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U.N. expert deems U.S. drone strike on Iran's Soleimani an 'unlawful' killing

GENEVA (Reuters) – The January U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and nine other people represented a violation of international law, a U.N. human rights investigator said on Monday.

The United States has failed to provide sufficient evidence of an ongoing or imminent attack against its interests to justify the strike on Soleimani’s convoy as it left Baghdad airport, said Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The attack violated the U.N. Charter, Callamard wrote in a report calling for accountability for targeted killings by armed drones and for greater regulation of the weapons.

“The world is at a critical time, and possible tipping point, when it comes to the use of drones. … The Security Council is missing in action; the international community, willingly or not, stands largely silent,” Callamard, an independent investigator, told Reuters.

Callamard is due on Thursday to present her findings to the Human Rights Council, giving member states a chance to debate what action to pursue. The United States is not a member of the forum, having quit two years ago.

Soleimani, leader of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, was a pivotal figure in orchestrating Iran’s campaign to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq, and built up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. Washington had accused Soleimani of masterminding attacks by Iranian-aligned militias on U.S. forces in the region.

“Major General Soleimani was in charge of Iran military strategy, and actions, in Syria and Iraq. But absent an actual imminent threat to life, the course of action taken by the U.S. was unlawful,” Callamard wrote in the report.

The Jan. 3 drone strike was the first known incident in which a nation invoked self-defense as a justification for an attack against a state actor in the territory of a third country, Callamard added.

Iran retaliated with a rocket attack on an Iraqi air base where U.S. forces were stationed. Hours later, Iranian forces on high alert mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger airliner taking off from Tehran.

Iran has issued an arrest warrant for U.S. President Donald Trump and 35 others over Soleimani’s killing and has asked Interpol for help, Tehran prosecutor Ali Alqasimehr said on June 29, according to the semi-official Fars news agency.

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Iran records highest daily death toll from COVID-19

(Reuters) – Iran recorded its highest number of deaths from COVID-19 within a 24-hour period, official health ministry figures showed on Sunday.

The 163 deaths reported on Sunday exceed the previous record from last Monday, when the health ministry reported 162 deaths in a day.

The Islamic Republic has recorded a total of 11,571 deaths and 240,438 infections from the coronavirus, health ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said in a statement on state TV. There have been 201,330 recoveries, she said.

The number of new daily infections and deaths has increased sharply in the last week following the gradual lifting of restrictions that began in mid-April.

Iranians who do not wear masks will be denied state services and workplaces that fail to comply with health protocols will be shut for a week, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday as he launched new measures to try to curb the coronavirus.

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Iran imposes new curbs as coronavirus toll rises

(Reuters) – Iranians who do not wear masks will be denied state services and workplaces that fail to comply with health protocols will be shut for a week, President Hassan Rouhani said on Saturday as he launched new measures to try to curb the coronavirus.

Iran has been battling the spread of the coronavirus, with the total number of cases hitting 237,878 on Saturday and a further 148 deaths bringing the country’s toll to 11,408, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said on state television.

Wearing masks becomes mandatory from Sunday in covered public places, Rouhani said on state television after tougher curbs were imposed in cities and towns in five provinces where the outbreak is rising after an easing of lockdowns from mid-April.

“Government employees should not serve people who do not wear masks and employees who do not wear them should be considered absentees and sent home,” said Rouhani.

And a government website published photos of Rouhani, who is rarely seen wearing a mask, with a face covering. 

Those infected have a “religious duty” to notify others, Rouhani said, adding: “Keeping your infection a secret violates the rights of other people”.

The government has been trying to convince a reluctant public to accept masks and a week-long campaign by state television has been warning viewers that “Corona is not a joke”.

One TV presenter at the end of every newscast puts on her mask and says: “There is no one in my immediate three metres, but I wear a mask outside the studio. You, too, wear one.”

State media reported on Saturday that 19 Iranian football players from the national Esteghlal and Foolad Khuzestan clubs had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Iran’s armed forces has reduced their two-month basic combat training by a month until further notice because of the increased spread of the coronavirus.

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Coronavirus and sanctions hit Iran’s support of proxies in Iraq

(Reuters) – Iran’s financial and military support for Shi’ite proxy paramilitary groups in Iraq, a linchpin of its regional foreign policy, has been dramatically disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. sanctions, according to people familiar with the matter.

Interruptions caused by the virus, including border closings to prevent the spread of the disease, have drastically cut Tehran’s cash supplies to the militia groups in recent months, said three Iraqi paramilitary group commanders and a regional official familiar with Iran’s activities in Iraq. The funds from Iran are typically allocated for military operations related to the paramilitary groups’ activities such as fighting Iran’s opponents, including attacks against U.S. targets, the three commanders said.

Since the coronavirus hit earlier this year, Iran has reduced its monthly payments to each of the four top militia groups in Iraq to between $2 million and $3 million from $4.5 million to $5 million, said one of the commanders, who belongs to a powerful paramilitary group. The reduced funding has impacted operations of the militia groups and is forcing them to seek alternative sources of funding for military operations and weapons such as from their own business interests, the commanders said.

Iraq shares a border with Iran, a coronavirus epicenter in the Middle East with more than 11,000 reported deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

Disruptions brought on by the pandemic come on top of a squeeze on Tehran’s financing of the paramilitary groups over the past two years caused by U.S. sanctions on Iran, said the three commanders and the regional official. The regional official said Tehran’s funding of the groups has dropped by millions of dollars. The sanctions combined with the coronavirus crisis and a decline in oil prices have helped force Iran, which faces a large budget deficit, to limit its military spending including on the Revolutionary Guards.

Iran’s linking of its paramilitary proxies in a Shi’ite axis of power across Iraq and through Syria to the Mediterranean, has been crucial to its strategy of countering U.S. influence as it has come under pressure from sanctions.

U.S. Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook agreed that U.S. sanctions were having an impact on Iran’s funding of paramilitary groups, saying it was “further evidence that our campaign of maximum pressure is successfully depriving the (Iranian) regime of revenue to fund its terror proxies and other destabilizing actions across the region.” He did not discuss the degree of the impact.

The squeeze on militia financing also follows the killing of Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, who died in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in January. The loss of the senior military commander, who created an Iran-aligned axis of influence across the Middle East and steered political allies in Iraq, has dealt a blow to the operations of paramilitary groups and Iran’s broader aims in Iraq, according to the three commanders as well as the regional official and a senior Iranian diplomat.

The Iran-backed paramilitary groups helped the Iraqi government defeat Islamic State in 2017. They have dominated the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), an Iraqi state-controlled institution that is an umbrella grouping of militias, including and smaller Shi’ite groups that object to Iranian dominance. The PMF was formally integrated into Iraq’s armed forces and has led many security operations.

A PMF spokesman, Muhannad al-Aqabi, declined to comment on any issues to do with groups backed directly by Iran. The PMF receives funding and equipment through official channels via the Iraqi state, even if the ultimate source of the money is often Iran, Aqabi said.

A spokesman at the public relations office of Iran’s elite security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, or IRGC, denied that Iran finances the militias. “The Islamic Republic has always supported the oppressed people in the region and beyond and our policy has not changed. But we do not provide financial support to those who fight against America’s hegemony in our region.”

When asked by Reuters whether Iran’s financial and military support of Iraqi paramilitaries had declined, Alireza Miryousefi, a spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York, said: “These rumors are designed to sow discord between the two nations and are doomed to fail.” He added that Iran is “fully supportive” of the Iraqi government and that the two countries “engage closely in all matters of mutual interest” but that Iran doesn’t interfere in its neighbour’s internal affairs.

A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister’s office wasn’t immediately available for comment. Other Iraqi government officials couldn’t be reached or didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Tehran has long seen its paramilitary partners as a way of exerting its presence in Iraq and countering the influence of Washington, a critical ally for Baghdad.

U.S. President Donald Trump started to re-impose sanctions in 2018, including measures targeting the Revolutionary Guards, in an attempt to curb Tehran’s missile and nuclear programs and diminish the Islamic Republic’s influence in the Middle East. Iran has said the U.S. sanctions are illegal and hurt the Iranian people.

Prior to the U.S. re-imposing sanctions, Tehran was sending $12 million to $15 million a month to its militia allies in Iraq, a major OPEC oil producer and one of the United States’ most important allies in the Middle East, said the commander and another member of a powerful militia.

In addition to interruptions to funding from Iran, the three paramilitary commanders said border closures and the pandemic had reduced the flow of other types of support, including ammunition and training for Iraqi fighters sent to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad in the multi-sided conflict.

The training, said the second commander, included street fighting, the use of anti-armour rockets, and the use of drones to triangulate enemy positions. That has all stopped, he said.

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Pompeo pushes Iran arms embargo at U.N., Russia says U.S. knee on Iran's neck

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday to extend an arms embargo on Iran before it expires in October, prompting Russia to slam Washington’s policy toward Tehran as like “putting a knee” to the country’s neck.

The United States has circulated a draft resolution to the 15-member council that would indefinitely extend the arms embargo on Tehran, but council veto-powers Russia and China have already signaled their opposition to the move.

“Don’t just take it from the United States, listen to countries in the region. From Israel to the Gulf, countries in the Middle East – who are most exposed to Iran’s predations – are speaking with one voice: Extend the arms embargo,” Pompeo told a virtual Security Council meeting.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has long argued that the arms embargo on Iran should not be lifted. The arms embargo is set to end in mid-October under Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with Britain, Germany, France, China, Russia and the administration of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Since Trump took office in 2017, his administration has quit the nuclear deal and steadily ramped up sanctions on Iran in what Washington describes as a maximum-pressure approach.

Addressing the council, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia described the policy as “a maximum suffocation policy.”

“The task is to achieve regime change or create a situation where Iran literally wouldn’t be able to breath. This is like putting a knee to one’s neck,” he said in a veiled reference to the death of a Black man in Minneapolis after a white police officer knelt on his neck. The death of George Floyd sparked protests across the United States and around the world.

‘LAW OF THE JUNGLE’

The Security Council was meeting on Tuesday to discuss a report by U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that determined that cruise missiles used in several attacks on oil facilities and an international airport in Saudi Arabia last year were of “Iranian origin.”

If Washington is unsuccessful in extending the arms embargo, it has threatened to trigger at the Security Council a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran under the nuclear deal, even though it left the accord in 2018. Diplomats say Washington would face a tough, messy battle.

Iran has breached parts of the nuclear deal in response to the U.S. withdrawal and Washington’s reimposition of sanctions.

U.N. political affairs and peacebuilding chief Rosemary DiCarlo said the nuclear deal was crucial to regional and international security, adding: “It is therefore regrettable that the future of this agreement is in doubt.”

Britain, France and Germany all expressed concern to the council that lifting the arms embargo on Iran would have major implications for regional security and stability. However, they also said they would not back U.S. efforts to unilaterally trigger a return of all U.N. sanctions on Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said: “The international community in general — and the U.N. Security Council in particular — are facing an important decision: Do we maintain respect for the rule of law, or do we return to the law of the jungle by surrendering to the whims of an outlaw bully?”

(This story has been refiled to delete extraneous “a” in 7th paragraph).

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Saudi, U.S. officials call for extending UN arms embargo on Iran

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi and U.S. officials on Monday urged the international community to extend a U.N. arms embargo on Iran, saying that letting the ban expire would allow Tehran to further arm its proxies and destabilise the region.

The 13-year-old arms curbs on Iran are due to expire in October under the terms of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. Russia and China have signalled they oppose extending the embargo. Both wield vetoes on the U.N. Security Council, which will decide the matter.

“Despite the embargo, Iran seeks to provide weapons to terrorist groups, so what will happen if the embargo is lifted? Iran will become more ferocious and aggressive,” Saudi minister of state for foreign affairs Adel al-Jubeir told a joint news conference with U.S. Iran envoy Brian Hook in Riyadh.

Jubeir said a shipment of Iranian weapons bound for Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement was seized as recently as Sunday. A Saudi-led coalition has been battling the Houthis in Yemen for five years.

The conference venue displayed weapons, including drones and missiles, that Saudi authorities said were used in cross-border Houthi attacks on Saudi cities and that were supplied to the group by Tehran.

“We urge the international community to extend the embargo on selling arms to Iran and on Iran’s ability to sell arms to the world,” Jubeir said.

Iran denies arming groups in the Middle East, including the Houthis, and blames regional tensions on the United States and its allies in the region.

Hook said lifting the ban would “only embolden” Tehran, drive greater instability and trigger a regional arms race.

“This is not an outcome that the U.N. Security Council can accept. The council’s mandate is clear: to maintain international peace and security,” Hook added.

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France confirms it will read black boxes of downed Ukrainian jet, Canada to help

PARIS/OTTAWA (Reuters) – France said on Friday it would download the black boxes from a Ukrainian airliner shot down by an Iranian missile in January, easing a stand-off over where they should be read.

France’s BEA crash investigation agency said it was acting at the request of Iran, which remains responsible under global rules for conducting a formal accident probe after acknowledging that the Boeing 737 was downed by its forces.

The Ukraine International Airlines flight was shot down on Jan. 8 by an Iranian ground-to-air missile, killing 176 people in what Tehran termed a “disastrous mistake” at a time of heightened tensions with the United States.

Work on repairing and downloading the cockpit voice and data recorders will begin July 20, the BEA said.

Aviation authorities in Canada, 57 of whose citizens were killed, said they would send a team to Paris to participate.

A spokesman for the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said the agency is “still participating in the investigation as the state of manufacture through our U.S. accredited representative” but did not say if officials would travel to France to participate.

Iran wants Canada to reestablish diplomatic ties that were broken off in 2012 but Tehran did not set this as a precondition for sending the recorders to France, a Canadian official said.

“It is not realistic to expect us to entertain any kind of discussions about this any time soon,” said the official, who requested anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation.

Canada’s priorities were a full probe into the crash and compensation for families of the victims, the official added.

Iran’s envoy to the United Nations aviation agency said this month that the country’s Air Accident Investigation Board had asked the BEA to read the black boxes, though this was followed by conflicting ministerial statements.

Friday’s announcement suggests Western and Iranian officials will jointly witness the technical work, though one person following the case did not rule out last-minute changes.

The BEA has a history of assisting with sensitive probes when tensions are high between parties directly involved.

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