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Analysis: Wielding fresh leverage, Iran to play hardball at nuclear talks

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November 11, 2021

By Parisa Hafezi, John Irish and Arshad Mohammed

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran will adopt an uncompromising stance when it resumes nuclear talks with major powers, betting it has the leverage to win wide sanctions relief in return for curbs on its increasingly advanced atomic technology, officials and analysts say.

The stakes are high, since failure in the negotiations resuming in Vienna on Nov. 29 to revive a 2015 nuclear deal would carry the risk of a fresh regional war.

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Iran’s arch foe Israel has pushed for a tough policy if diplomacy fails to rein in Iran’s nuclear work, long seen by the West as a cover for developing atomic bombs.

Tehran denies it has ever sought to develop nuclear weapons and says it is prepared for war in defence of its atomic programme.

    Iranian hardliners believe that a tough approach, spearheaded by their strongly anti-Western Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can force Washington to accept Tehran’s “maximalist demands”, the officials and analysts said.

    “Our nuclear facilities are up and running … We can live with or without the deal… The ball is in their court,” said a hardline Iranian official who asked not to be named.

    “Progress means lifting all those cruel sanctions … Iran has never abandoned the deal. America did.”

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    Iran began breaching nuclear restrictions under the pact in response to a decision in 2018 by then U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw from the agreement and reimpose harsh sanctions that have devastated Iran’s economy.

    In an apparent bid to pressure Trump’s successor Joe Biden to lift sanctions, Iran accelerated those breaches by rebuilding enriched uranium stocks, refining it to a higher fissile purity and installing advanced centrifuges to speed up production.

    Dramatically upping the ante, Iran has also limited access given to U.N. nuclear watchdog inspectors under the nuclear deal, restricting their visits to declared nuclear sites only.

    Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian tweeted that Tehran was ready “to deliver a good agreement”, but some Western diplomats said a deal hinged on Tehran’s readiness to show flexibility when the talks resume.

    Failure to agree by early 2022, they said, would make the pact’s revival less likely due to a key technicality – the longer Iran remains outside the deal, they said, the more nuclear expertise it will gain, shortening the time it might need to race to build a bomb if it chose to.

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Kasra Aarabi, senior Iran analyst at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, said by using delays in the talks, advancing its atomic expertise and continuing to support paramilitary allies in the region, Khamenei and his hardline allies were “genuinely convinced they can intimidate the U.S. into granting more concessions without facing any consequences”.

FAILURE OR SUCCESS

    The fact that indirect talks between Tehran and Washington paused after the June election of hardline President Ebrahim Raisi signalled that the likelihood of failure was greater than chances of success of the negotiations, two Iranian sources close to the country’s power centre told Reuters.

    Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the negotiations were bound to fail “if Iran’s opening salvo is indeed its bottom line”.

    “By insisting on its maximalist demands, Iran is likely to get neither sanctions relief nor the guarantees it is seeking.”

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    With differences between Tehran and Washington still vast after six rounds of indirect talks on some key issues – such as the speed and scope of lifting sanctions and how and when Iran will reverse its nuclear steps – chances of a deal seem remote.

Iran insists on immediate removal of all Trump-era sanctions in a verifiable process. Washington has said it would remove curbs “inconsistent with the 2015 nuclear pact” if Iran resumed compliance with the deal, implying it would leave in place others such as those imposed under terrorism or human rights measures.

Tehran also seeks guarantees that “no U.S. administration” will renege on the pact again. But Biden cannot promise this because the nuclear deal is a non-binding political understanding, not a legally-binding treaty.

    The pact, negotiated under former U.S. President Barrack Obama, was not a treaty because there was no way the Democratic president could have secured the approval of the U.S. Senate.

‘NOT WORTH PURSUING’

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Things are not much better for Biden.

Under the U.S. Constitution, treaties require the consent of two-thirds of the 100-member Senate. Given that it is now split between 50 of Biden’s fellow Democrats and 50 Republicans, there is no plausible way for Biden to meet that threshold.

    Many Republican senators detest the nuclear agreement and even some Democrats oppose it. However, Rob Malley, the U.S. special envoy for Iran, said last month :”Our intent is to be faithful to the deal if we could get back in.”

Eurasia Group analyst Henry Rome said many hardliners in Iran were convinced that, since the deal has failed once, “it’s not worth pursuing unless it’s fundamentally altered”.

Despite U.S. sanctions, China has provided a financial lifeline to Iran by importing supplies of Iranian oil that have held above half a million barrels per day on average for the last three months.

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(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Alex Richardson)

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China top representative in Macau to advise govt on national security-state media

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December 3, 2021

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China’s top representative in the semiautonomous gambling hub of Macau will begin advising the former Portuguese colony’s government on national security matters, state news agency Xinhua reported on Friday.

The move highlights increased scrutiny from Beijing over Macau affairs after the central government declared outflows of Chinese gambling-related funds into Macau and other gaming hubs a national security risk.

Last week Macau authorities arrested Alvin Chau https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/gambling-group-suncitys-shares-set-rise-61-after-arrested-chairman-resigns-2021-12-02, the founder of Macau’s biggest junket operator, which brings in high rollers to play at casinos, along with 10 others, for allegedly using Macau as a base for an illegal “live web betting platform.”

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A warrant for Chau’s arrest has also been issued by the mainland Chinese city of Wenzhou, accusing him of forming an extensive junket agent network that helps citizens engage in gambling activities and of setting up a company that helps gamblers make cross-border fund transfers.

The move was seen as a warning that Macau and mainland Chinese authorities were adopting a zero-tolerance approach to the promotion of gambling in mainland China where it is illegal.

Xinhua said Macau asked Beijing to appoint a national security affairs adviser in the city and that Beijing tasked the head of its Liaison Office Fu Ziying to “supervise, guide, coordinate, and support” the government on the matter.

Beijing will also appoint three national security technical advisers from within the Liaison Office, which is Beijing’s main representative institution in Macau.

(Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)

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S.Korea makes vaccine pass mandatory for many more venues as Omicron fears rise

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December 3, 2021

By Sangmi Cha

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea announced on Friday that people visiting restaurants and cinemas and other public spaces will have to show vaccine passes, amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The government also re-imposed limits on private gatherings, which had been recently relaxed, as the country posted record numbers of new cases this week.

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Desperate to fend off the Omicron variant, authorities halted quarantine exemptions on Thursday for fully vaccinated inbound travellers and made a 10-day quarantine mandatory.

From next Monday, people visiting 14 designated public spaces, including hospitality and entertainment venues, will have to show their vaccines passes, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum told a coronavirus response meeting, setting out the plan to reduce the risk of community spread. The public will have a grace period of a week to get used to the new rules.

While people have been required to show their vaccine pass at high-risk venues such as gyms, saunas and bars, it is the first time that the requirement has been extended to restaurants and cafes.

From February, anyone aged 12 years or older will have to show a vaccination pass. The government decided to lower the exemption age, currently set at 17 years, to encourage teenagers to get vaccinated as the under-18 age group accounts for 20% of all infections, Health Minister Kwon Deok-cheol told a briefing.

The limit on private gatherings was cut to six people in the greater Seoul area, and eight outside, from the current limit of 10 in Seoul and 12 outside, Kwon said.

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South Korea has so far confirmed a total of five Omicron cases after a fully vaccinated couple tested positive for the variant after arriving last week from Nigeria. The patients are either asymptomatic or have mild symptoms such as headache, low-grade fever, dizziness and sore throat, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said.

KDCA reported 4,944 COVID-19 cases for Thursday, a slight decline from record high 5,266 cases on Wednesday. It has reported a total of 462,555, with 3,739 deaths overall.

South Korea has fully vaccinated 91.6% of its adult population aged 18 and over, yet the booster dose uptake remains at 8.1%.

(Reporting by Sangmi Cha; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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U.S. House to consider bill to clamp down on products from China’s Xinjiang

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December 3, 2021

By Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. House of Representatives is set to consider a bill as soon as next week that would ban imports from China’s Xinjiang region over concerns about forced labor, Representative Jim McGovern, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters on Thursday.

“Next week is an important week for human rights,” McGovern said. “… We think it’s important to move some China legislation, hopefully much of it focused on human rights. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act we want to see that get over the finish line in some form.”

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President Joe Biden is hosting a summit of democracies next week, seen as an effort to push back against China’s growing influence.

Republicans and Democrats have been arguing over the Uyghur legislation for months. Most recently, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been demanding that the measure be included as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, delaying the Senate’s consideration of the massive annual bill setting policy for the Pentagon.

Rubio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether House passage of McGovern’s bill would change his stance on the defense bill.

If the Uyghur measure becomes law, it would create a “rebuttable presumption” that all goods from Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has set up a vast network of detention camps for Uyghurs and other Muslim groups, were made with forced labor.

China denies abuses in Xinjiang, which supplies much of the world’s materials for solar panels, but the U.S. government and many rights groups say Beijing is carrying out genocide there.

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Republicans have accused Biden’s Democrats of slow-walking the legislation because it would complicate the president’s renewable energy agenda. Democrats deny that.

“I just want to see a strong, a much stronger, approach when it comes to forced labor in Xinjiang,” Democratic Representative Dan Kildee told Reuters in a telephone interview, arguing that domestic production of solar panels could be ramped up.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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