Pakistan’s main political parties were tied neck and neck in early results on Friday after vote counts in the general election were hit by unusual delays that the government blamed on a suspension of mobile phone services, Reuters reported.
The South Asian country is struggling to recover from an economic crisis while it grapples with rising militant violence in a deeply polarised political environment.
An “internet issue” was the reason behind the delay in results, Zafar Iqbal, special secretary at the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP), said without elaborating.
The government said it suspended mobile phone services ahead of the election on Thursday as a security measure, and they were being partially resumed, read the report.
By early Friday morning, the ECP had announced results for 12 of the 265 contested seats in parliament on its website.
Five were taken by supporters of jailed cricket star Imran Khan who were contesting as independents while four were won by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N), the party of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.
According to Reuters three seats were taken by the Pakistan Peoples Party of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of assassinated premier Benazir Bhutto.
The main battle is expected to be between candidates backed by Khan, whose Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the last national election, and the PML-N of Sharif, who analysts say is being backed by the powerful military.
With counting continuing into Friday morning, a clear picture was likely to emerge only later in the day.
A party needs 133 seats in parliament for a simple majority but many analysts believe the vote may not produce a clear winner.
Sharif, considered by many observers to be a strong candidate, dismissed talk of an unclear result.
“Don’t talk about a coalition government. It is very important for a government to get a clear majority… It should not be relying on others,” he told reporters after casting his vote in the eastern city of Lahore.
Thousands of troops were deployed on the streets and at polling stations across the country on Thursday. Borders with Iran and Afghanistan were temporarily closed as security was stepped up to ensure peaceful polling, Reuters reported.
Despite the heightened security, 12 people, including two children, were killed in 51 bomb blasts, grenade attacks and shootings by militants, mostly in the western provinces, the military said in a statement.
The victims included five police killed in a bomb blast and firing on a patrol in the Kulachi area of Dera Ismail Khan district in the northwest, authorities said. Two children died in a blast outside a women’s polling station in Balochistan province.
“Despite a few isolated incidents, the overall situation remained under control, demonstrating the effectiveness of our security measures,” caretaker Interior Minister Gohar Ejaz said in a statement.
Washington was concerned about “steps that were taken to restrict freedom of expression, specifically around internet and cellphone use,” State Department deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel told reporters.
The U.S. strongly condemned election-related violence both in the run-up to the polls and on election day, Patel added.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also expressed concern about the violence and the suspension of mobile communications services, his spokesperson said in an e-mailed statement, Reuters reported.
Amnesty International called the suspension of mobile services “a blunt attack on the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.
Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja said the decision on mobile networks was made by “law and order agencies” following violence on Wednesday in which 26 people were killed.
The military has dominated the nuclear-armed country either directly or indirectly in its 76 years of independence but for several years it has maintained it does not interfere in politics.
“The deciding factor is which side the powerful military and its security agencies are on,” said Abbas Nasir, a columnist, commenting on the likelihood that no party would emerge as a clear winner. “Only a huge turnout in favour of (Khan’s) PTI can change its fortunes.”
He added: “Economic challenges are so serious, grave, and the solutions so very painful that I am unsure how anyone who comes to power will steady the ship.”
If the election does not result in a clear majority for anyone, as analysts are predicting, tackling multiple challenges will be tricky – foremost being seeking a new bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after the current arrangement expires in March.
Iran sends Russia hundreds of ballistic missiles
Iran has provided Russia with a large number of powerful surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, six sources told Reuters, deepening the military cooperation between the two U.S.-sanctioned countries, Reuters reported.
Iran’s provision of around 400 missiles includes many from the Fateh-110 family of short-range ballistic weapons, such as the Zolfaghar, three Iranian sources said. This road-mobile missile is capable of striking targets at a distance of between 300 and 700 km (186 and 435 miles), experts say.
Iran’s defence ministry and the Revolutionary Guards – an elite force that oversees Iran’s ballistic missile programme – declined to comment. Russia’s defence ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The shipments began in early January after a deal was finalised in meetings late last year between Iranian and Russian military and security officials that took place in Tehran and Moscow, one of the Iranian sources said.
An Iranian military official – who, like the other sources, asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information – said there had been at least four shipments of missiles and there would be more in the coming weeks. He declined to provide further details.
Another senior Iranian official said some of the missiles were sent to Russia by ship via the Caspian Sea, while others were transported by plane, read the report.
“There will be more shipments,” the second Iranian official said. “There is no reason to hide it. We are allowed to export weapons to any country that we wish to.”
U.N. Security Council restrictions on Iran’s export of some missiles, drones and other technologies expired in October. However, the United States and European Union retained sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile programme amid concerns over exports of weapons to its proxies in the Middle East and to Russia.
A fourth source, familiar with the matter, confirmed that Russia had received a large number of missiles from Iran recently, without providing further details.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said in early January the United States was concerned that Russia was close to acquiring short-range ballistic weapons from Iran, in addition to missiles already sourced from North Korea.
A U.S. official told Reuters that Washington had seen evidence of talks actively advancing but no indication yet of deliveries having taken place.
The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the missile deliveries.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor said on Friday the ballistic missiles supplied by North Korea to Russia had proven unreliable on the battlefield, with only two of 24 hitting their targets. Moscow and Pyongyang have both denied that North Korea has provided Russia with munitions used in Ukraine.
By contrast, Jeffrey Lewis, an expert with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, said the Fateh-110 family of missiles and the Zolfaghar were precision weapons.
“They are used to point at things that are high value and need precise damage,” said Lewis, adding that 400 munitions could inflict considerable harm if used in Ukraine. He noted, however, that Russian bombardments were already “pretty brutal”.
A Ukrainian military source told Reuters that Kyiv had not registered any use of Iranian ballistic missiles by Russian forces in the conflict. The Ukrainian defence ministry did not immediately reply to Reuters’ request for comment.
Following the publication of this story, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Air Force told national television that it had no official information on Russia obtaining such missiles. He said that ballistic missiles would pose a serious threat to Ukraine.
Former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said that Russia wanted to supplement its missile arsenal at a time when delays in approving a major package of U.S. military aid in Congress has left Ukraine short of ammunition and other material.
“The lack of U.S. support means shortages of ground-based air defence in Ukraine. So they want to accumulate a mass of rockets and break through Ukrainian air defence,” said Zagorodnyuk, who chairs the Kyiv-based Centre for Defence Strategies, a security think tank, and advises the government.
Kyiv has repeatedly asked Tehran to stop supplying Shahed drones to Russia, which have become a staple of Moscow’s long-range assaults on Ukrainian cities and infrastructure, alongside an array of missiles.
Ukraine’s air force said in December that Russia had launched 3,700 Shahed drones during the war, which can fly hundreds of kilometres and explode on impact. Ukrainians call them “mopeds” because of the distinctive sound of their engines; air defences down dozens of them each week.
Iran initially denied supplying drones to Russia but months later said it had provided a small number before Moscow launched the war on Ukraine in 2022.
“Those who accuse Iran of providing weapons to one of the sides in the Ukraine war are doing so for political purposes,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, when asked about Tehran’s delivery of drones to Russia. “We have not given any drones to take part in that war.”
Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, said a supply of Fateh-100 and Zolfaghar missiles from Iran would hand Russia an even greater advantage on the battlefield.
“They could be used to strike military targets at operational depths, and ballistic missiles are more difficult for Ukrainian air defences to intercept,” Lee said.
Iran’s hardline clerical rulers have steadily sought to deepen ties with Russia and China, betting that would help Tehran to resist U.S. sanctions and to end its political isolation.
Defence cooperation between Iran and Russia has intensified since Moscow sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu met the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force, Amirali Hajizadeh, in Tehran in September, when Iran’s drones, missiles and air defence systems were displayed for him, Iranian state media reported.
And last month, Russia’s foreign ministry said it expected President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi to sign a broad new cooperation treaty soon, following talks in Moscow in December.
“This military partnership with Russia has shown the world Iran’s defence capabilities,” said the military official. “It does not mean we are taking sides with Russia in the Ukraine conflict.”
The stakes are high for Iran’s clerical rulers amid the war between Israel and Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that erupted after Oct. 7. They also face growing dissent at home over economic woes and social restrictions.
While Tehran tries to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel that could draw in the United States, its Axis of Resistance allies – including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen – have attacked Israeli and U.S. targets.
A Western diplomat briefed on the matter confirmed the delivery of Iranian ballistic missiles to Russia in the recent weeks, without providing more details, Reuters reported.
He said Western nations were concerned that Russia’s reciprocal transfer of weapons to Iran could strengthen its position in any possible conflict with the United States and Israel.
Iran said in November it had finalised arrangements for Russia to provide it with Su-35 fighter jets, Mi-28 attack helicopters and Yak-130 pilot training aircraft.
Analyst Gregory Brew at Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said Russia is an ally of convenience for Iran.
“The relationship is transactional: in exchange for drones, Iran expects more security cooperation and advanced weaponry, particularly modern aircraft,” he said.
Pakistan’s largest parties strike deal on coalition government
Two major Pakistan political parties said on Tuesday that they had reached a formal agreement to form a coalition government, ending ten days of intense negotiations after an inconclusive national election did not return a clear majority, Reuters reported.
The agreement between Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) of three-time Premier Nawaz Sharif ends days of uncertainty and negotiations after the Feb. 8 elections produced a hung national assembly.
Bhutto Zardari confirmed at a late night press conference in Islamabad that former premier Shehbaz Sharif, who was seated beside him, would be the coalition’s candidate for prime minister.
He added that his father Asif Ali Zardari will be the alliance’s candidate for the country’s president.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz, said the two parties had the numbers to form government, and also had the support of other smaller parties.
PML-N is the largest party with 79 seats and PPP is second with 54. They, along with four other smaller parties, have a comfortable majority in the legislature of 264 seats.
The delay in forming a government in the nuclear-armed nation of 241 million has caused concern as Pakistan is grappling with an economic crisis amid slow growth and record inflation, rising militant violence, and needs a stable administration with the authority to take tough decisions.
Bhutto Zardari said the parties would push to form government as soon as possible.
According to the country’s constitution, a session of parliament has to be called by Feb. 29 after which a vote for a new prime minister will take place, read the report.
IAEA chief says Iran’s nuclear enrichment activity remains high
Iran continues to enrich uranium well beyond the needs for commercial nuclear use despite U.N. pressure to stop it, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said on Monday, adding he wanted to visit Tehran next month for the first time in a year to end the “drifting apart”.
Speaking to Reuters after he briefed EU foreign ministers on the subject, the head of the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog said that while the pace of uranium enrichment had slowed slightly since the end of last year, Iran was still enriching at an elevated rate of around 7 kg of uranium per month to 60% purity, Reuters reported.
Enrichment to 60% brings uranium close to weapons grade, and is not necessary for commercial use in nuclear power production. Iran denies seeking nuclear weapons but no other state has enriched to that level without producing them.
Under a defunct 2015 agreement with world powers, Iran can enrich uranium only to 3.67%. After then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal in 2018 and re-imposed sanctions, Iran breached and moved well beyond the deal’s nuclear restrictions.
Between June and November last year, Iran slowed down the enrichment to 3 kg per month, but jumped back up to a rate of 9 kg at the end of the year, the watchdog, known as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), previously reported.
The increase came soon after Tehran barred a third of the IAEA’s core inspections team, including the most experienced, from taking part in agreed monitoring of the enrichment process, read the report.
“This slowdown, speedup thing is like a cycle that for me does not alter the fundamental trend, which is a trend of constant increase in inventory of highly enriched uranium,” said Grossi.
A spokesperson for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation was not immediately available for comment.
The IAEA warned at the end of 2023 that Tehran already had enough material to make three nuclear bombs if it enriches the material now at 60% to beyond 60%.
“There is a concerning rhetoric, you may have heard high officials in Iran saying they have all the elements for a nuclear weapon lately,” Grossi said.
He said the concern was all the higher because of what he termed current circumstances in the Middle East, a reference to tensions over Israel’s war with Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza.
“We seem to be drifting apart… Iran says they are not getting incentives from the West, but I find this logic very complicated to understand because they should work with us… It should never be contingent on economic or other incentives.”
Before visiting Tehran, Grossi is to fly to Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Iran and the Middle East, along with Ukraine.
Russia is a signatory of the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alongside the U.S., China, France, Britain and Germany. The deal lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear activities.
“Russia has a role to play on Iran. It has played a role in the past as a JCPOA country and in the current circumstances where JCPOA is all but disintegrated, something must fill the void,” he said.
Grossi said he saw a decrease in military operations around the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the biggest nuclear power plant in Europe, Reuters reported.
Fears of a serious nuclear incident were high when Russian forces took over the facility in 2022 and again following the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam last year.
“There hasn’t been a militarization, any deployment of heavy artillery,” he said, adding that nearby combat zones and recurring blackouts remained a worry.
“The minimum staff required to look after the plant in the current situation is there,” he said.
Grossi said the minimum staffing was still met despite about 100 members refusing to sign a new contract with Russia’s Rosatom that took over operations of the idled plant in 2022.
The EU has so far held back on sanctioning Russia’s state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom or any of its subsidiaries despite numerous calls to target that industry. Europe still relies heavily on Rosatom which supplies nearly 50% of the world’s enriched uranium.
“Many companies in the West depend on Russian supplies – enriched uranium or fuel… The consensus is sanctioning Rosatom would not be realistic and it’s impractical. It would put the nuclear industry at a standstill in many countries,” Grossi said.
Reducing dependence on Russia’s nuclear sector would cost Europe billions, Grossi said, and he saw no immediate shift away. He added that the larger issue was infrastructure and incentives, and projections of rising uranium demand globally.
“Frankly, I see an increased presence of Russian uranium enrichment capabilities in the world rather than a decrease,” he said.
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