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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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Passenger flights between Iran and Afghanistan resume

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(Last Updated On: September 16, 2021)

Iran has resumed regular commercial flights to neighboring Afghanistan following a month-long hiatus, Iran’s state run al-Alam TV channel reported.

An Iranian Mahan Air aircraft landed in Kabul on Wednesday with 19 passengers onboard after departing from the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad.

“At present, this airliner is returning to Mashhad with passengers,” the semi official Fars news agency later reported.

Regular passenger services between the two countries stopped after the Islamic Emirate gained power in Afghanistan a month ago.

Previously, Mahan Air – the second-largest Iranian airline – had operated two flights per week between Mashhad and Kabul.

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Army chief warns against ‘defending American democracy’

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(Last Updated On: September 16, 2021)

Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Chief of Army Staff Qari Fasihudin Fitrat said Wednesday a strong and orderly army would soon be established to independently defend Afghan territory.

Fitrat also stated that the Islamic Emirate would suppress anyone who tried to defend gains made in the past 20 years and American democracy.

He warned that “such people are violating public order and leading the country towards a civil war.”

“We will not allow anyone to disrupt the security of the people in the name of ethnicity, fear and defending the achievements of the last 20 years and American democracy,” Fitrat stated.

Afghanistan had around 300,000 active military personnel in its security forces that disintegrated on August 15 as the former government collapsed.

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Ghani’s escape derailed latest Taliban deal: Khalilzad

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(Last Updated On: September 15, 2021)

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s decision to flee the country last month shattered a last-minute deal with the Islamic Emirate that was designed to negotiate a political transition.

In an interview with the Financial Times, his first since the US pulled out of Afghanistan, US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said according to the plan, Ghani would have remained in his post until an agreement was reached on a future government – even as the Islamic Emirate’s forces were at the gates of Kabul.

However, Khalilzad said the power vacuum left by Ghani’s unexpected escape on August 15 led to the fall of his government and the takeover by the Islamic Emirate.

He said this, in turn, sparked a chaotic evacuation of civilians and troops and effectively ended the talks in Doha.

“Even in the end, we had an agreement with the Taliban (Islamic Emirate) to [them] not go into Kabul,” Khalilzad told the Financial Times adding that at no time did this include Ghani fleeing the country.

Khalilzad’s comments echo those made by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who told US lawmakers this week that he had received assurances from Ghani on the eve of his escape that he agreed with Washington’s plan.

Kabul’s security forces disbanded at the news of Ghani’s disappearance, Khalilzad said.

“There were public order issues in Kabul after Ghani’s flight. . . The Taliban (Islamic Emirate) [then]. . . say, ‘Are you going to take responsibility for the security of Kabul now? . . . And then you know what happened, we were not going to take responsibility,” he said, adding that he attended a pre-arranged meeting that day with the US regional military commander, General Frank McKenzie, and senior Islamic Emirate leaders in Doha.

Khalilzad rejected claims of a tacit or explicit agreement that allowed the Islamic Emirate to enter the presidential palace in Kabul on August 15.

“We didn’t give them any kind of green light or anything like that. What we said is what the mission of the US forces was,” he told the Financial Times, referring to the evacuation of the airport.

Khalilzad first discussed the agreement with the Kabul government on August 12 and reached an agreement with the Islamic Emirate two days later to safeguard the integrity of the city, Financial Times reported, citing US officials.

However, Ghani was unlikely to have been part of any future government because his resignation was a precondition set by the Islamic Emirate, FT reported.

On August 13, Islamic Emirate forces were surrounding Kabul after taking control of most of the country.

According to Ghani, he fled the country as his life was in danger and to “avoid bloodshed” in Kabul.

Responding to criticism of Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Khalilzad said: “The fact that they didn’t [negotiate peace] or one side disintegrated, that is not the responsibility of the United States. It is not my responsibility.”

Khalilzad said, however, that he regretted the failure to reach a political agreement with the Islamic Emirate years earlier.

“There will be a lot of introspection,” he said.

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