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US puts sanctions on Turkish businessman, citing links to Iran’s Quds Force

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The Biden administration levied sanctions on Thursday on prominent Turkish businessman Sitki Ayan and his network of firms, accusing him of acting as a facilitator for oil sales and money laundering on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Reuters reported.

The US measures come at a time of strained ties between the two nations over a host of issues, including disagreement over Syria policy and Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defense systems.

According to Reuters Ayan’s companies have set up international sales contracts for Iranian oil, arranged shipments and helped launder the proceeds and obscured the origin of the Iranian oil on behalf of Iran’s Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, the Treasury said in a statement first reported by Reuters.

“Ayan has established business contracts to sell Iranian oil worth hundreds of millions of dollars to buyers,” in China, Europe and the United Arab Emirates, it said, adding that he then funneled the proceeds back to the Quds Force.

Ayan’s son Bahaddin Ayan, his associate Kasim Oztas and two other Turkish citizens involved in his business network are also designated, along with 26 companies, including his ASB Group, a Gibraltar-based holding company and a vessel.

In an emailed response to a Reuters’ request for comment, Sitki Ayan said, “We will defend our legal rights against everyone.”

He had been involved in two business activities with Iran, he added. These were trade of oil and petroleum products ended by sanctions in 2010, and the sale of Iranian electricity to Turkey from 2009 to 2015, which he quit over payment problems.

“I have never worked with anyone other than Iranian official government institutions in any period of my life,” he said.

Ayan’s son Bahaddin and Oztas were not immediately available for comment. Ayan’s ASB Group and Turkey’s communications directorate did not immediately respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.

The Treasury action freezes any US assets of those designated and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. People engaging in certain transactions with those designated also risk sanctions.

Washington had most recently warned Turkey to refrain from a military incursion into northern Syria after Ankara said it was preparing a possible ground invasion against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia it views as terrorists but who form the bulk of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Washington maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran and has looked for ways to increase pressure as efforts to resurrect a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have stalled.

President Joe Biden had sought to negotiate Iran’s return of to the nuclear deal after former President Donald Trump pulled out of it in 2018.

The 2015 pact limited Iran’s uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear arms in return for lifting international sanctions. Iran denies wanting to acquire nuclear weapons, Reuters reported.

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Muslim pilgrims pray on Mount Arafat in hajj climax

This year’s hajj is unfolding in the shadow of the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, which was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7.

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More than 1.5 million Muslims braved extreme heat to reach Mount Arafat on Saturday for the high point of the annual hajj pilgrimage, praying for hours, especially for Palestinians in war-ravaged Gaza.

Clad in white, worshippers began arriving at dawn for the most gruelling day of the annual rites, ascending the rocky, 70-metre (230-foot) hill where the Prophet Mohammed is believed to have given his last sermon, AFP reported.

“This is the most important day,” said 46-year-old Egyptian Mohammed Asser, who came prepared with a list of prayers. “I pray also for the Palestinians. May God help them.”

This year’s hajj is unfolding in the shadow of the war in Gaza between Israel and Hamas, which was triggered by Hamas’s unprecedented attack on southern Israel on October 7.

The assault resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Israel’s retaliatory military offensive has killed at least 37,266 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry.

Saudi Arabia’s minister in charge of religious pilgrimages, Tawfiq al-Rabiah, warned last week that “no political activity” would be tolerated during the hajj.

But that did not stop at least one pilgrim from chanting in support of the Palestinians who have endured more than eight months of incessant bombardment.

“Pray for our brothers in Palestine, in Gaza… may God give victory to the Muslims,” he shouted.

In a message to hajj pilgrims on Saturday, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said “the ironclad resistance of Palestine and the patient, oppressed people of Gaza… must be fully supported in every way”.

Some 2,000 Palestinians are performing the hajj at the special invitation of Saudi King Salman, official media said.

 

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Biden, Zelenskiy inch toward NATO with 10-year defense agreement

Under the agreement, the United States restates its support for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, amid a renewed push by Russia on Ukraine’s eastern front.

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed a 10-year bilateral security agreement on Thursday aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defense against Russian invaders and getting Ukraine closer to NATO membership, Reuters reported.

The deal, signed on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Italy, aims to commit future U.S. administrations to support Ukraine, even if former President Donald Trump wins November’s election, officials said.

“Our goal is to strengthen Ukraine’s credible defense and deterrence capabilities for the long term,” Biden said at a joint news conference with Zelenskiy.

He said the G7’s message to Russian President Vladimir Putin is “You cannot wait us out. You cannot divide us.” The group of rich nations also agreed to a $50 billion loan for Ukraine backed by profits from frozen Russian assets.

The U.S.-Ukraine security deal is a framework for a long-term effort to help develop Ukraine’s outdated armed forces and serve as a step towards Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership, according to the text.

The Ukraine president called the agreement historic, saying it is a bridge toward his country’s eventual NATO membership. “This is an agreement on security and thus on the protection of human life,” he said.

Zelenskiy has long sought NATO membership but the allies have stopped short of taking that step. The Western alliance regards any attack launched on one of its 32 members as an attack on all under its Article Five clause, read the report.

In the event of an armed attack or threat of such against Ukraine, top U.S. and Ukrainian officials will meet within 24 hours to consult on a response and determine what additional defense needs are required for Ukraine, the agreement says.

Under the agreement, the United States restates its support for Ukraine’s defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, amid a renewed push by Russia on Ukraine’s eastern front.

It also outlines plans to develop Ukraine’s own defense industry and expand its military.

Ukraine needs a “significant” military force and sustained investments in its defense industrial base consistent with NATO standards, the text says.

It will allow the two countries to share intelligence, hold training and military education programs and combined military and exercises.

With Trump leading Biden in many election polls, the future of the agreement remains unclear.

Trump has expressed skepticism of Ukraine’s continued fight, saying at one point that he would end the conflict in his first day in office. Trump has also pushed for Europe to take on more of the burden of supporting Kyiv, Reuters reported.

Zelenskiy, asked about what could happen for his country if there is a change in leadership in the United States and in other allied nations, said people stood with Ukraine because they have shared values and empathize with the Ukrainian people.

He said he does not think that popular support will change.

“If the people are with us, any leader will be with us in this struggle for freedom,” he said.

Biden recently shifted his policy against allowing Ukraine to use American weapons for attacks inside Russia, permitting Kyiv to fire long-range U.S. missiles against Russian targets near the embattled Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

At the news conference, Biden made clear he would not permit Ukraine to expand its use of U.S. missiles inside Russia.

“It makes a lot of sense for Ukraine to be able to take out or combat what is going across that border. In terms of long range weapons … we have not changed our position on that,” Biden said.

 

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UN Security Council backs Israel-Hamas ceasefire plan

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The United Nations Security Council on Monday backed a proposal outlined by President Joe Biden for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and urged the Palestinian militants to accept the deal aimed at ending the eight-month-long war, Reuters reported.

Hamas welcomed the adoption of the U.S.-drafted resolution and said in a statement that it is ready to cooperate with mediators over implementing the principles of the plan “that are consistent with the demands of our people and resistance.”

Russia abstained from the U.N. vote, while the remaining 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution supporting a three-phase ceasefire plan laid out by Biden on May 31 that he described as an Israeli initiative.

“Today we voted for peace,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council after the vote.

The resolution welcomes the new ceasefire proposal, states that Israel has accepted it, calls on Hamas to agree to it and “urges both parties to fully implement its terms without delay and without condition.”

Algeria, the only Arab member of the council, supported the resolution because “we believe it can represent a step forward toward an immediate and lasting ceasefire,” Algeria’s U.N. Ambassador Amar Bendjama told the council.

“It offers a glimmer of hope to the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s time to halt the killing.”

The resolution also goes into detail about the proposal, and spells out that “if the negotiations take longer than six weeks for phase one, the ceasefire will still continue as long as negotiations continue.”

ISRAEL’S GOALS

However, it did not contain enough detail for Moscow. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked what Israel had specifically agreed to and said the Security Council should not be signing up to agreements with “vague parameters.”

“We did not wish to block the resolution simply because it, as much as we understand, is supported by the Arab world,” Nebenzia told the council.

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan was present for the vote, but did not address the council. Instead, senior Israeli U.N. diplomat Reut Shapir Ben Naftaly told the body that Israel’s goals in Gaza had always been clear, read the report.

“Israel is committed to these goals – to free all the hostages, to destroy Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and to ensure that Gaza does not pose a threat to Israel in the future,” she said. “It is Hamas that is preventing this war from ending. Hamas and Hamas alone.”

The council in March demanded for an immediate ceasefire and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas.

For months, negotiators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been trying to mediate a ceasefire. Hamas says it wants a permanent end to the war in the Gaza Strip and Israeli withdrawal from the enclave of 2.3 million people.

Israel is retaliating against Hamas, which rules Gaza, over an Oct. 7 attack by its militants, Reuters reported.

More than 1,200 people were killed and over 250 taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies. More than 100 hostages are believed to remain captive in Gaza.

Israel launched an air, ground and sea assault on the Palestinian territory, killing more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

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