Tehran, Feb 26 (AP/UNB) — Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resigned without warning late Monday, offering an "apology" to the nation as the nuclear deal he negotiated with world powers is on the verge of collapse after the U.S. withdrawal from the accord.
Zarif's resignation, if accepted by Iran's relatively moderate President Hassan Rouhani, would leave the cleric without one of his main allies in pushing the Islamic Republic toward further negotiations with the West.
It remains unclear why Zarif chose to leave his post now and what effect it will have on the atomic accord, which Iran has been complying with. He likely briefed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before offering his resignation. Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters, previously backed the American-educated envoy through the nuclear negotiations.
"We'll see if it sticks," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted about Zarif's resignation. "Our policy is unchanged — the regime must behave like a normal country and respect its people."
The veteran diplomat first hinted at his resignation with a vague Instagram post in which he offered an "apology" for his "inability to continue to his service." The post included a drawing honoring Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, as Iranians commemorate her birth Tuesday.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Abbas Mousavi, confirmed to the state-run IRNA news agency minutes later that Zarif had resigned but gave no reason for his departure.
Earlier Monday, Zarif met with members of the activist group Code Pink in Tehran, smiling as he posed for a photograph with them. However, he was not seen in images later in the day showing Syrian President Bashar Assad meeting with Khamenei and Rouhani. Iran has been one of Assad's main supporters during the years-long war in Syria.
On Sunday, Zarif criticized Iranian hard-liners in a speech in Tehran, saying: "We cannot hide behind imperialism's plot and blame them for our own incapability."
"Independence does not mean isolation from the world," he said.
Analysts say Rouhani faces growing political pressure from hard-liners within the government as the nuclear deal unravels. Iranian presidents typically see their popularity erode during their second four-year term, but analysts say Rouhani is particularly vulnerable because of the economic crisis assailing the country's rial currency, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to openly call for his ouster.
Reaction to Zarif's resignation was swift. A prominent reformist lawmaker, Mostafa Kavakebian, wrote on Twitter that Rouhani should reject Zarif's resignation as his departure would only "make enemies of Iran's dignity happy."
Hassan Mohammadi, a Tehran-based political analyst close to Rouhani, said he understood it was Zarif's third time submitting his resignation in the last year.
"It is part of plan for changing the track in foreign policy in Iran. A negotiation-seeking foreign minister is not a favored person anymore," Mohammadi told The Associated Press. "Iran needs a tough foreign minister from now on. Someone who does not offer smile towards the West."
The son of a wealthy family, Zarif overcame hardline objections and Western suspicions to strike the accord with world powers that saw Iran promise to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions.
But the deal was later challenged by the administration of President Donald Trump, which pulled America out of the accord. In doing so, Trump also fueled doubts of Iranians still wary of U.S. interests decades after Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Zarif himself faced withering criticism at home after he shook hands with President Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, officials in the Trump administration have also been pressuring Iran through social media, with one State Department official tweeting an unflattering GIF of Zarif saying: "How do you know @JZarif is lying? His lips are moving."
Zarif, 59, served as Iran's ambassador to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, first under reformist President Mohammad Khatami and then under hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Ahmadinejad wanted him replaced, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei intervened to keep him in the position for another two years as Iran soon found itself an international pariah over its nuclear program. Iran insisted its atomic program was for peaceful purposes only, while the West feared it could be used to make nuclear weapons.
Secret backchannel talks between the United States and Iran in Oman became full-fledged negotiations over its nuclear program. During the talks, Zarif met with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry more than 50 times — something that would have been unimaginable only a few years earlier.
Kerry and Zarif's rapport extended beyond just the nuclear negotiations. Kerry directly reached out to his counterpart in January 2016 to help secure the release within 24 hours of 10 U.S. Navy sailors seized by Iran after they mistakenly entered Iranian territorial waters.
Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group and a longtime Iran watcher, described Zarif's resignation as a "bolt from the blue" from a diplomat who had served as "the face of Iran" for years. He said that while it was still too early to determine what prompted Zarif's resignation, it didn't necessarily signal a major shift away from the nuclear deal.
"I think Zarif can charm the fangs off a snake and has done so many, many times," Kupchan told AP. "Whether it's dealing with Bashar Assad or (Russian President) Vladimir Putin, he's their ambassador to a very tough neighborhood."
"The Iranians are pretty good at making their life even harder than it has to be and this would be another step in that direction if he was forced out," Kupchan said.
New Delhi, Feb 20 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday said his visit to India will improve centuries-old ties, which he said are "in our DNA."
In brief remarks at the president's palace where he was given a ceremonial welcome, the crown prince did not make any reference to rising tensions between India and Pakistan.
He arrived in India on Tuesday night after visiting Pakistan, which New Delhi blames for a suicide bombing last week that killed at least 40 Indian soldiers in disputed Kashmir.
Prince Mohammed is due to hold talks with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the two sides are expected to sign agreements for promoting investment, tourism, housing and communications.
The countries' two-way trade totaled $27.5 billion last year.
Modi is under heavy pressure from his supporters to punish Pakistan for the suicide attack. India placed the blame for the bombing squarely on neighboring Pakistan, which it accuses of supporting rebels in Kashmir, a charge that Islamabad denies.
The crown prince said on Wednesday that "since we remember ourselves, we know Indian people as friends, and they are part of building Saudi Arabia in the past 70 years."
These relations would improve for the sake of both countries, he told reporters.
His trip to India comes five months after he came under intense pressure following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
In keeping with a long-standing policy of not commenting on countries' internal affairs, India declined to take a position on the Washington Post columnist's killing by suspected Saudi agents at the consulate.
India describes Saudi Arabia as a "key pillar" of its energy security. It provides about 17 percent of India's crude oil and about a third of its liquefied natural gas.
The relationship is likely to become more significant as a deadline nears for India to comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran, one of India's main oil providers.
Ties between India and Saudi Arabia, where millions of Indians are employed as migrant workers, have strengthened since Modi visited Riyadh in 2016 for the signing of a memorandum of understanding on cooperation with intelligence-gathering on money laundering and terrorism financing.
Prince Mohammed will return home later Wednesday, according to India's External Affairs Ministry.
Islamabad, Feb 16 (AP/UNB) — Pakistani officials said Saturday a visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad has been delayed by a day, a sudden announcement that surprised many Pakistanis, who were preparing to welcome the Saudi delegation amid extraordinary security in the capital.
Without giving any explanation, the Foreign Ministry said Prince Mohammad will now arrive in Islamabad on a two-day visit Sunday and that his program remains unchanged. It will be the crown prince's first visit to Pakistan since he was appointed heir to the throne in 2017.
The prince was originally scheduled to come to Pakistan later Saturday along with a delegation of businessmen. But Pakistani officials confirmed Saturday that an upcoming conference of Pakistani and Saudi business leaders was postponed "due to unavoidable circumstances." It suggested that Prince Mohammad will now visit Pakistan with a reduced number of business officials.
Pakistan expects a $7 billion Saudi investment over the next two years after Prince Mohammad's visit
The prince will also travel to neighboring India amid heightened tension between Islamabad and New Delhi over this week's attack on a paramilitary convoy in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 41 people. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Pakistan for Thursday's bombing. Pakistan rejected the allegation. Saudi Arabia has also strongly condemned the attack in Kashmir.
Last year, Pakistan voiced its support for the prince when he faced international outrage following the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents. The kingdom quickly signed an agreement for a $6 billion assistance package after Khan attended an investment conference in October that saw a wave of cancellations linked to the Khashoggi killing.
Khashoggi, who had written critically about the prince, went missing on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. After denying any knowledge of his death for weeks, Saudi authorities eventually settled on the explanation that he was killed in an operation aimed at forcibly bringing the writer back to the kingdom. Saudi prosecutors say the plan was masterminded by two former advisers to the crown prince. The kingdom denies the crown prince knew of the plot.
Baghdad, Feb 12 (AP/UNB)— The top Pentagon official has arrived in Baghdad to consult with American military commanders and Iraqi government leaders on the future U.S. troop presence.
Pat Shanahan, the acting secretary of defense, said before his unannounced arrival on Tuesday that he wanted to hear first-hand about the state of Iraq's fight against remnants of the Islamic State group.
It's Shanahan's first visit to Iraq.
The U.S. has about 5,200 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces, 16 years after the U.S. invaded to topple Saddam Hussein.
President Donald Trump upset Iraqis by saying earlier this month that U.S. forces should use their Iraqi positions to keep an eye on neighboring Iran. That's not the stated U.S. mission, and Iraqi officials have said Trump's proposal would violate Iraq's constitution.
Beirut, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Islamic State group militants cornered in their last foothold in eastern Syria fought back with suicide car bombs, snipers and booby traps Monday, slowing Kurdish fighters advancing under the cover of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, Kurdish news agencies and a Syrian war monitor said.
An Italian photographer was wounded in the clashes between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the militants holed up in the village of Baghouz, near the border with Iraq, an Italian news agency said.
No one knows exactly how many Islamic State fighters are still holding out in the sliver of territory under attack, although they are estimated to be in the hundreds, most of them foreign fighters. It is also unclear if civilians are still inside, caught under heavy bombardment.
The SDF on Saturday launched its final push to clear the area from IS, after months of fighting that saw 20,000 civilians fleeing just in the past few weeks. The numbers have overwhelmed Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria, where humanitarian conditions are already dire amid a cold winter and meager resources.
The capture of the IS-held village of Baghouz and nearby areas would mark the end of a devastating four-year global war to end the IS extremists' territorial hold over large parts of Syria and Iraq, where the group established its self-proclaimed "caliphate" in 2014. That in turn, would open the way for U.S. President Donald Trump to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria as he has promised to do once the Islamic State group has been defeated.
"The U.S. will soon control 100% of ISIS territory in Syria," Trump tweeted Sunday. He has said repeatedly that he doesn't want the U.S. to be the world's policeman and that he intends to bring the 2,000 U.S. troops home.
U.S. officials and Trump's own military advisers, however, have warned that losing its territorial hold does not mean that the Islamic State group is defeated, warning that IS could stage a comeback in Syria within six months to a year if the military and counterterrorism pressure on it is eased. Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, estimated there are between 1,000 and 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control, but he said others have "dispersed" and "gone to ground."
In recent weeks, U.S. officials have said IS has lost 99.5 percent of its territory and is holding on to under 5 square kilometers (under 2 square miles), where most of the fighters are concentrated in Syria. But activists and residents say IS still has sleeper cells in Syria and Iraq and is laying the groundwork for an insurgency.
Assad Bechara, a Lebanese political analyst, said the Islamic State group is an ideology, not just a military structure, and it cannot be defeated simply by reclaiming territory from the group.
"This (American) pullout will leave a huge vacuum despite the allegations of defeating the last pockets of ISIS. This vacuum will increase the international and regional struggle for power and influence in Syria," he said, which in turn may make it easier for the militant group to return.
It is not clear how long the final push to free Baghouz from IS will take. Trump said last week he had been told that the full territorial conquest to defeat the Islamic State could be completed in the coming week.
But progress appears to be slower than what SDF officials had initially estimated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said SDF were moving very slowly due to land mines and sniper fire, as well as the extremists' use of tunnels and suicide car bombs. IS also is using civilians as human shields, the Observatory said.
On Monday, the Observatory said 13 IS militants, including five suicide attackers, were killed as well as six SDF fighters. The Kurdish Hawar news agency also reported heavy fighting in Baghouz.
IS said in a statement posted late Sunday that two of its "martyrdom-seekers" attacked SDF fighters in Baghouz with their explosive-laden car.
Syrian state media claimed a U.S.-led coalition airstrike near Baghouz killed two women and two children. More than 20,000 civilians have left the IS-held area in recent weeks.
The Italian news agency ANSA said Milan-born Gabriele Micalizzi, 34, was injured in the face by splinters of a rocket-propelled grenade, adding that his life was not in danger. It said he was being airlifted by the coalition to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.