Blinken: Iran could be weeks away from enough nuclear material for bomb

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Iran could be “weeks away” from having sufficient material to develop a nuclear weapon if it continues to violate the 2015 nuclear deal, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Monday in an interview with NBC News.

US President Joe Biden’s administration would consider new sanctions against North Korea and other possible actions against Russia, he said. It was his first television interview since taking office last week.

It could be only “a matter of weeks” if Iran continues to lift restraints in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that the US pulled out of under president Donald Trump, Blinken told NBC.

When pressed about whether the release of detained Americans would be an absolute condition for an expanded nuclear treaty, he did not commit, NBC reported.

“Irrespective of… any deal, those Americans need to be released. Period,” Blinken said. “We’re going to focus on making sure that they come home one way or another.”

On Sunday, Iran rejected any new negotiations or changes to the participants in Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers, after French President Emmanuel Macron said new talks should include Saudi Arabia.

The remarks came after the White House confirmed that veteran diplomat Robert Malley was named special US envoy for Iran. A key member of former US president Barack Obama’s nuclear negotiating team, Malley is a controversial figure in Israel, where he is viewed as soft on Tehran and tough on Jerusalem.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh was quoted by state media on Saturday as saying: “The nuclear accord is a multilateral international agreement ratified by UN Security Council Resolution 2231 that is nonnegotiable, and parties to it are clear and unchangeable.”

The Biden administration has said it would rejoin the deal, which the Trump administration exited in 2018, but only after Tehran resumes full compliance with its terms.

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“It is clear the Iranians are playing hardball, which is why the pressure on them cannot let up,” an Israeli official said. “There’s only a hope the Iranians will compromise if they believe that’s the only way the pressure will be lifted. If pressure is lifted prematurely, one can expect no concessions from the Iranians whatsoever.”

During his confirmation hearings, Blinken said the Biden administration would consult with its allies in the Middle East, including Israel, before engaging in talks with Iran. Israeli officials have expressed hope that this means there will be a positive dialogue moving forward, and they emphasized the need to completely stop Iran’s nuclear program.

The nuclear deal completed by Iran and six major powers committed Tehran to restricting its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief from the US and others. Israel and Gulf Arab states strongly opposed the deal as not being stringent enough.

Meanwhile, Iran has been trying to avenge the assassination of IRGC Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Last month, Iran sent agents to gather intelligence on the Israeli, US and UAE embassies in an East African country to examine the possibility of an attack on one of them, which was thwarted, KAN News reported Monday night. Some held both Iranian and European passports, according to the report.

A small bomb detonated near the Israeli Embassy in New Delhi on Friday. There were no injuries, but an Israeli official said the incident was being treated as terrorism. The attack was claimed by Jaish-ul-Hind, a group believed to be affiliated with Iran.

On Monday, Iran said it had successfully tested a satellite launcher to help achieve its “most powerful rocket engine.” The move will likely trigger protests from the US and stoke tensions over Tehran’s nuclear and missile programs.

The US, Iran’s longtime foe, believes long-range ballistic technology used to put satellites into orbit could also be used to launch nuclear warheads. Tehran denies the US accusation.

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Ahmad Hosseini, a spokesman for the Iranian Defense Ministry’s aerospace operation, told state TV: “The test helped Iran to achieve its most powerful rocket engine… the rocket can be launched using a mobile launching pad. It is capable of carrying a single 220 kg. satellite or up to 10 smaller ones.”

Iranian state TV showed the launch of the satellite-carrying rocket, or space launch vehicle. It did not say when the launch took place.

“The Zuljanah is able to reach a height of 500 km…. The three-stage satellite launcher uses a combination of solid and liquid fuels,” Iranian state TV reported. “It uses solid fuel in the first and second stages and fluid fuel in the third stage.”

Last April, Iran said it had successfully launched the country’s first military satellite into orbit, following repeated failed launch attempts in the previous months

DURING HIS interview, Blinken did not commit to specific sanctions against Moscow as it reviewed the ongoing situation involving jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Russian election interference, the SolarWinds hack and alleged bounties against US soldiers in Afghanistan.

However, he did say he was “deeply disturbed by the violent crackdown” on protesters across Russia who called to release Navalny from jail.

The US was behind the protests, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Twitter, alleging a “gross intervention in Russia’s affairs.”

Blinken said the demonstrations show Russians are fed up with “corruption” and “autocracy.”

“We are reviewing a series of Russian actions that are deeply, deeply disturbing,” he said. “The president could not be clearer in his conversation with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”

Blinken addressed China’s lack of transparency, calling it a “profound problem” that must be addressed. Beijing is “falling far short of the mark” when it comes to allowing experts access to Wuhan sites where the coronavirus was discovered, he said.

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Blinken also slammed China for its actions in Hong Kong.

“We see people who were, again, in Hong Kong standing up for their own rights, the rights that they thought were guaranteed to them,” he said. “If they’re the victims of repression from Chinese authorities, we should do something to give them haven.”

The US should rejoin international institutions “because when we pull back, China fills in,” Blinken said.

The State Department was reviewing its policy “across the board” regarding North Korea to determine the most effective ways to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, he said, adding that additional sanctions were possible.

Regarding the US relationship with Saudi Arabia, Blinken said the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 was “an outrageous act against a journalist and a US resident.”

But he declined to condemn Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the CIA concluded had ordered Khashoggi’s murder, according to NBC.

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