US, Iran Deny Secret Talks

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The United States and Iran are denying reports that the two sides are engaged in secret negotiations following a prisoner exchange deal earlier this month that included the unlocking of billions of dollars of frozen Iranian funds.

There are no direct or indirect talks scheduled, including any involving Brett McGurk, White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, a U.S. official told VOA on Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss national security matters.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday dismissed a report by a U.K.-based media outlet that authorities in Tehran had granted its negotiators permission to enter direct talks with Washington to ease sanctions in return for Iran slowing down its uranium enrichment program.

“This type of news sensationalism and media games, which is often used to create a political atmosphere, lacks credibility,” the ministry said, as reported by Iranian state media.

However, Washington appears to be leaving open its door to negotiations.

“We have always said that we are open to diplomacy with Iran. I don’t want to get into what any such talks might or might not look like, but diplomacy, we believe, is the best path to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in response to VOA’s question on whether the U.S. would be willing to engage in direct talks with Iran.

There are a number of de-escalatory steps the U.S. wants Iran to take before talks, Miller added, including cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is demanding disciplinary action on current administration officials, including those linked to Robert Malley, President Joe Biden’s former special envoy to Iran.

“The Biden administration should immediately cease its secret diplomacy with Iran and its dismantling of sanctions, and any officials linked to these emails should immediately have their security clearances pulled until these allegations are fully resolved and accountability is imposed,” Cruz said in a statement Tuesday.

Cruz released his statement in reference to media reports that the U.S. officials developed ties with a network of academics and researchers aiming to influence policy on Iran a decade ago.

Cruz’s office did not respond to VOA’s request for evidence to back his claims of the administration’s “secret diplomacy.”

Malley has been on leave since June while his security clearance is under review amid an investigation into his handling of classified material.

Diplomatic breakthrough

In a major diplomatic breakthrough earlier this month, U.S. and Iranian officials concluded a deal in which five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran were freed in exchange for five Iranians accused of violating U.S. sanctions, and the unfreezing of $6 billion in Iranian oil revenue.

U.S. officials insist that negotiations on the swap were unrelated to efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the deal in 2018. A year later, Iran began ignoring limitations on its nuclear program while still maintaining that its nuclear program is for civilian, not military, purposes.

Many had hoped the prisoner exchange would pave the way to discussions on more substantive issues, and some observers believe that they have.

There are ongoing talks to de-escalate tensions, said Sina Azodi, a researcher of U.S.-Iran ties and a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University, quoting sources.

For the United States, Azodi told VOA, a key goal in these talks is to scale down Iran’s pace of uranium enrichment. Tehran announced in 2021 it was enriching uranium to 60%, which would shorten its so-called breakout time to build a nuclear weapon, which requires uranium that is enriched above 90%.

Low-level talks

Such talks could be happening indirectly at a lower-stakes level, not involving McGurk and his Iranian counterpart, Ali Bagheri-Kani, said Alex Vatanka, director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute.

“The fact that the authorities from Qatar and Oman are saying this and are talking about putting forward suggestions to push forward with nuclear talks, to me suggests that’s real,” Vatanka told VOA, referring to the two countries who acted as interlocutors in the prisoner swap deal.

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that Qatar held separate bilateral meetings with Washington and Tehran that touched on Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. concerns about Iranian drone transfers to Russia that are used to attack Ukraine.

Those concerns and others, including preventing Iranian attacks on Americans in the Middle East, have been transmitted, said Barbara Slavin, a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. But apart from conversations earlier this year between Malley and Saeed Iravani, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, communications have been indirect.

“I don’t see any interest on the part of Brett McGurk to meet with the Iranians right now,” Slavin told VOA.

Geopolitically, conditions are not conducive to a JCPOA revival. The deal was negotiated with the P5+1 countries of the U.N. Security Council — China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on a network of entities and individuals it said was facilitating shipments and financial transactions in support of Tehran’s procurement of a critical component used in Iran’s Shahed-136 drones the U.S. says are being used by Russia in Ukraine. 

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US Refuses Iran Top Diplomat's Request to Visit Washington

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The United States said Monday it refused a request by Iran’s foreign minister to visit Washington last week, pointing to concerns about Tehran’s record including past detentions of U.S. citizens.

Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian reportedly sought to travel to visit Iran’s consular interests section following the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“They did make that request and it was denied by the State Department,” spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

“We do have an obligation to allow Iranian officials and other officials of foreign governments to travel to New York for U.N. business. But we do not have an obligation to allow them to travel to Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“Given Iran’s wrongful detention of U.S. citizens, given Iran’s state sponsorship of terrorism, we did not believe it was either appropriate or necessary in this instance to grant that request,” Miller said.

Iran last week allowed five U.S. citizens to leave in a prisoner swap in which the United States also arranged the transfer of $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds from South Korea to an account in Qatar.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has played down speculation that the prisoner deal could lead to broader diplomatic movement, such as a resumption of talks on Iran’s contested nuclear program.

The news site first reported on Amir-Abdollahian’s hope to visit Washington, in what would have been the first by an Iranian foreign minister in 14 years.

The report, quoting anonymous sources, said that Amir-Abdollahian had said he wanted personally to review the consular operation, but that his goal may have also been “to generate positive headlines.”

The United States and Iran broke off relations after Islamic revolutionaries seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the diplomats hostage for 444 days following the 1979 revolution that overthrew the pro-Western shah.

Iran’s consular interests section in Washington is officially under the flag of Pakistan.

The United States, under an agreement as host of the United Nations, allows representatives of all member states to travel to New York City but restricts the movement beyond the city of officials from some nations deemed hostile.

Former President Donald Trump’s administration went even further on Iran and confined Iranian officials to a few neighborhoods in New York.

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 Pope Says Migrants at Sea ‘Must Be Rescued’

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“People who are at risk of drowning when abandoned on the waves must be rescued,” Pope Francis said Friday in Marseille, France, at a memorial dedicated to sailors and migrants. Francis described efforts to stop the migrants from being rescued as “gestures of hate.”

Migrants from Africa and the Middle East often board rickety watercraft to Europe in hopes of a better life there or elsewhere.

The first stop for many of them is often the Italian island of Lampedusa. Recently, the island has been overwhelmed with thousands of migrants.

Often the migrant boats are abandoned at sea by their smugglers.

Rescue groups are sometimes prohibited by some European countries from rescuing the migrants or are delayed in their rescue missions.

“And so this beautiful sea has become a huge cemetery, where many brothers and sisters are deprived even of the right to a grave,” Francis said Friday of the Mediterranean Sea, where tens of thousands of migrants have died.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church thanked the humanitarian groups that rescue migrants.

On Saturday, Francis will preside over the closing session in Marseille of a meeting of bishops and young people from around the Mediterranean region.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

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Syrian President in China on First Visit Since Beginning of War in Syria

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Syrian President Bashar Assad arrived in China on Thursday on his first visit to the country since the start of Syria’s 12-year conflict during which Beijing has been one of his main backers.

China’s foreign ministry said Assad would attend the opening ceremony of the Asian Games, an international sports event beginning Saturday in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Assad’s office said earlier that the Syrian leader was invited by Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit and would bring with him a high-ranking Syrian delegation.

China has been expanding its reach in the Middle East after mediating a deal in March between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it continues to support Assad in the Syrian conflict, which has killed half a million people and left large parts of the nation in ruins.

China could play a major role in the future in Syria’s reconstruction, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. Syria last year joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in which Beijing expands its influence in developing regions through infrastructure projects.

Assad’s last and only visit to China was in 2004, a year after the U.S.-led invasion of neighboring Iraq and at a time when Washington was putting pressure on Syria.

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Libya Protesters Demand Accountability for Devastation Caused by Flood

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Outrage toward authorities in the Libyan government prompted hundreds of people to protest Monday in the disaster-stricken city of Derna in eastern Libya.

The protests come in the aftermath of a devastating flood that took thousands of lives and destroyed Libyan neighborhoods in the coastal Mediterranean community.

Protesters demanded government officials to take accountability for the destruction caused by the flood.

“A speedy investigation and legal action against those responsible for the disaster,” was part of a statement read on behalf of the protesters.

Demonstrators are demanding that a United Nations office be placed in Derna, as well as a full investigation into the city’s previous budgets, and “the city’s reconstruction, plus compensation for affected residents,” the statement said.

Monday evening, Hichem Abu Chkiouat, a minister in the eastern Libyan government, said Abdel-Moneim al-Gaithi, the Derna mayor at the time of the flooding, had been suspended from his post and was facing an investigation. Reuters could not immediately reach Ghaithi for comment.

Also, the parallel government in eastern Libya said Prime Minister Usama Hamad had dismissed all the members of Derna’s municipal council and referred them to investigation.

Some protesters gathered outside the Sahaba Mosque, while others sat on the roof of the Derna landmark. Chants were directed at Aguila Saleh, head of the Libyan Parliament, as protesters were heard yelling, “Aguila, we don’t want you! All Libyans are brothers!”

This is the first protest since last week’s massive flood, triggered by heavy rainfalls that burst two dams, leveled buildings and washed thousands of the city’s 100,000 residents into the sea. The catastrophe has left some 3,300 people dead and thousands more missing. The collapsed dams had reports of cracks in them for nearly 25 years.

On Saturday, Libya’s general prosecutor, al-Sediq al-Sour, opened an investigation into the collapse of the two dams, built in the 1970s.

Political unrest in Libya has caused the maintenance of vital infrastructure to be neglected, according to politicians and analysts.

The flood has led to further crisis in the eastern Libyan city, as tens of thousands of residents are now without homes or access to food and clean water. And there is growing concern from the United Nations about a disease outbreak.

Several countries have sent aid and set up field hospitals and rescue teams in Libya. The U.N. launched an emergency appeal for $71.4 million, while the European Union has so far sent around $6 million.

Some  information in this report is from Reuters and Agence-France Presse.

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Activists in Europe Mark Anniversary of Amini's Death in Iran

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Hundreds gathered in central London on Saturday to mark the anniversary of the death of Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in police custody in Iran last year, sparking worldwide protests of the country’s conservative Islamic theocracy.

Chanting “Women! Life! Freedom!,” the crowds held her portrait and rallied around the memory of a young woman who died on September 16, 2022, after she was arrested for allegedly violating Iran’s mandatory headscarf law. Similar protests took place in Italy, Germany and France.

“We’re calling on everyone to remember those killed, but also continue the fight, because this fight has to go to the end. Mahsa Jina Amini and the many others cannot have died in vain,″ said Maryam Namazie, an Iranian human rights activist in the U.K.

“We have to have a better society as the result of this huge, Herculean fight.″

In Iran, authorities sought to prevent the anniversary from reigniting the protests that gripped the country last year. Amini’s father was detained outside his home after the family indicated that they planned to gather at her grave for a traditional service of commemoration, the Kurdish rights group Hengaw said. People in downtown Tehran reported a heavy security presence, and security forces were seen in western Iran, where the Kurdish minority staged large protests last year.

Hengaw reported a widespread general strike in Kurdish areas on Saturday, circulating video and photos that appeared to show streets largely empty and shops shuttered. Human Rights Activists in Iran, another group that closely follows events within the country, also reported the general strike. There was no acknowledgement of the strike in state media.

Videos on social media purported to show tear gas being fired in Mashhad and Karaj, a satellite city of Tehran. The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran also reported the tear gas being used. Iranian state media did not acknowledge any such incidents.

Amini, a Kurdish-Iranian woman from the western region, died three days after she was arrested by morality police, allegedly for violating laws that require women to cover their hair in public. While authorities said that she suffered a heart attack, Amini’s supporters said she was beaten by police and died as a result of her injuries.

Her death triggered protests that spread across the country and rapidly escalated into calls for the overthrow of Iran’s four-decade-old Islamic theocracy.

Authorities responded with a violent crackdown in which more than 500 people were killed and upwards of 22,000 others were detained, according to rights groups. The demonstrations largely died down early this year, but there are still widespread signs of discontent. For several months, women could be seen openly flaunting the headscarf rule in Tehran and other cities, prompting a renewed crackdown over the summer.

Activists around the world sought to renew the protests on the anniversary of Amini’s death.

On Saturday, about 100 protesters gathered in front of the Iranian Embassy in Rome under the “Women, life, freedom,” banner.

“Now it is important that all the world start again to demonstrate in the streets, because what we want is to isolate this regime and, in particular, we want to push all the states not to have political and economic agreements with Iran,” protester Lucia Massi said.

In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced that a garden in the French capital now carried Amini’s name. The mayor called Amini an Iranian resistance hero and said Paris “honors her memory and her battle, as well as those of women who fight for their freedom in Iran and elsewhere.”

The Villemin Garden that now also bears Amini’s name is in Paris’ 10th district, next to a canal with popular boat tours for tourists.

Iran blamed last year’s protests on the United States and other foreign powers, without providing evidence, and has since tried to downplay the unrest even as it moves to prevent any resurgence.

The protests were partly fueled by the widespread economic pain Iranians have suffered since then-President Donald Trump withdrew from a nuclear deal with world powers and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran. But that suffering also may have made it difficult to sustain prolonged demonstrations, as many Iranians struggle to make ends meet.

President Joe Biden issued a lengthy statement on Friday acknowledging the anniversary of Amini’s death, and the United States announced new sanctions on Iranian officials and entities. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly also noted the anniversary and imposed new sanctions on Iranian officials.

Soheila Sokhanvari, an Iranian-British artist, moved to the U.K. to study a year before the 1979 revolution that brought Iran’s conservative Islamic leaders to power. She was in London preparing for a solo exhibition on pre-revolutionary feminist icons last year when she heard about Amini’s death.

The protests that followed marked the first time the world has seen “a revolution which is instigated by women,” she told The Associated Press earlier this month.

“But I think what’s really important about this protest is that Iranian men, for the first time in the history of Iran, they’re actually standing with women and they’re supporting the women and they’re showing respect for the women,” she said. “That’s very original, and it’s never happened in the history of Iran.”

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US House’s Bipartisan Measures Target Iran Over Woman’s Death, Missile Program

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The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved measures Tuesday targeting Iran for its human rights record and placing restrictions on the country’s ability to import or export its expanding arsenal of weapons.

The measures would impose a series of sanctions on Iran’s supreme leader, president and other individuals as Washington seeks to further punish the Islamic Republic ahead of the one-year anniversary of nationwide protests. The resolutions will now go to the Senate, where it is unclear if the Democratic-controlled chamber will take them up.

The first bill takes aim at Iran’s production and exports of missiles and drones by sanctioning individuals involved in the process, while the second imposes sanctions on high-ranking government officials for “human rights abuses and support for terrorism.” The third resolution specifically condemns the government’s persecution of the Baha’i minority.

The near-unanimous passage of all three represents a renewed condemnation by Congress against Iran’s government, which engaged in a brutal crackdown of its citizenry after the September 2022 death of Mahsa Amini in police custody.

Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, the co-sponsor of the second bill, posted on social media that it was past time “to sanction those responsible for Mahsa’s murder and the repression of brave Iranian protestors.”

Amini had been detained for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely in violation of strictures demanding women in public wear the Islamic headscarves. The 22-year-old died three days later in police custody. Authorities said she had a heart attack but hadn’t been harmed. Her family has disputed that, leading to the public outcry.

The protests that ensued represented one of the largest challenges to Iran’s theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. A security force crackdown that followed saw over 500 people killed and more than 22,000 people detained.

The unrest only further complicated any attempt by the Biden administration to restart negotiations between Washington and Tehran — after former President Donald Trump abruptly withdrew U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018.

And it has remained a point of contention for Republicans in Congress, who have sought to use the power of their majority in the House over the past several months to introduce or pass a series of binding and nonbinding resolutions related to the country’s abuse of human rights as well as its nuclear and missile programs.

The passage of the resolutions also comes a day after the Biden administration cleared the way for the release of five American citizens detained in Iran by issuing a blanket waiver for international banks to transfer $6 billion in frozen Iranian money without fear of U.S. sanctions.

In response, Rep, Michael McCaul, the Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said while he was relieved to see the hostages released, the deal sets a bad precedent.

“I remain deeply concerned that the administration’s decision to waive sanctions to facilitate the transfer of $6 billion in funds for Iran, the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism, creates a direct incentive for America’s adversaries to conduct future hostage-taking,” he said.

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Israelis and Palestinians Mark 30 Years of Oslo

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Thirty years ago this week, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and U.S. President Bill Clinton shook hands on the White House lawn and announced the Oslo Peace Accords that were meant to pave the way to a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem, to many Israelis and Palestinians, that solution seems more distant than ever. Camera: Ricki Rosen

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