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Iran top diplomat says U.S. must show goodwill gesture for direct talks

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(Last Updated On: February 20, 2022)

Iran is ready to swap prisoners with the United States, Iran’s foreign minister said on Saturday, adding that talks to revive a 2015 nuclear deal could succeed “at the earliest possible time” if the United States makes the necessary political decisions, Reuters reported.

Reuters reported on Thursday that a U.S.-Iranian deal is taking shape in Vienna after months of indirect talks to revive the nuclear pact. The draft text of the agreement alluded to other measures, including unfreezing billions of Iranian funds in South Korean banks and the release of Western prisoners held in Iran, Reuters reported.

“We believe prisoner swap is a humanitarian issue … unrelated to the nuclear accord … We can do it immediately,” Hossein Amirabdollahian told a panel at the Munich Security Conference.

Robert Malley, who leads the indirect U.S. talks with Iran in Vienna, has suggested that securing the nuclear pact is unlikely unless Tehran releases four U.S. citizens Washington says it is holding hostage.

According to Reuters in recent years, Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards have arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners, mostly on espionage and security-related charges. Tehran denies taking prisoners to gain diplomatic leverage, as claimed by rights activists.

In the past, Iran has called for the release of over a dozen Iranians in the United States, including seven Iranian-American dual nationals, two Iranians with permanent U.S. residency and four Iranian citizens with no legal status in the United States.

Most of them have been jailed for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, Reuters reported.

When asked whether Tehran was ready to hold direct talks with Washington, Amirabdollahian did not rule this out.

“They have asked for direct meetings … If Washington’s intentions are genuine, they should take some tangible steps of goodwill on the ground such as freeing Iran’s frozen assets abroad,” he said.

The 2015 deal between Iran and major powers limited Iran’s enrichment of uranium to make it harder for Tehran to develop material for nuclear weapons, in return for a lifting of international sanctions against Tehran, read the report.

But it has eroded since 2018 when then-President Donald Trump withdrew the United States and reimposed far-reaching sanctions on Iran.

Tehran has since breached the deal’s limits and gone well beyond, rebuilding stockpiles of enriched uranium, refining it to higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up output.

Both Tehran and Washington have described the nuclear talks as constructive since last week, when the negotiations resumed after a 10-day pause. However, they have also said that tough political decisions needed to be taken to overcome the remaining differences.

“I would like to emphasize here that we are ready to achieve a good deal, at the earliest possible time, if the other side makes the needed political decision,” Amirabdollahian said.

“If the talks fail in Vienna, Western powers will be responsible for the failure because we want a good deal.”

After 10 months of talks, one of the remaining differences is Iran’s demand for a U.S. guarantee of no more sanctions or other punitive steps in future, and also how and when to restore verifiable restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity, Reuters reported.

A senior Iranian official told Reuters that Iran has shown flexibility by agreeing to “inherent guarantees” as Washington says it is impossible for President Joe Biden to provide the legal assurances Iran has demanded.

Amirabdollahian said a joint statement by the heads of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives to back the nuclear deal would suffice as a “political guarantee”.

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India raises defence budget to $72.6 bln amid tensions with China

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(Last Updated On: February 2, 2023)

India proposed on Wednesday 5.94 trillion rupees ($72.6 billion) in defence spending for the 2023-24 financial year, 13% up from the previous period’s initial estimates, aiming to add more fighter jets and roads along its tense border with China, Reuters reported.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman allocated 1.63 trillion rupees for defence capital outlays – an expenditure that would include new weapons, aircraft, warships and other military hardware, as she unveiled nearly $550 billion of total federal spending in the annual budget for 2023-24 starting in April.

She said 2.77 trillion rupees would be devoted to military salaries and benefits in 2023-24, 1.38 trillion on pensions for retired soldiers, and further amounts for miscellaneous items.

itharaman also revised the defence budget for the current financial year ending in March to 5.85 trillion rupees from earlier estimates of 5.25 trillion.

In the past few years, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has ramped up spending to modernise the military, while underlining his government’s commitment to boosting domestic production to supply forces deployed along two contentious borders, Reuters reported.

Laxman Behera, a defence expert at government-funded Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said the hike in the defence budget was “reasonable but not sufficient”, considering requirements for military modernisation.

“The government has tried to allocate reasonable funds for defence forces while balancing other priorities during the pre-election budget,” he said, noting India needed more funds in view of growing friction with China along disputed borders.

The total Indian defence budget, estimated at about 2% of GDP, is still lower than China’s 1.45 trillion yuan ($230 billion) in allocations for 2022, which New Delhi sees as posing a threat to neighbours including India and Japan, read the report.

“The overall increase in the armed forces’ budget is as anticipated, but likely lower than what they asked for to beef up operational capabilities,” said Amit Cowshish, former financial adviser for acquisitions at the Defence Ministry.

India plans to spend near 242 billion rupees ($3 billion) for naval fleet construction and 571.4 billion rupees ($7 billion) for air force procurements including more aircraft, the latest budget document showed.

The South Asian giant employs 1.38 million people in its armed forces, with large numbers deployed along borders with nuclear-armed rivals China and Pakistan.

Although the defence budget allocations fell short of military expectations, they are likely to grow as the economy recovers from two years of pandemic curbs, according to Behera.

India and China share a 3,500-kilometre (2,100-mile) frontier that has been disputed since the 1950s. The two sides went to war over it in 1962.

At least 24 soldiers were killed when the armies of the Asian giants clashed in Ladakh, in the western Himalayas, in 2020 but tensions eased after military and diplomatic talks, Reuters reported.

A fresh clash erupted in the eastern Himalayas in December last year but no deaths were reported.

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Families seek loved ones after Pakistan mosque blast kills 100, all but 3 police

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(Last Updated On: February 1, 2023)

Distraught relatives thronged hospitals in Pakistan’s Peshawar on Tuesday to look for their kin a day after a suicide bombing ripped through a crowded mosque in a heavily fortified area of the city, killing 100 people, all but three of them police, Reuters reported.

The attack, in the Police Lines district, was the deadliest in a decade to hit this restive, northwestern city near the Afghan border and comes amid a surge in violence against the police.

“My son, my child,” cried an elderly woman walking alongside an ambulance carrying coffins, as rescue workers stretchered wounded people to a hospital emergency unit.

At least 170 people were wounded in the blast, which demolished the upper storey of the mosque as hundreds of worshippers performed noon prayers, read the report.

Riaz Mahsud, a senior local government official, said the casualty toll was likely to rise as workers searched through the debris.

“So far, 100 bodies have been brought to Lady Reading Hospital,” a spokesman for the largest medical facility in the city, Mohammad Asim, said in a statement.

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah told parliament that 97 of the 100 were police officials.

Authorities say they do not know how the bomber managed to breach the military and police checkpoints leading into the Police Lines district, a colonial-era, self-contained encampment in the city centre that is home to middle- and lower-ranking police personnel and their families, Reuters reported.

Given the security concerns in Peshawar, the mosque was built to allow police to pray without leaving the area. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif said the bomber was in the first row in the prayer hall when he struck.

The attack is the deadliest in Peshawar since twin suicide bombings at All Saints Church killed scores of worshippers in September 2013, in what is the deadliest attack on Pakistan’s Christian minority.

Peshawar sits on the edge of the Pashtun tribal lands, a region mired in violence for the past two decades. The most active militant group in the area is the Pakistani Taliban, also called Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella group for Sunni and sectarian Islamist factions opposed to the government in Islamabad.

No group has officially owned the attack, but Sanaullah said a breakaway faction of the TTP called Khurasani had claimed responsibility.

The TTP denied responsibility, though it has stepped up attacks since withdrawing from a peace deal with the government last year, Reuters reported.

The policy to release militants under a amnesty as part of the deal has resulted in the bombing, Sanaullah said, adding that some of the militants who were set free also included some on death row.

The bombing took place a day before an IMF mission arrived in Islamabad for talks on a stalled $7 billion bailout.

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US general says country will be at war with China in 2025

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(Last Updated On: January 31, 2023)

A U.S. general said in a memo on Friday that he believes the country will be at war with China by 2025, according to several news outlets that obtained a copy of the communication, The Hill reported.

“I hope I am wrong,” Gen. Mike Minihan, a four-star Air Force general who leads the Air Mobility Command (AMC), said in the memo to troops under his command, which was first reported by NBC News.

However, he added: “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025. [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] secured his third term and set his war council in October 2022. Taiwan’s presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a reason. United States’ presidential elections are in 2024 and will offer Xi a distracted America. Xi’s team, reason, and opportunity are all aligned for 2025.”

Minihan told AMC personnel to accept some increased risk in training as they prepare for the “China fight” and sometime in February to “fire a clip into a 7-meter target with the full understanding that unrepentant lethality matters most. Aim for the head.”

He also urged personnel in his command to get their personal affairs in order to “ensure they are legally ready and prepared” in March, The Hill reported.

However, a Defense Department spokesperson told NBC that Minihan’s comments “are not representative of the department’s view on China.”

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