based on the same design.

(Jane’s)

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Ministers fail to broker Iran talks breakthrough

Western foreign ministers appeared Sunday to have failed in their mission to inject momentum into talks with Iran in Vienna, seven days before the deadline to strike a momentous nuclear deal.

The talks were set to continue, however, with US Secretary of State John Kerry remaining in the Austrian capital for further discussions on Monday.

The sought-after accord is aimed at killing off once and for all worries that Iran might develop nuclear weapons under the guise of its civilian program, and silence talk of war.

Iran denies seeking the bomb and wants the lifting of all UN and Western sanctions, which have caused it major economic problems.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany have been negotiating almost constantly for months, but the talks have come up against major problems — as expected.

Kerry and the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany arrived Sunday in Vienna seeking to press Iran to make key concessions.

The three European ministers left late Sunday however saying no breakthrough had been made, although Kerry remained for likely further discussions with his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday.

Zarif told reporters that “some important headway” had been made but that it “didn’t solve any problems”.

Russia and China sent only lower-ranking officials, with Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Li Baodong urging both sides “to show flexibility”.

Kerry said on arrival that “very significant gaps” remained, while Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi said that on all the important issues, no narrowing of positions was evident.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who like the others held one-on-one talks with Zarif, was the most downbeat, warning that “the ball is in Iran’s court”.

“It is now up to Iran to decide to take the path of cooperation … I hope that the days left will be enough to create some reflection in Tehran,” he said.

Britain’s William Hague said that no “decisive breakthrough” was achieved and that there remained a “huge gap” on the key issue of uranium enrichment — an activity that can produce fuel for the country’s sole nuclear plant or, if further enriched, the matter for an atomic bomb.

The six powers want Iran to reduce dramatically the scope of its enrichment program, while Tehran wants to expand it.

Israeli pressure
Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear weapons state and which together with Washington has refused to rule out military action, is opposed to any enrichment by Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that any nuclear deal leaving Iran with the capability to pursue this activity would be “catastrophic”.

“It would be a disaster for the United States and for everyone else,” he told Fox News, adding that “a bad deal is actually worse than no deal”.

Araqchi said: “Concerning enrichment, our position is clear and rational. As the supreme guide said, the enrichment program has been planned with the real needs of the country in mind, meaning our need to ensure reactor fuel.”

On Saturday, Araqchi said Iran was ready to walk away from the talks if the world powers pushed on with “excessive” demands.

Extension
If no agreement is reached by next Sunday when a six-month interim accord with Iran runs out, both sides can decide to extend the pact for longer and keep talking.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that if a deal was not struck, “we either extend, a so-called rollover, or we will have to say that unfortunately there is no perspective for a deal”.

But such an extension is possible only if both sides agree, and the United States in particular is opposed to such a move unless Tehran first offers major concessions.

Hague said Sunday that such a move “will only be discussed if no progress can be made. It is still too early.”

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Final push in ‘historic’ Iran nuclear talks

Iran nuclear talks enter the decisive, dangerous endgame Thursday with a marathon final round of hardball negotiations potentially going all the way to the July 20 finish line.

The deal being sought by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany would finally ease fears of Tehran getting nuclear weapons — and silence talk of war for good.

With insurgents overrunning large parts of Iraq and Syria in chaos after years of civil war, this could help Tehran and the West normalize relations at an explosive time in the Middle East.

But failure could return both sides to the path of confrontation and even war, with neither Israel nor Washington ruling out military action.

“In this troubled world, the chance does not often arise to reach an agreement peacefully that will meet the essential and publicly expressed needs of all sides, make the world safer, ease regional tensions and enable greater prosperity,” US Secretary of State John Kerry said this week.

“We have such an opportunity, and a historic breakthrough is possible. It’s a matter of political will and proving intentions, not of capacity. It’s a matter of choices. Let us all choose wisely,” Kerry wrote in the Washington Post.

“In the next three weeks, we have a unique opportunity to make history,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a video message released ahead of the talks.

“To forge a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear energy program and to end an unnecessary crisis that has distracted us from addressing together our common challenges, such as the horrifying events of the past few weeks in Iraq.”

After five rounds of talks in Vienna seeking to secure a deal by July 20 — when an interim deal struck in November expires — the differences appear considerable, however.

The last meeting from June 16-20 saw both sides begin drafting the accord, but haggling over language concerning the thorniest problems was put off until later.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want Iran to reduce drastically in scope its nuclear activities in order to render any Iranian drive to assemble a weapon all but impossible.

This would include in particular Iran slashing its capacities to enrich uranium, a process producing nuclear fuel but also at high purities the core of a nuclear weapon.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last month Iran has to slash the number of centrifuge enrichment machines to several hundred from almost 20,000 at present.

But Iran rejects this, saying it even needs to expand the number of centrifuges to fuel a fleet of nuclear power plants — facilities that it is however years if not decades away from having.

Demands that Iran’s program be “radically curbed” rest on a “gross misrepresentation of the steps, time and dangers of a dash for the bomb”, Zarif said.

Writing in French daily Le Monde, Zarif said Iran “will not abandon or make a mockery of our technological advances or our scientists.”

– Final whistle or extra time? –

In theory, the July 20 deadline could be extended by up to six months, and many analysts believe that such a move is already being discussed.

But US President Barack Obama, facing midterm elections in November and Republican accusations of weakness, is wary of doing anything that could be construed as simply giving Iran more time to get closer to having the bomb.

This is the long-standing accusation of Israel, the Middle East’s sole if undeclared nuclear-armed state.

But Kelsey Davenport from the Arms Control Association believes that Washington should not shy away from pushing back the deadline if necessary and if Iran is “negotiating in good faith”.

“The alternative to no deal is far worse for the international community — a constrained, unlimited Iranian nuclear program,” she told AFP.

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US to push China on hacking at high-level talks

Washington will push Beijing to crack down on cyber-spying and halt the theft of corporate data when the two powers meet next week for high-level talks, a US diplomat told AFP Wednesday.

Concerns about widespread Internet hacking as well as regional maritime tensions will be among a slew of issues on the table during two days of talks in Beijing on July 9-10, with Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew leading the US delegation.

China in May angrily suspended a newly-formed cybersecurity working group after the US took the unprecedented step of indicting five Chinese military officers for cyber-spying, accusing them of hacking into US computers to steal trade secrets.

But Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Daniel Russel told AFP that despite what he called the show of Chinese “irritation,” Kerry was still likely to raise the issue with State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Vice Premier Wang Yang, who will lead Beijing’s team.

At the sixth annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, Kerry will also push for the resumption of the expert-level cyber working group, set up a year ago to draw up rules for using and protecting the Internet.

“It’s urgent, frankly, that the United States and China cooperate in helping to develop international standards,” Russel said, adding it was also a vital forum in which to raise their own concerns.

The number one US issue is that “corporate data from US firms is being stolen via cyber means by actors in China and that information is being transferred to Chinese state-owned enterprises,” he said.

The Chinese companies were then using the stolen intellectual property to enhance their own profits.

“There is a growing body of evidence that points to direct Chinese government involvement in that behavior. Clearly to us that means that the Chinese government has the ability to stop it,” Russel insisted.

Washington has called on Beijing to “look into any and all allegations and take action to prevent this kind of cyber economic theft.”

– Managing frictions –

The top US diplomat for East Asia and Pacific affairs stressed however that the suspension of the cyber group was “not indicative of fundamental problems in the relationship” between the world’s two biggest economies.

“It is more in the character of a wide-ranging and broad relationship that includes areas of cooperation, areas of competition and areas of friction,” he added.

“The trick of course is to manage friction in an effective and constructive way,” Russel said, adding that the strategic dialogue was the right kind of mechanism to air tensions.

Also high on the agenda will be China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

In recent weeks, China has sent oil rigs to the South China Sea into waters claimed by Hanoi, and the row has seen a wave of deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam as well as accusations from both sides of ramming by the other’s vessels.

Washington would “put forward some of our thoughts on steps that China and frankly all of the claimants can take to lower the temperature to reduce the risk of some sort of incident that could lead to a crisis,” Russel said.

Other issues on the table for the talks included joint efforts to tackle climate change, as well as energy and the environment.

“There is an acceleration in the focus on those sets of issues in both countries, and certainly on the Chinese side, the magnitude of the environmental degradation that is facing China and its citizens has sharpened their minds,” Russel said.

Steps to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table over its suspect nuclear program will also be discussed.

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US, Iran may use nuclear talks to discuss Iraq

Washington said Monday it might use a critical fifth round of nuclear talks between Iran and world powers to discuss with Tehran possible cooperation on tackling the crisis raging in Iraq.

The United States and Iran, which have been bitter foes for more than 30 years, are both deeply concerned by a major insurgency by Sunni militants who have overrun swathes of Iraq over the past week.

A senior US official said that as a result “there may be some conversations” with Iranian negotiators on the sidelines of nuclear talks between Iran and six world powers in Vienna that began on Monday.

Washington stressed however that it would push Shiite-majority Iran “to address problems in a non-sectarian way,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

While signalling its readiness to talk to Iran on the issue, Washington also ruled out consulting with Tehran on any potential military action.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby said “there is absolutely no intention, no plan to coordinate military activities between the United States and Iran.”

In the Austria capital were US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, who held secret nuclear talks with Iran in 2013, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Zarif was a key interlocutor between Shiite Iran and the US government after the September 11, 2001, attacks, when both sides were keen to oust the hardline Sunni Muslim Taliban in Afghanistan.

“The US and Iran discussed Afghanistan … so from time to time there have been times where it makes sense to be part of a conversation,” the US official said.

US Secretary of State John Kerry told Yahoo News on Monday that he would be open to cooperating with Iran over Iraq, saying he “wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive”.

Iran’s chief negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, said beforehand however that negotiators in Vienna would “only discuss Iran’s nuclear issue”.

Nuclear focus
The main focus in Vienna remains however efforts towards a nuclear deal with only five weeks before a July 20 deadline to sign on the dotted line.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany want Tehran to scale back its nuclear activities, while Iran wants all UN and Western sanctions to be lifted.

This long hoped-for accord would aim to once and for all silence fears that Tehran might develop nuclear weapons, and avert a slide into international conflict.

Both sides caution that there is a long way to go as negotiators confront the same sticking points that have dogged diplomatic efforts for the past decade.

The senior US official said however that contrary to the general assessment by experts, both sides actually began to draft a deal at their last meeting in May.

“A little bit of that was done the last time, and it was expected more will take place during this round,” the official said.

She added that in US-Iranian bilateral talks last week, both sides “not only understood each other better … but I think we both can see places where we might be able to close the gaps.”

Thorny issues
The many thorny issues to be resolved in what would be a fiendishly complex deal include the duration of the mooted accord and the pace of sanctions relief.

But the gorilla in the room remains uranium enrichment, a process that can produce nuclear fuel but also, when highly purified, the core of an atomic bomb.

Iran wants to massively increase the number of centrifuges — the machines that enrich — saying it needs them to produce the fuel for a future set of civilian nuclear plants.

The West says these are years if not decades away from being built, fearing that Iran’s real aim is to use its centrifuges to enrich uranium to weapons-grade — which Tehran denies.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said last week that the West wants Iran to slash the number of centrifuges to “several hundred” from the current 20,000, of which 10,000 are operating.

“We are not even in the same ballpark,” Fabius said.

Extra time
Under an interim deal struck in November, Iran agreed to freeze certain nuclear activities for six months in return for minor sanctions relief.

This comes to an end on July 20 but it can be renewed — if both sides agree. Experts say such an extension is probably already under discussion.

The senior US official however denied this.

US President Barack Obama would much prefer to get a deal by July 20 in order to fend off accusations that Iran is merely buying time ahead of midterm US elections in November.

“It will be in the interest of everyone if a deal is signed in the next five weeks,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Saturday.

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UN calls crisis talks as Iraq militants advance on Baghdad

Militants have seized the Iraqi city of Tikrit as a militant offensive sweeps closer to Baghdad, prompting the UN Security Council to convene crisis talks Thursday, with the US said to be considering air strikes on the rebels.

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized the second city of Mosul on Tuesday and has since captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes.

ISIL spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani promised the battle would “rage” on the capital Baghdad and Karbala, a city southwest of the capital that is considered one of the holiest sites for Shiite Muslims, the SITE Intelligence Group said.

The UN Security Council swiftly convened a meeting to discuss the crisis in a sign of growing international alarm at the fast-moving situation.

Diplomats said the closed consultations would begin at 11:30 am (1530 GMT) and will include a briefing by video link from the UN special representative to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon earlier urged the international community to unite behind Iraq, warning that “terrorism must not be allowed to succeed in undoing the path toward democracy in Iraq.”

Iraqi officials have privately asked US President Barack Obama’s administration to weigh potential air strikes targeting militants, a Western official said Wednesday.

The Obama administration is considering several possibilities to offer military assistance to Baghdad, including drone strikes, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US was committed to “working with the Iraqi government and leaders across Iraq to support a unified approach against ISIL’s continued aggression.”

But there is no current plan to send US troops back into Iraq, where around 4,500 American soldiers died in the bitter conflict.

‘Blessed invasions’
ISIL vowed on Twitter that it would “not stop this series of blessed invasions” that have seen the fall of the whole of Nineveh province in the north and swathes of Kirkuk and Saleheddin provinces further south.

Tikrit — hometown of executed dictator Saddam Hussein — was the second provincial capital to fall in as many days as the jihadists and their allies captured a string of mainly Sunni Arab towns where resentment against the Shiite-led government runs deep.

“All of Tikrit is in the hands of the militants,” a police colonel said of the Salaheddin provincial capital, which lies half way between Baghdad and Mosul.

Another officer said the militants had freed some 300 inmates from a prison there.

After Tikrit’s fall, the operation spread down the main highway towards Baghdad, with militants battling security forces on the northern outskirts of Samarra, just 110 kilometres (70 miles) from the capital.

State television said security forces responded with air strikes, and residents said the fighting subsided without the militants entering the city.

Militants had already tried to seize the city late last week, and were halted only by a massive deployment of troops, backed by tribal militia and air power.

Samarra is mainly Sunni Arab but is home to a shrine revered by the country’s Shiite majority, a site that was bombed by Al-Qaeda in 2006, sparking a Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict that left tens of thousands dead.

Maliki appeals to tribes
The lightning advance poses significant challenges to Baghdad, with the New York-based Eurasia Group risk consultancy saying jihadists would be bolstered by cash from Mosul’s banks, hardware from military bases and hundreds of men they freed from prison.

In his weekly address Wednesday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki merely renewed his call to arm civilians to resist the jihadists.

Maliki urged Nineveh’s residents “and its tribes to stand with the army and police.”

In Tehran, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Shiite Iran “offers its support to the government and people of Iraq against terrorism.”

The swift collapse of Baghdad’s control, which comes on top of the loss of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, at the start of the year, has been a blow for Western governments that invested lives and money in the invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003.

However, Foreign Secretary William Hague said there was “no question” of British troops being sent back to Iraq.

Exodus of civilians
The International Organisation for Migration said sources in Mosul estimated the violence leading up to the jihadists’ takeover saw over 500,000 people displaced in and around the city.

On Wednesday, gunmen in military uniforms and all-black clothing guarded government buildings and banks in the city, residents told AFP by telephone.

Militants stormed the Turkish consulate and kidnapped 49 people including the head of the mission and three children, a Turkish official said.

They were in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers seized by ISIL at a Mosul power station, and Ankara pledged harsh reprisals if any were harmed.

Known for its ruthless tactics and suicide bombers, ISIL is arguably the most capable force fighting President Bashar al-Assad inside Syria as well as the most powerful militant group in Iraq.

In a show of its determination to unite its thousands of fighters in the two countries, the group posted photographs on the Internet of militants bulldozing the border berm to open a road.

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