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Iran showcases drones amid growing tension with South Korea 

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(Last Updated On: January 5, 2021)

Just days after the anniversary of the US killing of a top Iranian general in a drone strike in Iraq, Iran itself launched exercises featuring a wide array of domestically produced drones, Iranian media reported.

Iran and the regional forces it backs have increasingly relied in recent years on drones in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf, Reuters reported.

Iran’s armed forces are to test combat drones used as bombers, interceptors and in reconnaissance missions in the two-day exercises in central Semnan province, the semi-official Fars news agency said.

Beyond surveillance, Iranian drones can drop munitions and also carry out a “kamikaze” flight when loaded with explosives and flown into a target, according to a US official who spoke to Reuters.

Iran has developed a large domestic arms industry in the face of international sanctions and embargoes that bar it from importing many weapons.

The exercises coincided with increased tensions between Iran and the United States, two days after the first anniversary of the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike at Baghdad airport, and two weeks before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. 

Biden aims to revive the nuclear agreement, though diplomacy is expected to be tricky, Reuters reported.

On Monday Iranian forces meanwhile seized a South Korean tanker in the Gulf, and Tehran also announced plans to increase uranium enrichment.

South Korea says it will dispatch a government delegation to Iran “at the earliest possible date” to try to secure the release of the tanker seized by Iran amid tensions over Iranian funds frozen in Seoul because of US sanctions.

According to South Korean media, a Foreign Ministry spokesman made the announcement on Tuesday, a day after the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) seized the tanker and detained its crew of 20 near the Strait of Hormuz over pollution violations — an allegation rejected by the ship’s operator.

The spokesman also said that South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Choi Jong-kun will go ahead with a previously planned trip to Tehran early next week, as Iranian officials seek the release of billions of dollars frozen in South Korean banks.

South Korean News Net reported that the frozen assets stem from oil sales earned before Washington tightened sanctions on Iran following the US withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.

In Tehran, an Iranian government spokesman rejected allegations that Iran’s seizure of the tanker amounted to hostage taking, the news portal reported.

“If anybody is to be called a hostage taker, it is the South Korean government that has taken our more than $7 billion hostage under a futile pretext,” Ali Rabiei told reporters.

Earlier, the US State Department called for the tanker’s immediate release, accusing Iran of threatening “navigational rights and freedoms” in the Persian Gulf in order to “extort the international community into relieving the pressure” of economic sanctions.

Meanwhile, the South Korean Defense Ministry announced that a destroyer carrying members of South Korea’s anti-piracy unit arrived in waters near the Strait of Hormuz — through which 20 percent of all oil traded passes — and was “carrying out a mission to ensure the safety of our nationals.”

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Ghani fires finance minister, appoints caretaker to the position

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(Last Updated On: January 23, 2021)

President Ashraf Ghani on Saturday dismissed finance minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal from his post and approved a new acting minister, said the Administrative Office of the President (AOP) in a statement.

The AOP cited a number of reasons for this move including the delay in the collection of taxes, weak management, lack of commitment to good governance, not obeying Article 77 of the Constitution, violating Presidential decrees and directions, the lack of cooperation in an assessment of illegal appointments at the ministry and for trying to prevent the assessments, the statement read.

The AOP added that Ghani approved Mohammad Khalid Payenda as acting finance minister.

Arghandiwal was a close ally of Ghani during his election campaigns and was appointed as acting minister of finance in March last year. 

He received a vote of confidence from the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of Parliament) in November last year.

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Biden to keep Khalilzad as peace envoy for now

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(Last Updated On: January 23, 2021)

Former president Donald Trump’s peace envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad will retain his position, for now, three sources familiar with the matter told CNN. 

This move is not typical as traditionally an incoming administration replaces all politically appointed officials – especially those dealing with foreign policy issues. 

Khalilzad, a diplomatic veteran, has worked on the peace process for more than two years and has been the key official from Washington to meet with both the Afghan government and the Taliban as well as all other stakeholders and regional leaders. 

No further details were released and according to CNN the State Department did not comment when asked about Khalilzad staying on board. 

However, in a statement issued late Friday, the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told his Afghan counterpart Hamdullah Mohib that the United States intends to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement.”

He also said Washington would assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.

Sullivan also expressed America’s desire that all Afghan leaders embrace this “historic opportunity for peace and stability.”

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Washington to review US-Taliban deal, Sullivan tells Mohib 

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(Last Updated On: January 23, 2021)

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spoke with Afghan National Security Advisor Hamdullah Mohib on Friday evening and said Washington intends to review the US-Taliban deal signed in February last year and to assess whether the Taliban is adhering to its commitments. 

In a statement issued by the White House following the discussion between the two NSAs, Sullivan said the US will support the peace process with “a robust and regional diplomatic effort, which will aim to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire”. 

Sullivan also made clear “the United States’ intention to review the February 2020 US-Taliban agreement, including to assess whether the Taliban was living up to its commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, to reduce violence in Afghanistan and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders.”

According to the statement, Sullivan also expressed America’s desire that all Afghan leaders embrace this “historic opportunity for peace and stability.”

In addition, Sullivan and Mohib discussed the US’s support for protecting the gains made by Afghan women, girls, and minority groups as part of the peace process. 

Sullivan also “committed to consulting closely with the Afghan government, NATO allies, and regional partners regarding a collective strategy to support a stable, sovereign, and secure future for Afghanistan,” the statement read.

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