EU, Iran deputy nuclear negotiators meet in Turkey


Deputy nuclear negotiators for Iran and the P5+1 have wrapped up a meeting in Istanbul.

Helga Schmid, the EU deputy foreign policy chief, and her Iranian counterpart, Dr. Ali Bagheri, met to try to see if there’s a way to narrow vast differences that have emerged in three rounds of nuclear talks. The gaps were so wide at the last round of nuclear talks in Moscow last month that negotiators decided to schedule three sets of lower profile meetings. Schmid and Bagheri’s discussions Tuesday followed a July 3rd technical meeting between nuclear experts. Chief negotiators for the EU and Iran are next due to confer, to see if there’s sufficient basis for progress to reconvene again at the senior political level.

“The meeting between Helga Schmid and Dr Bagheri has finished,” EU spokesman Michael Mann said. “As agreed in Moscow, the next stage will be a contact between” EU High Representative Catherine Ashton and Iran’s chief nuclear  negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili.

EU diplomats declined to provide more details on the meeting Tuesday.

The P5+1 has asked Iran to stop its 20% enrichment, ship out its 20% stockpile, and close the fortified Fordo enrichment site as a first-step confidence-building measure. Iran has indicated it is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but wants recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes and more relief from draconian new sanctions than the international proposal  provides.


Report: Syrian fighter jets over Aleppo

Syrian fighter jets have bombed targets in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a BBC journalist reporting inside the country said Tuesday.

“Fighter jets have bombed eastern #Aleppo city,” the BBC’s Ian Pannell wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “A significant escalation and perhaps the first time they’ve been used in #Syrian conflict.”

The information has not been confirmed. The Associated Press reported that “fighter jets are over the city; they’re flying so fast they’re breaking the sound barrier, perhaps in an effort to scare rebels,” NPR wrote.

Pannell was understood to be traveling with insurgents on the outskirts of Aleppo, near Syria’s northern border with Turkey. Earlier messages he posted to Twitter Tuesday reported fierce clashes between Free Syrian Army rebels and government forces, and many civilians caught in the fighting and families trying to flee.

“If confirmed, the use of warplanes would signify an escalation by the Syrian government in its effort to crush armed resistance in the nearly 17-month-old conflict,” the New York Times’ Rick Gladstone wrote.

Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city and until recently quiet and seen as loyal to Bashar al-Assad, was entering a sixth day of fighting between rebels trying to hold ground and regime forces trying to oust them.

Meantime, Syrian regime forces were reported to have made gains in retaking the capital Damascus some six days after four members of Assad’s inner circle were assassinated July 18th.

“On Monday, Syrian troops moved house to house in neighborhoods that had briefly fallen under rebel control, breaking down doors and detaining suspected opposition sympathizers,” the Washington Post’s Austen Tice and Liz Sly wrote.

(Photo: Syrian rebels hunt for snipers after attacking the municipality building in the Salaheddin district of the northern city of Aleppo during fighting between rebels and Syrian troops, July 23, 2012. AFP.)



Cyber expert: Iran scientist reports new malware attack

IAEA, meet AC/DC?

On Sunday, Finnish cyber security expert Mikko Hypponen received a series of emails from someone purporting to be a scientist at Iran’s atomic energy organization.

“The scientist reached out to publish information about Iranian nuclear systems getting struck by yet another cyber attack,” Hypponen, wrote on his blog., citing from the scientist’s emails:

I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.

According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.

There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing ‘Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC.

Hypponen, reached by Al Monitor Tuesday, said he has confirmed the emails were coming from Iran’s atomic energy organization, but can’t vouch for the AC/DC breaking out on the work stations., or any of the other details his correspondent provided.

“I only know what the scientist from AEOI told me,” Hypponen told Al Monitor by email Tuesday. “I can’t confirm any of his sayings, but I can confirm the emails were coming from AEOI.”

“He emailed me three times on Sunday,” Hypponen continued, adding that he published the message with his correspondent’s permission. “Since then he hasn’t responded to my emails. He was sending and receiving email at an official address.”

So is the correspondent really who he says? It’s interesting to note that he gave permission for his email to be published. Was he looking for help in halting the alleged malware attack–or publicity? Perhaps a clever information operation meant to stoke more paranoia in the ranks of Iran’s nuclear program.

(Photo: AC/DC lead guitarist Angus Young performs at the O2 Millenium Dome stadium in LondonApril 14, 2009.   REUTERS/Luke MacGrego.)

The return of Prince Bandar; Iran, Israel athletes may compete at Olympics

(Photo: Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan (R) welcomes ex-UK PM Tony Blair in Jeddah September 3, 2007.  REUTERS/Saudi Press Agency/Handout.)


White House’s John Brennan in Bulgaria amid bus bombing probe

White House counter terrorism advisor John Brennan has arrived in Bulgaria for consultations with Bulgarian officials about the investigation into the July 18th Burgas bus bombing, the US envoy to Bulgaria said Monday.

Brennan will meet with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov among others on a two-day visit, US Ambassador James Warlick said on Twitter Monday.

Bulgarian authorities have released few details on their investigation into the July 18th attack, which killed seven people, including five Israeli tourists, their Bulgarian bus driver, and the suspected bomber. The attack targeted a bus of young Israeli tourists who had arrived in the Black Sea resort town’s airport on a charter flight.

An autopsy performed on the suspected  suicide bomber determined that he “had a white face, light eyes, and very thick brown hair,” Galina Mileva, a Bulgarian official involved in the post-mortem, told Bulgarian media Saturday, the AFP reported. Officials earlier released airport video surveillance of the suspected bomber who appears to fit that description, as seen in the above video. They believe his backpack contained  3KG of TNT that caused the explosion, although it wasn’t clear if the bomb was detonated remotely.

DNA from the suspected bomber has been sent to the US and Interpol to try to determine his identity, reports said. Bulgarian authorities have determined he was not a Bulgarian citizen, saying they believe he had been in the country from four to seven days.

Unconfirmed local media reports Monday said the authorities are investigating whether the suspected suicide bomber may have had one or more accomplices, including a female companion with whom, according to one report, he stayed at a Varna hotel, the AFP reported. Continue reading

Obama campaign aides portray Romney foreign tour as lightweight

Obama campaign advisors set out Monday to cast GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s upcoming foreign tour as a series of offshore fundraisers that lack much in the way of substance.

“We in the United States, Britain and NATO have agreed to a plan to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014,” Michele Flournoy, the Obama campaign’s top foreign policy advisor and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists on a call arranged  by the Obama for America campaign Monday.  “The transition process is already underway.”

“Gov. Romney has articulated opposition to that timeline,” Flournoy continued. “So  he fundamentally disagrees with our British friends.”

Romney plans to depart this week for the UK, where he will attend the London Olympics, and meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Then he will travel to Israel and Poland, his campaign said. “He is really abroad to learn and to listen,” Romney policy director Lahnee Chen told reporters on a conference call, the AFP reported.

Robert Gibbs, Obama campaign senior advisor, portrayed the Romney itinerary as lightweight compared to candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 world tour in which he traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, as well as Germany, France and the UK. Obama “made it a priority to visit and talk with our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait,” Gibbs said. “It was important during the trip to meet servicemen and women, as well as consult commanders in the region to get a sense of the situation on the ground.”

On Iran, which is expected to be a major focus of Romney’s discussions with Israeli leaders, “all we have gotten from Romney is tough talk,” said Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, on the campaign call. Continue reading

Joshua Landis: Why Syria’s Alawis can’t have rump state

Barbara Slavin writes:

As Syria descends into chaos, Joshua Landis, the well-known Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, writes that the minority Alawis will not be able to establish a rump state in their ancestral mountain redoubt once the Assad regime loses control of Damascus.

Writing on his blog, Syria Comment, Saturday (July 21), Landis notes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has “done nothing to lay the groundwork for an Alawite state. There is no national infrastructure in the coastal region to sustain a state: no international airport, no electric power plans, no industry of importance, and nothing on which to build a national economy.” In addition, Landis says, “no country would recognize the Alawite state” and such a state would be “indefensible.”

In the blog post, Five Reasons Why There Will Not Be an Alawite State, Landis also noted the evolution of the Alawite sect after France assumed control of Syria in 1920:

The segregation that characterized the country under Ottoman rule gradually disappeared, Landis says, as the Alawis came down from the mountains into the Sunni/Christian coastal cities of Latakia, Jeble, Tartus and Banyas. Similarly, Alawis also migrated to Damascus, where there were only 400 of their sect registered in 1945. Continue reading

Netanyahu: Bulgaria bus bombing “perpetrated by Hezbollah”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Hezbollah carried out the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, including five Israelis, and wounded over 30.

“Yesterday’s attack in Bulgaria was perpetrated by Hezbollah, Iran’s leading terrorist proxy,” Netanyahu said at a news conference Thursday, according to a statement provided to Al-Monitor by the Israeli embassy. “This attack was part of a global campaign of terror carried out by Iran and Hezbollah.”

Netanyahu spoke as the bodies of five Israeli tourists killed in the attack were returned to Israel.

U.S. intelligence also assesses that the bus bombing was carried out by a Bulgaria-based Hezbollah cell, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading

Former Mossad chief: “Better to wait” before accusing Iran in Bulgaria bus bombing

Former Israeli intelligence chief Danny Yatom said Thursday that while it’s logical to assume that Hezbollah or Iran were behind the July 18 Bulgaria bus bombing that killed seven people, assigning culpability should probably have waited until the evidence is solid.

“Usually it takes some time to locate those who were behind the bombing, and those who sent them,” the former Mossad chief told journalists on a call organized by The Israel Project Thursday.

“From the modus operandi used by some organizations, it’s logical to assume that Iran or Hezbollah or Hezbollah and/or Iran were behind this terror attack,” Yatom said. “As long as we don’t have solid information about it, it’s better to wait.”

“All signs point to Iran,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday of the attack on the bus of Israeli tourists at Bourgas airport on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, in which seven people, including five Israeli tourists and two Bulgarians, were killed, and 30 injured. “In the past months we saw Iranian attempts to attack Israelis in Thailand, India, Kenya and Cyprus. This is an Iranian terror offensive that is spreading throughout the world.”

Bulgarian authorities on Thursday released a video of the man suspected of being the bus bomber, and said that he was carrying a fake Michigan driver’s license. ABC News obtained a photo of the suspect’s fake Michigan driver’s license, which identifies the man as Jacque Felipe Martin, from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, born in 1987.

US intelligence assesses that the suspect was a member of a Hezbollah cell operating in Bulgaria, the New York Times reported Thursday, citing an unnamed senior U.S. official. Continue reading

Obama pledges to help Israel bring bus bombers to justice

President Obama harshly condemned the bus bombing in Bulgaria Wednesday that killed Israeli tourists, and pledged U.S. assistance to bring the perpetrators to justice.

“I strongly condemn today’s barbaric terrorist attack on Israelis in Bulgaria,” Obama said in a statement Wednesday.

The United States will “provide whatever assistance is necessary to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators of this attack,” Obama said, reaffirming America’s “unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, and our deep friendship and solidarity with the Israeli people.”

“A bus carrying Israeli tourists exploded in a fireball on Wednesday outside an airport in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, killing at least four people” and wounding over 20, the New York Times reported.

Israel accused Iran of being behind the terrorist attack. “The indications are that Iran is behind this attack,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Prime Minister, said in Jerusalem.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the murder of Israeli tourists and said she was deeply shocked.

“I was appalled to hear of this afternoon’s apparent terrorist attack on Israeli tourists arriving in Bulgaria,” Ashton said in a statement. “I am deeply shocked by the scenes at Bourgas airport, where what should have been the beginning of a happy holiday ended in murder.”

Burgas, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, “has become popular as an inexpensive destination for groups of Israeli teenagers taking trips after finishing high school and before their military service,” the Times report said.

(Photo: A burnt bus is seen at Bulgaria’s Burgas airport July 18, 2012. At least four people were killed and over 20 injured by an explosion on a bus carrying Israeli tourists outside the airport of the Black Sea city of Burgas on Wednesday. The mayor of the city, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, said the bus was carrying Israeli tourists, but the police could not immediately confirm the nationality of the tourists. Police said several other buses at the site had been damaged.  REUTERS)