Barak disparages Iranian ‘nuclear advance’

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Israel Radio on Thursday that the high profile nuclear work announced the day before by Iran was exaggerated and meant to intimidate Israel and the West against taking military action to destroy the Islamic Republic’s renegade nuclear program. "They are describing a situation that is better and more advanced than the one they are in, in order to create a feeling among all the players that the point of no return is already behind them, which is not true," Barak said. "They are definitely making progress, but in order to deter anyone dealing with them, or perhaps even to make this seem superfluous, they are priding themselves on achievements that do not yet exist." The statements echoed comments by the US on Wednesday that the televised Iranian nuclear demonstrations were "not terribly new and not terribly impressive."

The professed “advances” displayed on Iranian TV included new centrifuges designed to enrich uranium at an accelerated rate and the loading of Iran’s first domestically produced batch of fuel into a research reactor. “Their underlying message is that this is all for civilian purposes,” one Israeli official commented. “But everyone knows that the Iranian program is not about isotopes. There is an international consensus now that this program is not benign.”

“The era of bullying nations has passed. The arrogant powers cannot monopolize nuclear technology. They tried to prevent us by issuing sanctions and resolutions but failed,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared during the live broadcast. “Our nuclear path will continue.”

The statements and the demonstrations were denounced by several governments around the world.

Elsewhere, Iran’s Arabic-language Al-Alam TV station reported that the Iranian government has handed a letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton expressing readiness to “hold new talks over its nuclear program in a constructive way.”

"Iran welcomes the readiness of the P5+1 group (Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- and Germany) to return to negotiations in order to take fundamental steps toward further cooperation," chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili wrote in the letter, according to the official IRNA news agency.

Ashton’s office confirmed receipt of the letter, saying she would consult with the rest of the P5+1 nuclear powers before responding.

In related news, a spokesman for Iran’s Oil Ministry issued a statement on Wednesday denying a report that it had decided to immediately cut off supplies of oil to six EU states. Brent crude-oil prices jumped up $1 a barrel to $118.35 in reaction to the announcement, despite Iran’s denial and a statement by the targeted countries (France, Portugal, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands and Spain) that they have already moved to buy oil from other suppliers.

“It is not really surprising that we are seeing this chaos as it reflects the fractured political process in Iran,” Nic Brown, head of commodities research at the Natixis corporate and investment bank in London told Reuters. “You have the Oil Ministry responsible for revenues, while other parts of the government are trying to make political statements. At the end of the day, they need revenues and they will remain dependent on the Europeans if they cannot place their oil elsewhere. Iran remains absolutely dependent on income from its oil exports.”

Thai police say Iranian bomber linked to other attacks

Police in Thailand announced on Wednesday that they have evidence linking a botched bombing attack by a team of Iranian men in Bangkok and the attacks against Israeli diplomats in New Dehli, India and Tbilisi Georgia. "The individual was in possession of the same magnets and we are currently examining the source of the magnet," Thai National Security Council Secretary Wichian Podphosri said, referring to an Iranian man arrested after a bomb he was carrying exploded prematurely.  Police in India have refused to comment on Israeli accusations that Iran was behind the New Dehli attack and a major newspaper’s editorial page questioned if Iran would take such a step and alienate India, which is a major trading partner with the Islamic Republic. Later on Wednesday, Indian officials confirmed that the controversy would not affect its trade relations with Teheran.

Iranians celebrate Valentine’s Day despite clerical ban
In a sign that young Iranians are growing disenchanted with the clerical Shi’ite Muslim regime which dominates their country, restaurants in Teheran and many other cities were full of young couples celebrating Valentine’s Day on Tuesday. The holiday is officially banned by the government and regularly preached against by clerics who warn that it is part of the wider “Western conspiracy” against the Islamic Republic. “This year they told us not to sell any red roses otherwise we can face the closure of our flower shop,” said a florist in Tehran. While buying flowers for his girlfriend, another young Iranian declared, “I don’t care about demonstrations. I want to have fun. I want to love and to be loved.”

IAF to deploy new Arrow battery
Despite budget shortfalls, the Israeli defense establishment is continuing with feverish preparations for the possible outbreak of war in the near future, with the Air Force announcing this week that a new Arrow missile defense battery will become operational in 2012, placed in the center of the country and designed to counter the threat to the Jewish State from long-range missiles. In related news, the Jerusalem Post reported on Tuesday that the US Congress is preparing a budget which would substantially increase funding for Israeli missile defense.

Heritage sites hope to build Zionism, draw tourists
The Knesset’s Ministerial Heritage Plan Committee approved a plan on Tuesday to upgrade facilities at 13 additional sites, including the iconic windmill in Jerusalem’s historic  Yemin Moshe neighborhood. Other sites include an interactive watchtower-and-stockade community such as was common during the pioneer period of the British Mandate, archeological remains at Tel Shilo (site of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant for many years before Solomon built the First Temple in Jerusalem) as well as others. The initiative is part of a larger plan to strengthen the Jewish and Zionist identity and awareness of young people in Israel, which in recent years has become noticeably weak. Tourist companies are also hopeful that the newly renovated sites will draw visitors to the Holy Land.

Gaza based terror suspects indicted
Two men from the Gaza Strip city of Rafah were charged with several security related offences by the Southern District Attorney in Beersheba District Court on Tuesday, just days after another man was similarly charged. All three are suspected of membership in terrorist organizations which have sarried out attacks against Israelis. The men were arrested when they attempted to infiltrate into Israel, and had participated in various terror-related activities before making the trip.

For a report on Israeli aid to the Gaza Strip, click HERE (PDF)

Israeli company building lifesaving systems in Chile
An Israeli company named eVigilo recently finished a project to install sensors and communications equipment in Chile which will send a text message to thousands of cell phones in the event of a tsunami threat to the coastal country. The system is based on the system already deployed in Israel to warn of terror attacks and natural disasters. “The multi-channel notification system will send out alerts to all devices accessible to civilians,” said Feliks Vainik, co-founder and Vice President at eVigilo. “Today’s increasingly digitalized broadcasts open greater possibilities for conveying texts that resemble SMS pictures and voice messages. If necessary, the fully integrated, multi-technology mass-alert platform can notify the entire population in less than twenty seconds.” There are dozens of other countries around the world who are interested in eVigilo’s assistance in building their own disaster alert systems.

Iran stews as US Navy patrols Gulf

Iranian ships and aircraft were keeping a close watch on the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Battle Group as it transited the Strait of Hormuz on its way out of the Persian Gulf on Tuesday. The surveillance was described by officers on the Lincoln as routine, and there was no warning from Teheran that the carrier should not come back, as there was the last time a US carrier left the Gulf. A naval exercise by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has also been relatively quiet, with no overt threats made to tanker traffic. Also on Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the US Senate Armed Services Committee that “we do not think that Israel has made this decision (to attack Iran). We have common cause with Israel, we have common cause with the international community, with regards to concerns about Iran. We’ve made very clear that they are not to develop a nuclear weapon.”

“We’ve made very clear that they are not to close the Straits of Hormuz. We’ve also made very clear that they are not to export terrorism and try to undermine other governments. We think that the approach of the international community, to apply sanctions, to apply pressure, is having an impact. It has isolated Iran. My hope would be that we could all stick together in ensuring that we continue to isolate Iran.”

Elsewhere Mohammad Ali Khatibi, Iran’s envoy to OPEC, warned on Tuesday that US and EU sanctions on Iran's oil exports will drive up oil prices globally because no viable alternative exists for the Islamic republic's output.

"If there were an assured substitute for a big oil exporter then the sanctions would not send a price shock to the market.... (But) conditions in different nations show that, in present circumstances, a substitute does not exist," Khatibi said. "Geopolitical tensions in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf," were also affecting prices he insisted.

The statement was in direct contradiction to a statement last week by Saudi Arabia that it had more than enough spare capacity to make up for sanctions on Iran’s oil exports.

Assad loyalists pounding Homs and Hama

The violence in Syria intensified on Wednesday as forces loyal to the regime of president Bashar Assad continued heavy artillery bombardments in the cities of Homs and Hama and opposition fighters also stepped up attacks. A major pipeline carrying oil to one of Syria’s largest refineries near Homs was hit in the fighting. Assad loyalist troops also carried out attacks on opposition forces in central Damascus, seen by many analysts as a tipping point which could lead to an even bigger conflict. The escalation in fighting has come despite a deafening chorus of international outrage directed at Assad, including a new plan by the Arab League to openly supply weapons to opposition forces. The chief of Egypt’s influential al-Azhar University, long a bell weather in Arab politics, also condemned Assad on Tuesday and called for action against his regime.

Officials from Iraq and other Arab countries have confirmed earlier reports that weapons and fighters from around the Muslim world, including groups linked to Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, have joined the forces fighting Assad in Syria.

Elsewhere, officials of the regime angrily denied UN charges of crimes against humanity on Tuesday.

 “The foreign ministry, in a message sent to the UN Human Rights Commission, categorically rejected the new allegations made by the commission,” state news agency SANA said. The ministry also accused the UN Human Rights Commission of being manipulated by “countries targeting Syria and of ignoring the terrorist crimes committed by armed groups.”

Hamas leadership dispute continues

Hamas’ Gaza based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh wrapped up a three day visit to Iran on Monday by telling a prominent TV station that Israel is the “main enemy” of the Arab and Islamic world, calling the Jewish State a “cancer” and praising “Iran’s support for the resistance and the Palestinian people.” He also denied that there is any tension between Hamas and Iran over the ongoing violence in Syria. Despite the upbeat nature of his TV appearance, reports surfaced on Monday that secret talks between Haniyah and Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, held in Qatar to resolve an internal crisis over a unity pact with the Palestinian Authority and its president, Mahmoud Abbas, have failed to produce an agreement. One regional diplomat told Reuters that “the Doha agreement needs a miracle to be implemented. The crack it caused in the integrity of Hamas is one that will be difficult to overcome.”

Cyprus defies Turkey in Natural Gas row
Despite ongoing tensions with Turkey, the government of the Greek speaking Republic of Cyprus announced on Monday that it has launched a second licensing round for offshore oil and gas exploration blocks off its coast in the Mediterranean. Preliminary exploration has already yielded large discoveries of recoverable natural gas, leading to the possibility of great wealth for Cyprus which Turkey has warned needs to be shared with the islands Turkish speaking northern statelet, which exists only because thousands of Turkish troops occupy it and which is not recognized by any government in the world except Ankara. Talks on growing cooperation between Israel and Cyprus in the fields of energy and defense are sure to be a highlight of Thursday's visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

City of David tourism center approved
On Monday, the Jerusalem District Committee of Israel’s Interior Ministry’s gave initial approval for a tourism center in the Silwan neighborhood, across the street from the City of David archeological park. The planned Kedem Center will cover 9,000-square meters including several levels of underground parking and facilities for visitors and special events. The area has already been extensively surveyed by archeologists who have unearthed remains from the Roman, Late Byzantine and Second Temple period. These remains will be visible to visitors as the visitors center will be built atop concrete stilts. Left-wing activists protested the decision, saying it ignored the Arab history of the area.

Ahmadinejad’s press secretary sentenced to jail
In yet another sign of chaos in the corridors of Iran’s government, a report surfaced on Monday that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's press adviser, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, has been sentenced to six months in jail. Javanfekr had been previously convicted of the crime of insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and according to prosecutors has "more than one case before the judiciary." Some analysts have speculated that the case case is part of an ongoing power struggle between Ahmadinejad's supporters and Khamenei loyalists.

Barak in Singapore to help Israeli industry
One of the world’s largest defense and aerospace trade expos is currently underway in Singapore, with billions of dollars in potential business at stake, along with thousands of jobs. Several Israeli companies have large booths at the expo, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak visited them on Monday to raise their profile and assist their efforts. Israel has long been a close ally of Singapore, having helped the states small but powerful military get started shortly after independence in the 1960’s. Singapore is also an important export market for Israeli defense and high tech companies.

Israel investigating attacks on diplomats in India and Georgia

Fallout from attacks against Israeli diplomatic personnel in India and Georgia continued on Tuesday after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held high level meetings with his security cabinet amid a general consensus that Iran and its Lebanese terrorist proxy Hezbollah was responsible for the attacks. Netanyahu declared that “Iran, which is behind these attacks, is the biggest exporter of terrorism in the world. The Israeli government and its security forces will continue to work together with local security services against these terrorist actions.” Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman added that “we can identify exactly who is responsible for these attacks, but as diplomats will only say that we will not let it pass.” Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast declared that the accusations were just the newest phase in the Jewish State’s “psychological war” against the Islamic Republic, adding that the attacks were probably carried out by Israel itself in order to “tarnish Iran’s friendly ties” with Georgia and India.

Condemnation of the attacks poured in from several world governments, led by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who declared that the police in India and Georgia had his full support to "investigate these incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice." US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton issued similar statements, along with their colleagues in several other governments. India's Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna phoned Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman Monday to express his "shock" at the attacks and assure Israel of India’s friendship and full cooperation. Liberman thanked him and stated that "no Israel diplomat anywhere in the world will be deterred by terrorism."

Elsewhere, Azerbaijan has denied Iranian claims that it is collaborating with Israeli intelligence agencies in a campaign to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists.  The accusations are even more suspicious coming just a few days after Azerbaijani police arrested two men with alleged links to Iranian intelligence on suspicion of plotting to kill prominent Israelis in Baku.

Syrian defector says Assad using chemical weapons

Awad Al-Razak, a military officer who recently defected from the forces loyal to the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad, told Al-Arabiya on Monday that the regime has used chemical weapons against protesters in the city of Homs, under the supervision of Russian and Iranian scientists. The revelation came the same day that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the General Assembly that Assad’s forces had been emboldened by the Security Council’s failure to act on the ongoing violence. She also listed the regimes attacks on civilians, especially in Homs.

“The failure of the Security Council to agree on firm collective action appears to have emboldened the Syrian government to launch an all-out assault in an effort to crush dissent with overwhelming force,” Pillay said. “I am particularly appalled by the ongoing onslaught on Homs. According to credible accounts, the Syrian army has shelled densely populated neighborhoods of Homs in what appears to be an indiscriminate attack on civilian areas.”

Syrian UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, backed by delegates from Iran and North Korea, attempted to use procedural arguments to prevent Pillay from speaking.

Elsewhere, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Monday, telling reporters afterwards that the US would continue to push for medical supplies and support to civilians in Syria, but warned that an Arab League  proposal to send peacekeepers was probably unrealistic.

“We look forward to being able to continue to consult with them on their precise idea for a peacekeeping force but we would note that there are a number of challenges with regard to this proposal,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained. “We need more time to talk to the Arab League about how they would see this coming together, because from our perspectives there are a number of challenges in getting it to come together.”

“I think the political significance of the Arab League move is enormous,” said Rami Khouri, head of the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “The practical consequences of it will take a lot longer to manifest themselves. The important thing is the Arab League is now trying to hook up with the legitimacy of the United Nations and all the countries trying to bring about peaceful political change in Syria.”

Meanwhile, a humanitarian catastrophe looms in Homs and the historic city of Hama, where fighting has left millions of residents without electricity amid widespread reports of dwindling supplies of food and fresh water.

Israeli diplomatic missions targeted

One bomb went off and another was defused outside Israeli embassies on Monday, the day after the  fourth anniversary of the assassination of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh. The wife of an Israeli diplomat in New Dehli, India was wounded when a bomb detonated near her vehicle, but she remained conscious long enough to drive to the embassy where she was brought to a nearby hospital. A Georgian man working for the Israeli embassy in Tbilisi discovered a bomb attached to the underside of his vehicle and called police, who de-activated it. The level of alert has been raised at Israeli diplomatic facilities worldwide as a result of the attacks. Prime Minister Benjemin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials were quick to point the figer of blame at Iran and Hezbollah, its terrorist proxy.

US Navy ‘our job to be prepared’
The commander of US naval forces in the Persian Gulf region told reporters on Sunday that Iran has prepared an asymmetric strategy to deal with technologically superior US forces. "They have increased the number of submarines ... they increased the number of fast attack craft," Vice Admiral Mark Fox told reporters. "Some of the small boats have been outfitted with a large warhead that could be used as a suicide explosive device. The Iranians have a large mine inventory. We are very vigilant, we have built a wide range of options to give the president and we are ready... What if it happened tonight? We are ready today. So when you hear discussion about all this overheated rhetoric from Iran we really believe that the best way to handle this is with diplomacy... I am absolutely convinced that is the way to go. It is our job to be prepared. We are vigilant."

Erdogan recovering from surgery
The office of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan issued a statement over the weekend that Erdogan was recovering from a successful medical procedure on his digestive system. "The prime minister is in very good health. He plans to continue his routine engagements during the week," the statement said. Rumors have circulated in recent months that Erdogan, seen as indispensible to Turkey’s government, is suffering from cancer.

Israeli renewable energy market ahead of other countries
Even as several countries around the world struggle to integrate renewable energy solutions, the Israeli company Better Place has quietly built a network of 33 battery-switch stations throughout the Jewish State, and is on schedule to launch a fleet of Renault Fluence ZE electric vehicles (EV) in the second quarter. “We want to end global dependence on oil by 2020,” Better Place CEO Shai Agassi told reporters in last week, adding that he projects from 8,000-10,000 electric cars will be using the networks his company has built in Israel and Denmark by the end of 2012. He boasted that electric car users will spend significantly less on fuel over the lifetime of their vehicle than gasoline powered models, and that the company has already attracted many customers in Israel.

IDF announces cuts in career soldiers
The IDF announced recently that as many as 700 career soldiers will soon be released from active duty because of budget cuts. I am afraid of what message this is sending down the ranks, to the young generation of soldiers who will want to serve in the army in the future,” a senior officer told Globes. “A crisis of confidence is liable to emerge there." The cuts in personnel are coming even as orders for heavy weapons have also been cut, including the new Iron Dome air defense system.

Syrian violence spreads as Arab League turns to UN
It was another bloody weekend in Syria as dozens of people were killed in vicious fighting in the cities of Aleppo, Homs and several other locations, even as the Arab League finally agreed to “open channels of communication with the Syrian opposition and offer full political and financial support, urging [the opposition] to unify its ranks,” and request the formation of a joint peacekeeping force along with the UN Security Council “to oversee the implementation of a ceasefire.” Regime officials were quick to denounce the moves, calling it a “hysterical” reaction to the circumstances. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda leader Ayman Al Zawahiri issued a statement in support of the revolt against Assad amid reports that Jihadist volunteers from dozens of countries in the Muslim world are making their way to Syria to join the fighting. The violence in Syria also spilled over into Lebanon over the weekend, with clashes between supporters and opponents of Assad claiming at least two lives, with many more wounded.

Israeli officials probes US on Iran options

Newsweek reported Monday that Mossad chief Tamir Pardo probed his hosts during a recent visit to Washington DC about what the US reaction would be if Israel attacked Iran’s renegade nuclear program. The report also stated that "Israel has stopped sharing a significant amount of information with Washington regarding its own military preparations" for such a strike. But the report also stated that US President Barak Obama is "willing to come at the Iran problem from every possible angle: from behind, from the sides, overtly, covertly, diplomatically, and economically." Meanwhile, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei upped the rhetorical ante on Sunday by declaring that he would give his full support to the Islamist terror militia Hamas in its conflict with the Jewish State, adding that his government considers the Palestinian issue an “Islamic cause.” The remarks came during a meeting with Gaza based Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who was on an official visit to Iran.

For the latest intelligence report on Iran, click HERE (PDF)

“Iran will always be supportive of the Palestinian cause and the Islamic resistance in Palestine,” the Tehran-based Mehr News Agency quoted Khamenei as saying. “Undoubtedly, the accumulating sentiments of the region’s peoples toward the cause of the Gaza Strip led to the sudden eruption of the volcano in the region.”

Elsewhere, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad gave another firebrand speech on Saturday, the 33rd anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, in which he warned that "within the coming days we will witness [the] opening and operation of new nuclear projects in Iran."

Ahmadinejad also raved that the West had made up "a story called the Holocaust" in order to create Israel as part of a plan "to dominate the world."

In related news, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced on Friday that Assistant Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu will visit Iran 12-13 February for talks on the nuclear issue. Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin reiterated Beijing’s stance that that "dialogue and cooperation is the only right way to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue."

India has resisted calls from the EU to use its own influence over Teheran to help resolve the dispute.

UN rapporteur accuses Israel of ‘Judaizing’ Jerusalem, Negev

Raquel Rolnik, a special UN rapporteur charged with investigating housing issues in Israel and the West Bank spoke to reporters on Sunday,  accusing Israel of imposing a “strategy of Judaization” in several areas including eastern Jerusalem, the West Bank and even in the Negev desert, which is within the original UN mandate for Israel dating back to 1948. Israeli activities in the Negev, eastern Jerusalem and Area C of the West Bank “are the new frontiers of dispossession of the traditional inhabitants and the implementation of a strategy of Judaization and control of the territory,” Rolnik declared, adding that she intends to submit a full report to the UN Human Rights Council, which will debate the issue in March 2013. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said her statements “manifest such a profound misunderstanding of basic realities that one really feels obliged to request the honorable rapporteur to go back to square one and do her homework properly.”

In related news, the Prime Minister's Office declared on Sunday that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ threat at the Arab League meeting in Cairo on Sunday to return to the UN for another try at Security Council recognition if Israel does not agree to all his demands only proves that Abbas has "turned his back on peace."

"Instead of entering into negotiations that will lead to an end to the conflict, Abu Mazen [Abbas] prefers to join up with the Hamas terrorist organization, the same Hamas that is hugging Iran," the statement read.

One Israeli diplomatic source, referring to the low-level Israeli-Palestinian talks held last month in Jordan, said: “Every time we start to make progress, Abbas runs away. This also characterized him during previous rounds of negotiations. Precisely when Israel starts to show flexibility is when he decides to blow up the negotiations.”

Finally, senior Hamas official Mahmud Zahar blasted the recent Palestinian unity deal as a "mistake" that has thrown the Islamist movement into crisis, in an interview with Egypt's official MENA agency published on Sunday because “no one inside the Hamas movement was consulted."

“If the consultations took place among the small circle around the political bureau [headed by Mishaal abroad], then this is unacceptable," he added. The agreement "needs to be reviewed, so Hamas leaders at home and abroad will meet over the issue in the coming two days."

Zahar was echoing the thoughts of several other Gaza based Hamas lawmakers, who declared in a joint statement over the weekend that the agreement violated the Hamas charter and Basic Law.


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