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Iran calls Natanz atomic site blackout ‘nuclear terrorism’
If Israel was responsible, it further heightens tensions between the two nations, already engaged in a shadow conflict across the wider Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who met Sunday with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, has vowed to do everything in his power to stop the nuclear deal.
Details remained few about what happened early Sunday morning at the facility, which initially was described as a blackout caused by the electrical grid feeding its above-ground workshops and underground enrichment halls.
Ali Akbar Salehi, the American-educated head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who once served as the country’s foreign minister, offered what appeared to be the harshest comments of his long career, which included the assassination of nuclear scientists a decade ago. Iran blames Israel for those killings as well.
He pledged to “seriously improve” his nation’s nuclear technology while working to lift international sanctions.
Salehi’s comments to state TV did not explain what happened at the facility, but his words suggested a serious disruption.
“While condemning this desperate move, the Islamic Republic of Iran emphasizes the need for a confrontation by the international bodies and the (International Atomic Energy Agency) against this nuclear terrorism,” Salehi said.
The IAEA, the United Nations’ body that monitors Tehran’s atomic program, earlier said it was aware of media reports about the incident at Natanz and had spoken with Iranian officials about it. The agency did not elaborate.
However, Natanz has been targeted by sabotage in the past. The Stuxnet computer virus, discovered in 2010 and widely believed to be a joint U.S.-Israeli creation, once disrupted and destroyed Iranian centrifuges at Natanz amid an earlier period of Western fears about Tehran’s program.
Natanz suffered a mysterious explosion at its advanced centrifuge assembly plant in July that authorities later described as sabotage. Iran now is rebuilding that facility deep inside a nearby mountain. Iran also blamed Israel for the November killing of a scientist who began the country’s military nuclear program decades earlier.
Multiple Israeli media outlets reported Sunday that an Israeli cyberattack caused the blackout in Natanz. Public broadcaster Kan said the Mossad was behind the attack. Channel 12 TV cited “experts” as estimating the attack shut down entire sections of the facility.
While the reports offered no sourcing for their information, Israeli media maintains a close relationship with the country’s military and intelligence agencies.
“It’s hard for me to believe it’s a coincidence,” Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies, said of Sunday’s blackout. “If it’s not a coincidence, and that’s a big if, someone is trying to send a message that ‘we can limit Iran’s advance and we have red lines.’”
It also sends a message that Iran’s most sensitive nuclear site is “penetrable,” he added.
Netanyahu later Sunday night toasted his security chiefs, with the head of the Mossad, Yossi Cohen, at his side on the eve of his country’s Independence Day.
“It is very difficult to explain what we have accomplished,” Netanyahu said of Israel’s history, saying the country had been transformed from a position of weakness into a “world power.”
Israel typically doesn’t discuss operations carried out by its Mossad intelligence agency or specialized military units. In recent weeks, Netanyahu repeatedly has described Iran as the major threat to his country as he struggles to hold onto power after multiple elections and while facing corruption charges.
Speaking at the event Sunday night, Netanyahu urged his security chiefs to “continue in this direction, and to continue to keep the sword of David in your hands,” using an expression referring to Jewish strength.
Meeting with Austin on Sunday, Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel viewed America as an ally against all threats, including Iran.
“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the state of Israel,” Gantz said. “And we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the United States, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region, and protect the state of Israel.”
The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, also appeared to reference Iran.
The Israeli military’s “operations in the Middle East are not hidden from the eyes of the enemy,” Kochavi said. “They are watching us, seeing (our) abilities and weighing their steps with caution.”
On Saturday, Iran announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges at the plant. Officials also began testing the IR-9 centrifuge, which they say will enrich uranium 50 times faster than Iran’s first-generation centrifuges, the IR-1. The nuclear deal limited Iran to using only IR-1s for enrichment.
Since then-President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018, Tehran has abandoned all the limits of its uranium stockpile. It now enriches up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran maintains its atomic program is for peaceful purposes.
The nuclear deal had granted Tehran sanctions relief in exchange for ensuring its stockpile never swelled to the point of allowing Iran to obtain an atomic bomb if it chose.
On Tuesday, an Iranian cargo ship said to serve as a floating base for Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard forces off the coast of Yemen was struck by an explosion, likely from a limpet mine. Iran has blamed Israel for the blast. That attack escalated a long-running shadow war in Mideast waterways targeting shipping in the region.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Josef Federman and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press
Freeland says drop in foreign-aid spending is not a cut, Ukraine fight is pivotal
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance, Chrystia Freeland, speaks during a news conference at Powertech Labs, in Surrey, B.C., on Thursday, March 30, 2023. Freeland insists the government’s projected $1.3-billion drop in foreign aid spending does not amount to a cut. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
By Dylan Robertson in Ottawa
Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland insists the government’s projected $1.3-billion drop in foreign aid spending does not amount to a cut.
The Liberal budget released this week projects that Ottawa will spend nearly $6.9 billion for international development in the coming fiscal year, which is a 16 per cent drop from last year’s allocation.
That’s despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tasking International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan to increase aid spending every year.
The Liberals had delivered a historic boost in aid in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
Asked about criticism from the aid sector about the cut, Freeland said she “wouldn’t characterize it that way.”
She stressed that Canada is allocating $2.4 billion in direct financial aid to Ukraine, and called that country’s fight the world’s most important struggle.
The Liberals have also allocated funding for infrastructure projects in developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, arguing that these countries want investment more than aid.
Representatives of Canada’s aid sector have said they will need to end projects abroad due to the lower-than-hoped funding projected in the Liberals’ budget last week, and they’re particularly concerned about whether aid dollars are being diverted from Africa to Ukraine.
Freeland told reporters Thursday at a press conference in Surrey, B.C., that Ukraine’s fight is crucial to Canada’s interests.
“The fight that is happening in Ukraine today is the single most important battle in the world between democracy and dictatorship,” she said, while defending her government’s record.
“I believe that Canada has a responsibility to be strong and active around the world,” she added.
“We’re making a very big difference. Canada is the eighth-largest foreign-aid donor (in the world). That is a big deal.”
Last October, Freeland was criticized for her response to an African aid expert who said that the West diverting dollars to Ukraine leaves the continent relying more on Russia’s support, an idea she rejected.
“A democracy can only be defended by people themselves if they’re actually prepared to die for their democracy,” she said.
In a later apology for those remarks, she said she was sorry if people found the comments insensitive, adding: “If a white western person has offended someone, the first answer is to say, ‘I really didn’t mean to offend you.'”
At the time, Freeland said the western world needs to recognize that Africa’s current problems stem from colonization.
“These are challenges that have been imposed from the outside. And I think that means we have a high level of responsibility.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
China’s global influence looms over Harris trip to Africa
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, left, is greeted by Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema in Lusaka, Zambia, Friday March 31, 2023. Harris is on the last leg of a a seven-day African visit that took her to Ghana and Tanzania. (AP Photo/Salim Dawood)
By Chris Megerian, Cara Anna And Andrew Meldrum in Lusaka
LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — When Vice President Kamala Harris arrived in Zambia on Friday for the final stop of her weeklong trip across Africa, she touched down at an airport that’s doubled in size and features glittering new terminals.
Rather than a symbol of promising local development, it’s a reminder of China’s deep influence. Beijing financed the project, one of many that has expanded its footprint on a booming continent that’s rich in natural resources, often generating goodwill among its citizens.
The global rivalry between the United States and China has been a recurring backdrop for Harris’ journey, and nowhere has that been more apparent than Zambia and her previous stop in Tanzania.
Besides the airport, China built a 60,000-seat stadium in Lusaka, plus roads and bridges around the country. Zambia is on the hook for all of the development with billions of dollars in debt. Tanzania is a major trading partner with China, and it has a new political leadership school funded by the Chinese Communist Party.
The developments have alarmed Washington, and President Joe Biden’s administration is worried that Africa is slipping further into Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Harris has played down the issue on her trip, preferring to focus on building partnerships independent of geopolitical competition. However, she has acknowledged there’s limited time for the U.S. to make inroads on the continent, telling reporters earlier in the trip that there is a “window” that is “definitely open now” for American investments.
At a news conference with Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Friday, Harris reiterated her call for “all bilateral official creditors to provide a meaningful debt reduction for Zambia” — an oblique reference to China — but she stressed that “our presence here is not about China.”
Hichilema said it would be “completely wrong” to view Zambia’s interests in terms of a rivalry between the U.S. and China.
“When I’m in Washington, I’m not against Beijing. When I’m in Beijing, I’m not against Washington,” he said, adding that “none of these relationships are about working against someone or a group of countries.”
China’s roots in both Tanzania and Zambia run deep. In the 1970s, Beijing built the Tazara Railway from landlocked Zambia to Tanzania’s Dar es Salaam port, allowing copper exports to circumvent white-minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa.
Today, China is Africa’s largest two-way trading partner, with $254 billion of business in 2021, according to the United States Institute of Peace. That’s four times the amount of trade between the U.S. and Africa. In addition, dealing with Beijing features less admonishments about democracy than with Washington.
“Most African countries are rightly unapologetic about their close ties to China,” Nigeria’s vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, tweeted on Thursday. “China shows up where and when the West will not and/or are reluctant.”
Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has worked on Africa issues in Congress, expressed frustration over China’s growing influence on the continent.
“We switched from being the No. 1 trade partner or the No. 1 investment partner in two dozen countries, to China being the No. 1 trade and investment partner,” he told reporters aboard Air Force Two on the flight to Ghana at the beginning of Harris’ trip. “I think our challenge for this decade is to address that.”
Biden has been taking steps toward that, such as hosting a summit for African leaders in December, when he announced that he wants to commit $55 billion to the continent in the coming years.
Harris has made announcements as well during her trip, including more than $1 billion in public and private money for economic development, $100 million for security assistance in West Africa and $500 million to facilitate trade with Tanzania.
However, there’s skepticism about whether the U.S. will follow through on its promises, and Harris has been faced with not-so-subtle hints that Africa expects more. For example, the presidents of Ghana and Tanzania bluntly said they hope Biden chooses to visit their countries during his expected trip to Africa later this year, which would be his first to the continent as president.
By comparison, Tanzania was among the first countries that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited after becoming president in 2013. And after Xi secured a third term, Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan was the first African head of state to visit Beijing.
“Kamala faces Chinese dominance in Tanzania,” the Tanzania Business Insight publication tweeted Wednesday.
Ian Johnson, a former China-based journalist who works at the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, said Beijing presents a powerful narrative in the developing world as a country that rapidly built its economy and pulled much of its population out of poverty.
African leaders think “let’s see what we can learn from China,” he said, adding that “there’s a certain fascination in how they did it.”
Johnson also said China views Africa differently than the U.S.
“We have a tendency to see Africa as a series of problems — wars, famines, something like that,” he said. “But in China’s eyes, Africa is much more of an opportunity.”
Edem Selormey, who conducts public opinion research at the Ghana Center for Democratic Development, said the feeling is often mutual.
“China’s influence in Africa is largely seen as positive,” she said. “And the U.S. trails China in that regard.”
The difference, she said, is often about “what citizens see on the ground,” such as infrastructure projects, and “the U.S. has been missing from this picture for a while.”
John Kirby, a White House national security spokesman, said the debt that comes from China’s involvement is ultimately corrosive. He said African leaders are “beginning to realize that China is not really their friend.”
“China’s interests in the region are purely selfish, as opposed to the United States,” he said.
It’s a sentiment that draws scoffs in some corners of Africa.
“America is like playing the role of a big Uncle Sam in trying to defend African countries against what they think is the encroachment of China into the liberty of African countries through these loans,” said Tanzania-based analyst Mohamed Issa Hemed.
However, he added, “China is ahead of the U.S. in many, many ways.”
Daniel Russel, a former State Department official who is now at the Asia Society Policy Institute, summed up the African perspective as “enough with the lectures” about China. “They’ve got something we want. And they’ve got it right here.”
When it comes to U.S. hopes for Africa, he said, ”you can’t beat something with nothing.”
___ Anna reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and Meldrum from Johannesburg. Associated Press writer Evelyne Musambi in Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.
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